Jesus calls his disciples to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” in order to attain salvation in the kingdom of God (see Mk 1:15). But what is repentance (metanoia in Greek) and why is it necessary for salvation? These questions lead us to the very heart of the Eternal Covenant that God established in Christ.
Too often, Jesus’ saving work is understood primarily as having obtained pardon for sins. Certainly he offers forgiveness, but He does so for an infinitely greater purpose than freeing us from the debt of sin and the fires of Hell. Christ declared that his purpose in going to the Cross was to draw everyone to himself by sending the Holy Spirit so he could dwell in us and we in him (see Jn 12:32, 16:7; 14:20). That indwelling union is the basis of our salvation.
The new covenantal relationship by which Jesus draws his people (we might say, “clings to” them) is the fulfillment of God’s promise to wed his people to himself and to rejoice over them as over a bride (see Is 62:5). St. Paul had in mind this promise and its fulfillment in Jesus when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he taught that the Genesis passage that a man “clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” actually refers to Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32, citing Gen 2:24).
What Is Christian Salvation?
Christian salvation, then, is our union with God in Christ as members of his Body and Bride, the Church. This union is a personal “communion,” a mutual indwelling and sharing of life in which each person, Divine or human, nevertheless retains a distinct identity, just as spouses become one without losing their identity. In fact, it is only in this communion that as human persons we attain and discover our true identity through our relation to God and, in him, to one another.
Since our salvation consists in this perfect union with God and redeemed humanity in Christ, it is necessary that we be transformed so that we completely share Jesus’ life. That also means sharing in his saving work, just as Adam and Eve shared life and labor.
We know the obstacles to that perfect cooperation and union: our inclination to selfishness (called concupiscence) and our sins. The reason that pardon of sin is not sufficient for our salvation is that it does not remove every trace of our misdirected inclinations or by itself cause God to dwell within us. The people of Israel, for example, experienced God’s forgiveness yet still awaited the new hearts and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised in the New Covenant (Ez 36:25-27; Jer 31:31-33).
If we are honest, each of us recognizes that although we are forgiven, our heart is restricted and irresolute so that we do not yet love as Christ loves—which is the sole measure and commandment of the New Covenant (Jn 13:34). Without the purity of his love in our hearts we cannot see God face to face, as Jesus indicated in the beatitudes (Mt 5:8, see Ps 24:3-4). His purpose in coming was to enable us to be perfectly purified in heart, mind, and body through union with him.
If, contrary to fact, we could arrive in heaven without being purified, we would find it excruciating rather than joyous. In the light of God’s infinite generosity, wisdom, and love, surrounded by the holiness of the saints, our own selfish inclinations—that is, the ways we were not yet completely caught up in the love of God and neighbor in Christ—would stand out starkly and grieve us more than we can now possibly imagine. This would not be caused by sin or guilt since we would already have been forgiven. It would be caused by our horror over the residual narrowness of our heart, revealing our need for something more than forgiveness: a completely pure heart that loves as Jesus loves.
Salvation based on such a love might seem idealistic and impossible and, indeed, for fallen humanity it is but not for God (Mt 19:25-27). God has called us to himself in Christ and come to dwell in us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism. Abiding within us, the Trinity fills us with his life and all the gifts we need to give ourselves to him and to our neighbor in and with Jesus. This is how God enables us to “put on Christ” and receive the “attitude that is also [ours] in Christ Jesus” (Rm 13:14; Phil 2:5-6).
St. Paul describes the “attitude” that is now ours in terms of Jesus’ kenosis (=emptying), the self-emptying love by which he poured himself out in service to God and humanity even to the point of death on the Cross (Phil 2:1-11). This self-emptying was not a denial, violation, or surrendering of Christ’s identity as God made man, rather it was the complete revelation of his identity in his supreme act of love. So, too, our being “poured out” in and with Jesus does not destroy us but becomes the means of actualizing and manifesting our true identity. We were made for receiving God and others in Christ and giving ourselves to them in him. That alone brings us to fulfillment as persons.
There is, however, a catch. Jesus could empty himself, that is, completely dedicate and spend himself in love, because he first was in possession of himself. We, on the other hand, are not in possession of ourselves and are blocked from this self-emptying love because of our sins and inclination to selfishness. That plight constitutes the tragedy of fallen human existence: although we are made for love—for sharing life with God and each other—we find that the narrowness of our hearts inclines us to resist love and at times deliberately to refuse it.
Christ saves us by drawing us to himself while we are in this terrible state. By sharing his life and love, we are set free of the tyranny of sin and selfishness and are enabled to join him in pouring ourselves out in service to God and neighbor. That process of being poured out in and with Christ, of sharing in his “attitude” and life of kenosis, is called metanoia.
The Greek word metanoia means an “after thought,” a personal reorientation affecting heart, mind, and behavior. In Latin, the word was often translated as penitentia, from which the English words “penitence,” “penance,” and “repentance” are derived. The concept was also expressed by the Latin word conversio (=conversion), which literally means a “complete turn” (or colloquially, a “turning around”).
