Sometimes church planters shy away from preaching repentance — and who can blame them? For most people the word calls up ideas of fire and brimstone, which is not exactly part of an attractional model of church. But repentance is an important part of the gospel. Perhaps there is a better way:
Imagine receiving a message so good that it caused you to re-think your entire life. The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and now suddenly you discover your house is paid off; or a total stranger has paid off your student loans; your abusive husband has turned a corner and now treats you like a queen; the doctors call to say the diagnosis was wrong and you don’t have cancer after all.
All of these examples represent the best kind of news: no more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; no more walking on egg-shells, afraid that some trivial event will anger your spouse; your fears of endless treatments and therapies vanish in a moment. A new reality has come from afar and has pitched its tent with you. The old reality is gone; and new day is born.
But you quickly discover a problem: the morning after the good news arrives you wake up still worried about money, still afraid that your husband will relapse, or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. And no wonder: we have spent years, even decades, thinking about life based upon these problems. Financial woes have been daily woes. Fear of abuse is factored into every choice you make. Health concerns are like a houseguest who has moved in forever. Even though good news has come, old habits die hard, and it feels like habits of the mind have made a permanent place in our thoughts. Reality has changed but our ways of thinking have not. Our old ways of thinking must be put to death.
To receive good news, to really receive it—to take it in and discover a new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know: you thought repentance meant things like remorse, determination, trying harder, or feeling guilty. Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word repent means rethink your life. The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change your world. There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, wipes away the past, or presents a future filled with joy. Better yet, all three: Jesus presented this hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus proclaimed the world would be forever different because God had come down and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.
God would not be stopped: the old order of things is scheduled to be demolished and a new order is becoming real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Grace comes with good news and a requirement: rethink your life because everything has changed. Repentance is a rational response to God’s grace.
“Repent” is the first word of the good news. That means preaching repentance is part of the good news! Faith and hope come as we rethink our way of life based upon what God has already done. Good news requires that we rethink our way of life. Have you recalculated yours in the light of his Kingdom? Jesus declared that a new reality was breaking into the world; the Kingdom of God was at hand. A new reality means new possibilities. The old ways of thinking and acting are no longer effective (if they ever were). In light of a new other-worldly reality we should re-think our methods, our preferences, and our lives.
Repent is not a word we heard much these days. In popular culture you might see an angry prophet holding a sign with the word splashed in blood-red paint. Even in churches tend to lean into the angry side of the word. I suspect that for many of us it’s difficult to separate the word repent from feelings of anger and judgment. But hidden beneath the surface of popular meaning is a spring of fresh water: the word repent signals an opportunity to begin again. Repentance is the ultimate mulligan: the do-over everyone is looking for, the chance to break from the past and discover a hope-filled future.
The good news of the Kingdom of God is not simply about going to heaven when we die. It’s about heaven breaking into earth right now (see Matthew 6:10). The king has come to set up his kingdom among us. The king is building his castle in the here-and-now, and he invites us to come live with him not after we die, but today, and each new day. So how do we get in on the new possibilities of a life with God, living in a new reality? The door to this new Kingdom reality is lettered in gold leaf (not blood-red) REPENT.
But preaching repentance is not simply the doorway into life with God; it is the hallway that leads to every other room in the King’s castle. As preachers, let’s present these new-kingdom possibilities: the hope that life-change can be deep and lasting instead of the roller coaster ups and downs so common to diets and prosperity plans and organizational methods.
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.