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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #4: You Need to Repent about . . . What?

From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ -Matthew 4:17

Why did Jesus start his ministry on this note? This catchphrase, which he shared with his forerunner cousin, John the Baptizer, seems an odd place to start telling the good news. Why didn’t he begin with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.”? Or Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me all you who are weary.”? Or John 4:14, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”? Each of these feels so much more inviting and winsome than “Repent!”

I suspect that many of us have an emotional reaction to this word. It provokes feelings of guilt and fear. Or reminds us of people carrying signs of coming judgment. In Somersworth, NH recently, an undercover police officer stood at an intersection carrying just such a sign so he could spot drivers using their cell phones, handing out a $100 (plus fees) ticket. The 96 people ticketed are really sorry now.

This is a widely held concept of repentance. It is about getting caught. Being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Turning or burning. It produces deep shame. When we are caught, we feel awful for what we have done. And boy, have we done stuff that offends God. We are sorry that we did it. We promise to never do it again. Repentance for many ends up focused on the bad actions themselves.

This is not exactly the focus of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ call for repentance is the song of reconciliation. Through Jesus, the God we were glad to be rid of in the Garden is offering us a fully restored relationship. Reconciliation means that the war we thought we were having with God is over and by His own power we have laid down our weapons to find ourselves being swept up into His embrace. The gospel tells us that we are invited by God to be fully included again into His family. It tells us that He has declared us free of all penalties because Jesus took them all on himself on the cross. This aspect of the gospel confronts our rebellion at its root cause. We rebelled so we could run our own lives. We believed our knowledge of good and evil was deep enough to make the right decisions for ourselves. We were dead wrong.

This is why Jesus starts with repentance. If you have ever done a word study on ‘repent,’ you know that it means ‘to change one’s mind.’ But change my mind about what? About sin? About what I did wrong? Defining repentance in those terms leads us away from Jesus’s point. Since ‘the kingdom of God’ points to God’s right to reign over all He has created, true repentance is to change my mind about who is in charge. Repentance is saying, “God reigns,” and really meaning it!

Repentance is real when I give up my false idea that I have the right to reign over myself and instead acknowledge that my Creator has the right to reign over me and all my decisions. Repentance comes from godly sorrow for believing that I could run my life apart from Him, even if I was ‘doing okay,’ as so many have thought before me.

This is why embracing Jesus’ good news and entering into a new covenant with God requires a broken spirit and a contrite heart. It opens wide the door to the pathway of transformation. And that is good news.

Steve Smith