The meaning of a word is not necessarily determined by its etymology but by how it is used. So, though metanoia, the Greek word translated as “repentance,” is a compound of meta (a prefix that is sometimes used to indicate change) and noiea (to consider, think, perceive or understand), its meaning is not discovered simply by “totaling up” or combining the meaning of those two words. It is discovered by how the new combination functions as a whole in particular contexts.
In the Bible, the meaning of the verb metanoeo or the noun metanioa does not flatten out to “think after” or “think again” or “have a change of mind,” as if it were nothing more than a mental transaction. It indicates a new orientation, a new disposition that results not only in a new way of thinking but a new way of living.
So, John the Baptist, who preached a “baptism of repentance,” said this: “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8). And Paul related to King Agrippa the testimony about how he preached at Jerusalem, throughout Judea and to the Gentiles “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 20:26).
Likewise, Apostle Peter said to Simon the Sorcerer, who tried to buy the power of God, “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). He did not mean, “Just change your mind about how wicked this is, but it is okay if you go ahead and perform it.” Rather, repentance would mean that the wickedness Simon had formerly intended to do, he would no longer do.
Preaching at Solomon’s colonnade, Peter said, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). Where the NIV has “turn to God,” the KJV and NKJV have “turn back” and the LEB has “be converted.” The Greek word is epistrepho. Simply and literally, it indicates a turning. In regard to human beings in relation to God, it functions in a way similar to metanoeo. Sometimes, as here in Acts 3:19, it is even directly associated with metanoeo. Even on its own, it is often about turning to God:
- In Luke 1:16, the angel of the Lord said to Zechariah, concerning John the Baptist that “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God”
- In Acts 11:21, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
- In Acts 14:15, where Paul evangelizes at Lystra, telling them to “turn from useless things to the living God.”
- In Acts 26:18, where Paul recounts how King Jesus sent him to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of satan to God.”
- In Acts 26:20, Paul “declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent [metanoeo], turn to God, and do works befitting repentance [metanoia].”
- In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, about how the believers there “turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Notice that “turning to God” here resulted in a disposition to serve Him.
- In James 5:19-20, to turn or turn back one who wanders from the truth (that is, from God).
- In 1 Peter 2:25, where Peter, referencing Isaiah 53, says, “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and overseer of your souls.”
Dictionaries, Lexicons, Wordbooks
There are several dictionaries and lexicons of Greek words that understand metanoeo and metanoia, as more than merely a mental transaction, especially as used in the New Testament.
- The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament recognizes metanoeo as more than a change of mind. It can also mean to “feel remorse, repent, be converted.” Likewise, the range of meaning of metanoia includes the idea of remorse, “repentance, turning about, conversion,” and can indicate a turning away from something as well as a turning toward something.
- Moulton and Milligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament says that metanoeo is more than merely a change of mind but “indicates a complete change of attitude, spiritual and moral, towards God.”
- Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that in the New Testament, metanoeo always involves “a change for the better, an amendment,” and that, with the exception of Luke 17:3, it always involves “repentance from sin.”
- Strong’s Greek Dictionary says that metanoeo is: “to think differently or afterwards, that is, reconsider (morally to feel compunction).”
- Thayer’s Greek Definitions defines metanoeo as, “1) to change one’s mind, i.e. to repent, 2) to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.”
- Renn’s Expository Dictionary of Bible Words says that metanoeo refers exclusively to turning from one’s sin.”
- Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says that both the noun and the verb (metanoia and metanoeo) “denote a radical, moral turn of the whole person from sin and to God.” He adds that, “In the New Testament, metanoeo essentially supersedes epistrepho as the word of choice to denote a turning form sin to God.” In other words, where epistrepho was used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew word shuv, metanoeo carries that meaning in the New Testament, and is used synonymously with epistrepho. “When metanoeo and epistrepho appear together in the New Testament, the former emphasizes the turn from sin and the latter emphasizes the turn to God.”
- The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible lists “Repent, Repentance, Turn, Return” all under one heading and finds that the New Testament writers used metanoeo and metanoia in the same way shuv was used in the Old Testament (where it is usually translated as “turn”).
There are several translations that render metanoeo as more than just a mental transaction. For example, consider Mark 1:15, which is explicitly about the gospel: “Repent and believe the good news [i.e. the gospel].”
- The Contemporary English Version has, “Turn back to God.”
- The Bible in Basic English has, “Let your hearts be turned from sin.”
- The Good News Bible has, “Turn away from your sins.”
- J. B. Phillip’s New Testament in Modern English has, “Change your hearts and minds.”
- The Message has, “Change your life.”
- The New Century Version and The Expanded Bible have, “Change your hearts and lives.”
- Now, of course, those are all dynamic translations, not word-for-word, but giving the thought conveyed by the word as found in context. But for a more literal rendering, consider Young’s Literal Translation, which has, “Reform ye.”
- Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament, which strives to “bring out the richness, force and clarity of the Greek text,” has this: “Be having a change of mind regarding your former life.”
- Also interesting is Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew New Testament, which translates metanoeo with the Hebrew word shuv (or shub), a word used frequently in the Old Testament and generally translated as “turn” (for example, in Isaiah 55:7, about “turning” to the LORD, and in Isaiah 59:20, about “turning” from sin).
In the Bible, metanoia is more than a mental transaction but has to do with a new disposition toward God. Through repentance and faith in Jesus the Messiah, we have a new orientation toward God, toward his kingdom and toward his ways that results not only in a new way of thinking but a new way of living: entrusting ourselves to Jesus and following him.