What Does Repentance Really Mean?

23 Sep

As I’ve been preparing for an upcoming preaching opportunity, I’ve been really helped by James Edwards’ commentary on Mark simply titled, The Gospel According to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary).

Among other things, he explains with great clarity and simplicity (something I am realizing is extremely hard to do) what it really means to repent. The reason I say “really” is because, in my experience growing up, this word “repentance” was reduced to something which, in my opinion, greatly diminished the meaning and power of what repentance really means, biblically.

Commenting on Mark 1:15, Edwards makes the following three observations about what repentance really means:

1. Repentance, according to the Gospel of Mark, essentially means “a turning away from sin.”

But before we go any further, the word “sin”, I feel, needs to be defined. More than just a simple breaking a list of impersonal rules (which it also is), sin – at its essence – is a radical and inescapable orientation toward the self that manifests itself in a destructive self-centeredness and self-reliance.

In other words, as I’ve heard John Stott put it, “the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God…” Rather than being satisfied with God and his plans and purposes for us, every single one of us now look to satisfy ourselves and what we want and what we desire.

And so, when we substitute ourselves for God, the practical effects of this is that we turn God and those around us (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, etc.) into either: (1) tools to get what we want or (2) obstacles to get rid of in order to get what we want.

Therefore, repentance, then, is firstly a confessing of our sin (read: sinful self-centeredness and self-reliance) and turning from it, acknowledging its repugnance, whatever form that sinful self-centeredness or self-reliance might take at that particular moment (e.g., snapping at a spouse, getting frustrated at God, taking advantage of customers, etc.).

2. Repentance also involves a turning to something, namely, the Gospel.

Essentially, if one turns from something (in this case sinful self-centered-ness and self-reliance), then, by definition, they are turning to something else. And rather than leaving us confused about what that “something else” is, Jesus tells us exactly what that “something else” we turn to should be.

Immediately after he commands us to repent (read: turn from our sinful self-centered-ness and self-reliance, whatever form it might take at that moment), he commands us to “believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Edwards writes the following, commenting on this verse:

If repentance denotes that which one turns from, belief denotes that which one turns tothe gospel.

This is huge because (again, in my experience), this word “repentance” stopped with #1. That is, when someone told me to “repent,” essentially, what they were telling me to do was to “Stop your sinning!” – full stop. And, by doing so, it only served to exacerbate my sinful, self-reliance even more because it gave the impression that I needed to stop sinning… “or else.” In other words, there was no offer of hope.

But, what others neglect to give us, Jesus gives in full measure – to the point of death. Knowing that we can’t help but be sinfully self-centered and self-relying, rather than simply telling us to stop our sinning (as if we could), he offered (and continues to offer) hope.

Essentially, he says: “Yes, turn from your sinful, self-centered-ness and self-reliance… and turn to and trust in the fact that I have lived the perfect life you can’t live, died the death that you should have died, and after three days was bodily raised again to prove just how good and true this good news really is.”

3. Repentance (and trust in the Gospel) is a continuous lifestyle rather than a one-time event.

Again, I’m relying heavily on my experience growing up, but repentance seemed to only be emphasized as a singular moment (i.e., when someone was accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord). But, Edwards explains the following:

Both verbs in Greek (“repent” and “believe”) are present imperatives, that is, they enjoin living in a condition of repentance and belief as opposed to momentary acts. Repentance and belief cannot be applied to certain areas of life but not to others; rather, they lay claim to the total allegiance of believers.

Essentially, echoing the words of Martin Luther in the first of his 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

So, then, practically, what does this look like? Every time I get short with Linda because, by her speech or conduct, she hinders me from getting what I want (e.g., respect, peace and quiet, etc.) and the Holy Spirit is kind enough to convict me of it, then I am to turn from this foolish attempt to place myself at the center of the universe (repent) and turn to and rest in the fact that Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection has turned God from a wrathful judge who condemns me to a loving father who encourages me (believe).

Every time I get frustrated when something in my life doesn’t go according to my plans, I am to turn from this foolish attempt to place myself at the center of the universe (repent) and turn to and rest in the fact that Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection has turned God from a wrathful judge who condemns me to a loving father who encourages me (believe).

And so on and so on, it goes. There is so much hope in repentance.


2 Responses to “What Does Repentance Really Mean?”


  1. One of the Most Overlooked Aspects of Sin: Autonomous Human Reasoning (Part 2) | One Pilgrim's Progress - October 11, 2011

    […] is, apart from the Holy Spirit mercifully awakening us to our radical sinful self-centeredness to repent and believe in the Gospel, we will continue to try an understand God’s world without subjecting ourselves to […]

  2. How to Lovingly Guide Those Who are Struggling with Condemnation as a Result of Doubts | One Pilgrim's Progress - October 18, 2011

    […] the others (e.g., lust, anger, etc.)? Is it not possible that God’s call for all to live a lifestyle of repentance and belief in the Gospel (Mk 1:15) includes doubt? I believe so. Otherwise, what we communicate to those who struggle with […]

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