What do we think about when we hear the word “repentance”? What things do we associate with repentance? What synonyms would we use for repentance?
Perhaps the most important question is, when was the last time we repented? Do we repent on a weekly, or even daily basis? Is repentance something we do only once, when we get saved? Is repentance something we do only when we’ve committed a major sin?
The word repentance is closely connected with the Bible, or at least it used to be. Prophets preached repentance in the Old Testament and apostles preached repentance in the New Testament. Certain cities and nations were spared for repenting (Ninevah). Other cities and peoples were dramatically destroyed for failing to repent (Sodom and Gommorah, as well as Jerusalem). John the Baptist came preaching repentance. Peter preached repentance on the day of Pentecost. Jesus revealed that His earthly mission was aimed not to serve the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.
Yet repentance has largely disappeared from our culture’s vocabulary (along with a lot of other biblical language), including our Christian conversation. The people who seem to use it most are usually those that come across as angry. They stand in front of football stadiums wearing sandwich board signs and shouting, “Repent or die!” and, “Turn or burn!” We might use the word repentance as a last resort, keeping it in the bag until the last possible moment, fearing that any talk of repentance might turn people away from Jesus.
In our daily spiritual walk we rarely refer to, let alone practice, repentance. When we encounter God’s discipline or when we’re feeling guilty over sin, we talk about change, or maybe we talk about doing better next time. But it’s shamefully rare to hear someone come out and say, “I had to, or need to, repent.”
To be fair, there exists a small community of “grunge” Christians who have responded to the goody-two-shoes, Sunday-best Christians, who know that no one can be perfectly righteous, and who run the other direction. It seems like these brothers and sisters can only talk about how wicked, vile, and sinful they are. They write songs and blogs divulging their nasty, sinful secrets and demand that all Christians do the same in order to be “real.” But ironically, this group doesn’t understand repentance any better. It is as if they think being bad and wallowing in sin is more authentic than confessing sin and then moving away from it.
So what is repentance? Our goal is to answer that question in a mini-theology of repentance, and hopefully it will have very practical and immediate benefit. We’ll try to unravel the biblical teaching on repentance by asking three simple questions: What is repentance? What is repentance from? And, What keeps us from repentance?