In my current Bible read-through I’m noticing the Biblical theme of repentance. It’s not that I’m looking for the thread. Instead it seems to be looking for me! So join me, please, in a very brief and unsystematic reflection on repentance in the Bible.
As context let me say that themes like repentance start to jump out in bold Bible read-throughs—as in four months or less. Try it and see for yourself.
Bold Bible reading, I should add, is like a good marriage. A husband and wife will carve out solid you-and-me time each day because the more time they invest, the stronger their marriage. I’m writing as single so let me switch analogies: it’s more like Mary sitting with Jesus than her sister, Martha, being too busy with her duties. Our heartfelt priorities define us.
But let’s get back to repentance. It’s the pivot point between the Bible’s two competing arch-themes of sin and faith. Sin dominates the Bible as a problem from Genesis three to Revelation twenty. It shapes almost every story, poem, and teaching. And faith is the narrower alternate theme: God’s antidote to sin. As we read in Hebrews chapter eleven—the faith-chapter—a remnant of faithful people are always distinct from the great majority who disregard God.
It’s not as if the word “repent” is everywhere. It’s not. But the idea of changing spiritual direction certainly is. Repentance is an operational fact in a soul turning from sin to salvation—of gaining a love of light in place of a love for darkness. Repentance is a response to the Spirit’s wooing love. It’s the Samaritan woman at the well running into Sychar to say what Jesus did for her. It’s the awakening in the prodigal son’s soul. It’s Peter weeping in shame and sorrow after his three denials of Jesus. It represents conversion, both in the major scale of new birth; and in the lesser scale of returning to Jesus after stumbling in sin. Repentance is a way of life for us as we live in this fallen world.
For specifics let’s listen to Christ as he answered those who accused him of being too close to sinners: “Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’” (Luke 5:31-32).
And in Mark’s gospel both John the Baptist and Jesus launched their ministries by calling listeners to repent—John in 1:4 and Jesus in 1:15. This echoed the call of Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the Old Testament. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30). In both testaments God called on people to love him but they weren’t interested.
Here’s a crucial spiritual lesson. God isn’t concerned with how wonderful we are—with our best efforts to be good as a measure—but by how drawn we are to Jesus. Even in the Old Testament we see this truth in Psalm two. The Father offers Christ to us as his beloved Son—as the one he loves. And Jesus, in turn, wants us to know and love his Father. And the Spirit is busy pouring out the love of the Father and the Son in the hearts of those who respond. So our key to life comes in our joining the relational embrace of God’s mutual love.
The ultimate display of repentance, then, comes in the changed focus of our hearts. A self-seeking heart—whether it happens to be captured by greed and corruption, or by religious self-righteousness—is condemned for looking in the wrong direction. Sin is a stubborn disaffection that produces moral failures, and not the other way round. A heart captured by Jesus will start to live like Jesus lived. That’s what love produces.
So how do we learn to repent? It’s a question with a flawed premise! We don’t “learn” repentance, as if it’s a cognitive or will-based effort. Instead we look to Jesus and say, “Please, let me see you! Please open the eyes of my heart—since apart from your work in me I can’t do anything to please you.” And, I suggest, pick up a Bible and start reading a gospel to see what it says about Jesus.
It can be a heart-changing experience!