Repent The Kingdom of Heaven Is At Hand: A Lenten Reflection

In 2011 I wrote a piece about how repentance--rather than belief--is the proper response to the gospel. During Lent that seems to be a good theme to revisit:

What is the proper response to the gospel?

In the Gospel accounts, as people like Scot McKnight has helped us see, the "good news" is not a presentation of the "Steps of Salvation."

Rather, the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why Jesus himself preached the gospel, well before his crucifixion. For example, after his baptism in the book of Mark Jesus is observed preaching the gospel:

Mark 1.14-15
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
What is the gospel according to Jesus? It is the declaration that "the kingdom of God has come near." Similarly, when Jesus sends out his disciples in Luke 10 they proclaim the same message:
Luke 10.8-11
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’
As we reflect on repentance during Lent I think this is a good time to think about the "proper response" to the gospel. Specifically, the "Steps of Salvation" gospel has tended to emphasize a response of faith. Cognitive assent. But when we come to see the gospel as the declaration that the "kingdom of God has come near" the issue is less about belief than repentance. Jesus declares in Mark "Repent and believe the good news." The primacy of repentance is even more clear in the gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 4.17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The role of repentance is also highlighted at the very beginning of Mark (and echoed in Matthew and Luke) when we take in the message of John the Baptist:
Mark 1.1-5
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The message of the Baptist is important to ponder, especially during Lent. Prior to Jesus's entrance John is "preparing the way for the Lord" by "preaching a baptism of repentance." To be sure, faith is a prerequisite for all this. Obviously, you'd have to believe John's message before undergoing his baptism of repentance. But this is banal. Such a faith doesn't, in itself, constitute a full and proper response to the gospel. Rather, the response we see is a repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is how the heart is properly prepared for responding to the kingdom coming.

This makes sense if we consider the gospel to be, as Scot McKnight has argued, the declaration that Jesus is King. Kings don't demand belief or faith. You don't believe in kings. No, you obey kings. You give a king allegiance. So when the kingdom comes the proper response is behavioral, a reconfiguration of loyalties. A new apocalyptic reality has been revealed and we are called upon to readjust our lives to this new reality. This is why the ministry of John the Baptist was necessary.

Why has the role of repentance been deemphasized in many sectors of Christianity? One answer, I think, has to do with what Scot McKnight has pointed out: We've reduced the gospel to salvation. Thus, the crux of Christian life becomes cognitive assent (i.e., faith) rather than readjusting our lives in the face of the gospel--that Jesus is Lord and the rule/kingdom of God has broken upon us. As I described above, it's so much easier to believe that Jesus is King than to obey him as King. The point being, for great swaths of Christianity the message and ministry of John the Baptist has no place. We don't tell people that, to accept the gospel, they need to prepare themselves. All you need to do is believe in Jesus and say the Sinner's Prayer. Compare that with John's baptism of repentance and his message:
Luke 3.10-14
What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falselybe content with your pay.”
When people ask "What must I do to be saved?" Christians don't, as a rule, say things like "If you have two shirts give one to the poor." We don't see that action--giving away excess possessions--as an example of responding to the gospel. But it is. It's readjusting your life to the new rule of God.

A second and related reason for the eclipse of repentance is that repentance has become a morbid concept. Christians are ashamed of repentance because it doesn't sell well with the public. And this is understandable. If you've grown up with toxic, guilt-driven fundamentalism the word repentance conjures up notions of shame, self-loathing, and a wrathful, judgmental God. When we hear "Repent!" many of us hear "You're going to hell ya damned sinner!"

But this is where I think the ideas of preparation and allegiance come in handy. Repentance is preparing for the reign of God. It's not about getting down on yourself. It's about clearing out the rubbish and clutter of our lives. Sort of like spring cleaning. (Literally, at times, a spring cleaning. To the point of going through your stuff and giving it away.) More, repentance is about loyalty and allegiance. It's about hearing the declaration of the gospel and switching sides. It has less to do with guilt than about joining up with a new team.

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18 thoughts on “Repent The Kingdom of Heaven Is At Hand: A Lenten Reflection”

  1. Who then can be saved? Believing the sinners prayer is a "get out of hell free" ticked is much easier than actually doing what Jesus said. I think when we start talking of doing what Jesus did it puts us in a competitive mode where I only have to do more than you do. If I can outdo most of the people some of the time or better yet outdo a few people most of the time, then I must be saved.

    How do you understand "repentance" as a change of mind?

