The biblical meanings of repentance are much richer and much more important. To begin with, the Greek word for “repentance” that we find in the Gospels in the New Testament, is metanoia. Translating its Greek roots, “to repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have,” the mind that you have gotten from culture.
The contemporary Christian writer Frederick Buechner has a wonderful way of putting this: Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.
The roots of the word “repent” are very interesting and suggest something quite different—not intensification of guilt and contrition. When we look at the Greek roots of the word “repentance,” the verb is metanoata. The noun is metanoia. Meta means “beyond.” The noun from which the second part of the word “repent” is derived is nous in Greek, and it means “mind.” Putting that together, “to repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have.”
Moreover, Jesus perceived that the orientation of the heart—its most deeply seated commitments—had historical-political consequences. He saw that the most fundamental commitments of his culture were leading to a collision course with Rome. Finally, the basic quality of a heart centered in God—compassion—had political implications. Compassion was to be the core value of the people of God as a historical community. Thus Jesus’s teaching as sage was not divorced from the conflict situation for which we have argued, but was integral to
But the task of theology is not primarily to construct an intellectually satisfying set of correct beliefs. Its task is more modest. Part of its purpose is negative: to undermine beliefs that get in the way of taking Christianity seriously. Part of its purpose is positive: to construct a persuasive and compelling vision of the Christian life. But being Christian isn’t primarily about having a correct theology by getting our beliefs right. It is about a deepening relationship with God as known especially in Jesus.
The Hebrew word for faith in the Old Testament is emunah. What makes that word interesting is that it’s the sound that a baby donkey makes when it is calling for its mother.