Understanding the Meaning of Repentance (Article 19-8)
John the Baptist, described by Jesus as "the greatest man born of women (Matthew 11:11)", cried out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Matthew 3:2).” As described in scripture, the two requisites of repentance are "to turn from evil, and to turn to the good." However, it is very important to understand the intent of repentance – that being our returning to God -thus being one with Him. Three times Ezekiel included God's call to the people of Israel: "Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!" (14:6); "Repent! Turn away from all your offenses" (18:30); "Turn! Turn from your evil ways" (33:11). Such calls for repentance were characteristic of the Old Testament prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus Himself calls us to repentance. However, it is very important to not just understand the intent of repentance, but also how repentance is to be achieved.
Repentance – “A Change of Understanding”. By Greek definition, repentance means to have a change of understanding of something and with it a change of thinking. As such, our call to repentance requires us to first have a change of understanding of who God is, thus a change in our thinking of who He is and our relationship with Him. Luke points out the above point in Acts 20:21. In this verse, Luke testifies to the Jews and the Greeks that we must have “repentance (change of understanding) toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”. As portrayed in the Old Testament, our understanding of God is One who is wrathful and with little mercy – hard and callous in His ways and approach in dealing with the Israelites. He is also described as a jealous God – a God who smites those who disobey Him and those who rise-up against His chosen people – the Israelites. Finally, He is portrayed as being vengeful and beyond man’s ability to commune. But Christ changed our understanding of God. It is through Christ, not the prophets, that God’s true attributes of love and mercy are revealed. These points are most prevalent when Christ points out that God is our “Father”. Although the Old Testament does make reference to God as Father (Jer 31:9, Isa 64:8, Isa 63:26, Deu 32:6, 1Ch 29:10, Mal 1:6 Pro 3:12, and Psa 103:13), it is largely masked by the harsh manner in which He dealt with the Israelites. However, in the New Testament, Christ calls us to see Him very differently. He calls us to see and understand God as an endearing being, thus inspiring us to focus on God’s affection and unconditional love for us all. With this understanding of God’s true nature as our Father, we are invited to go to Him in love and sureness and not in fear. Christ addresses this point head on when He teaches us on how to pray. In Matthew 6:6, Christ says… "when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father…” As you continue to read on in these verses, you’ll note that Christ points something else out for us to understand. When instructing us on how to pray to God (The Lord’s Prayer), Christ tells us to start the prayer with the words “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9). Note that the words “Our Father”, does not imply God is just the “Father of Christ.”, but rather the Father of all of us. With this, we should feel God’s tenderness and His wealth of love and grace He maintains toward us. Also, we often forget that in our understanding of God to be “all knowing (omniscient)”, “all present (omnipresent)”; and “all powerful (omnipotent)”, He is also “all loving (omnibenevolent)”.
Repentance – “A Change of Heart”. Let us again review Acts 20:21. Note in the last part of the verse, Paul states “…and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”. It is this part of the verse that the second meaning of repentance is revealed. What is revealed here is that Christ is central to achieving true repentance, and by way of faith (trust) in Him, repentance is achieved. See, when Christ came, He didn’t come to change our minds, but rather our hearts. This was foreshadowed in the Old Testament when God says “I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart (Jeremiah 24:7).” God underscores the point of having changed hearts in Ezekiel 11:19 when He says, “…I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them and I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…” How did God intend to accomplish the above? By way of His Son, Jesus Christ! Both of these Old Testament verses foreshadow a key purpose for Christ’s first coming and His ministry. Think about it. How would it be possible to have a changed heart toward God by way of the Old Testament’s descriptions of Him? A changed heart requires trust (faith) in someone by way of first knowing and having relationship with that person. In the Old Testament, man couldn’t even approach or communicate with God unless God ordained it! This point coupled with the fact that God was embraced largely out of fear made it very difficult, if not impossible, to see God’s attributes of love and affection. Christ changed all this. It is by way of Christ, that our understanding of God’s true nature of love and forgiveness is made possible, and with this understanding to have a changed heart – a heart trusts and loves God. In sum, Christ exacts God’s nature and with it, our understanding of our Father’s unconditional love for us.
Repentance – “How it is Achieved”. Finally, we must understand that repentance cannot be achieved by our own accord (personal will) and abilities. We have no power to turn away from sin and with it, the ability to change ourselves. Repentance can only be achieved by abiding in Christ and the taking on of His power by way of His Spirit (The Holy Spirit). We are powerless to do anything. In fact, the only power we have is to choose or not to choose to be believers and followers of Christ. Paul tells us “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The “new things” that Paul refers is a “new heart” – that being born from Christ, and with it, the power to change.
Yes, John the Baptist's cry in the wilderness was to “Repent”! But know that that the cry for us to turn away from our sins is only the “ends” and not the “means” to do so. The means is Jesus Christ, for only He knows God, for He is God. “…Faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13)”. Love is Christ, Christ is God, God is love.