  2. Mike, interesting question. I don't recall reading anywhere that if we do what Jesus says to do and did himself, that we're in competition with others to prove it. Kingdom living isn't about besting our brothers and sisters. It's about alignment with Jesus himself. If we think in Kingdom terms, we should be able to pinpoint areas of our lives where we live differently now than we did before our repentance. I guess if you have to be "competitive", it's thinking more about "personal bests". Is there change in keeping with the repentance we claim? Not change in how we're doing over and against other people. We are all in different stages of our faith journeys.

    Repentance as a change of mind is realizing when my natural inclinations are at odds with Christ and his ways of kingdom living. It's embracing the grace we have been given while we were his enemies and loving him so much as a result, that we want to obey him, and if we don't want to obey him, then we want to want to obey him. But more than that, if we have really changed our minds, our behavior and our living will follow that change.

  3. I wasn't suggesting that it was something that we should do or that anyone had ever suggested it but it 'seems' to be an unwritten rule. I don't smoke or chew or date girls that do therefore I must be better than you.

  4. In certain circles, I quite agree that it seems to be the unwritten rule. I grew up in a tradition like that. It was all about "the rules" and how we measured up against each other. That kind of thinking is a tiresome rat race that completely misses the point of grace, kingdom living and relating to Christ.

  5. On the other side of the coin is the idea that I never do enough to measure up. I'm I a sheep or a goat? In reality I'm both.

  6. This is great. Growing up in fundamentalist circles, the role of Jesus as savior was magnified, but this was theologically detached from his role as teacher. I consider myself a disciple of Jesus because I listen to his teachings and try to live my life accordingly. This is the starting point for my faith. When I start here, my "cognitive assent" to his deity, Lordship, resurrection etc... strengthens.

    However, when my faith in the spiritual grows weak, instead of throwing out everything and embracing agnosticism (which has been a temptation in years past) my new 'reset' mode is to remind myself that Jesus is a teacher that taught a way of life. I am his disciple, and I seek to live according to his teachings. This entails repentance and a dying to self in the thousand small ways each day demands.

    Having this anchor has helped me ride the waves of doubt in other more abstract articles of faith. My faith realizes Jesus to be more than a teacher. But in my doubt, I am reminded that he is not less than one, and my relationship with Him begins there. Obedience seems to me the gateway for cognitive assent.

  7. "If you've grown up with toxic, guilt-driven fundamentalism the word repentance conjures up notions of shame, self-loathing, and a wrathful, judgmental God."

    I fear it's worse than that. Repentance can often be interpreted as a call to become purist, Pharisaical, mean-spirited or judgemental. It's not the call to obey a wrathful God that is so off-putting as the apparent call to become wrathful oneself. Who wants to repent if it means joining the cruel team?

  8. I can certainly relate to a few of the earlier comments. Growing up in a very legalistic atmosphere means never being allowed to be imperfect, never enjoying the maturing, spiritual journey of being "Honestly Sinful". So, there was no opportunity to experience a repentance or change into and within the Kingdom. We had to pretend we had always been there, its most knowledgeable and upstanding citizens. There is no pressure like the kind a baby has to go through in claiming to be full grown.

  9. "Repentance is about loyalty and allegiance. It's about hearing the
    declaration of the gospel and switching sides. It has less to do with
    guilt than about joining up with a new team."

    This is pretty much the upshot of N.T. Wright's point about what repentance meant to C1 Jews. He says this dawned on him when he was on an airplane years ago, reading a passage in Josephus where J. is trying to convince Jewish partisans to give up their guerrilla warfare against Rome. J. uses the exact same phrase in Greek in that conversation as Jesus does when Jesus says "repent and believe in me." Wright translates it as "drop your agenda and trust that what I'm telling you is true."

    This certainly involves a "change of mind" in that one has to change one's entire thought process in light of one's encounter with Jesus. One would surely set off in a different direction, involving actions as well as thoughts, as a result of the enormity of the change in loyalty/allegiance brought about by that kind of trust in him.

    Wright says that the "for the forgiveness of sins" is not about merely the expunging of each person's wrongdoing; when God does the Very Big Thing the Jews were expecting, that they would actually be able to see, that would be the sign that God had forgiven the national sins of Israel and had finally brought them out of their exile, and was in the process of restoring Israel to its former prominence, so that the people could worship God as they believe he wanted them to, and so that God would be shown to be the True King. It was all one big ball o' wax. Different groups of Jews had different ideas about what the Very Big Thing would be, and what the restoration of Israel would imply vis-a-vis other Jewish groups and Gentiles. Anyone interested in this can read Wright's "The New Testament and the People of God."

