When you consider making renovations to your home, you have to pay attention to the structure. You can’t go in and just start removing walls. You’ll quickly discover some walls play a specific and necessary role. Load-bearing walls don’t merely separate rooms; they carry the weight of everything above the wall. Remove them, and you put the whole structure at risk of collapse.
The gospel is the message about how Jesus makes it possible to know God. Repentance is one of the gospel’s load-bearing walls. Any attempt to remove repentance from the gospel threatens the integrity of the entire message.
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In the New Testament, repentance is tied to the idea of going in a new direction. The Greek word translated as repentance is “metanoia,” which means “to change one’s mind.” Repentance is changing one’s mind by turning away from sin, which is the attitudes and behaviors that hurt people’s relationship with God.
Sometimes people talk about a “moment of repentance” — the specific moment when they realized their need for God’s forgiveness for the first time. Everyone who begins a relationship with God will begin by repenting, but repentance doesn’t end with that moment. Repentance is something that followers of Jesus must do frequently as they learn to become more like Him; it’s what is often called a “spiritual discipline.” Spiritual disciplines are practices in Scripture that promote spiritual growth by Christians, or believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The topic of repentance crops up throughout the Bible’s Old Testament — the part of the Bible written before the life and ministry of Jesus. Ezekiel was an Old Testament prophet, and he wrote the Old Testament book that is named after him. He records God’s words about repentance:
If a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all My decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:21-23, New International Version)
Before the ministry of Jesus, the Israelites had a very cause-and-effect relationship with God. When they would travel too far down a road of disobedience, God would use His prophets to warn them to change direction or experience the consequences of their rebellion.
God always proves Himself to be patient and gracious. When the Israelites turned from a destructive path, God was quick to forgive and bless the nation.
While the idea of repentance in the Old Testament wasn’t focused on eternity, many of the critical elements were still in place. For Israel to experience God’s forgiveness, they needed to demonstrate remorse, make restitution for wrongdoing and reform their conduct.
In the New Testament — the part of the Bible that tells about Jesus’ ministry and the years after it — repentance is an enormous part of Jesus’ message. His death and resurrection make a relationship with God possible, and repentance is an essential step in beginning that relationship.
Before Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist played a critical role. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the role John would fill:
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5, NIV)
God sent John to prepare the way for Jesus. Baptism was part of the process of stirring hearts and capturing the nation’s attention. John is the first person in the Bible to administer baptism: “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3, NIV).
At that time, baptism was a ritual cleansing ceremony. Before John, the Israelites used baptism to purify non-Jews before they converted to Judaism. By baptizing Jews, John communicated something critical — everyone needs to be cleansed.
The gospel writers want you to understand there is something special about what John was doing. He wasn’t just purifying people. It was a special kind of baptism. By taking part in this baptism of repentance, people were making a public declaration that they were going in a new direction. These Israelites were repenting to prepare for Jesus’ coming.
To those coming out to be baptized, John had a critical message: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8, NIV). Like an apology, repenting is only valuable if behavior changes. John wasn’t interested in people feeling bad about their sins, being baptized and going back to their same old lives. Their behavior needed to reflect their repentance.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14, NIV)
It’s interesting how practical John’s instructions were. For the hard-hearted people who were repenting in preparation for the coming Messiah, John expected their repentance would have an impact on their neighbors.
As far as John was concerned, repentance should have a positive impact on the people in your life. A change of heart should always translate into behaviors that are visible to others.
Like John, Jesus’ message focuses on repentance right out of the gate: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17, NIV). This was the message He preached from the beginning of His public ministry, and His message was universal. Anyone who heard Jesus speak was confronted with the admonition to change their perspective, turn away from their sin and embrace God’s kingdom.
To enter the kingdom of God, the Israelites would first have to recognize it. And they were expecting something entirely different. They weren’t expecting their King, their Messiah, to welcome “sinners” and non-Jews or to teach them to love their enemies. And they definitely weren’t expecting the Messiah to be killed.
If they wanted to be part of what God was doing, they needed to be willing to change their minds. This is a critical element of repentance.
