Reflections on the Meaning of Repentance
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Mark 1:15, Matthew 6:1-6, Matthew 6:16-21, Joel 2:12-19, 2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:10
March 06, 2019

I invite you this evening to think with me for a few moments in reflecting on the meaning of repentance. The season of Lent begins today. We call it a penitential season. The word penitence means to be in a state of repentance. So, what is repentance?

Jesus spoke of repentance when He said: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

In the first of his 95 theses—that began the Reformation—Luther stated that when Jesus said repent, he willed that the whole Christian life be one of repentance.

Maybe we think of repentance as only being mindful of our sins and sinfulness. If that is the case, then what Luther says sounds like a morbid and depressing kind of life.

But Jesus said, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” It seems, therefore, that repentance couldn’t just have to do with sin.

Reflecting upon the meaning of repentance is also important because we are 21st century Americans. Every culture teaches its participants the deepest and most basic assumptions that guide and direct what its participants think they know and what they think is true and right. 

What does our culture teach us in such deep and basic ways? Philosophers and theologians have studied the Western-American worldview and define something as basic. It is that the human ego, the “I,” is the judge and determiner of all that is real and true, even if it goes against all that we would consider objective reality or objective standards. This is especially the case in morals, ethics, theology, and faith. Does our experience in our culture confirm this?

Keeping such considerations in mind, we can begin reflecting on the meaning of repentance with a basic dictionary definition of the word “repent.”

In the Old Testament, repentance means to turn or return to the LORD. We hear this in the reading from Joel chapter 2 this evening.

In the New Testament, the word repentance has to do with having a change of mind. This is a change of mind in the sense of coming to agree with something that before one did not agree with. The central idea is agreement with some external standard.

What happened with King David is a great example of this. We may recall what he did.

  • He desired Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.
  • David took Bathsheba, contrary to the first and sixth commandments.
  • She got pregnant. Uh oh.
  • Cover up.
  • He knows what he did was wrong, but he does everything but admit it, own up to it.
  • He conspires to get Uriah killed in battle. His plan worked. Uriah was killed in battle.
  • Now he can marry Bathsheba legally and cover up his adultery.

God sent Nathan the prophet to speak God’s law to David to reveal to him what he had done.

He told David the parable of the poor man and the rich man. The poor man had the little lamb that he cherished. The rich man had lots of lambs but wanted the poor man’s one little lamb. He took it.

David was incensed. The man who has done this should surely die.

Nathan said, “You are the man.”

David admitted and confessed, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

God said to David, “You are the one.”

In repentance, David said, “Amen. I am the one.” He agrees with God’s judgment on the deepest level.

But what does this agreement involve considering the modern American worldview? There are different ways we could say this. Power struggle. Who has the right to define me? Who controls my destiny? To whom do I yield? Surrender. The basic assumption American culture teaches is that the “I” yields and surrenders to no one. The “I” defines itself in absolute terms. The “I” controls its own destiny, absolutely.

At the heart of the matter, reflections on repentance moves from agreement to surrender, to yielding the power to define and hold in judgment.

In our context, power and control are central issues.

This is important with respect to conviction of sin; that is, with respect to God’s law, but not only that. I wonder today if people in our culture hear the Gospel as good news.

The good news of the gospel is that your sins are forgiven freely, because of what Jesus has done for you, and God treats you as righteous before Him when you believe this.

But this statement, “your sins are forgiven,” implies that one needs forgiveness.

But if I am carrying around a set of assumptions that assert that I am the determiner of all truth; I am the definer of myself; I am the only one rightfully empowered to judge myself; then an assumption that I am sinner is a direct assault on the integrity and autonomy of my personhood.

It may be that the tragedy and power of our American worldview is that it prohibits being spoken to and defined as forgiven and righteous as gift in the Gospel, just as it prohibits being convicted of sin in the law. The Gospel says, “You are forgiven.” By it God says, “you are righteous in my sight. I give you eternal life.”

But God intends to give these as a gift.

Our culture’s worldview may say, “What? Of course, I have eternal life. It is my right, if I want it. Actually, I am already a free and eternal ego.” Unfortunately, this is not the case before God.

What is the turning, what is the change, what is the agreement that repentance means in our context?

It seems to come down to basics like this. “I,” this thing I refer to as my ego, is not the determiner, the judge, the center of all reality. Repentance becomes the dethroning of this “I” in the deepest and most basic sense by God. Repentance makes the “I” yield to another, to God, who speaks to it, and claims a greater right to judge and to save it.

When this “I” is so dethroned, then one can be convicted, where one has done wrong.

When this “I” is dethroned, then one can receive the word of forgiveness and promise of life and all good things that God wants to give without price in the Gospel.

When this “I” is dethroned, then one can be instructed in the way that God would have one go in life as it pleases Him.

When this “I” is dethroned, then one can say a glorious and life-giving “Amen” to whatever God would say, whether it is from the law to judge, convict and instruct, or from the Gospel to give life in Him and all good things.

It seems that whatever we say about repentance, we must speak of it as the state of my deepest being where I can say this “Amen,” this agreement, this yielding and surrender to God. In this Amen, there is great blessing.

Dear friends, I realize that I am speaking all this to you this evening. God has begun and continues this work of “Amen” in you. I also realize that it is a struggle. Our sinful nature naturally resists this dethronement and this “Amen.” It seems that our American worldview makes this problem worse. I also realize that you must go out from here into the world where there seems to be a whole bunch of autonomous egos running around. Then it may seem like you must become or act like an autonomous ego yourself, just to cope.

During this Lententide, however, may our prayer be that God, through His Spirit, in the Name of Jesus, would work this “Amen,” in us in always deeper and more glorious ways. For in this Amen, we find freedom from our own tyranny and the life and salvation God freely gives in Christ. Thanks be to God


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