The Bible uses many “spiritual” words such as repentance, salvation, holiness, faith, love, righteousness, glory, etc… These words are English translations of Greek words, first written almost 2,000 years ago, and are simply descriptions or terms for various spiritual realities. I am convinced that over the almost 2,000 years since the books of the Bible were written, layers of tradition, natural understanding, and human manipulation have accumulated around the meaning and understanding of all these descriptive words. I greatly desire to strip this man-made accumulation away, giving me at least the potential to see the reality of the spiritual thing these words describe, and I know others feel the same.
I think repentance is the most appropriate term to look at first. According to Jesus and the first apostles, repentance is a prerequisite for one who desires to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and walk after the Spirit. Repentance was the first exhortation Jesus gave, was the central theme of John the Baptist’s message, and it was emphasized by Paul and the other apostles after Christ as well.
Christianity’s non-spiritual understanding and their ultimately fear-based relationship to God have led to an underlying motive of hell-avoidance and behavior-modification. Therefore “repent” has come to be understood, roughly, as: “an improvement in behavior accompanied by a fervent conviction and sorrow over one’s “sins.”” Admittedly, there are scriptures that can be used to support this definition, but there are others that prove repentance is not so simple. It’s all too common for scriptures to be cherry-picked and misunderstood to support things that are simply not true. I fear being one of those who is so foolish as to think I can’t be blind to reality while confident in my own understanding.
To understand what someone says, it’s best to use the same language. This is one reason it’s helpful to look at the Greek which the scriptures were written in. I have found one scripture to be particularly insightful in understanding repentance. In Acts 17:30 (NAS77), Paul wrote this: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance (Greek: agnoia), God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent (Greek: metanoia)...” The underlying Greek word for “repent” and “ignorance” share a common root – noia, which means the mind,comprehension, understanding, and perception. The only difference between the word repent (metanoia) and ignorance (agnoia) are their prefixes. The prefix “meta” means “again, or afterward,” so to repent means to “reconsider” or “think again.” The prefix “ag” means “without, absence of,” so ignorance means “without understanding.” So here’s what Paul actually meant: “Therefore having overlooked the times when men were without spiritual perception and understanding (agnoia – ignorance), God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should reconsider and change their old ways of understanding and perception of God and His ways (metanoia – repent).
Notice: repentance doesn’t address sinful behavior, or a future in hell. The atoning sacrifice of Jesus took care of both of these things. What repentance addresses is IGNORANCE. Repentance is really for believers, not unbelievers. It’s both funny and sad, but the most spiritually ignorant, those who most need repentance, are those who are confident in their religious doctrines and self-righteousness. Isn’t that amazing?
Pride prevents repentance, and humility prepares the way for it. Repentance is the ongoing process of allowing the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth, to become one’s faculty of perception and understanding of spiritual things, instead of the natural mind we are all born with. To repent is to begin to wait for and follow spiritual revelation rather than forming and standing on doctrines and ideas formed and established in the mind and heart of man. The times of “ignorance” Paul wrote about were the times when men only knew God from afar, as fearful servants who only receive commands. Repentance opens up the reality of the New Covenant, where through Christ we are adopted as beloved children, growing up privy to their Father’s heart and inheritors of His possessions.
This is a very brief overview, and there are many other scriptures I could examine, like those below. Look into these things for yourself, or even better, sincerely and simply ask God to give you grace to repent yourself, being ready to follow where the spirit leads. It’s likely to be astounding and challenging territory.
- 2 Timothy 2:25-26: “…with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil…”
- Hebrews 6:1: “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…”