The Greek word “metanoia” is made up of two parts: “meta,” meaning “change” or “move,” and “nous,” referring to the mind, including thoughts, perceptions, dispositions and preferences. The first element of repentance lies in changing your frame of reference. It means being willing to admit you’re wrong and that the direction you’re moving in isn’t the correct one.
When people talk about repentance, they tend to focus on remorse. While feeling bad about the wrong you may have done is an integral part of repentance, change is the key. This is why John placed a huge premium on repentance that bore fruit. It’s not enough to be sorry. Repentance requires a turnaround.
Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God had come. It was going to require a change of mind to recognize it and a change of direction to keep in step with it.
Jesus’ famous parable about the prodigal son is a perfect picture of the three parts of repentance: conviction, change and confession.
In Jesus’s story, a son goes to his father and asks for his inheritance early. When he receives it, he moves to a new city and begins wasting his money on a wild lifestyle. Then the country begins to experience famine and the son finds himself in a desperate situation.
The son ends up working for a farmer, looking after his pigs. When the son gets hungry enough that he is jealous of the slop he is giving to the pigs, he realizes his father’s servants have food to spare while he has none.
The son comes to his senses and decides to return home and throw himself on his father’s mercy.
“Conviction” is a way of referring to the feeling of remorse for sin. Before he will repent, the son needs to feel conviction. He has to understand that he’s done something wrong and that he’s headed the wrong way. The trajectory of his life is going nowhere fast. He needs to make a change.
But conviction alone isn’t repentance. God’s Holy Spirit convicts (John 16:8), but the son needs to decide how to respond to that conviction.
To repent, the son must decide to do something different. Feeling bad about his situation doesn’t change it. He needs to go back to his father. There is nothing redemptive about simply feeling bad. This is why Paul, a leader in the early church who wrote much of the New Testament, says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV).
The truly repentant person turns conviction into action. Godly repentance leads to change. More often than not, there is a visible before-and-after difference in someone who has genuinely repented.
The son goes back to the father with a plan to tell him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19, NIV).
In these words, there is sorrow over the suffering and shame he has caused. The son recognizes he doesn’t deserve a second chance and that if he experiences one, it will be because the father shows him mercy.
It’s important to understand that, like sorrow, confession isn’t repentance. It’s part of the process. To truly make the changes required by repentance, you need to abandon excuses and blame. Instead, accept the truth about where you are.
But remember, repentance is about going in a different direction.
The apostle John, one of Jesus’ followers who became a leader of the church, explains it this way:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7, NIV)
Repentance is choosing to go in an entirely different direction, but it’s also about choosing to go there in the light — telling the truth about the mistakes you have made.
The son decided to go home because he hoped for mercy from his father. Repentance with the hope of turning back to God depends on God being willing to forgive. Thankfully, God is more than willing to forgive your sins because of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. The reaction of the father in Jesus’ story illustrates the way God responds when you repent and return to Him:
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20, 22-23, NIV)
Jesus’ message of repentance was universal. He urged repentance everywhere He went, encouraging all people to make a critical change in their life. At one point, he told a crowd, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:55).
The truth is that everyone needs to repent. Jesus’ message to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15) applies to all. To believe the good news that Jesus came to bear your sin and reconcile you to God, you have to accept the fact that, without Him, you’re heading in the wrong direction.
The essential thing about repentance is that it’s not a one-time-only affair. Beginning a relationship with God is a one-time event, but growing in that relationship involves continual repentance. If you want to stay aligned with the kingdom and grow in Christian maturity, you need to repent regularly. This requires the ability to recalibrate and realign your opinions and practices with God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
Repentance requires the acknowledgment that God’s ways are higher than yours (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are things that seem right to you that do not line up with God’s will (Proverbs 14:12). When you recognize and begin to live by this, you become more pliable in the Lord’s hands.
When you recognize you are not obedient to Jesus, repentance is as easy as confessing your failure and making a plan to change. If your need for repentance has anything to do with someone you’ve wronged, then part of the repentance process must involve reconciling with them as well, if possible.
Repentance is necessary for everyone. Thankfully, it isn’t difficult to understand. The kingdom of God is at hand, and people are going to need to make changes to be in step with it.
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