The verb “repent” means “change one’s mind with regard to past (or intended) action, or conduct, on account of regret or dissatisfaction,” or “feel regret, contrition, or compunction, for what one has done or omitted to do.” In many texts this is the thought of the Hebrew na·chamʹ. Na·chamʹ can mean “feel regret, keep a period of mourning, repent” (Ex 13:17; Ge 38:12; Job 42:6), as well as “comfort oneself” (2Sa 13:39; Eze 5:13), “relieve oneself (as of one’s enemies).” (Isa 1:24) Whether regret or comfort, it can be seen that a change of mind or feeling is involved.
In Greek, two verbs are used in connection with repentance: me·ta·no·eʹo and me·ta·meʹlo·mai. The first is composed of me·taʹ, meaning “after,” and no·eʹo (related to nous, the mind, disposition, or moral consciousness), meaning “perceive, discern, mentally grasp, or be aware.” Hence, me·ta·no·eʹo literally means afterknowing (in contrast to foreknowing) and signifies a change in one’s mind, attitude, or purpose. Me·ta·meʹlo·mai, on the other hand, comes from meʹlo, meaning “care for or have interest in.” The prefix me·taʹ (after) gives the verb the sense of ‘regretting’ (Mt 21:29; 2Co 7:8), or ‘repenting.’
Thus, me·ta·no·eʹo stresses the changed viewpoint or disposition, a rejecting of the past or intended course or action as undesirable (Re 2:5; 3:3), while me·ta·meʹlo·mai lays emphasis on the feeling of regret experienced by the person. (Mt 21:29) As the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (edited by G. Kittel, Vol. IV, p. 629) comments: “When, therefore, the N[ew] T[estament] separates the meanings of [these terms], it displays a clear awareness of the unchangeable substance of both concepts. In contrast, Hellenistic usage often effaced the boundary between the two words.”—Translated by G. Bromiley, 1969.
Of course, a changed viewpoint often brings with it a changed feeling, or the feeling of regret may precede and lead to a definite change in viewpoint or will. (1Sa 24:5-7) So the two terms, though having distinct meanings, are closely related.
Human Repentance for Sins. The cause making repentance necessary is sin, failure to meet God’s righteous requirements. (1Jo 5:17) Since all mankind was sold into sin by Adam, all of his descendants have had need of repentance. (Ps 51:5; Ro 3:23; 5:12) As shown in the article RECONCILIATION, repentance (followed by conversion) is a prerequisite for man’s being reconciled to God.
Repentance may be with regard to one’s whole life course, a course that has been contrary to God’s purpose and will and, instead, has been in harmony with the world under the control of God’s Adversary. (1Pe 4:3; 1Jo 2:15-17; 5:19) Or it may be with regard to a particular aspect of one’s life, a wrong practice marring and staining an otherwise acceptable course; it may be for just a single act of wrongdoing or even a wrong tendency, inclination, or attitude. (Ps 141:3, 4; Pr 6:16-19; Jas 2:9; 4:13-17; 1Jo 2:1) The range of faults may therefore be very broad or quite specific.
Similarly, the extent to which the person deviates from righteousness may be major or minor, and logically the degree of regret ought to be commensurate with the degree of deviation. The Israelites went “deep in their revolt” against Jehovah and were “rotting away” in their transgressions. (Isa 31:6; 64:5, 6; Eze 33:10) On the other hand, the apostle Paul speaks of the “man [who] takes some false step before he is aware of it,” and counsels that those with spiritual qualifications “try to readjust such a man in a spirit of mildness.” (Ga 6:1) Since Jehovah mercifully considers the fleshly weakness of his servants, they need not be in a constant state of remorse due to their errors resulting from inherent imperfection. (Ps 103:8-14; 130:3) If they are conscientiously walking in God’s ways, they may be joyful.—Php 4:4-6; 1Jo 3:19-22.
