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The Meaning of 'Metanoia'

With God, there is always something new to learn.


Today is a good day. I am beyond excited and honored to be preaching the Word of God this morning. This is one of my greatest passions in life, and although I've preached many times before, there's nothing quite as special as preaching in your own home church—with your family. This is the place where God has called me to serve, and I love it. I love being here in the United States. I love learning from you and your culture. That's obviously not to say that I don't go through challenges—because I do, even here at church. We have a certain pastor who insists that Taco Bell is legit Mexican food, and I don't know what to do with that. It's a real struggle, people.

I'm just kidding—well, not really—but I do experience more difficult cultural clashes that, many times, challenge me at my core. They challenge my identity and even my faith at times, because believe it or not, every country has very particular expectations of what Christianity should look like: of what a Christian person should look like or dress like or speak like, of what a Christian guy should do, what a Christian woman should do. I've learned to realize that every time I face those challenges, God opens a door for me. He taps on my shoulder and says, "Hey, don't jump to conclusions too quickly. Don't look at it from your own perspective. Come to me; bring me into the picture, and I will show you what to do."

That's what I want to talk to you about today: that wonderful yet painful process of being constantly challenged and transformed by the power of God.

Reconciling 'repentance'

(Read Luke 13:1-9)

Let's take a step back and remember that in this passage, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he is teaching as he travels—that's been part of his journey. We are in chapter 13, which means that for a while, he's been announcing the Good News to the poor, he's been performing miracles, he's been saying that God's kingdom is at hand and all those great things, and here's a group of people who are saying, "Yes, Jesus, we hear you, but did you hear about the horrible tragedy that happened in Galilee?" Granted, the text doesn't show the exact question they asked, but they were either demanding an explanation from Jesus or trying to help him out with a reality check, and we know that because that's what we all do, don't we?

The moment tragedy hits us, we go, "What? God, why did you allow that? Are you even aware? Do you not see this tragedy that is overcoming me, my spouse, my family? Do you have anything to say about that?" We all do that. We do it internally with our own struggles, and we also do it collectively when a major tragedy afflicts a nation or a society: like a killing in Roseburg, Oregon, or a shooting in San Bernardino, California. These are events that shake the society, and even if we're not physically harmed by them, they nonetheless affect us. They make us wonder.

And that's what was happening with these people. They were wrestling with the news headlines of the day: Pontius Pilate, the political leader who was supposed to keep social order and safety, had killed a group of Galileans in the temple as they were bringing sacrifices. If you know anything about Pilate, you know that he was a brutal character; he was the very face of evil, and he had committed a massacre equivalent to the beheading of innocent people in the hands of ISIS. When we hear of tragedies like these (or any kind of tragedy for that matter), we tend to have many questions we want to ask God, but we also tend to jump into conclusions that don't always reflect the heart of God. And that's what Jesus is addressing in this passage.

Look at his response in verse two. He says, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?" What Jesus is basically saying is: "Really? Is that what you think? That those who died somehow deserved it?" We can't blame these people because they were simply following their own Jewish tradition and ideology and theology of suffering, which said that if something bad happened to you, it surely had to do with a sin you had committed.

For some of us, this may seem like an ancient way of thinking, but it's very much alive in us— this message is for us because the flip side of that thinking is that if tragedy is a reflection of one sin, then the absence of tragedy is the reflection of some kind of piety or self-righteousness. And you know what that is? That is the model of salvation based on works. That's what it is: a model of salvation, a way of doing life where we are the masters of our own faith.

Jesus knows that. He knows where their minds are going, so he adds a very clear statement in verse three that says: "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." In other words, he is saying to them, "You think your self-righteousness is going to keep you safe. I tell you no." Because no matter how righteous you maybe, you still live in a world tainted by sin, and tragedy can hit you anytime—like the 18 he refers to in verse four. They died because a tower fell on them. In this example, there is no one to blame; it was more like a "natural cause." He could have used another example: disease, a car accident, a cancer, you name it. Yet the answer is the exact same. "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5).

Now, let me be honest with you. The first time I read this passage, I thought, Whoa, is this what you call "the Good News"? Repent or perish! That sounds like a threat to me! Doesn't it? He says it twice!

Let me just make a quick parenthesis to tell you about a super basic rule of biblical theology that says if you want to interpret a passage, however short or obvious it may seem, you need to read it in light of the whole canon, because that's what makes it biblical: not taking one passage and just going with it as if it weren't in isolation from the rest of Scripture, not copying a passage and pasting it into our own agenda. We do that, but biblical theology says, "No, you need to go back to the text. What is the greater narrative saying?" And the greater narrative says that God is kind, that God is good, that God is merciful. He gives us opportunities; he forgives us. So how can we reconcile the words of Jesus in this passage with the greater narrative?

