This is a sacrament meeting talk I recently gave. My favorite English dork wants to read it and I want to oblige. So FWIW…
For my part in today’s discussion of repentance, I want to present what the NT contributes to the topic. I shall begin with a sample of repentance as taught by John the Baptist and then Jesus, letting Luke stand in for his fellow Synoptic evangelists. If time permits, I will continue with some of the contributions of Johannine and Pauline communities, the two great theological centers of the NT era. My point in this approach is initially to present and emphasize the pervasiveness of repentance in the minds of the NT authors. In the end, I hope that the logic and power of their arguments will influence your own appropriation of repentance.
The first step in appreciating the NT’s approach to repentance is to understand what the word generally meant in the world of the 1st century, and what it meant in the NT context. In secular Greek usage, the simplest definition of repentance is a change of mind. In the NT, it almost never means this. Instead, it has connotations of turning away from sin, of a new moral beginning, or of conversion. Thus repentance is far more than a mental or emotional response. In this, it follows Israel’s prophetic tradition.
Israel’s prophets invariably understood the relationship between man and God in very personal terms. The question of man’s standing with respect to God was the single most pressing question of existence. While sin presented itself in individual faults that could be cataloged, fundamentally they were simply the result of a wrong relationship with God. In the world of the prophets, it is not that apostasy is a sin, but that sin is apostasy, a turning away from God. Repentance, then, is a re-turning back toward God, or away from sin and toward God.
The bottom line is this. The command to repent in the NT is not an appeal for emotional regret, it is not a change of mind, nor is it a demand for penitential acts or a directive to ask for forgiveness. It is the invitation to make a radical, life-altering change in your relationship with God. It is an event, not a process. The new state of affairs so attained inevitably plays out in moral conduct – in how you behave.
Repentance in Luke’s World
With this understanding in mind, we turn now to Luke’s Gospel and pick up the work of John the Baptist. Luke records that John worked in the region of the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John preached, then, was a baptism associated with a commitment to decisively and completely turn away from sin. The upshot of this baptism was forgiveness of sins.
Of particular interest is the interchange between John and those who came out to be baptized. After a friendly welcome clarifying their moral standing as the offspring of vipers, John exhorted them to “produce fruit worth of repentance.” By this, he required them to alter their behavior so as to show their turn from evil and toward God. When asked how to do this, John gave four concrete examples (3:11-14)
Whoever has two tunics must share with him who has none; whoever has food to eat must do likewise. Toll-collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And to them he would say, “Collect nothing for yourselves – nothing beyond what is authorized.” When enlisted soldiers asked him, “And what are we to do?” he would say to them, “Avoid extortion and blackmail; be content with your pay.”
The first two, then, are a directive to share what one has with others, while the last are a command to refrain from abusing a position of power in the interests of gaining more. Folks who are interested in the BoM concept of retaining a remission of sins will note a certain thematic relationship between John’s advice here and that of King Benjamin in Mos 4:26.
In his own ministry Jesus transcends John’s call for repentance. His first use of the word repentance, in a dinner party at the home of a recent convert named Levi, associated his own coming from God with this concept. Responding to the question of some Pharisees and their scribes regarding why the disciples of Jesus were eating with sinners, Jesus answered them by saying (Lk 5:31):
The healthy have no need of a physician but the sick do. I came not to call the righteous to repent, but rather sinners.
Thus, the mission of Jesus as explained here in Luke is to invite those who sin, who have turned away from toward God, to decisively reorient themselves in God’s direction.
The fact that Jesus described his mission in terms of a call to repentance brings us to the matter of Luke’s ideas about discipleship. In Luke’s thought, repentance is one of four ways that we humans respond to the message taught by Jesus. The other three are faith, conversion, and baptism in the name of Jesus. These four are obviously related.
Luke’s thought about faith is best exemplified in the parable of the sower, in its description of the seed that falls on good ground. Those who exhibit faith are “those who listen to the word and hold on to it with a noble and generous mind: these yield a crop through their persistence” (8:15). Thus, faith begins simply by hearing the word. It persists in an obedience characterized by the noblest of human reactions and its maturity is revealed in consistent right behavior. Conversion, like repentance, is a “turning” word. While repentance can imply both a turning away from sin and a turn toward God, conversion denotes only to a decisive turn toward God (Lk 22:32). Thus faith and conversion are a disciple’s move toward God, while repentance is a decisive turn away from an evil lifestyle – both a precursor and result of faith and conversion.
