The Meaning of Repentance

Renowned Jesus scholar Marcus Borg has recently written a book entitled Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. In this fascinating book, Borg presents a comprehensive portrait of the Jesus of history, based on a lifetime of research. Among the many new insights I’ve gotten from this book is a fresh view of what Jesus meant by “repentance.”

Borg’s discussion of repentance occurs in the context of Jesus’ distinction between the “broad way” of life that most people in the world follow, and the “narrow way” Jesus was advocating as an alternative. The broad way is the way of convention, a way of life centered on worldly goals like wealth, honor, and status—in short, life as we know it, a way marked by egocentric self-interest. Jesus’ alternative way, the narrow way, was a way centered in God, a way of life that reflects God’s love and compassion for all, the antithesis of egocentric self-interest. How does one leave the broad way and enter the narrow way? This is where repentance comes in.

We all know what “repentance” normally means. Borg, quoting Roberta Bondi, puts it this way: “to feel really, really bad about what a sinful person you are.” But Borg claims that the meaning of the word “repentance” in the gospels is quite different from the meaning it has acquired in popular Christianity. In the gospels, he says, it means “to return” in the sense of returning from exile. It also means “to go beyond the mind that you have” (emphasis Borg’s)—in other words, to go beyond the mind locked in the broad way of convention and “acquire a new mind, a new way of seeing.” Borg sums it up this way:

Thus the word “repent” combines to return from exile and to think/see anew. It means to return from a condition of estrangement and exile to the presence of God. And it means to acquire a new way of seeing and thinking that goes beyond the conventions of culture. Both meanings involve centering in God—in God as Jesus spoke of God.

I think the Jesus of A Course in Miracles would smile upon this definition. His way is not “repentance in the usual sense,” which “implies guilt” (T-5.VII.5:4). Rather, his way is repentance is the unconventional sense described by Borg: a new way of thinking and seeing that is centered in God, a way that transcends the ways of the world and enables us to return from our apparent exile from God. The Jesus of the Course claims that we are “at home in God, dreaming of exile” (T-10.I.2:1), and the way to awaken from this dream is a “reversal of [our] thinking” (W-pI.20.1:4) which enables us “to see things differently” (W-pI.27.Heading) —to see in a way that reflects the Love of God.

These views aren’t identical—Borg certainly doesn’t characterize the world as a dream. But I find it striking that the Course and a scholar studying the historical Jesus have independently come up with such similar views of repentance. While there’s no way to prove that Jesus really wrote A Course in Miracles, in my mind this is one more intriguing piece of evidence in favor of the view that the Jesus of the Course and the Jesus of history are one and the same.

Source of material commented on (link to book’s Amazon page): Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one!
To learn more about our community of A Course in Miracles students, visit Course Companions.