The message of John the Baptist was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15) or, as Luke puts it, "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3:3). After John was put in prison Jesus commenced His public ministry with the same message (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:14-15).
Thereafter the call to repent was a key feature of Jesus teaching. For example:
- "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32)
- "…unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:3,5)
- "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent … In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:7, 10)
- "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him" (Luke 17:3)
- "They [the Twelve] went out and preached that people should repent." (Mark 6:12)
In fact, as noted in a previous post about forgiveness, the Good News the disciples were commissioned to preach was one of repentance and forgiveness: "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).
It was also a key theme of the apostles’ preaching in Acts, starting with Peter’s Pentecost address: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
- "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19)
- "God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel" (Acts 5:31)
- "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30)
- "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21)
- "First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds." (Acts 26:20)
The writer to the Hebrews calls repentance a foundation (a "first principle"): "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God …" (6:1)
Peter says the antithesis of "perishing" is coming to repentance: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:9).
It’s clear enough that repentance is a foundation of Jesus’ and the apostles’ preaching, and therefore of Christianity. But what does it mean to repent?
There are three important Scriptures which reveal that human repentance is, in fact, initiated by God:
(1) When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." (Acts 11:18)
(2) "Those who oppose him [a servant of the Lord] he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim 2:25).
(3) "Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" (Romans 2:4)
These Scriptures show that repentance is not a precondition to God’s favour produced by human effort. It is a gift from God.