What is Repentance for St. Paul?
Holy Scripture is the recorded history of man’s relationship with God. The main message of this history is that of repentance. Repentance is the message of the Old Testament in the Law of Moses and the proclamations of the Prophets. This is also the message of the forerunner of Christ St. John the Baptist. Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ proclaims this same message of repentance throughout His public ministry. St. Paul in his epistles to the early Christian communities instructs them in the same message: Repent.
St Paul and Christ“Repentance” in the English language is often understood as deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or regret for any past action. While this understanding is an aspect of the scriptural understanding of the word “repentance,” it is not a complete understanding of the word.
The Greek word from the New Testament that is translated as repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia). The understanding of μετάνοια in the Greek language is that of change; a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of being. St. Paul was not only a Hebrew but he also had Roman citizenship. As a Roman citizen St. Paul was fluent in the Greek language giving him a full understanding of the word μετάνοια. Μετάνοια is used sparingly in St. Paul’s epistles: Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9-10; 2 Timothy 2:25; and Hebrews 6:1, 6:6 and 12:17.
In the Old Testament the concept of μετάνοια is expressed by the Hebrew words שׁוּב (shub), meaning to turn back or return, and נָחַם (nacham), meaning to regret or be sorry for. St. Paul was very familiar with this Old Testament concept of repentance. He was a Pharisee prior to his conversion and the son of a Pharisee. Gamaliel, a Pharisee doctor of Jewish Law and a leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the mid-1st century AD, was the teacher of St. Paul.
It is with this understanding of change or turning back toward God that St. Paul understands repentance from his life experience. In his epistles, St. Paul unites the understanding of repentance in the Hellenic world with that of the Hebraic world. This understanding may be seen in the following from his epistles:
God Waits For Our Repentance
God patiently awaits our repentance out of His love for us while respecting our free will to reject Him. The greatest gift that God gives us is time to change our ways and return to Him. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans says the following about God waiting for our repentance. “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and long suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” ( Romans 2:4) It is God that waits and suffers for His wayward children, us, to return to our intended path of living in communion with Him by giving us the time to lead us to repentance. St. Cyprian in his treatise On the Advantage of Patience states the following regarding this verse “He (St. Paul) says that God’s judgment is just, because it is tardy, because it is long and greatly preferred, so that by the long patience of God man may be benefited for life eternal” to further illustrate that delays His judgment to give us time to repent.
How Should One Repent?
In order to repent we must first realize that there is something is not right in our life; that we are not living up to what God had intended for us. St. Paul speaks to this in Hebrews 6:1 “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” St. Paul reminds us that repentance is an ongoing process it does not end with the realization that we are not in line with God’s intended life for us. St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this verse, brings out that the focus should be on the full restoration to a life with God when he says “‘let us go on unto perfection?’ Let us henceforth proceed (he means) even to the very roof, that is, let us have the best life. For as in the case of the letters the Alpha involves the whole, and as the foundation, the whole building, so also does full assurance concerning the Faith involve purity of life. And without this it is not possible to be a Christian, as without foundations there can be no building; nor skill in literature without the letters.”
When we arrive at this realization of that there is something is not right in our life; or the setting of a foundation of repentance, sorrow for the wrong doing creeps in to motivate us to move forward in the process of repentance. St. Paul address this in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 when he says “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse in the following way “…(St. Paul) praises of them…that the sorrow brought some gain. For a father also when he sees his son under the knife rejoices not that he is being pained, but that he is being cured; so also doth this man.” St. Paul and St. John are pointing out that this is a joyful sorrow. It is not joyful that the person is suffering from their sin but they are being healed by taking action to return to a Godly life. St. John Chrysostom further states that “…the blessed Paul hath said he needs not to adduce (cite as an example) from other sources the proof of what he said, nor to bring forward those in the old histories who sorrowed, but he adduces the Corinthians themselves; and furnishes his proof from what they had done.” In short we do not need any more example of the truth of this other then what has occurred in our own lives.
St. Paul shows us that it is possible to be sorrowful for sin but not repentant when he speaks of Esau in Hebrews 12:17: “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on this verse, makes this point even more clear when he says, “Judas also repented, but in an evil way: for he hanged himself. Esau too repented; as I said; or rather, he did not even repent; for his tears were not [tears] of repentance, but rather of pride and wrath.” We must realize that our sorrow leads us back to God.
Instruction in Repentance
We must all be instructed in repentance as St. Paul instructs the young Bishop Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:25 with the following words: “in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.” St. John Chrysostom further elaborates on this point by saying “…it is possible…to touch more effectually by gentleness… teach…those who are willing to be taught…From constant teaching, it often happens that the plow of the word, descending to the depth of the soul, roots out the evil passion that troubled it. For he that hears often will at length be affected.” It is by gentle reminders that that we continue in our life in repentance.
If any of us should fall away from this life of repentance St. Paul instructs us in Hebrews 6:6 with the following: “if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” St. John Chrysostom further instructs: “For behold the love of God to man! We ought on every ground to have been punished at the first; in that having received the natural law, and enjoyed innumerable blessings, we have not acknowledged our Master, and have lived an unclean life. … Again we fell away, and not even so does He punish us, but has given medicine of repentance, which is sufficient to put away and blot out all our sins.” St. Paul and St. John do not deny that it is a terrible thing to fall away from a way of life that returns us to God and what He intended for us, but, they point out that through applying the medicine of repentance it is possible to turn yet again to God in His mercy because of His love for us.
For St. Paul repentance is about a return of man to God. This entails a realization of man’s separation from God and the deep sorrow that comes from that realization. That realization is a joyful event because it is at that point the beginning of the healing of the whole man, body and soul, occurs. St. Paul identifies the healing of repentance as continuous with profound struggle.