    In the Orthodox Church, some of our wisest saints have said that our entire task in this life is repentance. This does not mean going around gloomy and doomy, but to be constantly turning toward God, with the ultimate end of union with God in view, so that we actually may become like Christ. The thrust of the synergistic view of things is that we have to want this, and do whatever we can toward that end from our side, and we need God's help, too, which he kindly gives. It's not about "earning salvation" - we can never do that, it is the gift of God. ("Salvation" has a much broader and deeper meaning in Orthodoxy and has nothing to go with "going to Heaven when you die.") It's about becoming the human beings we were created to be, because of what God has done. The door's open - come on in...

    "Repentance: It means not self-pity or remorse, but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity... It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see." -Archbishop Kallistos Ware

    "Repentance is not simply a time of hand-wringing, regret and guilt. It is the beginning of a new and open-ended future that is a radical change in direction from the "no exit" of sin and alienation from God." -Fr Lawrence Margitich (Rector of my parish, who is also a big Wright fan...)


  10. I think a lot of it depends upon what you mean by saved? Saved from hell? That's the very notion I was pushing back against in the post.

    I tend to think we are saved from sin, from our worse selves. So if salvation is participating in the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven then salvation and repentance are so tightly interwoven that you can't separate them. Salvation is repentance. Repentance is salvation.

    If salvation is becoming fully human--conformed to the image of Jesus--then that's what repentance looks like. Becoming fully human.

  11. The idea that we are saved from hell is so engrained in our southern conscious that its hard to think past it. This explains some of the thoughts I've been having on repentance. If repentance is changing our mind about God, from an angry, out-to-get-you God to one who is for us, then I concur. If repentance is just doing better and I could be saved from sin by doing better then I'm not sure of the purpose of the cross.

  12. Yes! Right on bro.

    The Koine "metanoia" means to "go beyond your mind", or to "go
    beyond your present way of thinking". However, our normal use of
    "mind" and "thinking" doesn't go deep enough into the
    vernacular usage of "nous". I think you've come closer with the
    idea of "allegiance”.


    Just read this. It cleared some stuff up.

  14. Isn't this how we "argue among ourselves as to who is the greatest?"
    I love the definition of repentance as a change in thinking. That's what happens when you follow Jesus. You begin to understand and think according to God's kingdom values, the body follows.

  15. I really appreciate this post, Richard. It reminds me of Kreider's book, "The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom." It's been a while since I've read the book, but if I remember correctly, Kreider argues that if anyone was interested in becoming a Christian in the first couple of centuries, they were put on a kind of "trial period" where their sponsor would help them to live in a completely different manner -- that of living in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. The Christian's belief was that people would have a difficult time truly understanding the teachings of Jesus if they didn't live how he lived. So, it seems that a major piece of their catechesis was living into a repentant way of life. The conversion was behavior, belief, and then belonging.... whereas today it's what? Belonging, belief, and behavior last of all (if at all).

    It's so interesting to me how many proceed if someone today says that they're interested in becoming a Christian. What is the normal answer to that? "Okay, let's have a Bible study." What if we started with what you're suggesting in your post: giving away excess possession to the poor.

  16. Richard, great post. Repentance is an opportunity made available because there's a new way of ordering life around the reign of God. Good news! I find it interesting that Mark adds "believe the good news" to Jesus' announcement of the kingdom. Later in the gospel there are also calls for belief, e.g., "do not fear, only believe." But this is not so much believing in certain facts, but believing that the power and reign of God comes in this package--in Jesus, in the way of the cross, etc. Mark 1:15 begins with the report that John is in Herod's prison and that Jesus comes up out of Galilee with the good news of God, neither signs of power recognizable to most. The summons to believe the gospel is to believe that this story is gospel, that this is the way of God's power (reign) in the world. Belief then, is a particular way of seeing or perceiving. If you see Jesus as good news, it will turn your view of the world upside down. Here, believing and repentance go hand in hand.

  17. Incidentally, the argument laid out here is - and I don't think it's too strong to say this - THE gospel-ological foundation upon which the late Dr. Willard builds both his theological magnum opus, _The Divine Conspiracy_, and its praxis-oriented sequel, _Renovation of the Heart_. That is, in case you ever have room in your stack for one or two more...

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