“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’
he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
- Martin Luther, 95 Theses
(this article excerpted from “Repent: The First Sermon of Jesus”)-
The first sermon of Jesus is this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
Awash in a world where we live as we want when we want, the first word of this sermon does not make sense.
The form is a command: do this.
It is universal and repeated. The Bible teaches that Jesus went about preaching this sermon.
I’ve often heard preachers speak of this simply as “changing my mind,” using the most literal and simplest translation of the Greek word metanoia. But repentance is much more than just changing my mind, and the weight of the first sermon the Lord of Heaven is not merely about thinking differently. I can change my mind about my favorite soda or the best music, but Jesus was not just asking me to change my mind when he opened his mouth and preached. He was commanding a whole-cloth, top-down, soul-shaking life change.
When people in Jesus’ day repented, they did not just start thinking differently. They went into the wilderness, leaving their money and things, and met with a crazy man named John who wore camel hair and ate bugs. They went into a river and came out saying they had changed everything. Repentance risked retribution from Rome, as the government saw people like John as religious infidels, outsiders, revolutionaries, and threats to peace and good order. John’s head ended up on the plate of the king because of his message:
People who simply change their mind do not end up with their heads on a plate at the feast of a king.
“Change your mind,” some preachers say, like changing your mind is something massive or earth-shaking. They might as well say “go and feel better about yourself,” or “go about the business of thinking nice things.”
Jesus commanded whole-cloth life-shaking, sin-breaking eternal salvation. He then went to the cross to open the door for an eternal life built on the bedrock of repentance. This life — our life, dear church, would be a beautiful living temple filled with God himself. He will transform the entire world top to bottom with real unmistakable miraculous power. All beginning with repentance.
Jesus said: Repent.
Forget the lies of the so-called preachers, the televangelists and robbers who would sell you a bill of goods without value at the cost of your very soul. Let’s instead see what Jesus meant. No preacher died for you. Our Lord Jesus did.
Repentance is Turning From and Turning To
When our Lord commanded, “repent,” he was following in a long line of the prophets of God who called God’s people to turn from their sins toward Him. Note that they turn from evil to God himself, not just from evil to good. There is no good without God.
Mark Boda, Professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity College, recently wrote of the idea of repentance in the Bible called ‘Return to Me’ A Biblical Theology of Repentance. Repentance is the “fundamental return to covenant relationship with the triune God.” That is, repenting is not just changing our minds about something bad we have done, but turning our entire existence from a sin-loving, sin-pursuing, God-hating wickedness into friendship with God — even adoption by God as His sons and daughters!
One of the most famous preachers to ever come out of England, Charles Spurgeon, put it this way:
“Repentance is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved. Conversion, if translated, means a turning round, a turning from, and a turning to–a turning from sin, a turning to holiness–a turning from carelessness to thought, from the world to heaven, from self to Jesus–a complete turning…”
Without repentance, we must question the very meaning of Christianity. The essence of the good news of Jesus the Messiah is wrapped up in his very name. Jesus means ‘the Lord saves.” The angel who explained his name clarifies what the Lord saves us from. “Give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” If we have no sin from which to repent, we have nothing from which we are saved! Whoever claims Christ without first recognizing the need for salvation is claiming the power in friendship of God without realizing the justice and holiness of God. We cannot be in a relationship with God without accepting his whole being. We have no standing to say to our maker, “give me your friendship, but keep your judgments to yourself!” Therefore our Lord Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32) Jesus has no interest in people who think their lives are fine, believe they have not done wrong, or think they do not need help. He does not die for people to have a stronger moral center or some good vibes. He came to transform lost and dying souls, to give abundant life, and to ravage the sin in each of us. The work of Christ in us begins only when we see the need for it. Such recognition is repentance.
Jesus brings the dead to life, but only when they know they are dead!
