The English word “repent” means “to change one’s mind with regard to past (or intended) action, conduct, etc., on account of regret or dissatisfaction,” or “to 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·hhamʹ. Na·hhamʹ can mean “to regret, to mourn, to repent” (Ex. 13:17; Gen. 38:12; Job 42:6), although just as frequently it means “to comfort oneself” (Gen. 5:29; 37:35; 50:21), “be relieved or ease oneself (as of one’s enemies).” (Isa. 1:24) Whether regret or comfort, it can be seen that a change of mind and/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, “after,” and no·eʹo (related to nous, the mind, disposition or moral consciousness), meaning “to perceive, note, grasp, recognize or understand.” 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 “to care for or have interest in.” The prefix me·taʹ (“after”) gives the verb the sense of ‘regretting’ (Matt. 21:30; 2 Cor. 7:8), or ‘repenting.’
Thus, me·ta·no·eʹo stresses the changed viewpoint or disposition, a rejecting of the past course or action as undesirable (Rev. 2:5; 3:3), while me·ta·meʹlo·mai lays emphasis on the feeling of regret experienced by the person. (Matt. 21:30) As the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (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.” Commenting on the noun forms (p. 628), it says: “Alongside μετάνοια [me·taʹnoi·a], the change of will, is μετάμελος; [me·taʹme·los; or, me·ta·meʹlei·a], remorse, through which man suffers the pain of self accusation.”
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. (1 Sam. 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. (1 John 5:17) ‘Since all mankind was sold into sin by Adam, all his descendants have had need of repentance. (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:23; 5:12) As shown under 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. (1 Pet. 4:3; 1 John 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; Prov. 6:16-19; Jas. 2:9; 4:13-17; 1 John 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 the degree of regret will, logically, 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; Ezek. 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.” (Gal. 6:1, NW, 1970 ed.) 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.—Phil. 4:4-6; 1 John 3:19-22.
Repentance may be on the part of those already having enjoyed a favorable relationship with God but who have strayed away and suffered the loss of God’s favor and blessing. (1 Pet. 2:25) Israel was in a covenant with God; they were a “holy people” chosen from among all the nations (Deut. 17:6; Ex. 19:5, 6); Christians also came into a righteous standing before God through the new covenant mediated by Christ. (1 Cor. 11:25; 1 Pet. 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.—Acts 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. (Jonah 3.5-9; compare Jeremiah 18:7, 8.) The entire congregation of returned Israelites, under Ezra’s prompting, acknowledged community guilt before God, expressing repentance through their princely representatives. (Ezra 10:7-14; compare 2 Chronicles 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 2 Corinthians 7:8-11; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.) Even the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel did not completely exempt themselves of guilt when confessing the wrongdoings of Judah that led to her overthrow.—Lam. 3:40-42; Dan. 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. (2 Ki. 22:10, 11, 18, 19; Jonah 1:1, 2; 4:11; Rom. 10:2, 3) For this reason Jehovah mercifully has sent prophets and preachers calling persons to repentance. (Jer. 7:13; 25:4-6; Mark 1:14, 15; 6:12; Luke 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.” (Acts 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 Luke 16:30, 31; 1 Corinthians 14:24, 25; Hebrews 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.” (2 Tim. 2:23-26) Hence, the call to repentance may be given inside the congregation of God’s people, as well as outside thereof.
