Repent About Repentance #4 – Repentance and Ignorance
What is the relationship between Repentance and Ignorance?
With several occurrences of the word “ignorance” being employed in close proximity with the terms “repent” and “repentance” in the Bible, any serious student of the Bible would want to examine the connection between the two. That is the goal of this installment in our series on repentance. But first, let’s review what we’ve covered so far in this series.
What have we Learned so Far?
- We have defined our terms. We are dealing exclusively with the Greek verb μετανοέω, transliterated as metanoeo, and the greek noun μετάνοια, transliterated as metanoia. These are translated to “repent” and “repentance”, respectively. There are other terms that were occasionally translated as “repentance” in the New Testament, but we are not presently concerned with those.
- We observed how God repents in the Old Testament, in the Sepuagint (the Greek Old Testament) as well as the King James Version (and several other older versions).
- We observed how in the Koine Greek period, people repent and then do something morally negative, making it impossible that the Greek term meant “a turn from sin” in those cases. In fact, in these cases they turn TO sin.
- We observed how all major lexicons and Bible Dictionaries conclude that the primary idea of repentance is a change of mind (although some may have a secondary definition of remorse and/or turning from sin)
These four points makes it very difficult to believe that repentance in the New Testament always carries the idea of “turning from sin” as is often purported.
Yet the concept seems to remain in our culture and theological thinking even to this day.
“We may define repentance as follows: Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.713)
It would be hard to see how repent/repentance could be used of something that God could do shortly prior to the New Testament being written (in the Greek Old Testament), see the examples of repent/repentance was used to describe certain people committing morally wrong acts during the same time the New Testament was written, see the Bible dictionary and lexicon definitions, and still come away with the idea that inherent in the definition of the Greek word is the idea of turning from one’s sins when used in the New Testament.
But that is where we are at.
One possibility is that the terms carried a special religious connotation only when used in a religious setting.
Now we want to take a look at New Testament examples to see if it is reasonable to assume that the general idea of changing one’s mind is carried over into the New Testament, or if there is a good case that either (a) the definition of the word changed to “turn from sin” and then changed back again in time for the examples we cited in Josephus, or (b) the word carries a special religious definition when used in a religious context.
To do this we’re going to begin by looking at some specific examples in the New Testament where repentance is used and in which the term “ignorance” is used in the immediate context.
Probably the method that carries the greatest weight in determining the meaning of a word in scripture is seeing how it is used in context. If you’ve been around Christianity, Bible studies, and churches that take the authority of scripture seriously at all you’ve probably heard a pastor, teacher, or Bible study leader speak about the importance of context.
“Context, context, context!” is the repeated mantra.
Indeed, something as simple as the phrase “I love you” can have vastly different implications depending upon the culture, timing of when it was used, audience to whom the phrase was addressed and their relationship to the person who communicated the message, and so on.
At the end of the day, the meaning of a word is determined by how it is used.
“What was the intent of the author when he used the word?” is a good question to ask.
A second question, which is also critical, would be: “How would a [first century] recipient of this letter have understood the word?”
What we’ve been doing to a large degree in the previous posts in this series is looking at the historical context of how metanoeo/metanoia were used. This has helped us to understand the broad nature of how metanoeo and metanoia were used in the Greek language and in Greek culture. It appears that the term was used in a general sense of “a change of mind” previous to when the New Testament was written, during the same time period, and immediately after.
Now we want to look at the literary context of metanoeo and metanoia in the New Testament. By this I mean we want to look at the paragraphs and sentences surrounding the uses of repentance, to help us understand what is meant by the word.
If the general Greek idea of “a change of mind,” or my tighter definition, “a change of mind based on new information or understanding” is carried over by the New Testament authors, we’d expect the literary context to include a lot of discussion about not knowing something and the writer/speaker to be urging the recipients to come to a different conclusion based on new information. Wrong thinking might also be something we’d expect to find, and in this case the writer/speaker would be asking the recipients to correct their thinking based on the new truth that has been revealed to them.
If the “turn from sin” hypothesis is correct (that this is the actual definition of the word), then we’d expect to find sin to be present in any and every use of the words repent and repentance.
However, it would not be true that if the “change of mind” definition is correct, we would not see any reference to sin at all. Indeed, asking someone to change their mind could have serious implications upon their behavior, again, depending upon the context of how and when repent/repentance was used. In addition to that, the change of mind in question could be in direct reference to sin.
For instance, If I told you to change your mind about a problem on your math homework, this has a relatively weak implication towards your behavior. But if I told you, “The Bible says to avoid fornication…You should reconsider moving in with your girlfriend,” the change of mind I’m asking you to take has a much stronger implication towards your behavior and to sin.