The centrality of repentance in Jesus’ mission is reiterated by its presence in the final commission with which Luke’s Gospel closes (Lk 24:44-47):
Then Jesus said to them, “Now this is what my words meant which I addressed to you while I was still with you: All that was written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms must see fulfillment.” Then he opened their minds to an understanding of the Scriptures. “This,” he said, “is what stands written: The Messiah shall suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins shall preached to all the nations—beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this!
In this final statement, Jesus closes his own mission with a command that returns his disciples to his own origin as a preacher of repentance—as he did, so now they are to do. But as disciples they are to preach repentance in his name, so that those who respond receive forgiveness of sins. Thus in Luke’s thought forgiveness of sin is one of the effects of the Christ event. Disciples are those who upon hearing the word of Jesus respond by reforming their lives in confidence of receiving forgiveness.
What happened to baptism? Baptism in the name of Christ doesn’t show up in Luke’s story until it bursts upon the scene in Acts. Peter’s first speech, delivered on the Day of Pentecost, is a classic example. When his audience responds to his testimony of Christ by asking what response is required of them, Peter answers (Acts 2:37-39):
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This then, sound more familiar to modern ears. Disciples are to summoned to make the required life-changes and let baptism be given to them in anticipation of two other gifts: forgiveness and the Spirit.
What, then, to gather from all this? Perhaps first and foremost the gravity of the call to repent. This summons to turn away from sin, from evil, really from anything that is not God or that does not lead toward God, is at the heart of Christ’s mission and message. Faith, which in Christian thought is a response to God acquired through hearing and obeying the word of Jesus, is very much the positive side of repentance. But the most central message in Luke’s thought on repentance is that this thorough-going reform of life is the means by which we appropriate one of the effects of Christ’s coming, the forgiveness of sins. And that has the weightiest implications for our future relationship with God.
Repentance in the Synoptics
Stepping back, now, from Luke while remaining in the larger realm of the Synoptics… The repentance command, to turn away from sin and toward God, is also present in the Gospels even when the words “repentance” and “conversion” are not present. The categorical demands of Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount require precisely this same reform and commitment. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33) or “Be ye therefore perfect” (Mt 5:48), do not leave room for divided loyalties or ambiguous behaviors. Similarly, the discipleship sayings, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38) or “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will find it” (Mk 8:35) indicate that an unconditional surrender to God and to a life lived on his terms is the only way to salvation. “Repent!” is always the imperatival consort of the kingdom of God whether stated or left unsaid.
Repentance in the Johannine World
John’s Gospel and the epistolary literature associated with the community of the Fourth Gospel sometimes seem a world away from the Synoptics. But despite the fact that the words “repent” or “repentance” never appear, the same demand for a radically heaven-centered approach to life is present. The discourse of the third chapter of the Gospel makes a particularly strong case. After clearing up Nicodemus’ confusion about being born from above, Jesus goes on to explain his own mission (Jn 3:17-21):
For God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but that the world through him might be saved
Whoever believes in him is not condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned
for refusing to believe in the name of God’s only Son.
Notice here that there are two states, condemned and not condemned. Your status is determined by your response to Jesus. Instead of talking in terms of repentance and the reform that comes from turning away from evil, John talks in terms of turning toward Jesus in faith. Since Jesus was sent by God to reveal God’s own self, a movement in faith toward Jesus is a movement toward God. Or, to approach the issue from another direction, the word “sin” with respect to Jesus in John’s Gospel is always singular and always denotes a failure to believe in Jesus. Thus, the divine demand to believe in Jesus is very close to the command to repent – and equally as absolute.
This uncompromising attitude to a choice between God and the world is also found in the First Epistle of John. Beginning toward the middle of the second chapter, the Elder writes (2:15-17):
Do not love the world nor what is in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the desires of the flesh, and the desires of the eyes, and pride in one’s possessions does not belong to the Father but belongs to the world. And the world is passing away and its desires. But the one who does the will of God abides forever.
