By Charles H. Welch
This word, and the verbal form ‘repent’ is used to translate two Hebrew words, nacham and its derivatives, and shub; and the Greek words metamelomai and metanoeo and their derivatives. Nacham which is familiar to English readers in the name of the prophet Nahum, and which can be discerned in the name Noah, primarily means ‘to sigh’. It will therefore cover a gamut of human feelings. It means:
The feeling of regret, gives the meaning ‘repent’. Shub means to turn, or return, and it will be recognized in the name of Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub ‘The remnant shall return’, and when they do return, they will indeed repent! Shub is only translated ‘repent’ three times, namely in 1 Kings 8:47; Ezekiel 14:6 and 18:30. The two Greek words differ in that metamelomai which is a compound of melei ‘to care, or be concerned’, means ‘an after care, to rue, regret; to have pain of mind, rather than change of mind; and change of purpose, rather than change of heart’, whereas metanoeo means ‘to perceive afterwards, an after mind’. ‘This change is always for the better, and denotes a change of moral thought and reflection’ (Dr. E. W. Bullinger, Lexicon). Plato used the word metanoeo in its primitive sense, saying:
Repentance as it applies to Dispensational Truth can be considered under three headings:
(1) As used of God.
References in the Old Testament speak of God ‘repenting’.
(Further references are Deut. 32:36; Psa. 135:14; Jer. 18:8,10; 26:3,13,19; 42:10; Joel 2:13,14; Amos 7:3,6; Jon. 3:9,10; 4:2; Hos. 13:14). To these must be added those passages which declare that the Lord will not repent.
Nine only of these references speak of the repentance of man, the remainder refer to God.
The God of theology does not altogether coincide with the God of revelation:
We note the words ‘He must of necessity be unchangeable’. Necessity is greater and stronger evidently than God Himself! From all eternity His own immutable decrees bind Him in fetters more fixed and relentless than fate. Is this the God of the Bible? As we show in the article PREDESTINATION, many Calvinists were ‘Necessitarians’. See for example Toplady’s discourse on Necessity in his book The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination.
When God made man He introduced the word ‘if’ into the scheme of things. ‘If’ man obeyed he would live, ‘if’ he disobeyed he would die. The passages that speak of God ‘repenting’ are explained by many as a figure of speech called anthropopatheia, a figure that attributes human passions, members and feelings, to God. Yet to explain over thirty solemn utterances of Scripture by simply saying ‘repentance is attributed to God’, is to leave the matter in doubt and confusion. Even though God has not ‘eyes’ shall we deny that He ‘sees’? or shall we not rather believe that He sees more clearly and deeply than any human vision can emulate. Must it not be always ‘more’ with Him, than ‘less’? When we read ‘It grieved Him at His heart that He had made man’ -- shall we say, that because God has no ‘heart’ this revealing passage can teach us nothing?
The words of 1 Samuel 15:11 and 29 are often quoted as proof texts that God cannot repent, but a reading of the chapter will show that it points in the opposite direction. God had declared that He repented that He had set up Saul to be king (1 Sam. 15:11), and immediately following this statement, we find Saul himself coming to Samuel, palliating his disobedience. Upon being told that the Lord had rejected him from being king, he attempted to move Samuel to reverse the Divine judgment, upon which Samuel said:
Samuel emphasized the fact that the Lord would not ‘repent of His repentance’, but that Saul’s rejection was irrevocable.
Jonah’s expostulation with the Lord, links the repentance of the Lord with His mercy, saying:
The Lord did not reprove Jonah for introducing the word ‘repentance’, He rather takes it up and enlarges upon it:
(2) As used of Israel.
Without preparation, one would feel sure that in Joel 2 we read of the repentance of Israel. We do in deed, but not in word. The actual word ‘repent’ is used of the Lord and not of Israel. What we do read is:
We find no call to repentance to Israel until we come to the New Testament. There, the call of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2) and the call of the Lord (Matt. 4:17) is because ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. It is evident that one of the purposes for which the miracles had been wrought was to bring about this repentance (Matt. 11:21; 12:41). On the day of Pentecost, Peter called upon Israel to repent (Acts 2:38), and assured them that upon their repentance the Saviour would return, and the promises made to the fathers be fulfilled (Acts 3:19-26). John the Baptist baptized with water ‘unto repentance’ (Matt. 3:11), and Peter declared that the Lord Jesus Christ had been exalted as Prince and Saviour for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31).
