Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

What is the proper response to the gospel?

The answer to that question will, of course, depend on how you define the gospel. Last week I wrote a bit about how Scot McKnight contends that the Good News isn't the "Steps to 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 I reflected on this during Advent I began to wonder if we need to rethink the "proper response" to the gospel. Specifically, the soterian 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 what caught my attention during Advent. 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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29 thoughts on “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near”

  1. Why, oh why . . . do you keep trying to mold a 1st century message to Israel to fit 21st  century Gentiles.  Have you just expunged Matthew 15:24 (So he (Jesus) answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.") or Matthew 10:5-7 (Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: "Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town.  Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near!')?  Why, oh why, . . .

    One more thought.  Repentance is simply a change of mind.  All of this other stuff about loyalty and allegiance etc. is simply eisegesis.

  2. Daniel Kirk's new book "Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?" makes a solid connection between Jesus' references to "the Kingdom of God" and Paul's references to "New Creation". This connection further intensifies many of the points you make here.

    Additionally, I would say that John the Baptist provides another precedent. In evangelical circles, we get into the mindset that WE are out there saving people. No, we prepare the way. Jesus does all the saving. We are heralds, and HE is the king. Our evangelism might be pointed at times, but we do not manipulate people. We simply create space for others to encounter God first hand.

  3. David,
    Where I think you and I differ is that while I agree the gospel was first proclaimed to Israel I believe this was and is the same gospel proclaimed to the world. I don't see two gospels, a Jewish gospel and a Gentile gospel. I see one Lord and Kingdom.

  4. Richard,

    As one believer to another . . .

    Truly, one Lord and Kingdom.  Truly the gospel to Israel was (and will be . . . but, that's for another time . . .) as you say in your excellent post.

    Now, some rhetorical questions:

    Is not 1 Cor 15:1ff a reasonable summary of what was has been taken to the Gentile world?

    Isn't the foundation of 1 Cor 15:1ff His death burial and resurrection?

    Where in Scripture do we see Jesus preach (or send apostles to preach) death, burial, and resurrection to the Gentiles?

    What were the confessions of faith of Peter (Matthew 16:16), Mary (John 11:27), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37) and even Paul (Acts 9:20)? 

    Is there any mention of death, burial, or resurrection in the great confessions of faith listed in Scripture?

    How can you still hold that the two gospels are the same?

  5. Thank you so much for this, Dr. Beck!  If you grew up in the type of fundementalist hothouse environment in which I did, this is really great news.  This is the practical, real-life teaching I wish i had received as a child and teen.  It would have saved me (pun intended) years of self-hate and utter doubt.

    It's all right there for the taking, but when you constantly hear it skewed a certain way, the only response you can ever have is to question the strength of your "cognitive assent", being certain you will never believe in "the right way" -- with the appropriate amount of fervor.  It's distasteful, and it can leave you exhausted, emotionally unavailable, and cynical.  Looking back on my own life, based on what, in fact, I actually thought and did, I have been closer to the kingdom than I ever realized.

  6. you two(Richard/ David )
    ever watch NCIS ON THE t.v.
    Boy oh boy,
    for just being sooo ignorant.

    the gospel is Gods story of faithfulness "to his people"

    a trip in The roman letter

    Rom 3:1  What advantage then hath the Jew? or what is the profit of circumcision?
    Rom 3:2  Much every way: first of all, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God.
    Rom 3:3  For what if some were without faith? shall their want of faith make of none effect the faithfulness of God?
    Rom 3:4  God forbid: yea, let God be found true, but every man a liar;
    as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy words, And
    mightest prevail when thou comest into judgment.

    3:21 But now
    apart from the law the righteousness of God
    (which is attested by the law and the prophets)has been disclosed – 3:22 namely, the righteousness of
    God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no

    Rom 15:8  For I say that Christ hath been made a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises given unto the fathers,

    Rom 15:16  that I should be a minister of Christ Jesus unto the Gentiles,

     ministering the gospel of God,

     that the offering up of the Gentiles might be made acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

    then gal.  which should go with rom. 15:8
    Gal 4:4  but when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,
    Gal 4:5  that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

    butt then maybe ???? i am giving you two to much...
    that old familiar phrase ,
    can't see the forest for the tree...




  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. When we hear "Repent!" many of us hear "You're going to hell ya damned sinner!"You absolutely nailed it, Richard! It's also why those authoritarian figures (and their disciples) who are certain they've got it cognitively right think that how they actually treat people won't matter in the end. Like Sam, this was the configuration of Christianity I grew up in, and I feel for the generation of children growing up in it now. 

