Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matthew 3:8)
I remember how disturbing it was for me as an adult to consider the lyrics of the nursery rhymes I sang as a child.
A famous one sings about people dying under the Black Plague:
Ring around the rosie
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down.
Another speaks of a baby falling down in a horrible accident,
Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
And we shall not mention the three blind mice and chopping off tails.
I sometimes hear a similar tune in the ways we sing about repentance. “Repent” is a word that healthy and unhealthy churches alike will sing about and say. But do we know what we mean? What exactly does it mean to “repent”?
I assume that the most common thought about repentance has to do with quitting sin. To repent of sin is to stop it. Stop looking at pornography, stop lying to your boss, stop being harsh with your children. Repentance. And this has Scriptural precedence: “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours,” Simon the magician is told (Acts 8:22).
So we read our Bibles and come to a passage like Acts 17:30, and import the meaning. As Paul preaches, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30–31), many hear God shaking his finger at the world saying, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
Now, repentance has something to do with turning from sin — and it also has something to do with turning to God.
Many non-Christians have stopped doing bad things. But Christian repentance entails not just turning from, but turning to. Summarizing his ministry to King Agrippa, Paul says,
Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. (Acts 26:19–20)
But is this repentance: stopping sin and turning to Jesus? Quitting porn and replacing it with prayer? Is this the “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)?
All this is to say one simple thing about repentance: It is less about what we do and more about what God does. Repentance certainly leads us to do things(and not do other things). We must put our sin to death by the power of the Spirit and walk in the footsteps of Christ, but both are secondary to what God does in genuine repentance. In other words, our acting — our doing (or not doing) — our behavior is not the first gloss when considering repentance. When Peter is asked what the people must do to be saved, the first thing out of his mouth is “Repent!”, but he did not mean: change your outward behavior and be saved!
What did he mean then?
He meant be a new person, one who treasures new things. Be renewed within.
This version, of course, is impossible for us to do. God must give us repentance. Speaking of unbelievers, Paul says, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). The New Testament word for repent refers to a change of mind (which leads to changed behavior but is different). John the Baptist, as with Paul to King Agrippa above, said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Good works “keep with” repentance, but are not entirely synonymous with repentance.
So when you think about the word repent, think of having a new heart, a new love for God. John Piper argues that it is nearly identical with being born again. We must have a new hatred for sin; a new desire to live and act in accordance with our God-given newness. So, practically, you and I cannot repent apart from God. This is crucial because it means we should never be satisfied with behavior change that lacks affection change. When we truly repent, not only does the external begin to be cleaned up, but inwardly too: God becomes more glorious, sin becomes more heinous, and life becomes more joyful.