BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
A mother calling to her son shouted, "Johnny, tell your sister to get in the house out of the rain." "I can't mom," came the reply. "And just why can't you?" demanded his mother. "Because we are playing Noah's Ark mom, and she's one of the sinners."
We like to make the distinction between the sinners on the outside of the ark and the saints on the inside, and it is a legitimate distinction. But in so doing, we tend to cover up the reality that the saints inside are still sinners. Sinners saved by grace, but nevertheless sinners. Noah didn't take much time before he demonstrated that after the Ark landed.
Failure to be aware of this reality led the Pharisees of Christ's day, and self-righteous saints all through history, to feel that the message of repentance does not apply to them. Repentance is only relevant to those sinners outside the ark. It is a message you can preach at the mission, but it has no place in the sanctuary of the saints. Billy Graham said, "I have been shocked to find that the theme proclaimed so emphatically by the prophets and apostles is scarcely mentioned by contemporary preachers." I must confess that it is not a topic I would be preaching on this morning if I was not going through the book of Mark systematically.
One of the major values of expounding scripture systematically is that it makes you look at subjects that you would otherwise ignore, and in so doing you make many new discoveries. I have always thought of repentance as a rather negative subject, and not one that Christians would have any reason to get excited about. That is due to the fact that I have never heard the subject truly expounded, and I suspect that is true for most of us.
We are all victims of our culture where the only time we ever hear the word repent is in a context of scolding lost sinners. We have such a limited and distorted view of the word and its meaning that we have lost its Biblical content, and in so doing have lost a basic element in the good news of the Gospel. My task will be to try to restore to this word its Biblical content so that we can appreciate it as a positive experience for sinners inside the ark. In other words, see that repentance is not just for the lost anymore.
The lost only have to repent once to end their lostness, but the saved have to repent innumerable times. Repentance rightly understood is more relevant for the Christian than for the non-Christian. To achieve our goal of understanding we will look at three aspects of repentance: The message of repentance, the motive of repentance, and the meaning of repentance. Let's begin first with-
I. THE MESSAGE OF REPENTANCE.
Mark tells us that the very first message that Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God was near and, therefore, people are to repent and believe the good news. This was the same message that John the Baptist had been preaching. But John was now in prison. His voice was silenced, and so Jesus steps into the gap and goes on preaching the same message of repentance. So we see that the New Testament begins with this primary message-repent.
As we move into the ministry of Jesus, we come to a point where He sends out His 12 chosen disciples to preach, and Mark 6:12 tells us that their message was to be that people should repent. Then we go to the very end of His ministry, and we listen to the last message Jesus gave His disciples before ascending to heaven. In Luke 24:46-47 we read, "He told them, this is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations...."
We see clearly that repentance is not merely an introductory message that Jesus used to get started. It was the message He had all through His ministry, and the message He gave to His church to take into all the world. Repentance is not a side road, but rather, it is the main highway, and the very essence of the Gospel.
When we get into the book of Acts we see that, sure enough, this was the message the Apostles took to both the Jews and the Gentiles. New Testament preaching was repentance preaching. Peter in his most successful sermon ever at Pentecost concluded in Acts 2:38, "Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven." Repentance and forgiveness of sins go hand in hand. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, but it is also the case that without repentance there is no forgiveness of sins. No one can be either saved or sanctified without repentance. There can never be any positive movement of the sinner in the right direction that does not start with repentance. The first step toward God that a sinner makes is the step of repentance.
Three other places in Acts reveal Peter preaching repentance, and when Paul takes over as the dominant preacher of the book of Acts, the message does not change. To the Greeks in Athens he said in Acts 17:30, "In the past God over looked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent." In Acts 20:21 Paul said, "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus." There is more of Paul's preaching repentance as well, but to top it all off, the final proof that repentance is a key message of the New Testament is the preaching of the resurrected and ascended Christ. We have His message to the seven churches in Rev. 2 and 3, and would you believe it, the key theme in his message to his own people is repentance?
To the church of Ephesus he laments that they have forsaken their first love and in Rev. 2:5 he commands, "Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lamp stand from its place." In four other churches he also calls for repentance. The last is the church of Laodicea. Rev. 3:20 is a verse we are all familiar with-"Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me." But I wonder how many have ever memorized the verse before this? Verse 19 says, "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent."
The evidence is overwhelming and conclusive. Repentance is a key message of the New Testament from start to finish. It is the message most needed by lost sinners and by loving saints. The idea that once you become a Christian you no longer need to repent is impossible to defend from Scripture. The message of repentance is the most relevant message there is for everyone on earth. So here we are again at a peak of importance. Marks Gospel is fast and brief, but it is a Gospel of such quality that every paragraph deals with a subject of supreme importance. You have John the Baptist, the greatest of men. You have the baptism of Jesus the greatest event, for there Jesus became God's anointed. You have the temptation of Jesus, the greatest of battles, for there Jesus won the right to set Satan's captives free.
