Following Jesus: ‘Repentance’
The first in a new series exploring four essential steps to following Jesus. In this first part we look at the theme of repentance and explore what it actually means.
When you look at the early church, it seems that there were four initial steps involved with people starting their journey of following Jesus and walking with God. These did not always happen sequentially or separately from each other, but it’s not difficult to see each of these four steps as being critical to what it meant to begin following Jesus and embracing the kingdom of God.
These four steps were: repentance, faith, baptism, and receiving the Holy Spirit. Often all four of these steps occurred in harmony, very closely together. Other times there were gaps in time. Some people were baptised immediately after they’d turned to God and put their trust in Jesus, other times it was a while later. It seems that many people received the Holy Spirit at the point of their conversion, but for others it was much later. The important thing is not so much when each step happened, but that each step happened.
And what we’re going to do over the next four months is explore each of these four steps in detail. While there is a sense in which there is an initial first step with each of these four elements, it is also very much the case that they are the first of many steps. There is an initial repentance, but then there is an ongoing life of repentance. There is an initial putting of our faith in Jesus, but then there is an ongoing life of faithfulness. There is an initial baptism in water, but then there is an ongoing life of dying to self and living for Christ. There is an initial receiving of the Holy Spirit, but then there is an ongoing life of daily being filled by the Spirit.
These first four initial—and ongoing—steps are the bedrock that we build our life of following Jesus upon. If we’re going to follow Jesus well and lead others to follow him too, having these four foundational steps thoroughly embedded in our lives is critical.
When Peter preached the first sermon after the Holy Spirit came down on the Day of Pentecost, we can see all four of these steps really clearly. Even though faith is not explicitly mentioned, it is clearly implied. Here’s what the writer Luke records in Acts 2:37-79:
When the people heard [what Peter said], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, 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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.’
Reading through the four Gospels and the book of Acts, it’s impossible to not keep stumbling into these four essential steps. Today though we’re going to focus on repentance.
Before delving into what the Bible actually means when it uses the word ‘repent’ though, it’s worth pointing out that repentance is a theme that emerges both at the start and the end of Jesus’ ministry.
Right at the beginning, straight after Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness by Satan, Matthew’s gospel reports that:
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 3:17)
Then, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, Luke’s gospel has this to say:
“Then [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’” (Luke 24:45-49)
As far as Jesus understood it, repentance is clearly a critical element to walking with God. Repentance is a key to both embracing the kingdom of God and receiving forgiveness for our sins.
But what does the word ‘repent’ actually mean?
Before taking a quick look at the Greek, it’s worth accepting that, for perhaps all of us, the word ‘repent’ is not a word that excites us. I suspect in fact that most of us have very negative connotations with the word. Perhaps it was hearing over zealous street or TV preachers telling us we were going to hell unless we repented. Or maybe it was an endless badgering by pastors or youth leaders to behave in a particular way. Whatever it was, it’s probably left all of us with a tainted association with the word and, quite probably, a misunderstanding of what it actually means.
So, let’s jump into the Greek and try and figure out what the writers were trying to express when they originally wrote their works. In the New Testament, the English word ‘repent’ is usually translated from the Greek word ‘metanoia’. And that simply means this: ‘change of mind’.
It’s amazing how even that small detail of understanding softens what we think of when we think about repentance. The call to repent is simply a call to change our minds.
The author and pastor Colin Dye, says this:
Biblical repentance is a radical transformation of thought, attitude, outlook and direction. Repentance is a mental revolution. It means changing our mind about God, changing our ideas about his nature and rule, changing the way we think about Jesus, sin, holiness and ourselves. Repentance means stopping thinking our way and starting to think like God.
Though a change of mind might sound less harsh then hearing a preacher tell us to ‘repent’, whatever way we look at this, we’re talking about change. And change is rarely easy or without consequences. Even when we know making a change will lead to something better, we still often resist that change because of the all powerful feeling of comfort and familiarity. Change is hard. And often painful.
