Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Great Meaning of Metanoia

Dear J---,

Your question about repentance is timely, as Brad, myself and several other brothers here in Logan have been discussing it at length. We recently discovered an outstanding little book on the subject written in the late 19th century, which you must get your hands on. It's called The Great Meaning of Metanoia by an Episcopalian minister named Treadwell Walden. He wrote it about a month after the Revised Version of the Bible was published, which was anticipated to be a corrective translation of the traditional English version (KJV). Unfortunately, the Revised Version left untouched the word "repentance", and Walden wrote to express his disappointment. Scholars who worked on the Revised Version and other New Testament professors wrote to Walden expressing their support of his position, admitting that the word "repentance" is a bad translation of "metanoia". Walden's original essay is brilliant and full of apostolic character. The book is out of print, but the University of California Library prints it on demand for somewhere between $15-$20 dollars (here). I think it is worth every penny.

Simply put, metanoia is a word filled with remarkable meaning by the preaching of Christ and the apostles. It is not a word that comes replete with its own meaning.  The English word "repentance", on the other hand, comes filled with its own meaning - it needs no supplementation by context. Repentance means to feel remorse or regret for your sins; its Latin root literally means "pain; suffering in view of being liable to punishment". Metanoia is Greek, and is made up of two words: meta and nous. Meta means "after" or "change", and nous is the Greek word for "mind". Etymologically, the word literally means "after-mind," signifying a change of mind: thinking one way, but then afterwards thinking another. It is the opposite of pronoia (pro-nous) which means before-mind: the mind or thinking you have before. Interestingly, there is another Greek word we frequently use in English that is related to metanoia: it is paranoia (para-nous). Etymologically, the word means beside-mind, or we would say "out of your mind", or "beside yourself". Paranoia is not being in a right mind, but having a mind that is off center - that is, not where it should be. If you compare metanoia and paranoia together, you get an idea of what the New Testament call for metanoia is: it is a command to change your mind and get it where it should be.

Of course, metanoia, when used as a command ("change your mind") needs supplementation by context; it needs to be filled with more information because we need to know what we are supposed to change our mind about. It can be something small (metanoia about how to spell "judgment"), to something enormously large (metanoia about your religious worldview). The sky is the limit with metanoia, and that is precisely the point of the remarkable function of the word in the New Testament. It is not restricted, like "repentance", to a narrow meaning of pain and sorrow for sin. It is a change of mind unto the gospel itself. The gospel is what the change of mind is about. The preaching of Jesus and the apostles speaks to the nous and men change or don't change their mind as they hear it. When a man changes his mind at the preaching of the gospel he has experienced metanoia. Thus, the proclamation of metanoia at the beginning of the New Testament is the doorway into the rest of the doctrine of the New Testament: Change your mind! About what? Listen! A radical mind shift in the religious world is about to happen... no, it is happening now... What we thought about God and the law and righteousness and forgiveness is all about to change. Hear! Metanoia and believe the gospel!

New Testament metanoia is a divine call to a radical mind shift in the way men think about religion. Therefore "repentance" is an unsatisfactory translation of the amazing word "metanoia" which gives a very different feeling to the preaching of Jesus and His apostles. Was the major proclamation of Jesus and the apostles "Repent! Feel sorry for your sins!"? Or was it "Metanoia! Think a new way!"? Do you see what a difference these two words make? The gospel calls us to a new way of thinking about religion. Whereas men think they are good, and that obedience to the law is the way of salvation, and that the law only requires partial obedience, and that most people won't perish, Jesus calls us to believe that there is none good, and that no one will be saved by obedience to the law, because the law requires perfect obedience, and that broad is the road that leads to destruction. The apostles call us to believe that the cross of Christ is the power and the wisdom of God, the only way we are saved and live, through faith. The world thinks that the cross is foolishness. Which word best summarizes this kind of preaching: "repent", or "metanoia"?

