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Ronald R. Shea, Th.M., J.D.
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The Truth About Repentance
Within the New Testament, there are three Greek words that are translated as some form of the word “repentance” at some point in the English New Testament, or could be translated “repentance”: metanoia, metamelomai and strepho.
“Metanoia” (noun) and its verb form metaneo do not mean “to turn from.” It means “to change one’s mind.” “Metamelomai” means “to regret” or “to care afterward,” and “strepho” means to turn, or to return.
Of these words, the most pivotal word in this analysis is the Greek word “metanoia.”
However, the principle error surrounding repentance in the New Testament is not that the term most commonly translated “repent” is “metanoia” (a change in mind) rather than “strepho” (to turn). The Greek word “strepho” (to turn) is used in the context of salvation and conversion in the New Testament in 1st Thessalonians 1:9. The principal error about repentance is not whether it means “to turn” or “to change one’s mind.” The central error associated with this term relates to the object of repentance.
As discussed above, repentance can take any object. It was noted, for example, that
Plutarch, the Greek historian, spoke of “two thieves who spared a child’s life, and afterwards, repented, and sought to slay it.” Yes, they changed their mind, but it was hardly turning from sin! In this case, it was turning to sin!
Within the New Testament, there are examples of “generic” repentance. For example, in Hebrews 12:16-17 we read:
16 Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.
17 For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
To the simple minded who are determined to find repentance “from sin” as a requirement for salvation, the presence of the words “fornicator,” “tears” and “repentance” in the space of two verses add up to one thing: you must weep tears of repentance from your sins to be saved.
The meaning of this verse is far more mundane. In Genesis 25:27-34, Jacob (whose name means “slick one”) slicked his brother Esau out of his birthright. When a Christian engages in sexually immoral activity, they must make a choice. In front of them is something they can physically see and touch. God’s offer of eternal rewards for our holiness is not visible. It is seen only with eyes of faith that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. In front of them is something immediate. They need not wait until some distant time to receive the pleasure or delight they seek. But our heavenly rewards are postponed. They will not be received in this age. This is why Esau is called a fornicator. His thinking was the same as a fornicator. He saw a bowl of porridge that he could touch and taste and smell. And it was available here and now. The birthright was some vague and undefined reward, and it would not be for many years. Esau chose that which he could see here and now over that which he could not see, and would not receive until the day of his father’s death.
When Esau’s father had grown old, and Esau came to his senses, Hebrews 12:16-17 describes Esau pleading with his father to restore the birthright to him. “But he found no place for repentance, though he sought it with tears.” The phrase “found no place for repentance,” is every bit as vague in Greek as it is in English. So the meaning is not to be discovered by parsing Greek verbs but by examining the context.
It is manifestly evident from the context that Esau had already changed his mind about giving away his birthright. And he regretted his decision. And, to the extent that it was within his power, he had “turned,” from his earlier decision. By any measure, Esau had repented! He sought the birthright so badly that he sought it with tears. Esau found no place for repentance in that he could not persuade his father, Isaac to change his mind. The birthright had gone to Jacob, and Esau’s father Isaac would not repent. It was done.
The subject who would (or would not) repent is Isaac. The object of Isaac’s repentance (or lack thereof) was the bestowal of the birthright. The result of the repentance (had Isaac repented) would have been to restore the birthright to Esau.
The result of Isaac not repenting is that the birthright stayed with Jacob.
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