When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant.

Leonard Cohen
from “The Future”



This afternoon two young men knocked on my door. They wanted to tell me about their church a couple of miles away, and to ask me if I was 100% sure that when I die I’ll go to heaven. I told them I wasn’t 100% sure about much of anything, but that I believed God would take care of us.

I wish I had asked them why they felt they needed to go around scaring people. “Gospel” means good news, but there are Christian evangelists who want to withhold any good news until they’ve first convinced folks of their utter wretchedness. Unfortunately, they get a lot of air time.

These visitors showed up on the same weekend I was studying on the word “repent,” and learning that it’s considered by some to be a mistranslation of the Greek word, metanoia. From what I can tell, putting the wrong word in Jesus’ mouth has helped give rise to a version of Christianity that sends nice young people out to harangue their neighbors.

Repentance is a word bound up with a sense of remorse and sorrow. It’s about rejecting a former way of life, turning away from the wrong path and setting out on the right one. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. There’s nothing wrong with talking about repentance, though it’s not a good way to start a conversation.

In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the word translated as “repent” means something like “to return,” or especially “to return from exile.” It’s not hard to connect this idea with turning away from a misspent life. Certainly it implies moving from a sense of desolation to one of belonging, which is a hopeful message. But even this is different from what is taught in the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the word translated as “repent” is metanoia. Scholars of the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament say that it means changing one’s mind, or having a change of heart. It means suddenly seeing things differently, making a new decision in the light of new information. This article by Robert N. Wilkin offers some insight.

Wilkin points out that when the context makes it clear that the change of mind is in regard to sinful practices, then it’s appropriate to associate that change—turning from one’s sins—with a sense of regret or remorse about what has gone before. But there is nothing within the word metanoia itself that carries a sense of remorse in other contexts. It’s possible to simply act in a new way based on a fuller understanding, to see the light and make better choices.

So how did a word that means to change one’s mind come to be rendered as “repent”? Apparently the first Latin translation of the Greek used paenitentia, or “do penance” in English—a strange and harsh translation. But it was preserved in the first English translations, which were made from the Latin, not the original Greek. Tyndale’s English translation in 1526 changed it to “repent” instead, which at the time was an improvement. The King James Version retained “repent” and the translation has endured.

Wilkin says, “Nearly a century ago, in The Great Meaning of Metanoia, Treadwell Walden decried the Latin and English translations of metanoia as being ‘extraordinary mistranslations.’ I would agree.”

How many messages of “Repent!” have been shouted from pulpits and soap boxes, or delivered with an unexpected knock at the door?  When all the while, the more authentic translation of Jesus’ words, and the message repeated in strong and loving churches, is more like:

“Keep an open mind!”

“Be willing to see things differently!”

“Encounter the world in a new way!”

“Don’t be limited by what your life has always been!”

“Consider a new perspective!”

“Open your heart to change!”