How did we lose this feature from our understanding and preaching of the gospel? Our loss of the meaning of metanoia came from early Latin Christianity. Early Latin theologians like Tertullian understood Christ's call in the gospel to be largely retrospective, a call to consider one's sinful life and to lament and amend it, rather than prospective, to hear the glad tidings of what God is and will do through Jesus. Jerome, when translating the Latin Vulgate, codified this understanding by translating "metanoia" as "paenitentiam agite" ("do penance"). But why, since the concepts are so different? It is because these early Latin scholars, while recognizing the Greek word "metanoia" meant to "change the mind", did not understand what the New Testament gospel of grace was all about, and consequently, since the word is hollow and requires filling, they filled the word metanoia with something other than  with what Christ and the apostles filled it. They interpreted the mind change to be changing your mind about how you are behaving - to regret your sinful lifestyle and to amend your life, rather than as changing your mind about the way of righteousness, i.e., that righteousness does not come through the law but through faith in Christ. Having interpreted the call to change your mind this way, the translators thought it would be more helpful to skip the more hollow word "metanoia" with the fuller paraphrase "paenitentiam agite", which they believed best communicated the purpose of the mind change. Thus they paraphrased the word metanoia as they thought best; they did not translate the word. And it stuck. The Latin Vulgate was the standard Bible in the West for over a thousand years, and therefore this erroneous paraphrase, "paenitentiam agite" ("do penance"), became deeply rooted in the Church's vocabulary, teaching, and moral imagination.

By the time of the Reformation, the theology and practice of penitence was so embedded that even the Reformers struggled to see clearly enough to root it out. Though they rightly saw afresh that the gospel of Jesus Christ was all about righteousness through faith apart from works, they continued to confuse metanoia with penitence, and Protestant history has witnessed an awkward and uncomfortable effort to fit the salvific necessity of penitence alongside the proclamation of sola fide. The proposed solution to the problem was to move repentance from one side of salvation to the other, so that, instead of having to repent in order to be saved (as the Roman Catholics saw it), the Reformers argued that repentance was a fruit and effect of being saved. In this way, salvation produced the amended life, but was not dependent upon it, so preserving the gospel of grace. However, while it is indeed true that salvation produces the transformed life and not the other way around, the Scriptures in fact teach that that in order for men to be saved, they must "metanoia" (e.g., Luke 13:3, Acts 3:19, et al.). The real problem was not in the order of salvation and repentance, but in the word "repentance" itself. The Roman Catholics understood the order correctly, but had the wrong definition of metanoia, while the Reformers - despite grasping the gospel correctly - understood both the order incorrectly and had the wrong definition of metanoia! This incorrect order and definition has caused the uncomfortable juggling of sola fide and penitence within Protestant history. What is needed is to simply see the true meaning of metanoia.

Metanoia is the paradigm shift which the preaching of the gospel both introduces and commands reception. It is the call for men who are ignorant of the righteousness of God by faith to see this new and living way of righteousness in Christ and the futility of their own attempt to be righteous by the law. The good news for sinners is that as sinners we are "justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24) through nothing but faith alone. "To the one who does not work, but believes upon Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted unto righteousness" (Rom. 4:5). This is a radical message that upends our natural religious sensibilities and requires a powerful change in mind about God, ourselves, and grace, which will in turn, of course, result in a renewal of our entire lives.

"'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they said to him, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved'" (Acts 16:30-31). "The Lord is... not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to metanoia" (2 Pet. 3:9). God calls sinners to eat freely of the bread of life, the broken body and shed blood of His Son. This is a meal He has set for the ungodly, not for the righteous. He wants sinners to eat of it. God sees our dire need and says, "Eat, sinner, and live! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ! Look and your soul shall be filled! Do not think that you must worthy to receive My salvation. Behold and believe My righteous, generous grace for you revealed in the cross of Christ. Metanoia!"

I hope this is helpful to you, J---. I love you, dear brother, and pray for you to have wisdom and clarity in this matter. Looking forward to hearing from you again,

With much affection,



Anonymous said...

Great article! Thank you brother

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...


I may or may not have met you a some years ago. The other night, I was thinking about some people from back in the day and wondering what they are doing now and stumbled upon your blog again (first stumbled upon it some time ago).

