The Heart of Repentance
Article by: Stephen Witmer
Jesus said some surprising things during his ministry. One of the most surprising is in the Gospel of Luke, just after he receives a report of the massacre of some Galileans. Some concluded that the Galileans suffered because they were particularly sinful people (Luke 13:2). If the Galileans had been more holy (their thinking goes), they could have avoided a grisly end.
Jesus disagrees. He responds, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). He says the problem is that everyone is sinful before God and therefore headed toward God’s eternal judgment (that’s the meaning of “perish” in this context, see Luke 9:24–25). And according to Jesus, the solution to this massive problem of divine judgment isn’t to improve one’s behavior, but to “repent.”
Calling people to repentance is the reason Jesus came (Luke 5:32) and the message he commissions his followers to preach (Luke 24:47). It’s the only way anyone can avoid God’s judgment (Luke 13:3). Given the supremely serious consequences of not repenting, it’s important to understand what repentance is.
To get to the heart of repentance, we need to dig deeper than sorrow for sin, apologies to God and other people, and changes in outward behavior. Repentance certainly leads to these — in fact, that’s the point of Jesus’s parable in Luke 13:6–9, which comes immediately after the teaching on repentance. The point of the parable is that true repentance necessarily results in changed attitudes and behavior. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist calls for people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, this means that acts of obedience (“fruits”) flow from (and are therefore not the same thing as) repentance.
So, what is the heart of repentance? Repentance is a change of perception and direction. As John Piper notes, the Greek word for “repent” refers to “a change of the mind’s perceptions and dispositions and purposes. . . . Repenting means experiencing a change of mind that now sees God as true and beautiful and worthy of all our praise and all our obedience.”
As we see God for who he is (great, glorious, desirable), we also see sin for what it is (diminished, ugly, repulsive). This is why repentance is also a commitment to a profound change of direction, an about-face, a reorientation of our lives away from sin and toward God. This change of perception and direction is something we’re commanded to do (Acts 2:38) — and something that requires the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit if we’re to do it. We act the miracle.
Those with whom Jesus speaks in Luke 13 seem to think the problem with the Galileans is not enough holiness. But Jesus says the real problem is that everyone is blind to God’s glory and has turned away from him. What is needed is not a bit more holiness for some, but a total reorientation of life for all. The critical difference between those who are saved and those who aren’t isn’t how relatively good they are — it’s whether they’ve admitted that they’re not good, seen God as supremely glorious, and reversed the entire direction of their lives.
The evening before I married my wife in Belfast, Northern Ireland, several friends and I drove into the center of the city to celebrate. Somehow, we ended up on the wrong road — the main road to Dublin, it turned out — and because none of us were very familiar with the British road system, we couldn’t figure out how to turn the car around.
The minutes ticked by as we looked for exits, all the while getting further from Belfast and closer to Dublin. The one thing that couldn’t possibly have helped us in that situation was going faster in the same direction. We had to turn around. Jesus’s solution to the problem of God’s judgment is radical. It’s not: “Improve your behavior.” Instead, it’s: “See God for who he really is and change your entire direction.” Obedience will (and must) follow.
Even after conversion, Jesus’s followers all too frequently struggle to see God as glorious and desirable, and to orient our lives fully toward him. We’re tempted every day in a thousand different directions. Therefore, we must constantly reorient ourselves back toward God, seeing him anew and pursuing him afresh. As Martin Luther noted, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
Trying to do good won’t save us from God’s eternal judgment. Nor will feeling sorry for sin, or saying sorry for sin, or becoming a more moral person. Those are all important to do (and they all flow from true repentance), but, on their own, none go deep enough. We need to hear Jesus say again, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). We need to see the beauty and love and holiness of the Triune God, perceiving him as the Treasure he really is. We need to turn from the false promises of sin and aim our lives toward him. This is repentance — and this is life.