Repentance may be on the part of those who already have enjoyed a favorable relationship with God but who have strayed away and suffered the loss of God’s favor and blessing. (1Pe 2:25) Israel was in a covenant with God—they were “a holy people” chosen from among all the nations (De 7:6; Ex 19:5, 6); Christians also came into a righteous standing before God through the new covenant mediated by Christ. (1Co 11:25; 1Pe 2:9, 10) In the case of such ones who strayed, repentance led to the restoration of their right relationship with God and the consequent benefits and blessings of that relationship. (Jer 15:19-21; Jas 4:8-10) For those who have not previously enjoyed such a relationship with God, such as the pagan peoples of the non-Israelite nations during the time God’s covenant was in force with Israel (Eph 2:11, 12) and also those persons of whatever race or nationality who are outside the Christian congregation, repentance is a primary and essential step toward being brought into a right standing before God, with life everlasting in view.—Ac 11:18; 17:30; 20:21.
Repentance may be on a collective basis as well as an individual basis. Thus, Jonah’s preaching caused the entire city of Nineveh, from the king down to “the least one of them,” to repent, for in God’s eyes they were all sharers in the wrong. (Jon 3:5-9; compare Jer 18:7, 8.) The entire congregation of returned Israelites, under Ezra’s prompting, acknowledged community guilt before God, expressing repentance through their princely representatives. (Ezr 10:7-14; compare 2Ch 29:1, 10; 30:1-15; 31:1, 2.) The congregation at Corinth expressed repentance over having tolerated in their midst a practicer of gross wrongdoing. (Compare 2Co 7:8-11; 1Co 5:1-5.) Even the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel did not completely exempt themselves of guilt when confessing the wrongdoing of Judah that led to her overthrow.—La 3:40-42; Da 9:4, 5.
What true repentance requires. Repentance involves both mind and heart. The wrongness of the course or act must be recognized, and this requires an acknowledgment that God’s standards and will are righteous. Ignorance or forgetfulness of his will and standards is a barrier to repentance. (2Ki 22:10, 11, 18, 19; Jon 1:1, 2; 4:11; Ro 10:2, 3) For this reason Jehovah mercifully has sent prophets and preachers to call persons to repentance. (Jer 7:13; 25:4-6; Mr 1:14, 15; 6:12; Lu 24:27) By means of the publishing of the good news through the Christian congregation, and particularly from the time of the conversion of Cornelius forward, God has been “telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent.” (Ac 17:22, 23, 29-31; 13:38, 39) God’s Word—whether written or spoken—is the means for ‘persuading’ them, convincing them of the rightness of God’s way and the wrongness of their own ways. (Compare Lu 16:30, 31; 1Co 14:24, 25; Heb 4:12, 13.) God’s law is “perfect, bringing back the soul.”—Ps 19:7.
King David speaks of ‘teaching transgressors God’s ways so that they may turn back to him’ (Ps 51:13), these sinners doubtless being fellow Israelites. Timothy was instructed not to fight when dealing with Christians in the congregations he served, but to ‘instruct with mildness those not favorably disposed’ as God might give them “repentance leading to an accurate knowledge of truth, and they may come back to their proper senses out from the snare of the Devil.” (2Ti 2:23-26) Hence, the call to repentance may be given inside the congregation of God’s people, as well as outside of it.
The person must see that he has sinned against God. (Ps 51:3, 4; Jer 3:25) This may be quite evident where open or direct blasphemy, vocal misuse of God’s name, or worship of other gods, as by use of idol images, is involved. (Ex 20:2-7) But even in what one might consider a “private matter” or something between himself and another human, wrongs committed must be recognized as sins against God, a treating of Jehovah with disrespect. (Compare 2Sa 12:7-14; Ps 51:4; Lu 15:21.) Even wrongs committed in ignorance or by mistake are to be recognized as making one guilty before the Sovereign Ruler, Jehovah God.—Compare Le 5:17-19; Ps 51:5, 6; 119:67; 1Ti 1:13-16.
The work of the prophets was largely one of convincing Israel of its sin (Isa 58:1, 2; Mic 3:8-11), whether this was idolatry (Eze 14:6), injustice, oppression of one’s fellowman (Jer 34:14-16; Isa 1:16, 17), immorality (Jer 5:7-9), or failing to trust in Jehovah God, and, instead, trusting in men and the military might of nations (1Sa 12:19-21; Jer 2:35-37; Ho 12:6; 14:1-3). The message of John the Baptizer and that of Jesus Christ were calls to repentance on the part of the Jews. (Mt 3:1, 2, 7, 8; 4:17) John and Jesus stripped away from the people and their religious leaders the cloak of self-righteousness and of observance of man-made traditions and hypocrisy, exposing the sinful state of the nation.—Lu 3:7, 8; Mt 15:1-9; 23:1-39; Joh 8:31-47; 9:40, 41.