In Romans 2, it is the Jew who is accused as ‘Not knowing that the
goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance’ and the passage speaks of their
‘impenitent heart’ (Rom. 2:4,5). The references to repentance in the epistle
to the Hebrews seem to call for special attention.
The Melchisedec priesthood is safeguarded by the positive swearing of an oath, and the negative promise of non-repentance. Here the word ‘repentance’ means, ‘a change of purpose rather than a change of heart’. This purpose of God concerning His Son is irrevocable. This is an echo of the exceedingly strong statement of Hebrews 6:17-19. It is sufficient for God to speak. A simple promise made by God is enough to command our fullest faith. Yet, so does He condescend, that in this recognition of Abraham’s trust, the Lord goes beyond this, and ‘swears by Himself’. The intention was to manifest the unchangeability of His counsel. In the expression, ‘two immutable things’, the word ‘things’ is:
Are we to understand by these two immutable things:
We do not think such an answer fully meets the case. If we read on to the end of the chapter we find the Melchisedec priesthood of Christ is resumed from chapter 5. This priesthood is connected with ‘hope’ (Heb. 6:18-20). In chapter 7 Abraham is seen together with Melchisedec, where the greatness of Melchisedec is established, and then by an easy transition the superiority of the Melchisedec priesthood to that of Levi is shown. This is followed by a reference to a ‘better hope’, and the fact that unlike the Levitical priesthood Christ was made a priest with an oath:
This close connection of the two oaths, the one with Abraham, the other with Christ, together with the double reference to hope and to Melchisedec, is too plainly the part of a design to be ignored. There is yet further testimony. The words of 6:17 ‘confirmed it by an oath’ are given in the margin as ‘interposed Himself by an oath’. The word in the original is mesiteuo, ‘to mediate’. Mesites occurs in Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24, and is consistently rendered ‘mediator’. 1 Timothy 2:5 tells us that there is but ‘One Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus’. We understand therefore the passage to convey this thought. When God first gave Abraham the promise that he should be the father of many nations, there was not made known to him at the time the fact that the promise was secured in Christ. Nevertheless, even at the beginning, Abraham’s faith went out to God Who quickeneth the dead, and the deadness both of Abraham and Sarah is set forth as a picture of resurrection. So then in Romans 4:16 the promise is of faith:
Hebrews 11 shows that not only the birth of Isaac, but the offering of Isaac, are both closely connected with the resurrection:
It was, we believe, on Mount Moriah, in his anticipatory fellowship with the great gift of God, that Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ, calling the name of that place Jehovah-Jireh. Then it was that the oath was uttered, then it was that the purpose of God was seen secured in Christ as the priest after the order of Melchisedec. The reference in Hebrews 6:1 to repentance from dead works, calls for a word of explanation. Whatever view we may entertain as to what constitutes ‘the principles of the doctrine of Christ’, one thing is certain and beyond controversy -- that Hebrews 6:1 bids us Leave Them:
Whatever view we may entertain as to these ‘principles’, this verse not
only says ‘leave them’, but sets over against them ‘perfection’.
‘Therefore Leaving ... let us Go On’.
the same verse says ‘not laying again the foundation’. Leaving for the moment the question of the exactness of this translation, we feel that no system of sound exegesis can ignore the obvious relation established in this verse, between the commands ‘Leave ... go on ... not lay again’. ‘Leave’ is echoed by ‘not lay again’, and by parity of reasoning and structural correspondence, ‘the principles of the doctrine of Christ’ are echoed by the six items of doctrine mentioned in verses 1 and 2. It must strike the ordinary reader as somewhat strange to be urged by Scripture itself to leave ‘the principles’ of the doctrine of Christ, and therefore it becomes us patiently to search the Scriptures to find the mind of God on the subject.
Casting our eye back to chapter 5:12, we find that these Hebrews who
for the time ought to have been teachers were so dull of hearing that they
needed to be taught again certain ‘principles’ or the beginning of the
oracles of God. The word ‘principles’ in Hebrews 6:1 is the same word. The
word ‘doctrine’ is the ordinary logos, very like logion (‘oracles’) in verse
12. So that the theme of Hebrews 5:12 is resumed in 6:1, ‘Therefore leaving the word of the beginning of the Christ, let us go on unto perfection’. Let
us return to Hebrews 5. These believers who needed re-instruction in the
rudiments were ‘babes’, who are set in direct contrast with ‘full grown’ or
‘perfect’ (teleios); this is parallel with the thought of Hebrews 6:1 which
says, ‘let us go on unto teliotes’. We are not told to forsake principles,
but leave rudiments, babyhood, beginnings.
