Leading with repentance


I’ve been reading the opening chapters of Matthew over the last few days. In them, the message of John the Baptist is summarized by the short phrase, “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

We might downplay this statement as being a little harsh since John was the cranky prophet who called the Pharisees a brood of vipers.

Fast forward to Matthew 4:17 where Matthew describes what happened after Jesus was baptized and then tempted in the wilderness. Matthew writes:

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Matthew 4:17 (NASB)

Jesus began his ministry by preaching the same message as John the Baptist. Jesus, like John, lead off with a call to repentance. So, the call to repentance was not just John being salty with the religious leaders.

The first observation that comes to me is that the kingdom of God has come because the king has come. It was God’s move to make. We couldn’t find a way to approach God, God had to come and find us.

The second observation is that repentance is the only proper response to a real encounter with the true and living God.

Perhaps it would be helpful to examine what it means to repent. The Greek word that is translated “repent,” means literally a change of mind. It is to see things differently, it is to realize that the direction I am going it the wrong direction and an about-face needs to happen.

I understand the call to repentance doesn’t have a lot of curb appeal to those who are wondering about Christianity and are checking out church for the first time. But I also wonder if it was any less shocking when Jesus and John the Baptist began their preaching this way.

There is a tendency in churches today to be very reluctant to do or say anything that will scare people away. I understand this reluctance to a certain extent as a reaction to “hellfire and damnation” preaching that damaged the church in previous generations. But like most things in life, swinging to the opposite extreme is not healthy.

If I go to the doctor, I am less concerned about his manner and more concerned about his accuracy in assessing my condition. I would rather have the gruffest, grumpiest doctor who accurately assesses my condition than have a sensitive, compassionate doctor who fudges the diagnosis.

Perhaps by avoiding the call to repentance, we are like the compassionate doctor who fails to tell his patient the truth about his condition out of fear of hurting his feelings.

Whether we are already believers or are exploring what it means to be a Christian, repentance is a key component of spiritual life. When I am selfish, resentful, prideful, or lazy, repentance is the proper response.

The good news is that when we repent, we have a savior that is waiting with open arms to welcome us home.