John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, began his preaching with the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:2). That was Christ’s first message too! (Matt 4:17).
In the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘repentance’ comes from the Greek ‘metanoia,’ which means ‘to change one’s mind’ or ‘to turn around.’ To repent is to have a change of heart.
An idea has developed in some non-Orthodox circles that repentance is a unique, one-time activity that occurs when first making a commitment to Jesus as Lord.
But is repentance really a one-time event? What if it were more than that? What if repentance goes deeper?
Many Christians have discovered that the further you travel in the Christian journey, the deeper and more profound is your repentance.
St. Isaac the Syrian once said, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.” St. Isaac’s dictum suggests that the purpose of life is repentance.
Repentance has been described as, “a radical change in one’s spirit, mind, thought, and heart, a complete reorientation of the whole of one’s life. It is the necessary first step in the way of the Lord. It is accompanied by the confession of sins and the act of baptism, and is followed by a life filled with fruits worthy of this change.” 1
Repentance is the necessary first step that allows us to develop a desire for God. It weans us from the desires of the world and nourishes us on heavenly desires.
Repentance is a gift from God. And it is a learned skill. Repentance takes practise, insight and experience. True repentance takes a lifetime of practice; the fruit of a lifetime of walking with God.
At first, all we see are those gross sins that are obvious to all. With practice and experience, we begin to distinguish between the sins of the body and the sins of the spirit. We begin to understand how weak and corrupt our souls truly are. And we begin to understand the antidote for this disorder.
Sin is anything that causes us to fall short of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Being like Jesus is the goal of the Christian life.
And what is Jesus Christ like? He is the embodiment of love:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4–7).
Love endures all things—up to and beyond the threshold of death. For Jesus gave us this new commandment: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Then He lived it.
This is the standard of love to which Christians are called.
If we’ve fallen short of this standard and goal, then we’re called to repent. Like the father of the prodigal son, God stands ready to forgive us. He stands ready to forgive us at every level of repentance.
A recent convert to Orthodoxy exclaimed, “In Orthodoxy, the repentance is deeper!”
About the Christian, Fr. Gregory Hallam says:
“Salvation is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God through a repentance that opens the kingdom of heaven through faith. But it is much more than that. The Holy Spirit is given that we might recover what was lost through our primal disobedience—the fullness of the very life of God Himself.” 2
The commandment to love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and to love my neighbour as myself has taken on new meaning.
Our lives have been given us for repentance. Our lives are a preparation.
The Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, writes:
“The renewal of one’s nature occurs in baptism (Rom 6:4), but the renewal of the mind occurs in repentance (Rom 12:2). With repentance, we prepare our hearts for the dwelling of God, and with purity, we will see God (Matt. 5:8).” 3
Learning to repent takes time, practise and the indwelling grace of God. Fr. Schmemann explains how the services of the Church help us learn to live a life of repentance.
“We need to discover the true meaning of preparation as the very focus of our spiritual life, as that spiritual effort which always reveals to us our unworthiness and makes us therefore desire the Sacrament of healing and forgiveness, and which by revealing to us the unfathomable depth of Christ’s love for us, makes us love Him and desire to be united with Him.
“And if we ‘rediscover’ all this, we shall also discover that, in fact, the entire life of the Church has always been that preparation: that all her rules—liturgical and spiritual, penitential and disciplinary—have indeed no other reason for existence but to help us in making our own life a constant preparation … for that … for which Communion itself prepares us—the joy and fulness of the ‘day without evening’ of God’s eternal kingdom.” 4
A daily preparation for repentance is relevant every day of our life. A daily prayer life. Daily scripture reading. Meditation. Fasting. Charity. Participating in all the services of the Church. All are aimed at fostering and growing a deepening life of repentance.
A repeating refrain within the Orthodox Church’s Canon of Repentance is:
“Only grant me, O Lord, repentance before the end.” 5
In this sense, the repentance that we experience now is like a set of training wheels that help us begin to understand where true repentance lies. It is also clear from this prayer that true repentance is a spiritual gift from On High.
All through the New Testament, the need to repent from sin is heard. We find that repentance is always connected with healing. Learning to live the life of repentance leads to the healing of our souls.
“Only grant me, O Lord, repentance before the end.” 5
“This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it.” 6
1. St. Athanasius Orthodox Academy, 2008. “The Orthodox Study Bible”, p. 1269.
2. Fr. Gregory Hallam. “E-Quip 1A – 6 Human Person”, p. 10.
3. Pope Shenouda III, “The Life of Repentance and Purity”, pp. 13, 17, 19.
4. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, 1969. “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha”, pp. 132–133.
5. Orthodox Church, “The Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Pomorg.org.
6. Orthodox Church, Tradition attributed to St. Isaac the Syrian. Icon and Light.