SEED & BREAD
WHAT ABOUT REPENTANCE ?
(Originally published 10 Aug. 79)
The Problem Stated
Those who do not know the complex problem related to the word repentance
will not be interested in the solution. If one’s Bible study has been so
superficial that it has created no questions, he will seek no answers.
However, the careful student will want to know, when he comes to Matthew
3:2, what it was that John the Baptist was demanding of the people of
Israel when he said: "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Furthermore, he will feel a pressing need to know, when he comes to Luke
13:3, what the Lord Jesus meant when He said: "Except ye repent, ye
shall all likewise perish." Then when he reads in Matt. 11:20, 21 that
the Lord reproached the two cities where most of His mighty works were
done "because they repented not," he is bound to ask, if he is a seeker
of truth, what it was the Lord expected of these cities, and which they
failed to produce. But when he seeks the answer to these questions, he
will find that he faces one of the great major problems of New Testament
The nature of this problem can best be stated through the words of Dr.
Archibald T. Robertson, an outstanding Baptist scholar who was professor
of N.T. Greek at the Southern Baptist Seminary from 1883 to 1934. His
book on the grammar of New Testament Greek is the greatest of its kind.
He often quoted his father-in-law, Dr. John A. Broadus, a scholar of
equal rank, as having said: "The translation of metanoeO by ‘repent’ is
the worst translation in the entire New Testament."
These words are sufficient to demonstrate the reality of the problem;
and it becomes more persistent when we realize that in the Greek N.T.,
we find the word metanoeO (pronounced, meta-nahEH-o), which is the verb,
thirty-four times; and the noun metanoia (pronounced, met-AN-oy-ah),
which is derived from the verb, occuring twenty-four times. In each of
these fifty-eight occurrences, they are translated by a word concerning
which two outstanding Greek scholars have said: "is the worst
translation in the entire New Testament." Furthermore, the KJV
translators have compounded this error by taking the six occurrences of
metamelomai, treating this word as if it were the same as metanoia, then
translating it by some form of the word "repent" in all six occurrences.
Thus in sixty-four passages of the New Testament we have sixty-four
deliberate and willful misrepresentations of God’s truth, resulting in
an erroneous concept of what the Lord demanded when He used the word
metanoeO in His call for vital and imperative action.
The history of flagrant mistranslations of these two Greek words began
about 150 A.D. when the New Testament was first translated into Latin.
Poenitentiam agite was the way the words of John and Jesus were first
translated. These words meant "do penance" and this translation
committed the Latin fathers to the idea that metanoeO was related to the
penalty man was supposed to pay for his sins, the sorrows he must show
and the tears he must shed for them. No such ideas were in the Greek
words, but they were incipient in the church the Latin fathers were
building, and to use a term that expressed these to translate metanoeO
was one way to insinuate them into the Word of God.
When Jerome (A.D. 347-4 19) produced the Vulgate, he perpetuated this
erroneous translation, so that in time the Roman Church from top to
bottom began to think of acts of penitence in order to cancel acts of
sin. Thus, it was that for fourteen centuries, the emphasis was all on
doing penance, on something that man did about his sins. What God had
done was all but forgotten. When the sufferings of Christ for sin were
brought forth, men were told they must "do penance" to reap the benefits
When the English versions of the Scripture began to appear, the
translators followed the Latin. Wycliffe, whom history tells us had no
proficiency in Greek, rendered Matt. 3:2: "Do ye penance: for the
kingdon of hevens schal come nygh." He translated directly from the
Latin Vulgate. One would expect something better from William Tyndale
since he was capable in the Greek and worked directly from it. But he
scarcely improved on Wycliffe, rendering the Lord’s words as meaning:
"Repent ye, for the kingdon of heven is at honde."
When the King James Version was brought forth, "the learned men" who did
the translating well know that metanoeO did not mean "do your penance
over again"; yet, they translated every occurrence by a word that says
and means exactly that. Thus, a major doctrine of Roman Catholicism was
forced upon all Protestants by fifty-eight mistranslated passages in the
Following the publication of the KJV, there was a vast amount of
discussion and debate as to what the word "repent" signified. The Roman
Catholics always insisted it meant doing penance, that is, punishing
yourself to make satisfaction for your sins; and the Protestants mostly
insisted it meant sorrow for sins committed.
