What, then, did Jesus mean by the word repent? And how does it apply to us today? The main Greek word translated repent in our New Testament means a “change of mind.” That is part of what Jesus meant by this word. However, Jesus was not a Greek but a Jew. And his understanding of repentance grew out of the key Hebrew word for repentance in the Old Testament, which means “to turn.” Through the prophets, God repeatedly spoke to the backslidden Israelites, urging them to repent, that is, to wake up to their sin, humble themselves, and turn back to him and his righteous ways. This call is prominent in the Old Testament and means not only a change of mind, but a turning of the heart back to God, manifested in forsaking sin and embracing obedience.1 In the New Testament, John the Baptist used the word this same way. Matthew’s Gospel records that John charged the Pharisees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (3:8). In other words, they were to demonstrate inner change through outward behavior. In Luke, when the crowd asked for specifics about the shape of repentance, John said, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” To tax collectors, he said, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And to soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be content with your wages” (3:10–14).
A vivid and touching depiction of repentance is found in Luke’s account of the prodigal son, who willfully left his father, gave himself to a life of sin and experienced the hard consequences of his choices. When at last “he came to himself,” he recognized how far he had fallen and purposed in his heart to return to his father, confess his sin, and ask for mercy (15:17–20). This is a beautiful picture of repentance and (along with the two parables on repentance that precede it) shows the joy—yes, joy—that repentance brings in heaven and in us.
Summarizing, one noted scholar describes repentance in this way:
The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and life-style, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life.2
This is what Jesus meant when he called men and women to repent. He was calling people out of darkness and bondage into a life of freedom and joy in the Holy Spirit. And in view of our terrible plight, this is exactly the message we all need. Clearly, the call to repent is an offer of grace, a call to awake to our sin and respond with obedience by turning to Jesus Christ. We must respond to God’s offer, but our response is not a “work” that human beings can produce through their own efforts. Only God’s grace can enable and produce such a profound turning within a person.
Jesus combined the call to repent with a call to “believe in the gospel.” In repentance, one turns from something; in believing the gospel, one turns to something or, rather, Someone. At the heart of the good news of the coming kingdom or reign of God is Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. Faith in Jesus and his work is essential for a right relationship with God and life in his kingdom. For our salvation is grounded not on what we do, but on what Christ has done for us.
What do we mean by faith? In the Bible, faith involves knowledge, assent, and trust. Faith begins with right knowledge about Jesus, as he is presented to us in holy Scripture. Today this would include, at a minimum, his identity as the incarnate Son of God, his death on the cross to pay for sins, and his resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven. However, such knowledge alone is not enough. One must also give sincere assent to their truth and believe that these things are literally true. While knowledge and assent are both essential, they are not sufficient. This may surprise some, but accurate knowledge of Jesus and assent to orthodox beliefs are not sufficient for salvation. James tells us that “The demons believe and tremble” (2:19). No, we must go on to trust ourselves to the object of faith, Jesus Christ the Son of God. Jesus and his work on the cross is the focal point of faith. Thus I must trust that on the cross he gave his life for me, me personally, and that God accepted his sacrifice as a full and complete satisfaction for my sins.
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