Recovering the True Meaning of Repentance

Posted by ajenkins on May 1, 2013 under Anglican Events, Devotionals, Good News, Reformation, Repentance, Uncategorized | Be the First to Comment

By: The Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison
This past Advent my wife asked what I was going to preach about on the coming Sunday.
“Repentance,” I replied. “Oh gosh!” she replied wearily, “I wish you’d preach on something cheerful.” One can easily understand why repentance is not considered a joyful subject! The dictionary defines ‘repent’ as “self-reproach for what one has done or failed to do,” “conduct as to change one’s mind regarding it,” or “to feel remorse.” The brilliant novelist E. M. Forster claimed that, “of all means to regeneration, Remorse is surely the most wasteful. It cuts away healthy tissue with the poisoned. It is a knife that probes far deeper than the evil” (Howard’s End, Ch. 41). One could expect such a negative view of remorse from Forster’s known failure to trust Christian forgiveness. How-ever, we should not overlook the unfortunate truth in his observation.It is especially important when we acknowledge that our secular culture increasingly shares with Forster a hope bereft of divine forgiveness, where mere regret sadly replaces repentance.

I contend that the Greek word used in Scripture to express repentance distorts the true biblical meaning of the crucial term: Repent. The Greek word that is used is metanoia, meaning to change one’s mind, whereas in every context in Scripture ‘repentance’ is not a change of mind but a change of heart. The difficulty lies in the fact that the Greek language has no word for change of heart—no metakardia. Swahili has no word for atonement because there had been no experience of atonement. So Greek, bereft of Israel’s revelation concerning change of heart, is left with a superficial hope, only a change of mind, metanoia, no metakardia.

This failure to appreciate the deeper dimension of human nature was abetted by the teaching of Socrates and Plato, who insisted that knowledge produces virtue. They identified goodness with knowledge, saying that to know the good is to do the  good. Vice and evil are simply the result of ignorance.

Such belief is radically different from that of Scripture: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt,” and “If I… understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing” (I Cor. 13: 1, 2). Love comes not from a change of mind but a change of heart. “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13); “The Lord is nigh them of broken hearts” (Ps. 31:18); “The wise in heart will heed commandments” (Prov. 10:8); “The heart of men is set to do evil” (Eccles. 9:13); “receive the heart of contrite ones ”(Is. 57:15); “Blessed are the poor in heart for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). In fact, it takes nine columns of Cruden’s Concordance to list the texts regarding heart, but one column is sufficient to include all the verses regarding mind.

Because the Greek language had no word for change of heart, Greek translation gives prominence to the mind. This was bootlegged into Christianity, resulting in a Greek rather than a Christian understanding of repentance. It is not enough to change one’s mind. Our hearts must be changed, changed not by knowledge but by love.

Following this mistake the meaning of faith or belief (pistis) tends to be relegated to the mind and not, as in Scripture, more deeply to the heart. One can intellectually acknowledge the existence of God, but that is a far cry from the trust of God in one’s heart.The latter results in action whereas the former can rest in mere passive acknowledgement.

Much of the historical misunderstanding in the relation between faith and works stems from teaching that faith (pistis) is a matter of the mind instead of its being a trust of the heart that, as true faith, inevitably leads to works. Professor Ashley Null has taught us that “what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” This, he tells us, is his paraphrase of Philip Melanchthon’s writings that so influenced Thomas Cranmer and can be seen in his Prayer Books. Knowing that the will is but an agency of the heart, Cranmer saw the virulent vanity of Pelagianism. Unless the heart is enticed, evoked, and changed, it is vain to exhort the will. The Gospel itself is the means by which the heart is changed by the message of a gracious God. Unless the heart is moved, the will cannot be effectively engaged.

It is particularly evident in the parable of the prodigal son that repentance in the pig-pen is a low level of repentance, an insight of the mind. “I can do better as one of my father’s servants.” But true repentance, a change not of mind but a change of heart, occurs when the prodigal son experiences the undeserved, initiating, costly love of his father. Similarly, Cranmer’s absolutions in both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (1928) show that true repentance comes after, not before, absolution. The grace of unearned and undeserved absolution speaks to the heart and results in the fruit of the Spirit.

There is no Socratic reliance upon the mind as the means of virtue and obedience in Cranmer’s prayer books. His use of Psalm 51 in the penitential office, “make in me a clean heart, O God…, a broken and a contrite heart, shalt thou not despise,” his responses to the Decalogue, “incline our hearts to keep this law,” and the reception of Holy Communion, “feed on him in thy heart” show clearly that Cranmer’s incomparable use of Scripture for the biblical meaning of repentance indicates a true metakardia even though there is no such Greek word.

When Dr. Null’s work on Cranmer was published by Oxford University Press, it was promised that the whole title would be on the cover. Unfortunately it was not. One has to turn inside to the title page to find it: Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love. Given the general and
understandable attitude toward the term ‘repentance’ the sub-title badly needs to be up front. Many of us feel that repentance is good for other people, but understanding that repentance renews “the power to love” makes us realize a dimension that all of us seek. “Renewing the power to love” rescues the remorse in repentance from destructive possibilities. Sin is a deeper matter than merely breaking a rule or law. It is always radically personal against others, against self, and against God. No self-hate, self-damage, despair, or the accumulation of sacrifices—the fruit of mere remorse—can rectify or redeem sin.

God’s absolution is no mere acceptance. It is God’s grace squeezing into the bastion of our hearts through the crack of remorse. This is the repentance (metakardia) that renews the power to love.

The Rt. Rev’d C. FitzSimmons Allison is the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina and lives in Georgetown with his wife Martha.

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