The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.
When I was a young child, there was a road that I rode down every single day to go into town, whether it was to go to school, to go to the grocery store, and so on. This road cut through forests that had been partially cleared to make room for the road and the houses on the side, but otherwise, trees dominated the scenery. On one of these trees, I saw nearly everyday a sign with a black background of red lettering that said: Repent!
While I grew up in a culturally Christian household, we were not particularly devout. We did not go to church regularly, nor was I taught a lot about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. I got the basic information that God loves us, that Jesus taught us how to live, etc. which amounted to moral theism, but not much that approached the spiritual depth of faith in a Triune God who has redeemed us. So, as I passed that sign, I didn’t have a real background to understand what it meant to repent. It was one of those odd terms that upon retroactive reflection is used as part of the language ‘Christian-ese:’ no one understands what the words mean except those who are insiders to Christianity.
Of course, this is not entirely true. The word repent does have some residual meaning to a culturally Christian world that is familiar with a basic narrative that has been taught by churches and preachers. We are sinners that God is judging and Christ died for our sin, so we need to ‘repent’ of our sin and receive forgiveness in Jesus. Against such a basic, almost stereotyped, portrayal of the Christian proclamation, the word repent would take upon a certain meaning: feel bad about your sins and stop committing them. Repentance was tied to behavior and how we felt about our actions. Undergirding this logic was a basic, often implicit, sometimes explicit belief: God is going to judge you, so if you want to get on God’s good side, best turn your life and heart around. Even if ultimately turning one’s life around was not portrayed as a program of righteousness but believing it Jesus, the basic motivation for repentance was a fear of judgment. Meanwhile, the reason why repentance was taken to be needed was often similar to why faith was needed to be justified: it was part of a transaction between God and us that if we repented/believed, God would forgive/justify/give eternal life/etc.
However, when we take a close look at the reason for repentance that Jesus and Peter gave for repentance, it was motivated by an avoidance of punishment and judgment. Rather, there was a positive reason. Jesus says “The kingdom of God has drawn near,” which means the reality of God’s rule has come to be present on the earth, even as it isn’t finally and fully culminated at this time. Peter calls for people to have their sins wiped out, but not so that they would avoid hell, but so that they would experience refreshment from the Lord’s presence in the present world, even as Jesus would remain in heaven for the present time. Both Jesus and Peter provide a positive reason for repentance, because the work and blessing of God for us is available and accessible now, at the present time. Repentance, then, is based upon a positive motivation: to discover and experience the good that God is seeking to bestow.
Yet, we might still be tempted to think that the relationship between repentance and discovering and experiencing the refreshment of God’s kingdom is still transactional in nature. Yet, repentance, at its core, was about a changing of mind, not per se a changing of one’s behaviors. Repentance was about changing the way one thought about one’s behaviors, which approximates more towards our concept of attitudes, that had implications for what one would think, see, and do in the future. Jesus follows us the call to repentance with a call to belief, suggestive of a relationship between the two. By repenting, one is brought into a place where one can then come to believe
Why is this? Perhaps it is because in the repentance that brings about a new attitude in us, we begin to see and recognize the experiences of life differently, that in the midst of this change we can believe in the good news. Our attitudes have a profound impact on how we learn and make sense of the world. A person who is deeply in love with another person will see all the positive traits of that person, while meanwhile overlooking any of the potentially negative traits. Similarly, if someone is deeply enraged at a person, they will be resistant to seeing the positive aspects of that person. Our attitudes do not just control our feelings and our actions, but contains the way we think and thus also the way we learn about the objects of our attitude.
Jesus announces the reality, inviting us to repent so that we can come to see reality differently, which makes the way for us to come believe for ourselves this good news that Jesus has proclaimed, that the kingdom of God has indeed drawn near. Our change of attitudes about the meaning and significance of life, about how we direct our lives and purposes moves us from breaking down the control and stranglehold our past ways of living, feeling, and thinking have had upon us and opening us to perceive and learn something new, not just to master an abstract body of knowledge but to experience and participate in a whole new way of living, that which is shaped by the was Jesus loves us. We repent so as to learn about and experience the work of God that we had previously been unfamiliar with.
Repentance doesn’t address our sin, at least directly, but rather enables us to perceive and receive the loving, gracious work of God who can cleanse away the effects that our sins have had on our minds and hearts. Instead, we have a changing of our minds and let go of our attitudes that rationalize and justify our sin so that we can then be open and flexible to being nourished, instructed, and directed by God. We uproot the trees of our minds that produced bad fruit from the soil of our hearts and allow a different tree of good fruit to be planted. In this, our repentance does not save us from being judged but saves us from being ignorant of and disconnected from the gift of life from God.
The lack of repentance, then, isn’t a problem because our sins are going to immediately send us to hell when we die. God is a God who is slow to anger, not someone with a quick trigger finger. Rather, the problem is in our lack of repentance, we become hardened and resistant to the good gift of life. An impenitent heart is one that not only misses the good work of God, but reacts against it, continuing to rationalize and justify the way of life that grieves God’s heart and, God forbid, may even be a direct source of harm to others. To be so resistant to repentance, especially in the cases where God has powerfully demonstrated Himself, is a sign that the toxin of sin has so overwhelmed a person’s thinking and living that they don’t want to accept and receive the love, goodness and grace of God as He is actually making it known. The utter lack of repentance is to be unwilling to learn about and experience God the ways that God makes Himself known and accessible, thereby setting one further and further against the way of life of God’s kingdom. In such a scenario, what place can there be for a person who loathes and detests the actual ways that God loves and directs us to love in God’s kingdom? They are unwilling to receive and learn the concrete truths about God, even as they may have some abstract conception about something they call “God” that they think is true, because their attitudes make them utterly resistant to sources that God gives to help us to learn about Him.
Thus, repentance is not our part in a divine-human transaction with God that gets us to avoid judgment, but it is our part in being openly receptive to our relationship with the true, living God so that we can then from there grow to experience the love, joy, hope, and peace that God desires for His creations to enjoy. In repentance, we learn from God and so learn how to live; by repentance, we are ready to sit at the feet of our Rabbi and truly learn how to have life from His words; through repentance, we allow the Spirit to guide us to address the places in our life where we are resisting true life and shalom so that we can discover the depths and riches of God’s love deeper and afresh. Repentance is where our attitudes towards ourselves and our present lives are adjusted so that we can then learn and receive a new way of being human from the Triune God.