Anyway, my purpose for writing is two-fold. First, in some ways, I am glad for some of your theological changes and emphasis, namely, a more sound view of grace. Although, honestly, I am not sure it is completely Biblical. I didn't save links and stuff, but I saw in a comments section a discussion you had, I think it was with J.M. where you enlisted certain verses to oppose his doctrines and said something like, "These verses contradict your interpretation." Have you thought the other way? Have you thought that the other verses contradict your interpretation, so you are the one that needs to repent (however you want to take the word?)? I don't want to be too harsh, but it seems that you haven't changed all that much from your days of "revivalism," although the teams have merely changed? I think your comments about Greg Gordon, D. Ravenhill, Dr Tozer, and many others are still in a similar vein.

In response to this immediate article, I don't think the emphasis is that radically different. I've always heard repentance is "changing of the mind" and never associated merely with "pain and sorrow for sin." Never. Yet, would not "changing your mind" include ones sorrow for their sins? You change your view from rejoicing in your sin and boasting in it to being sorrowful? If anything, the view you are seeking to set forth is more conducive to "pain and sorrow for sin." Also, I wouldn't rule out grief as being an essential part of repentance. For example, if *I* was to write, "for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation..." I have a hunch you would find it against the gospel and unevangelical. Fortunately, it is found in the Scriptures, so you'll either explain it away or claim another text that "contradicts it," as if the Scriptures can be divided.

Re: the WCF, I think you've misunderstood. Quickly:

I. Point 1 is merely addressing "Repent and believe." Sure, we might be able to divvy them up nicely, but all point 1 is saying is that "repent and believe" is an evangelical grace, namely, a gift from God. Anti-nomians (which you may or may not be, I haven't spent enough time on your site) decried repentance. I assume, even with your definition of repentance, that you agree that it is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, right? Do you believe that repentance and faith are a gift of God? If so, why is it it underlined and emphasized for disagreement?

II. Re: don't your desire to change your mind on all things? Do you think one must change his mind all his understanding of establishing his own righteousness to the Gospel? If so, how is your view any different? If one spends his whole life and never changes his mind re: the Gospel, will they be saved? If not, how much of his mind does he have to change on the gospel?

III. You think sinners can be pardoned without metanoia?

V. Should we not endeavor to change on minds re: the Gospel? Should we be content doing this generally? Or ought we to change our mind's particularly? Are you writing this blog so men change their minds generally or particularly? If both, what is the difference?

Just thought I would write, b/c I think you are close to some really good stuff and, honestly, it is quite refreshing that you've stepped away from the legalistic and Pelagian stuff of some of your friends (?), but I believe your theology is being dictated more by your testimony rather than the testimony of Scripture. Also, I think some of your comments about other ministers, who to my knowledge are believers, is bordering on divisive and contentious.


Anonymous said...

Greetings brother in Christ,

Finding this article was a blessing. I googled "metanoia greek christian" and found your blog immediately. The reason I was so interested in the great words meta and noia, is because I have been concerned why people confess their sins to make people feel better about themselves and take away their pain and guilt, as a temporary solution, but actually don't change. Then I realized even my KJV Thompson Chain Reference has fallen victim to the word repentance without mentioning metanoia. This has troubled me for some years, as it was clear something different was meant to be conveyed by Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, this article is such a bombshell to me and answers questions I have had for decades, that I have not even finished reading the entire blog. Once done I will no doubt have more questions.

Needless to say, this is definitely the reason the modern Christian church has lost its way today. I think the author is too kind to the Roman Catholic translators with the Latin Vulgate. If this essential aspect of christianity was suppressed as the book says, and the Reformation were blindsided to the real issue of order rather than the key word, then it goes a long way to explain the wishy-washy moral principles that are being espoused from our pulpits today, where congregation stay in their sin because they just changed their definition of righteousness rather than to decide to change their thinking and act in the right way.

