Twice in his letters Paul uses the adjective ametamelētos (2 Corinthians 7:10; Romans 11:29). These are the only two occurrences in biblical literature (both Old and New Testament Greek materials). However, ametamelētos has a long history of usage in Greek literature, dating back at least to the fourth century B.C. Paul’s employment of this term in Romans 11:29 in particular has generated immense discussion because of the implications for Israel’s future involvement in salvation history.
In Aristotle’s (Ethica Nicomachea 1150a, 22) description of a profligate person he concludes that “a man of this character is certain to feel no regret/remorse (ametamelētos) for his excesses afterwards.” Later Aristotle (1166a, 29) comments on the good person who acts consistently, “for the same things give him pleasure or pain at all times; and not different things at different times, since he is not apt to change his mind/experience remorse (ametamelētos).” A few centuries later Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Historica 10.16) notes that “every act of kindness (charis) since attended by no regret (ametamelētos) bears goodly fruit in the praise of those who benefit.” His contemporary Dionysius Halicarnassensis (Antiquitates Romanae 8.56,1,9) describes discussions about the gods and notes that “those who are more scrupulous about preserving the opinions concerning the gods which they received from their ancestors, such beliefs may be firm and undisturbed by misgivings (ametamelētos).” He also speaks about people who have to make life and death choices “not only without danger but without fear of repenting” (2.35,4,6). And finally, in a speech of encouragement an official urges his audience about “lasting and real honours which can never be taken from you and afford the greatest pleasure without any regrets (ametamelētos)” (11.13,3,1).
The term ametamelētos is associated with choices that people make and the observation that in making such choices they have no regrets or misgivings or remorse. This adjective is formed by adding the letter alpha (a) to the adjective metamelētos which in turn is cognate with the verb metamelaomai, “to be repentant, to experience remorse.” This adjective then has the reverse meaning associated with the verb. This verb does occur in the New Testament several times. For example, in his parable about the two sons who are asked by their father to work in the fields, the first one initially says no, but then later experiences remorse (metamelētheis) and does go (Matthew 21:29). Jesus then criticizes the religious leaders for rejecting John the Baptist’s message and later feeling no remorse (metemelēthēte) and believing (Matthew 21:32).
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the verb metamelaomai describes God’s response to human sinfulness. In 1 Samuel 15:35 we read that “the Lord was sorry (metemelēthē) that he had made Saul king over Israel.” In other contexts people protest to God about about his intended actions. According to Psalm 105(106):44-45 God “listened to their petition. And he remembered his covenant and showed regret (metemelēthē) according to the abundance of his mercy.” In other contexts God refuses to change his plans. Psalm 109(110):4 we read that “Yahweh swore and will not change his mind (metamelēthēsetai), ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” Within the deity there is tension between the need for justice and judgment and the expression of mercy and grace. God does not act in capricious ways, but he is aware of the implications of his actions in relation to his commitments and his plans.
In 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 Paul used the verb metamelaomai (v. 8) to declare to the believers at Corinth that he felt no remorse (although he does admit some remorse in v. 8b) in sending them a letter that caused them grief. Rather this stern letter has generated grief “as God intended” and it produced “repentance which has no regrets (metanoian…ametamelēton).” Paul plainly is playing with language here with good effect.
Paul’s other usage occurs in Romans 11:29. This is a nominal sentence offered in explanation to the preceding statement in 11.28. Though Israel became an enemy “because of you” with reference to the Gospel, they are beloved with reference to election “because of the fathers.” Paul basis his claim on the principle that “the grace gifts and the calling of God are ametamelēta.” How should we construe this predicate adjective in English, given its prominent position (first place) in its clause?
When God acts in grace and makes choices, he has no regrets, experiences no remorse, has no misgivings, does not change his mind? NIV chooses the adjective “irrevocable” as the rendering. Perhaps what Paul is expressing is that despite the way Israel has responded to God’s actions in the Messiah, God has no regrets or misgivings in choosing Israel for this privilege (and others mentioned in Romans 9:1-5). It is all working according to his plan, which is perfect. For some, this interpretation may not be strong enough in reference to Israel and its place in God’s plans. However, I think it is truer to the meaning of the adjective.