Getting the sense with the heart. For repentance, then, there must initially be a hearing and seeing with understanding, due to a receptive heart. (Compare Isa 6:9, 10; Mt 13:13-15; Ac 28:26, 27.) Not only does the mind perceive and grasp what the ear hears and the eye sees, but more important, those repenting “get the sense of it [“the thought,” Joh 12:40] with their hearts.” (Mt 13:15; Ac 28:27) There is, therefore, not merely an intellectual recognition of the wrongness of their ways but a heart appreciation of this fact. With those already having knowledge of God, it may be a case of their ‘calling back to their heart’ such knowledge of him and his commandments (De 4:39; compare Pr 24:32; Isa 44:18-20) so that they can “come to their senses.” (1Ki 8:47) With the right heart motivation they can ‘make their mind over, proving to themselves the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.’—Ro 12:2.
If there is faith and love for God in the person’s heart, there will be sincere regret, sadness over the wrong course. Appreciation for God’s goodness and greatness will make transgressors feel keen remorse at having brought reproach on his name. (Compare Job 42:1-6.) Love for neighbor will also make them rue the harm they have done to others, the bad example set, perhaps the way in which they have sullied the reputation of God’s people among outsiders. They seek forgiveness because they desire to honor God’s name and to work for the good of their neighbor. (1Ki 8:33, 34; Ps 25:7-11; 51:11-15; Da 9:18, 19) Repentantly they feel “broken at heart,” “crushed and lowly in spirit” (Ps 34:18; 51:17; Isa 57:15), they are “contrite in spirit and trembling at [God’s] word,” which calls for repentance (Isa 66:2), and in effect, they “come quivering to Jehovah and to his goodness.” (Ho 3:5) When David acted foolishly in the matter of a census, his “heart began to beat him.”—2Sa 24:10.
There must therefore be a definite rejection of the bad course, a heartfelt hating of it, repugnance for it (Ps 97:10; 101:3; 119:104; Ro 12:9; compare Heb 1:9; Jude 23), for “the fear of Jehovah means the hating of bad,” including self-exaltation, pride, the bad way, and the perverse mouth. (Pr 8:13; 4:24) Along with this, there must be a loving of righteousness and the firm determination to adhere to a righteous course from then on. Without both this hatred of bad and love of righteousness, there will be no genuine force to the repentance, no following through with true conversion. Thus, King Rehoboam humbled himself under the expression of Jehovah’s anger, but afterward Rehoboam “did what was bad, for he had not firmly established his heart to search for Jehovah.”—2Ch 12:12-14; compare Ho 6:4-6.
Sadness in a godly way, not that of the world. The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, refers to the “sadness in a godly way” that they expressed as a result of the reproof given them in his first letter. (2Co 7:8-13) He had ‘regretted’ (me·ta·meʹlo·mai) having to write them so sternly and causing them pain, but he ceased to feel any regret upon seeing that the sadness his rebuke produced was of a godly sort, leading to earnest repentance (me·taʹnoi·a) for their wrong attitude and course. He knew that the pain he had caused them was working to their good and would cause them “no damage.” The sadness leading to repentance was not something they should regret either, for it kept them on the way of salvation; it saved them from backsliding or apostasy and gave them hope of life everlasting. He contrasts this sadness with “the sadness of the world [that] produces death.” Such does not stem from faith and love of God and righteousness. The world’s sadness, born of failure, disappointment, loss, punishment for wrongdoing, and shame (compare Pr 5:3-14, 22, 23; 25:8-10), is often accompanied by or produces bitterness, resentment, envy; and it leads to no lasting benefit, no improvement, no genuine hope. (Compare Pr 1:24-32; 1Th 4:13, 14.) Worldly sadness mourns the unpleasant consequences of sin, but it does not mourn the sin itself and the reproach it brings on God’s name.—Isa 65:13-15; Jer 6:13-15, 22-26; Re 18:9-11, 15, 17-19; contrast Eze 9:4.
