The Radical Nature of Repentance
The word “repent” involves the idea of a radical change of mind and heart. Specifically, it describes a person once living in unbelief, disobedience, and even disdain for the things of God, and then, post-conversion, living with belief, obedience, and love for God. The change is radical. Our friend, Greg Ogden, author of Transformational Discipleship, calls repentance “a crisis word.” It’s a crisis in the best possible sense. It’s the first sign that the gospel has truly taken hold of a person’s life, the first fruits of following Jesus.
Jesus often put the importance of repentance into sharp perspective in his teaching. For example, in Luke 13:3, he said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” After declaring this, he repeated himself—word for word—just two verses later. His point was strong and serious: those who don’t repent will perish, meaning that they will die apart from Christ in this life, and they will also be separated from him for all eternity in a state of judgment and punishment (Matt. 25:46).
Learn from the authors of this article and others when you join a Bonhoeffer cohort. Their cohorts train you to become a disciple-making leader. Join now.
As we’ve already seen, Jesus made it crystal clear that repentance was an essential element of the gospel the very first time he preached the gospel (Mark 1:15)! It was also a critical aspect of the apostles’ gospel proclamation. Paul, for instance, while preaching in Athens, proclaimed: “Now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Paul included everyone in this call to repent. In other words, we all need to repent. Despite the fact that Jesus and the apostles’ teaching is black and white on this issue, a fog of grey has descended upon the church today with respect to whether or not repentance is critical to the gospel.
Many in our day doubt whether or not it’s necessary to repent of sin for salvation. This doubt indicates just how far we’ve drifted from the gospel that Jesus preached. When you listen to many gospel presentations and read most gospel tracts today, they deal lightly with repentance, if at all. The proliferation of non-discipleship gospels in the American church has resulted in the removal of repentance from the gospel.
We see a variety of explanations for this. First, repentance deals with sin. Preachers of non-discipleship gospels, such as the consumer gospel, don’t talk much about sin, so they leave repentance out, too. Second, some theological systems parse out repentance from the gospel, arguing that it was for Old Testament Israel, but it isn’t for the New Testament church. Third, there are those who view repentance as an unnecessary burden, a needless obstacle, “trouble” for those ready to believe. Fourth, some understand repentance as a “work of the flesh,” something we do in our own strength. This renders repentance not only unnecessary, but an assault on God’s grace, according to them.
In light of Jesus’ teaching and the apostles’ writings on repentance, these anti-repentance arguments seem absurd. A gospel without repentance—even a diluted version of repentance—is a gospel that neither Jesus nor his apostles preached. However, anti-repentance advocates have spread like a viral outbreak throughout churches in America in recent times. It’s one of the reasons that disciple making in local churches is on life support in many locations (if it hasn’t already flatlined). We haven’t contained these non-discipleship gospels with their anti-repentance emphasis either. Rather, we’ve exported them at a rapid rate! We’ve sent them around the world through missions. Next week, we’ll talk about true, repentance.
1. Global Discipleship Initiative seminar at Camerillo Community Church, March 27-29, 2017.
2. Some advocates of non-repentance gospels use Acts 15:19 to assert that repentance is adding a needless obstacle to the gospel. They argue the “trouble” to which James refers here includes repentance. This is a clearly flawed interpretation for two reasons. First, the trouble had to do with whether or not Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved. Repentance wasn’t the “trouble,” though, circumcision was. Second, James describes the Gentiles being saved as “those who turn to God.” That’s repentance! To “turn to God” is to repent of sin. Acts 15:19 can’t be used to argue that repentance is a burden to new believers. It’s actually teaching that repentance is a blessing of salvation.