Now we have the first message Jesus preached, and again, it is the greatest, for it is the very essence of all that will ever be preached in His name. Having concluded this, we need to move on and look secondly at-
II. THE MEANING OF REPENTANCE.
The Greek word simply means to change your mind. If we can grasp this basic meaning it can help us restore the value of this word and the experience of it to our lives. This experience has become a neglected subject in modern preaching, and not just by liberals but by the evangelicals as well. The reason for this is the narrow meaning given to the word. It brings images to our minds of some fanatic with a sign saying repent for the end is near. Or it makes us think of people going through agonizing emotional upheaval. We do not like this kind of emotional crisis in our culture. So because of a very limited concept of repentance, we have pushed it into a closet and have buried this subject out of sight.
It is not that this narrow view is not part of the truth, for it is. Repentance can be an overwhelming emotional experience. The problem is, that is only a part of the truth, and we have made it the whole. Most of the repenting we need to do as Christians does not demand a great deal of emotion. It is foolish if we think that the main goal of the New Testament preaching was to provoke emotions in people. It is not, for the goal was always change. Change is the key idea. That is what Jesus is after.
If I have a neighbor who peals out of his gravel driveway everyday and sends rocks flying into my yard, and I tell him the problem he is creating for me, I do not really care if he feels deep regret, or just shallow feelings of being sorry. All I really care about is that he will change his behavior and stop this offensive conduct. If it takes deep emotion to get him to change, then deep emotion is something I have to work at. But the goal is not his guilt feelings or the depths of his regret. The goal is change of mind that leads to change of conduct. That is what repentance is. Repentance is not so much something you feel, but something you do. You often do it because of what you feel, but it is not true repentance until the doing is done.
Deep feelings of remorse over ones sin is not in itself true repentance. The world is filled with people who feel absolutely rotten about things they have done, and the consequences drive them to tears. If emotion was the goal these people would be forgiven and redeemed. But that is not the goal. The goal is change and all the feelings in the world without change is not true repentance. On the other hand, those who have little or no feeling, but who change, have true repentance. We often twist this around and demand that people feel bad to show how sorry they are. This is not the sign we should be looking for. The sign of true repentance is, have you changed your mind, and therefore, your behavior.
When Paul describes his conversion to King Agrippa, he made this very significant statement in Acts 26:19-20, "So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." Notice, he did not say prove their repentance by their tears, but by their deeds. The proof of repentance is in change of conduct. If there is no change, there has been no repentance.
A cool calculated change of mind is more truly repentance then is a bucket of tears that produces no change. We need to stop measuring repentance with the wrong yardstick. It is not how bad you feel at all, but how real is your change of mind. If you really have changed your mind, your behavior will show it. Some poet put it-
Repentance is to leave
The things we loved before,
And show that we in earnest grieve
By doing them no more.
The bottom line is change. You cannot command people to feel bad about things, but you can command them to think right and act right, and that is what repentance is all about, and why we are commanded over and over again to repent. It is a choice of the will.
If you are driving along and suspect you are on the wrong road because it does not seem right, and you begin to look for evidence with anxiety, that is a state much like the sinner or the saint goes through when they feel uneasy about the path they are walking. When you discover a sign that proves that you are going the wrong way, you can do several things. You can pull over and cry; you can pound your steering wheel, or slap your head and call yourself stupid. There are endless possibilities of emotional reactions. But in the end all that really matters is that you change your course. You get off the wrong road and get on the right one, and that is what repentance means. You might do it crying, or you might do it smiling, but whatever you do you have not repented until you've changed. Next we see-
III. THE MOTIVE OF REPENTANCE.
We tend to think of repentance as a negative experience, because we think the motive for it is to escape the wrath of God. This is, in fact, a common motive for it. Ninevah was facing total destruction, but she repented and God spared her. But keep in mind, Jonah was not preaching good news to Ninevah. He was preaching bad news. It was a total negative message. In 40 days Ninevah will be destroyed.
That was his message. When the wrath of God is about to fall in judgment, repentance is a very negative experience.
But notice how different the preaching of Jesus was from Jonah's. Verse 14 says he proclaimed the good news of God. Verse 15 says the kingdom of God is near-repent and believe the good news. It is a completely positive message. Not destruction is near, but rather the power and the rule of God is near, and so get ready to be a part of this great event. Jesus is not preaching repent or you've had it, but repent for heaven is coming your way, and you won't want to miss it. The motive to repent is positive here. Do it to get in on God's best.
