We all love a feel-good story of someone turning their life around.
We love these stories for a variety of reasons.
We like the idea that anyone, no matter how far down in life, can make it out of their difficult circumstances;
We like rooting for the underdog;
We find hope in these stories because “if he can do overcome [fill in the blank], so can I!”
Most of us – as Christians – know that there exists in our life a lingering sin that we wish weren't there. From lust to gossip, to laziness, and more, we – because we're human – struggle with these things. Sometimes, these sins don't seem like a big deal. But after a while they do something that no Christian wants: they steal from the Christian her intimacy with God. When we refuse to address these sins and deal with what they're doing to us, we slowly but surely stifle our relationship with God, and after years of stifling, we find ourselves feeling completely distant and even doubtful of God.
So, what do we do?
We need to repent of our sins because the way we’re living is outside the lines God intended and thus causes a distance between us and the heavenly Father whom we want to know.
So, that's it. We just repent. We just repent of our sins, and we will find ourselves standing on top of the proverbial mountain, champions of our sins.
No, it's not.
It can’t be.
This word, "repentance," is difficult, though. Possibly because so many of us have lived with the wrong definition of repentance for far too long.
This wrong definition of repentance is dangerous and leads us to two – equally bad – extremes: legalism and license.
Legalism, simply put, is thinking we have to be good enough – to earn God’s favor and thus salvation.
License is when we believe that because God has forgiven us, we can do whatever we want.
Both are wrong.
Both are an abuse of the gospel.
Both should be rejected.
But what is this wrong definition of repentance?
If you’re like me, you’ve heard it many times; “repentance is the act of turning away from your sin and turning toward God.”
The problem with this definition is two-fold. First, it is unbiblical. Second, it is – as previously mentioned – dangerous.
It is unbiblical in that the word from which we derive “repent” does mean “to turn from,” but more on that later.
It’s dangerous because since repentance is a requirement for salvation (Acts 3:18), we cannot – at all – attribute repentance to a mere work of man. This leads to both legalism and license.
It leads to legalism in that if someone thinks it is required of them to turn away from their sin to be saved they will believe their works are what saves them. This is the imprisonment of legalism.
This is a dead faith.
The legalist can never experience the freedom Christ offers because he’s stuck in a cycle out of which he’ll never escape. He consistently chooses to rely on his filthy rags efforts instead of trusting in the perfect sacrifice and work of Jesus.
But, it leads to license as well. If repentance was an act of man, but one that had to be undertaken consistently and continuously due to the constant failure of that man, wouldn't then the man – knowing he’s forgiven anyway – reject repentance and keep living his life in the status quo?
“Of course, not,” most of us would say. But, it seems, given the number of nominal Christians in the church today, that this is far more prevalent than we’d like to admit.
If repentance is necessary for salvation – which is clearly what Scripture teaches – then we must have a correct definition of it.
Let’s look at our passage.
In Matthew 4:17, immediately after Jesus had fasted for over a month and had been tempted by the devil, Matthew records this:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (ESV).
This is the message with which Jesus begins his entire ministry.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
It is, of course, crucial. Jesus made it the first thing he preached about in his ministry.
The kingdom of Heaven – being the reign of God available on this earth to all who would believe – is available to all people who would then choose to live in his kingdom. Living in the kingdom of heaven is the call of the Christian in this life. But, Jesus says, to be in the kingdom, we must first repent.
So, what does it mean?
The Greek word used here, and in over 30 other verses in the New Testament is metanoeō. As pastor and theologian John Piper, writes, the word metanoeō
“has two parts: meta and noeo. The second part (noeo) refers to the mind and its thoughts and perceptions and dispositions and purposes. The first part (meta) is a prefix that regularly means movement or change. So the basic meaning of repent is to experience a change of the mind’s perceptions and dispositions and purposes.”
Repentance means to change one’s mind.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and fall into one of our two traps. This is not something we can simply do.
Instead, it is something God gives us.
In Acts 5 the Apostles were arrested and brought before the high priest, the council, and the senate of Israel. The high priest tells them – essentially – "we've warned you about talking about Jesus. This needs to stop." Then, the apostles responded and tucked away in verse 31 is our word “repentance.”
“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (ESV).
Jesus is the "him" the Apostles mention here, and they make it very clear that repentance is something Jesus gives to us.
Later on, in the book of Acts, we see something very similar. After telling the church how Peter has been ministering to the gentiles, the Jews say,
“Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
It was evident to the apostles that repentance was a gift from God. Not something we do.
So, what can we do with this?
We can pray that God would grant us repentance.
If repentance is a gift from God of which we should earnestly desire more and more, then we should be fervently praying for God to grant us more and more repentance.
We should regularly pray for some metanoeō. God is willing and gracious to provide repentance, as he already has to so many.
Our challenge this week is to repent. Each time you pray, ask for God to give you repentance and cleanse your mind from the things that distract you from God.
This wrong view of repentance is infecting the church and robbing the bride of Christ of the joy sitting right in front of her.
Do you feel distant from God?
Pray for repentance.
Is there specific sin about which you wish your mind would change?
Pray for repentance.
This week, spend a portion of your daily time with God repenting. Record (somewhere) how repentance has changed your intimacy with God.
God grants repentance, which, ultimately, brings us joy. Let us pursue repentance.