Thursday, April 19, 2012

Repentance: Definition of Terms

The online version of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “repentance” as “the action or process of repenting especially for misdeeds or moral shortcomings.” This dictionary in turn defines the intransitive usage of the verb “repent” alternatively, either as “1: to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life,” or as “2: a : to feel regret or contrition b : to change one's mind.” Moreover, while Webster’s indicates that the synonyms of “repentance” include “regret,” “remorse,” “guilt” and “shame,” plainly these words are only synonymous with “repentance” applying the second definition of the verb “repent.”

The definition of “regret,” for example, is “1: a : to mourn the loss or death of b : to miss very much; 2: to be very sorry for.” Regret is, thus, entirely an emotional condition, involving only feeling sorry for having done something, and does not involve any “action or process” at all, let alone an action or process of turning from sin or amending one’s life. It is entirely possible to deeply regret something one plans to do, or is required to do, without changing the plans to do it. (How many times have we heard people say “I regret that I have to do this…?”)

Similarly, Webster’s definition of “remorse” is “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Even more pointedly than was true of “regret,” this is entirely a matter of emotional distress. Moreover, while it is possible to regret a decision prospectively, remorse can only be caused by past wrongs. It is fully possible—indeed, quite common—to feel remorse over acts done in the past without having any plans to change or desist from similar acts in the present. Moreover, I should need to cite no dictionary definitions to demonstrate that “guilt” and “shame” describe purely emotional states that do not imply in any way a decision to change any present behavior. So, none of these terms are, in fact, synonymous with “repentance” in the primary sense in which it is used in scripture.

A somewhat similar grouping of overlapping, but not synonymous, terms exists in New Testament Greek. (I understand this situation also exists in Hebrew, but I will pass over this subject until later).

Under “Repent, Repentance,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words lists two verbs, one adjective and one noun. The two verbs are metanoeō (μετανοέω) and metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι). Vine’s explanation of metanoeō points out that this verb involves a change (meta-) of the mind or, more accurately, the perception (nous, hence noeō), the “seat of moral reflection.” Vine also points out that the New Testament always uses this verb to describe a change for the better, not for the worse, and in all but one instance (Luke 17:3-4) uses it specifically to refer to repentance from sin.

Other lexical sources amplify Vine’s observation that, at least as used in the New Testament, metanoeō implies a positive change in one’s behavior, not merely a feeling of regret. The Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines this word as “to undergo a change of mind and feeling, to repent; to make a change of principle and practice, to reform.” Louw and Nida are even more pointed, defining metanoeō, as used in the NT, as “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness.” Louw and Nida then go on to explain that, while sorrow and contrition are focal elements of the English word “repent,” in most of their uses in the NT “the emphasis of μετανοέω and μετάνοια seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act.” Thus, there is good lexical authority that, to “repent,” as that verb is used in the New Testament, involves a complete change of life much more than it does an emotional feeling of guilt, at least where the English verb is used as a translation of metanoeō.

The noun listed by Vine is metanoia (μετάνοια). It is related to metanoeō. The Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines this noun as “a change of mode of thought and feeling, repentance; practical reformation; a reversal of the past.” As already noted in the discussion of metanoeō, Louw and Nida understand the meaning of this word to generally include a complete change of behavior. Vine generally agrees with this, except in one instance—Hebrews 12:17—in which it is said that Esau could bring about no change of heart (metanioa) on his father Isaac’s part, after Isaac had been tricked into giving Jacob the patriarchal blessing. But perhaps this exception merely proves the rule. (This will be discussed in a later posting).

The second verb listed by Vine under “repent,” metamelomai, corresponds more closely (though not perfectly) to the English “regret” or “feel remorse.” Vine himself states that the verb signifies “to regret” or “to repent oneself.” Wigram’s primary definition for this verb is “to change one’s judgment on a past point of conduct,” although this lexicon also allows the renderings “to change one’s mind and purpose; to repent; to regret.” Louw and Nida give two separate definitions of this verb in two different semantic domains. In the domain of words describing “Attitudes and Emotions” (their domain number 25), Louw and Nida define metamelomai as “to feel regret as the result of what one has done.” On the other hand, in the domain of words relating to “Hold a View, Believe, Trust” (their domain number 31), these authors define metamelomai as “to change one’s mind about something, with the probable implication of regret—to change one’s mind, to think differently.” Obviously, whether metamelomai should be understood (and translated) with English words that come from the domain of attitudes and feelings or from the domain of opinions and beliefs depends on the context.

However, by contrast, Louw and Nida place metanoeō and metanoia solely in their domain number 41, “behavior and related states,” again reflecting the consensus that these words have much more to do with a change of behavior than with feelings of remorse.

I will be referring to, and refining, this discussion in future posts about specific scriptural passages dealing with, or exemplifying, repentance. I will also attempt to carefully distinguish uses of the two distinct sets of words that are sometimes translated “repent” or “repentance.”


Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Second Ed. (NY: United Bible Societies 1989).

Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson n.d.).

Vine, W.E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co. 1966).

Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. (Wilmington, DE: AP&A n.d.).