From the beginning it seems that Lent was a time for penitence. This word penitence troubles some evangelicals because they are reminded of the errors and bad teaching of the sixteenth century Catholic opponents of the Reformers. But the word penitence comes from the Latin word paenitentia, which referred to an attitude of repentance. Repentance, from the Greek word metanoia in the New Testament, meant to change one’s mind and thus the direction of one’s life. Very early in the development of dogma the practice of penitence did not have the idea of something that we could do to earn our salvation by doing works of penance. Modern Catholicism does not teach penance in this way either, even though it still clearly retains the idea that penance is a sacrament, known as the sacrament of reconciliation.
Some years ago I heard my friend Scott Hahn give two lectures in a Saturday seminar in a local Catholic parish in the Chicago area. Scott and I have not been extremely close but we are now building a friendship that has been growing in recent months. I still recall saying to him, after his presentation, that with the exception of maybe less than 5% of what he had taught that day, I felt he had given a marvelous biblical message on repentance as both a point and a process. I heard more about the work of real repentance from Scott than I do from 90% of the evangelicals who preach on the television or in pop-churches. The proper response to Jesus’ message of reconciliation is repentance (cf. Mark 1:14).
Metanoia means to take on a new way of thinking and living. It is closely associated with conversion in the Bible. The problem many evangelicals have is that they have associated conversion solely with a point in time when they “first believed the gospel.” Their model is Pauline. But the facts are often quite different. Many evangelicals grow up in the church and believe the gospel before they even realize that they do believe. Thus they undergo a “series” of conversions, at least so far as their journey allows them to see faith at work in their lives. Indeed, the word conversion has a past, present and future tense in the New Testament itself. We are saved, we are being saved and we will finally be saved. Do a word study. This is quite obvious to all who read the text carefully.
Once I understood all of this more clearly Lent became a very special season for me personally. I understood it as a time to pursue my conversion more deeply and to turn from thoughts and actions that hindered me from being more like Christ. You may say to me, “Well, we should do that every day.” I would agree. But I would also say that there is a time and season for everything and this season allows, indeed it encourages, deeper attention to my ongoing conversion. The problem with saying we do it everyday is that most of us do not pay enough attention to these things unless special times are given to making sure we do them.
With the development of Christianity infant baptism became more prominent and common. (Baptists will say this development was wrong. I did for over fifty years of my life!) The fact is the practice developed and the church began to see Lent as a time for increased penitence among those who were already baptized. This is how the catechumenates and the already baptized entered into this special time of preparation for Easter. Whether you practice the faith in this way or not you can surely find much to repent of this week as you prepare for a glorious Easter Sunday to come. Try it, you will be better for it I assure you.