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In Search of a Deeper Repentance

Repent_3I've never been all that satisfied with the explanations of "repentance" I grew up with.  Yes, metanoia means a change of mind; and yes, it carries the idea of turning around and going the opposite direction.  But is that all there is to repentance? It all seems a little too pedantic to me. Of course, growing up and seeing so many of my friends "repent" over and over at youth camp every year probably didn't help!  And in the holiness tradtion that I am part of, it was common for folks to repent and receive Christ whenever and as often as they felt the need.  I always appreciated their "heart" in this, but is that really what repentance is meant to look like?

Thanks to folks at the textweek blog, I came across a fascinating article written by Rabbi David R. Blumenthal.  In it, Dr. Blumenthal dismisses contemporary notions of repentance among Catholics and other Christians and then elucidates a rabbinical understanding that includes the following five elements:

  1. recognizing one's sins (an act of one's moral conscience)
  2. remorse (feelings of regret and of one's moral failure)
  3. desisting from sin (actually stopping, resisting future urges)
  4. restitution where possible (the act of making good)
  5. confession (specific, and often in context of community)

After offering a brief definition of each component, Dr. Blumenthal is very clear about the following:

The tradition is quite clear, however, that recognition of sin, remorse, restitution, and confession, if they are done without desisting from sin, do not constitute teshuvá [i.e. repentance]. Without ceasing one's sinful activity, one has only arrived at the "preliminaries to teshuva" (hirhuréi teshuvá). Actual desisting from sin is what counts.

This reminds me of Acts 26:20

First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. (NIV)

That doesn't sound very politically correct, does it? It would take a lot of gall to insist that someone "prove" that their repentance is genuine rather than just taking their word for it?   Besides, repentance is a personal matter anyway.  If I tell you I've repented, who are you to tell me otherwise?

It is precisely this sort of logic that should concern us. Why? Because we live in an age that generally rejects any sort of judgment which is aimed in our direction.  And when it comes to spiritual accountability, our individualistic nature normally claims personal autonomy rather than submitting to any notion of corporate responsibility.

That being what it may, responding to our sense of corporate responsibility and making heartfelt ammends alone cannot complete our understanding and practice of repentance.  And as helpful as Dr. Blumenthal's ideas are, something still seems to be missing.

Perhaps the insights of James D.G. Dunn point us in the right direction:

The meaning of the Greek, metanoeō/metanoia ('repent/repentance'), is not in dispute: 'to repent' is to change one's mind, often with an overtone of regret for the view previously held...But there is a general agreement that behind the usage of the Baptist  adn Jesus lies the much more radical Hebrew/Aramaic term šub/tub, 'to go back again, return'.  This was more effectively translated in the LXX by the Greek epistrephō, with the same meaning.  This enables us to recognize that the Baptist and Jesus were in effect calling for a 'return to the Lord', in echo of a constant refrain in their Scriptures, particularly the prophets. The Essenes in turn understood themselves to have entered 'the covenant of conversion (brit te šubâ)'.  The call expressed in the Greek term metanoeō therefore, would have initially been heard as a reiteration of the call of the prophets to turn back to God, that is, by implication, from a life in breach of God's commandments, from a social irresponsibility which should have been unacceptable in the people of Yahweh.  It's radical quality is indicated quite appropriately by rendering metanoeō as a call to 'convert', that is, for individuals to radically alter the manner and direction of their whole life, in its basic motivations, attitudes and objectives, for a society to radically reform its communal goals and values. (Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, vol. I, pp. 499-500).

Remorse and restitution, desisting and confessing -- these are certainly important.  But we must not stop there.  To do so would place too much focus on what we did/failed to do and what we must cease to do/begin to do. Our repentance needs to move deeper -- doesn't it? -- into our very relationship with God.

Repentance then, should move us (back to) a deeper relationship with God --  a relationship that is inherently transformative. Perhaps it is here that we finally experience repentance the way it was meant to be, repentance that brings about change which is both substantive and enduring; a much needed corrective to the quick-fix, cheap-grace variety of repentance we've witnessed far too much of.


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Your train of thought would also carry the idea from NT Wright of "drop your present agenda" right alongside "turn back to God".

Great post, Christ. One for The Ooze, or Next Wave, perhaps?


Initial thought Chris. "It is the goodness of God that leads to Repentance" Romans 2:4.

btw you get massive points for knowing the word metanoia, and using it in a sentence! Brilliant!

I'll be back




Excellent! I have felt this way for a while, disagreeing with what is popularly taught, but not sure as to what the alternative was. Thanks!

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