The word "repent" is our key word here. I want to invite you to unpack it with me, because this is a pregnant word that's loaded with meaning. It's actually the key to understanding the whole passage, and, I dare say, the entire gospel.

The word in the original Greek is metanoia. Meta means "after" or "change," and this word literally means "a change of mind." It carries this notion of transformation into something new—a new mindset. We need to be careful with the word "mind" here, because in ancient times, mind and heart were often used interchangeably. Metanoia, in the biblical sense, really talks about a complete transformation of who we are into the image of who God is. Richard Trench defined it as "a mighty change of mind, heart, and life that can only be brought about by the Spirit of God."

Metanoia is a great word, but the bad news is that this word has gotten lost in translation throughout the centuries, because against this wonderful backdrop of human transformation, the English word we get is ..."repent." That's just not fair, and you're about to see why.

The doorway to the Gospel

We usually study the words in the original Greek or Hebrew and that's great—we need to do that—but what I want to do today is to study it in English as well. I want to do that for two reasons: one, I'm a Spanish speaker and I always need to do that, and two, it's going to show us how language has this power to shape our thoughts and even our theology. If we do a poor job of choosing a word, we can completely destroy the message we're trying to send.

I'll never forget an experience I had in seminary when I was part of the student council. We were trying to come up with an activity we could do at the beach. I quickly said, "I have an idea! Why don't we go to the beach at night, and light up a big fire bon!" The moment I said that, they all had this weird look on their face. A guy said, "You mean 'bonfire'?" I said, "No, I mean 'fire-bon,' buddy. You should revise your English because that word is a no-brainer. Look, when you say 'railroad,' you're talking about a road made out of rails; when you say 'wood house,' you mean a house made out of wood. So when I say 'fire bon,' I'm talking about a 'bon' made out of fire!" I was convinced I was right, and you know there's nothing worse than an ignorant person with confidence—please don't be one.

Anyway, the story didn't end there. After they kept insisting it was 'bonfire,' I said, "Okay, whatevs, 'bonfire'—we can sit around it, sing some worship songs, and then we can pull out the marshmallows, chocolates, and crackers and boom! We end the night having Smurfs!" Of course, everybody lost it. That day, I learned a big lesson on the importance of choosing our words carefully. If that's true for our everyday life, how much more is it true when it comes to studying the Bible, right?

Let's dig into this English word "repentance." What does it really mean? I have a feeling you're not going to like this.

The word comes from Latin, and it's made out of two words: re (which means "back" or "again") and penitentia (which literally means "penance," and the root word for "penance" is "pain" and "sorrow"). I told you: You were not going to like this. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong."

Basically, "repentance," in its literal sense, says that our job is to look back at what we've done and feel real bad about it. Granted, some people may need a little bit of that before experiencing metanoia. But the word has a very strong negative connotation; it evokes regret and contrition of the heart, and then it ends there in regret.

You know, when I first became a Christian and I began to read about all the amazing women the Bible talks about, I so desperately wanted to identify with them: women like Mary and Hannah and Deborah, courageous women who said "yes" to God and were brave enough to walk into the promises and gifting God had for them. I wanted to see myself in them. But when I looked at my life, if I was honest with myself, I knew that I was more like a Jacob. I was a cheater. I cheated in school, I cheated when I played games, and I also cheated on people. Many times. That's who I was. And every time I cheated on someone, I genuinely regretted it; let's just say I "repented," because I felt real bad for what I'd done. But you know what? That's as far as I went, because soon enough I'd find myself doing it all over again. My life was just a vicious cycle of repenting and repenting and repenting without ever getting anywhere.

Are you familiar with that cycle? We all have an area in our lives where we experience those vicious cycles. For some it may be cheating or lying to people; for others, it may be watching porn, or stealing, or remaining in a relationship you know is no bueno. Maybe it's a self-deprecating habit you have or a yo-yo diet that keeps you regretting every bite of food you have. It could be anything, really, and even though you know you shouldn't do it, you just end up doing it over and over again. Do you know why that is? Because regret cannot take you very far—but metanoia can.

You see, the word "repentance" forces you to look back and beat yourself up for what you've done, but metanoia invites you to look at the future and the promises God has for you. When we understand that, we realize that Jesus' words are not words of condemnation, but words of invitation into a new life. When he was talking to the people in the passage, he was not saying, "Do this or else I'll throw you off the cliff." He was saying, "You're already down there, and I don't care if you're a righteous person or a sinner: You cannot have life unless you turn to me. I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the light, and no one comes to the Father except through me." Now, that sounds more like good news doesn't it?

What Jesus was saying was this: "I didn't come here just to give you explanations of what happens around you. I'm here to tell you how transformation can happen within you, and once you experience that, your entire worldview will change—and suddenly you'll realize the tragedies you see around the world are not proof I don't exist, but the very evidence of how much you need me. But first, you need to experience change."

