John the Baptist was a desert-dweller who dressed in garments made of camel’s hair. Yet despite these “eccentricities,” crowds came streaming from all directions to the Jordan River, drawn by his fiery preaching. There was one word they heard 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 1:15) Throughout the New Testament this word has a constant meaning. It means to change the mind.
Changing one’s mind sounds trivial. 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 different one.
To change one’s mind in the sense of repenting means much more. One of my seminary professors explained that it means to change the very set of the mind. It means more specifically to acknowledge the depth of our sinfulness — the apathy or even hostility towards God implicit in living as though He doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. And in addition to experiencing abject sorrow and regret, humbly accepting God’s invitation to be changed and indwelled by His Spirit.
The good news of Christ’s kingdom is that our set of mind can, in fact, be profoundly changed. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17).
As for the initial repentance part: We recall Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. At first, feeling that his freedom was restricted, he asked for his inheritance and traveled far away from father’s influence.
For a time, having no curfew or work assignments felt like liberty. Furthermore, he had plenty of money which he spent as he pleased.
But after he had spent everything, freedom quickly led to desperation. His circle of parasitic friends vanished; in his destitution he became the lowliest servant of a pig farmer.
There was no recourse but to return to his father. But before he could do that, he would have to change his mind — the orientation, direction, and content of his thinking — about decisions he had made and their consequences.
The first step was for him to see his father in an altogether different light.
In fact, upon reviewing his actions, he began to feel genuine sorrow for his 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 as evidence of his sincerity, to offer his services as a servant rather than son on the estate.
He was totally turned around in the very set of his mind towards his father. That’s repentance.
We know how the story ends. After his abject apology and offer of humble service, his joyful father was extraordinarily generous, restoring him to his place as a beloved son.
Similarly, to experience the blessings of the Gospel, there is no substitute for repentance. In fact, repenting and believing are linked so closely they cannot be separated. Believing is only authentic if coupled to repentance.
This spirit of repentance doesn’t come to all in the same way. In God’s love and wisdom, to some He seems to enable an almost harrowing realization of the need to repent suddenly, like a thunderclap. Or repentance may grow for days, weeks, or months as a dawning sunrise.
Whichever way our loving Father sends, it is a gift to which we must respond wholeheartedly.
Jesus’ message at the outset of his ministry was, as quoted above: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). May every living person 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)