But there’s no doubt about it: Jesus has made it very clear that the way of the kingdom and the door to forgiveness can only happen if we change our minds, bringing them into alignment with God’s.
I use the word ‘alignment’ there very deliberately. Brian Russell, a friend and Bible scholar from Florida, has made the case that ‘realignment’ would be a much better word for us to use when we see the word ‘repent’ in the Bible. Repentance is, in essence, about us realigning our minds with that of God’s; it’s about bringing our lives into—or back into—alignment with the plans, purposes, and way of Christ.
We all know that, from time to time, we get out of alignment with the best that God has for us. We know the path that Jesus would have for us to walk but, for whatever reason, we end up straying away from that path—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. This straying onto a different path is what sin is. Repentance is about embracing God’s call to get back off the wrong path and onto the right one.
In many ways, what we explored with the Character Matrix last year was a look at several different areas we may have needed to change our minds about. It was about making sure we stayed on the path of generosity and steered well clear of the path of greed. It was about making sure we kept walking towards wisdom and stayed well clear of foolishness. There are so many ways we can get off course—temptations surround us everywhere—but if we embrace a life of repentance and choose daily to bring our lives back into alignment with the will of God, we’ll never get too far off track. The problem can be when we don’t check the ‘map’ for much too long and end up significantly off course.
No matter where we are in life though, repentance is an ongoing gift that is always available to us. Whether we need to turn towards Jesus for the first time, or whether we need to get back on track after going astray, we can do just that. God is constantly wanting to challenge and change us. Through our reading of the Scriptures, hearing God’s word through others, or the Holy Spirit convicting us directly, God is ever inviting us to change our minds and to bring more and more of our thinking into alignment with his. Sin always moves us further away from God. But God never gives up trying to change our minds about sin and to help us see it through his eyes. If we embrace his will, change our minds, and follow his way, we will soon discover that that is the way of freedom and life.
A secret door
There are many, many paths we can take through life. God offers us the chance to repent in order that we always have a way back onto the best path through life. No matter how far we’ve strayed or how long we’ve gone only thinking about ourselves and not God, it’s like there’s always a secret door that allows us straight back onto God’s best path for us—if we’ll change our minds, acknowledge that we’ve been on the wrong path, and ask God to get us back into alignment with him.
Repentance is a gift. It’s an opportunity. It’s a secret door to the best life possible. It’s not easy though. Pride cannot pass through that door. Selfishness cannot pass through that door—and nor can pretence. The door is only there when we truly change our minds. But if we can, by God’s grace, change our minds, we’ll soon discover that we’ve unlocked the key to enjoying the kingdom of heaven—both now and for eternity. Forgiveness will flow into our lives and we’ll be free—truly free.
How will we know whether we’ve truly repented? We’ll know we’ve truly changed our minds when, faced with the very same situation where we previously chose a sinful course, this time, even though we are tempted to choose sin once again, we don’t succumb because our changed mind has aligned with God’s. We’ll see the sin for what it really is and know with assurance that God’s way is the better way.
It’s important to understand that there are two sides to repentance. Sometimes, changing our minds might mean that we see that a certain behaviour is unhealthy or sinful. That change of mind should then want us to stop that behaviour. But repentance is not only about having a change of mind about behaviours that are wrong; it’s also about having a change of mind that enables us to see positive behaviours that we should embrace. In Ephesians chapter 4, the apostle Paul talks about the need to both put off the old way of life and to put on a new way of life:
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Notice again that the mind is key to all this. Our behaviours follows our mind. If we get our minds into alignment with God’s then everything else will soon follow. The centrality of the mind is perhaps why Paul says in 2 Corinthians we’re to ‘take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ’. In other words: think about what you think, weigh it up, ask whether it’s a thought in harmony with the way of Christ. If not, lock that thought away. Don’t allow it to influence your life. Repent. Change your mind. Realign.
Where the mind goes, the man follows. Repentance is all about making sure our mind is aligned correctly with God’s so that when we follow our minds, we’re actually following Christ.