Long ago Martin Luther read the Latin translation of the Greek New Testament called the Vulgate. He saw that John that Baptist and Jesus called out to their hearers, “Do penance! For the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Really? he thought. Did they really call for their hearers to do acts of self-mortification, contrition, confession to a priest, and other acts involved in trying to achieve absolution for sin?
But Luther found that the meaning of the original Greek word metanoia didn’t involve doing any acts of piety. Rather, he found, it meant “change your mind.”
Unfortunately, at least in English versions, the Latin Vulgate has exerted far more influence than it should have. The original Greek word got translated “penitence” or “repentance,” which some would argue wasn’t as far off from “penance” as it needed to be.
What does the “change of mind” mean? And why would I agree with some great thinkers that repentance is not an acceptable translation?
And why do I believe this truth is vitally important for all of us?
An Old Book And A Fresh Way Of Thinking
Recently I was directed to the old book The Great Meaning of Metanoia, by Treadwell Walden. It expanded some things I was thinking when I first wrote about repentance years ago as “coming to your senses.” I’ll be quoting from his book here.
Walden lamented the replacement of metanoia with a word that conveyed the Roman Catholic notion of penitence—that is, if you’re sorry enough, if you confess enough, if you weep enough, if you do such and such things to prove yourself, then your penitence (repentance) is received and you can go on your way.
This does not at all convey the Great Meaning of Metanoia, the Greek word that has been translated “repentance” in almost every English version of the Bible.
It’s one more thing that contributes to confusion about the gospel.
Greek Words Imbued With New Meaning
Metanoia, Walden points out, was the first cry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2) and the first cry of Jesus is translated as, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
But since we’re exploring the word metanoia here, I’m going to use that word instead.
Can we approach the Scriptures afresh? Can we look at them asking the Holy Spirit to clear away any meaning that is not from Him and show us what they really mean?
“Metanoia! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
It is clearly an important word, heralding as it did the Kingdom of God.
. . . Expressions conveying a divine meaning, now most familiar to us, were occasions of astonishment to pagan and Jew alike when they were lifted into connections which transfigured them. Such, we know, were “faith,” “hope,” “love,” “light,” “truth,” “life,” “peace,” “liberty”; such were “redemption,” “atonement,” “righteousness,” “resurrection”; such were “Saviour” and “apostle,” and many more which might be named. And such was “Metanoia.” (p 12)
Metanoia, the Great Harbinger of the Kingdom
Though the word metanoia in the Greek literally means “a change of mind,” this is more than a logical “I see your point.” Or a whimsical “I guess I’ll do something else instead.”
No, there is something deeper about it. This “change of mind” indicates an opening of the understanding that leads to transformation.
“Metanoia” was the great harbinger word of the Gospel, bearing witness to the “Light.” (p 37)
Quoting DeQuincy, a Greek scholar, Walden writes on p 34,
The holy herald of Christ [John the Baptist], and Christ Himself, the Finisher of prophecy, made proclamation alike of the same mysterious summons, as a baptism or rite of initiation, namely, Metanoia:
Henceforth transfigure your theory of moral truth; the old theory is laid aside as infinitely insufficient; a new and spiritual revelation is established. Metanoia! Contemplate moral truth as radiating from a new center; apprehend it under transfigured relations.
And doesn’t it make sense that this would be the introduction of the New Era? “We are showing you a new thing. A new kingdom is entering. Open your eyes, allow your thinking to be transformed, and see it!”
This is metanoia.
Those who had ears to hear would hear.
It wasn’t a word of condemnation. It was a heralding of a New Kingdom. “Prepare your hearts for what is about to come.”
It was proclaiming and calling to that change of mind that I would call “coming to your senses.”
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And upon them who walked in the shadow of death, upon them has the light shined.
Jesus proclaimed, “Metanoia! Come to your senses!”
Take upon you a New Mind, and Believe the Glad Tidings.” (p 60)
It is as if our Lord said to His listeners, “I have come to completely change your world. I am here to change the paradigm. Open your mind, your heart, your eyes. Listen and receive in the deepest places of yourself.”
The Metanoia Jesus Offered
For three years, our Lord Jesus made good on His proclamation/command of “metanoia.” He did new things—miracles the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Israel since the days of Elijah.
He taught in a completely new way. All who heard were astonished. For some, who had ears to hear, the Truth sank in like water on thirsty ground.
Prepare your hearts to receive the rain.
He spoke in parables. He used his miracles as metaphors. He used nature as object lessons. He spoke sometimes in dark statements, sometimes in plain language. But He was always teaching, always leading “those with ears to hear” to the truth proclaimed by His “Metanoia.”