    "A man who has not the mind of Christ--and no man has the mind of Christ except him who makes it his business to obey him--cannot have correct opinions concerning him; neither, if he could, would they be of any value to him: he would be nothing the better, he would be the worse for having them. Our business is not to think correctly, but to live truly; then first will there be a possibility of our thinking correctly. One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him. In teaching men, they have not taught them Christ, but taught them about Christ. More eager after credible theory than after doing the truth, they have speculated in a condition of heart in which it was impossible they should understand; they have presumed to explain a Christ whom years and years of obedience could alone have made them able to comprehend. Their teaching of him, therefore, has been repugnant to the common sense of many who had not half their privileges, but in whom, as in Nathanael, there was no guile. Such, naturally, press their theories, in general derived from them of old time, upon others, insisting on their thinking about Christ as they think, instead of urging them to go to Christ to be taught by him whatever he chooses to teach them. They do their unintentional worst to stop all growth, all life. From such and their false teaching I would gladly help to deliver the true-hearted. Let the dead bury their dead, but I would do what I may to keep them from burying the living." George MacDonald

  8. Here are my two favorite quotes on repentance:

    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, 2009

    Quite a bit different understanding than that with which I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and that which I adopted as a Protestant.  As N.T. Wright understands it, it's not simply "changing one's mind", but rather "dropping one's agenda" - which runs rather more deeply.

    I think the biggest part of our problem is our failure to keep central the Jewish narrative of who God is and what God is up to.  The "soterian" presentation Scot McKnight highlights is a very radical departure from it.  We have ignored the context of the message, which is what keeps everything "square" - as in "true to level".  When you're building something, being "out of true" by just a little at the corner causes major problems the farther away from the corner you get.


  9. Great insight Richard. Some more thoughts on repentance from John Gavazzoni:

    "We have been taught that if we believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, on the basis of His Son's shed blood on our behalf, He changes His mind toward us, and ceases to hold our sins against us. Western Fundamentalism's spin on the gospel has God repenting, rather than man. But God's refusal to let sin mar His relationship to us, when revealed to us in the (true) gospel, evokes a change of mind in us regarding our perception of how God relates to us, so that we begin to relate to Him in accordance to His eternal relationship with us.

    In receiving Christ, we accept our acceptance by God. There's the difference: God doesn't accept us BECAUSE we accept Christ, but rather we accept in Christ the acceptance that we already have in the heart of God. Firstly we are "accepted in the Beloved," and upon that basis we come into "the assurance of faith." 
    The whole article can be found here:

  10. I like this alternative to the roman road.  What exactly is the Kingdom of God/Heaven though?

  11. if we would but preach how god manipulated the world order,to bring about the purpose of redemption,
    we all might just realize how broken and in need of grace (repentance {self forgetting and Christ renewing } we all are in need of from the Lord

    Psa 51:16
     For thou delightest not in sacrifice; Else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
    Psa 51:17  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

    God is faithful to his word...
    700 b.c.
    Amo 9:11  In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up its ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old;

    Act 15:15  And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
    Act 15:16  After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen; And I will build again the ruins thereof, And I will set it up:
    Act 15:17  That the residue of men may seek after the Lord, And all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called,
    Act 15:18  Saith the Lord, who maketh these things known from of old.

    i really don't think most people understand just what it means to get someone that is pregnant to deliver in a "barn" in Bethlehem, back then at, "just the right time",danial, have three wise men ON the road to meet at "just the right time" and have "gifts just the right ones"

    does anyone  understand random number theory!!!!!!!!
    and fulfilled prophecy, 

    10 TO THE 10TH TO THE 60TH POWER!!!!!!!!!

    Saith the Lord, who maketh these things known from of old.



  12. For me, the kingdom of God is best illustrated in the actions and teachings of Jesus (eg., Jesus saying after washing feet "If I your Lord do this so you should do this for one another and "a new commandment I give you: love one another") and in the koinonia of the early church (eg., Acts 2 and 4). When we see this happen the kingdom has "come on earth as it is in heaven."

  13. I feel that the reason repentance is out of favor is that the church by and large wants to have one foot in the world and one in the Kingdom. My own involvement in the lusts of this world nearly destroyed my life and now
    God is working more every day to bring my life more into the light. This area has become some important to me that I have put together a seminar called Battle Plan which will try to help others along this amazing journey of allowing God to take more of our life in His control and battle the sin that so easily entangles.

  14. PAUL had a major OOPS !!!
    ON THE ROAD acts 22
    just how did HE preach...
    need i ask...
    the gospel of GOD and the kingdom that Had come
    Psa 2:4  He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh: The Lord will have them in derision.
    Psa 2:5  Then will he speak unto them in his wrath, And vex them in his sore displeasure:
    Psa 2:6  Yet I have set my king Upon my holy hill of Zion.
    Psa 2:7  I will tell of the decree: Jehovah said unto me, Thou art my son; This day have I begotten thee.
    Psa 2:8  Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, And the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
    Psa 2:9  Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.

