A Series on the Repentance
1. What does the term repent mean according to the NT? Does it refer to turning from
one's sins? If so, are all sins or only major sins in view? Or, does it mean a willingness to
forsake one's sins--or even something else again?
The NT Words in Question
There are two NT Greek words which are translated repentance in modern English
translations: metanoia (and its verbal counterpart metanoeo) and metamelomai. The
former term is so translated fifty-eight times in the NT; the latter only six times. The much wider use
of metanoia has led me to give it greater attention in this article.
The Pre-Christian Meaning of Metanoia
In Classical Greek metanoia meant changing one's mind about someone or something.
For example, Thucydides used the term when writing about the response of the Athenian council to a revolt.
The council decided that all of the men of the city of Mytilene were to be put to death--not merely those
who participated in the revolt. However, on "the next day a change of heart came over them."
(1) The Athenian council changed its mind. It decided that only those
who participated in the rebellion should be put to death.
Another example is found in Xenophon's use of our term. He wrote:
We were inclined to conclude that for man, as he is constituted, it is easier to
rule over any and all other creatures than to rule over men. But when we reflected that there was one
Cyrus, the Persian, who reduced to obedience a vast number of men and cities and nations, we were
then compelled to change our opinions and decide that to rule men might be a task neither impossible
nor even difficult, if one should only go about it in an intelligent manner. (2)
During the pre- and early Christian period of Koine Greek (ca. 300 BC-100 AD)
metanoia continued to carry the sense of a change of mind about someone or something. For
example, Polybius (ca. 208-126 BC) used metanoia to refer to the Dardani, a people who had
decided to attack Macedonia while Philip was away with his army. However, Philip caught wind of it
and returned quickly. Even though the Dardani were close to Macedonia, when they heard that Philip
was coming, they changed their minds. They broke off the attack before it even began.
Similarly, Plutarch, who lived and wrote in the late first and early second century
"Cypselus, the father of Periander… when he was a new-born babe, smiled at
the men who had been sent to make away with him, and they turned away. And when again they changed
their minds, they sought for him and found him not, for he had been put away in a chest by his
Notice that in all of the cases cited the individual or people in view had thought
one thing or made one decision and then, based on further evidence or input, changed their minds.
Thompson suggests that two other nuances emerge during this period: change of purpose
and regret. (5) However, the evidence does nor substantiate her
claim. On both counts she is guilty of "illegitimate totality transfer," that is, the
unwarranted transfer of the meaning of a phrase containing a given word to that word when it stands
alone. She fails to show any examples where either metanoia or its verbal counterpart was
used absolutely in the senses which she suggests. Rather, it is other words in the context which
indicate that the change of mind in question concerned sinful practices or was accompanied by grief
Metanoia and metanoeo occur twenty times in the canonical books of
the Greek OT (Septuagint) and seven times in the apocryphal books. They retain the meaning of a change
of mind about someone or something in the LXX. (6) The following
examples are representative.
When the Lord decided to take the kingdom from King Saul He instructed Samuel to say, "He
will not turn nor change His mind, for He is not as a man that He should change His mind" (I Sam [1 Kingdoms
in the Septuagint] 15:29; translation mine).
Likewise, Prov 20:25 speaks of how
foolish it is for a man to rashly promise to give something to the Lord, because after such a hasty vow the
man may come to change his mind.
Similarly, the Ninevites believed in the Lord and turned from their sinful ways in the
hopes that the Lord might change His mind and not destroy them and their city
From a human perspective God did indeed change His mind and withhold the judgment He had planned.
Behm disagrees. He argues that metanoeo in the Greek OT "approximates"
shûb of the Hebrew OT. (8) However, I believe he fails to prove
his point. The term shûb was used 1,056 times in the Hebrew text. None of those occurrences is translated
by metanoeo in the Greek OT. Not one. This is inexplicable if the translators of the LXX felt
that metanoeo was a good translation of shûb. Rather, the translators routinely used strepho
and its various compound forms to translate shûb.
In the OT pseudepigrapha metanoia and metanoeo nearly always occur
in contexts dealing with the need to abandon sinful practices in order to escape God's judgment.
Behm concludes from this that metanoia had thus come to refer to turning from sins. He too,
however, is guilty of illegitimate totality transfer. Metanoia did not come, by itself, to
refer to a turning from one's sins. Rather, words in the context inform the reader that the change
of mind in view would include a resolution to cease the sinful practices mentioned.
In summary, the pre-Christian meaning of metanoia was a change of mind
about someone or something. When the context specifically mentions sinful practices about which one
was changing his or her mind, the translation "repentance" is acceptable.
The History of NT Translations of Metanoia
The Old Latin
The Latin Fathers translated metanoia as paenitentia, which came
to mean "penance" or "acts of penance." They felt that in order to obtain eternal
salvation men had to perform righteous acts of penance as prescribed by one's confessor priest.
