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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Repentance

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Repentance (μετάνοια) is one of two words used in the NT, both of which originally denoted a change of mind of any sort. It is so used, though only occasionally, in Thucydides, Plato, Polybius, etc., and the phrase locus paenitentiae (‘opportunity for a change of mind’; cf. τόπον μετανοίας, Wisdom of Solomon 12:10 and Hebrews 12:17, both with a deeper religious meaning-for the latter passage see B. F. Westcott, Hebrews 1889, in loc.) is found in the Roman jurists. μετανοεῖν is common in the Septuagint ; there, with παρακληθῆναι (cf. the use of ἵλεως), it denotes change of mind or attitude, both in man and in God, as the translation of רחם (Niph), whose causative mood is used for bringing about the special change from sorrow to ease (e.g. Genesis 6:7, Exodus 32:12; Exodus 32:14, 1 Chronicles 21:15, Joel 2:13, 1 Samuel 15:29 [cf. 1 Samuel 15:11]). The noun is very rare in the Septuagint , occurring only in Proverbs 14:15, Wisdom of Solomon 11:23; Wisdom of Solomon 12:10; Wisdom of Solomon 12:19, and Sirach 44:16 (Ἐνὼχὑπόδειγμα μετανοίας). In the NT, a differentiation takes place: μεταμέλομαι (which is also found in a few passages in the classics) is used for a general change of attitude or purpose (Matthew 21:30; Matthew 27:3 and Hebrews 7:21, a quotation from Psalms 110:4, the only reference to a change of mind in God in the NT, though cf. 2 Corinthians 7:8); μετάνοια, and μετανοεῖν are used of a religious change of attitude to God and to sin, often occurring in the phrase μετάνοια ἀπὸ or ἐκ. No such idea is found in classical Greek literature. It is commoner in Acts than in any other book of the NT. The earliest Christian preaching, as there described, involved the announcement of Jesus as the Messiah and the simple call for repentance in view of His near return (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; Acts 8:22; Acts 20:21). This is equally true of the sermons of the original apostles and of St. Paul; in Acts 17:30, St. Paul tells the Athenians that God is summoning all to repentance, using the same phrase-ἀπαγγέλλειν μετανοεῖν-as he uses of his own action in Acts 26:20. In essence, this is identical with the preaching of the Baptist (Acts 13:24; Acts 19:4; cf. Matthew 3:2 and ||s), except that the Baptist spoke of Jesus as coming, and of the Kingdom, or the Messiah, as at hand, while the apostles referred to Jesus as already come. How repentance is to be brought about is not stated. The imperative mood implies an act of human will, possible for all to whom the call comes. On the other hand, the apostles speak of Jesus as having been exalted by God as Captain and Saviour, to give repentance unto Israel, and remission of sins (Acts 5:31); and the Christians in Jerusalem, hearing of the conversion of Cornelius, exclaim, ‘Why, God has given repentance to the Gentiles’ (Acts 11:18; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 12:19). There is probably here no contradiction, thought, if such existed, it might easily have been overlooked by the early preachers. Man could not be thought of as forced into repentance independently of his own will; but repentance is none the leas made possible only through a dispensation of God’s grace (cf. article Atonement, and 2 Peter 3:9, where the Lord is said to will that all men should come to repentance). As in the preaching of the Baptist (Matthew 3:2 and ||s), repentance is expected to manifest itself in conduct (Acts 26:20).

The above passages show that repentance was an integral part of St. Paul’s preaching; but references to repentance in the Pauline Epistles are very rare, though of great interest. The kindness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4; a strikingly similar thought is also found in Ezekiel 36:29 ff., though in Ezekiel 6:9 the impulse to repentance is attributed to a different cause; cf. the interesting passage Wisdom of Solomon 12:22-27). The forbearance and mildness characteristic of the servant of God may lead to God’s giving repentance to those who experience such treatment (2 Timothy 2:25). In each case, the simple conception of Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18, that repentance is an attitude induced or made possible by God, is at once elaborated and modified. There is. no explicit reference here to the work of Christ; but, as in Ezekiel, the experience of blessings felt to be unmerited, or the shock of unmerited forbearance from Christian people, brings about a change of mind towards sin and God. With the foregoing, we may compare the simple statement in Clem. Rom. (Ep. ad Cor. i. 7) that from generation to generation the Master has given opportunity for repentance to those who wish to turn to Him.