    Dan 7:13  I saw in the night-visions, and, behold,

     there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man,

    and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
    Dan 7:14  And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

    "vision from Gods point of view"  Danial
    Peter's point of view
    from earth
     fixing the "time"

    Act 1:9  And when he had said these things, as they were looking,

     he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

    Act 1:10  And while they were looking stedfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
    Act 1:11  who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? this Jesus, who was received up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven.

  15. Any self-respecting kingdom that I am aware of has three components.  1)  a king.  2)  a realm  and 3)  subjects.  Are we Jesus' subjects?  Or are we His bride who is destined to rule WITH Him.  I know which I would choose and it just so happens to be what is contained in Scripture.  Commandments are for the subjects; love is for the bride.  Sort of a big difference, no?

  16. For me, repentance and guilt have become so enmeshed that it is difficult to untangle them. It seems that when I repent, I tend to feel (as perhaps I should) great remorse for the wrongs I have committed, whether against self, others, or God. And when come before God on my knees in repentance, there is guilt and shame that is stirred up in me following the reflection and self-criticism that goes hand-in-hand with repentance. But alas, I may have been doing it wrong all along! Anyone willing to settle the waters and bring some clarity to repentance for me?

  17. This is why it makes a difference whether we (a) start with the Old Testament and situate the New within its historical-theological arc or (b) start with the New Testament and try to squeeze the Old Testament into NT categories.  The so-called "New Testament church" needs a steady dose of Brueggemann and Wright in order to reorient herself properly, which is to say, to adopt posture (a).

  18. We’ve all seen footage of victims of the holocaust, hundreds of their starved bodies piled up – those who were still alive at the time of liberation but who died shortly afterwards because they were beyond help.  We know about the children who die in war, or from neglect or cruelty, or poverty.  We may even be aware of birth defects so horrific that their victims don’t look human.  I could go on and on…

    What does the gospel, as you understand it, say to them?  What does the kingdom of God mean to them?  If they are dead, or stunted, or deformed, or severely mentally impaired, they can’t “repent”.  What good news is there for them?

  19. Jesus, though, didn’t tell his followers to bring the kingdom on earth, he told them to ask the Father for that.  It seems to me that we can anticipate it, we can hope for it (or for much more), but nothing we do can actually bring it.

  20. Stephen

    Could it be that repentance is more radical – where we no longer look inwards at ourself, what we’ve done or failed to do, what we intend to do in future.  

    When we look inwards, we get our nose stuck in our stomach, and start curling up and get tied in complicated knots – guilt, shame, self-reflection, self-criticism, leading to more reflection and shame, etc., etc., etc., thinking about self, self, self.

    Since “repentance” is a change in direction, changing the direction in which we look would surely qualify – to God, in thanks, and hope – outwards to others, in concern for their welfare. 

  21.  What I have found with repentance is that no amount of will power or "sucking it up" would bring lasting change, just endless cycles of falling, being filled with guilt, confession and then a period of success only to fall again. This was my experience with lust for 35 years. Then God led me to bring him more in the process with prayer (more focused on Him than I), scripture, and sharing with my brothers that has truly led to a more lasting result with actual change in the way I think. He allowed my struggle to continue until I came to know Him more and I thank Him for it. The gospel is the good news about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ but this good news leads us to more good news - real change, reward and alignment in the Kingdom of God as His adopted. Praise His Name!

  22. "What good news is there for them?"

    Nothing now, but only God's promise for the future: "I make ALL things new."

  23. "Since “repentance” is a change in direction, changing the direction in which we look would surely qualify – to God, in thanks, and hope – outwards to others, in concern for their welfare."

    Beautiful. And most certainly true. Thanks for the insight.

  24. And sadly, the “Christian” agenda is too often to promote themselves at the expense of others... quite the opposite of Christ’s.

  25. Repentance is a gift from God. True repentance from God will radically change or transform the individual that is the recipient of it. Those that love a lie, will now abhor it, after genuine repentance. Those who could not drink alcohol without being addicted to it, or were drunkards, will not have the desire to drink anymore, et cetera. This is a repentance not to be repented of; or a change, that is permanent. Differing degrees of false or incomplete repentance puts us in the pathos that some have described below in which we may be subject to besetting sins, or such cycles of what amounts to a sophisticated penance. Sin must be viewed as how God sees it.

    Repentance cannot come when we choose to do so. Repentance is given when we meet the conditions for it, and certainly when God calls us to it. This is why John the Baptist told the Pharisees and others critical of his baptism, to "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance..." True repentance always implies an urgency and redeeming the time period in which an individual can receive the gift of repentance and start the process of salvation, or being saved from our sins to the uttermost: "While it is said, Today, if you will hear His Voice, do not harden your hearts..."

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