The Latin Vulgate
Jerome established this Old Latin translation as authoritative when he retained
paenitentia as the translation of metanoia. The system of penance became an established
pathway whereby one hoped to obtain grace.
Early English Versions
John Wycliffe, "the Morning Star of the Reformation," pioneered the
first complete English Bible in the late 1300's. Unfortunately his work was not based on the original
Greek and Hebrew, but was a very literal translation of the Vulgate. Hence we should not be surprised
that he translated the Latin agite paenitentiam as "do penance." This was adopted
in 1609-1610 in the Roman Catholic Douay Version.
William Tyndale produced the first printed English NT in 1526. He used repent and
repentance for metanoia and metanoeo, a great improvement over "do penance,"
but still misleading in many contexts.
Later English versions, including the Authorized or King James Version of 1611,
were deeply indebted to Tyndale's phraseology, including his repent and repentance.
Repentance as a translation seems to keep the idea that one must turn from his
sinful deeds to obtain God's favor. However, it eliminates the notion that, in addition, one must
confess his sins to a priest and do prescribed good works before he can obtain (or regain) grace.
Modern translators also generally translate metanoia as repentance. While this is an
improvement over the Latin translation "penance," it is in most cases, as we shall now see, a poor reflection
of its meaning in the NT.
2. What is the meaning of Metanoia in the New Testament? Use a lexicon.
Basic Sense: Change of Mind
The pre-Christian meaning of metanoia as a change of mind is its basic NT sense as
well. This can readily be seen in Heb 12:17 which reads:
"For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit a blessing, he [Esau] was rejected, for he found no
place for metanoia, though he sought it diligently with tears." What was it that Esau could not find?
It was not a turning from sinful behavior. It was not penance. What he could not find was a way to change
his father's mind. The matter was settled. No matter how much he pleaded, he couldn't change Isaac's
All NT uses include the sense of a change of mind present. However, if the context
clearly indicates what one is changing his mind about, it could be that a more polished English
translation can be found. For instance, if one is to change his mind about his sinful deeds, the
term repentance conveys that thought nicely.
There are four specialized types of uses of metanoia in the NT. We will
now consider these.
A Synonym for Eternal Salvation
In a few passages metanoia is used via metonymy as a synonym for eternal salvation.
These cases involve a metonymy of cause for the effect. The cause is a change of mind about Christ and His Gospel.
The effect is eternal salvation. Thus when we read in 2 Pet 3:9,
"The Lord is… not willing that any should perish but that all should come to metanoia," the
idea is the same as 1 Tim 2:4, "[God] desires all men to be
Luke 5:32 illustrates this same usage: "I
have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to metanoia." That is, Jesus is affirming that He didn't
come to call those who think that they are righteous, but those who know themselves to be sinners, to salvation.
Metanoia is used as a synonym for eternal salvation.
A Change of Mind Regarding Sinful Behavior = Repentance
On some occasions metanoia is used in contexts where the change of mind in view is
clearly indicated as having to do with one's sinful practices. For example, in
Jesus taught the disciples that they were to forgive all who sinned against them if they came and indicated that
they had changed their minds regarding their sin. In this case and others like it "repentance" would be a good
translation choice. We are to forgive anyone who sins against us and then repents.
It is important to note, that eternal salvation is never conditioned upon changing one's mind
about (i.e., repenting concerning) his sinful practices.
A Change of Mind Regarding Self and Christ
Many NT passages use metanoia in contexts where what one is to change his mind about
is himself and Christ. For example, in
Acts 2:38, after having indicted his Jewish audience for
crucifying their Messiah and in response to their question "What shall we do?" Peter called them to change their
minds about Jesus Christ. They had rejected Him. Now they could accept Him. They were to believe that He is the
Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. Such a mindset includes a recognition that one is a sinner in need
of the Savior. Self-righteousness is clearly antithetical to faith
(cf. Luke 18:9-14).
In this use metanoia occurs as a virtual synonym for pistis (faith).
A Change of Mind Regarding Idols and God
In one passage the object of metanoia is stated as idols and God
(Acts 17:29-31). Paul told the Athenian philosophers that God
raised Jesus Christ from the dead and that He would be coming back to earth as Judge. He told his listeners that
in order to escape eternal condemnation they had to change their minds about their idols and about God and the
Man whom He had sent and would send again. They had to transfer their faith from their idols to God the Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Metanoia is used in the NT in a number of different ways, all of which
have the idea of a change of mind at the root. In a few contexts it is used via metonymy as a synonym
for eternal salvation. When it is used in contexts dealing with temporal salvation from life's
difficulties, a change of mind about one's sinful ways (i.e., repentance) is given as the condition.
However, when used in contexts dealing with eternal salvation from hell, a change of mind about oneself
and Christ (or, in one passage, regarding idols and God) is given as the condition. In such contexts
metanoia is used as a synonym for faith.
