Did you renounce Satan at your baptism? Most of us didn’t. To some of us, it may sound strange, perhaps like something done in connection with the Salem Witch Trials. Yet for centuries, the practice of renouncing Satan was an important element of being baptized.
In my last Field Notes post (which was itself an expansion of an earlier post), I listed three different ways that people assimilate new worldviews with their indigenous worldview — mixing, replacing, and co-existing. All three of these methods, from a biblical perspective, are wrong. While the Bible celebrates the diversity of human ethnic groups, languages, and cultures, it also expects that people from every ethnic group, language, and culture will be brought into submission to the one, true God through his Son, Jesus Christ. To put it differently, the Bible expects the unification of all peoples in Christ, even as they keep their ethnic distinctions, but it does not expect the assimilation of the biblical worldview to ethnic worldviews.
So, to complete the work begun last time, I thought it important to provide a fourth response (the only right response) to encountering the new worldview of the gospel. If mixing, replacing, and co-existing are wrong, the right response is repenting.
Yet while repenting is right, we too often get repenting wrong.
What is repentance?
If you have a Sunday school class or small group, conduct a survey. Ask the simple question, “What is repentance?” Then see what kind of responses you receive. Someone will probably say, “Repentance is to turn away from sin,” while others will focus on the feelings experienced in repentance. Repentance is feeling sorry for your sins.
Rarely do any of us express the fullness of the biblical definition of repentance. Repentance is a concept found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, “to repent” translates the Hebrew verb shuv (שׁוב). Shuv communicates a change in direction. You were going one way, and you turned around and went the other way. While the word is often used simply to talk about someone physically turning around, we often see it used theologically to talk about the need for Israel “to turn” or “return” to Yahweh their God (for example, 1 Kgs 8:33; Jer 4:1). Or we read about the need to turn away from sin (for example, Isa 59:20).
Ezekiel brings the physical and theological meanings of shuv together in Ezekiel 14:6, repeating the root three times in a row:
Therefore, say to the house of Israel, “This is what the Lord GOD says: Repent (shuvu; שׁוּבוּ) and turn away (vahashivu; וְהָשִׁ֔יבוּ) from your idols; turn (hashivu; הָשִׁ֥יבוּ) your faces away from all your detestable things.”
Ezekiel is saying, “God demands that you change your spiritual direction away from idols and towards him, which means that you must change your physical direction away from your idols.”
In the New Testament, the apostles preferred the Greek verb metanoeō (μετανοέω) to communicate the concept “repent.” It’s a compound word that means “to think” (noeō; νοέω) “afterward” (meta; μετά). The emphasis is on a changing of mind that will result in a change of behavior.1
Hebrews offers an important commentary on the concept of repentance when the author brings up the example of Esau. Esau regretted the selling of his birthright and desired the inheritance of God’s blessing. He even sought God’s blessing “with tears,” but “he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance” (Heb 12:16–17). Esau felt immense sorrow over his past decision, but in Esau’s case, it was too late to repent. It was too late to change his mind. When he made up his mind to sell Jacob his birthright, the course of his life had been set, and he could not go back and change his mind now. Thankfully, the author of Hebrews tells this story because his readers still have opportunity to repent, but he’s warning them that the opportunity that God’s grace creates will not last forever.
In light of these two words — shuv in Hebrew and metanoeō in Greek — theologians describe true repentance as consisting of three aspects: an intellectual aspect, an emotional aspect, and a volitional aspect. The old Baptist theologian Augustus Strong puts it simply: Repentance “involves a change of view, a change of feeling, and a change of purpose.”2
True repentance is more than feeling sorry for your sin, but repentance itself is not the action of stopping sin, what most people mean when they say “to turn away from sin.” Repentance is a change of mind and a change of direction. Intellectually, you now view sin as God views sin. It is not merely a mistake or a bad habit. It is evil and rebellion against God. Emotionally, you feel the weight of this new understanding. You are filled with sorrow over your sin, and you hate the sin you once loved. Volitionally, you set out with a new purpose. You turn away from your pursuit of sin and turn toward God as your new greatest desire.
When we understand this three-fold nature of true repentance, we can understand it as the starting point for the adoption of a new worldview. We use the term worldview as short-hand for our understanding about the world, who we are, and where we are going. Our worldview helps us to determine the choices we make, and therefore, it encompasses all three elements of repentance. It is intellectual, a way of understanding the world. It is emotional since it guides our feelings about the world and ourselves, and it is volitional because it determines the choices we make.
If we are going to fully embrace a new worldview — truly believe what the gospel says about us and about Jesus, rebuild our understanding of the world based on this new revelation, and make our choices on the basis of its truth — then we must at the same time reject our old worldview. We must change our mind. We must repent.
Repentance is not the same as the fruit of repentance.
There is an important distinction that we must make if we are going to think carefully about repentance. Repentance is not a change in our behavior. Repentance is a change in our mind, our heart, and our purpose. The change in our behavior is the fruit of true repentance, but it is not repentance itself.
John the Baptist makes this distinction when he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Therefore, produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Matt 3:8). For John, repentance is one thing, and the fruit of repentance is another thing. John’s baptism was a baptism “for repentance” (Matt 3:11). John’s criticism against the Jewish leaders was that they wanted to receive his baptism without the actual repentance, and the indicator that they hadn’t actually repented would be that they wouldn’t bear the fruit of repentance. They probably wanted John’s baptism as an act of ritual purification, not as an expression of changed purpose. In fact, they probably thought they didn’t have anything to repent from, which is probably the greatest indicator that true repentance is not present.
