John the Baptist was all about it; it is the only response that God asks us to make—with His help of course. Repentance, so vital to our relationship with God, is often avoided by most church goers. Isn't that why we joined the church? So we can get away from recognizing our need for repentance. Don't we earn a free pass? Aren't we building up bonus points by our frequent attendance and Bible reading?
Perhaps I am alone in this spiritual reality. I love God. I love God’s love for me. I love His creation. I'm amazed by His word. I know repentance is important, but I don't go there very much. Peter Storey wrote: “Repentance is not so much a condition for forgiveness as a consequence of it.” [i] Perhaps I would change my heart for repentance if I focused more on God’s forgiveness than my deadly deeds.
Speaking of John the Baptist, it was all so simple to him. He had no back-up message. He delivered the same lesson no matter who you were. In fact, if you appeared to be the type that didn't think you needed it as much as the others, John seemed to up his rhetoric. Hear his sermon recorded in Matthew 3:1-3; 7-11:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume 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. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier 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 and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What a message! If we remain focused on our own sinfulness, we won't get very far. Our acts of rebellion don't produce anything but regret, emptiness, and despair. Repentance changes all of that. It begins the process of helping our spiritual selves remember that we were destined for more than rebellion against God. We were made for intimacy. We receive forgiveness in response to repentance. Repentance may make us feel weak when we examine it from afar. If we come close and let ourselves experience a repentant heart, we discover the secret. Repentance is strength. Repentance opens the door for God to fill us with the power of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the wisdom He has to offer.
Repentance helps me see myself as smaller and breaks through to the reality of what a great God I serve. He is bigger than all my failures. No wonder John found repentance such a fruitful message. The message of repentance becomes clearer and more appealing as you grow in confidence in God.
[i] Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha: Jesus’ Words from the Cross (Upper Room Books: Nashville, 2004) pp. 34-35.