True Repentance

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary: There are three Greek words used in the New Testament to denote repentance. (1) The verb metamelomai is used of a change of mind, such as to produce regret or even remorse on account of sin, but not necessarily a change of heart. This word is used with reference to the repentance of Judas (Matthew 27:3). (2) Metanoeo, meaning to change one’s mind and purpose, as the result of after knowledge. This verb, with (3) the cognate noun metanoia, is used of true repentance, a change of mind and purpose and life, to which remission of sin is promised.

Jesus said in Luke 13:3, 5, “…unless you repent [metanoeo] you will all likewise perish.” In Acts 2:38, Peter told those in Jerusalem, “Repent [metanoeo], and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” In the next chapter, Peter instructed the people to, “Repent [metanoeo] therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Here Peter joined repentance with being converted – to revert, to come again, to turnabout. Judas repented (was remorseful) for betraying Jesus, but he did not truly repent of his actions (Matthew 27:3). The early Christians in Acts 2:38-41 and Acts 3:1-4:4 changed their lives to conform to the will of God. They no longer walked away from God toward unrighteousness, but they turned around and walked toward God and away from their former, sinful lives. Christians today must truly repent – no longer walk toward sin, turn around and walk toward God – to have the hope of salvation and an eternal home in heaven!

There is a wonderful example in the Old Testament of an individual who truly repented. After King David’s sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent sins trying to hide the first sin (2 Samuel 11:1-26), Nathan, a prophet of God, told King David a parable about the injustice of a rich man toward a poor man. The king was angered and vowed that the rich man must be punished for his deeds. Nathan told the king, “You are the man!...” David responded, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Even though King David repented [comparable to metanoeo in the New Testament] of his sinful behavior, he still suffered from the consequences of his actions (2 Samuel 12:1-15). Psalm 51 is evidence of David’s heartfelt repentance.

The New Testament also has examples of true repentance. The Book of Philemon shows Christians the behavior of a truly penitent individual and how Christians should treat such a one. Paul wrote this personal letter to Philemon to encourage him as a friend and fellow laborer (v. 1) to acknowledge Paul’s love for Philemon and Philemon’s love for Christians and his faith in Jesus (vvs. 4-7) and to beg Philemon to take back Onesimus, a runaway slave, as his slave and as a brother in Christ (vvs. 8-21).

Onesimus was a slave to Philemon who had run away, possibly stealing from his master before his departure (v. 18). At some point in time, Onesimus found his way to Rome and met Paul, a prisoner in Rome. Paul taught Onesimus the Gospel of Christ, and he obeyed God’s commands. Paul and Onesimus became close friends, and Onesimus was a great help to Paul in his work for the Lord (v. 11). Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, but there was a problem. Onesimus was a runaway slave. In order to truly repent, Onesimus could not continue to live in sin. Baptism washed away the past sins in the life of Onesimus, but as long as he lived as a runaway slave, he was living in sin. He had to make things right to the best of his ability and suffer whatever consequences his master would exact upon him.

The life of a slave was in the hands of his owner. Moses Finley made the following observation about slavery during the Roman Empire:

Fugitive slaves are almost an obsession in the sources. Rome forbade the harbouring of fugitive slaves, and professional slave-catchers were hired to hunt down runaways. Advertisements were posted with precise descriptions of escaped slaves, and offered rewards. If caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus. Sometimes slaves had a metal collar riveted around the neck. One such collar is preserved at Rome and states in Latin, “I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you’ll be rewarded.” (Wikipedia)

Philemon had every right under Roman law to kill Onesimus for running away. Thus, Paul wrote begging him to accept Onesimus back and treat him as a brother in Christ and as his slave.

I can only imagine the heavy heart of Onesimus as he traveled the 1,000 miles from Rome to Philemon’s home in Ephesus. However, he knew that if he had any hope of an eternal home in heaven he must return and face the possible wrath of his master for his sins.

Although this epistle was written as a personal letter to an individual, this short book has lessons for Christians today. True repentance requires one to remove sinful behavior from one’s life – one cannot continue to live in sin after obedience to the Gospel. For example, one cannot continue an adulterous relationship, a thief cannot keep stolen items.

Obedience to the Gospel does not take away the consequences of sin. If one has committed a crime, one must turn himself in to the authorities and accept the legal ramifications of one's actions even if it means going to prison. One living in adultery must leave that relationship; however, the husband or father still has a biblical and moral responsibility to provide and care for the family. One cannot just walk away as if there never was a family relationship.

We also have instructions on how Christians should treat those who repent of sins in their lives. A repentant sinner is now our brother or sister in Christ and should be treated as such. God has forgiven his or her sins, and we must remember it no more. The new or restored Christian has a clean slate in God’s eyes and we must look at him or her as a new creature in Christ – treating him or her with love and concern.

The Book of Philemon is a short book containing just twenty-five verses. It is filled with truths applicable to Philemon, Onesimus and to all Christians living since that time and into the future. The most meaningful to me is the picture of true repentance – not a sorrowful attitude because I got caught, but a sorrowful attitude that encourages me to turn my life around and live as God commands.

Works Cited

Easton’s Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.

Wikipedia. 19 May 2014. <>.

By Bonnie Rushmore

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