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What does repentance mean?

A road in Portugal turns back in the other direction. Image by David Mark, courtesy of Pixabay.​
A road in Portugal turns back in the other direction. Image by David Mark, courtesy of Pixabay.​

The biblical meaning of the Hebrew verb to repent, shuv (שׁוּב), is “to turn and go a different direction.” In Greek, this term was rendered metanoiein, meaning to change one’s mindset. The selection of this verb in Greek revealed a fundamental difference between Hebrew and Greek culture and language. For the ancient Hebrews, life was experienced and filtered primarily through the actions and senses of the body. In Greek culture and language, life was experienced and filtered primarily through the perceptions of the mind. The Greek understanding of “changing one’s mindset” was parallel to the Hebrew idea of a physical “turning.”

Both convey what today we might speak of as “making a 180.” You were heading one direction. Now you are heading another. You had one set of ideas. Now you drop those and take on these. You had one preferred approach. Now you let it go and take up this one instead. That’s repentance.

It’s important to get this concept right, important enough that the first words of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, what many would consider the first “trumpet blast” of the Protestant Reformation, are about repentance. Why? Because many Latin translations had used poenitentiam agere — to do penance — instead of something closer to the original Greek or Hebrew ideas. Our English word “repent” comes from the Latin words, poenitentiam, penance, and its root, poena, punishment. The Latin translation suggested that repentance was about carrying out the requirements of the punishment earned because you had sinned and showing that you were serious about accepting the responsibility to make things right.

Not so, said Luther. The call to repent wasn’t simply to mend what you broke or endure some punishment because you broke it. Luther’s reading was much closer to the Greek — an “inward repentance,” a “change of mindset” that should result in a change in behavior. For Luther, repentance is fundamentally about turning back to God.

Nor is repentance merely feeling bad about what we have done wrong, or even apologizing (saying we are sorry) for what we have done wrong. Those are part of repentance. But they are not themselves repentance. Repentance requires readiness and commitment to change.

Repentance is hard. Becoming aware of the need to repent challenges our view of ourselves, how we see and interact with the world around us, and how others see us. Often when we think we’ve turned from sin, we find ourselves falling into our old ways or into other sinful ways instead. 

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When God shows us where we have sinned, we have the opportunity to confess (acknowledge the wrong), make things right as we are able, and allow God to give us the power to change and walk in the way God wants us to go.

Charles Wesley expressed this beautifully in his hymn Depth of Mercy,

   “Now incline me to repent,
    let me now my sins lament,
    now my foul revolt deplore,
    weep, believe, and sin no more.”

Learning how to repent — turning around, changing our mindset, and then living differently — is an ongoing, lifelong process. We trust that God’s grace can free us from sin and for lives of love toward God and every neighbor. So difficult as repentance is, we know we are given what we need to learn it.

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