There is no Christian life without repentance. It is that simple. Repentance is not only a key component to becoming a Christian, but it is a key trait of the Christian life as well. Reading through the early chapters of Matthew today simply drives these truths even further home for me.
Consider the ministry and message of John the Baptist. We can read all about this in Matthew 3. And his very first words? See what he said in Matt 3:1-2: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.” And Jesus starts on exactly the same note as we read in Matthew 4:17: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.”
Absolutely identical words, and absolutely identical message. Indeed, repentance and judgment predominate in the teachings of both John and Jesus. Those who want to picture Jesus as some tree-hugging hippy flashing the peace sign all the time have obviously never read the gospels.
Many want to present John and Jesus as some sort of 1st century equivalent of the 1960s counter-culturalists who proclaimed a message of peace and love. But that is not what we find here. Consider what John also said as recorded in Matt 3:7-12:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Not exactly welcoming words there. Instead they are sober words of judgment, with the command to repent or experience God’s wrath. And Jesus of course spoke more of judgment and hell than any other person in the entire Bible.
I have actually heard trendy believers say that repentance does not feature very much in the gospels. Again, they must not be reading them. It is found not only there quite often but all throughout the New Testament as well. As Grant Osborne comments:
“Repentance is a total change of mind and heart that involves a new lifestyle as well as a new allegiance to God and Christ. It is the heart of the message of the NT as a whole, for without mourning for sin and a complete turning from sin to God, there can be no new life in him. We enter the kingdom on our knees.”
Quite so – and we stay in the kingdom on our knees as well. That is, repentance is not just a once off affair but a way of life for the believer. And if we are to reach people properly with the gospel we must always have repentance as a central part of our message. As James Montgomery Boice says, commenting on Matt 4:17:
“It is impossible to follow Christ without repentance. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is the holy, sinless Son of God. He has never taken one step in any sinful direction. He has never had a single sinful thought. Anyone who is following him, therefore, must by definition turn his back to sin and set his face toward righteousness. Christians do sin, but when they do, they must confess their sin and turn from it, being restored to fellowship again. Anyone who thinks he or she can follow Christ without renouncing sin is at best badly confused. At the worst, this person is not a true Christian”
Indeed, all the great preachers and firebrands for God have known this and proclaimed this. They have celebrated the importance of repentance and how invaluable it is both to the Christian life and the Christian message. No repentance means no conversion.
As A. W. Tozer put it: “The idea that God will pardon a rebel who has not given up his rebellion is contrary both to the Scriptures and to common sense.” Or as R.B. Kuiper wrote in his 1961 God-Centered Evangelism: “The call to repentance must come first in evangelism.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones concurs: “The business of evangelism is not just to solve people’s problems; psychology does that, the cults do that, many things do that. The thing that separates the gospel from every other teaching is that it is primarily a proclamation of God and our relationship to God. Not our particular problems, but the same problem that has come to all of us, that we are condemned sinners before a holy God and a holy law. That is evangelism. It must, therefore, always put repentance first.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon offered this helpful definition of repentance: “Evangelical repentance is repentance of sin as sin: not of this sin nor of that, but of the whole mass. We repent of the sin of our nature as well as the sin of our practice. We bemoan sin within us and without us. We repent of sin itself as being an insult to God. Anything short of this is a mere surface repentance, and not a repentance which reaches to the bottom of the mischief. Repentance of the evil act, and not of the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel, but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing; they would remove the eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh.”
And as already stated, it is not just what we must hear to get saved, but it is what we must live by if we are to stay close to God. As Charles Simeon said, “Repentance is in every view so desirable, so necessary, so suited to honor God, that I seek that above all. The tender heart, the broken and contrite spirit, are to me far above all the joys that I could ever hope for in this vale of tears. I long to be in my proper place, my hand on my mouth, and my mouth in the dust… I feel this to be safe ground. Here I cannot err… I am sure that whatever God may despise… He will not despise the broken and contrite heart.”
Or as C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Repentance is as much a mark of a Christian, as faith is. A very little sin, as the world calls it, is a very great sin to a true Christian.” Or as he said elsewhere: “If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and abroad, his repentance needs to be repented of, and his conversion is a fiction.”
Those who would minimise, denigrate or ignore altogether the place of repentance are no true prophets of God. Indeed, they are false prophets offering a false gospel. It will save no one. That is because real repentance is an indication of our very real awareness of the horrible nature of sin. As Spurgeon said, “There is no repentance where a man can talk lightly of sin, much less where he can speak tenderly and lovingly of it.”
It is worth closing here with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and what he said in his magisterial Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Commenting on the false prophets as found in Matt 7:15-23 he says this about their teaching:
“In the same way it does not emphasize repentance in any real sense. It has a very wide gate leading to salvation and a very broad way leading to heaven. You need not feel much of your own sinfulness; you need not be aware of the blackness of your own heart. You just ‘decide for Christ’ and you rush in with the crowd, and your name is put down, and is one of the large number of ‘decisions’ reported by the press.
“It is entirely unlike the evangelism of the Puritans and of John Wesley, George Whitefield and others, which led men to be terrified of the judgment of God, and to have an agony of soul sometimes for days and weeks and months. John Bunyan tells us in his Grace Abounding that he endured an agony of repentance for eighteen months. There does not seem to be much room for that today. Repentance means that you realize that you are a guilty, vile sinner in the presence of God, that you deserve the wrath and punishment of God, that you are hell-bound.
“It means that you begin to realize that this thing called sin is in you, that you long to get rid of it, and that you turn your back on it in every shape and form. You renounce the world whatever the cost, the world in its mind and outlook as well as its practice, and you deny yourself; and take up the cross and go after Christ. Your nearest and dearest, and the whole world, may call you a fool, or say you have religious mania. You may have to suffer financially, but it makes no difference. That is repentance. The false prophet does not put it like that. He heals ‘the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly’, simply saying that it is all right, and that you have but to ‘come to Christ’, ‘follow Jesus’, or ‘become a Christian’.”
Exactly right. John the Baptist fearlessly and forthrightly preached repentance. So did Jesus. So did his disciples. So did all the great saints of old. Are we preaching it? And are we living a life characterised by it? If not, why not?