In the maze of Christian lingo exists a word that is not used very often today, yet it is foundational to the Christian faith. That word is “repent.” John the Baptist, forerunner to Jesus Christ, first used the word “repent” with his listeners in preparing the way for Jesus Christ by stating (see Matthew 3:2-3):
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he [John the Baptist] who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan,confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Immediately after this scene, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1) where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. The account of his dialogue with the devil at the end of the forty days is found in Matthew 4:1-11. Immediately after this time, John was arrested, and Jesus withdrew into Galilee, living in Capernaum by the sea (v. 12-16), and “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).
Repentance is at the very core of Christianity. Indeed, it is essential.
I was recently in the middle of an email discussion about this very topic with an old friend of mine when he wrote back asking me the following question, “What do you think the word ‘repentance’ means?” I emailed the following answer to him:
I think it [repentance] means that a person, when he or she comes to Jesus Christ, is genuinely sorry for their sins and that they tell him so and that they want him to come into their lives and change them from the inside out, and to learn to live in the ways that he taught us to live. Repent means to turn from sinful ways although nobody is perfect, but genuine repentance leads to change and I firmly believe that as I’ve seen it in my own life, especially after I let go of a spiritual life that was going nowhere and I wasn’t sure why (well, it was stagnant) when I arrived in Houston six years ago to start that job. Call it a “wake up” call, but I started taking my devotional life (don’t mean it to sound religious as it was actually a revival–well, bringing back to life–of my relationship with Jesus Christ to a depth that it had not been in in years) very seriously at that very moment of the “wake up” call and right before my first day of work at the job in Houston. And almost immediately I started to experience a revival in my own life because I was spending time (quality time, sometimes an hour or two depending on how early I got up) reading the Bible and praying. There is so much “crap” out there in the world (especially in America) that can derail Christians even in churches and not just “out there” in society. Without that vital lifeline on a very regular basis we can’t be what he wants us to be because we are too wrapped up in our own “stuff” (careers, family, friends, and everything else). It’s not that those things are not important, but his place should be #1 in our lives and he will direct all of the rest if we truly depend on him, and that requires commitment, discipline, and living (through the power of the Holy Spirit) as he wants us to live.
Can a Christian not do that (beyond repentance as that is vital) and still be saved? Yes, but my question is this why would they want that? Why would a person want to make a commitment that is basically one-sided–all give (what we want from God) and no take (what we are willing to give back). Take education, for example, while I realize after having worked in higher education for over 20 years, that there are some adult students who are just there to get the degree to get a promotion at work and if they could buy it outright without doing any of the coursework, they would in a heartbeat, but what have they learn? How has that made them grow? I’ve had other adult students who, as they took their coursework and over time completed their degree requirements that absolutely blossomed into a new person with a lot more courage and vitality that I’m sure they didn’t expect to get along the way of getting that degree. Now, did both types of adult students stay in to get their degrees? Sure they did, but who got the most out of it and allowed it to truly change their life and world and have a lot more confidence in themselves, too? The second type of student.
That’s the same in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Are there believers who don’t grow? Sure there are–unfortunately, way too many nowadays because of our “inch-deep Christianity” mentality in thinking all we need to say is a little Jesus prayer and we’re “in.” We’ve got heaven so now we can coast. But, weren’t they coasting all along before they said that prayer? So what are they really expecting? A ticket to heaven? A relationship with Jesus Christ is so much more than that, but we live in a culture with so many enticements and little in the way of solid teaching anymore on how to avoid temptation that we cave in all the time, whether it’s gossip, or eating too much, or sex outside of marriage (and many folks just laugh at that one nowadays), etc. Well, I don’t want to make a list but I’m sure you know what I mean.
Because I believed in Jesus Christ at a very young age (10), I’ve seen the church change in significant ways (as you and many others in our age bracket have experienced, too). Some changes have been good, and some not so good. I grew up in a somewhat legalistic church but I have to tell you the bent on how far it went depended on who the senior pastor happened to be. Yeah, there is a lot of legalism out there with a set of rules for everyone to follow, and of course there is the other extreme where anything goes (in the what I call the “wildly” charismatic churches, but there are also some very sound charismatic churches). Over time, I had to learn on my own that my relationship with Jesus Christ was up to me if I wanted it to grow. Sometimes that was available by way of really solid Bible teaching classes that churches have, etc, and sometimes not so much. Everybody has their quirks so what I learned from all of that was that, bottom line, it’s my responsibility to grow in my relationship with Jesus Christ. He doesn’t force that on anyone but what’s the point of having a relationship if we expect it to be all one-sided. And I’m not talking about a “works-based” relationship, either. Too many folks get that confused with salvation and it has nothing to do with that. But if we truly love someone, don’t we usually want to please them and not just ourselves? Don’t we want to give and not just take, take, take?