The Bible is not a recording of good men and women who did great things; it is the trials and travails of a great many bad and weak sinners who need saving time and again. The weakness of its main characters is its strength, and their repentance in the face of judgment is the epicenter of its life-giving hope.
Rather than beat our chests and cry “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,” as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, we see Pharisees on our televisions and in our politics proclaiming their own righteousness and casting aspersions on the failings of everyone else. Heed the warning of Christ: the sinner, not the Pharisee, receives justification. Self-exalting, repentance-free, so-called Christian leaders and public figures are more in danger of the fires of hell than the desperate drug-addled hooker who cries out to God for salvation.
Christianity without Repentance is not Christian
Repentance-free ‘Christianity’ is some form of religion that is worse that sub-standard. Having no faith would be better than this Christianity-Lite. Without repentance, our Gospel is robbed of its power and our instruction is mere moralism. Preaching is shouting, personal change is just self-help, and politics begins to take over the life of the church. Christianity-Lite is vile and reprehensible. Many of the problems with our public presentation of the Christian life begin when we divorce the two commands in Mark 1:15, where our Lord says “Repent and believe in the good news!” We cannot believe without repenting, for the good news is nothing if it not bad news first, and we cannot be Christians in public or private if we do not take seriously this first command of our Lord.
The clearest way of discerning genuine salvation in another soul (and in your own) is in this area of repentance. The Christian heart ought to be a penitent heart, one ready to admit fault and ask forgiveness. The genuine Christian will ultimately yield whatever sins are uncovered to the Lord Jesus for forgiveness and will not let pride win. We do not fight for stature or grow angry when others come to us in gentle rebuke. The genuine Christian lays down is weaknesses before Christ and the body which is the church. The true Christian is not marked by pride or hubris and never says “no one can judge me.” In fact, the opposite is true: the true Christian knows that the judge of the world in fact sits in judgment over his or her life and finds him or her totally lacking. The true Christian has no hope other than Jesus Christ the Savior.
The simple test of true faith is when a person is confronted with his own sinfulness. If he does not cry out for forgiveness both from God and man and if he spends all his time defending the obviously defenseless then one wonders if he ever bent the knee in the first place and accepted salvation.
Without repentance, the Christian has no standing in the world and no place in politics or the public realm. We have nothing to say and nothing unique to offer a broken world if we do not first identify with it in our brokenness. If even Jesus, who was without sin, was baptized in a baptism of repentance to fulfill all righteousness, how can we begin any public statement of our faith without a public statement of our repentance? What standing do we have in waving our bibles around, telling the world its sins as if we ourselves are not sinners? This is why Paul tells us he is the very worst of sinners that Christ came to save. At the end of an excoriating letter to his beloved Corinthian church, as he is preparing to present the triumph of the good news over death itself in the resurrection of Jesus, he reminds us that he “is the least of the apostles, not even fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul based his entire ministry on his own desperate need of salvation. His testimony begins with his hatred for Jesus and his inability to save himself from his vicious heart. His standing as a teacher and moral judge is based entirely on Christ’s work in him, not his own platform as a good-natured individual.
Without repentance, sermons and teaching are worth less than nothing. No Pastor can say “Jesus saves,” without saying, “Jesus saved ME.” If I merely point out your need for salvation, then I am essentially saying “I am as good as Jesus, but YOU on the other hand, well, that’s a different story entirely. You are worse off…” Such lies emanate from the very bowels of hell. Teachers who teach from a stance of anything other than weakness and foolishness overcome by the wisdom and strength of God have nothing to say. They are self-deceived deceivers, wolves covered in the fresh skins of sheep they killed that very morning, creatures deserving the wrath they will receive in the end.