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 2 Samuel 12:7-14; Psalm 51:4; Luke 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 Leviticus 5:17-19; Psalm 51:5, 6; 119:67; 1 Timothy 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 (Ezek. 14:6), injustice and oppression of their fellowman (Jer. 34:14-16; Isa. 1:16, 17), immorality (Jer. 5:7-9), or failing to trust in Jehovah God, but, rather, trusting in men and the military might of nations. (1 Sam. 12:19-21; Jer. 2:35-37; Hos. 12:6; 14:1-3) The message of John the Baptist and that of Jesus Christ were calls to repentance on the part of the Jews. (Matt. 3:1, 2, 7, 8) 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 their sinful state.—Luke 3:7, 8; Matt. 15:1-9; 23:1-39; John 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 Isaiah 6:9, 10; Matthew 13:13-15; Acts 28:26, 27.) Not only does the mind perceive and grasp what the ear hears and the eye sees, but, more importantly, those repenting “get the sense of it [“the thought,” John 12:40] with their hearts.” (Matt. 13:15; Acts 28:27) There is, therefore, not merely an intellectual recognition of the wrongness of their ways but a heart acceptance 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 (Deut. 4:39; compare Proverbs 24:32; Isaiah 44:18-20) so that they can “come to their senses.” (1 Ki. 8:47) With the right heart motivation they can ‘make their mind over, proving to themselves the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.’—Rom. 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. (1 Ki. 8:33, 34; Ps. 25:7-11; 51:11-15; Dan. 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” (Isa. 66:2) calling for repentance, and, in effect, “come quivering to Jehovah and to his goodness.” (Hos. 3:5) When David acted foolishly in the matter of a census, his “heart began to beat him.”—2 Sam. 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; Rom. 12:9; compare Hebrews 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. (Prov. 8:13; 4:24) Along with this there must be a loving of righteousness and the firm determination to adhere to a righteous course thenceforth. 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.”—2 Chron. 12:12-14; compare Hosea 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. (2 Cor. 7:8-13) He had ‘regretted’ (me·ta·meʹlo·mai) having to write them so sternly and causing them pain, but 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 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, saving them from backsliding or apostasy, and giving 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 Proverbs 5:3-14, 22, 23; 25:8-10), is often accompanied by or productive of bitterness, resentment, envy, and leads to no lasting benefit, no improvement, no genuine hope. (Compare Proverbs 1:24-32; 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14.) Worldly sadness mourns the unpleasant consequences of sin, but not the sin itself and the reproach it constitutes toward God.—Isa. 65:13-15; Jer. 6:13-15, 22-26; Rev. 18:9-11, 15, 17-19; contrast Ezekiel 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. (Gen. 4:5-14) He thus showed that he “originated with the wicked one.”—1 John 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). (Gen. 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. (Gen. 27:34; Heb. 12:17, Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures) He regretted his loss, not the materialistic attitude that caused him to ‘despise the birthright.’—Gen. 25:34.
Judas, after having betrayed Jesus, “felt remorse [me·ta·meʹlo·mai],” tried to return the bribe he had bargained for, and thereafter committed suicide by hanging. (Matt. 27:3-5) The enormity of his crime evidently overwhelmed him and, likely, the awful certainty of divine judgment against him. (Compare Hebrews 10:26, 27, 31; James 2:19.) He felt the remorse (me·taʹme·los or me·ta·meʹlei·a) 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 undo to some extent his crime. (Compare James 5:3, 4; Ezekiel 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 stark contrast with that of Peter, whose bitter weeping after having denied his Lord was from a broken heart and led to his being restored.—Matt. 26:75; compare Luke 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 Isaiah 55:8-11); they were like a “loose bow” that never hits the mark. (Hos. 7:14-16; compare Psalm 78:57; James 4:3.) Fasting, weeping and wailing were proper—but only if the repentant ones ‘ripped apart their hearts’ and not simply their garments.—Joel 2:12, 13; see FAST; MOURNING.
Confession of wrongdoing
The repentant person, then, humbles himself and seeks God’s face (2 Chron. 7:13, 14; 33:10-13; Jas. 4:6-10), supplicating his forgiveness. (Matt. 6:12) He is not like the self-righteous Pharisee of Jesus’ illustration, but like the tax collector whom Jesus portrayed as beating his breast and saying, “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” (Luke 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.” (1 John 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.”—Prov. 28:13; compare Psalm 32:3-5; Joshua 7:19-26; 1 Timothy 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. (Luke 15:17-21) Sincerely repentant ones ‘raise their heart along with their palms to God,’ confessing their transgression and seeking forgiveness.—Lam. 3:40-42.
Confessing sins to one another
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 either as “mediator” or “helper [advocate, RS]” for man with God, since Christ alone fills that role by virtue of his propitiatory sacrifice. (1 Tim. 2:5, 6; 1 John 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) Christians, however, 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.” (Acts 15:3) Both in Hebrew and in Greek the verbs relating to conversion (Heb., shuv; Gr., streʹpho; e·pi·streʹpho) mean simply “to turn back, turn around or return.” (Gen. 18:10; Prov. 15:1; Jer. 18:4; John 21:20; Acts 15:36) Used in a spiritual sense, this can refer either to a turning away from God (hence turning back to a sinful course [Num. 14:43; Deut. 30:17]) or a turning to God from a previously wrong way.—1 Ki. 8:33.