So, the change of mind definition has the possibility to call someone to cease their sinful behavior because of its flexibility.
Repentance and Ignorance – Acts 2:38
One classic example that is used among the “turn from sin” crowd is Peter calling his Jewish and proselyte audience to repent on the day of Pentecost.
You may be familiar with Peter’s famous words, “Repent (metanoeo) and be baptized, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
It’s often claimed that this proves the “turn from sin” definition, because Peter calls the crowd to repent. (see here for an example).
I can’t quite understand this logic; simply repeating instances where the word repent is present amounts to nothing more than circular reasoning. The question isn’t whether Peter used the word repent, it is what the word means.
In other words, if you’re the type of person that simply throws out this verse without providing any evidence, then this is a good example of assuming what you’re trying to prove.
Now, what we want to do is look at the context of Acts 2:38, so we can figure out what Peter is trying to say.
Recall the setting:
(1) Peter’s speech happened on the day of Pentecost.
(2) Everyone was standing around in one place, both Jews and Jewish proselytes.
(3) The Spirit was suddenly poured out on several in the crowd. They started speaking the Word of God to others, and it was understood in each person’s language. So, Galileans who only know Aramaic and Hebrew, end up speaking to “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,” and the recipients hear the message in their own language.
(4) Peter’s sermon interprets these events. He recounts the prophecy of Joel, and explains how this event is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel.
(5) Peter then explains Jesus to the crowd. In reviewing His life of miracles, His death and resurrection, Peter makes the assertion (speaking to the Jewish crowd), “You nailed [Him] to a cross by the hands of godless men and delivered Him to death.” Peter reminds the crowd that it was their plan to put Jesus to death, and thus ultimately their responsibility, even though they did not personally carry out the execution.
(6) Peter then explains that it was because Jesus rose from the dead that it was possible for the event to occur, for the Spirit to be poured out.
(7) He concludes his sermon with the claim, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified.”
A summary of Peter’s main points appear to be simple enough, once one has taken the time to read and digest the passage:
(1) The Spirit has been poured out according to prophecy, prophecy YOU believe in in YOUR scriptures.
(2) However, you rejected and killed Jesus.
(3) But Jesus was the Messiah and rose from the dead.
(4) Jesus rising from the dead is the only explanation of this event.
(5) Therefore, you should no longer reject Jesus, but accept him as your Messiah.
Acts 2:35 appears to me to be Peter’s crux statement before he exhorts the crowd to repent: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Peter is telling the crowd, as if the resurrection weren’t enough to prove the messiahship of Jesus, this event at Pentecost doubly proves that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter’s main goal is to explain why this event makes it possible to “know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ.”
Therefore, the primary goal in calling for repentance is a change in knowledge, from considering Jesus a false prophet who was guilty of blasphemy, to considering him the Son of God who died for their sins as their Messiah, and rose on their behalf.
What other clues would lead us to believe that Peter is calling for the Jews in this passage to end their rejection of Jesus and instead accept him as their “Lord and Christ”?
Context! We need to look at what is immediately after Acts 2:38.
What makes Acts 2 go from a fairly dense passage that seems difficult to interpret on some levels to a dead-simple interpretation is Acts 3. This is because Peter’s speech in Acts 3 is a virtual repeat of his speech in Acts 2.
Now, let’s recall the setting in Acts 3:
(1) Peter, along with John, heal a man who had been lame from birth, allowing him to walk.
(2) Peter gives his explanation of the miracle. It is because of faith in Jesus that Peter and John had power to do this, to heal the man and allow him to walk; it was not because of their personal piety.
(3) However, the Jews to whom he was speaking did not have faith in Christ. In fact, Peter makes the claim: “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.”
Again, Peter makes a call to repent in Acts 3:
“And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
In this passage, Peter directly calls the actions of his audience ignorant.
And what is ignorance?
Ignorance is a “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
So, we have in the context wrong thinking, not knowing something, and being called to know or believe something different.
Again, Peter’s call to repentance is asking them to change their minds about Jesus, from rejecting Him as their Messiah to accepting Him, based on the evidence they’ve been provided.
Evidence #1: He was dead
Evidence #2: He rose from death
Evidence #3: This miracle
What is repentance in this passage? It is repenting of the ignorance of rejecting and killing Jesus, and accepting Him as Messiah instead. The result of someone’s repentance, according to Peter, is that “your sins might be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come to the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)
Paul Asks the Athenians to Repent of Ignorance – Acts 17
Acts 2 and 3 are not the only clear examples of repentance being tied to ignorance, and Peter is not the only apostle who ties the terms together in this way. In fact, we’re just getting started on our study on this topic.
