The Necessity of Repentance

John D. Pickens, Jr.
Franklin, N.J.

Doing Penance?

Many people misunderstand the meaning of repentance as it is used in the New Testament. They believe it to mean "doing penance." Basically, the meaning of repentance is, simply, to change the mind. 1 It is true, this change of mind will, usually, lead to a change of action; but, repentance is the change of mind and does not include the action which follows. With reference to sin, repentance is the change of mind concerning the sin. In Acts 2, Peter told those listening "Repent ye, and be baptized...." 2 He had preached to them, and accused them of the sin of rejecting and killing the Messiah. They believed his preaching and cried out saying, "What shall we do?" 3 Peter told them they must repent, change their minds toward Jesus. They must accept him as the Messiah, the Lord of all, and be baptized -- express repentance in action.


On the other hand, the Roman Catholic conception of penance is that of a church imposed penalty for the removal of the physical punishment due one for sinning.4 They developed this conception because of an error in the text of the Latin Vulgate. R. H. Bainton says, in his biography of Martin Luther, 5

"Luther had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mistranslation. The Latin for Matt. 4:17 read penitentiam agite, "do penance," but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original meant simply "be penitent." The literal sense was "change your mind." "Fortified with this passage," wrote Luther to Staupitz in the dedication of the Resolutions, "I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek."

Modern Roman Catholic scholars defend the doctrine by saying Jesus gave his apostles and their successors the right of deciding whether a man's sins should be forgiven or retained. John Brunini says, 6

"In Penance, on the other hand, the power to forgive exists simultaneously with the power to retain. This demands a decision-whether or not to grant absolution-on the part of the minister."

Brunini uses Mt. 16:19; 18:18 and John 20:21-23 to support his case. 7 Another translation demonstrates his misuse of these texts. In the New American Standard Version the verses are translated:

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." 8

"Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." 9

"Jesus therefore said to them again, 'Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them (or as the footnote reads, 'have previously been forgiven'); if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." 10

In all three passages, the apostles are to forgive and retain those things already forgiven or retained in heaven. The references are to the gospel, God's scheme of redemption. Through obedience to the gospel one's sins are forgiven; through disobedience they are retained. Who revealed this scheme of redemption-this binding and loosing of sins? The apostles as Jesus had promised! Obviously, penance, in Roman Catholicism (a system of church imposed penalties), has nothing in common with the simple New Testament idea of repentance - a change of one's mind.

Repentance Expressed?

Repentance is like love. How does a Person know he is loved? He does not! Unless that love is expressed. How does man know God loves him? Because God has expressed that love. John said, 11

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life."

God expressed his love for man in sending Jesus to die for us, the greater for the lesser. Repentance is like love. We cannot tell whether or not a person has repented unless we see that repentance expressed in action. A person repents of lying; he expresses his repentance in action by ceasing to lie; we see the action and know he has repented.

Must All Repent?

Paul said God wants all men to repent in his speech to the Athenians. He said, 12

"The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent."

Yes! Repentance is necessary to please God. Have you repented of your sins and expressed that repentance in obedience to God Almighty?


1 W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 111, 279, 280.

2 Acts 2:38.

3 Acts 2:37.

4 Greenwood's Handbook says, "Through the contrite confession of sin, the guilt and the eternal punishment are remitted. In His justice, however, God requires a complete equivalent reparation ... punishment can still remain after the forgiveness of sin. These punishments must be wiped out before a complete recovery can set in, and every vestige of the previous condition must be eradicated. It is for this reason that the Church imposes a penance, or satisfaction, as expiation for those punishments. . . . By virtue of the absolution, the penances imposed acquire the power to work sacramentally, and thus, he who satisfactorily fulfills them receives the remission of temporary punishments." (John Greenwood, ed., A Handbook Of Catholic Faith, 285, 286.)

5 R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand, 67.

6 John G. Brunini, Whereon To Stand: What Catholics Believe and Why, 194

7 Ibid., 193

8 Mat. 16:19

9 Mat. 18:18

10 Jno. 20:21-23

11 Jno. 3:16

12 Acts 18:30

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 15, pp. 8-10
February 18, 1971