I will have more to add to this over time. A question, is this an actual excerpt from the book or is this Bro. Eli's own synopsis? Not being a theologian, I would not be able to engage in a deep philiosophical debate on this subject, but i can say the Holy Spirit led me to this site and I will follow His leading.

In His service,

Bro. Michael

Eli said...

Hello Michael, I'm so glad this was a help to you.

This article is not an excerpt from Walden's book but is my own summary and thoughts on the book. Please read the book! It does a much better job of analyzing the Scriptures and the word metanoia than I have done!

Many blessings,

Unknown said...

Hello I just read your article on repentance and have really been struggling with this concept.

I grew up learning repent means turn from sin to Jesus,but I can't see how that's not adding works to faith. You say it just means to change your mind, can you explain this to me
In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about sin and repentance. In v.20 they are still sinning and in v.21 they “have not repented”. Paul uses the terms interchangeably. It would make no sense at all if in v.21 he meant that they had changed their mind about sin but were still regularly practicing it.

Same thing in revelations 9:20-21, it would seem odd that the Lord would just want a mental resolve not a behavioral change

20The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Please if you could explain this it would really be helpful.

Eli said...

Hey Chase,

You are absolutely right that the necessity to turn from your sins is incompatible with salvation by faith alone. If Christ's call to repentance means to turn from sin, we have no more gospel.

However, to answer your questions about those verses, it's important to see that metanoia always requires context to understand what the change of mind is about. In some contexts metanoia means to change one's mind/thinking again about our sinful behavior (such as the verses you quoted). The argument of Walden is that metanoia does not always mean that, and that the context of Christ's preaching shows that for Him it did not mean that, but that it was synonymous for believing the gospel.

We need to always ask "change my mind about what?" The context will answer.

Walden (and I) are against broad brushing both ways (interpreting every instance of metanoia as turning from sin or as believing the gospel). Metanoia is a rather hollow word that always requires its context to understand.

Blessings, Chase,

Unknown said...

Thank you Eli for your reply I really appreciate it. Eli could you maybe she'd some light on Isaiah 59:20 where it talks about to those who turn from their transgressions. This seems to be saying the messiah will come to those who turn from their transgressions. Can you please explain this. Thankyou

Eli said...

Hi Chase,

Isaiah 59:20 essentially is saying that the Deliverer (Christ) will come and deliver those in Jacob who turn from "transgression" or "rebellion". When Paul points to this verse in Romans 11:26, he utilizes the Septuagint translation which has a slightly different take on this prophecy. Two things are different: the Deliver will come and 1) banish 2) ungodliness from Jacob.

Which is it? Does Christ come and deliver those in Jacob who turn from transgression/ungodliness, or does Christ Himself do the work of banishing transgression/ungodliness from Jacob? The answer is: both. Christ will deliver those who turn, but it is also His own work of banishing that causes them to turn. Paul's free quotation is highlighting both aspects of that deliverance.

But what do they turn from? Transgression or ungodliness? The Hebrew word pesha here means rebellion, violating a covenant boundary in a presumptuous and high handed way. Both the Septuagint translation and Paul pick up on the sense of the word here by using the Greek word "asebeia", translated "ungodliness", which means irreverence against God. So what Isaiah is saying is that rebellion/irreverence against God will be banished from Jacob by Christ, and that those turn from rebellion/irreverence will be delivered.

Having said all that, I understand the rebellion/irreverence against God not to be the mere act of sinning against God, but rebellion against God's word and truth. God's word declares that the only kind of righteousness He accepts is the perfection of love, and that therefore all humankind are sinful, guilty and worthy of death. God's word further declares that in His Son Jesus Christ an atonement has been made and the everlasting righteousness that He requires has been provided, and that we must trust ourselves to this finished work of Christ alone in order to be saved. Those who refuse to believe that they are damnable sinners and will not trust in Christ are the rebellious/irreverent ones, and those who tremble at God's word, accept His verdict of their lives and trust in Christ alone for deliverance are those who are not rebellious/irreverent against God. Yes, everyone sins, and so in a sense all are rebellious/irreverent, but this verse is referring not to the universal sin of mankind, but to the rebellion/irreverence that refuses to accept guilt and humbly trust in another. Think of all the passages in the literature of John that talks about specific rebellion/irreverence.