John Calvin thundered out many times against the prevalent idea that
repentance meant sorrow for sin, saying: "In the definition they have
given of repentance, it clearly shows that they never understood what it
was; for they catch at some passage in the writing of the fathers, which
by no means expresses the nature of repentance; as ‘that to repent is to
weep for sins previously committed, and not to commit sins to be wept
for.’ Again: ‘that it is to lament evils that are past, and not to
commit new ones to be lamented.’ Again: ‘that it is a kind of mournful
vengeance, punishing in ourselves what we bewail having committed.’
Again: ‘that it is a sorrow of heart and bitterness of soul on account
of the evils which a man has committed, or to which he has consented.’ "
Institutes of Religion.
In spite of Calvin’s vigorous protests, erroneous thinking has always
characterized Protestant views on repentance, making it to be sorrow for
sin. The mourners’ bench and the penitents’ form have ever been
prominent in some denominations. That repentance is sorrow for sin is
clearly refuted by the words of Paul when he said: "For godly sorrow
worketh repentance to salvation" (2 Cor. 7:10). Even godly sorrow cannot
be what it produces.
The problem of the meaning of metanoeO was widely discussed in England
and on the continent for a century before 1900. It was a time of great
theological discussion and debate. The great thinkers and writers took
up the matter and discussed it apart from all religious presuppositions.
Men such as Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold
expressed their keen dissatisfaction with "repent" as a translation of
metanoeO. Arnold said: "We translate it ‘repentance,’ a mourning and
lamenting over our sins; and we translate it wrong."
During the later part of the nineteenth century, the hope was often
expressed that the revisers of the King James Version would purge from
its pages this fallacious portion of pure Roman Catholic philosophy and
bring forth something that would more clearly represent the truth the
Spirit of God was declaring. But this hope was in vain, for the revisers
did not touch the matter, not even in a marginal note. This perpetuated
the error that God required men to weep over their sins as the initial
step in the Christian life.
The American counterparts of the English revisers did the same. The idea
held by most people that one’s tears were effective in washing away
guilt was so deeply rooted that the translators hardly dared to touch
the erroneous translations which permitted the use of the Bible in
support of this Christ dishonoring fallacy.
Later translators such as Rotherham, Weymouth, Moffatt, and Goodspeed
did no better. They resolutely put their feet in the print of those who
had gone before them. They continued to proclaim in their versions the
same old Roman Catholic doctrine of "do penance."
The latest translation of the Bible at this date is the New
International Version (NIV) which professes to be: "A completely new
translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars." These
scholars claim to have: "held to certain goals for the NIV: that it
would be an accurate translation," and that their first concern has
been: "the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought
of the biblical writers." Nevertheless, in spite of these claims, they
saw fit to repeat the egregious errors of previous translators in every
passage where the words metanoeO and metanoia are found. These
self-proclaimed paragons of accuracy and fidelity never even offered a
footnote to alert the reader that a more accurate rendering was
In many religious circles great anguish of soul is demanded before faith
in Jesus Christ can be exercised. One is expected to experience a great
paroxysm of sorrow for past sins before he can lay hold of the Savior of
sinners. Some are able to produce such an emotion at will. The demand
for anguish is easy for them. Others must be worked on and prodded until
such a feeling arises within them. In such circles the validity of one’s
salvation is measured by the anguish that preceded it. Great sorrow of
heart is supposed to be a meritorious and cleansing work.
It is an almost universal thought that a man must punish himself for the
sins he has committed. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and
theologian, held and declared that it was his duty before God to spend
the days of his life mourning over the sins of his youth. Thus, his past
sins became the primary concern of his life.
Ideas and teachings such as these are usually supported by Bible texts
in which the words "repent" and "repentance" are found. False meanings
are read into these passages, and these false meanings are well
supported by the mistranslations that characterize all versions.
Many Bible interpreters have recognized that something should be done
about honestly translating the Greek words metanoeO and metanoia.
However, they have usually moved from one error to another by saying the
verb means "change your mind," and that the noun indicates a state of
"changed-mindedness." This has satisfied many since it relieves them of
the "do your penance" aspect and the ‘‘sorrow for sin’’ aspect usually
associated with these words. However, the idea of "changing one’s mind"
is insipid and inadequate.
Thus, we now have the problem before us. Is there a satisfactory
solution? I believe there is, but this will have to be presented in a
Issue no. 106