As our roots go deep in Christ, the fruit of our lives is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). This is an important point. By repentance, we are not making another resolution to “do better next time.” Rather, by repentance, we are asking God to “create in me a clean heart…and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). We are turning from our sin by asking God not only to forgive us from our sins, but to change our lives.
When Matthew abruptly introduces us to John the Baptist, he focuses his remarks on the central theme of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2).
Certainly, John said more as he preached in the wilderness; however, this summarization is not an out-of-context soundbite from John’s preaching. Central to John’s ministry and message was the exhortation to repent, in view of the coming kingdom—that is, in view of the coming King. Consider:
- John baptized people as they were “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5)
- John turned away the Pharisees and the Sadducees who did not “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8)
- John defined his own baptism as a baptism “with water for repentance” (Matt. 3:11)
God sent John into the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of King Jesus, and those preparations required repentance.
What, then, is repentance?
The word for repentance in Greek (μετάνοια; metanoia) carries a basic meaning of changing one’s mind. The common word for repentance in Hebrew (שׁוּב; shûb) has a basic meaning of turning—turning away from one thing, and turning toward another.
So, repentance is more than coming to a different opinion in one’s mind about something. Repentance is a whole turning away from our sin, and turning toward Christ.
It’s hard to beat the answer given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.