Over the centuries, the words penitence, repentance, and conversion have taken on connotations which can obscure the meaning of metanoia. “Penitence” suggests contrition for sin and the appropriate response of making amends in various ways (so-called “penances”). “Repentance” signifies the recognition and rejection of sin, perhaps including the initial acceptance of Jesus as Savior. “Conversion” often refers to the turning from unbelief to belief in Christ. Each is an aspect of metanoia, but separately and collectively they fail to encompass the whole, which is nothing less than our personal transformation and perfection in Jesus by which we turn completely to God and, in him, to one another.
The key to a proper understanding metanoia is to recognize that it is a divinely bestowed participation and cooperation in the life and saving mission of Christ. Otherwise it would be misunderstood as an arrogant, even blasphemous, form of human perfectionism that is bound to overwhelm us and to fail in its goal. Jesus is the Head and Bridegroom, whereas we are collectively members of his Body and Bride, the Church. We share in his kenosis and his work of salvation (our own and others’) only because he, the Savior, is working in, with, and through us.
The beauty and challenge of our lives as Christians is that we are not merely God’s handiwork: in Jesus we have become his coworkers. Our on-going metanoia simultaneously purifies us to love as Christ loves, constitutes a witness that touches the lives of others, and is a living sacrifice that praises God and offers intercession for the salvation of the world (Jn 15:1-8, 17:20-21; Rom 12:1; Col 1:24).
Although we cannot fully grasp the breathtaking effects of metanoia, we can live it. Jesus described the life of metanoia when he taught his disciples to pray, practice self-sacrifice (e.g., fasting), and carry out works of mercy (e.g., almsgiving; see Mt 6). Through prayer, he is at work within us turning us in heart and mind to God. Through self-sacrifice, he is inwardly turning us away from our selfish inclinations. Through works of mercy, he turns us toward the spiritual and material well-being of others, especially those most in need.
Metanoia is not “works righteousness” because it is not a “dead” work or a merely human activity. It is the life and work of God in which we share, “the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them” (Eph 2:10). Because they are done by, with, and in Christ, they are no cause for human boasting but for boasting in him (see Eph 9; Rom 15:7; Gal 6:14).
To live metanoia, we do not have to undertake elaborate “penances” or do great things. We need only live our daily life in Christ and his love. (One expression of this truth is St. Therese’s “Little Way.”) God has providentially arranged all things so that in the specific circumstances of our lives, whether joyful or sorrowful, we can be purified by journeying in and with Jesus. Even in the face of sin and evil, we encounter Christ opening a path for us.
This means that, apart from sin, everything we do is done in the Lord so we can empty ourselves more fully in loving service to God and neighbor, giving ourselves to them and receiving them. Our life, in turn, becomes a living witness to the Gospel by which God is glorified and we assist others along the path of salvation.
By this metanoia, we are perfected by God in his love and made ready for the day when, in his mercy, we hope to stand before him fully purified and able to see him face to face. Seeing him, we shall know and love him, and one another, even as we are known and loved (I Cor 13:13; John 15:9, 12).
Christians who think salvation requires only that we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as Lord have forgotten his purpose and his words. He came to draw us to himself, becoming the vine of which we are the branches, and warned that without remaining united to him and bearing good fruit in service to others we will not be saved (Jn 15:5-6; Mt 25:41-45). Consequently, not all who believe and profess that “Jesus is Lord” will enter the kingdom, but only those who hear the word of God and live it (Mt 7:21; Lk 11:28).
Tragically, many Catholics, too, have lost sight of the meaning of metanoia and the life Christ offers us. For that reason, they do not know how to respond well to the struggles, sufferings, and failures that arise in the process of entering fully into the heart and mission of Jesus. Unable to make sense of these realities, they are increasingly inclined to view Jesus’ description of Christian life as an unattainable ideal. So, they adapt the Gospel to themselves rather than themselves to the Gospel. They mistakenly consider this strategy more affirming, merciful, and realistic. Far from being “progressive,” this approach actually blocks progress in the abundant life Jesus came to bring us by misrepresenting him and his call to metanoia.
The solution to confronting the crises caused by sin and evil in our lives, in the world, and in the Church can be found only in rediscovering the meaning of our salvation in Christ. Apart from him we are lost and powerless, whatever illusions or strategies for renewal we may cherish. In him, sharing his kenosis through metanoia, God and his love are at work transforming us and all sinners in the midst of a fallen world. That’s the Good News Jesus came to give us, the Gospel of our salvation.
Continue Learning About The Beauty Of Salvation
As I Have Loved You | Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek
Over many centuries, Christians have lost sight of the heart of the Eternal Covenant: our nuptial union with God in Jesus as members of his Body and Bride. This has fueled a growing crisis of Christian identity and witness. Only by rediscovering the depth and beauty of our salvation in Christ will we be drawn to share more fully in his life and saving mission. But that requires encountering anew the scriptural and early Christian understanding of redemption as a nuptial bond rather than merely a juridical pardon of sin. Beginning with the Trinity’s revelation of himself and his Covenant in the person of Jesus, As I Have Loved You examines our own existence as persons and how the Covenant relationship weds us to Christ in his loving service of God and neighbor. That union prepares us for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, when we will know and love God even as he knows and loves us.
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