Repentance in the New Testament is the English word translated as ‘metanoeo’, which occurs in the NT 54 times. ‘Meta’ means, with, or after, while noeo means to understand, perceive, consider, think. So we can understand the word to mean, to live after pondering, to change after consideration. One might observe simply by the nature of the word that repentance is primarily a change in the mind, such that one begins to live differently. I aim to show that this change of mind is much more than a human resolve to be more moral, instead it is a change of mind about how we think of God and how we believe He perceives us. It is this kind of change, a change in belief rather than a change in mere behavior, which leads to fruit in keeping with repentance.
We find early in John the Baptist’s ministry that he is preaching repentance:
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Matthew 3:8, NIV.
Jesus also goes quite far in agreeing with this idea of repentance that produces fruit:
But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “”Sir,’ the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”" Luke 13:1-9, NIV.
That all is to say, if you look closely at Matthew 3:8, that repentance is not the fruit, repentance is that inward state, that frame of mind, that leads to fruit. This is very similar to Paul’s notion of the fruits of the Spirit:
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NIV.
In Paul’s universe, this repentance that leads to fruitfulness is a passage from fleshly dependance on the law to a Spirit-led dependence on grace. This is the interpretation that is consistent with this scripture as well, and harmonizes with the meaning of the word itself. The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.
Jesus’ way of teaching about repentance caused sinners to rejoice and gather around, and caused the religious to grumble and complain:
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:1-7, NIV.
Please notice this. Jesus addresses the issue of repentance in such a way that sinners flocked to Him. How many times have we seen this in our churches? Generally teaching about repentance makes us want to slink away and disappear. Jesus depicts repentance as a homecoming, a joyous reconciliation. Not only that, but it puts a great bulk of the finding of the sinner, the pivot of repentance, upon Himself. The shepherd goes and looks for the sheep and finds it. It is not so much the fruit of human resolve, but the willingness to be carried along after being lost.
Notice that it is not the persistent fruit of repentance that causes rejoicing. It is the pivotal change itself, the change of mind of a sinner. The 99 righteous do not elicit a heavenly party, it is the one who repents. How could this possibly work? Do the heavenly party-goers have that much faith in this sinner’s ability to repent and stay repentant? Do they really believe that strongly in his new-found moral will?
It can’t possibly work that way. They really could not be celebrating because he suddenly had a gust of guilt and made a decision to stop doing bad moral behaviors. Paul is clear, and my own personal experience is clear, that this could never ever work. There is no way this is what they are rejoicing in. A call to moral repentance, and some beaten down resolve to stop repeating embarrassing behaviors, can never last. So what is the dynamic at work?
I think it works like this:
The problem with repentance under the law is, the moral change is incomplete, and is insufficient to satisfy the justice of God for the sin. It assumes the justice of God is satisfied with the remission of our sins simply because we promise not to do that sin any more. This is a small and erroneous view of the justice of God. Repentance under law also says that the blood of Jesus has nothing real to do with my ability to enter the favor of God, it has all to do with my own moral change, meaning that with a few embarrassed flawed promises to ‘repent’, we can manipulate God’s very justice. Morals under this paradigm are also seen as something to be done as obligation apart from favor, thus disconnected from the favor of God and performed entirely under human animus.
If repentance means a change in moral behavior, it can only mean a verbal or mental promise of change. It cannot mean a true complete change, because no one knows what will happen or what they will do. They can only promise verbally.
If this verbal promise is the basis of forgiveness, then if one becomes weak or is tempted again in an area of weakness and fails, then forgiveness is forfeit. If one fails a small bit, since the basis of forgiveness is forfeit, the door is no longer immediately open to mercy, and so one continues in sin, whose pleasures become the only comfort available. Under grace, real scandalous grace, the door remains open to enter back into holiness when one strays, and one can expect the help of God instead of the wrath of God, all without sacrificing God’s justice and holiness.
Repentance under grace has far more ability to achieve the lasting fruits of repentance, because it assumes the help of God, which assumes forgiveness PRIOR to moral change. It satisfies the genuine justice of God and beyond, the sentence of death for all we do wrong. Moral change is given as a gift, and is not seen as that which manipulates the favor and action of God. Repentance understood as belief in grace is a true sustainable inward change, the kind of change that can be expected to lead to real fruit. This is the kind of repentance the angels and heavenly host celebrate, because it is an entry into the favor and power of God in a person’s life. It really is more like God finding us, rather than us promising not to leave God.
We generally are not comfortable with the idea that repentance means mere belief. Belief is too vaporous, too ephemeral, too easy. Manly religion asks for real repentance, repentance with hair on its chest, full of valor and deeds and proof and grand promises of change. Jesus does not share this idea:
“They said therefore to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”" John 6:28, 29, NASB.
The door to real repentance does not go through the decision and will and persistence of man. If it is based on a man’s moral fortitude and vigor, then we probably wouldn’t need repentance in the first place. The repentant man is a failed man, a weak man, a sinful man. It is a man who has the desire for sin etched deeply into his habits and psyche. The drug addict can drive into a strange town and know by instinct exactly where to go to find drugs. The repentant man is a practiced expert in the art of the forbidden. Sin is powerful and the man’s genius and skill have in his history been fully engaged in seeking sustenance for his desire there. It is no small task to change these things. A man’s singular decision to change cannot depend entirely upon himself. Repentance must include in itself the seed that will grow to consume his life, with the understanding that he will be weak and failing in it at times. It must include room for mercy, for grace, for instant help. It must have God’s favor, it must believe in the kindness of God, right up front, before there is fruit. This belief is true repentance.
We have trouble believing that God is able to accomplish this level of change in us, that we can trust God that the work He has begun in us, He will perfect until the day we meet Him. We want to change ourselves, God only speaks with a still small voice and we demand an earthquake of change. We want to repent ourselves because we actually don’t believe God is able to substantively help. This is why belief is the pivot point, the central issue. The main point of human agency is faith. This transfer of the desire from the gratification of sin over to the love and trust and favor and fellowship of God and His people is the real change that leads to true repentance from the heart, a repentance without regret. Thus Paul says:
“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.” 2 Corinthians 7:9-11, NASB.