When the Bible speaks of repentance in the context of non-Believers, it is often in regards to initial
salvation (also known as "justification salvation"). This can be seen in the apostle Paul’s preaching where
he closely associates repentance and faith: "repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ"
From Paul’s perspective, penitence and conversion reflects genuine biblical repentance as
it represents a "change of mind" about sin, God, Jesus or the sinner and a decision is made to change the
direction of one’s thoughts and life.
But does genuine repentance always lead to initial salvation?
Can a non-Believer express genuine repentance that does not lead to justification salvation?
King Ahab of the Old Testament presents a wrinkle to this understanding of genuine repentance. As the seventh
king of Israel’s Northern Kingdom, Ahab married Jezebel who was a Phoenician princess and devotee of Baal. Ahab
apparently worshipped God as implied in the naming of his children: Jehoram (Yahweh is exalted), Ahaziah (Yahweh
sustains), and daughter Athaliah (Yahweh is righteous); however, he also openly worshipped, served and built
temples for idols (1 Kings 16:32-33;
2 Kings 3:2).
The Bible records, on several occasions, the evil and idolatrous rule of Ahab was worse than
all other kings before him (1 Kings 16:30, 32-33;
As another example, Ahab does not stop Jezebel’s massacre of the prophets of the LORD
(1 Kings 18:4, 13, 18).
Despite Elijah’s Mount Carmel victory over the 450 priests of Baal
(1 Kings 18:17-40) and two divinely provided military
victories over the Syrians (1 Kings 20:13-14 22, 28),
Ahab allows his wife Jezebel to violate the Mosaic Law
and organize the murder of Naboth and his sons (2 Kings 9:26)
and the theft of his vineyard. It is here that Elijah confronts Ahab with his sin and conveys God’s judgment
(1 Kings 21:17-24).
Ahab responds with the tearing of his clothes, wearing sackcloth, fasting and mourning which
all indicated grief and contrition; it was an expression of sincere repentance
(1 Kings 21:27).
In observing Ahab’s repentance, God reveals that Ahab was genuine in his self humbling
(1 Kings 21:28-29).
Out of mercy, God defers His judgment after Ahab has died
(1 Kings 21:29;
2 Kings 9:24-26; 30-37).
It would seem that Ahab was truly repentant of his actions towards Naboth and mourned the divine consequences
it wrought. Ahab’s genuine repentance resulted in a temporal delay from judgment which was deferred to the next
generation. Did Ahab’s repentance lead to faith in God and eternal salvation? The biblical text is silent whether
Ahab turned towards God and developed a genuine faith; the Bible does not mention Ahab renouncing idolatrous
worship or restoring Naboth’s vineyard.
What was the genuine character of Ahab’s repentance? What is it about the practice of wearing sackcloth and
fasting that conveys genuine repentance?
Sackcloth is a coarse cloth made of goat hair and fashioned in a bag like garment. Scratchy and uncomfortable
to wear, it was worn as a symbol of grief whether in mourning of a death
(Gen 37:34) or a calamity
(Esth 4:1-4) and a practice largely confined to the Old
The nation of Israel learned that, through their covenant relationship with God
(Mosaic Covenant) and subsequent reminders from His prophets, all blessings
and curses in life were from God. Jews understood that blessings and curses were conditioned on one’s faith life
and ethical behavior whether as an individual (Ezek 14:6-8) or
nation (Jer 18:7-11).
Thus misfortune was seen as a consequence of personal sin and God’s displeasure. Wearing
sackcloth was symbolic of one’s unworthiness and a means to humble oneself before God
The act of rending one’s clothing and wearing sackcloth and ashes represented self censure. From this perspective,
genuine repentance includes a sense of humiliation, sorrow and submission
(1 Chron 21:16;
Prophets, who mourn the sins of the nation, often wore sackcloth to show their own brokenness
as they made pronouncements of God’s judgment (2 Kings 1:8;
However, the Bible records some of wearing sackcloth for reasons other than repentance. For
example, motivated by his desire to survive a military rout, the pagan king Ben-hadad wore sackcloth to seek
mercy from king Ahab (1 Kings 20:31-32). In this example,
humbling oneself was not done with repentance in mind; instead it was in quest of mercy.
In another example, the nation of Israel complains of fasting and its failure of achieving a
favorable response from God (Is 58:3-4). Isaiah confronts this
manipulative attitude; the fast that God sought was not merely refraining from food; the Jews should loosen the
bonds of wickedness by undoing heavy financial burdens, feed the hungry, shelter the poor and clothe the naked
(Is 58:5-7). Isaiah points out that one’s behavior reflects the
condition of the heart and the true attitude of humbleness.
Widely recognized public acts of tearing clothes, wearing sackcloth, fasting and mourning may not reflect the
genuine condition of the heart; God saw repentance as genuine when done with a humble heart
(1 Kings 21:28-29). Yet despite his genuine repentance, it is
doubtful that Ahab had a genuine faith in Yahweh. The author of 1 Kings inserts his evaluation of king Ahab:
"Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the
LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that
the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel."
(1 Kings 21:25-26)
Jonah and the city of Nineveh present another interesting case of genuine repentance that led to a temporal
salvation from God’s judgment, but less certain is whether this included justification salvation.
After hearing Jonah’s message, the people of Nineveh believed in God, fasted and wore sackcloth.
The king himself wore sackcloth, sat on ashes and issued a decree ordering all to fast (including livestock), wear
sackcloth, call on God and turn from wicked ways. Because of their repentance and turning from wicked ways, God did
not deliver the calamity He had planned for Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-10).
Scholars have long noted the subtle differences in the use of God’s divine names. Throughout
Jonah 1, 2
and 4, "LORD" ("Yahweh"), the name of the covenant making God
of Israel is consistently used. In Jonah 3, the people of
Nineveh noticeably refer only to "God" ("Elohim").
From a Hebrew’s perspective, "Elohim" is the name of God as the Creator and Judge of the
universe (Gen 1:1-2).
While the Assyrians did not mention "Yahweh," the covenant making God of Israel, they believed in polytheism.
Scholars believe that the Assyrians understood "Elohim" within the context of their polytheism as the one god who
could enforce his will upon the others.
The Assyrians recognized Jonah’s proclamations as the voice of the supreme god and responded
Because they did not mention "Yahweh", it is believed that the Assyrians did not have a genuine
faith in the God of Abraham. There isn’t any historical evidence of a period of faith in the God of Israel while
However Jesus thought well enough of the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah
in contrast to the Jews who refused to respond to His preaching
Jesus implied a contrast between belief and unbelief.
It appears that repentance, involving the genuine humbling of oneself, can result in at least the temporal
salvation from God’s judgment. It may or may not lead to justification salvation; faith in God's work through
Jesus Christ alone provides the means for eternal salvation.