Repent: An Emotional, Morbidly Introspective Internal Witch Hunt or a Life Amendment?

Our liturgy often affects our understanding of the Bible and Bible words that we use, even if we deny that we have a liturgy. An example of this is the way that many of us understand the word repentance. Most of us know that this word carries the meaning of turning around, reversing course, making a significant change in direction, or the like.

However, our liturgy often teaches us a very different meaning of the word. In many churches, every service ends with a “gospel presentation” that often amounts to encouraging the faithful to undergo an emotional period of morbid introspection. This internal witch-hunt is designed to encourage the faithful to come to the front and have an emotional experience. This, of course, we often call repentance.

Thus, our Bible teaching gives us one definition of repentance, but our practice, our liturgy, gives us another. As is often the case, what we do ends up trumping what we say, and our understanding of the word repentance is driven by our practice. Therefore, when we read something like “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” in Matthew 4:17, we naturally understand this to mean “go on an emotional, morbidly introspective witch hunt which will hopefully culminate in an emotionally-driven action like going to the altar at the end of the service.” Unfortunately, these emotional “repentances” often wear off as quick as the emotions that precipitated them do.

Accordingly, many of us American evangelicals need to rethink our definition of repentance. Sometimes a different take or translation can be helpful in doing that.

For example, the 1599 Geneva Bible translates Matthew 4:17 at little differently. It reads: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Amend your lives, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

When used in this sense, “amend” means to change for the better or improve. Further, it does not carry the liturgical baggage that has unfortunately attached to “repent” in American evangelicalism today. Thus, for many us, the substitution of the word “amend” for “repent” may be very helpful to our understanding of what Jesus is trying to tell us. He is not sending us on an endless purely emotional internal witch hunt, which, of course, when the emotion wears off often leaves our real lives little changed. Rather, he is challenging us to actually change our patterns of thinking, acting, and speaking in order to bring them into line with what should be expected of a citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom, in other words change your lives for the better.