What does repentance really mean?
We often rely on the English translation of the Bible to give us an understanding of what words mean. Yet some words in the Bible are difficult to translate as there are no English equivalent to those words. One such word is the Greek word “metanoia” (μετἀνοια). This word is translated “repent” and yet that is really not the best translation. In fact Walden describes the translation of metanoia as repentance as “an extraordinary mistranslation” (Treadwell Walden, The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia: Lost in the Old Version, Unrecovered in the New. Thomas Whittaker, 1896. 24). “Metanoia” is formed from ‘μετα’ (after, with) and ‘νοεω’ (to think) and generally means “changing your mind” (in the noun form) or “thinking differently” (in the verb form). So ‘metanoia” really means “to come to ones senses” or “to think intelligently”.
How was this word used at the time of the New Testament? Here are some examples I found as I researched this word. Polybius (ca. 208-126 B.C.) used metanoia to refer to the Dardani people, who were on their way to attack Macedonia while Philip, the Ruler of Macedonia, was away with his army. However, Philip heard of it and returned quickly. Even though the Dardani were close to Macedonia, when they heard that Philip was coming, they changed their minds. They broke off the attack before it even began. Thucydides used metanoia when writing about the response of the Athenian council to a revolt. The council decided that all of the men of the city of Mytilene were to be put to death–not merely those who participated in the revolt. However, on the next day “a change of heart” came over them. The Athenian council changed its mind. It decided that only those who participated in the rebellion should be put to death.
So when Jesus and the apostles used the word “metanoia” in the New Testament, it was to do with careful consideration of what is taking place and think intelligently the response. The only way to do that is to taste and see what God is offering that is far better than what you have experienced in living your own way. Would exchanging a messed up life that misses the mark or have gone astray worth holding on to when a far better life of the Kingdom is being offered?
This meaning of metanoia began to change when the Latin Vulgate translated it as “paenitentia” which came to mean penance or acts of penance that had to be done if one hoped to obtain grace. This new idea of penance can be traced through church history where “metanoia” became synonymous with contrition, confession and penance. During the Reformation, Calvin and Luther rejected the notion that sin could be atoned for by contrition, confession and acts of penance. It was their belief that sin was covered by the blood of Christ. “Metanoia” took a new change in meaning. It began to refer to the repentance of sin that comes by faith when a person is deeply sorrowful of their sins and turn to Jesus for salvation. This became the gospel of the reformation movement. However this feeling sorry for ones sins and turning away from them does not reveal the true meaning of “metanoia”.
My understanding of the New Testament word “metanoia” then is about a radical paradigm shift in ones thinking. It is more than just feeling sorry about sin but to think of how the new way of life is far greater than the messed up life a person is living. So if I were to take “metanoia” seriously, it would affect how I do mission. As a follower of Christ following the model of Christ, I go out and build relationship with people who see the cross as foolishness,and to invite them to come on a journey to taste the power and goodness of the cross. It will bring them to a place where “metanoia” happens and they change their mind, leave their foolish sinful ways and become a committed and transformed follower of Jesus. That is my understanding of what Jesus meant when he said “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”