Repentance 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!