Every child who grows up in the Church learns a mnemonic outlining the steps of repentance with five “R” words, something as follows:
- Recognize you have sinned
- Resolve to change
- feel genuine Remorse for your sin
- Request forgiveness from God and those you have harmed
- where possible, make Restitution
Confession is sometimes thrown in as an afterthought, partly because it does not really apply to the sins a Primary child might commit, and partly because it does not begin with the letter “R,” thus marring the pattern.
This is a valuable teaching aid; it is easily remembered, and succeeds in conveying the basic process of repentance to a child. Mnemonics such as this can also be limiting, however. To illustrate, we say that home teaching once a month is only the minimum, but as we all know the minimum soon becomes the maximum. Many adults in the Church remember well the five R’s of repentance, but have given the subject no more thought than that. The scriptures, of course, contain much material of a deeper and more mature nature on repentance, and scripture study is the way to increase one’s understanding of this fundamental gospel principle. Perhaps one way to begin is to review the scriptural terminology for “repentance.”
There are five principal words conveying the basic concept of repentance in the Bible: two in the Old Testament, and three in the New. The first of these is shub, which is a very basic verb conveying the essential meaning “to turn back, return.” It is a common verb, appearing over 1,000 times in the Old Testament text. In about 120 of those occurrences it is used with theological meaning for turning away from evil and toward God, as in Zechariah 1:4: “Turn ye now from your evil ways, and from your evil doings.” A very common metaphor in Semitic thought is that life is like a pilgrim’s journey walking along a road or path, the “way” [derek] (as we see in the very opening words of the Psalter: “Blessed is the man that *walketh* not in the counsel of the ungodly”). Sometimes we step out of the way and become lost; repentance is a “turning back” to the right path. The same term can also be used in the opposite sense, of turning away from God, and thus meaning “to apostatize,” as in Numbers 14:43: “because ye are turned away from the LORD, therefore the LORD will not be with you.”
The second Hebrew verb comes from the unused root nacham, which apparently had an onomatopoetic origin (representing the sound of drawing the breath forcibly, or groaning). In the niphal (passive verb stem) the word means “to lament, grieve, be sorry, rue.” This verb is often translated “repent” in the KJV. (Due to the influence of the Vulgate, the KJV often seems to favor Latin-derived terms, such as “repent” from paenito; compare “penitent” and “penal.”) There are a number of passages that have a construction something like “it repented the LORD that. . .” This odd construction in English seems to be an attempt to represent literally the niphal verb form. Joseph Smith in the JST regularly reworked such constructions to avoid any reference to God repenting. Joseph was clearly trying to avoid the theological consequences of portraying God as “repenting.” The Prophet was correct in this, as these verses do not portray God as repenting in the heavy theological sense “repentance” calls to our minds, and modern translations do not use the English verb “repent” in these passages (substituting something like “the LORD grieved. . .”).
The first Greek term, epistrepho, was used in the Septuagint as a translation of the Hebrew shub. The verb strepho means “to turn,” and the compound epi conveys the sense of “back,” the word thus meaning “to turn back.” The Latin equivalent of epistrepho would be converto (cum + verto), whence we get our English words “convert, conversion.” A conversion is a “turning back” and harks all the way back to the simple Hebrew verb shub discussed above.
The second and third Greek verbs of interest here, metamelomai and metanoeo, both mean “to change one’s mind” (thus the title of this post). The compound meta used with verbs of motion or mental activity indicates a “change” in whatever the meaning of the verb is. Metamelomai, which is the less common of the two verbs, is related to the impersonal melei (“it concerns [someone]“). In classical Greek it indicated a changed feeling towards a thing, to feel regret. This verb tends to have somewhat less theological import than metanoeo, and can simply mean to change one’s decision. This is the word used in Matt. 21:29, where a man had two sons, and the first said he would not go work in the vineyard, but afterward he repented (he felt regret and changed his decision) and went. Also, in Hebrews 7:21, quoting Psalms 110:4, the oath is one which the Lord will never regret.
The most common and theologically significant word for repentance in the New Testament is metanoeo, “to change one’s mind.” At first blush this seems like a totally different concept than the Hebrew shub “to turn back,” but in fact the concept is closely related. The Hebrew shub refers to turning or reorienting one’s entire body in a metaphoric, spiritual sense. The Greek also refers to a turning or reorienting, but is less metaphoric. To repent is to change one’s nous. The most direct translation for nous is “mind,” but repentance is not a mere exercise of the intellect. Beyond the mind, one’s nous includes one’s thought, will, heart, soul. In fact, for Latter-day Saints I like to explain this concept by making reference to the “mighty change of heart” of Alma 5.
These terms, of course, are but the tip of the iceberg. There are many other terms that are relevant to the topic of repentance, such as the Greek hamartano “to sin,” which originated in classical Greek as a term derived from archery, meaning literally “to miss the mark.” (Compare the Latin-derived “transgress,” which means “to step beyond” the bound.)
It is interesting to note that neither John nor Paul had much use for this “repentance” terminology, not because they thought repentance was inessential, but because they had other ways of referring to it. John preferred his imagery of spiritual begetting and rebirth, while for Paul his use of “faith” was inclusive of what we mean by “repentance.”