Cain’s case illustrates this, he being the first one called on by God to repent. Cain was divinely warned to “turn to doing good” so that sin should not win out over him. Rather than repent of his murderous hatred, he let it motivate him to kill his brother. Questioned by God, he gave a devious reply, and only when sentence was pronounced on him did he express any regret—regret over the severity of the punishment, not over the wrong committed. (Ge 4:5-14) He thus showed that he “originated with the wicked one.”—1Jo 3:12.
Worldly sadness was also displayed by Esau when he learned that his brother Jacob had received the blessing of firstborn (a right Esau had callously sold to Jacob). (Ge 25:29-34) Esau cried out “in an extremely loud and bitter manner,” with tears seeking “repentance” (me·taʹnoi·a)—not his own, but “a change of mind” on the part of his father. (Ge 27:34; Heb 12:17, Int) He regretted his loss, not the materialistic attitude that caused him to ‘despise the birthright.’—Ge 25:34.
Judas, after having betrayed Jesus, “felt remorse [form of me·ta·meʹlo·mai],” tried to return the bribe he had bargained for, and thereafter committed suicide by hanging. (Mt 27:3-5) The enormity of his crime and, likely, the awful certainty of divine judgment against him evidently overwhelmed him. (Compare Heb 10:26, 27, 31; Jas 2:19.) He felt the remorse of guilt, despair, even desperation, but there is nothing to show he expressed the godly sadness that leads to repentance (me·taʹnoi·a). He sought out, not God, but the Jewish leaders to confess his sin to them, returning the money evidently with the mistaken idea that he could thereby to some extent undo his crime. (Compare Jas 5:3, 4; Eze 7:19.) To the crime of treason and contributing to the death of an innocent man, he added that of self-murder. His course is in contrast with that of Peter, whose bitter weeping after having denied his Lord was due to heartfelt repentance, which led to his being restored.—Mt 26:75; compare Lu 22:31, 32.
Regret, remorse, and tears, then, are not a certain measure of genuine repentance; the heart motive is determinative. Hosea voices Jehovah’s denunciation of Israel, for in their distress “they did not call to [him] for aid with their heart, although they kept howling on their beds. On account of their grain and sweet wine they kept loafing about . . . And they proceeded to return, not to anything higher.” Their groaning for relief in time of calamity was selfishly motivated, and if granted relief, they did not use the opportunity to improve their relationship with God by closer adherence to his high standards (compare Isa 55:8-11); they were like “a loose bow” that never hits the mark. (Ho 7:14-16; compare Ps 78:57; Jas 4:3.) Fasting, weeping, and wailing were proper—but only if the repentant ones ‘ripped apart their hearts’ and not simply their garments.—Joe 2:12, 13; see FAST; MOURNING.
Confession of wrongdoing. The repentant person, then, humbles himself and seeks God’s face (2Ch 7:13, 14; 33:10-13; Jas 4:6-10), supplicating his forgiveness. (Mt 6:12) He is not like the self-righteous Pharisee of Jesus’ illustration but is like the tax collector whom Jesus portrayed as beating his breast and saying, “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” (Lu 18:9-14) The apostle John states: “If we make the statement: ‘We have no sin,’ we are misleading ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1Jo 1:8, 9) “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.”—Pr 28:13; compare Ps 32:3-5; Jos 7:19-26; 1Ti 5:24.
Daniel’s prayer at Daniel 9:15-19 is a model of sincere confession, expressing prime concern for Jehovah’s name and basing its appeal “not according to our righteous acts . . . but according to your many mercies.” Compare, also, the humble expression of the prodigal son. (Lu 15:17-21) Sincerely repentant ones ‘raise their heart along with their palms to God,’ confessing their transgression and seeking forgiveness.—La 3:40-42.
Confessing sins to one another. The disciple James counsels: “Openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed.” (Jas 5:16) Such confession is not because any human serves as “helper [“advocate,” RS]” for man with God, since Christ alone fills that role by virtue of his propitiatory sacrifice. (1Jo 2:1, 2) Humans, of themselves, cannot actually right the wrong toward God, on their own behalf or on behalf of others, being unable to provide the needed atonement. (Ps 49:7, 8) However, Christians can help one another, and their prayers on behalf of their brothers, while not having an effect on God’s application of justice (since Christ’s ransom alone serves to bring remission of sins), do count with God in petitioning his giving needed help and strength to the one who has sinned and is seeking aid.—See PRAYER (The Answering of Prayers).
