A change of mind or a change of heart?
Usually when someone says “I’ve changed my mind” we can take the shift as a passing matter. It depends on context, of course, but changes of mind are common. I might say, for instance, “I know I said I can meet for coffee at ten but I’ve changed my mind because of a deadline I’m facing . . . would tomorrow work for you, same time?”
If, on the other hand, someone says to me, “Umm, you know, I’ve had a change of heart about meeting with you over coffee . . .” well, that would catch my attention! It might signal something much deeper—possibly a value-shift or realignment of motives in the relationship.
So, using that loose distinction, here’s my question.
When Christ began his ministry with calls for repentance, was he calling for a change of mind or a change of heart? With one more abstract and the other more fundamental?
We can, of course, hear his call for repentance as an invitation to change our minds if we notice the underlying Greek word can be strictly translated as “a changed mind”. Given this etymology the essence of repentance might be summarized like this: “In repentance we take up a new way of viewing things by changing how we think about God and his ways.”
Treating repentance as a change-of-heart, on the other hand, looks back to the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, who (in 36:26) spoke of the need for our hearts “of stone” to be changed to heart “of flesh”—that is, to move from a dead state to one of new life.
But isn’t this an artificial distinction?
I believe it is, at least in this sense: our bond with Christ is one of both knowing and loving him. It is only by insisting that the mind has some sort of self-guiding capacity that we can separate the two. As Jesus made clear more than once, however, it is out of the heart that we speak and choose—with the heart treated as the affective center of the soul. And affective in the sense that the heart is ever and always responding to outside invitations to embrace and follow various attractions. So, as Luther understood in launching his part in the Protestant Reformation, the battle is always one of “affection versus affection”.
Jesus, we know, prayed to the Father just before he was crucified of a proper faith in which believers “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). While this might sound like a call to a rational affirmation of faith—of simply affirming certain things to be true of the Father and the Son—the finale of the chapter offers an affective summation of the real point: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).
A real knowledge of God, he is saying, is only engaged as we enter into the heart of the Father-Son relationship—by joining “the love with which you have loved me”. That means, in turn, that for any of us who have a religion that stops short of a whole-hearted response to God as expressed in his love for us in Christ, there is still room for repentance. And I, for one, am still repenting as I learn how deeply my self-absorbed rationalizations allow me to maintain an abstract and disaffected view of Christ. It’s time to open my heart to his attractiveness with a full devotion.
Any thoughts or comments from others on this distinction?
You are invited to comment on Ron’s article at Cor Deo
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].