Change your mind about the power of evil. Believe it can be defeated, and that God's will can triumph. Repent of your complacency and surrender to the kingdom of darkness, for the kingdom of light is at hand. Jesus had just conquered Satan in the wilderness, and He is now invading Satan's territory to set the captives free, and His preaching is the good news that they no longer need to be in bondage to evil. The greater than Moses is here to lead His people out of the bondage of the Egypt of evil.
So repent, cries Jesus. Change your mind. Do not live in fatalistic despair. Do not let evil run your life. The motive to repent is positive, and this is the perspective we have lost. We are locked into the Jonah mode, and see repentance as a fire escape message completely. In our culture we have been burnt out with the you are going to hell message. Judgment is at hand, just does not move people, even if its true.
If repentance is going to become relevant to us again, we need to focus on the positive motive that Jesus preached. Paul preached it as well. He wrote to the Romans in 2:4, and said, "Do you not know that the goodness of God is meant to lead you to repentance." This is what Peter was getting at too when he said the reason God has not ended history is because He is long suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. The positive motive is basic in New Testament theology. Sometimes people need to be told they are heading for hell, and they need to be frightened into repentance. But when they are hardened to this approach, or when they are Christians, they need to hear the good news: Repent because God has His best waiting for those who change their minds, and begin to walk in the way that He wills.
We can scold and demand, and yell change your life style so as to give more time to Christian service, or you will be suffering loss of reward in the judgment. This is a true message, but we don't like it, and stubbornly refuse to be threatened into change. But we can also say, change your mind and don't give all of your time and energy to world pursuits, for the kingdom of God is at hand. The rule and reign of God is ready to set you free, and you can enter into the joy of the Lord, and no longer be a captive of the culture. This is the message Jesus preached, and it is still the most relevant message in the world. The best motive for repentance is not the bad news of what will happen if you don't, but the good news of what will happen if you do.
Look at the many parallel accounts of repentance, or the lack of it, in the Bible. John the Baptist confronted Herod with his immorality, and he did not repent, but had John killed, and he was lost. On the other hand, Nathan confronted his ruler David with his immorality and David repented. David could have had Nathan killed to keep his mouth shut, but instead he repented. Nathan's life was spared for God's service, and David's life was spared, and though he suffered tragic consequences the rest of his life, he was restored to God's service, and wrote many of the Psalms by which God is worshiped by His people all through history. The difference in the two stories hinges on repentance.
Repentance enables God to bring good out of evil. Without it, evil wins, and all lose but the devil. Repentance is the only way to defeat the power of Satan. Judas betrayed Jesus and he felt so bad he even killed himself, but he did not return to Jesus. Peter denied his Lord and wept bitterly in repentance, but he came back and was forgiven and made a leader in the kingdom. The difference is all in the change of mind.
This pattern is everywhere: The two kings, the two disciples, but there is also the two brothers. The prodigal who repented and the elder brother who would not. The two in the temple, the Pharisee and Publican. The one repented and the other did not. The two thieves on the cross-the one repented and the other did not. Heaven or hell are destinies determined by ones repentance or lack of it.
What I am trying to communicate is that we need this basic experience in our lives as Christians. If we ignore it because we have been conditioned to reject the negative, then let us focus on the equally valid positive motives, and restore it to our thinking and experience. The only way we can mature in Christ is to be ever changing our minds. Most kids do not like school. I didn't, but I changed my mind. I repented and stopped thinking it was awful, and because I did I began to enjoy learning. Christians are forever saying I don't like to witness; I can't pray in public; I just can't read the Bible for long; I just can't stand up and share with others. There are a lot of things Christians don't like, but they need to repent and change their minds. They need to stop limiting their lives and remaining in bondage to their limitations. The power of God can change every bondage and set us free if we will only change our mind and cease to surrender to our weaknesses.
The average Christian, and the above average Christian never leads another person to trust Christ as their Savior. American Christians are complacent about it, and since we are all in the same boat we comfort each other with our mutual neglect in evangelism. We live in the midst of a people who are lost and facing judgment without a Savior, and only once in a while do we even dwell on it long enough to be reminded that these are people for whom Christ died. Who can say that we as Christians do not need to repent? We need to change our minds and start thinking of ways we can change this attitude and become the tools God can use to change lives.
We cannot wait forever to witness. Lost people don't have forever. They may only have today. We need to repent and take seriously the need to plan, to pray, and to act. It is better to try and fail than to never try at all. Jesus defeated Satan that we might have the power to also overcome him. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church said Jesus. We can in the power of the Spirit invade every territory and set captives free. We can, that is, if we repent and change our weak thinking to strong and victorious thinking. We need to change, not because we will be condemned if we don't, but because others will be if we don't, and because they can be delivered if we do. If you have not really tried to touch some life for Christ, will you, for heaven's sake, your own growths sake, repent and get busy on the business of changing your mind.