Thoughts about repentance

ShiftRepentance is a classic example of where we think we know biblical terms when we actually may not. This is common with language in general. And sometimes we will even use a wrong word due to a prevailing cultural or religious bias.

Before I continue, I want to state something that may shock you. You’re going to have to think about this with an open mind.

Are you ready?



The English words “repent” and “repentance” are not biblical words.

Now, before you dismiss me as a heretic, hear me out. The word, repentance, comes from a Latin translation, it’s not the actual word used in the original text.

Do you follow? They are words in your Bible, just not the original words used in Scripture. Okay, let’s move on…

And the problem with this translation starts with a medieval paradigm, further intrenched by the King James Bible (KJV), which uses these same English words indiscriminately in both the Old and New Testament. But a closer examination will reveal this to be a flawed and confusing approach.

Here’s a useful insight on repentance…

“In Biblical Hebrew, the idea of repentance is represented by two verbs: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nicham (to feel sorrow). In the New Testament, the word translated as ‘repentance’ is the Greek word μετάνοια metanoia (“after/behind one’s mind”), which is a compound word of the preposition ‘meta’ (after, with), and the verb ‘noeo’ (to perceive, to think, the result of perceiving or observing).” Source: Wikipedia

So, we have the idea in the Old Testament Hebrew texts of “feeling sorrow, regret” or “to return” and the New Testament Greek, “to think, perceive or change one’s mind.” But the KJV translates all of these meanings with the English word, “repent.”

Furthermore, it’s helpful to see where we got this English word…

“c.1300, “to feel such regret for sins or crimes as produces amendment of life,” from Old French repentir (11c.), from re-, here probably an intensive prefix (see re-), + Vulgar Latin *penitire “to regret,” from Latin poenptire “make sorry,” from poena.” Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

Why is this a problem? Well, there’s a least a couple I can see right off the bat…

First, the New Testament Greek word, μετανοέω (metanoeō), does not mean being “penitent” or sorry. It literally means “to undergo a change in frame of mind and feeling.”

Of course, the 14th century mindset that gave us this word, and even that of the Reformation, was one obsessed with the wrath of God, hellfire and the idea of the atonement mainly being about penal substitution. I wrote about this here.

So we started to equate metanoeō with sorrow, regret and penitence, parroting this meaning in our teachings, commentaries and lexicons ever since, as if that’s what the word actually means.

Secondly, if we must feel sorrow and regret to receive the Kingdom of God, how much sorrow and regret is enough? How do you know you’ve really, really, really…really repented? Sounds a bit subjective to me. This, of course, leaves the door wide open to create all kinds of versions of “really being a Christian,” allowing for manipulatively clever protagonists to prod us with the fear and guilt stick.

And this is why this issue of repentance, and even what determines if one is “saved,” is so confused in Christianity.

So, in this light, what does Jesus mean by saying we should “repent and believe”? (Mark 1:15) Thankfully, some modern translations and paraphrases have cleared this up for us. Here’s a good example (emphasis mine)…

“The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived.
You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.”
(Mark 1:15 J.B. Phillips)

According to what the New Testament does say, here are a few examples of what I should be changing my mind about and believing.

I should stop believing that my good behavior will earn me heaven or that my sins or bad behavior will send me to hell, and start believing that Jesus died for it all–past, present and future–that the only sin I should worry about is not accepting His free gift of grace by faith (Eph.1:7; 2:8; 1 John 2:2; Heb.10:12).

And, once I accept Christ, I should stop contradicting God by calling myself a dirty sinner having filthy rags righteousness, and start believing that I’m a a new creation, holy and blameless, dead to sin–that my life is now Christ’s life, as a son, a saint, having His very own righteousness (Rom.6:3-14; 2 Cor.5:16-21; Gal.2:20; Col.3:3). And I should believe that saying this is demonstrating true humility.

I should stop trying to earn God’s approval and start believing that I’m accepted in the Beloved (Eph.1:6).

I should stop acting like the proverbial elder brother (Luke 15:31), waiting for some mansion up in the sky and start abiding in the dwelling place prepared for me in the Spirit now. I wrote about this in detail here.

I should stop waiting for the Kingdom of God to come sometime in the future and start believing Jesus when He said it’s here, now, inside of me (Mark 1:15; Luke 17:21).

I should change my orphan-hearted thinking and believe God’s gracious invitation to enter into the very same relationship that the Father has had with the Son and the Spirit from eternity. One overflowing with love, peace and joy (John 14:18, 23; 15:9,11; 17:24; Rom.14:17; Gal.4:6-7).

In other words, it’s not about being sorry but about the good news we are to believe.

And what causes us to change our mind? The threat of hellfire and damnation? Sadly, that does work and has been used, but coming into a marriage based on fear of torture is an abusive relationship not a healthy one.