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Beginning and Ending of this New Era. He is the Answer to all the Law and the Prophets. He is the Proclaimer of the Way that Moses could see only in shadow.
Through His words and His works, He demonstrated His worthiness to be the Herald of this New Kingdom. Through His death, resurrection, and ascension He accomplished the ultimate work of this New Covenant.
When Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples’ metanoia entered upon a new stage. Their “sorrow was turned into joy,” as He had predicted.
I once was blind, but now I see.
Now I will set my affections on things above, not on things of this earth.
The Great Transformation
What would be the natural result of “metanoia”? It would be the highest form of faith—faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior, not only from sin, but for the new life He promises.
There is Great Truth.
Metanoia, that “coming to your senses,” brings about the revelation, the experience of that Great Truth.
When that Great Truth is experienced, seen, known through Metanoia, then the result is Faith.
There are many who believe they have faith because they have assented to a set of facts and have tried to deal with their sin. But they have not had the great Metanoia of the soul that is the opening of the eyes to who Jesus really is.
Paul did, and he was never the same.
On the road to Damascus, Paul was fundamentally transformed. It was this deep-seated transformation that he preached.
Paul, in fact, had an Experience. He saw and heard the Risen Lord. As soon as he did, he was on his face, and there was no turning back.
The Metanoia that Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of His ministry, Paul experienced.
Jesus told him, “I now send you to the Gentiles, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light.”
There was none so radically changed as Paul . . . except for others who have turned to Jesus Christ from half-lives of darkness and found their joy in Him.
Was it a “change of mind” that Paul experienced? Yes, absolutely.
Was he sorry for his sins and wanting to change his ways? Naturally.
This “change of mind” illuminated and affected his entire self, his deepest nature, never to be the same, ever again.
This “change of mind” explains at least in part the energy and enthusiasm with which Paul accomplished all he did. This “change of mind” explains the raptures he experienced when describing the risen Lord of glory.
It was a “change of mind” that took root in the deepest places of the being.
The “Repentance” Translation Fail
All that I wrote above, much of it based on Walden’s book, is the same conclusion I had come to back when I wrote that first blog post about the word metanoia, translate “repentance” in the Bible. This is why I paraphrased Jesus as saying, “Come to your senses!”
But where does the word “repentance” come from?
While Metanoia is Greek, “repentance” comes from the Latin word poenitentia, from poena, pain. This means, according to Walden (p 14),
Suffering in view of being liable to punishment; hence grief over an act for which satisfaction might be demanded.
It would be fair to allow it also a secondary signification; suffering in view of the badness of the act itself, without regard to its consequences.
The prefix re, “back” or “again,” adds to this the idea of looking back, or looking again, with sorrow upon what has been done amiss.
The word thus intensively communes with the past, and represents an emotion only.
If you find history and etymology as fascinating as I do, you may be interested to read Walden’s account on pages 108-122 of the journey involved in subsituting repentance (a word focusing on pain) for metanoia (a word focusing on the mind or understanding).
Walden observes the three English words that come from the Latin word that emphasizes the pain you feel (or inflict on yourself) because of your sin.
— Penance—discipline, something you do to get in God’s favor again.
— Repentance—doing either or both of those, to result in a changed life.
He saw this word as having almost no overlap with metanoia. From pages 124-25:
And so it [the word repentance] will always stand for what it originally was, and so it will always reverse the theory and the action of the Gospel. Its misleading tendency can never be expounded out of it.
It will always give the Gospel a legal aspect;
it will always, therefore, dim the near Fatherhood of God in setting Him upon a distant judgment-seat;
it will always put Christ in a wrong relation to both God and man;
it will always proclaim that man must be purged from sin by his own self-condemnation and by his formal discharge from a Divine Tribunal, and not set free, first and essentially, through that renewal of his nature under the knowledge of God in Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit, by which only the strength of sin is undermined and the creative work of God in the soul resumed.
A paraphrase from pages 125-26, in which Walden expresses some reasons the word repentance can never adequately substitute for the word metanoia:
Imbedded in this word is undying legalism. It contains undying reminiscence of vengeance, punishment, and expiation.
It carries an undying suggestion that the Change of Mind is only a change of will wrought by fear.
With undying determination it presents a theory of radical corruption in which tears are an all-powerful cleansing agent.
This Roman word is a creature of the law and has erected a judgment-seat in the heavens and earth. It has put upon the face of God the frown of outraged justice. It has lowered the great and graphic metaphor that pervades the New Testament.
