Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You’re driving down a road for a few minutes or longer, when all of a sudden you have an epiphany – you’re going the wrong way! “No!”
In a moment you turn around and get “on the way.” All is well with the world, at least as it pertains to that particular excursion in that particular moment in time.
In the spiritual realm, until that moment we trusted in Christ, we who know Him were all going the wrong way until we got on the right way – by following Jesus, who is The Way.
This turning or changing one’s mind from rejecting Jesus to receiving Jesus in simple terms is called “repentance.”
Jesus’ call to repent was at the core of His preaching. It is also a core principle in the gospel message. It is impossible to place one’s faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior without first changing one’s mind about who He is and what He has done.
At the very beginning of His public ministry, Jesus declared:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:15
And just before Jesus ascended into heaven, these instructions were part of His marching orders to the disciples:
“Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’” – Luke 24:46-47
For our simple purposes, we’re not talking about repentance associated with sanctification. Rather, we’re speaking specifically of repentance associated with salvation, entering into a relationship with the Lord.
Repentance includes a recognition of sin, a remorse over sin and receiving of Christ’s forgiveness of sin through His saving work, His death and resurrection, through faith in Him. For we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
It is crucially important that we understand repentance is not a work we do to earn salvation. No one can repent and come to God unless God draws that person to Himself (John 6:44). Acts 5:31 and 11:18 indicate that repentance is something God gives—it is only possible because of His grace. No one can repent unless God grants repentance. Salvation is a result of God drawing us, opening our eyes, and changing our hearts.
When I came to faith in December of 1987, I was literally born again on a St. Petersburg beach. Three months earlier, a man had shared the gospel with me on an airplane and challenged me to ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if Jesus is the Messiah. I prayed a prayer of faith that fateful September day after debarking, and God answered me in a most powerful way (Jeremiah 33:3).
You see, over those three months of seeking God, I was experiencing joy and peace with increasing intensity. But only upon that culminating moment on the beach did reality come into focus. For in a moment I realized that source of joy and peace was not coming from me, it was coming from God. Then in the next moment, I realized it was the Lord, and believed the gospel for the very first time. I thought, “It’s true, It’s all true!”, referring to the person and work of Jesus people had been sharing with me over the previous few years! Repentance! In a moment my mind changed. I was living in unbelief, yet searching for the truth, and in a moment the Lord revealed Himself to me, and I believed.
It was only after I came to faith that I had to come to terms with the consequence of belief, namely that Jesus is Lord, and I was commanded to follow Him whatever the cost!
The Apostle Paul was living in utter rebellion against the Lord, having persecuted the church. He had heard the gospel, at the very least from Stephen (Acts 6:8-8:1), whose martyrdom Paul had approved!
When Paul was converted in Acts 9:1-19, his repentance is striking. In a moment Saul experienced a change of mind, going from rejecting Jesus and persecuting His followers to believing the Lord and receiving His new marching orders!
How should our understanding of repentance affect our witness for Jesus?
First of all, it means we must share with people the bad news of man’s utter depravity and sinful condition in addition to sharing God’s grace found in the person and work of Christ.
If people don’t understand God’s condemnation of and judgement upon sin, they will not fully grasp His provision of salvation through Jesus!
We must make it clear that either we will pay the penalty for our own sin, which leads to hell, or we will trust in the work of Christ and His payment for our sins He accomplished on the cross, which leads to heaven.
The late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge put it this way: “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”
Nobody likes to be the object of criticism, but the truth remains. What should we do with this uncomfortable knowledge about our spiritual condition? Pride will attempt to reject and rationalize it away. Humility will receive it and confess it before God.
The Bible says, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up” (James 4:10), and, “He who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). We shouldn’t harbor illusions about the nature of the message and people’s response to it. Many will cringe and reject it; some will receive it and believe.
In my witnessing experiences, I’ve met people who clearly state they will never submit, serve or surrender to anyone, that anyone being Jesus! And I’ve also met people who say, “I’m good, I don’t need saving!” God will not and cannot save the unrepentant.
Jesus noted, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:30-32) and “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
God’s desire is for everyone to be saved. He pleads with people to trust in Him. He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), and He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
May we go forth, witnessing with the compassion of our Lord and in the power of the Holy Spirit, pleading with people to repent. For the Kingdom of God is at hand! Amen!