John the Baptist was a desert-dweller who dressed in garments made of camel’s hair. Yet crowds came streaming from all directions to the Jordan River, drawn by his fiery preaching. There was one word they would be sure to hear ringing forth again and again: Repent!
When Jesus later began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, his message was equally pointed: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:4, 15)
Throughout the New Testament this compelling word has a stable, constant meaning. It means to change the mind.
Changing one’s mind sounds easy. I pull a red necktie from the rack, but before I have it fully knotted I frown into the mirror, unknot it, and put it back on the rack. I reach for a tie more to my liking. We all change our minds often like this.
Surely, to repent as Jesus commands must mean more than to change the mind over some such incidental matter.
One of my seminary professors explained that to repent in the Christian sense means to change the very set of the mind. It means to acknowledge the depth of our sinfulness — the hostility to God we betray in what we do, say, or think — and to do so in abject sorrow and regret, humbly accepting God’s invitation to be changed and indwelt.
The good news of Christ’s kingdom is that we can, in fact, be changed. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But not without repentance.
We recall Jesus’ story about the prodigal son who eventually repented. At first he suspected his father limited his freedom and, to be free, he had to get away from father’s restrictive oversight.
So, on his own, he imagined he was granted this freedom, and for a time experienced what felt to him like liberty — no curfews, no work assignments, and all the resources divided out to him spent as he pleased. But this self-assigned freedom quickly led to desperation.
He spent these resources wildly and he was soon penniless; his circle of parasitic friends vanished; in his destitution he became the slave of a pig farmer.
Nothing but repentance could help him. There was no other recourse. He would have to change his mind — the orientation, direction, and content of his thinking — about decisions he had made and their consequences. For starters, he would have to see his father in an altogether different light.
In his desperation he began to review his actions and to feel a sorrow for his hurtful decisions while, at the same time, feeling an awakening love and respect for his father. He longed to see him, to say he was sorry, and to offer his services as a slave on the estate. The distrust that had ruled him evaporated.
He was being revolutionized, totally turned around in the very set of his mind. That’s repentance.
We know how the story ends. Repentance brought him back to his father for a joyful reunion and his father was extraordinarily generous, restoring him to his place as a beloved son.
In coming to experience the blessings of the Gospel, there is no substitute for an initial and heart-deep attitude of repentance. In fact, repenting and believing are linked so closely they cannot be separated. Believing is only authentic if matched with repentance.
This spirit of repentance doesn’t come to all in the same way. In God’s love and wisdom the realization of our need to repent may descend suddenly, like a thunderclap. Or it may grow for days, weeks, or months as a dawning sunrise. However the loving Father sends, it is a gift to which we must respond wholeheartedly.
Jesus’ message at the outset of his ministry was: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). In essence, that means, experience that radical change of mind and prepare for God to deliver his forgiveness with rivers of joy!
Photo credit: Alan Levine (via flickr.com)