REPENT AND BELIEVE
Written by Doug Ponder on August 15, 2015
The First Words of Jesus
When I’m on vacation in a new place one of my favorite hobbies is to find a brick-and-mortar bookstore where I can read the opening lines to classic works of literature.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegurt, Slaughterhouse-Five
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451
“You better not never tell nobody but God. – Alice Walker, The Color Purple
The opening words of the Bible, too, are a classic in their own right: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Perhaps we are hard-wired to pay attention to the first words of a book or a movie or a person we meet. Or perhaps I simply have an odd hobby. In any case, the opening line of Jesus’ public ministry is far deeper than it may seem: “The time is fulfilled,” he said. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Those are the first words of the Word of God, and so it’s worth asking why Jesus chose to begin his public ministry in this way.
He could have began any way he wanted, I suppose, but Jesus burst on the scene with an opening declaration that was one part message and one part command. “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s the message part. It’s an announcement of good news. The time is fulfilled. No more waiting. God’s promises are coming true. The kingdom of God is at hand. Which means, of course, that the King himself has come, and he will certainly rescue his people.
But what should we do about all this? Jesus tells us plainly: “Repent and believe the good news.”
These are not carelessly chosen throwaway words. Jesus is letting know, right from the start, what our entire life’s response to the gospel should always be. In other words, Jesus is not giving us some one-time instructions for how to board the Salvation Express. On the contrary, we never move past the need to repent and believe. Repentance and faith are the two-beat rhythm of the Christian life.
What It Means to “Repent”
Few words are as badly misunderstood today as repentance. Repentance basically means “to turn,” as in turning away from something or turning back to travel in the opposite direction.
If repentance were a cake, there would be three ingredients—remove any of these ingredients and don’t have repentance.
The first “ingredient” of repentance is confession, which means we come to the place where we acknowledge and agree with God that some thought, action, attitude, or word is sinful and worthy be punishment—and that it is our fault. Confession is not excuse-making but blame-taking. We agree with God that our sin was our fault.
But repentance is more than simply acknowledging our guilt; it’s also feeling sorry for our sin too. The old school word for this kind of sorrow is contrition. Contrition isn’t the same thing as being sorry that we were caught in the act; contrition is true sorrow that our sin is rebellion against God and the reason for the death of Jesus.
Here is where too many stop, well before the cake of repentance is fully baked. It is good to confess sin and to feel sorry for it, but those alone are not repentance. We have only repented when our confession of guilt and contrition for sin lead us to make a commitment to change our actions. For the man who says, “I’m sorry” but takes no action to change shows that he isn’t truly sorry after all. Remember: confession of guilt + contrition for sin + commitment to change = repentance.
What It Means to “Believe”
The second half of Jesus’ call to “Repent and believe” refers to faith. Repentance and faith are like the Bert and Ernie of the Bible—you never see one without the other. That’s because of how repentance works. It means to “turn away” from something, which means you must be turning toward something else.
Faith is what determines the thing (or person) that you turn toward, since faith at its core means trust. (The Greek words for the noun “faith” and the verb “believe” share the same root, even though you can’t see this in the English translations.) Thus, when the Bible talks about “believing” in something, it’s talking about trust, not just mental acceptance. I accept it as fact that George Washington was the first president of our country, but I don’t “have faith in” George Washington. I don’t “trust in him.”
Yet that’s precisely what Jesus is asking us to do when he says, “Repent and believe the good news.” He is asking us to turn away from whatever we were previously trusting in—whether it was faith in our own ability to discern right from wrong, or faith in our ability to make ourselves good through righteous deeds. Instead, Jesus calls us to repent of that and to trust in (believe) the good news about him instead. Specifically, we’re trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to make us good with God.
One of the metaphors for trusting in Jesus that is used in the Bible is the language of “putting on Christ” like a great robe of pure white righteousness. In order to do that, however, we have to take off the suits of fig leaves and rags of self-righteousness that we sewed for ourselves (which cannot truly cover our guilt and shame anyway). “Putting on Christ” is impossible without taking off all that, which is why repentance and faith always go together. It’s why Jesus says, “Repent and believe.”
Commands for You for Life
Finally, it’s essential that we realize Jesus’ call to “repent and believe” the gospel is not, as we said earlier, some one-time instruction for how board the plane heading for heaven. We must see that since we never stop sinning, and since we never stop feeling the urge to find false saviors in our own self-righteousness, the commands to “repent and believe the good news” are given for you for your whole life.
Like a two-beat drum—one, two; one, two—the response to every sin is repentance and faith. When we fall we must confess our guilt. We must feel the weight of sin in contrition, not treating lightly anything that cost Jesus his life. And we must make a sincere commitment to change—with actions to back it up. And this repentance is possible because we are simultaneously (re)turning to Jesus in faith.
A proverb that has come up many times recently in certain counseling situations says, “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise again, but the wicked stumble into calamity” (Prov. 24:16). The reason the righteous are able to rise is faith. They trust that the Savior is there to help them up and they know that Jesus is not standing by waiting to criticize us for falling—even the ten thousandth time. He does not keep score in order to “make us pay” (for he’s already taken care of that).
Rather, Jesus is there when we fall to help us repent and believe the good news that yes, we really are forgiven; and yes, he really does love us; and yes, he really does command what is best for us; and yes, he really will help us to obey him. So Jesus says to you now and always: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.