No, God wants our change of heart and mind coming from seeing His utter kindness and goodness.

In other words, repentance (change of heart) doesn’t come first, it comes after we’ve seen the goodness and kindness of God.

To better understand this, let’s take this verse in Romans, adding our original Greek word and meaning (bold-text added)…

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness
and tolerance and patience,

not knowing that the kindness of God
leads you to (metanoeo – undergo a change
in frame of mind and feeling)
(Rom.2:4 NASB)

In other words, when I finally see the kindness, tolerance and patience of God–who loves me so much that He bankrupted heaven for me by giving what was most precious to Him (Jesus), so I could be with Him forever as His beloved and fully accepted son (daughter), enjoying communion with Him in His endless ocean of overflowing love, peace and joy–I change my mind! I gladly end my stubborn rebellion based in ignorance and deception (2 Cor.4:4) and freely accept His gracious invitation.

And once I do accept His invitation, I continue to set my mind on receiving His affections for me, making what He believes about me to be my truth, resting in His performance, not my own.

And that’s metanoeo!

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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9 Responses to Thoughts about repentance

  1. Ayanda says:

    Hi Mel, thank you for another timely message as usual. I’m reading Crossroads by William Paul Young, and your post today reiterates some of the points I’ve been getting from the book.

    Sometimes I get a feeling that Christianity got hijacked and some point and we ended up with a God we don’t know, because as I get to know God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) it is for the first time. He’s nothing like I thought He was. He is kind, He is patient, He is gentle. I mean I’ve struggled most of my life to expirience anything even remotely close, but He seems to have a way of peeling a layer at a time and gently breaks down my walls.

    Actually to be honest I sometimes feel like I am really being born again. 🙂

    So yes, a change of frame of mind doesn’t come by self flaggilation but rather by seeing His kindness, His tolerance and gentleness. The thing is this is not a process we can even control its even initiated by Him.

    What love is this!? No really I can’t wrap my head around it.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Amen! It sounds like you’re actually starting to get it. This is the abundantly above all we can think or ask God! If your brain doesn’t go tilt you still don’t get it! 🙂

      But when you do even get a small revelation of this love it feels like you’re born again (again!). Feeling alive for the first time is the best way to describe it. It’s joy and freedom beyond anything we possibly imagine apart from Him. It defies description. You have to experience it for yourself. And everyone is invited to do just that!

      As far as the Christian life being hijacked, you’re not far from the truth. As I have said in other posts, it’s become a philosophy, a teaching, all about going to a place when you die (heaven or hell), or serving like a slave to be accepted instead of partnering with Him as a son in our Father’s kingdom. It’s religious activity instead of resting in the eternal fellowship with the Father and the Son by the Spirit. We’ve missed the whole point of salvation when we don’t get this. Forgiveness was the means to a much, much greater end, and heaven is a place we already live in with Christ (Eph.2:6). It’s actually REALLY good news! Much better than we have thought.

      Thanks for your comments, Ayanda. it’s exciting to hear about what God is revealing to you. You are dearly loved.

  2. Absolutely brilliant post, Mel. Changed hearts and minds which allow us to return to God. And Ayanda, hijacked – wow. As the British would say, I’m gobsmacked! This really validates that whole internal sense of reward vs. punishment. Hellfire and damnation, earning our way to heaven = punishment. God’s love, grace and mercy, Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit abiding in us, our inheritance = reward. We are reborn and truly blessed.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Amen! And thank you for your brilliant comments, Susan. 🙂 I love your punishment and reward definitions here. And Jesus is the one who did it all! I don’t earn anything. My job is to rest in His love and let Him live His life in me and get His full reward. That’s actually good news!

  3. Amen! I lived in that shame filled concept of repentance for many years. I was so afraid of God, I thought that if He really knew me I would be punished and unloved. I lived trapped in the bondage of my sin. When I came face to face with God’s love that is when I found freedom from my sin. Good post.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Sadly, it’s a fact that, deep down inside, most Christians feel like you did. They think God is disappointed with them…if He only knew. Actually, He knows us better than we know ourselves! And He doesn’t love us any less. For He also knows that it’s His love that will change whatever is wrong. His embrace answers all the longings of our heart. What you said about coming face to face with God’s love is so true. Transformation happens in His embrace. It’s the truth that makes us free. Thanks for sharing this. Awesome. Blessings.

  4. naggie007 says:

    Wow!! That is seriously powerful and thought provoking! Can’t wait to discuss this over a coffee with friends and tease it out some more.
    Thanks for having the courage to share Truth, Love and Grace … God is good 🙂

  5. Steve Clark says:

    So, “How can I know God if I don’t repent?” needs to become “How can I repent if I don’t know God”?

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