Conversion implies more than a mere attitude or verbal expression; it involves the “works that befit repentance.” (Acts 26:20; Matt. 3:8) It is an active ‘seeking,’ ‘searching,’ ‘inquiring’ for Jehovah with all one’s heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29; 1 Ki. 8:48; Jer. 29:12-14) This, of necessity, means seeking God’s favor by ‘listening to his voice’ as expressed in his word (Deut. 4:30; 30:2, 8), ‘showing insight into his true-ness’ through better understanding and appreciation of his ways and will (Dan. 9:13), observing and ‘doing’ his commandments (Neh. 1:9; Deut. 30:10; 2 Ki. 23:24, 25), “keeping loving-kindness and justice” and “hoping in your God constantly” (Hos. 12:6), abandoning the use of religious images or the idolizing of creatures so as to “direct your heart unswervingly to Jehovah and serve him alone” (1 Sam. 7:3; Acts 14:11-15; 1 Thess. 1:9, 10), walking in his ways and not the way of the nations (Lev. 20:23) or one’s own way. (Isa. 55:6-8) Prayers, sacrifices, fastings and observance of sacred festivals are meaningless and of no value with God unless 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 making “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 18:31), one’s changed motive and aim in life producing 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, violent speech and conduct. (Col. 3:5-10; contrast Hosea 5:4-6.) For such ones God causes the spirit of wisdom to “bubble forth,” making his words known to them.—Prov. 1:23; compare 2 Timothy 2:25.
Thus genuine repentance has real impact, generates force, moves the person to ‘turn around.’ Hence Jesus could say to those in Laodicea: “Be zealous and repent.” (Rev. 3:19; compare 2:5; 3:2, 3.) There is evidence of ‘great earnestness, clearing of oneself, godly fear, longing, and righting of the wrong.’ (2 Cor. 7:10, 11) Absence of concern for rectifying wrongs committed shows lack of true repentance.—Compare Ezekiel 33:14, 15; Luke 19:8.
The expression “newly converted man,” “recent convert” (RS), in Greek is literally “newly planted” or “newly grown” (ne·oʹphy·tos). (1 Tim. 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.”
“REPENTANCE FROM DEAD WORKS”
Hebrews 6:1, 2 shows that the foundational doctrine serving as a base for Christian maturity begins with “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 Hebrews 9:14) evidently mean not merely sinful works of wrongdoing, works of the fallen flesh that lead one to death (Rom. 8:6; Gal. 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. (Rom. 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. (Acts 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. (Gal. 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. (1 Cor. 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. (1 John 3:18; 5:2, 3; Matt. 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.—Matt. 3:11; Acts 2:38; 10:45-48; 13:23, 24; 19:4; see BAPTISM.
UNREPENTANT ONES AND THOSE BEYOND REPENTANCE
Lack of genuine repentance led to Israel and Judah’s exile, to two destructions of Jerusalem and, finally, to 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; 2 Ki. 17:12-23; 2 Chron. 36:11-21; Luke 19:41-44; Matt. 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; 2 Cor. 3:12-18; 4:3, 4) Unfaithful religious leaders and prophets, as also false prophetesses, contributed to this, strengthening the people in their wrongdoing. (Jer. 23:14; Ezek. 13:17, 22, 23; Matt. 23:13, 15) Christian prophecies foretold that future divine action reproving and calling men to repentance would be similarly rejected by many, the things they would suffer only hardening and embittering them to the point of blaspheming God, even though it is their own rejection of his righteous ways that forms the root and generative cause of all their troubles and plagues. (Rev. 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11) Such ones ‘store up wrath for themselves on the day of revealing God’s judgment.’—Rom. 2:5.
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 “blasphemy against the spirit,” since it is only by God’s spirit that one can come to “the accurate knowledge of the truth.” (Matt. 12:31, 32; Mark 3:28, 29; John 16:13) 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.”—2 Pet. 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 not excusable on the basis of any human weakness or imperfection. Hence, God’s words to them afterward offer no invitation to repentance. (Gen. 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. (Gen. 3:14, 15; Matt. 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.” (John 17:12) The apostate “man of lawlessness” is also called “the son of destruction.” (2 Thess. 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.—Matt. 25:33, 41-46.