How is this wish caused? Hitherto, we have met no reference in the NT to the ‘godly sorrow’ for sin emphasized by Ezekiel. In converts from heathenism there might be fear at a threatened catastrophe (cf. the Philippian jailer) but not sorrow. In one passage, however, St. Paul is led to develop very clearly the influence of sorrow for sin on believers. He is referring to the effect of his previous sharp rebuke on the Corinthian Church, which hitherto had refused to mourn for the presence of sin within its borders (1 Corinthians 5:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26). He does not now regret (μεταμέλεσθαι not μετανοεῖν in this case) the pain he had caused them, since this pain was experienced in the way of God (κατὰ θεόν) rather than in the way of the world, and this worked not death (cf. the young man‘s sorrow in Matthew 19:22) but repentance, arousing in them indignation, fear, longing, and a passionate desire to set themselves right. The result of such sorrow in the community is seen in the punishment inficted on the guilty member; and once this has brought repentance to him also, he must be comforted by his fellow-believers, lest he be overwhelmed by his pain. If, on the other hand, this punishment is ineffectual, more drastic treatment from the Apostle will be needed (2 Corinthians 13:2). At the same time, he knows that the sin of his converts and friends will cause a deep sorrow, a ‘vicarious repentance,’ in him (2 Corinthians 12:21, cf. Jeremiah 8:18 ff.).

One passage, denying the possibility of repentance to those who fall away after illumination (Hebrews 6:6; cf. Hebrews 12:17) has occasioned great difficulty to interpreters. With the theological questions raised by the verse we have no concern here; repentance, however, is evidently used in its largest sense of an entire change of attitude, and the writer’s meaning is that when a man has definitely relinquished the fullest spiritual privileges, it is impossible (for human agency) to enter on a process of making him anew (the expressions and the tenses used are noteworthy). Apart from this passage, however, the possibility that repentance may be for some men unattainable is never hinted at. Repentance in believers has a prominent place in the messages to the Seven Churches. There, it is expected that repentance will follow from the accusation and conviction of sin. If not, a sudden punishment in each case is to fall on both the guilty church and the sinners harboured in it (Revelation 2:5; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 2:21; Revelation 3:3, etc.). In the Apostolic Fathers, explicit references to this repentance are lacking. Even the letters of Ignatius, though addressed to churches with whom their writer bad considerable fault to find, say nothing definite on the subject. Hermas is aware that this sorrow may be a blessing; but he is more concerned to point out that, in general, sorrow may distress the Spirit which dwells in the Christian (Mand. X. iii. 1, 2), In the Apostolic Age, indeed, it would seem that Christians were so eager to enter into the new joy, that they would not stay to contemplate sorrow (Acts 2:46, Ephesians 1:3; if they groaned, it was for a fuller illumination, Romans 8:23). This frame of mind finds constant expression in the Odes of Solomon; in almost the only place where repentance and sorrow might have occurred to the writer (xxxiii., Christ’s preaching in Hades), they are tin unmentioned. As for the heathen, their sins had been overlooked (Acts 17:30). Divine punishments for sin might well bring sorrow to the evildcer (James 5:1, Revelation 9:20-21; Revelation 16:9; Revelation 16:11 where the most drastic treatment meted out to the sinners in the world before the Parousia fails to produce repentance); but such sufferings as come to the Christian are lifted up into the rapture of communion with Christ (Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 4:13).

These considerations may be thought hardly sufficient to explain the comparative silence of St. Paul. It may be added that he was writing for believers, in whom repentance was an accomplished fact, his chief concern being to lead them on to religion conceptions and levels of conduct of whose significance they could not have been aware when they first turned from dead works. Further, he does not lay great emphasis on the original and simple change of attitude in his converts. He rather analyzes what would seem to have been his own experience of it: the crushing weight of law; the emergence of desire: the resultant sense of helplessness; and the deliverance wrought by the grace of God (Romans 7:24; cf. I. A. Dorner, System of Christian Ethics, Eng. translation , 1887, p. 364; the wretchedness to which St. Paul here refers is not sorrow for sin, but the resulting sense of being torn in two); or else he describes its immediate consequences, in relation to Christ, under the figures of death and resurrection (Colossians 2:20). Similarly, no reference is made to repentance in the Johannine Epistles or the Fourth Gospel. Its place is taken by the figures of the new birth (John 3:3; cf. also 1 Peter 1:23) or the passage from darkness to light (John 8:12, 1 John 2:8), which are equally applicable to repentance and conversion.