You see, metanoia is our doorway to the gospel. E very time Jesus spoke about salvation and the coming of God's kingdom, he talked about metanoia as a pre-condition for it. In Matthew 4:17, when Jesus began to preach, he said, "Metanoia [repent], for the kingdom of heaven has come near." In Acts 3:19, Peter said to the people, "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out." Even John the Baptist talked about this: His famous baptism of repentance was really a baptism of metanoia, and Paul mentioned it in Acts 19:4 when he said, "John's baptism was a baptism of metanoia [repentance]. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus."

Revisiting our traditions

The question that still remains is this one: If "repentance" is such a far cry from the true meaning of metanoia, how on Earth did we end up with that word in our Bibles? To answer that question, I'm going to give you the history of how the Bible got translated into English in exactly three minutes, and I'm going to ask you to track with me because I'm going to do it like Speedy Gonzalez.

In 1380, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English for the first time, and the word he chose for this passage was "penance." Now we know that wasn't the best choice, but we can't really blame him because he wasn't translating from Greek; he was translating from the Vulgate, which was a Latin version of the Bible.

Then in 1530, William Tyndale translated the New Testament and thought, Hmm, how about changing it to "repent"? (I'm not even going to say anything about that.)

By 1535, Myles Coverdale translated the Bible again and said, "I'm sure we can come up with a better word than that!" He used the word "amend"—which is great, because it involves this notion of fixing or changing something for better. At some point, there was hope for English speakers.

Fast-forward to 1539: The Great Bible was published (the only reason it was called the Great Bible was because the thing was massive), and for some reason, the translators went back to "repent." Don't ask me why, but here we begin to see a thread.

In 1560, a group of Protestant Reformers published the Geneva Bible—and these guys knew better, so they went back to "amend." They actually included footnotes and marginal notes in this Bible, and it quickly became one of the most famous translations in Europe.

However, in 1611, King James of England said "Uh-uh, we are the Anglican Church, and we need our own Bible." He put together a group of translators, and they went back to "repent." By doing that, they sealed this linguistic tradition, because as many of you know, the King James Version became the Bible people had to read; it had been institutionalized by the king. It remained the most influential version for English speakers to this day, really.

Most of our modern translations continue to follow this thread and use the word "repent": Among them are the NIV, ESV, NLT, NASB, NKJV, ASV, HCSB, RSV, ISV. You all know them because they are on the list of top 10 Bibles sold in the United States. But there are a few other versions I do need to mention because they either use the word "change" or "turn," as in turn to God. Those versions are The Message, The Voice, The International Children's Bible—we should all be reading children's Bibles—and The Common English Bible, among others.

Now, the point of this timeline is not to decide which word is the correct word, because I don't even think that's possible. That word metanoia is so rich we need an entire definition to describe it. My point here is to see how tradition has a way of getting into our bones without us even realizing it. Let me be clear here: I'm not saying tradition is wrong. All I'm saying is that we should always be open to revisit our traditions and our own ways of thinking about Jesus or Christianity, because with God, there is always something new to learn.

As Christians, we should always be aware that when it comes to our faith, our primary concern is not being right or wrong: It's knowing that we are loved by God, and if we miss this part, we miss the whole point of the gospel. It is because of God's love for us that metanoia is even possible. We shouldn't even have that opportunity, but in Jesus we do. In the face of our own mistakes and failures, Jesus is the one who shows up to tell you, "Whatever's happened to you or whatever you've done, I'm still committed to you. I'm still committed to work with you. I'm still committed to save you. And you know why that is? Because I love you."


Let's look at the parable at the end of our passage.

(Read Luke 13:6-9)

Again, if we read this parable with the mindset of the law, we can very well read a threat here. But if we read it with the mindset of grace, we can only see the opportunity that we have before us and the tremendous grace with which Jesus deal with us—because even when we fail at producing good fruit, he intercedes for us and says, "Don't cut this one down just yet. Leave her alone for one more year, and I'll do my best at providing fertilizer and the right conditions for her to bear that fruit."

There is a final judgment—there's no way around that one—but today's message is about grace and the opportunity we have to turn our lives around with the power of God's Spirit. The opportunity is now; it may not be there tomorrow. You can make a decision right now to come to the arms of Jesus and start anew. Maybe you've given your life to Jesus before, but somewhere down the road, you lost the way. Today is your chance to recognize that only Jesus can change your life around. Whatever it is you've done, or whatever's happened to you, it has all been paid for in the Cross.

Gaby Viesca was born and raised in Mexico and currently serves as Women’s Pastor in Portland, OR.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Reconciling 'repentance'

II. The doorway to the Gospel

III. Revisiting our traditions