Repentance, A Word Lost in Translation

How changing one word changes a culture

April 17, 2022

I hate the language learning process, which makes the fact that I speak four languages and have studied more quite ironic, I find the process to be incredibly painful and unenjoyable. Of course the process is not without its rewards, the ability to communicate with more people being most important but one a bit more fun to talk about is the insights that the meanings and translations different words have, and in a religion class I've been taking this church magazine article was referenced that shared an insight like this that I thought was too important not to write about because it refers to one of the most fundamental principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ: repentance.

Shub, Metanoeo, and Poenitere, one thing is not like the others

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. The word used in the original Hebrew text which was used to refer to the concept which we now call repentance was shub. Shub means "to turn from" so a more literal translation of an Old Testament passage telling us to "repent of our sins" would be "turn from our sins." This is beautiful imagery because as we turn away from our sins we are turning towards God, so the act of repentance is an act of turning towards God.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The Greek word we replaced with repentance is metanoeo. The Greek prefix meta- means to change, and the suffix -noeo refers to words and concepts like mind, knowledge, spirit, and breath, so, to quote President Nelson, "when Jesus asks you and me to 'repent,' He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe." So a more literal interpretation of the Greek text of the New Testament would teach us that the act of repentance is an act of change, changing ourselves from the natural man to being more like God.

So up until this point there hasn't been much conflict between the languages, turning towards God and changing ourselves to be more like God are ideas which compliment each other so metanoeo and shub work well as synonyms. The problem arose when the Greek word metanoeo was translated into the Latin poenitere. Poenitere relates to terms such as punish, penance, penitent, and of course the English word it turned into repentance. This tragic translation caused a dramatic shift in the concept of repentance being the act of turning from sin into it being wrongfully understood as punishment, or even payment for sin.

The Impact

This translation changed the Christian world's attitude towards repentance, when Christ was on the earth teaching this principle repentance was meant to be seen as a noble act, but now throughout most of the Christian world it is seen as shameful (at least in how people feel about it before going about it, not in how it is always taught). People now often avoid repenting of their sins because they see it as punishment, and taking things one step further many peoples' main incentive for following God's commandments is that by doing so they are avoiding punishment which while a true and decent incentive it is not a long lasting one, the best incentive to follow is not a fear of punishment or a hope of reward but rather a true love of God (of course if one of the former incentives is yours don't stop following, learn to do it out of love).

The false doctrine that repentance is punishment also morphed into much worse things. One of the major sparks that began the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther's 95 Thesis which, if you read, is almost entirely a critique of the church's practice of selling indulgences, which to oversimplify was a practice that, at the time, substituted repentance for payment. (I'm unaware of indulgences currently being taught in this way) The Protestant Reformation happened in part because the doctrine of repentance was being mistaught, because the Latin mistranslation of metanoeo to poenitere caused people to see repentance as something it was not. Repentance is not punishment or payment for sin, punishment for sin is what you get if you fail to repent.

Repentance, becoming more like Christ

Now I could have ended this all there but it would have been wrong of me to talk about what repentance is and isn't without clarifying how to repent, especially as it is Easter the season when we celebrate the event which makes repentance possible. To repent of a sin we must of course first recognize that we did sin, we must feel remorse for our sin, confess our sin to God and ask Him for forgiveness, we must also ask forgiveness from others from others we may have wronged with our sin and make restitution by trying to correct any problems we may have caused. Hopefully as we continually repent we will learn to stop making the same mistakes again and again as we all do.

But of course repentance is not just a principle that we must remember when we are seeking forgiveness for our sins, the word repentance is just something that we use to sum up concepts that our language had no better word for. Remember shub and metanoeo, we must turn from the sinful tendencies of the natural man and change ourselves to be more like Christ. There are a lot of misconceptions people hold about what it means to be a Christian, coming both from those who don't claim to be and do, of course the simplest definition of a Christian would be one who has faith in Christ, and I guess I won't disagree with that definition, but what should that faith lead one to do, seeing as faith without works is dead. The way I see it the ultimate goal of every Christian should be to live like Christ, who lived a perfect life, a life without sin, a life devoted to the service of others enabled by His perfect love for all of us righteous and wicked, the only life worthy to be sacrificed to make up for all of our sins making forgiveness possible and Heaven obtainable. In other words our lives should be defined by daily repentance, turning from sin and changing ourselves to be more like Christ.