Without repentance, our gospel message is gibberish. If we just say “believe the good news,” without calling to mind the very reason for the good news, we are fiddlers on a sinking ship. We are giving the world a happy-feeling drug of something worship-like and Christian-ish, a close enough approximation to the truth that many will leave satisfied for a day or a week, though their souls are still in peril. “Jesus loves you,” means nothing if you ignore everything Jesus had to say about sin, its weight, the trial awaiting sinners at the end of their days, and the very blood he would shed for such sins. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” can only be sung with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in mind.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Sharing the gospel always begins with the word “repent.” Anything less is self-help escapism, a wishful thinking that people will get better without acknowledging whatever it is that ruins in the first place. Churches who do not believe in or preach repentance would do the world much good by dying right away rather than drowning the whole world with them as they sink below the surface, for they are not churches and they preach only lies.
Without repentance, the world sees through the thin veneer of our supposed holiness and calls us on our nonsense. For all its foolishness toward the gospel, the world is not comprised of ignorant idiots. People are smart enough to read the news about priests raping children and pastors assaulting parishioners; cover-ups and hush money; mega-church pastors soaking in millions of dollars in salary with houses the size of hospitals full of empty rooms and golden furniture; pastors and self-identified Christian politicians who rail against homosexuality through their multiple divorces, sex scandals, and secret homosexual trysts; anti-abortion activists who hide the abortions of their lovers from the public eye; televangelists complaining of “long tubes of demons” to justify their private jets; massive church buildings which remain empty save for one or two days a week; passes given to horrifically evil politicians because they vote the right way despite the fact that they malign the name of Christ with every ounce of their being. Mankind stills bears the image of God who created us, and has enough sense to see hypocrisy oozing from every pore in the American church. The church of Christ has much from which to repent, but instead we hem and haw, hedge ourselves against the financial damage we might receive if we laid everything bare, and harp continually on the sins of others who never claim to be anything more than sinners in the first place. Unbelievers always find ways not to believe, but the actions of Christians who refuse to repent serve as the most effective anti-witness to the Good News of Jesus.
Without repentance, we invoke God’s wrath upon ourselves in double measure, we who would be teachers, preachers, leaders, politicians, and pastors. We place ourselves in danger of immense pain, of eternal anguish, of deserved torture. Because we have robbed the gospel of its integrity and efficacy, we have condemned the world around us to hell with us. Much has been made of the Millennial generation, how it is to be the least Christian in American in a long time, perhaps ever. Millennials are leaving the church in droves. And for good reason! Raised in hypocritical churches and homes with parents and preachers alike who scorned wickedness while ignoring it in their own hearts. They saw through the veneer of hypocrisy and want nothing to do with it.
Without repentance, we cannot raise the next generation rightly. For this we must also repent: we did not raise up the next generation as was right. Sure, we taught rules and righteousness, we tried to get them to have good grades and good jobs and good lives, but we forgot that none of that matters if a person is not saved, and what are they saved from if not their sins, and how can they know that sinners need saving if we do not model this truth in absolute humility day in and day out. We spend our time as parents and preachers correct and rebuking, but we forget that such correction occurs in the context of constant self-examination and confession. “I am wrong, and I am sorry, and this is why I ask that you feel sorrow as well” is the first word of any sort of rebuke. “I am saved by the same grace that is available to you,” the first word of correction.
Without repentance, the church has no hope in calling to salvation the next generation of lost souls. The world is not saved by our anger and frustration; the next generation cannot be turned by moralism or politics; your grandchildren will not be saved because people stood for the national anthem or said the pledge of allegiance or the dime said “In God we Trust.” Nothing short of a national movement of church leadership engaged in public breast-beating shouts of “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” will evidence the power and mercy of Christ in the life of the believer. There is no other solution, no other way for God to move. He cannot be legislated into action, cannot be called by an online petition, will not hear our prideful prayers devoid of penance, and refuses to extend the grace of the Gospel to those who refuse to acknowledge their need in the first place.
 Mark Boda, ‘Return to Me’ A Biblical Theology of Repentance (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015). Note: this is the single best reference for an in-depth exploration of the topic of repentance in Scripture.
 Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 14: 1868 (Lulu.com, 2017), “Apostolic Exhortation, Sermon №804” p. 128.