If you start going in the wrong direction, there comes a point where you have to stop, turn round and go back the right way. The New Testament word for repentance is ‘metanoia’, which literally means to change one’s mind. It means to turn back, to stop thinking/doing one thing and do the opposite.
When we hear the word ‘repentance’, we might be tempted to have in our minds the image of an angry God waiting to smite us for bad behaviour unless we change our ways. But that is a gross caricature.
When Jesus announced the kingdom of God was near, he said, “Repent…and believe the good news,” (Mark 1:15). When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost, the crowds called on him to tell them what to do. “Repent…and be baptised,” he said, “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38). And in Acts 26:20, Paul says his preaching was “repent and turn to God.”
The purpose of God’s call to repent is not so that we feel overwhelmingly bad or guilty, but that we might find life and joy and truth in him. It’s not just ‘repent’ but ‘repent and…”. Repentance, in other words is not the destination, but a process. When we’re confronted by sin, and we sense the shame of turning our backs on God, that’s not meant to be the end of it. Jesus said repent – turn back – and believe his good news. Repent and be baptised, said Peter, so you can have a fresh start with God and receive his forgiveness.
God doesn’t want us to be just overwhelmed by sin and crushed by it – that’s the devil’s tactic. Jesus said, there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. (Luke 15:7) He wants us to be freed from it so we can enjoy him. God longs for us to turn back to him so we can receive his forgiveness and enter into his joy. It’s not just turning from that is important, but turning to. That’s what repentance is about. God longs for us to turn away from sin, and turn to him. Repent. And believe.
Question for reflection: Do you believe God to be all good, joyful and joy-giving? Look up Luke 15:3-7 to see the amazing extent of God’s love.