The word “repent” is a misunderstood one I think. It has a mad, negative connotation toward it. It’s a word that belongs on the sandwich board of the crazy guy on the street corner who threatens the vengeance of God. But like so many commonly used church words, this one has been hijacked by our Christian culture, and its meaning has been infused with inaccuracies.
Nevertheless, it’s an important word – one that the prophets of old and the apostles of new called out to would be followers of the God of Israel and His Son Jesus. It’s important, then, for us to know what the word means. Because whether we want to admit it or not, when we are trying to follow Jesus, we will find ourselves repenting over and over again. I’d propose, then, that we have at least three common misunderstandings about it means to repent:
1. Repentance means stopping.
It actually doesn’t. Of course, there’s some stopping involved, but to repent means to turn. Turning is different than stopping. It’s bigger than stopping. You can stop and still be facing the same direction, sitting motionless. But repenting isn’t just about stopping. It’s not enough to stop. Repentance is about turning, choosing something better than the action you’re doing. It’s about choosing life with Christ over life with anything else. So repentance isn’t about stopping what you’re doing; it’s about valuing Jesus more than what you’re doing. That’s why we turn; not just because old ways are self-destructive, wrong, or immoral; repentance is about how much we value Christ. And how much we believe He’s better than anything else.
2. Repentance is a message of judgment.
It is, of course, some about judgment. This was the focus of many of John the Baptist’s recorded sermons: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Matt. 3:7-8). But if repenting is not just stopping but turning, and if the message of repentance is about ultimately choosing to turn to that which is ultimately satisfying and joyful, then this is nothing less than a message of great love.
When God calls us to repent, He doesn’t do so as a cosmic killjoy; He does so as a Father discontent in His love for His people to see them piddling around with the temporal pleasures of the world. He has something better for us, and in His love, He calls us to turn. That’s why it’s not anger in the voice of God that says “Repent.” It’s love. It’s a voice that says, “You are settling. Don’t you want something better?”
3. Repentance is about willpower.
Like the first two things, repentance is a bit about willpower, but we are mistaken if we think that the willpower is the driving force behind it. It’s not. And thank God it’s not, or we would never truly repent for our willpower is embarrassingly and pitifully weak.
Repentance is about faith. That’s important to note because rarely, if ever, do we feel like repenting. We don’t; we feel like sinning. But in the midst of the temporary pleasure of sin, there is the kernel of faith inside us that chooses to believe that even though we don’t feel it in the moment, life and fellowship with Jesus is better than this.
In faith, then, we turn, painful though the turning may be. And having turned, and then having begun walking in the opposite direction, we find that the feelings do indeed follow.