The good news of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels is rarely associated with repentance anymore. It is more often expressed almost exclusively as the overwhelming love, mercy, grace and redemption of God – regardless of our acknowledgement of Him or our response to His offer of salvation and consequent expectations. But the implications of salvation, chiefly that of being saved from something we can’t save ourselves from; of redemption, as in being redeemed or recovered to an intended state or to something other than we are now; of grace and mercy, which at least hints at unmerited love or an excusing of bad behavior; speaks to an expectation of change. A starting over, a desire to do better, to be something more than we are presently; expressed in sorrow for what we’ve done or been, in other words – repentance.
The call for repentance was made at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and was at least alluded to in His very last words before His ascension; the baptism of converts His disciples were expected to make from all nations signifying a cleansing from sin, enabling them to then be taught to obey all he had commanded. (Matthew 4:17 & 28:18-20 – see also Revelation 2:5) The early church realized the significance of this call to repent and taught it as a central tenet of faith in Christ; the concept of repentance referred to repeatedly throughout the New Testament. (Occurring over 50 times)
For instance, Peter concluded the very first Christian sermon, not by emphasizing God’s unconditional love as the first and foremost attribute of a relationship with Him, but by exhorting his listeners to face up to their need and to, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” and receipt of, “…the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38 Later urging another crowd of listeners to, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out,…” Acts 3:19 Peter explaining that, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. (Rather) He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9 Which is indeed an expression of His unconditional love for us.
Paul, most commonly hailed as the Apostle of grace, preached repentance as well, describing the essence of his early ministry as a declaration, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Acts 26:20 At one point telling the Athenians, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance (The worship of other gods and the dismissal of the importance of repenting of sin), but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Acts 17:30 In fact, the earliest church fathers, in questioning Peter concerning his first dealings with Gentile converts, acquiesced to his insistence that the revelation of Jesus Christ, “…has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” Acts 11:18
It is fashionable today to be politically correct and non-confrontational, to the point of theological dishonesty; stressing the love of God to the point of disingenuousness. (Camouflaging what scripture really says.) We’d all rather be told of a gentle way that leads to an abundant life or of a spirituality that grants fulfillment – but repentance? Admitting that we’ve been wrong and need to make amends? Not so much. But Biblical grace in the Good News of the Gospel and admittance into the Kingdom is predicated on repentance. (Grace offered freely but not applied till we humbly accept it in repentance.) Acknowledging, even as Paul did that, “…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – that I keep on doing… in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind… What a wretched man I am!” Romans 7:19,22-24 A realization none of us finds particularly pleasant. But contrary to popular opinion, the conviction of wrong-doing that leads us to repentance is a positive thing; fostering a change of mind, a turning in another direction, a healthier lifestyle and life eternal. Author Eugene Peterson describing the call to repent as, “…always and everywhere the first word in the Christian life.” Noting how it isn’t so much an expression of being sorry, although it does involve sorrow (See 2 Corinthians 7:10), but that “…it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and the world. And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts.”1
Our perception of the so-called harshness of repentance should be mitigated by the fact that it’s foundation and result is grace; repentance allowing mercy to have it’s way in our lives. The hope and goal of repentance being salvation. Frederica Matthewes-Green putting it this way. “Jesus didn’t come to save us just from the penalty for our sins; he came to save us from our sins – now, today, if we will only respond to the challenge and let him. (As) The Lord does not love us for our good parts and pass over the rest. He died for the bad parts and will not rest until they are put right. We must stop thinking of God as infinitely indulgent. We must begin to grapple with the scary and exhilarating truth that he is infinitely holy, and that he wants the same for us.”2
Christianity’s message is based in love and grace, but it’s not all and only about love and grace. Our Lord is perfect and holy; we as sinners, are not. The natural response of two such incompatible realities is separation. Repentance does just the opposite, combining the two into a powerful concept of regeneration and redemption. Because in order for us to be genuinely redeemed by God, we must first acknowledge the utter hopelessness of our situation without Him. As we will only look for and accept rescue when we are thoroughly convinced we are lost.
1From, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Intervarsity Press
2From, Whatever Happened to Repentance?, Christianity Today
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