Conversion—A Turning Back. Repentance marks a halt in the person’s wrong course, the rejection of that wrong way, and the determination to take a right course. If genuine, it will therefore be followed by “conversion.” (Ac 15:3) Both in Hebrew and in Greek the verbs relating to conversion (Heb., shuv; Gr., streʹpho; e·pi·streʹpho) mean simply “turn back, turn around, or return.” (Ge 18:10; Pr 15:1; Jer 18:4; Joh 12:40; 21:20; Ac 15:36) Used in a spiritual sense, this can refer to either a turning away from God (hence turning back to a sinful course [Nu 14:43; De 30:17]) or a turning to God from a wrong way.—1Ki 8:33.
Conversion implies more than a mere attitude or verbal expression; it involves the “works that befit repentance.” (Ac 26:20; Mt 3:8) It is an active ‘seeking,’ ‘searching,’ ‘inquiring’ for Jehovah with all one’s heart and soul. (De 4:29; 1Ki 8:48; Jer 29:12-14) This, of necessity, means seeking God’s favor by ‘listening to his voice’ as expressed in his Word (De 4:30; 30:2, 8), ‘showing insight into his trueness’ through better understanding and appreciation of his ways and will (Da 9:13), observing and ‘doing’ his commandments (Ne 1:9; De 30:10; 2Ki 23:24, 25), “keeping loving-kindness and justice” and ‘hoping in God constantly’ (Ho 12:6), abandoning the use of religious images or the idolizing of creatures so as to “direct [one’s] heart unswervingly to Jehovah and serve him alone” (1Sa 7:3; Ac 14:11-15; 1Th 1:9, 10), and walking in his ways and not in the way of the nations (Le 20:23) or in one’s own way (Isa 55:6-8). Prayers, sacrifices, fastings, and observance of sacred festivals are meaningless and are of no value with God unless they are accompanied by good works, justice, the elimination of oppression and violence, the exercise of mercy.—Isa 1:10-19; 58:3-7; Jer 18:11.
This calls for “a new heart and a new spirit” (Eze 18:31); one’s changed thinking, motivation, and aim in life produce a new frame of mind, disposition, and moral force. For the one whose life course changes, the result is a “new personality which was created according to God’s will in true righteousness and loyalty” (Eph 4:17-24), free from immorality, covetousness, as well as violent speech and conduct. (Col 3:5-10; contrast Ho 5:4-6.) For such ones God causes the spirit of wisdom to “bubble forth,” making his words known to them.—Pr 1:23; compare 2Ti 2:25.
Thus genuine repentance has real impact, generates force, moves the person to “turn around.” (Ac 3:19) Hence Jesus could say to those in Laodicea: “Be zealous and repent.” (Re 3:19; compare Re 2:5; 3:2, 3.) There is evidence of ‘great earnestness, clearing of oneself, godly fear, longing, and righting of the wrong.’ (2Co 7:10, 11) Absence of concern for rectifying wrongs committed shows lack of true repentance.—Compare Eze 33:14, 15; Lu 19:8.
The expression “newly converted man,” “recent convert” (RS), in Greek (ne·oʹphy·tos) literally means “newly planted” or “newly grown.” (1Ti 3:6) Such a man was not to be assigned ministerial duties in a congregation lest he become “puffed up with pride and fall into the judgment passed upon the Devil.”
What are the “dead works” from which Christians must repent?
Hebrews 6:1, 2 shows that “primary doctrine” includes “repentance from dead works, and faith toward God,” followed by the teaching on baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and everlasting judgment. The “dead works” (an expression appearing elsewhere only at Heb 9:14) evidently mean not merely sinful works of wrongdoing, works of the fallen flesh that lead one to death (Ro 8:6; Ga 6:8), but all works that in themselves are spiritually dead, vain, fruitless.