The three worldly factors, desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride in one’s material possessions are not really vices as much as they are human nature in the absence of God’s Spirit. Thus, the desires of the flesh are attention to the physical in lieu of the spiritual. The desires of the eyes reflect an ability to see only what is visible, thereby missing the invisible. Pride in one’s possessions is satisfaction with the material life rather than turning and stretching toward God. None of the three are really what we think of as sinful, they are simply contentment with this world. Nevertheless, they are condemned in the same uncompromising terms used elsewhere for sin. The one who abides forever has turned from these things toward God.
Repentance in the Pauline World
And so we come to Paul… By now, there should be no doubt that Paul, like the rest of his NT buddies, thinks that man is required to re-orient his life away from evil, self-interest, and base contentment in a turn toward God. Although Paul does use the words “repent” and “repentance” a handful of times, most of the time it is his concept of faith that covers the idea of a radical transformation in the human-divine relationship.
To Paul, faith is the preeminent response of all humans toward God’s saving work accomplished through Christ Jesus. Faith is not a vague, trusting commitment with no specific object. The object of Paul’s faith is conviction that God through Christ has made the crucial difference in human history. Faith therefore begins with “hearing,” which to Paul means listening to what is said about Christ and how God has saved us through him. As Paul puts it “faith then comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), that is, by speaking about Christ. The beginning of faith is an assent to the proposition that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9a). This implies that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, and that you will likewise be raised from the dead and saved (Rom 10:9b). But it does not end there.
The culmination of faith is the hypakoē pisteōs, which is often translated as “the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:25). Very literally, hypakoē pisteōs is a “hearing under faith,” that is, a submissive hearing or listening to God. It connotes the total commitment of believers to God in Christ. This total dedication to God through Christ excludes all reliance on self, which is what Paul calls “boasting” (Rom 3:27). Such a devotion to God permeates and informs every other human relationship, ordering every action and interaction according to the divine standard. It is a final and decisive turn away from sin and toward God, a reordering of one’s life in a new relationship that transforms all other relationships. Students of the BoM may profitably connect Paul’s thoughts here the expression “no more desire to do evil.” Paul thus joins John in describing repentance, a decisive reform of one’s life, without using the word itself.
Two other points are required to round out Paul’s thoughts. First, faith does not come by human action or design. Like every other aspect of the salvific process, faith is a gift (Rom 3:24-25; 6:14; 11:26; 12:3). Second, even the hypakoē pisteōs does not complete the formulation of Paul’s doctrine of faith. For Paul, faith must be manifest in certain behaviors. He characterizes this requirement in Gal 5:6:
In union with Christ Jesus neither circumcision or the lack of it is of any value, but only faith working itself out through love.
Paul’s idea of love is an outgoing interest in, concern for, and respect of, others. This results in action, subordinating the personal interests of the one who so loves to the interests of object of that love. Thus Paul urges the Romans to have no debt “save that of loving one another. for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8). Thus the Christian who lives under faith finds this faith coming to fruition in loving deeds, which actually fulfill the very law that faith subsumes.
And so we come to the end of this warp-speed tour of NT thought on repentance. More could be said, but what I have said suffices. Repentance in the NT is a decisive turn away from sin and base contentment toward God. Sorrow, regret, desire to reform, etc., are all fine, but they are not repentance. Repentance is change.
Repentance plays an explicit and central role in the mission of Jesus in the Synoptics. By means of repentance, disciples appropriate forgiveness and a renewed standing before God. The command and concept of repentance are present even when the word itself is not found. Repentance is the response of a disciple and in its maturity it joins faith in giving rise to a godly life.
And now the final and most important point is this: the success of repentance is not based on human actions or intent. Instead, repentance grows from the nature and inclination of God. Although my intelligence sources indicate that today’s GD lesson is repentance in the minor prophets, I must steal some thunder because the best articulation of God’s initiative is surely in Joel. Chapter 2 opens with a classic description of a day of the Lord and the Lord’s assault on his own city, Zion. At the conclusion of this description, in the only oracle directly attributed to God in Joel, the potential for influencing God’s intentions arises:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
….return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
….Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
….slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Who knows? He many turn and relent
….and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
….for the Lord, you God.
The point is this: the requirement for human repentance is whole-hearted, lasting, change. But even under those conditions, who knows? In Joel’s thought (mine, not yours), God is neither bound nor forced. The initiative remains with him. Fortunately for us, however, his nature is such that our success is assured.
And don’t you just love that expression “rich in kindness?”