For years I was confused about the call to repentance in the Bible. I knew that salvation was by grace through faith, and yet I wondered about the emphasis on repentance which I saw in the New Testament. This emphasis is certainly all over the place, and so it’s clear that to become a Christian, a person must repent and believe in Christ, but repentance seemed like a “work” and therefore a contradiction of the idea of grace by faith alone. Here’s what I came to understand:
I got it confused because I misunderstood the word repentance in the first place. Repentance is not changing the way we act. In fact, it is not an action at all, but instead is turning away from sin in your mind. Now, don’t be mistaken, turning from sin in word and deed is what always happens when there is repentance, but repentance is not doing anything; instead it is changing your mind about sin.
When a preacher says, “Repent!”, what he is saying is, “Change your mind.” The word for repentance is metanoeo. Meta – means with. Noeo – means, the mind, or thinking.
Literally, with the mind.
Therefore, repentance means…change the way you are thinking about sin. This makes perfect sense – if a person is going to call on the name of Jesus for salvation from their sin, wouldn’t they first have to think differently about sin? Of course.
It’s only when a drowning man realizes the water is killing him that he calls for help. To him, water is a big negative, and that’s an understatement. And it’s the same way with sin.
Therefore, in order to call on Jesus for help, I have to realize that sin is a mega-negative. It has caused me pain and loss.It has severed relationships and broken me time and again. Therefore I need a Savior, and to repent is to realize the harmful, negative nature of sin. The call to faith is also the call to see sin for what it is.
This idea gets clarified in Luke 3:8 when John the Baptist takes repentance to the next step and says,
Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Luke 3:8a (ESV)
In this, John is saying to do something, but this is distinct from the call to salvation. If you have really repented, he is saying, then you will change. Your deeds will be evidence that you have repented, but hear this – deeds are not necessary for salvation – they are only evidence that salvation has come, as in the case of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10 ESV). If a Christian has really decided that a particular action is sinful, then by the power of the Holy Spirit Who reminds us of our sonship, that person will work to stop doing that particular action. But it will not be perfect work. There will be fits and starts. He will stumble and fight…all his life, but he will fight. Because of what Christ has done for him, he will fight against sin and slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, bear fruit.
But we do not call people to salvation by saying, “You must do something and believe.”
Instead…we call them to repent.
For Monday, July 6th: Luke 4