Repentance: What’s in a Word
no. 22 - Dr. Charlie Bing
Repentance has been a troublesome word for Christians and theologians (not to distinguish!). There
are differing views on its meaning, translation, and relationship to eternal salvation. Ultimately, the
meaning of repentance must be determined by usage and context, but any study of repentance must
begin with a discussion of the word itself.
The composition of the word
The English word repentance
translates the Greek word metanoia
(verb = metanoew
). This word is
formed from two words, meta
, which means after
, and noew which means to think
of the word nous
, or mind
). Thus the resulting word suggests the meaning of after-thought
change of mind
. Many language scholars agree on this basic definition.
However, the word itself does not designate what is the object of the change of mind. That is left to
the context. In biblical times, metanoia
was used in common language for one changing his mind in a
non-ethical sense about a variety of things. Thus repentance is a fluid term that leaves its final
definition to the context, much like the word dozen
, which leaves us asking “Dozen what?”
In the New Testament, we see examples of one changing his mind about a sinful attitude (Luke 18:9-
14), ineffectual works (Heb. 6:1), trust in pagan idols (Acts 17:30), or God Himself (Acts 20:21).
Though it is most often associated with sin, sin is not always its object. In fact, in the King James
Version of the Old Testament the word repent
is usually used in reference to God repenting, showing
that it does not automatically refer to sorrow or turning from sin.
The formation of the word
We should not assume that two root words which are joined to form a third word always give it its
precise and final definition. For example, the Greek ekklhsia
is from ek (out of) and klhsis
from kalew = to call), thus it literally means called out ones
, but we commonly translate it assembly
However, the root words can give us valuable insight into the final word’s development and meaning. In
the case of ekklhsia
, the church is indeed formed from those whom God has called out of the mass of
humanity. Another example, homologew
, is from homoios
(= same) and legw
(= to speak), thus we
translate it to say the same thing
, or agree, confess.
Familiar to some, theopneustos
, from theos
(= spirit/Spirit, breath), gives us God-breathed
Or consider exagorazw
(out of) and agorazw
(to purchase), thus to purchase out of, or redeem.
Tracing the root meanings is very helpful towards, but not determinative of, final meaning. Still, a
word’s origin is not arbitrary, but informative. Thus we can not ignore the formation of metanoia
which gives us the basic definition a change of mind.
The translation of the word
Our understanding of metanoia
is also helped by how the Hebrew word shub
(= to turn [from
something], used over 1000 times in the Old Testament) is translated. In the Greek translation of the
Old Testament called the Septuagint, it is regularly translated by the Greek word strephw
various forms. It is never translated by metanoia
. If metanoia meant to turn from sin, then we would
expect it to translate the Hebrew word for turn
) at least occasionally.
In the late second century, church father Tertullian argued that the meaning of “change of mind” is
the best translation of metanoia
. In the same vein, English-speaking scholars have long complained
that there is not a good single-word translation for metanoia
. Greek expert A. T. Robertson
remarked, “It is a linguistic and theological tragedy that we have to go on using ‘repentance’ for
.” The English word repentance
has its roots in the Latin word penitentia
penitence as sorrow, or worse, the Catholic doctrine of penance, in which a person’s sins are absolved
by a priest’s prescribed acts of punishment. Repentance should not be defined in terms of outward
action or sorrowful emotion. In light of how metanoia
is formed and used, it seems a good
translation today would be a change of mind
But there may be a better one. When we examine what is meant biblically by mind
) we find
that it is sometimes used for the inner orientation and moral attitude. (cf. Rom. 1:28; 7:23, 25; Eph.
4:17, 23; Col. 2:18). Thus the mind, biblically speaking, is not always the pure intellect. So the best
translation of metanoia
would be a change of heart
. It refers to a person’s inner change of attitude
and moral direction. The Bible does not psychologically dissect the inner person, but leaves it at that.
Linguistically, a change of heart does not demand a change in conduct, though that is what is
normally expected from an inner change. The Bible distinguishes between the inner change of
repentance and the outer conduct it motivates. This is clear in the logical progression from inner
repentance to outer conduct mentioned in Matthew 3:8/Luke 3:8 and Acts 26:20, and in the unlikely
scenario of one changing his behavior seven times in a day in Luke 17:3-4.
The implications of the word
In relation to eternal salvation, repentance is not a second step or condition. Salvation is always
through faith alone in Christ alone. But sometimes there appears to be an overlap between faith and
repentance (cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32; 24:47; Acts 11:18; 17:30, 34; 2 Peter 3:9). Since faith is being
persuaded that something is true, when one is persuaded (believes), there is a change of mind and
heart. Repentance is the more general concept, for a person can change his or her heart about
something, even God or sin, but not be saved. When one believes the gospel, he is convinced of
something he was not formerly convinced of, thus he has had a change of mind or heart about who
Jesus is and what He has promised about eternal life, and his own condition relative to that (cf. Acts
20:21). Faith involves repentance, but repentance does not always involve faith.
In general, a good translation of metanoia
is to have a change of heart
. But since this is awkward, we
are probably left with the word repentance
. Then it becomes our responsibility to explain, clarify,
and apply it correctly. Its exact meaning must be clarified by the context. In any case, as an inner
change, repentance is in no way a work that merits salvation. Inner repentance can always be
distinguished from its outward acts, though one is the cause of the other. In preaching the gospel,
is certainly the more normative, predominate, and specific word to use.
Dr. Charlie Bing, GraceLife Ministries
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