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What is repentance?

What is repentance? Using social science research, we have noted in several places that our "guilt-oriented theology" isn't a match for the ancient world, in which shame rather than guilt was a primary moral motivator. This leads to a question of what exactly repentance ought to involve. Does it mean a spate of crying, blubbering, and emotional distress? Or is this just another invention, another accessory added to the original meaning?

A classic study of repentance was done by William Chamberlain (The Meaning of Repentance). While written in 1943, reading Chamberlain's text [MOR] is such that one may as well be in our own day. The issues have changed little since his day, and the same error keeps on creeping in. Repentance is NOT an emotional experience; it is something far more practical.

Chamberlain notes that "the popular concept of repentance has been tragically shallow: it has been perverted into emotionalism or sacramentarianism." [18] In Protestantism "repentance has been almost exclusively associated with an emotional crisis of sorrow for sin and fear of punishment." [19]

Note how this also corresponds with the threat of eternal hell as an evangelistic tactic -- something never found in the New Testament during missionary preaching. In contrast, repentance "prepares men to participate in" the Kingdom of God -- a definition which happens to dovetail precisely with our point that the KoG is an ideological rule within the minds (hearts) of God's people. Thus repentance is the act of "co-operating with God's will on earth."

The association of repentance with emotion is an error noted by many commentators, including John Calvin, who said that it was not (among other things) "a sorrow of heart and bitterness of soul on account of the evils which a man has committed, or to which he has consented." [23] Nor is it "being sorry for your sins -- so sorry that you won't commit them again." [24] Nor is it "godly sorrow for sin" -- though such sorrow CAN lead to repentance (2 Cor. 7:8-10), the fact that it is distinguished from it shows that they are not the same.

This is also in line with the social setting of the New Testament as an honor-shame society: As Zeba Crook notes in Reconceptualising Conversion [45], while there may have been emotions associated with honor and shame, shame "was not an emotion, but a demotion." It was a "standard of activity." Therefore, repentance (as a way of shedding shame before God) by no means required an emotional experience.

"Conversion" was primarily not an introspective experience (the defining feature was some external benefaction and one's reaction to it -- 199). Hence as well the error of those who claim that Paul converted because he "felt guilty" about killing Christians, etc.

Chamberlain blames the misunderstanding of "repentance" on early Latin mistranslations which were carried over into later translations. He describes the meaning rather in terms of "a complete change in mental outlook and of life design" [31] (as we may say, an "attitude adjustment") and a "similarity of mind between God and his people" [36]. Calvin himself called it a "change of mind and intention" [38].

So what does God expect of the repentant? Based on his analysis of the texts, Chamberlain concludes that the result of repentance is that one will put God at the center of one's life -- which also happens to match the description of faith as loyalty to one's patron.