What does the word “repent” mean? Most people think it means “to turn from sin,” while others add an emotional element, making it mean, “to be sorry for your sin and turn from it.” The Bible, though, doesn’t support these definitions for the reason that the OT repeatedly has God repenting (see Gen. 6:6 and Ex. 32:14 for just two examples).
There are actually several Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “repent.” The most important OT words are nacham and shub. The NT words are metanoeo and metamelomai.
Nacham occurs over 100 times and is the word in Gen. 6:6 and Ex 32:14. It means “to change one’s mind” and is often used of God Himself. Of course, God does not literally change His mind as humans do. Such statements should be understood anthropomorphically, meaning that God is described as human so we can relate to Him. It can also mean “to feel sorrow” or even “to comfort.”
Shub means “to turn” and is often used with the idea of turning from one’s sin (see I Kings 8:47; Ezek. 14:6).
Metanoeo means “to change one’s mind.” It comes from two Greek words: meta means “after,” and noeo means “to think,” so it has the idea of “thinking again” or an afterthought. Some scholars think it refers exclusively to “turning from sin,” but there seems to be no reason not to take it according to its basic meaning. This is evident in the fact that it is not the primary word the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) uses to translate shub. Instead, it uses the word epistrepho, which also means “to turn.” So it is apparent that metanoeo has a broader meaning, namely, a change of mind. The question is what one is changing their mind about. Often, the object is sin, but we should be careful about making the object part of the definition.
Metamelomai is similar to metaneo, except it expresses the idea of regret.
Whenever you read a passage and come across the word “repent,” be sure to ask yourself which word the author is using and what nuance he is trying to communicate. Is he speaking of a mere change of mind, of direction, or of a feeling of remorse? What is the object of this repentance? Is it a specific sin? Is it a general attitude? Does it have anything to do with sin at all? For example, when Jesus told the Jews to repent and believe the Gospel in Mark 1:15, was He telling them to turn from their sin? It seems rather that He was asking them to change their mind about their legalism and turn instead to Him for their righteousness.
Be sure to handle repentance carefully. God inspired the biblical writers down to the very words they chose, which means they chose specific words for specific reasons. Don’t read all of the different words translated “repent” through the definition of a single English word.