This would include works of self-justification, efforts by men to establish their own righteousness apart from Christ Jesus and his ransom sacrifice. Thus, the formal observance of the Law by the Jewish religious leaders and others constituted “dead works” because it lacked the vital ingredient of faith. (Ro 9:30-33; 10:2-4) This caused them to stumble at Christ Jesus, God’s “Chief Agent . . . to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins,” instead of repenting. (Ac 5:31-33; 10:43; 20:21) So, too, would the observance of the Law, as though it were still in force, become “dead works” after Christ Jesus had fulfilled it. (Ga 2:16) Similarly, all works done that might otherwise be of value become “dead works” if the motivation is not that of love, love of God and love of neighbor. (1Co 13:1-3) Love, in turn, must be “in deed and truth,” harmonizing with God’s will and ways communicated to us through his Word. (1Jo 3:18; 5:2, 3; Mt 7:21-23; 15:6-9; Heb 4:12) The one turning in faith to God through Christ Jesus repents from all works rightly classed as “dead works,” and thereafter avoids them, his conscience thereby becoming cleansed.—Heb 9:14.
Baptism (immersion in water), except in the case of Jesus, was a divinely provided symbol associated with repentance, both on the part of those among the Jewish nation (which had failed to keep God’s covenant while it was in force) and on the part of people of the nations who ‘turned around’ to render sacred service to God.—Mt 3:11; Ac 2:38; 10:45-48; 13:23, 24; 19:4; see BAPTISM.
Unrepentant. Lack of genuine repentance led to exile for Israel and Judah, two destructions of Jerusalem, and finally, complete rejection of the nation by God. When reproved, they did not really return to God but kept “going back into the popular course, like a horse that is dashing into the battle.” (Jer 8:4-6; 2Ki 17:12-23; 2Ch 36:11-21; Lu 19:41-44; Mt 21:33-43; 23:37, 38) Because in their heart they did not want to repent and ‘turn back,’ what they heard and saw brought no understanding and knowledge; a “veil” lay on their hearts. (Isa 6:9, 10; 2Co 3:12-18; 4:3, 4) Unfaithful religious leaders and prophets, as well as false prophetesses, contributed to this, strengthening the people in their wrongdoing. (Jer 23:14; Eze 13:17, 22, 23; Mt 23:13, 15) Christian prophecies foretold that future divine action reproving men and calling them to repentance would be similarly rejected by many. It foretold that the things they would suffer would only harden and embitter them to the point of blaspheming God, even though it would be their own rejection of his righteous ways that would form the root and generative cause of all their troubles and plagues. (Re 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11) Such ones ‘store up wrath for themselves on the day of revealing God’s judgment.’—Ro 2:5.
Beyond repentance. Those ‘practicing sin willfully’ after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth have gone beyond the point of repentance, for they have rejected the very purpose for which God’s Son died and so have joined the ranks of those who sentenced him to death, in effect, ‘impaling the Son of God afresh for themselves and exposing him to public shame.’ (Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-29) This, then, is unforgivable sin. (Mr 3:28, 29) It would have been better for such “not to have accurately known the path of righteousness than after knowing it accurately to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them.”—2Pe 2:20-22.
Since Adam and Eve were perfect creatures, and since God’s command to them was explicit and understood by both, it is evident that their sinning was willful and was not excusable on the basis of any human weakness or imperfection. Hence, God’s words to them afterward offer no invitation to repentance. (Ge 3:16-24) So, too, with the spirit creature who had induced them into rebellion. His end and the end of other angelic creatures who joined him is everlasting destruction. (Ge 3:14, 15; Mt 25:41) Judas, though imperfect, had lived in intimate association with God’s own Son and yet turned traitor; Jesus himself referred to him as “the son of destruction.” (Joh 17:12) The apostate “man of lawlessness” is also called “the son of destruction.” (2Th 2:3; see ANTICHRIST; APOSTASY; MAN OF LAWLESSNESS.) All those classed as figurative “goats” at the time of Jesus’ kingly judgment of mankind likewise “depart into everlasting cutting-off,” no invitation to repentance being extended to them.—Mt 25:33, 41-46.
