When we talk about Christianity, one of the most frequent words we use is “repentance.” We talk about the repentance necessary for salvation, about turning away from our sin, about recognizing our wrongdoing. However, repentance is an English word. The Bible was not originally written in English; instead, most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and most of the New Testament was written in Greek. When something is translated from another language, certain nuances and meanings tend to get lost. In this case, the word we often translate as “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia.” And it means much more than just recognizing sin.
What Is the Meaning of the Greek Word Metanoia?
The definition of metanoia is as follows: “a change of mind, as it appears to one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done.” In simplest terms, metanoia is a change of mind.
Metanoia can also be a verb, metanoeo, which may now be defined as “to change one’s mind, i.e. to repent; or, to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.”
It is interesting to note that the Greek word literally meant to change one’s mind about something. It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with salvation or penance. These correlations came later.
What Is Metanoia in Theology?
In theology, metanoia took on a broader meaning. Though in the Greek language it may have only meant to change one’s mind, the biblical writers took this word and used it to explain the concept of repentance.
But what is repentance? Things got a little muddy as biblical translation continued. In the Old Latin and Latin Vulgate, the primary texts in the western world and the Catholic Church for centuries, metanoia was translated as paenitentia. This word for repentance held connotations of penance and contrition.
Medieval theology focused largely on penitence, but with the Protestant Reformation, theologians reevaluated the original Greek. In a letter to professor and vicar John Staupitz, Martin Luther wrote,
“I learned that this word is in Greek metanoia and is derived from meta and noun, i.e., post and mentem, so that poenitentia or metanoia is a “coming to one’s senses,” and is a knowledge of one’s own evil, gained after punishment has been accepted and error acknowledged; and this cannot possibly happen without a change in our heart and our love. All this answers so aptly to the theology of Paul, that nothing, at least in my judgment, can so aptly illustrate St. Paul.
Then I went on and saw that metanoia can be derived, though not without violence, not only from post and mentem, but also from trans and mentem, so that metanoia signifies a changing of the mind and heart.”
Metanoia, and by extension, repentance, is a changing of the mind. “Meta” comes from the root for “after” or “beyond,” while “noeo” is “to think.” So metanoeo means to reconsider or to rethink something.
At its root, repentance is about changing one’s mind. In Christianity, this means changing one’s mind about Jesus, accepting Him as Lord, Christ, and Savior. Repentance is closely tied to belief. It means a rewiring of priorities to align one’s thoughts and values with God’s.
What doesn’t repentance mean? It isn’t about being sorry for sin, though that may flow out of repentance. Repentance also isn’t changing one’s ways, though someone who is repenting will certainly attempt to align themselves more closely to God’s will and will change aspects of their life as a result. These things come from the change of mind and priorities that is repentance.
Where Is Metanoia Found in the Bible?
Repentance is an important concept in the New Testament, so it is found in numerous places. (You can find a more thorough list here.)
Here are a few verses that talk about metanoia:
“God exalted [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to metanoia and forgive their sins.” – Acts 5:31
“When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted metanoia that leads to life.’” – Acts 11:18
“Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of metanoia. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’” – Acts 19:4 (Note here the correlation between metanoia and belief.)
“Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to metanoia …Godly sorrow brings metanoia that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” – 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (Note here the difference between metanoia and feeling sorry.)
“Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them metanoia leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:25 (Here, note that repentance, a changing of the mind, leads to a knowledge of the truth.)
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come tometanoia.” – 2 Peter 3:9
Why Does Metanoia Matter to Christians?
Repentance is one of the key tenets of Christianity. Without metanoia, a changing of our minds and hearts, we can’t come to know Christ.
The first step in becoming a Christian involves metanoia. We change our minds about who Christ is to us. We trust in Him as God, Savior, and Lord. From then on, the Christian life is a continual process of metanoia.
In military terms, metanoia could be used to mean an about-face. Soldiers marching in one direction turn and march in the other direction. This is what we do; instead of marching toward destruction and our own desires, we about-face and march toward God.
Often, when we speak of repentance, we speak of “turning away from sin.” This makes it seem like more of an action than a mental exercise. However, both changing one’s mind and turning from sin are ultimately the same thing.
Turning from sin is a natural result of metanoia. When a person changes their mind about their priorities and what is right, they are simultaneously turning away from sin. Thus, the definition of repentance as turning from sin is accurate—but doesn’t quite capture the full meaning that is contained in the word metanoia.
What are some signs of true repentance, a true change of heart and mind?
Someone who is truly repentant will recognize the error of their ways; this is the result of changing one’s mind about what is right and true.
Someone who is truly repentant will also go further than just recognize the error of their ways. A repentant person with a realigned sense of priorities will actively endeavor to turn away from sin and toward God, seeking Him.
Someone who has truly repented will continue in these endeavors. We will all struggle at times, but a person who has turned toward Christ with their mind and heart will continue to pursue Him.
In Romans 12:2, Paul reminds us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Through metanoia, we seek God and His will in a changing of our hearts and minds.
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Heroand has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.