Whatever the motivation of the leaders to seek John’s baptism, John’s distinction is significant. There is repentance, and there is fruit of repentance. These are two things, although they are inseparable things. Where there is no concrete fruit of repentance, there is no true repentance. But we should be careful not to confuse the fruit with repentance itself.
One reason this is important is because of the factor of time. It takes time for a tree to bear fruit, and it takes time for a believer to bear the fruit of repentance. While we continually repent throughout our Christian life, there is nevertheless a moment of initial repentance that is a response to the preaching of the gospel and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The change in our behavior, on the other hand, is not immediate but gradual and progressive.
We may even return to an old sin after initial repentance, only to find ourselves wracked by a level of conviction and regret that we never experienced before placing our faith in Christ. Circumstances like these demonstrate the definitive difference between an unbeliever and a believer. Unbelievers and believers are heading in different directions. They have different ways of thinking. Unbelievers love sin, even if they may at times hate its effects on their lives. Believers hate sin. Unbelievers excuse sin. Believers confess sin (see 1 John 1:5–2:2).
Eventually, believers will bear the fruit of repentance because it is the “fruit of the Spirit,” which would better be translated “the fruit produced by the Spirit.”3
Back to renouncing Satan
For those of you who have followed me through this examination of repentance, it is time to return to its application to mission. What does all this discussion of repentance and its fruit have to do with the dilemma of a people group adopting a new worldview?
Most of us from the West have taught a truncated understanding of repentance that arises from our own cultural limitations. It has been over 1,000 years since most Europeans left a fundamentally non-Christian worldview to adopt (however imperfectly) a Christian worldview.
Of course, we have seen new non-Christian worldviews arise such as materialism, but we have long forgotten what it is like to convert from paganism to Christianity. We have long forgotten that at some point our ancestors were worshiping Odin or the moon and using magic to appease spirits. That part of our history belongs to the ancient past.
All of us from the West have grown up in a culture that has been fundamentally shaped by Christianity, even in many ways that we never seriously reflect upon.4 In our “Christian-influenced” culture, repentance mainly focuses on feeling sorry for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. We have not seen repentance as the fundamental and concrete shift in worldview that it is. Our focus has been on our behavior rather than our thinking. To many in the West, repentance is about feeling bad for the bad things we’ve done. We’ve forgotten that repentance is about changing our mind.
But early Christians understood sharply the dilemma. Pagans were turning from idols and worshiping the living God through faith in his Son. People were forsaking the gods they had been brought up to worship. This is why Demetrius the silversmith and his buddies in Ephesus were so disturbed. People were saying that “gods made by hand are not gods” (Acts 19:26). There was a change in worldview taking place. They had seen people burning their books of magic spells, and they had felt it in their pockets as their business began to dry up (Acts 19:18–27).
After the New Testament period, early Christians formalized this change of worldview specifically through a practice known as the renunciation of Satan, which occurred at a believer’s baptism. The person being baptized would say, usually prior to being immersed, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works.” Or the pastor would ask the person being baptized, “Do you forsake Satan, all his works, and all his pomps?”5
While the practice has been kept by some churches that practice infant baptism, where oddly the child’s sponsors answer for the child, it has largely been abandoned by those who baptize believers. Of course, practicing renunciation of Satan is not a biblical command, but it nevertheless served early Christians as an effective method of teaching new believers that a fundamental change had taken place in their lives.
Baptism expresses repentance and faith publicly. It tangibly displays the crucifixion of the old self and resurrection to a newness of life (Rom 6:1–14). Part of that change is the renunciation of our alliance with Satan and our participation in his works. Of course, before our faith in the gospel, we probably didn’t see ourselves as serving Satan (unless you were a Satanist), but the intellectual aspect of repentance means that we have adopted God’s point of view about our old self. Emotionally, we now hate our former master and the works he led us in. Volitionally, we renounce him and abandon his ways.
When we experience this intellectual, emotional, and volitional change, that’s when we will bear the fruit. Our behavior will change. While we can teach new believers this in ways other than renouncing Satan at baptism, the important thing is that we are somehow teaching it.
When people think that repentance is simply feeling sorry for bad things they’ve done (or even worse, feeling afraid of going to hell), then we aren’t dealing on the level of worldview transformation. The same is also true when people think that repentance is conformity to a new standard of behavior. Such people will naturally integrate elements of the biblical worldview with the worldview that comes natural to them — mixing, replacing, or coexisting.
True repentance, however, expresses a fundamental change in thinking, a turning away from an old way of life to a new one. It is a rejection of a flawed worldview and a renunciation of Satan, who used that worldview to blind you to your need for Christ. If we want to see people changed, then we must not neglect repentance.
- “μετανοέω; μετάνοια, ας,” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, edited by Johannes P. Low and Eugene A. Nida (New York: UBS, 1989), 41.52.
- Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1907), 832.
- For you nerds out there, “of the Spirit” is a genitive of source. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 349.
- You must read Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic, 2019).
- For a review of the early evidence, see “Renunciation of the Devil in the Baptismal Rite,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), 488–89.