To understand why repentance is important, we should look to the One who requires it of us: the triune God of the Bible: the Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit.
We’ll focus on Jesus as He became incarnate and discussed it during His time on earth.
Diverse opinions about who Jesus is date all the way back to the time He was here as the incarnate Word, dwelling among us in first-century Israel.
We see that even while He was in the flesh, there were misconceptions about who He was. This is clear in passages like Matthew 16:13-16.
Not much has changed over 2000 years later. People still remain unclear about who He was/is, what He taught, and why it matters.
In a social media world, many pontificate about what Jesus taught and moralize about how to apply His teachings to our lives today. While nothing is wrong with that in and of itself, I think we sometimes get off the trail of truth by a lack of careful thinking and analysis.
Since one’s opinion on “Who is Jesus Christ?” is a matter of life or death, it warrants the most thoughtful, honest examination as we reach our conclusions.
Just as with any fact-finding mission, it is best to start with original sources.
Doing the background work
What words of Jesus were recorded in scripture, by eyewitnesses to his life, who were with him 24/7? That is the best place to start.
What was the context in which Jesus was speaking? (Hint: it was a first-century Jewish audience.) How do His words apply to us today?
Did Jesus reference the Old Testament when He taught? What teachings? What does it mean? Did He present a reverent, coherent view of scripture as a whole?
These are some questions that are appropriate to think through when trying to correctly understand the message of Jesus. Which brings us to today’s subject.
Why repentance is important: it is a central principle of the teaching of Jesus and His disciples
To be sure, there are endless ways to misunderstand, misrepresent, or misapply Christ’s message. It is done constantly. Some do it out of ignorance, some out of deliberate intent to be deceitful.
It is quite possible to read His words in such a way that your conclusion is incorrect. This goes back to the principle of exegesis, which is defined as: “critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.”
Put another way, exegesis is the task of interpreting the meaning by looking at the original author’s context, intention, and audience. We can’t rightly draw conclusions from an ancient text (or any scholarly writing) without doing this important work.
A non-scriptural sideshow
Growing up in the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century, I often heard phrases such as “give your heart to Jesus,” or “let Jesus into your heart,” regarding matters of the transactional nature of salvation. While there is nothing wrong with the sentiment explicitly, I would challenge you to find where in the Bible those instructions are given.
They aren’t. You won’t find that phrase in the Bible anywhere. So why is it so common for Christians to use it?
Doing that mental exercise got me thinking about what did Jesus actually say about salvation? What were His teachings surrounding it, since He is the author of salvation? It warrants a further look.
John the Baptist, forerunner to Christ, preached repentance:
Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” v. 8, “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance;”
Jesus’ first sermon was about repentance
After Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the first recorded words of His public ministry, which match the message of John the Baptist, are found in
Matthew 4:17: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mark 1:14, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.“
A consistent theme in Jesus’ teaching
As the Lord Jesus journeyed throughout first-century Israel during His incarnation, He drew large crowds as He performed miracles and taught with astonishing authority.
When addressing whether some people were worse sinners based on tragedies that occurred to them, Jesus said emphatically:
“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” – Luke 13:3, 5
On another occasion, Jesus declared His mission as: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:32
To expound on that, and to bring home the point, I quote from an article on DesiringGod.org
When Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32), he did not mean that some persons are good enough not to need repentance. He meant some think they are (Luke 18:9), and others have already repented and have been set right with God. For example, the rich young ruler desired “to justify himself” (Luke 10:29) while “the tax collector . . . beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ [and] went down to his house justified [by God!]” (Luke 18:13-14).
Therefore, none is excluded. All need repentance. And the need is urgent. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What did he mean by perish? He meant that the final judgment of God would fall on those who don’t repent. “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41). Jesus, the Son of God, is warning people of the judgment to come, and offering escape if we will repent. If we will not repent, Jesus has one word for us, “Woe, to you” (Matthew 11:21).
This is why his demand for repentance is part of his central message that the kingdom of God is at hand. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The gospel—the good news—is that the rule of God has arrived in Jesus to save sinners before it arrives at his second coming in judgment. So the demand to repent is based on the gracious offer that is present to forgive, and on the gracious warning that someday those who refuse the offer will perish in God’s judgment.
After he had risen from the dead Jesus made sure that his apostles would continue the call for repentance throughout the world. He said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). So the demand of Jesus to repent goes to all the nations. It comes to us, whoever we are and wherever we are, and lays claim on us. This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonoring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones.
What is your response to the biblical call to repentance? It turns out to be quite literally of uttermost importance.
Please leave a comment with your thoughts and questions. Thank you for reading!