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What is Repentance? By Jonathan Brakens

What is repentance? It’s not what most think it is. When Jesus and John instructed listeners to repent because the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:4, 15) their meaning had little to nothing to do with our praxis. It was not about feelings of guilt, sorrow, regret, and a realization that you need a savior or, minimally, that you know and will do better next time.

Repent is the Greek word μετανοέω (metanoeō); Metanoeō is comprised of two root words, μετα (meta) which means to “modify variously according to the case” and νοιεω (noieo) meaning “to exercise the mind.” Thus, the act of repentance is to exercise or modify the mind on a case-by-case basis. This means we must do more than identify our shortcomings and plan to do better next time. In fact, in almost every respect, you cannot determine today how you ought to behave in the future because your determination must be based upon the facts you are presented within the circumstance you have yet to face. There must be present tense calculus, not past.


Playing on the homonymic nature of the word “consideration”, I submit this legal axiom regarding contracts: “past consideration is no consideration at all.” For contracts, consideration is the detriment or thing you give up in exchange for something else (e.g., cash for cookies). The typical, non-legal, definition of consideration is simply a “continuous and careful thought” (MW). In contracts, regardless of how much you paid for cookies last time, whatever agreement you enter into now with Cookie Monster requires you to give up something else . . . now. Repentance says, regardless of how much you paid in “continuous and careful thought” for your prior action — the suboptimum or inapposite act — when faced with a new situation you must, in a future moment, carefully think about how to appositely act. Nothing you paid or planned to pay can cover this experience, you . . . must . . . pay . . . in . . . the . . . future. This is not to say that preparation counts for naught.


Retrospectively, repentance can help you say, “holding all things constant, when ‘X’ occurs again, then I should do ‘Y’”; however, that is at best inchoate repentance. Repentance is complete when you are in a similar circumstance and you react commensurate to the current circumstance. Full repentance means no “bright yellow lines” nor rigid rules that lead you to a definitive answer or automatic “yes” or “no.” Complete repentance demands contemporaneous calculus to understand what is apposite for the case before you, and the flexibility to accept that you may have to “change it up” if faced with a similar circumstance tomorrow.


Inchoate repentance is argued in the shower or on the drive home, cycling through iterations whose resemblance fades from the facts with each succession. Inchoate repentance is susceptible to confirmation bias and the need to regain homeostasis. Full repentance forces you to be an umpire, who must take in the totality of the circumstance, in real-time, to determine what to do.


Full repentance does not make life easier, it makes you more responsive to life. It will make you pay the same amount for contractors who began working a different times of the day (Matt 20:1–16). It will make you tell a young, boastful, rich man to sell his possessions and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17–27), while allowing a woman to pour her expensive perfume on the floor (Mark 14:3–9). It will make you forbear profanity, because doing so will help the speaker freely express his heart.


Full repentance will help you understand that the Bible as written cannot guide you to the apposite decision in every case. Full repentance makes you dependent upon God’s daily input to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13 KJV). Full repentance gives you the space to know what the pages do not, and the faith to walk accordingly.

Full repentance will make you apologize more and preach less because your words may unnecessarily burden the hearer. Full repentance will make you say, after telling God “no” three times: “not my will, but yours be done” (Matthew 26:39-44) or that “God has shown [you] that [you] should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).


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