And it has done all this simply for convenience in an age and to a people who are penetrated with legal ideas.
And again (p 100),
Its intense look of sorrow may be and has been softened by Christian use into the expression of a pensive sense of unworthiness and guilt, and of a consequent mental determination which changes the character, the conduct, and the life.
And indeed, though his book was written in 1895, I have to say that the meaning of the word has changed not at all since then. I’ve read material from modern luminaries that express this same sentiment.
Contrasting “Repentance” with “Metanoia”
Walden continues to press his point that this word falls so far short of the true meaning of metanoia as used in Scripture. From pages 105-106:
The note of [repentance] is not of emancipation, but of condemnation. . . . The working of it is not joyful, but sorrowful. Its face is turned in horror towards sin, not in rapture towards righteousness. . . . It flees the evil in fear of “penalty”—of the punitive action of God or of its own conscience. . . .
In its effective operation it can take hold of the Mind, change the mental attitude, determine the mental purpose, but it can never alone renew the whole spiritual constitution of the Mind. . . .
What is lost when the word repentance is used in place of metanoia? Walden says on page 24:
The all-encompassing grandeur of an announcement which takes in the whole of life and calls upon man
— to enlarge his consciousness with the eternal and the spiritual, — to live on the scale of another life, — to let his character grow under this great knowledge, — to let his conduct fall into the lines of the revealed divine will —all this is lost.
“Repentance” is always about turning from sin. “Metanoia” is about the change from being blind to seeing, so that we deeply know who and what God really is and who we really are.
This metanoia is the reality of conversion.
As Walden observes (p 15), Metanoia can encompass this “penitence,” but the terms are by no means equal. Metanoia is a far greater concept.
The way I see it, penitence/repentance starts in the intellect (there is a punishment for this thing I did) and moves to the emotions (that makes me scared and sorry that I did it).
Metanoia, though—the concept preached in the New Testament—is more like starting with blind eyes and moving to eyes that see.
I once was blind, but now I see.
Everything is different.
Come to your senses.
Quoting on p 93 from Matthew Arnold’s work “Literature and Dogma”:
We translate it “repentance,” a mourning and lamenting over our sins; and we translate it wrong.
Of “Metanoia,” as Jesus used the word, the lamenting one’s sins was a small part; the main part was something far more active and fruitful, the setting up an immense new inward movement for obtaining the rule of life. And “metanoia,” accordingly, is a change of the inward man.
It is as far greater than “weep and wail so that God might have mercy on you” as an eagle is greater than a sparrow.
Though turning from sin is part of the Christian life, it is only a small part of what metanoia is about. In fact the New Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed with His call for “Metanoia” was and is a kingdom in which the power of sin is destroyed.
It means a movement of the whole mind forwards, to which a looking backwards is only incidental (p 15).
Peter, Zacchaeus, and the “woman who was a sinner,” all were aware of their sinfulness before the Holy One of God, and that will be true for everyone who comes to Him. But what He invites us to is beyond the constant cycle of awareness of and forgiveness of sins. He invites us all to Metanoia.
A Whole New Way of Thinking
When we talk about “metanoia” as simply being sorry for sins and asking for forgiveness, is this not making the gospel too small?
Our Lord Jesus was welcoming all who would hear, all who would see, into nothing less than a new life.
Not a new life of A New List of Rules, but a new life of Everything is Different. To paraphrase from page 137:
The real power of the new life lies in looking forward, not backward.
It lies in faith, not fear.
In knowledge, not sorrow.
It is an awakening to righteousness and therefore a sinning not. . . .
Metanoia is a word profound enough to describe the mightiest motive that could energize the nature of man, that is, the personal power of the Son of God.
It expounds the mightiest influence that could enter his inmost being to the upbuilding of his character and life, namely, the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
A New Reading of Scripture—Some Examples
Jesus’ first cry
I’ve mentioned this a few times already, but as His first “announcement” to His hearers, it’s incredibly important. Here’s a quote from another blogger on the same subject:
Was the major proclamation of Jesus and the apostles “Repent! Feel sorry for your sins!”? Or was it “Metanoia! Think a new way!”? Do you see what a difference these two words make?
John’s baptism, we read in our Bibles, was a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” We think then, that the people were sorry for their sins and afraid of God’s judgment.
But that isn’t what it says. John’s baptism was a “baptism of metanoia.”
It was a baptism signaling, heralding the transformation of life that was to come. Those who were baptized signaled their desire to enter into the new way that this wilderness prophet was heralding.