Resurrection Affords Opportunity. By contrast, when addressing certain first-century Jewish cities, Jesus referred to a future judgment day in which they would be involved. (Mt 10:14, 15; 11:20-24) That implies that at least some people from those cities would be resurrected, and even though their formerly unrepentant attitude would make it very hard for them to repent, they would have opportunity to manifest humble repentance and “turn around” in conversion to God through Christ. Those failing to do so will receive everlasting destruction. (Compare Re 20:11-15; see JUDGMENT DAY.) Those, however, who follow a course like many scribes and Pharisees, who willfully and knowingly fought the manifestation of God’s spirit through Christ, will receive no resurrection, and so they cannot “flee from the judgment of Gehenna.”—Mt 23:13, 33; Mr 3:22-30.
Evildoer on the stake. The evildoer on the stake who showed a measure of faith in Jesus, impaled alongside, was given the promise of being in Paradise. (Lu 23:39-43; see PARADISE.) While some have endeavored to read into this promise the idea that the evildoer was thereby guaranteed life everlasting, the evidence of the many scriptures already considered does not allow this. Though he admitted the wrongness of his criminal activity in contrast with Jesus’ innocence (Lu 23:41), there is nothing to show that the evildoer had come to ‘hate badness and love righteousness’; in his dying state he obviously was in no position to ‘turn around’ and produce the “works that befit repentance”; he had not been baptized. (Ac 3:19; 26:20) It therefore appears that upon his resurrection from the dead he will be given the opportunity to take this course.—Compare Re 20:12, 13.
How can God, who is perfect, “feel regret”?
In the majority of cases where the Hebrew na·chamʹ is used in the sense of “feeling regret,” the reference is to Jehovah God. Genesis 6:6, 7 states that “Jehovah felt regrets that he had made men in the earth, and he felt hurt at his heart,” their wickedness being so great that God determined he would wipe them off the surface of the ground by means of the global Flood. This cannot mean that God felt regret in the sense of having made a mistake in his work of creation, for “perfect is his activity.” (De 32:4, 5) Regret is the opposite of pleasurable satisfaction and rejoicing. Hence, it must be that God regretted that after he had created mankind, their conduct became so evil that he now found himself obliged (and justly so) to destroy all mankind with the exception of Noah and his family. For God ‘takes no delight in the death of the wicked.’—Eze 33:11.
M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia comments: “God himself is said to repent [na·chamʹ, feel regret]; but this can only be understood of his altering his conduct towards his creatures, either in the bestowing of good or infliction of evil—which change in the divine conduct is founded on a change in his creatures; and thus, speaking after the manner of men, God is said to repent.” (1894, Vol. VIII, p. 1042) God’s righteous standards remain constant, stable, unchanging, free from fluctuation. (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17) No circumstance can cause him to change his mind about these, to turn from them, or to abandon them. However, the attitude and reactions of his intelligent creatures toward those perfect standards and toward God’s application of them can be good or bad. If good, this is pleasing to God; if bad, it causes regret. Moreover, the creature’s attitude can change from good to bad or bad to good, and since God does not change his standards to accommodate them, his pleasure (and accompanying blessings) can accordingly change to regret (and accompanying discipline or punishment) or vice versa. His judgments and decisions, then, are totally free from caprice, fickleness, unreliability, or error; hence he is free from all erratic or eccentric conduct.—Eze 18:21-30; 33:7-20.
A potter may begin to make one type of vessel and then change to another style if the vessel is “spoiled by the potter’s hand.” (Jer 18:3, 4) By this example Jehovah illustrates, not that he is like a human potter in ‘spoiling by his hand,’ but rather, that he has divine authority over mankind, authority to adjust his dealings with them according to the way they respond or fail to respond to his righteousness and mercy. (Compare Isa 45:9; Ro 9:19-21.) He can thus “feel regret over the calamity that [he] had thought to execute” upon a nation, or “feel regret over the good that [he] said to [himself] to do for its good,” all depending upon the reaction of the nation to his prior dealings with it. (Jer 18:5-10) Thus, it is not that the Great Potter, Jehovah, errs, but rather, that the human “clay” undergoes a “metamorphosis” (change of form or composition) as to its heart condition, producing regret, or a change of feeling, on Jehovah’s part.