For this comparative neglect in the NT a psychological reason may perhaps be suggested. Repentance and conversion, unless either is imperfect, must go together. They are two sides of the same process. In repentance, however, the emotional side of the process is more prominent; but it is questionable whether a past emotion is ever recalled. The memory of its occurrence can of course be retained, and an appropriate stimulus may arouse a similar emotion. But it may be that such a stimulus never occurs. This would be the case with the normal Christian. Sorrow for sin becomes as much a thing of the past as sin itself. The emotions associated with repentance are only memories, and the forward look (Philippians 3:13, Hebrews 12:1) and the preoccupation of the mind with the things of the Kingdom (Philippians 4:8) will prevent any morbid dwelling on an experience which can only be temporary and ought to be short-lived, just as, by these means, any desire for a formal analysis of a past psychosis will be removed. St. Peter never refers, save by way of allusion, to his own repentance; and the long description of the stages previous to repentance and conversion in Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding would seem to be foreign to the spirit of the NT writers. They prefer to dilate on the consequences of the process (1 Corinthians 6:11, Titus 3:5).

The same absence of interest in abstract analysis explains the silence of the NT on the question of the relative parts played by man and God in repentance. The attitude of the NT writers is rather that of the normal believer, who knows that his attitude of mind changed (see above), and that he once willed a very different set of actions, while he is equally sure that this change could never have happened apart from the grace of God (Romans 11:33). The argument in Romans 9:14-18 is not intended to prove that God arbitrarily grants repentance to some and withholds it from others (cf. the catalogue of warnings given to Israel, Romans 10); but only that if God’s favours are withheld, God cannot rightly be blamed (see Sanday-Headlam, International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, 1902, p. 248 ff.). On the other hand, with regard to the ethical consequences of repentance, there is no ambiguity whatever: a fact which is the more remarkable since the belief in the near approach of the Parousia might have been expected to lead to an ‘Interimsethik,’ or, as some of the Thessalonian converts believed, to no ethies at all (1 Thessalonians 5:7, 2 Thessalonians 3:11). The same thing may be seen clearly in the Epistle of Barnabas, in which the apocalyptic section is followed immediately by the transcription of the ‘Two Ways.’ (See Schweitzer, Geschichte der paulinischen Forschung, 1911, who points out that the same stress on the importance of ethies in the descriptions of the coming world after the Parousia effectually distinguishes Jewish and Christian from pagan eschatology.)

But in truth, no multiplied references to repentance were necessary. No Christian could forget the new light in which he had come to look upon his past life (the paganism around him would make this impossible), nor the act of loving self-surrender to a new personal influence which accompanied it (Acts 20:21; cf. Mark 1:15, Hebrews 6:1); and, though he might fail to display at the first all the graces of a mature Christian character (Ephesians 4:28), he knew that repentance and faith together had wrought a real deliverance for him (1 Peter 4:3); and if he had felt less sorrow at the time than we might have expected for sins which hitherto he had not thought of as sins, he now regarded them with the more loathing and contempt.

Literature.-R. J. Drummond, Relation of the Apostolic Teaching to the Teaching of Christ, Edinburgh, 1900; H. H. Henson, Moral Discipline in the Christian Church, London, 1905, esp. ch. iv.; R. J. Knowling, The Testimony of St. Paul to Christ, do., 1905; H. Weinel, St. Paul: The Man and His Work, Eng. translation , do., 1906; W. P. DuBose, The Gospel according to St. Paul, do., 1907; R. Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, do., 1912; W. M. Macgregor, Christian Freedom, Edinburgh, 1914.

W. F. Lofthouse.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Repentance'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/r/repentance.html. 1906-1918.

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