John’s baptism was for the “sending away” of sins—“the natural effect is to set the soul free from the bondage of the disposition to sin.” (p 49)
When metanoia becomes a reality in the life, sins are sent away. They no longer have power over us.
And now the difficulties with “Why would Jesus receive a baptism that was all about being sorry for sins?” falls away. That wasn’t what it was about at all.
The baptism of Jesus was about this transformation of life that Jesus would also be calling His listeners to—and not only would be calling them to, but would provide.
The Great Commission
Luke 24:47 says, in typical translations, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins shall be proclaimed in His Name.”
But like John’s baptism it really says something so much bigger.
“And Metanoia unto the sending away of sins shall be proclaimed in His Name.”
Listen. Do you have ears to hear?
Paul’s Preaching to the Gentiles
Paul said about the people he preached to that he “declared . . . that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).
Do you immediately think “they should be sorry for their sins” and “they should do deeds that show they’re truly sorry”?
In fact, “repentance” as penitence, always has sin in view. But there is no “repentance from sins” in the Scripture.
Instead, you can read it this way: Paul “declared that they should come to their senses, receive a whole new way of thinking and being, and then produce the fruit that comes from such a transformation.”
THIS is in line with what we know about the Christian life. It is not simply a cycle of sin, repent, try harder, sin, repent, try harder, which is what is preached in so many churches.
Metanoia has in view the mind and understanding, the spiritual eyes, the heart, the life. Yes, sin will be gotten out of the way so we can see, know, and experience our Lord Jesus and His power in our lives. But when there is a new awareness, a new experience, a person’s life will change without striving.
Open my eyes, O Lord. Metanoia.
You’ve Seen the Lack
You have perhaps seen some of these things in the church you came from. You may not have grasped—as I certainly didn’t—how much the import of the word repentance, as substituted for metanoia, played a part.
Listen to what Walden says about the churches of his day, still so true over 125 years later (pp 21-23).
Despite himself, the reader hears the “Repent ye!” of John the Baptist and of the Saviour, like a cry, a note of danger, full of terror, amid which the hearts of the people stood still, instead of what it really was, the invocation of a mind, heart, and life which should befit such a glad and glorious “change” as the kingdom of heaven on earth. . . .
This supposed appeal to the impenitent nature only has been taken up as the burden of all preaching, all spiritual counsel; an appeal in their hands often wrought up with terrific penal imagery; and then the fright which has ensued and its consequences have been accepted as the change of heart. . . .
There is a tendency to regard an emotional condition, a general passion of religious feeling, however induced, as the seat of efficacy with God, and as the only safe and promising state in which to being and continue the Christian life.
Fear has no genuine ethical power. Sorrow has no sure ethical consequence. Excitement of any kind can bear, of itself, no ethical fruit. . . .
You See the Possibility of Abundance
Since Jesus cried out, in effect, “Come to your senses! Change your understanding! You blind eyes, see! You deaf ears, hear!” then can we see that this metanoia is far bigger than only being sorry for our sins?
If you came out of abuse of any kind, you may have longed for your abuser(s) to “repent”—to be sorry for their sins.
And at the same time you may feel frustration that the “repentance” you want to see is too easy to fake in the short term.
But even when you need to walk away from hard-hearted imposters, the metanoia that Jesus talked about and that the apostles talked about—we can desire to embrace that personally.
In fact, if you grew up in a rule-centered church, an authority-driven church, a penitence-oriented church, you may be longing for something more. Maybe you want to cry out for metanoia too.
Though I didn’t fully understand this concept of metanoia and how much greater it is than “repentance,” through the years I did cry out for the Lord to open my eyes and help me know Him. Through the years, through a series of epiphanies (several of which I’ve written about), He has done that, and He continues to do that. Sometimes that has included sorrow over my sin. Sometimes it has not.
“Lord, I want to really know You. Give me the changing of the mind, the opening of the understanding.”
Grant me metanoia.
When the metanoia of God happens within us, then the dream goal of being fully satisfied with Him is accomplished within us. So many of the teachings of the gospels and the epistles will be filled with new and deeper meaning.
Our understanding of the entire New Testament—the unfolding of the New Covenant in which we live—will be transformed when we understand what Jesus was crying out when He called out, “Metanoia!”
It can be a journey, yes. Especially if we’re unlearning what has been engrained for decades. But we can anticipate that eventually we will fully understand with Paul what he joyfully proclaimed so many places in the New Testament, like this one in 2 Corinthians 4:6.
“God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”