Repentance 101: A Regular Dose

Read Matthew 3:1-1

Repentance is a medicine that we need in regular dosage. That sounds rather bracing, I know. But think about it. Most of us view repentance as something which is unusual or over-and-done-with at conversion. Repentance is viewed as uncommon and not the norm for most Christians. In fact for many, we’d rather do anything than repent. Repentance is often the very last thing we’d do. And only if we have no other choice, then if absolutely necessary, will we repent. This first truth from the first gospel shows us, however, that repentance is good and necessary for us. Rather than being avoided like a plague, it should be considered medicinal—healthy and helpful. It may taste like castor oil, but it is still important medicine. And the growing Christian needs this as a regular part of mature Christian living.

Of course, who wants to hear about repentance? Most of us do not; it is considered bad news. One of the distinguishing features of human nature is that it somehow does not want to be told that it is wrong or in need of change. When Christians point out God’s biblical absolutes and how he calls us to a high standard of morality and spirituality, we may be derided by secularists, or called dirty names such as “Absolutists!” “Uncompromising!” “Puritanical!” or the pejorative, “Kill-Joy!” These are among the worst words a secular immoral society can utter. Consequently, one of the results of that is that even many Christians don’t want to deal with or hear about repentance. It is an uncomfortable and challenging subject.

Martin Luther believed that we sinned not only in our dark deeds but even in our admirable acts. Even our good works, in other words Luther thought, can be corrupted by our deceit and selfishness. If that is true, then we likely stand in need of repenting.

Repentance is not only necessary, but it is also good for us. And if it were not good for us, I cannot imagine why our Lord Jesus spoke about it so much.

The passage in Matthew 3, it should be noted, has as its main character not the Lord Jesus but John the Baptist. John announces this theme of repentance even before the Lord appears for his earthly ministry. When chapter 3 begins, the main character is not Jesus, the miraculously born One (depicted in chapters 1-2), but John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth. Seemingly out of nowhere, John appears on the scene, a full-grown thunderclap of a prophet. For over 400 years Israel had had no prophet, no revelation. Now John was on the scene wreaking havoc on the comfort and ease of Zion.

John grew up as a contemporary of Jesus. He also grew up in a time in which there was great hypocrisy in the Jewish synagogue. Many of the most visible religious leaders were advocating one standard for everybody else, while they were quite lax about their own activities. The once-lively-Judaism had continued its centuries-old downward spiral and was now almost beyond repair. Yet God sent John the baptizer, as one of the last prophets to give warning to these people to turn from their ways. And John’s message was not one that permitted the luxury of frivolous thoughts or words. He had little time. The clock of God’s patience was running out; John knew that soon God would bring judgment, if these people did not return to true faith.

John was much like some of the other rather ascetic, hermit types of his day. Contrast him with some of our flamboyant, glamorous religious leaders today. No luxury cars were in his garage. No air-conditioned kennels for his pets. John knew nothing of an affluent comfortable office complex. He did not even have recognized credentials, or a mailing address, or an office; he didn’t even blog. He carried out his ministry out in the desert, away from comfortable city life. He had no mass-mailing department, nor the other trappings normally associated with big-time ministry today.

Because of the 7th century BC prophecy (Is. 40:3), it was not impossible for Israel to conceive of the coming of the Messiah as being preceded by a major Preparer, one who would facilitate the Messiah’s coming. This calling voice in the desert would pave the way for the coming King. He would prepare, make the road straight, smoothing out any bumps or dangerous curves, and leveling the land so that the caravan of the Great King could traverse the highway. John is the fulfillment of that age-old prediction, sent by God to pave the way for Messiah Jesus.

The significance of his lifestyle is clear (v. 4). He was not like the rest of the clergy. Everything, from his sudden emergence to his outer garb, was startling. He wore a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt. This was not accidental. The Jewish leaders knew exactly whose memory John was evoking with this garb. In 2 Kings 1:8 an ancient prophet confronted some of the messengers of the king. Those messengers did not know who this person was. When they returned and told their story to that king, he asked what this prophet looked like, and the men answered “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king immediately recognized this man as Elijah the Tishbite. Now when John the Baptist comes on the scene in this same costume, he was associating himself with Elijah—God’s man with God’s message. His fare was wild nature products, not the culinary delights of city-living—but simplicity and abstinence.

Together these lifestyle definitions communicated a great deal about what John wanted to do. He did not want to play around with religious trivia, nor waste his time on the inconsequential. He was under the gun. And with only a short time remaining until the Messiah would appear, John, like any good Baptist, wanted to reach as many people as possible prior to the coming of the Lord. His concern for true repentance was more consuming than his own comfort.              

The Importance of Repentance

Now let’s move on to see the importance and centrality of repentance at the beginning of John’s and Jesus’ ministry. These are early gospel truths.