This is true of individuals as well as of nations, and the very fact that Jehovah God speaks of his ‘feeling regret’ over certain of his servants, such as King Saul, who turned away from righteousness, shows that God does not predestinate the future of such individuals. (See FOREKNOWLEDGE, FOREORDINATION.) God’s regret over Saul’s deviation does not mean that God’s choice of him as king had been erroneous and was to be regretted on that ground. God must rather have felt regret because Saul, as a free moral agent, had not made good use of the splendid privilege and opportunity God had afforded him, and because Saul’s change called for a change in God’s dealings with him.—1Sa 15:10, 11, 26.
The prophet Samuel, in declaring God’s adverse decision regarding Saul, stated that “the Excellency of Israel will not prove false, and He will not feel regrets, for He is not an earthling man so as to feel regrets.” (1Sa 15:28, 29) Earthling men frequently prove untrue to their word, fail to make good their promises, or do not live up to the terms of their agreements; being imperfect, they commit errors in judgment, causing them regret. This is never the case with God.—Ps 132:11; Isa 45:23, 24; 55:10, 11.
God’s covenant made between God and “all flesh” after the Flood, for example, unconditionally guaranteed that God would never again bring a flood of waters over all the earth. (Ge 9:8-17) There is, then, no possibility of God’s changing with regard to that covenant or ‘regretting it.’ Similarly, in his covenant with Abraham, God “stepped in with an oath” as “a legal guarantee” so as to “demonstrate more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of his counsel,” his promise and his oath being “two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie.” (Heb 6:13-18) God’s sworn covenant with his Son for a priesthood like that of Melchizedek was likewise something over which God would “feel no regret.”—Heb 7:20, 21; Ps 110:4; compare Ro 11:29.
However, in stating a promise or making a covenant, God may set out requirements, conditions to be met by those with whom the promise or covenant is made. He promised Israel that they would become his “special property” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” if they would strictly obey his voice and keep his covenant. (Ex 19:5, 6) God held true to his side of the covenant, but Israel failed; they violated that covenant time and again. (Mal 3:6, 7; compare Ne 9:16-19, 26-31.) So, when God finally annulled that covenant he did so with complete justice, the responsibility for the nonfulfillment of his promise resting entirely with the offending Israelites.—Mt 21:43; Heb 8:7-9.
In the same way God can “feel regret” and ‘turn back’ from carrying out some punishment when his warning of such action produces a change in attitude and conduct on the part of the offenders. (De 13:17; Ps 90:13) They have returned to him and he ‘returns’ to them. (Zec 8:3; Mal 3:7) Instead of being ‘pained,’ he now rejoices, for he finds no delight in bringing death to sinners. (Lu 15:10; Eze 18:32) While never shifting away from his righteous standards, God extends help so that persons can return to him; they are encouraged to do so. He kindly invites them to return, ‘spreading out his hands’ and saying by means of his representatives, “Turn back, please, . . . that I may not cause calamity to you,” “Do not do, please, this detestable sort of thing that I have hated.” (Isa 65:1, 2; Jer 25:5, 6; 44:4, 5) He gives ample time for change (Ne 9:30; compare Re 2:20-23) and shows great patience and forbearance, since “he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2Pe 3:8, 9; Ro 2:4, 5) On occasion he kindly saw to it that his message was accompanied by powerful works, or miracles, that established the divine commission of his messengers and helped strengthen faith in those hearing. (Ac 9:32-35) When his message receives no response, he employs discipline; he withdraws his favor and protection, thereby allowing the unrepentant ones to undergo privations, famine, suffering of oppression from their enemies. This may bring them to their senses, may restore their proper fear of God, or may cause them to realize that their course was stupid and that their set of values was wrong.—2Ch 33:10-13; Ne 9:28, 29; Am 4:6-11.
However, his patience has its limits, and when these are reached he gets “tired of feeling regret”; then his decision to render punishment is unchangeable. (Jer 15:6, 7; 23:19, 20; Le 26:14-33) He is no longer merely “thinking” or “forming” against such ones a calamity (Jer 18:11; 26:3-6) but has reached an irreversible decision.—2Ki 23:24-27; Isa 43:13; Jer 4:28; Zep 3:8; Re 11:17, 18.
God’s willingness to forgive repentant ones, as well as his mercifully opening the way to such forgiveness even in the face of repeated offenses, sets the example for all of his servants.—Mt 18:21, 22; Mr 3:28; Lu 17:3, 4; 1Jo 1:9; see FORGIVENESS.