Have I faltered? Of course I have. I’d say most of my 30’s were spent working, finishing my bachelor’s degree and then finishing a master’s degree (while working all the time) and when I hit 40, I moved to Fort Lauderdale as I had been awarded that one-year doctoral fellowship at Nova Southeastern University. Is there anything wrong with all of that? Absolutely not, but what was wrong was that I let my relationship with Jesus Christ slide into the background. That doesn’t mean I didn’t pray and I still very much felt like I depended on him for everything, but I did very little on my side to maintain the relationship. But I wanted him to be there when I needed him. Lots of folks get into that rut and don’t even realize it’s a rut. I think there are times, if we truly belong to Him, that he gives us a “wake up” call to see if we’ll “get it.” The last time he did that for me was when I arrived in Houston six years ago to start that ill-fated job. And I have to say the timing was absolutely perfect as if I had not done that, I would not have survived as successfully as I have (day by day by day) for these past six years.
Yeah, I know my life doesn’t look very successful right now, but that’s because our definition of success is very skewed in America. Success means great career, storybook marriage, well mannered kids, lots of money and material possessions, climbing a social latter and knowing “who’s who” and maybe even being one of them. That kind of success has nothing to due with genuine Christianity, not that it might not be a part of a Christian’s life, but it’s who or what we place in “1st place” in our lives that determines the direction of our spiritual lives. If Jesus Christ isn’t 1st, then our relationship with him will suffer in ways I can’t help but think at the end of our lives we will regret. But that notwithstanding (not trying to lay a guilt trip by saying that), if we truly love him and put him in 1st place (and NOT be fooled by all the outward trappings of society’s version of success), he will use us in whatever way he chooses to accomplish the greatest mission statement around as stated in 2 Peter 3:9, and he will use us to accomplish that task in an amazing variety of ways that he gives to each one of us and that is unique to us (e.g., on an individual basis). Now that is worth living for–far more then all the temporary stuff that is here today and gone tomorrow.
Many understand the term repentance to mean “turning from sin.” This is not the biblical definition of repentance. In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14; Acts 3:19). Acts 26:20 declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action (quote source and article here).
“Turning away from sin” is how I have always understood repentance; however, the above statement provides a fuller explanation of what it means. I like that idea of “changing one’s mind” which results in “changing one’s actions.” It is a “turning from” something (e.g. sinful behavior) and “turning to” God through Jesus Christ that will result in a change of actions. However, repentance is not “works” based. So many Christians get “works” confused with salvation; however that is a topic for another time (click here for an excellent definition of “works-based salvation.”
Repentance requires action; it is a heart attitude; a “turning from” to “turning to” as explained above. It requires faith, and everyone has been given a “measure of faith” (see Romans 12:3). Martin Luther described faith as follows (source: Ligioner Ministries)
Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.
Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith (quote source here).
So what is repentance if we can’t do it? The answer, of course, is that it is a miracle. But it is not a miracle in which we are passive. Most of the supernatural healings of the New Testament involved the person who was sick attempting to do what was impossible in response to a command. This was the response of faith.
A good example would be the man with the withered hand who stretched it out to Jesus. Was the healing before or after he stretched it? It could not have been after, but equally could not have preceded faith. They were actually simultaneous—as he began to exercise faith by beginning the attempt to move the arm, so miraculously he was enabled to do so.
This helps us to understand how salvation works. We call on someone “dead in trespasses and sins” to repent, and the gift of faith and repentance come simultaneous with their response, giving them both the desire and the power to turn from their old lifestyle and follow Christ.
Spiritual healing works the same way as the physical. Jesus called Zacchaeus to faith, he responded immediately in repentance, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold”, and Jesus’ reply was “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9).
Nobody can ever claim that they can’t repent because they lack the power, because God will always supply it. He says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you two-minded.” (James 4:8).
So the answer is no, repentance is not a meritorious work in any sense. It is simply a turning away from our old direction as we turn to Christ. It is the other side of the coin of faith, inseparable from it. Nevertheless, just as it is true with faith, so it is equally true that repentance without works is dead (quote source here).
I’m glad my friend asked me that question about repentance that started me down that road of understanding the meaning of it this morning. As Christians, we sometimes have the mistaken idea that once we’ve turned our lives over to Jesus Christ that our lives are on “automatic pilot,” and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we have actually entered a “war zone” that requires diligence on our part (see Eph. 6:10-20). There is no “coasting along” in the Christian life. Just “coasting along” will actually take us out of the running.
Perhaps someone reading this post has felt much like I did when I landed in Houston six years ago–like my spiritual life was on hold or stagnant and I didn’t know why. God is still very much there, and maybe he’s trying to get your attention, like he did with me. He can do it right now, and here’s the key . . .
Repent . . .
For the kingdom of heaven is at hand . . . .
YouTube Video: “I Repent” by Steve Green: