What Is Metanoia?

The following Description is taken from the essay "10 Practices for Emergent Churches" by JOhn Schwiebert


The second essential practice of the church described in the New Testament is metanoia.  Unfortunately the English word used most often to translate the word metanoia, when it appears in the Greek New Testament, is “repentance.”  For most Americans repentance has come to mean (a) a feeling such as regret, remorse, contrition, or shame, or (b) an act of piety in response to such feelings, such as penance, reparation or atonement.  But none of these words does justice to the New Testament meaning. 

The Greek word is formed by combining the word meta meaning “beyond” and the word noia meaning “mind.”  The combination literally means “beyond mind.”  It expresses the idea of gaining a new mind-set, a new way of thinking and acting, a new orientation to life.  To repent really means to start thinking and acting in a radically different way.

Thus in the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus say, as he begins his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom (commonwealth) of God has come near, repent (metanoeite), and believe in [this] good news” (Mark 1: 15). The connection between the coming near of the commonwealth of God and this call to people to change their ways of thinking and acting is really a call to shift their loyalty from the current social and political establishment (in Jesus time, the Roman Empire and its Judean allies) to the new political and social reality that God is bringing into being.

It is important to note that the twin imperatives “repent” and “believe in the good news” are not two different activities, but two ways of expressing the same pursuit.  In this instance to believe in good news does not mean to hold a strong mental or even visceral conviction that the news is true and that it is good, but rather to act in the certainty that a the new situation proclaimed by Jesus mandates a radical difference in behavior.

In inviting his hearers to undergo metanoia, Jesus follows the example of his contemporary, John the Baptist, who in his preaching offered a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mark 1:4) with immersion in the Jordan River as an appropriate sign.  Clearly the Gospel writer wants us to understand that metanoia is not just an introduction to the possibility of change, but an extraordinary, wrenching initiation into a radical new way of life.

Later, in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon in which he preaches to the crowd and helps them to understand their Pentecostal experience, his stunned audience is “cut to the heart,” and they ask Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37).  And Peter’s immediate response is the same as that of Jesus: Repent!

Later in his response Peter makes even clearer the change he is calling for when he says, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation,” (Acts 2:40) or, to use Eugene Peterson’s colloquial language, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture.”[1]

In the 18th century John Wesley had a similar kind of behavior in mind when he invited his fellow Methodists to “flee from the wrath to come.”

Clearly then repentance involves a turning away from the distorted values and practices of the dominant culture and a turning toward the Kingdom (Reign, Rule, or Commonwealth) of God.  (See Mark 1:15, Luke 24:45-47, Acts 2:37-42, Acts 5:27-32, and Acts 11:18 and notice the ways the words “repent” and “repentance” are used).  Those who would be followers of Jesus are expected to renounce allegiance to any lesser rule or power and instead to “seek first the Kingdom of God. . .” (Matthew 6:33) and to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Mark 8:24) i.e. follow Jesus into the risk of punishment because of their resistance to the ruling powers and the accepted customs of the dominant culture.

This is not, however, a call to isolate ourselves and our churches from engagement with the world.  Jesus and the Apostles practiced serious engagement with the world.  It is a call, rather, to live in the world without being formed by the world.  The Apostle Paul urges the ekklesia in  the city of Rome to

 . . . not be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God . . .” (Romans 12:2). 

(Note that in this verse the Greek word translated as “mind” is singular in the Greek, meaning that the mind to be transformed is the collective mind of the ekklesia, not the individual minds of the members!)

An early example of metanoia in action appears in Acts 5, where the Jerusalem apostles refuse to conform to the demands of the temple establishment, saying “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).

Another example of metanoia is found in the embrace of pacifism by the earliest generations of Jesus followers:

Christ said, “Love your enemies.”  Paul added, “Overcome evil with good.”  It is clear that Christians in the post-biblical age continued to live this message.  So universal was this affirmation that every Christian statement on the subject dating from the first 300 years that survives today opposes Christian participation in war.  There are no exceptions.  There is no record of any early Christian having written anything that condoned war.[2]

Two stories illustrate how radical this position was in a Roman Empire that expected all able bodied young men to participate in military service:

. . . [W]hen one 21-year-old Christian, Maximilianus (c.295) was commanded to enlist in the Roman army, he replied:  I cannot serve as a soldier.  I cannot do evil.  I am a Christian.”  Like Stephen, James, and other earlier apostles, he was executed.[3]

Marcellus, a centurion, became a Christian.  He refused to fight, so was thrown into prison, but said, “I threw down [my arms] for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it [also] by inflicting earthly injuries.”  They killed him, but the clerk of the court was so impressed he accepted Christ and also was executed,[4]

A third example of metanoia in the ekklesai in the New Testament involves the confrontation, renunciation, and elimination of the power of money in individual and community life.  Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” for they are rival masters. (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13). When the Jesus followers turned to God they discovered that this also meant turning away from dependence on, or even interest in, the accumulation of what Jesus called “dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9 NRSV).  For the ekklesia in Jerusalem this meant getting rid of private wealth entirely:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private possession of anything, but everything they owned was held in common (Gr. koine) . . . for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  They laid it at the Apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-34)

It is important to note that metanoia is offered as God’s gift to all those who are ready to receive it and embrace it, trusting the Holy Spirit to work the changes in our hearts and in our shared life that we will need in order to sustain those changes.  Indeed, as Jesus is reported to have pointed out, without God’s gift of metanoia the changes that metanoia requires would be impossible (see Matthew 19: 26).

A beautiful testimony to the reality of metanoia as divine gift is found in Acts 11: 15-18 where Peter concludes a report to the somewhat skeptical ekklesia in Jerusalem about his emerging new friendship with non-Jewish believers:

 . . . And as I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  When they heard this they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the metanoia that leads to life."

Metanoia leads to life!  The ways of empire lead to death and indeed promote death.  Those who follow Christ turn from death to life, and that turning is the gift called “metanoia.” It is the gift referenced in the famous song that goes:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, 
‘tis a gift to come ‘round where we ought to be
and when we find ourselves in a place that’s right
it will be in the valley of love and delight!
When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘til by turning, turning we come round right.[5]

Metanoia in the 21st Century Ekklesia

The typical institutional church congregation in North America today is not designed to embrace the gift of metanoia as radical change from the ways of the dominant culture. Most congregations are so accustomed to conforming to the world’s expectations rather than to God’s expectations, that changing direction will seem impossible.  But, as Jesus is reported to have said, “for God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

In the small emergent church that I have been a part of for more than a quarter century, it has been helpful to frame our situation as a church in the language of recovery from addiction, since many of our members are quite familiar with the work of the several twelve step recovery programs.   We recognize and admit that we are addicted to the ways of the world are that are contrary to the values of the kin-dom of God—such as privatization of property; the accumulation of money and the over-consumption of things that money can buy; the idolatry of the nuclear family; the economic, racial, ethnic, and social classification of persons for purposes of discrimination and privilege; the exploitation of the natural world and the depletion of its resources; and the willingness to enjoy the wealth and other privileges of a nation that has acquired these at the expense of other peoples who are left to deal with poverty, disease and despair as a result.

Like those with other addictions we admit that we are powerless over our addictions and that we must rely on the strength of a higher power working in us to detach from them.  For us whose life is in the ekklesia that higher power is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the “working in us” is God’s gift of metanoia

We know that the working of God’s power within us must begin with an initial process of detoxification followed by a longer period of disciplined recovery involving mutual mentoring by fellow addicts, such as is achieved through a twelve-step program.  We already have precedents for such programs, such as the catechetical process by which early followers of Jesus prepared for baptism, and the class meetings initiated by John Wesley in the 18th century for the people called Methodist.

Just as recovering alcoholics and drug users figure out ways to stay away from drugs and alcohol, so with the help of our fellow believers can we figure out what we need to do, individually and collectively, to effectively eliminate our dependence on the things that harm us and our world.  Such ways can include:

1.   The renunciation of private property, either by choosing not to own property, or by regarding the property we do own as property held in trust for the common good rather than as private investment.

2.   Living communally rather than in isolated nuclear family units, and donating to the poor the money saved thereby.

3.   Avoiding the ownership and use of private automobiles and the fossil fuels needed to run them, by using public transportation.

4.   Sharing of income and other resources according to actual need (see specific suggestions in the following chapter on koinonia.)

5.   Stopping shopping!  Forgoing acquisitions that are frivolous and limiting purchases to items that are essential.

6.   Saying “no” to the practices and demands of empire by engaging in non-violent civil disobedience against, and non-cooperation with, specific forms of injustice, and accepting the criminal penalties that may result, including fines and jail time. 

The above ways, in addition to helping free ourselves, from our addiction to the ways of the dominant culture, can also be a witness or testimony to our commitment to the Commonwealth of God.


[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1995)

[2] JohnLamoreau and Ralph Beebe: Waging Peace: A Study in Biblical Pacifism (Newberg, Oregon: The Barclay Press).  The authors cite Kenneth Scoit Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1953).

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid