The idea of ‘repenting of sin’ causes us a bit of a problem nowadays. It causes us a problem in relation to those outside the Church as well as those inside the Church and faith. For those outside, there is a sense that Christians are ‘holier than thou’, and are telling them that they are ‘sinners’ whilst we are ‘righteous’, which feels like a put down. And there are wider questions about whether the language of ‘sin’ communicates anything at all; it is not a category that ordinary people understand.
But there is a problem for those on the inside too. Last week at New Wine, Danielle Strickland suggested that we need to recover a sense of God’s creation and blessing of us, rather than continually dwelling on our sinfulness. Some might have heard in this echoes of Matthew Fox’s ‘original blessing’, but others welcomed it; a well-respected evangelical leader said to me ‘We need to get away from our obsession with Augustine on this!’
Part of this question relates to different understandings of atonement, and whether (for example) we should understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as dealing with the problem of human sin and God’s wrath, or whether (as I believe) there is a range of different ways of understanding this. But there is a much more straightforward issue to consider: the question of Jesus’ own language in relation to his announcement of the kingdom of God.
There is no doubt that the coming of God’s kingdom means the inversion of current structures of power and the dethroning of the rich and powerful, as Mary in the Magnificat eloquently expresses in Luke 1.46–55. This contradicts many human expectations, and is expressed by Jesus in the saying that ‘The first will be last, and the last first’ (Matt 19.30, 20.16 and elsewhere).
But centre of Jesus’ teaching is the proclamation of the kingdom—even the most sceptical NT scholar has agreed that his teaching in Mark 1.15 belongs to the historical core of what Jesus said and taught. And the announcement come with the invitation not just to receive good news, but also to ‘repent’. The background to this language is the idea of God’s coming in the OT, and in particular the idea that develops of the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’. But this idea is distinctly ambiguous. On the one hand it will involve the deliverance of Israel from its enemies who will be judged by God (Is 2.12, an idea which we also find in Luke 1.71), but also accountability of Israel to her holy God (Amos 5.18). The visitation of God is consistently associated with the purification of his people as well as with their vindication.
It is hardly surprising, then, that John the Baptist’s announcement of the coming kingdom is expressed in the language of judgement, both in Matthew and in Luke. Some of the elements of judgement are not carried over into Jesus’ teaching (compare Jesus’ quotation in Luke 4.18–19 with the original in Isaiah 61.1–2), but the consistent feature of Jesus’ teaching is the inclusion of the language of ‘repentance.’ When I mention this in an online conversation a few days ago, a friend responded ‘Ah, but metanoia is a much richer idea than that.’ Is it? And what precisely does it mean?
I was recently pointed to Craig Keener’s helpful article on ‘Bible interpretation methods you should avoid‘ and it included this important observation:
One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies. That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated…
For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking. Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind. The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins! The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.
It was interesting to see the despair and anger in the comments online when this was posted; earnest clergy were cross that Craig’s comments were robbing them of well-used methods of word study in teaching and preaching, and he was accused of being ‘elitist’ in his restriction of how we are allowed to read the Bible! The challenge here is the question of how we ever know what words mean.
Many people will look to etymology—the origin of a word. But ‘nice’ originates in the Latin word for ‘foolish’, and that is not what we usually mean when we use the word. (The idea that the meaning of words is shaped by their origin is called the ‘genetic fallacy’). We might then look at surrounding culture—how was the word used in Greek and Roman culture? Metanoia is indeed used in the sense of ‘a change in thinking’ in Plato and Menander (according to the Liddell and Scott lexicon), but this was several hundred years earlier, and in a different context. Just think of how words are used differently in a church context from wider culture.
Keener puts his finger on a key question: how was this term used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (referred to as ‘LXX’). I have a print lexicon (Abbott Smith) which gives exactly this information: what Hebrew word does this Greek word translate. This is vital because of continuity between the OT and the NT, because the NT writers quote the OT so much, and because, when they do, they most often quote from the LXX rather than translating from the Hebrew—because it was the LXX which was most read by both Jesus followers and the diaspora Jewish community. And the verb metanoeo translates the Hebrew term shuv, which literally means ‘to turn around’ and is used in the way we would used the word ‘repentance‘.
Repentance, which literally means to turn, is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. It generally involves a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life.
The other issue that Keener raises is the use of the term in the NT, and reviewing this is sobering. If you do a word search, you will find that, far from being a ‘rich idea’ associated with ‘thinking again’, the verb and the noun metanoeo and metanoia are straightforwardly used in the sense of turning from sin in response to the invitation of God.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt 11.20)
And the consequences of failing to repent are judgement and death.
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish! (Luke 13.2–5)
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? I think not!
There are, of course, rich resources in the NT in relation to ‘thinking again’, not least Paul’s invitation to us to allow God to ‘renew our minds’ in Romans 12.2. And, crucially, grace is linked to repentance, in that it is only God’s grace which gives us the moment, the resources, and the opportunity to repent:
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2.4)
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self–controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2.11–12).
This does not immediately answer either the ‘inside’ nor the ‘outside’ questions in relation to sin that I started with. But when Jesus (and others) talking about ‘repentance’, they really do mean ‘turning from sin’ and turning to the invitation of God, rather than anything more sophisticated which we might find rather more congenial.
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