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About Turn: An Anatomy of Gospel Repentance

A couple weeks ago, we were breaking down Mark’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 1:14 and 15. Jesus began his preaching with an inidicative, a statement of fact, declaring what is. He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom is at hand.” After the indicative, though, he follows it up with an imperative, a command, declaring what his hearers must do in response. Like the indicative part that preceded it, Jesus’s imperative preaching has two parts: “Repent,” and “believe in the gospel.” This time, we’re going to zero in on the first part.

That word repent – it’s a very important biblical word. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word we translate “repent” literally means to “turn back,” or “return.” Hebrew’s very concrete, and Hebrew words often suggest an image. In the army, we had a drill movement for marching that was called an “about turn.” You could do it either standing still or on the march. An about turn is a 180-degree rotation, on the spot, so that the troops wind up the complete opposite direction. That’s a good picture of the Hebrew concept of repentance. To a Jew like Mark, and those Jesus preached to, repenting meant changing direction. It meant turning the wheel all the way around, reversing course. Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom is at hand, and look at you. You’re going the wrong way. You’re on the path to destruction and judgment. Turn around now. Stop and go back.”

That’s the Hebrew concept. Now, Mark’s writing in Greek, to a Greek-speaking audience, and the word he uses gives us another side or dimension to understand repentance. The Greek word for “repent” is more abstract. It literally means a complete change of thought and attitude, to change one’s mind. So the New Testament keeps the idea of turning the opposite direction, but it goes further. It’s not enough to just do things differently. Our hearts have to be in it. Our minds have to be made up. The inner man must match the outer, right? After all, it’s what’s on the inside that drives what we do on the outside. What it means to repent, then, is not just to turn away and run the opposite direction – it means also to look at things in a whole new light, to think of things in an entirely different way. Once we loved our sin. We enjoyed our rebellion against God. Jesus came to Galilee and said, “Repent – change your ways and change your hearts.”

But how can we change our own way of thinking? It’s not just a simple matter of thinking different thoughts. We’re talking about a wholesale renovation of the inner person. This is a radical procedure that, ultimately, only God can perform. It’s for a reason that Paul writes to Timothy that God would have to grant repentance to opponents. Yes, repentance is something we do; God does not repent for us or do it on our behalf. It’s our responsibility, but the very ability and inclination to do it in the first place, and the strength it takes to live what Luther called a “life of repentance,” needs to be given by God. So, no person can simply decide to repent of their own will or strength. Rather, a person must be convicted and called by the Holy Spirit to be able to repent.

So Jesus has come, proclaiming the Kingdom and daring to tell the people of the land that their lives are on the wrong track. They’re going the wrong way! Sadly, the world can’t stand that message. I’ll pick on Oprah Winfrey again (since she’s a great spokesperson for the spirit of our age), who said: “One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live, and that we don’t accept that there are diverse ways of being in the world, that there are millions of ways to be a human being, and many ways, no, many paths, to what you call God.” That’s what Oprah said. That’s what the world says. Well, Jesus comes and says exactly the opposite. Repent means that the path you’re on is not the way to God. Repent means there is a right way, and there’s a wrong way. Repent means that you, who are in need of repentance, are not the one who gets to decide which way is right for you. Repent means judgment has already been made on your actions by someone higher and that you need to change to conform to Him.

Every one of us is called to be a light in the world and tell others about Christ. Don’t ever forget this part. The Gospel message begins with repentance. When Peter was asked by the crowd at Pentecost what they had to do to be saved, the first word out of his mouth was “repent.” It doesn’t matter how much you believe the story of Jesus is true and factually accurate, it doesn’t matter how much money you give to the poor – if you have not recognized your sin and recoiled from it, changing the direction of your life away from it and toward God instead, then you haven’t yet obeyed Christ. The imperative always follows the indicative. Repentance means a changed life. That’s what the King demands.

And here we hit a common theme, a “central nerve” that ties this section of Mark’s Gospel together with the section that follows, which is about Jesus calling the disciples. Repentance means turning your back on your old life and your old way of doing things. That hurts, brothers and sisters. That costs us a great deal. It will cost you the admiration of the world. It will cost you an easy and comfortable life. It will cost you the pleasure of those sins you liked indulging in. It will cost you many things, and it will be hard. But that’s the demand. That’s the price of Kingdom citizenship. It is not optional.