Updated: May 29, 2020
I'm sure if any of you have grown up in a Christian community, you may have heard the words "repent" uttered from time to time. It may draw a visceral reaction from you. It also may draw no reaction because of the lack of utterance of it from some pulpits. Either way, I press on us to understand God's design for repentance and how ultimately it is a beautiful invitation into His heart.
I'm not sure if you know this, but Jesus was a bit of a radical teacher in His day. He declared that He was the Son of God, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, and rebuked many of the teachings of the religious elite at the time. Jesus, to many at the time, was not what they pictured to be their Messiah. He was not a great military leader, and he did not cast out the "less thans" from His presence. His teachings drew crowds and were often in the form of parables. He performed great miracles. He did so many great things that if every one of them were written down, John supposed that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25) Jesus loved those deemed unloveable, showed grace and mercy to many, and yet he did not shy away from the just nature of God and the command of repentance.
In fact, after a time spent in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan, Jesus began His ministry. In Matthew 4, it gives us a short sentence from the beginning of His preaching. In verse 17, Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17b)
The idea of repentance oftentimes is associated with the practice of confessionals. Moreover, its association with sermons pressing on the fear of going to hell have given it a misconstrued and misunderstood definition and application in the Christian walk today. To be clear, true followers of Christ are no longer under the laws associated with Israel prior to Christ. As I wrote about in my previous post, Christ fulfilled both the law and Jewish feasts. Christ is the sole penal atonement of sins for all who believe in him as their Savior. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Although this is wholly true, it does not negate the need for repentance in individuals and the Church (big C meaning the body of believers as whole). It grieves me to see so many replacing the beauty of repentance with the blanket statement of grace. Although grace is given in abundance to all of us who profess Christ as our Savior, it does not mean we are to ignore the part of our Father who grieves deeply at sin. When the heart of our Father longs for the daily surrender of our hearts, repentance and ultimately the freeing up of less of us and more of Him is what we should desire.
Repentance is not a ticket to heaven. It isn't something we have to do. It is something we ought to do. From the beginning of Christ's preaching, he uttered the words repent. If we are to live our lives based off of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, why then would we separate the beautiful invitation of repentance from the heart of God? Repentance alone does not save. It is not simply a physical act of confession of sins. Rather, repentance is a beautiful invitation because it allows for the inner heart posture to see our sin as God does, grieve it alongside him, and ultimately allow for more room of His goodness to fill the spaces in which either idols, sin, or pride once lived.
So what does repentance look like for us today? I think in order to answer this, we have to answer first what it is not. I've touched on this briefly, but I want to drive the message home. Repentance is not your daily punched subway ticket to eternal life with Christ. Repentance is not something we have to remember to do in order to be forgiven of our sins. Repentance is not a big grey cloud looming over us every time we sin. This is all true because repentance is not purely a physical act. This view of repentance only results in the vicious and painstaking cycle of 1) temptation 2) sin 3) confession 4) guilt 5) inward feeling of separation from the heart of God 6) repeat. Repentance is not something, though, that we should eliminate from our lives because it is either misunderstood or because we have gotten it wrong for so long. Rather, repentance is something we should aim to understand rightly. Many quote 2 Corinthians 5:17 aiming to teach others about the new creation they will be in Christ. While this is true, I also believe the verse begs a further question and exploration of,
"What does being a new creation in Christ look like, and how/why does repentance play any part in that?"
Similarly in Galatians 2, Paul takes this idea of being a new creation further. In it he says, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20) We aren't simply made new, Paul says. Rather, he says he was crucified with Christ. Wow! That's quite a statement. While the idea of crucifixion may seem far off or even something associated with cross earrings and necklaces to us today, this word had a far weightier meaning to those that Paul was talking to at the time. During this time, the idea of crucifixion was horrific. It was a form of death considered for criminals. It was brutal, demeaning, and an extremely painful and slow death. For those at the time, the idea of being crucified alongside their savior who he himself was crucified, was an astounding statement. Why then, does Paul associate being made new with us being crucified with Christ? Furthermore, what does that have to do in relation to repentance?
If we are truly made new in Christ through first his death and then resurrection on the cross and then our own inward crucifixion of our old selves, our heart should aim to turn from what once was to what now is through the newness of life. We know, though, that this is something we will never do perfectly. In the absence of perfection, it does not mean that we should accept our inevitable sinful behavior as a license to idly live in it until we get to heaven. Rather, as we are crucified with Christ, Paul says that it is not us but Christ that lives in us. This would have been an even crazier idea for those at the time to accept. Yet, for many of us today, this is something we say but don't fully understand nor live out of in our daily actions. Being made new with Christ is of course as a result of Christ's death on the cross first, but it also is a declaration of dying to ourselves, our fleshly almost instinctive desires of sin, and ultimately turning away from the many times we do and will fall short. To repent is not simply to perform a physical action just as being crucified with Christ is not something we bodily do. Rather, both of these are matters of the heart; matters of the heart that as Stephen Witmer says, "result in a deeper sorrow for sin, apologies to God and other people, and changes in outward behavior."
