The imperative—“Repent!”—assaults modern sensibilities like nails on a chalkboard. Repentance is often dismissed as the sadistic mantra of self-loathers; or worse, dreaded as a pistol drawn in pulpits to scare sinners into submission.
But repentance—the act of turning from sin and toward God—pervades the biblical story as a life preserver for God’s people, not a cruel waterboarding tactic. Strikingly, Jesus’s main message is summarized in the Gospels as: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32). If repentance is so central in Jesus’s teaching, why is it so peripheral (or nonexistent) in ours?
Repentance, Where Art Thou?
Different tribes give different responses.
Progressives tend to deny repentance altogether, rejecting it as fundamentalist fodder. I recently met with a local progressive church leader who feels this way, and during our charitable yet lively conversation, she remarked: “I never address sin from the pulpit. I don’t think it’s helpful to tell people how bad they are all the time.”
If repentance is so central in Jesus’s teaching, why is it so peripheral (or nonexistent) in ours?
While progressives deny repentance, some conservatives downplay it. I’ve heard sermons that rightly name sin as the problem and God’s forgiveness as the solution, but repentance is airbrushed out. They affirm the doctrine in theory, but in practice, it’s sidelined.
Equally disturbing are conservatives who overemphasize repentance, painting God as an angry Thor who’s all hammer and no heart. In their zeal for God’s holiness, their speech lacks the gentleness befitting a believer (Col. 4:6; 2 Tim. 4:2).
Repentance Is Good News
It’s not easy calling something “good news” that much of the world labels “bad news,” but Christians must be audacious enough to insist that what God deems good is in fact good. So how is repentance good?
1. Repentance reinforces reality.
David Wells defines worldliness as whatever makes “sin look normal and righteousness look strange.” Our default vision is blurry, which is why Scripture says knowledge begins with fearing the Lord (Prov. 1:7). Until we understand God’s authority—he is God, we are not—we’re not seeing straight. Repentance points us to our deepest problem (sin), our right response to that problem (humility), and the only One with power to fix it (God). Without it, we’re prone to shrink our view of both the seriousness of our sin and the holiness of God.
2. Repentance brings true acceptance.
Many are plagued by a nagging fear that if God (or people) really knew them, they’d be rejected. We worry that our truest selves are too ugly to be loved. Repentance leaves us naked before God, fully exposed, then floods our lives with relief as the same God who sees every flaw stays by our side. It removes the crippling fear of being “found out.” As Tim Keller writes: “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”
3. Repentance frees us from guilt.
At first glance, progressive, “you’re just fine as you are” theology seems more hospitable than preaching about sin. People should leave church with smiles, not bruises, right? But actually, it places a heavier burden on people: in a “you’re all good” world, guilt has nowhere to go. To call people “sinless” is to leave them helpless, and when cracks in someone’s character show, their faith collapses. Don Carson distills the danger well:
A little gospel is a dangerous thing. It gets people to think well of themselves, to sigh with relief that the worst evils have been dissipated, to enjoy a nice sense of belonging. But if a person is not truly justified . . . the dollop of religion may serve as little more than an inoculation against the real thing.
When we genuinely repent, guilt is squashed. God isn’t determined to rub our noses in our failure; on the contrary, he chucks it to the poles of the earth where it no longer haunts us (Ps. 103:12). It’s tempting to curate a pseudo-Jesus who lends a helping hand but never points a finger, but that version of Jesus is impotent to relieve our guilt. Christ isn’t keen to whitewash our outsides (Matt. 23:27), but he delights to cleanse our insides (Isa. 1:18).
4. Repentance creates joy.
If gloomy curmudgeons are the main spokespeople for repentance, what a tragedy! Repentance isn’t a behavioral ultimatum—shape up or God will ship you out—it’s an invitation to his mercy. When sinners repent, angelic parties erupt (Luke 15:7, 10). Its main byproduct, in heaven and on earth, is joy, as Bryan Chapell notes:
In your ears, what does repentance sound like? We think of groaning and groveling, of grinding teeth and weary resolve. But what does repentance really sound like? When it has completed its work, it sounds like joy.
Repentance will often activate your tear ducts, drop you to your knees, and illuminate your failures, which can be unpleasant. But whatever discomfort it costs you is infinitely surpassed by the raucous heavenly welcome it gives you.
5. Repentance restores relationships.
Just as repentance brings reconciliation between us and God, it also reconciles us with one another. The defining mark of a doomed relationship is when one or both parties refuses to say, “I’m sorry. I intend to change my behavior.” Recently I learned of a woman whose husband cheated on her, and when the truth came to light, instead of apologizing he continued in his disloyalty. Years later they continue living under the same roof, dysfunction rearing its head through patterns of passive-aggressive communication and nonexistent intimacy. By not repenting, this husband deprived his wife of dignity and healing. Repentance offers a better way. Those humble enough to embrace it will reap its benefits.
Come, Ye Weary Sinners
For those exhausted by moralism’s morose demands to be perfect, repent! Christ’s righteousness is credited to you. For those dogged by guilt, too afraid to come into the light, repent! Be free and learn afresh the cleansing power of Christ’s blood. For those who have wielded repentance as a graceless weapon, repent! Beg God to teach you the joy of your salvation.
For all Christians in every corner of the earth, repent! In the end, repentance is not striving, covering, earning, or worrying. It’s rest.