From that time began Jesus to preach, and to say, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
“I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish” (Luke 13:3).
This is the message of the New Testament, and as with many such messages, there is some confusion as to what it means. How do we “repent”? Of what do we “repent?” What happens when we “repent”?
The matter of repentance is somewhat complicated by language differences. In English, “to repent” involves expressing great sorrow for doing something. It is true that we are to show great sorrow for all of the sins that we have committed, and mourn for what our sin required– the death of Jesus (cf. Zechariah 12:10). Yet repentance requires much more.
The Greek word meaning “to repent” is metanoeo, and it fundamentally means “to change one’s mind” (Thayer’s). To repent, therefore, is really to change your mind.
This is why repentance is one of the fundamental elements of Christianity. We must indeed believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and be willing to confess that truth (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9-10). Yet demons also believe, and shudder (James 2:19)! Belief alone cannot save (James 1:22-25, 2:24), for it does not lead to any form of reformation of person or character.
A lot of people want to put the emphasis on changed behaviors. Yes, it is true that Christians are to no longer engage in the works of the flesh, but should instead develop the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24). But where do deeds come from? Jesus says that deeds come from the thoughts and intents of the heart (Mark 7:20-23). Solomon indicates that as a man thinks within himself, so he is (Proverbs 23:7).
A man cannot truly change until his mind changes. This is why God calls men everywhere to repent– they must change the way they think if they are going to change the way they act (Acts 17:30).
We should not need to justify this mandate to change our minds, for it should be evident that the natural ways of our thinking are flawed. We think we have a good handle on what we should do, yet we really do not (Jeremiah 10:23). When we live in the world and have no hope, we think in worldly ways and justify things that the world justifies (1 John 2:15-17). The end of this way of thinking is death (Romans 6:23)!
When we learn of Jesus Christ, we learn of a better way. We should now strive to have the “mind of Christ,” and try to understand all things spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:12-16). Jesus did all things according to the will of His Father (John 7:16-18, 28-29). While we will never be able to plumb the depths of God’s knowledge and insight (Isaiah 55:8-9), we can do the best we can to understand how God in Christ would have us think and act in any given circumstance. What would God think of what we are doing? What would God think about our thoughts? Would God have us do this or that?
Repentance, in short, is learning how to see ourselves, our fellow man, and the world in the way that God sees them. It is not limited to a momentary decision before one is baptized– it is a journey, something we must constantly do as we grow and develop in the faith. Without truly repenting, we will not discover eternal life. Let us repent of our sins, change our minds, and think and act in godly ways!
Ethan R. Longhenry