For many of us, that’s a rather nasty little word. It conjures images of fire-and-brimstone preachers holding their thick, black Bibles over their heads with one hand while pointing the other menacingly at the shell-shocked crowd and yelling:
Repent, ye depraved sinners bound for the depths of hell. Repent before the fires of heaven consume the earth. Repent if ye can. Because the Dread Pirate Roberts is here for your souls.
Wait, I may have gotten a little Princess Bride mixed in there at the end. But you get the point. Repent rarely gets good reviews.
But the biblical authors don’t seem bothered by it at all. Actually, they seem to like it. Jesus, Peter, and Paul, all identify repentance as one of the fundamental ways in which we should respond to the gospel (e.g. Mt. 4:17; Acts 3:19; Rom 2:4). All of them seem to think that we need to repent before we can enter the Kingdom.
But wait. Doesn’t that cause a bit of a problem. We often tell people that the good news of the gospel means that they don’t need to do anything to earn salvation. We make a pretty big deal out of that point: salvation by grace means no required works before salvation. If we require repentance before salvation, then, aren’t we breaking our own rules? If you have to do something before God will save you, then it seems like some kind of legalism has slipped in through the back door (or maybe the front door!).
What Is Repentance?
The problem comes from how we understand repentance. The way we normally use the word, repentance refers to anytime that we feel really sorry for something that we’ve done—so sorry that we promise never do it again. The career felon, having finally learned the error of his ways and feeling terrible for all of the lives that he has wrecked, repents of his crimes and dedicates himself to the betterment of humanity. That’s repentance.
But, if that’s repentance, and if getting into the Kingdom requires repentance, then all sorts of questions come to mind. How sorry do I have to feel? How do I know if I’m being truly sincere? How committed do I have to be to my new way of life? If I mess up later, does that mean that I wasn’t truly repentant in the first place? Am I really in the Kingdom, or am I just hanging out around the gate pretending like I’m in? Am I really saved?
The problem is that we’ve misunderstood what repentance means in the Bible and how it’s related both to faith and to the changed life.
Driving the Wrong Way
Think about it this way. One day I’m blissfully driving down the road enjoying the scenery and listening to some music. Suddenly, Mary speaks up from the passenger seat, “Um, we’re going the wrong way.”
“What? Not possible! Of course we’re going the right way. I know how to read a map. Go back to sleep.” Of course, I don’t say any of this out loud. I’m not a complete idiot. So instead I just say something about how I’m sure that we’re on the right road and I keep driving, though somewhat less blissfully than before.
Five minutes later, Mary again tactfully suggests that we’re going in the wrong direction. Still, I refuse to listen. (This is, of course, just for the sake of the story. In real life, I am much smarter than this and would certainly listen to the sage counsel of my wife.) Instead, I press on down the road.
This continues for some time until her words finally begin to sink in and I realize that something is definitely wrong. Since we’ve already established that I’m a fallen and broken human being, I’ll probably wrestle for a while with a desire to keep going the wrong way just so I won’t have to admit that I was wrong. Or, maybe I’ll try to exercise my creativity and see if I can find a way to turn around, but make it look like it was my idea the whole time. Eventually, though, foolish stubbornness subdued and hubris broken, I acknowledge the superior wisdom of my wife and admit that I’m going the wrong way.
A New Mindset
In the Bible, repentance means “to change your mind” or “to think differently.” Repentance is a fundamental reorientation of how you understand your world, realizing that your life is going the wrong way, and coming to believe that you need to live your life in another direction. But, and here’s the important part, repentance is not about how you live your life after you make that decision. That is, of course, related. I can’t say that I’ve really decided that I’m going to listen to Mary and turn the car around, if the car never actually gets turned around. That doesn’t work. But deciding to turn the car around and actually driving in the other direction are still two different things.
When the Bible says that repentance is necessary to enter into the Kingdom of God, it’s talking about the realization that you’re living your life in the wrong direction (away from God), and a new desire to live your life in a different direction (toward God). Repentance involves a radical change in how we think, what we believe to be true, what we’re committed to. It’s a radical change of mind about God, a realization that everything that we’ve been pursuing, the road that we’ve been driving down, is all about sin, death, and destruction, a new conviction that the direction you should be headed down is toward God, his glory, his plans, and his promises. Repentance is deciding that God is right, that you’ve been wrong, and that you want to go God’s way from now on.
In that sense, repentance is simply the flipside of faith. Faith is both a firm conviction that God is right and a heartfelt trust in his faithfulness. Repentance is saying the same thing, but with more of an emphasis on the fact that coming to faith in God means turning away from whatever you were pursuing before. That’s what Paul has in mind when he calls on people to “turn from these vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15). He wants them to realize that the current objects of their faith are vain and worthless, and he calls on them to repent, to turn away from those things and put their faith in God alone.
More Than a Lane Change
Now, that doesn’t mean that repentance has nothing at all to do with how we live our lives. Many people who are driving down the road realize that something is wrong and simply change lanes. They’ll work harder, try a different church, read new books, or go on a diet. But none of these will make any difference as long as they’re still driving the wrong way. A new lane in the wrong direction will still get you to the wrong place.
True repentance means deciding to go the other way. And that should result in the car getting turned around. The two are connected, but they are different.
To get into the Kingdom, we need to repent. We need to change our minds about who this story is going to be about. As long as we try to make this story about us, our glory, our kingdoms, as long as we try to keep driving in the same direction, we will end in destruction. Getting into the Kingdom means changing our minds about God, realizing that he is right, trustworthy, and glorious.
Are you going the wrong way?
[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.