Repentance: What’s in a Word?

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We talk a good deal about repentance. It’s in our songs and our Scriptures. It’s the very beginning of our faith: “Repent and believe in the gospel!” Jesus tells us (Mark 1:15). Still, repentance is such a terrible word.

Jesus’s first words in his ministry were likely: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). God through the Prophets calls His people to repent (Ezekiel 14:6). Peter calls for repentance in his first sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). There’s apparently a great deal of celebration involved in the heavenly places when even one person repents, over the righteous habits of 99 others:

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The glory is in repentance; the tragedy is in the word. Roses may smell sweet by any other name, but we must get words and their meaning right when we speak of God and His Word. We think repentance means “to be sorry” or “to have regret.” And while sorrow is certainly involved, sorrow is not repentance: “for godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) In other words, we have a sorrow that leads to life, and another sorrow that leads to death. If you miss that point, death is in the error. The rose of true repentance smells of death to some and life to others (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).

When you’re called to repent, you’re not being called to simply grieve about your sin; grief by itself is fruitless and dead. Like Judas, we can be sorry for our sin and never repent. And like Judas, our sorrow, our regret, can lead to our death without true repentance (Matthew 27:3-5). So as Jesus commands us, let’s repent, whatever that means…

What’s in a Word?

The English word “repentance” carries its own problems. We borrow the word from Latin and French, but the English use can be heard in “doing penance.” The Douay-Rheims (1609) shows the translation: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Of course, doing penance is not quite what Jesus had in mind, so long as “doing penance” means performing a Catholic Sacrament. But so also do we have a problem with “being penitent,” so long as by “penitence” we mean “grief” or “sorrow.”

Okay, so we’ve seen just how NOT to understand this word. But what does the word mean? It depends on how we understand the original Greek word: meta-noia (repentance). The word sometimes means “having a change of mind” as we clearly see in places like Jeremiah 8:6 (LXX): “I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents (metanoeo) of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’…”

So in the case above, to “repent” means to “have a change of mind.” The question, “What have I done?” would suggest that one has, indeed, had a change in mind or attitude. But rather than changing their attitudes (that is to say, rather than turning from their sin) God charges that Israel is following their own course. Israel’s hasn’t changed her mind about her sin.

But in other instances, “repent” clearly means “to turn from an action or activity” such as in Hebrews 6:1: “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Clearly, “repentance” must mean “turning from” in this case “turning from dead works” and “turning to God” in faith.

Rightly Dividing a Word

But there’s another problem with our word, namely that we don’t have any good alternative. No word in the English language suggests a change of mind resulting in a change of action. But we must get this right, friends: repentance is a complete change of position from thinking one way, to thinking another way. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” means more than sorrow for your sin, but it certainly doesn’t mean less.

It means a reorientation of our minds. It changes our attitudes about our sin and about our God. And perhaps more fundamentally, repentance moves us to agree with God about our sin. And experientially, repentance moves us from enjoying our sin to enjoying our God, who desires that we find our joy in Him alone. Our hands and feet follow our heart in our repentance.

So repent, dear friend. And take great joy in your deep repentance, knowing the rose of repentance is the fragrance of God’s good pleasure.