RESURRECTION TO OPPORTUNITY FOR REPENTANCE AND CONVERSION
By contrast, the people of Sodom, Gomorrah and those of Canaanite Tyre and Sidon are spoken of by Jesus as finding “Judgment Day” more endurable than the people of certain Jewish cities. (Matt. 10:14, 15; 11:20-24) Those of pagan Nineveh are similarly spoken of. (Matt. 12:41) This of itself implies that people from all such places, including the Jewish cities mentioned, will be resurrected and have opportunity to manifest humble repentance and “turn around” in conversion to God through Christ. Those failing to do so receive everlasting destruction. (Compare Revelation 20:11-15; see JUDGMENT DAY.) Those, however, following a course like many scribes and Pharisees, who willfully and knowingly fought the manifestation of God’s spirit through Christ, would receive no resurrection, thereby to “flee from the judgment of Gehenna.”—Matt. 23:13, 33; Mark 3:22-30.
Thief on the stake
The thief on the stake who showed a measure of faith in Jesus, impaled alongside, was given the promise of being in Paradise. (Luke 23:39-43; see PARADISE [Jesus’ Promise to the Wrongdoer].) While some have endeavored to read into this promise the idea that the thief 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 (vs. 41), there is nothing to show that the thief 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. (Acts 3:19; 26:20) It therefore appears that he is given the opportunity to take this course upon his resurrection from the dead.—Compare Revelation 20:12, 13.
GOD’S ‘REGRETTING’ AND ‘TURNING BACK’
In the majority of cases where the Hebrew na·hhamʹ 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.” (Deut. 32:4, 5) Regret is the opposite of pleasurable satisfaction and rejoicing. Hence it must be that God regretted that, after having created mankind, he now found himself obliged (and justly so) to destroy them, with the exception of Noah and his family, due to their evil conduct. For God ‘takes no delight in the death of the wicked.’—Ezek. 33:11.
M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia (Vol. VIII, p. 1042) comments: “God himself is said to repent [na·hhamʹ, 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.” 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 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.—Ezek. 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, his divine authority over mankind, his authority to adjust his dealings with them according to the way they respond or fail to respond to his righteousness and mercy. (Compare Isaiah 45:9; Romans 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 me·taʹme·los or me·ta·meʹlei·a (“change of feeling; regret”) 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 he does not predestinate the future of such individuals. (See FOREKNOWLEDGE, FOREORDINATION.) God’s regret over Saul’s deviation could not mean that God’s choice of him as king had been erroneous and was to be regretted on that ground. God’s regret must rather have been due to the fact that Saul, as a free moral agent, had not made use of the splendid privilege and opportunity God had afforded him, and meant as well that Saul’s change called for a change in God’s dealings with him.—1 Sam. 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.” (1 Sam. 15:28, 29) Earthling men frequently prove untrue to their word, fail to make good their promises or 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. (Gen. 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 Romans 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, violating that covenant time and again. (Mal. 3:6, 7; compare Nehemiah 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.—Matt. 21:43; Heb. 8:7-9.
In the same way God can ‘feel regret’ and ‘turn back’ from carrying out some punishment due to the fact that his warning of such action produces a change in attitude and conduct on the part of the offenders. (Deut. 13:17; Ps. 90:13) They have returned to him and he ‘returns’ to them. (Zech. 8:3; Mal. 3:7) Instead of being ‘pained,’ he now rejoices, for he finds no delight in bringing death to sinners. (Luke 15:10; Ezek. 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 (Neh. 9:30; compare Revelation 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.” (2 Pet. 3:8, 9; Rom. 2:4, 5) He has kindly accompanied his message on occasion by powerful works, miracles, that establish the divine commission of his messengers and help strengthen faith in those hearing. (Acts 9:32-35) Where 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, may cause them to realize that their course was stupid, their set of values wrong.—2 Chron. 33:10-13; Neh. 9:28, 29; Amos 4:6-11.
His patience, however, has its limits and when these are reached he gets “tired of feeling regret” and then his decision to render punishment is unchangeable. (Jer. 15:6, 7; 23:19, 20; Lev. 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.—2 Ki. 23:24-27; Isa. 43:13; Jer. 4:28; Zeph. 3:8; Rev. 11:17, 18.
God’s willingness to forgive repentant ones, his mercifully opening the way to such forgiveness even in the face of repeated offenses, sets the example for all his servants.—Matt. 18:21, 22; Mark 3:28; Luke 17:3, 4; 1 John 1:9; see FORGIVENESS.