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The Historical Meaning of Repentance
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary provides the following definition of repentance:

repentance \ri-'pent-en(t)s\ n: the action or process of repenting esp. for misdeeds or moral shortcomings syn see PENITENCE

For many, Webster’s definition represents the common understanding of repentance within the structure of faith in God. Man’s action, taken to right a relationship with God, broken by sinfulness for which we do penance.

There are two New Testament Greek words which are translated repentance in modern English translations: metanoia (including its verbal counterpart metanoeo) and metamelomai. The first term is translated as repentance fifty-eight times in the New Testament, the latter only six times. As we look at repentance we’ll concentrate on the preponderance of the word, metanoia.

Prior to the Christian meaning we have inherited, which for the most part is similar to Webster’s definition, the Classical Greek metanoia meant something quite different—changing one’s mind or heart about someone or something. During the pre- and early Christian period of KoineÀ Greek (ca. 300 BC to 100 AD) metanoia continued to carry a sense of a change of mind about someone or something. In the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) metanoia and metanoeo occur twenty times in the canonical books and seven times in the apocryphal books and maintained the same meaning. In most cases metanoia in the translations held to the pre-Christian meaning of a change of mind about someone or something. When the context specifically mentions sinful practices about which a person was changing his or her mind about, the translation to repentance is also appropriate.

But this original meaning as seen in the Classical Greek began to see change. In the Old Latin and Latin Vulgate metanoia was translated 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 from the post-Apostolic Fathers like Hermas and Justin Martyr, through to Augustine, who unlike Hermas and Martyr believed that repentance was not the work of man, but a gift like grace. The post apostolic fathers looked for some sort of contrition for sin and the announcement of the same at the point of water baptism. But by the time of Augustine, infant baptism had become the norm. Post-baptismal repentance became the focus and themes like justification, regeneration and sanctification became popular. Repentance became almost synonymous with contrition, confession and penance.

During the Reformation, Calvin and Luther rejected the notion that post-baptismal sins could be atoned for by contrition, confession and acts of penance. It was their belief that all sins (past, present and future) were covered by the blood of Christ when the sinner was baptized so that penance wasn’t necessary. Calvin further believed that repentance continued through the life of the Christian and saw it as the fruit of faith.

Luther saw repentance beginning at the point of faith and believed it involved genuine sorrow for sins committed and the renunciation of all sinfulness. He wrote, “Repentance is not penitence alone but also faith, which apprehends the promise of forgiveness, lest the penitent sinners perish.” He connected repentance with faith and saw it as a lifelong process in Christians just like Calvin. It is exemplified in his thinking and writings, a sample of which says, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.”

The Reformation saw the new church fathers begin to go back to the Classical Greek. Both Luther and Calvin wished to remove the concept of penance from the meaning of repentance. They pointed instead at the root of the meaning of the word repentance: meta=after; noeo=to think. Put the two together and the effect of meta was “after the fact” or “afterwards.” In essence it meant to think about something later on and have a reversal of opinion about it. Thus, repentance meant “to change the mind.” Specifically—to change the mind about Christ.

In a letter to John Staupitz in defense of his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther may have have come closest to the New Testament meaning when he wrote that, “metanoia signifies a changing of the mind and heart, because it seemed to indicate not only a change of heart, but also a manner of changing it, i.e., the grace of God. For that ‘passing over of the mind,’ which is true repentance, is of very frequent mention in the scriptures.” Luther was onto something far different than the metanoia found in Webster’s.

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