3. Using the lexicon again, what is the meaning of Metamelomai in the New Testament?
The basic meaning of metamelomai is "to feel regret." In
2 Cor 7:9 Paul indicates that he no longer regretted sending
them a letter which made them sorry, though at first he did regret sending it.
Regret usually carries with it the idea of a change of mind. In
Matt 21:29 Jesus told the Parable of the Two Sons. Both were
told to go work in the vineyard. One said he would not, but later changed his mind (or regretted his decision)
and went. The other said that he would go, but did not.
After betraying Christ, Judas regretted what he had done, gave back his blood money, and
hanged himself (Matt 27:3). Judas "repented" in this sense;
or more precisely, he "was remorseful" (NKJV). Yet he did not come to faith in Christ. He never changed his mind
about Christ being His Savior. He rejected Him to his death.
While it is commonly translated in that way, there are no uses of metamelomai in the
NT where "repentance" is a good translation. It always refers to regret, remorse, or to a change of mind. It
never refers to turning from one's sins.
4. Examine the meaning of strepho and the compound words using strepho.
While they are never translated as "repentance," the compounds of strepho in some
contexts carry the idea of turning from sins. The basic sense of these compounds is turning from or to someone
or something. These compounds are the true corresponding terms to the OT word shûb.
"Turning to the Lord" is used in the NT, as it was in the OT, as an expression for faith
and conversion. (9) When Paul reported in
Acts 15:3 that Gentiles were turning to the Lord, he was
simply saying that Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ, were being saved.
Nowhere in the NT are these verbs used to indicate that one must turn from his sins to
obtain eternal salvation.
The word repent has a well-defined meaning in English; however, not all who use it mean the normal
dictionary definition. Some mean merely a recognition of one's sinfulness. Others mean a change of
thinking about Jesus Christ. Still others mean turning from one's sins, a willingness to do so, or
a sense of remorse over one's sins.
If we could retranslate the NT, it would make it easier to understand the passages using metanoia.
It would eliminate the confusion many have when they read their Bibles and see the word repent. However,
this is not likely to happen. It seems that "repentance" as a translation for metanoia
(and metamelomai) will probably be with us for a long time.
In most cases when the English word repent occurs in the NT, it is translating metanoia. Metanoia
is not the equivalent of the OT term shûb. It certainly does not mean "penance." Nor
does it normally mean "repentance." Rather, in the NT it retains its pre-Christian meaning
of a change of mind. The English reader thus generally needs to read "change of mind"--not
turn from sins--when he sees the word "repent" in the NT. The context must be consulted to
determine the object of a person's change of mind.
The only times repent is actually a good English translation is when the object of metanoia
is sinful deeds. A change of mind about sinful behavior is equivalent to repentance.
Nearly a century ago, in The Great Meaning of Metanoia, Treadwell Walden decried the Latin
and English translations of metanoia as being "extraordinary mistranslations."
(10) I would agree.
1. Thucydides, Thurydides 3. 36. 4. Compare 3. 37. 1. Author's translation, emphasis
2. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1. 1. 3. Translation by Walter Miller, Loeb Classical Library,
3. Polyblus The Histories 4. 66. 7.
4. Plutarch, Moralia 163 F. Translated by Frank Babbitt, Loeb Classical Library, emphasis
5. Effie Freeman Thompson, 'METANOEO' and 'ME TAMELEI' in Greek Literature Until
100 AD., Including a Discussion of Their Hebrew Equivalents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 14.
6. Cf. 1 Sam 15:29; Prov 14:15; 20:25 (19); 24:24 (29:27), 47 (32); Isa 46:8; Jer 4:28; 8:6; 18:8;
Joel 2:13, 14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9, 10; 4:2; Zech 8:14.
7. In a number of OT passages God is said to have changed His mind, relented, or repented of
calamities which He had planned to send. The Hebrew word used is naham. In each of these cases God did not
actually change His mind, relent, or repent. God is omniscient and thus nothing which happens ever takes Him by
surprise. The so-called "repentance of God" is actually a figure of speech known as an anthropomorphism. At times
the Scriptures speak to us as though God were a man. For example, we read of His strong arm (Exod 6:6; Ps 77: 15;
Jer 21:5), His hand (John 10:28-29), end the like, as figures of His might and ability to deliver us from difficulty
and protect us. So, too, from a human perspective it appears at times that God has changed His mind. In reality, He
knew all along what the final outcome would be. The change of mind is apparent, not actual. For further discussion
of this subject see H. Van Parunak, "The Repentance of God in the Old Testament," unpublished Th.M. thesis, Dallas
Theological Seminary, 1975, and "A Semantic Survey of NHM," Biblica 56 (1975): 512-32.
8. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "metanoeo metanoia, " by J. Behm, 4
9. E.g., Matt 13:15; Mark 4:12; Luke 1:16; John 12:40; Acts 9:35; 1 5:3; 28:27; 1 Pet 2:25.
10. Walden, The Great Meaning of Metanoia (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1896), p.24.