He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
…So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:7-9, 18; read full text here)
How do you view repentance?
Do you see it as a necessary “evil”—something that you know you have to do to grow in your faith, but ultimately dread because it requires fessing up to your sins and facing the damage they’ve done? Or is it something you delight in?
Perhaps this last question strikes you as odd, but believe it or not, I met someone recently who, when asked what he liked to do, sincerely listed repenting as one of his favorite things to do; and if I understood his reasoning correctly, it is precisely the same reason why we see Luke describe John’s message as “good news” (despite the fact that he has just likened the crowds to a “brood of vipers” and threatened that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”…hardly what many would call good news!) and why all three Synoptic writers see in John’s ministry the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
But in order to see this connection between repentance and good news, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what repentance is and what role it plays in the life of faith. Is it simply, or even primarily, confessing our sins? And if so, what relation does this have to bearing “fruits in keeping with repentance”?
I have written before about the etymology of the word that is often translated from the Greek as repentance (metanoia) and how, in many ways, paying too much attention to this can lead to an incomplete understanding of the concept’s full meaning (meta-to change; noia-mind). It is far more than a change of mind. This is why many top scholars have, for centuries, seen the NT concept of repentance as being rooted in the Hebrew concept shuv, which means to turn back or return; and it is also why Tertullian, who emphasized repentance as a change of mind, nevertheless sought ways to communicate it that accounted for the fact that it entailed far more than mere conduct change or decision making (e.g. as a “recovery of mind” or “return to sanity”). In true repentance, there is a profound transformation that takes place, so profound that John Calvin called it regeneration (“the end of which is the restoration of the Divine Image within us”).
Look carefully and this is what is at the root of John’s responses to the people who ask him, “What then shall we do?” At first glance, his answers seem to be practical—give to people in need, don’t extort, etc—but in fact each of his answers hits on a nerve that reflects a deeper mindset still mired in man’s sinful nature: hoarding, extortion, oppression, etc. These actions are bad, but the real root of the problem lies in the mind (and heart) from which they spring. It is a mind “still set on the flesh”, as Paul would say, not on the Spirit, which is life and peace (Rom 8:6). You could cease to do all of these actions and still not produce “fruits in keeping with repentance” because the mind and heart themselves would not be changed. They would still be set on the flesh.
In this sense, our actions, though profoundly important, are not the essence of what is at stake in true repentance. They are, rather, a litmus test of sorts by which we determine whether our minds and hearts are in alignment with God, and therefore, whether or not repentance is necessary (or, as with the crowds, whether it has been authentic). W.D. Chamberlain captures it beautifully:
“When men’s thoughts cease to resemble God’s thoughts, their conduct ceases to be godly. This, in a nutshell, is the importance of the New Testament doctrine of repentance: it is a calling of men’s minds to be patterned after God’s, in order that their conduct may be in keeping with his will and that they may participate in his reign.”
It is this which lies behind Paul’s constant exhortation for his readers to have within them the same mind as is in Christ (Phil 2:5) or to be “transformed by the renewal of [their] minds” (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23); and, believe it or not, it is also this which caused Christ to rebuke Peter for denying him the path to the cross, for the mind of God goes infinitely beyond the do’s and don’ts with which we so often occupy ourselves. It goes all the way to the cross in justice, supreme humility, sacrifice and self-giving. And in this sense (as well as countless others) we are all in constant need of repentance, to realign our minds and hearts with the mind and heart of God.
And the beauty of it is that repentance is but the first step. It is, in the words of Chamberlain, “a preparation for the future, rather than a mourning over the past”. And what is that future? Look back to the passage quoted from Isaiah: it is none other than the coming of the Lord, who saves us and longs to fill us with his Spirit, to free us from our bondage to sin and decay and pour into us his abundant life.
This, indeed, is what it is all about.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.