Another clear example of ignorance being tied to repentance is found in Acts 17. Here we have the famous speech of Paul in Athens on the Areopagus. After chastising the Athenians for worshipping idols, he explains the true God to them. Then he states:
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.”
Paul speaks at length about the true nature of God, how he created us, rather than us creating Him. Paul then asks the Athenians to repent of their ignorance of thinking God could be contained in an idol, something created by human hands. He offers the proof of his message – the resurrection – as validating the truth statements concerning Jesus which he had given to the Athenians.
Again, Paul is offering new information, then asking his audience to change their minds based on the new information.
What is repentance in this passage? It is repenting of the foolish notion that God can be contained in idol form which is created by people. It is repenting of a thought, a belief. Paul’s statement immediately before asking the Athenians to repent is: “We ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.”
This passage has long been heralded as a great example of contextualizing the gospel so people can understand it within their culture. But it is also a direct rebuke against the Athenians’ beliefs about God and consequent forms of worship. The Athenians, who considered themselves so wise and learned, would not have reacted well to Paul essentially calling them foolish and ignorant.
Paul’s statements would have been absolutely crushing to their pride.
That’s why it’s a miracle that any of the Athenians were willing to hear Paul out on another day, and still others believed.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection, of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed…”
Now it’s interesting that the response of the Athenians isn’t recorded that “some repented” but “some believed.” That’s because believing was the response that Paul was looking for as a result of repenting.
But why did Paul employ the term “repent” in the first place rather than “believe” as he did in Acts 16:31 with the Phillipian jailer?
There are a few good reasons why “repent” would have been the preferable term.
(1) Paul was laying the groundwork for belief in Christ. The Athenians would gladly have laid “believe in Jesus” on top of their misguided idol worship and polytheism. In fact, they were already prepared with their idol to the unknown god. Correcting the Athenian’s beliefs about the nature of God would have been necessary in order for their faith in Jesus to be genuine.
(2) Repent is the preferable term when an incorrect belief system is in view, and new information as well as good arguments are given to challenge the incorrect belief system.
Yet Another Example – 2 Timothy 2:25
In 2 Timothy Paul is giving his final instructions to his star pupil, Timothy. Paul gives a lot of advice here that would be helpful for any Christian, but Paul is writing specifically to Timothy as a young pastor, and how to conduct himself as a leader in the church.
“But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they product quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
Notice Paul’s language here and the context that surrounds his use of the word repentance:
“…foolish and ignorant speculations…”
“…leading to the knowledge of the truth…”
“…come to their senses…
All of the results that Paul is hoping for those opposing Timothy are primarily related to knowledge. Timothy’s correction and the opposition’s repentance, Paul hopes, would lead them to a knowledge of the truth. It would lead them to come to their senses. And ultimately it would lead them out of the snare of the devil.
This certainly fits the theme of the rest of the passages we have looked at, that repentance has to do with a lack of knowledge, being corrected, and then being asked to come to a different conclusion based on the new information.
Now, let us for a moment try the “turn from sin” definition and see how it fits in the context. How would “turning from sin” lead to a knowledge of the truth? Turning from sin would appear to only have an indirect relationship to gaining knowledge and coming to one’s senses.
So far in our study on repentance in the New Testament, it seems that “changing one’s mind based on new information or understanding” is a much better fit than “turning from sin” when you look at the broader literary context of how the term is being used. In every case we examined, repent or repentance, μετανοέω or μετάνοια, was used to call others to reconsider and change their beliefs based on new information or understanding being presented to them.
This does not mean that the terms repent or repentance cannot have anything to do with sin or turning from our sins, however, it just means that “turn from sins” isn’t the actual definition of the word, as many Reformed and even several non-reformed theologians would have us believe.
Of the four uses of repentance we looked at in this article, three of those were used in connection with what someone has to do for salvation. In each of these three examples, the preacher (Peter or Paul) was asking their audience to believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior as a result of repenting. That’s because when it comes to salvation, the issue is who Jesus is and what he did. It’s not about what you do, but what Jesus has done. Is what he did on the cross sufficient to save you from your sins, and do you believe that?
We all have a sin problem which separates us from God. But turning from out sins isn’t the solution to the problem, turning from our sins is the problem. It is because we cannot turn from our sins that we are in need of the blood of Christ. Thank God He provided a perfect solution to our sin problem that all our striving, good works and efforts to stop sinning – all imperfect solutions – could never fix.
“But God demonstrates his own for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8