What is repentance, really?

Jesus cried out, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

A couple of years ago I posted on Facebook a question about the Greek word translated “repentance.” (It’s metanoia and its variants.) Yes, I admit, it took me a long time to get back to all the links and ideas people sent me, but here I am again, studying repentance.

It’s because three things happened at about the same time. First, I was praying for pastors and other Christian leaders (the ones who have treated and counseled sexual abuse victims as if they were pariahs) to repent about their wrongdoing. Second, I’ve been praying for revival for a long time, and in the context of that, having a discussion with a Christian leader about whether or not repentance is necessary for salvation. Third, I’ve been studying II Corinthians, where Paul talks about repentance in chapter 7.

I always used to hear repentance being taught as a change of mind. That very sterile, academic definition vaguely dissatisfied me. It seemed to accompany the academic, intellectual acceptance of Christ embodied in the “sinner’s prayer.”

But as I’ve been thinking and praying about the concept this past week, I’ve better understood why that definition is a problem. You know the (sexist) saying from our culture, “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind”? In this statement, it’s understood that the change of mind is completely capricious. “I think I’ll buy this frilly pink dress. No, I’m going to return this one and get that slim black one instead.”

Repentance is technically a change of mind from one choice to another, yes. But not capricious, and not between two things of roughly equal value. As my friend Heidi said to me, “It’s like choosing between a Thanksgiving feast and a maggoty carcass. Sure, I guess you make a choice, but once you see what it is, it’s really no choice at all.” Repenting is the change of mind that results in turning from a bad choice to a better choice, not because of caprice or even some logical, intellectual conclusion (“the frilly pink dress made me look fat”), but because you suddenly understand the truth about the two choices. You have come to your senses. Maybe you smack yourself on the forehead. Maybe you start crying. But the fact is that you understand something crucial that you didn’t use to understand.

The concept of “repenting of your sins because you’re headed for hell and you want to go to heaven” doesn’t match with this idea. (For one thing, “repenting of your sins” is nowhere in the Bible.) Really, the options you’re faced with are Self and Christ (because no one is actively choosing the biblical hell). With the eyes of the flesh, Self looks like the obvious choice. The eyes of faith, though, will result in the repentance that gasps, like the Prodigal Son, “What have I been doing? Look at this mess I’ve made of my life! Look at the maggoty carcass that I thought was a feast! Look at the true feast that’s available to me that I’ve been refusing!”

Biblical repentance will probably result in sorrow (or may even be preceded by sorrow, as II Corinthians 7 indicates). But that isn’t intrinsic in the meaning. Intrinsic in the meaning is that you “get” what you didn’t use to get, and so of course you take a different course of action, like the prodigal son. This is what the “true faith will result in action” teaching in James is all about.

Are you going to weep and wail that you’ve been picking through a maggoty carcass, and perhaps even thrusting it on others? Maybe, but that will look different for different people. What’s for sure is that you’ll turn from the carcass and toward the feast. You’ll call others to the feast. You’ll call them to come to their senses.

When I pray for repentance from the Christian leaders, I’m actually praying that they’ll come to their senses. When we discuss whether or not repentance is necessary for salvation, it seems to me that we’re actually asking, “Is it necessary to come to your senses in order to be truly saved?”

Maybe it would be better to ask, “Is coming to your senses one aspect of true salvation?” The answer seems as obvious as the choice between a Thanksgiving feast and a maggoty carcass.

Jesus cried out, “Come to your senses! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”