‘Not Laying Again a Foundation’.
While therefore leaving the new translation of Ephesians 1:4 unimpaired, we must allow this Middle form of the verb its meaning as in the A.V. ‘not laying again’. Hebrews 6:1 however differs from the references that speak of a period, either ‘Before’ or ‘From’ the foundation of the world, for not one of these references employs the actual word ‘foundation’, Greek themelion, whereas Hebrews 6:1 does. Further, when the writer of Hebrews wanted to speak of laying a foundation, as he does in chapter 1:10, he avoids the verb kataballo and uses the verb themelioo. It will be recognized, therefore, by the careful student, that the wording and interpretation of Hebrews 6:1 leaves the interpretation of kataboles kosmou(Eph. 1:4) to be decided on its merits. Following the word ‘baptisms’ in verse 2 are the words ‘of instruction’ in the original which is somewhat peculiar. We might have felt that didache could as well be prefixed to repentance or faith. There must, therefore, be some reason not quite visible on the surface, and it appears to be this. Before a believer could be accepted for baptism and the laying on of hands, he must have already accepted these four words of the beginning of Christ:
Repentance from Dead Works.
The references in Hebrews 6 to the impossibility of renewing again unto repentance, likewise demand careful study, especially as some, through failure to recognize the dispensational setting of this passage, have entertained most harmful ideas concerning the falling away of the believer. It is impossible to be too keenly sensitive to the serious nature of the failure dealt with in this chapter. To be ‘dull of hearing’, to remain ‘a babe’, to be satisfied with the ‘milk’ of the word, and to make no advance, may seem bad but not serious. The inspired apostle takes another view. To remain a babe is really to go back, and this may be the beginning of apostasy. Let us see how the Scriptures speak of those who failed to go on unto perfection:
We must distinguish between the fact that many, if not all, saints after conversion lapse into sin of one sort or another, and the falling away intended here. It is the teaching of the Scriptures that if a man be overtaken in a fault, the spiritual ones of the church must restore him in a spirit of meekness, considering themselves lest they also should be tempted (Gal. 6:1). The exhortations to the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3, are further illustrations of the same truth. It is evident that here in the epistle to the Hebrews something more serious is involved:
We must first of all seek to understand the nature of these blessings so that we may the better understand the nature of the falling away from them.
(1) They were once enlightened (photizo). In chapter 10 this word occurs again, and the context is so helpful that we must draw attention to it. To save space we will not quote fully:
This is a valuable commentary, setting Hebrews 6 in its true light and preventing us from making erroneous applications of its solemn teaching. Some who do not realize the setting of Hebrews 6 have sought to minimize the force of the word ‘enlighten’ so that it only means an external, but not a real and inward illumination. If this be proved, then of course we are dealing merely with professors and the problem is ended. But Hebrews 10:32 wherein is the only other occurrence of the word photizo in Hebrews, does not allow of such an interpretation. These enlightened ones were believers, not empty professors.
(2) They had tasted of the heavenly gift; they were made partakers of holy spirit. These two statements explain one another. They moreover look back to the laying on of hands which usually was instrumental in the bestowal of this gift. It will be remembered that when ‘Simon saw through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the holy spirit was given, he offered them money’, and that Peter said, ‘Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that The Gift of God may be purchased with money’.
(3) They had tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the coming age. The promise of restoration from Babylon is thus called in Jeremiah 29:10:
The miraculous gifts of the ‘Acts’ were foretastes of the age to come. It will be seen that a great place is occupied in this book by the Holy Spirit and His gifts. This we find is likewise true of the epistle to the Hebrews. There, as we find in chapter 10, the punishment that followed the violation of the law of Moses is small, when compared with that which shall follow the despising of the Holy Spirit’s witness of Christ:
One quotation from Hebrews 10 we now include, as bearing upon the strong emphasis placed by the Holy Spirit here, ‘and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace’ (Heb. 10:29).