Thus I take Isaiah 59:20 to be referring to the banishing of unbelief in the gospel from Jacob, and also, those who turn to Christ from their rebellious unbelief will be delivered. Both aspects--the banishing and delivering--is the work of Christ.

I'm asking us to think more deeply about rebellion than the mere act of sinning, but rather that deeper rebellion against God's truth that refuses to admit sin and believe in Christ.

The connection with metanoia I trust is obvious.

I hope this helps you, Chase,

Jonathan said...

Amazing article! This should be required reading at every Christian college and university. Getting the correct definitions of biblical words is extremely important. If we don't, we teach false doctrine and are found liars before God.

Bruce Graeme said...

' Repent ye ! ' Here again the true and splendid meaning of the word has been distorted. The word Mark uses, Meravoetre, is badly rendered by peenitemini or repent ye. Its true meaning is mutatio mentis, which signifies the changing of the heart, the transformation of the soul. Metamorphosis means a change of form, metanoia a change of spirit. The sense would be rendered better by conversion, which means the renewal of the inner man ; but the idea conveyed by ' repentance ' and ' penance ' is already an application of the words of Jesus, a commentary upon them.




It is true that Jesus added "repent," but the old word has been distorted from its true and magnificent meaning. The word of Mark — Meravoetre — should not be translated "repent"; metanoia means rather the changing of the mind, the transformation of the soul. Metamorphosis is a change of form; "metanoia," a changing of the spirit. It ought rather to be translated "conversion," that is, the renewing of the inner life of man. The idea of "repentance" is only an illustration of Christ's command.


Freely translated from the Italian by DOROTHY CANFIELD FISHER (1923) ; p. 73

Anonymous said...

People always allow our enemy to take control of an issue, and this time (sadly), its no different. The word "repent" here was translated (until the "new" version of the catholic bible), as "do penance," but it was condemned by so many scholars as inaccurate that they were forced to change it to the true meaning "repent."

In the Latin Vulgate, the basis of the Douay Bible, "do penance" means to produce works/perform works of an atoning character & this is not the Greek meaning. God does not demand that you work your way to heaven or atone for sin but that you reverse your actions, direction of life & believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation (Eph. 2:8-9). For the Christian who sins, repentance means forsaking the sin & confessing it to Christ who promises to forgive completely & restore fellowship 1 John 1:7,9

The answer as to whether scripture is speaking of "repenting" or "do penance" should be obvious even to a new believer as shown in the parable of the prodigal son: Luke 15:7b...there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. This is a perfect example of mans situation & not in line w/Roman teaching of penance.

Notice 4 things:
1st: "He came to himself/reason"
2nd: "He wisely analyzed his situation"
3rd: "He came up w/reasoned a plan"
4th: "He admitted he was a sinner" (to himself/father)

What caused this sons "complete turn around," & his desire to go back to his father was his first act of repentance in his mind. The acts of penance or paying back "the offended" (which I agree with), all comes after the father/son restoration that is offered by the father in the parable i.e. his father asks for the best robe, ring, sandals & calf....

Anyway, I just want to back to Christ's statement: "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over the 99 just people who have no need to repent." All of this joy was brought about by the sons decision to "REPENT" & to tell his father I have sinned against heaven & you.

The idea that "penance" is the main theme in the sons heart in basically....nonsense. Its a mere $$ maker to fill the coffers and its been doing just that for centuries. I'm sorry for being so blunt. Christ wants us to "REPENT"...change our ways, not to start doing penance. Theres a place for that AFTER we repent.

God Bless

Greek said...

I speak greek & it's my first language para means instead of not "besides"

Eli said...

Thank you for that correction, Greek.


Brady said...

This is excellent and makes complete sense! Thank you!

Sophia said...

This is so good! I am going to share it with my free grace Bible study group. Thank you for writing this in an understandable way for lay people.

downtown dave said...

I greatly appreciate the article.