1. The very first word spoken by a human character in the gospel of Matthew, after the birth narratives in Mt. 3:2, is “Repent.” This is the trumpet blast of John’s symphony. It is interesting that he did not begin with other themes. How would you commence your ministry if you were conceiving of one today? With what word would you begin your ministry? Perhaps “Relevance;” or “Credible;” maybe “Helpful;” or Prosperous;” perhaps Fulfilling; or “Exciting;” maybe even “Spine-tingling.”  Some would begin with these. But who in the world would purposefully begin their ministry with . . . “Repentance.” God in the Gospel of his Son did it this way. God instructed John to begin his ministry announcing the bad news. The people needed to repent. That probably wouldn’t play well in a lot of contemporary manuals for church success. Yet it echoes in a place for truth.

Two things should be noted about this first clarion call. First, its meaning is literally “change of mind” the change of mind, after reflection, that stretches to both judgment and feelings. It is “a total reformation of both heart and life” as Archibald. Alexander called it. B. B. Warfield spoke of it as “a total revolution of mind,” and “the inner change of mind which regret induces and which itself induces a reformed life.” “Its roots,” Warfield said “were planted in godly sorrow; its issue was amendment of life; its essence consisted in a radical change of mind and heart towards sin.” It is “that fundamental change of mind by which the back is turned not upon one sin or some sins, but upon all sin and the face definitely toward God.”[1]

Repentance was at the center of Jewish and Christian faith. John, does not even bother to explain or define it here, so accepted was its understanding. Neither does Jesus ever give it a strict definition. People knew what repentance was. We often do not.

The Jews believed that repentance was always available. It was compared to an ocean that supplies almost unending water. Jews were known to say, “There may be times when even the gates of prayer are shut; but the gates of repentance are never closed”[2] The rabbis taught that repentance was a healing balm. Repentance, then, was known as both essential and medicinal. It was known to involve a complete redirection and change of mind. Its basic meaning is “Change of mind”; but not a mere mental act. Repentance is a deep change of mind which produces new behavior.

Repentance is not. . . merely being sorry that you were caught. Nor is it a feeling of sorrow or regret only. Repentance is a deep enough feeling that we’re moved to righteous action. Neither is repentance only a good intention. In fact, it is not repentance if it does not result in action. So above all, repentance is an action.

In the Gospels, Jesus did not shy away from discussing repentance, as if to do so were either legalistic or autocratic:

  • Christ denounced cities where miracles were done which did not repent (Mt.11:20).
  • The Ninevites were commended for repentance (Mt.12:41; also Lk. 10:13).
  • Twice in Luke 13 (3, 5), Christ said “Unless you repent, you too will perish.
  • He said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk. 5:32).
  • In Luke 15:7, there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one who repents (The Angels also join in this repentance: see Lk. 15:10).
  • Jesus spoke of post-conversion repentance to exhibit it as an ongoing part of Christian life: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” (Lk.17:3-4) Jesus expected repentance to occur regularly among Christians.
  • After his resurrection in Luke 24:47, Christ said that even the OT scriptures predicted that repentance would be preached to all nations along with his name.

John the Baptist also warns about the kingdom being so near, so close at hand, that “already the axe is laid to the root.” The picture is of a near-“Timber!” situation. It is as if the woodsman has been chopping for some time. And the outer layers of bark are already severed. The tree, which has been the object of the lumberjack’s fury is now hanging only by a shred of it root. It is about to fall. All has been chopped away except that last shred of the root. It alone is unexposed to the blade. And now even that root is the imminent target of the woodsman’s axe. The axe is already laid to the root and the tree is nigh unto falling. With one other strong blow the tree will be felled. Likewise, according to this metaphor, with one more forceful blow, the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ begins; the chopping and preparation project will be completed. The tree will fall, and the Kingdom will be inaugurated. The axe is already laid to the root. The kingdom is that near. Only a sinew separates its commencement.

Our Lord’s beginning gospel truths swirled around repentance and the imminent Kingdom.  Matthew 3:12, which also speaks about the nearness of the kingdom in present tense verbs, exhibits John saying this about Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand [conveying readiness and imminence], and he will clear the threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff..” Invoking imagery from Malachi’s prophecy this verse communicates that Jesus’ ministry was a present-kingdom ministry.

And Jesus’ ministry of the present kingdom was bound up with repentance.

Do you know Jesus as the person John proclaimed? Or do you have the problem of trying to recreate Jesus to be as you want him to be? The Christ of the gospel is definitely portrayed here. If we come to him in repentance, if we would come to his kingdom, it must be to come on his terms and to the person displayed here in the gospels. Do you love this Jesus, rooted in the Old Testament promises and warnings? I hope so, because he’s the only one available.

In the 19th century, a man was converted to Christ once in an unusual way. He was wandering past a church and heard an older lady singing this little gospel chorus: “I’m a sinner; not really much; nothing much at all; Christ is my all in all.” The catchy chorus lodged in the wanderer’s mind, and shortly later he came to truly believe those words and became a Christian. He wanted to join the church where Dr. Charles Spurgeon was preaching. He requested to join the church, and the board asked to examine him. “How, sir,” they asked “do you know you are a Christian?” His answer, which shows real repentance coupled with sincere faith, was the gospel chorus: “I’m really not much, nothing at all; Christ is my all in all.”

Repentance, far from being a symptom of moralism, is a gospel dynamic.

[1] B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), p. 365.

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), p. 47.


David Hall