This falling away, which occupies so large a place in Hebrews, is variously referred to as ‘letting slip’, ‘neglecting’, ‘hardening hearts as in the provocation’, ‘lest any fall after the same example of unbelief’, ‘forsaking the assembling of ourselves together’, ‘sinning wilfully after full knowledge’, ‘drawing back unto perdition’. The falling away was after enlightenment and partaking of holy spirit, and herein lies the extreme danger. This aspect of teaching in Hebrews is but the application to the Hebrews of the teaching of the Lord given in Matthew 12:31,32:
Here is the sore punishment awaiting those who after having the confirmation of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, and after having embraced the witness and become partakers of the Spirit’s gifts, fall away. They echo the fatal words of Numbers 14: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt’. The more one penetrates into the structure and atmosphere of Hebrews, the more marked the gracious distinctions of the dispensation of the Mystery become. Let us try the things that differ and approve those things that are more excellent, at the same time learning from these other records the essential need for growth in grace.
The last reference, namely Hebrews 12:17, cannot be understood apart from the one in Hebrews 6 just considered, even as Hebrews 7 must be understood in the light of Hebrews 12.
The structure of the epistle puts chapter 6 into correspondence with
chapter 12 thus:
Hebrews 12:5-24 is distributed under two headings, Sons, 5-14;
Firstborn sons, 15-24. The first section deals with the common experience of
all children, the second is concerned with birthright, and the fact that some
like Esau may be tempted to exchange their birthright for a mess of pottage.
We are at the moment chiefly concerned with the firstborn. Here is the
A 12:15. a Looking diligently. b Lest any man fall back.
A 12:25. a See.
b That ye refuse not.
The section opens with a warning, ‘Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God’. It does not say ‘fall from the grace of God’, but ‘fail of the grace of God’. Hustereo, ‘to come short’, occurs in Hebrews 4:1, and that passage partially explains what we are considering here; ‘Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it’. The context speaks of Israel’s forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, and their failure, though redeemed, to ‘go on unto perfection’. We are not dealing with sonship, but with birthright; not salvation, but possession; not deliverance from Egypt, but entry into Canaan. The warning is threefold:
What is this root of bitterness? The apostle is quoting from Deuteronomy 29 and a reference to that passage will show his meaning clearly. Moses is addressing the people of Israel before his death, at the close of forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, and in verse 18 says:
Here is the ‘root of bitterness’, a heart that turns away from God, or, in the language of Hebrews 3:12:
The words of Amos 6:12 seem to have some reflection upon the ‘peaceable fruit of righteousness’ and the ‘root of bitterness’: ‘Ye have turned judgment into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock’. The effect of this root of bitterness is ‘trouble’ and ‘defilement’. A reference to John 18:28 will show the nature of the defilement -- something that was profane, something from which a Jew would shrink.
We have next to learn in what sense Esau was a fornicator, and what bearing it has upon the teaching of this passage. There are two outstanding events in Esau’s history that are recorded against him. One is the selling of his birthright for a mess of pottage, the other his marriage with women outside the covenant:
The word ‘fornication’ is not to be taken literally, but is rather explained by the apostle to refer to ‘a profane person’. Now this word profane (bebelos) is made up of the particle be, denoting privation, and belos, a threshold of a temple; hence one who was debarred from entry into a holy place. In the same way the Latin word profanus means one who stands pro fano, at a distance from a temple; hence, too, our English word ‘fane’, a church. Esau had no appreciation of either his birthright or the holy nature of the covenant of God. He becomes a warning to the Hebrews who were being tempted to cast away the precious and enduring substance of their heavenly birthright, for the mess of pottage of present ease.
Hebrews 12:17 is a complete explanation of the difficult passage in
Hebrews 6. There, the exhortation is to go on unto perfection. ‘But’, says
the apostle, ‘it is impossible for those who were once enlightened ... if
they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance’. So, of Esau it
is written, ‘For ye know how that afterward ... he found no place of
repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears’. Esau and his example
stand out in the closing portion of Hebrews, as the children of Israel in the
wilderness stand out in the opening section (chapters 3 and 4). The warning
is for these Hebrews who, like their fathers and like Esau, were in danger of
drawing back, turning aside, losing the heavenly for the sake of the earthly.
The expression ‘No place’ is found once more in Hebrews 8:7.
(3) As used of Gentiles.
Paul indicated the great dispensational change that had come, when he said to the Athenians:
He summed up his first ministry by saying:
The one outstanding reference to repentance in Paul’s prison ministry is 2 Timothy 2:25, where deliverance from the bondage of error is connected with repentance unto the acknowledging of the truth.
It will be seen from these notes that ‘repentance’ is a word of dispensational significance, both in the Old and New Testaments. To endeavour to expound every phase would be to give the term disproportionate space, but we believe the reader who uses this analysis as it is intended to be used, will find considerable profit by pursuing the suggestions here given.