Repent! More than a slogan of overzealous, sign-carrying street preachers, it’s the heart of the gospel.
“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark 1:4
“‘The time has come,’ Jesus said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” – Mark 1:15
“Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:47
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent.” – Acts 17:30
And repentance isn’t limited to the religious sphere. Larry Alton advises business leaders, “It’s time to face reality and start thinking about your two options: pivot or collapse. That may seem overly dramatic, but unless something changes, this is where you’re headed.”
Overly dramatic? Not really. Jesus sounded the same warning.
“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” – Luke 13:3
A pivot is a quick, sudden move in response to pressure that enables you to go in a new direction. Is that what repentance is like? Is it a single, non-repeating occurrence that sets you on a new path? Or is repentance repetitive, ongoing, even permanent? How long must you repent?
You can view repentance as “punctiliar,” or a point in time. You do it once and then you’re finished. According to St. Ambrose of Optina, “years are not needed for true repentance, and not days but only an instant.”
It’s how the Christian life gets started; you turn from the old life of sin and begin a new one of righteousness in Christ. For the believer, that event of repentance takes place at some moment in the past.
You can also take a broader or “linear” understanding of repentance. Pastor Kevin DeYoung approvingly quotes the opinion of John Calvin: “Therefore, I think he has profited greatly who has learned to be very much displeased with himself, not so as to stick fast in this mire and progress no farther, but rather to hasten to God and yearn for him in order that, having been engrafted into the life and death of Christ, he may give attention to continual repentance.”
And David Mathis says that this was Martin Luther’s position as well: “His first thesis reads, ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” He intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.’ All of the Christian life is repentance. Turning from sin and trusting in the good news that Jesus saves sinners aren’t merely a one-time inaugural experience but the daily substance of Christianity. The gospel is for every day and every moment. Repentance is to be the Christian’s continual posture.”
Reflecting on Luther’s first thesis, Sinclair B. Ferguson insists that “repentance is not a discreet external act; it is the turning round of the whole life of faith in Christ . . . Repentance then is not the punctiliar decision of a moment but a radical heart transformation that reverses the whole direction of life.”
So which is it? Punctiliar or linear, a one-time event or a life-long process?
Why not both?
An identifiable, one-time event but also a succession of course corrections, even a permanent posture or attitude.
The Verse by Verse Ministry proposes two kinds of repentance: big “R” and little “r”. The former occurs at the moment of salvation when you receive Jesus as Lord. The latter transpires whenever you sin and need cleansing. In their framework, “Repentance” is punctiliar while “repentance” is linear. You “Repent” once but you “repent” frequently.
Basketball and tennis players pivot many times in their games. You can distinguish each move from the other but when you add them up, you get a picture of a person’s athletic performance.
How does turning from sin define your spiritual life? What is Jesus challenging you to abandon? What is He calling you to pursue?
Whatever it is, make the pivot.