When Paul radically told the people in Galatia that it is Christ who lives in him because he has been crucified with Christ, he was not telling all of them to go willingly be nailed to a cross. Rather, he said that in his fleshly life (that meaning the life we live on earth) he lives by faith alone in Christ who gave his life for him. Paul was telling the people in Galatia that through Christ's penal atonement of sin on the cross through his death and resurrection, our hearts should turn from our old selves (meaning sin, wickedness, and all that is opposite of the heart of God) and allow for the space that those lesser things took up to be replaced with the glory and love of Christ. This does not happen over night, but rather through the continual sanctification from God, the listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in us, and ultimately change in our heart posture and how we then live our fleshly lives. That's a lot, but I encourage you to stay with me. The heart of repentance is worth it. It is beautiful. It is not an angry command but rather an invitation from our loving Abba, Father.
Elegantly put by John Piper, the Greek translation for the word "repent" indicates not purely a physical action but rather refers to “a change of the mind’s perceptions and dispositions and purposes... Repenting means experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.” The Biblical heart of repentance is not something we have to do but something we ought to do. We ought to do because as we are crucified with Christ allowing for more of him and less of us, we start to see the heart of God rightly. The heart that is love; that is all that is good, desirable, just, right, and glorious. As we see the heart of God rightly, we begin to see the sin that grieves him rightly as well. The sin that lives in each of us whether we repent of it or not. Sin that rightfully results in death until Christ entered into the world. Sin that is detestable, grotesque, and ugly in its totality and however it manifests in each of us. Sin that is not on a ticking order of bad to worse but that grieves the Father every time. So when we repent, it is not when we commit the "bad" sins. Repentance is when we see God and our inherent instincts of sin rightly. God grieved over sin so much that He sent a part of himself in his son to earth to die the death that we not he deserved. When we grasp that fully, we begin to grieve over what grieves our Father.
Repentance is not a planned prayer given to you by a Priest, Pastor, or teacher. Repentance is the inward heart posture that cries out to God wanting more of Him and less of us. Friends, please hear that. Repentance is not a sheet of paper that tells you how to get into heaven. Repentance is an inward heart change resulting in an outward transformative shift in how we now live in the flesh. It is not through our works that we get to heaven. It is not through our practicing of the law that our hearts are transformed. It is through like Paul said, "the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20b) Repentance is a beautiful invitation to experiencing the fullness of life that comes as a result of having less of us and more of God. It is not something to be negated through the gift of grace. Less of us and more of God.
Tim Keller made an important destination between religious repentance and the Biblical repentance of the heart. He says, "religious repentance is selfish, self-righteous, and bitter all the way to the bottom.” It is inherently self-centered because it is an act more centered around being caught in sin and less of desiring to be in line with the heart of our Father. A Biblical heart of repentance is to submit yourselves (all of yourselves) to God. To resist the devil (temptation and sin). To come near to God because he will come near to you. To wash your hands (turn from sin in your life that was crucified with Christ.) To purify your hearts. To grieve, mourn, and wail at the sin that grieves our Father. To ultimately humble yourself before the Lord because He will lift you up. He will pick you up from the guilt and shame that religious repentance entices and grow you closer to Him. He will welcome you into His arms if you have never had a heart of repentance before. He is just in actions and all that is good. He grieved all sin so much that part of himself, in his son, came to earth to die the death that we not he deserved.
For those of you who are Christians, maybe this message feels hard. I pray that instead of it feeling hard it is replaced with a new set of eyes to see the Biblical heart of repentance as a beautiful invitation into a deeper, more joyful relationship with the Lord. It is not something we have to do but something we are gifted the ability to do through Christ's death on the cross. We don't repent because it is a lawful mandate. We repent because as we see God rightly (love, glorious, all that is good, kind, gracious, just, merciful, immutable, omnipresent, holy) we begin to see sin rightly; we want less of us and more of Him.
If you don't know Christ at all, I pray you repent of the sin that leads to death, asking God for forgiveness not because that alone is what gets you to heaven but because you see the unending love and joy that comes from living a life for the Lord. I pray that you turn from your old lives and accept Christ as your Savior; that you would see that dying to your old self as worth it. It is always worth it. That you would long for the Savior that came so that it would not be our old selves that live but He who lives in us. The same Savior that came so that our fleshly lives would not be merely a means to get what we want but instead to live a life of faith in the Son of God who loved us so much that he gave himself up for us.
I guarantee for both Christian and non-Christians that if you repent of what grieves the Father, he will open his arms as a beautiful place of refuge for you. He is the treasure in which our heart's seek. Turn from what was and seek the newness of life found in Christ alone.