Because Church of the Open Door has historically embraced the gospel of Christ Paul taught, there is a rumor going around that we do not believe in repentance.
I usually try to keep these Tipping Points under 500 words, but this week’s the exception.
Answering the question, “What about repentance?” is critical to our spiritual life and our grasp of the so great salvation offered freely to all who believe.
Here are my notes that will be in the bulletin this Sunday:
Definition of Terms: Repentance
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
The letter to the Galatians is Paul’s response to an insidious attack on the central truth of Christianity—salvation by grace, through faith, plus nothing. It’s his most passionate letter, reminding the church of the real basis of our salvation.
Salvation is the grandest theme in the Scriptures. “The doctrine of salvation…embraces all of time as well as eternity past and future. It relates in one way or another to all of mankind, without exception. It even has ramifications in the sphere of the angels. It is the theme of both the Old and the New Testaments. It is personal, national, and cosmic. And it centers on the greatest Person, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, p 319)
Much of the debate and confusion about the doctrine of salvation could be avoided if we were more careful to define our terms. The word repentance is one of those terms we use assuming that everyone agrees to its meaning. I know there are differing views on its meaning, translation, and relationship to eternal salvation. But I feel usage, context, and an understanding of the history of this troublesome term should determine our definition of repentance:
Repentance is a change of “heart” that involves a turning to God!
The great need in discussing repentance is to think biblically.
I. The Problem With the Word: Repentance has become a religious word freighted with cultural definitions unmoored from the original meaning.
A. The Basic Meaning of the Word: The English word repentance translates the Greek word metanoia (verb = metanoew). This word is formed from two words, meta, which means after or change, and noew which means to think (a form of the word nous, or mind). Thus the resulting word suggests the meaning of after-thought or a change of mind. Many language scholars agree on this basic definition.
However, the word itself does not designate what is the object of the change of mind. That is left to the context. In biblical times, metanoia was used in common language for one changing his mind in a non-ethical sense about a variety of things. Thus repentance is a fluid term that leaves its final definition to the context. Much like the word dozen causes us to wonder, “a dozen what?” the word metanoia forces the question, “a change of mind about what?”
In the New Testament, we see examples of one changing his mind about a sinful attitude (Luke 18:9- 14), ineffectual works (Heb. 6:1), trust in pagan idols (Acts 17:30), or God Himself (Acts 20:21). Though it is most often associated with sin, sin is not always its object. In fact, in the King James Version of the Old Testament the English word repent translates a Hebrew term in reference to God repenting, showing that it does not automatically refer to sorrow for sin or turning from sin.
B. The Great Pollution of the Word: The English word repentance has its roots in the Latin word penitentia which denotes penitence as sorrow, or worse, the Catholic doctrine of penance, in which a person’s sins are absolved by a priest’s prescribed acts of punishment. Repentance should not be defined by these specific outward actions or sorrowful emotions. Metanoia may involve these outward actions and sorrowful emotions, but they’re not required.
C. The Root Fallacy: As early as the late second century, church father Tertullian argued that the meaning of “change of mind” is the best translation of metanoia. Even though the basic meaning of metanoia is “change of mind,” we need to avoid the error linguists call the root fallacy. By that we mean taking the two root words as the actual meaning of the word in usage.
Tracing the root meanings is very helpful towards, but not determinative of, final meaning. Still, a word’s origin is not arbitrary, but informative. Thus we cannot ignore the formation of metanoia, which gives us the basic definition a change of mind.
D. The One-Word Difficulty: English-speaking scholars have long complained that there is not a good single-word translation for metanoia. Greek expert A. T. Robertson remarked, “It is a linguistic and theological tragedy that we have to go on using ‘repentance’ for metanoia.”
E. The “Turn From Sin” Difficulty: One popular meaning of repentance today is “turning from sin.” I have two problems with that:
1. Linguistically: In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word shub (= to turn [from something] is primarily translated by the Greek term strephw (to turn) rather than metanoia.
Example: In Jonah 3.10 its the people of Nineveh who turned (shub/apostrephw in LXX) from their wicked way and God relented (niham/metanoew) from destroying them. See also Joel 2.12-13 has a similar usage.
2. Theologically: The overwhelming evidence for total depravity (irreparably perverted, adokimos—not standing the test, Romans 1:28) argues against sinful flesh’s capacity to turn from sin.
II. A Working Definition of Repentance: A change of mind/heart that involves a turning to God.
A. The biblical usage of mind (nous) often refers to the inner orientation and moral attitude. (Cf. Rom. 1:28; 7:23, 25; Eph. 4:17, 23; Col. 2:18) Thus the mind, biblically speaking, is not always the pure intellect. This brings a nuance to metanoia that I believe is best captured by what we would call a change of heart. It refers to a person’s inner change of attitude and moral direction. The Bible does not psychologically dissect the inner person, but leaves it at that.
B. The biblical usage of metanoia often involves a turning from something/someone to something someone. Primarily in Luke’s writings, there appears to be an overlap between faith and repentance (Mark 1:15, Luke 5:32; 24:47; Acts 11:18; 17:30, 34; 2 Peter 3:9). I prefer emphasizing the turning to God when speaking to unbelievers because that’s what an unregenerate person is capable of, though logically there is a turning from sin.
III. We Believe in Repentance: Though we would be more comfortable saying, “We believe in metanoia.” Rightly defined as “a change of mind/heart that involves a turning to God,” we believe in repentance.
A. In relation to unbelievers and eternal salvation, repentance is not a prior step or condition. Neither is repentance a second step that is necessary. Salvation is always through faith alone in Christ alone. Repentance, or more accurately, metanoia, is the more general concept, for a person can change his or her heart about something, even God or sin, but not be saved. But when someone one believes in Christ, the Holy Spirit persuades them of something they did not formerly believe. They have had a change of mind or heart about whom Jesus is and what He has promised about eternal life that causes them to turn to Him for deliverance (cf. Acts 20:21).
B. In relation to believers and deliverance from the power of sin, repentance is ongoing. Christian growth is always through faith in what God has said. Once again, there appears to be an overlap between faith and repentance. Since faith is being persuaded that something is true or someone is trustworthy, when we believe or trust, there is a change of mind and heart from unbelief to belief, from not trusting to trusting. Repentance, or more accurately, metanoia, is a change of heart that involves a turning to God in trust.