Religious tradition is sometimes more potent than Scripture itself. For that reason, we, as seekers of the truth, are compelled to question any tradition that is not based on Scripture.
Around 250 AD, the Roman Emperor demanded that Christians sacrifice to him as a god. Many Christians, out of fear of persecution or death, conceded, which resulted in a lapse in their relationship with the Church. Later these Christians regretted their actions and repented. The Church was not sure how to respond to them since many of its members who had not conceded had either been killed or suffered greatly. So the Church was not kind to those who repented, but decided to allow them back into fellowship if they would demonstrate their repentance with displays of humility through penance, sometimes for extended periods of time.
One of these acts of penance required these repentant sinners to lie across the threshold of the church door as the other worshippers who had not lapsed stepped over them to enter the church. This demonstrated the humility of the repentant and the spiritual superiority of the faithful. Other penances required by the Church varied greatly and sometimes included periods of prayer and fasting and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes.
This practice of requiring penance transitioned the Church from being a source of redemption, forgiveness, and healing into serving as a purveyor of judgment and punishment. The unintended consequence of this initial response communicated that repentance was inadequate to appropriate the benefits of the cross. Works had to be added. A belief developed in the Church that if believers sin, they have to do penance to earn forgiveness, which reflected their genuine regret and sorrow for their sins.
This practice expanded over time. When lapsed sinners (those who left the practices of the Church) returned to the Church, their confession transitioned from confession and forgiveness into an interrogation in which the severity of their sins was assessed. During confession, the Church would decide the amount of penance they were required to do in order to be forgiven. Church leaders determined that without a demonstration of sorrow and proof of a resolve to do better, repentance might not be genuine. Thus, the absolution of the sin did not occur until after the penance was completed.
As this practice became the norm, penances were sometimes protracted to the point they could not be done in a lifetime. Thus the departed remained in Purgatory (a place where, according to tradition, sinners continued to suffer until their sins were completely atoned for before they could enter Heaven). To shorten or remove suffering in Purgatory, a family member could do penance for their departed loved one, or buy indulgences (credits provided by the Church) to pay for their sins.
See the progression over time—repentance and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross were seen to fall short of redeeming the sinner who was required by the Church to perform additional acts of penance that equated with the gravity of their sin in order to receive forgiveness.
It sounds repulsive now, but penance became the way for sinners to earn God’s grace. This belief obviously led to abuses. And it was these abuses that led to the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation rejected penance as the sure path to forgiveness because it promoted the idea that repentance based on faith in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross were not adequate to redeem a sinner. The practice of penance required that sinners needed to perform additional work in order to earn forgiveness. Protestants, on the other hand, celebrated the power of repentance based on the redemptive work of Christ alone on the cross as taught in Scripture, and therefore, rejected penance.
But did we Protestants really do this?
I don’t think so.
To this day, Protestants, just like Catholics, punish, shun, excommunicate and exile sinners, we just never say it. And if a sinner is to be forgiven, we require penance for them to be restored to fellowship with the Church. Though we Protestants don’t typically institutionalize penance like the Catholics, nor do we call it that, we practice it through inflicting punitive judgments, contractual agreements, or simple silence toward the sinners which results in social stigma. This is why the biblical definition of repentance is important.
In 332 AD Pope Damasus I ordered Jerome, a priest and theologian, to translate the Bible into Latin in order to give the Church a standard translation—which we now call the Vulgate. Jerome translated the Bible in relative seclusion in Bethlehem, completing it in 405AD. Afterwards, it became the Catholic Church’s officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible which has influenced the western Church to this day. Yet Bible scholars believe Jerome’s biggest error was in mistranslating the Greek word metanoete as “do penance” where “repentance“ should have been. Metanoete literally means “re-think, or change your mind,” which is the meaning of the word repent. Therefore, repent is a more accurate translation.
That one error created a practice that has plagued the Church for centuries because it changed the Church’s role from recognizing God’s grace toward a sinner and acknowledging God’s forgiveness to assessing sinful violations and mandating punishment. Repentance was replaced with works to demonstrate humility on the part of sinners to church leaders and the devout, or maybe self-righteous, Christians. This error helped lay the foundation for wide-spread misconceptions of how the church should respond to sinners.
This is where we need to continue the Reformation in our generation.
What do the four words in the original languages of the Bible, translated correctly as repentance really mean? This answer is critical for every Christian whose faith is based on the Gospel.
The two Hebrew words used in the Bible that we translate repentance are naha and shubh. One communicates the emotion of repentance, and the other emphasizes the decisions associated with repentance.
- Naha—means “to feel sorry, to lament, to grieve, to sigh, or to groan.” The word literally refers to difficulty in breathing while one experiences intense emotion. It usually results in a change of behavior and character. David did not stop with feeling bad – he turned around.
- Shubh—means “to turn back, to make a radical change in attitude toward sin and God.” It involves both the conscious moral separation from God, and the personal decision to return to God. This word was most often used by the Old Testament prophets when they called God’s people to return to God.
There are also two Greek words that we translate repentance—metanoia and epistropho. The first word reveals the power of choice that we have to respond to God, while the second describes a change in our position and relationship with God after repentance. Combined, these two words communicate the miracle transformation that takes place in our lives when we repent, both internally and relationally.
- Metanoia—which expresses the internal, intellectual, and spiritual change that occurs when a sinner turns to God. The actual meaning of metanoia is “to have another mind,” “to re-think” or “to change one’s mind, attitude, and purpose regarding sin.” I believe Hebrews 9: 9, 14, 15b describe this miraculous transformation by saying,
For the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer [under the Old Covenant] are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them. . . Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. . . For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.
- Epistropho—which describes the distinct change of position in relation to God that takes place as a result of repentance. This word can be summarized as a spiritual positional transition into being seated in Christ (see Ephesians 2:6).
See what a denial of the Gospel we created when we translated this life-giving idea into punitive works that believers must do for the Church to prove they are repentant! We must intentionally correct this.
God revealed his heart by the way he responded to our sins. We reveal our hearts by the way we respond to another person’s sins.
We deny the Gospel when we respond to another person’s sin by demanding that they work to prove themselves repentant, or work to receive forgiveness. We are the Church. We are not the accusers of the brethren. We are not journalists who expose the sins of others, nor are we District Attorneys who are required to punish others for their sins. We are the Church, God’s institution that provides healing, restoration, redemption, and grace.
Righteousness is given to us freely by God. It is not a result of our works—which keeps us from boasting or believing that we are spiritually superior to others. God’s authentic Church in the earth is not the gathering of the self-righteous, but of the gratefully redeemed. And our charge is to freely offer that same grace to others.
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