What comes to mind when you hear the word “repent”? I see a tall thin man with a long gray beard dressed in a dirty burlap sack hoisting a ragged placard that reads “Turn or Burn.” That’s what I saw through the back window of the family sedan every time we went downtown LA when I was a kid to pick up my dad from work. Pershing Square right across the street from my dad’s office building was crowded with characters like this back in the day, and it was always with a mixture of fear and fascination that I looked out at them as we drove slowly by. In my mind repentance was something eccentric demanded by misfits and addressed to deadbeats. Nobody from my world – the respectable world of cub scouts and little league, swimming pools and manicured lawns – had any need for, or interest in, repentance. So, imagine my surprise when I, a good church kid, opened up a Bible one day and read the very first words that Jesus Christ spoke in the Gospel of Mark – “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; Repent…” (Mark 1:15).
“It’s his most consistent message,” Frederica Mathewes-Green writes. “In all times and in every situation, His advice is to repent” (37). This explains why eight times in the seven letters to the troubled churches of Asia Minor with which the book of Revelation begins, the Risen Christ says “repent.” Revelation 3:1-6 is one of those letters, the letter from the Risen Christ to the church at Sardis, and “repent,” the Risen Christ told them, “because I am coming to you like a thief in the night” (3:3).
The Greek word for repentance – “metanoia” – means a transformation of the mind, whereby greater clarity and insight are obtained. It doesn’t refer to emotion. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2)…. Repentance is insight not emotion. (Mathewes-Green)
Repentance literally means “think things over again, prayerfully, carefully,” which is why the Protestant Reformation began with a call to repentance. We officially mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to the moment when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. That was October 31, 1517. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther telling the church of his day that there were 95 things that he, on the basis of his study of Scripture, thought that they needed to talk about, and the first one was about repentance. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17),” the first of the 95 Theses reads, “he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
In the book of the Hebrew Prophet Amos there’s a famous vision of a plumb line (7:7-9). Builders use plumb lines to keep their work straight. A plumb line is just a cord with a weight attached to the end of it. When the cord is held so that the weight can hang free, it becomes a low-tech tool for determining whether or not what you are building is straight. Amos was a prophet sent by to Israel in the middle of the eighth century BC with the word that judgment was coming because they were “selling the righteous for silver, and they were trampling the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and they were pushing aside the needy at the gate” (2:6-8). In other words, things had become crooked. God had told His people very clearly how He wanted them to treat each other, and especially the poor. All of this was spelled out in the Law, but Israel was ignoring it. And so God showed Amos a plumb line, and God told Amos that it would be by the measure of His Word that He would soon judge Israel.
500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg he was telling the church that he believed that it had become crooked too. And the plumb line that Martin Luther used to take the measure of the church was the Bible. Using the standard of God’s Word, the faith and practice of the church is constantly being measured, and when the gap between what the Bible says and what the church does becomes wide enough, that’s when we’ve got to repent. That’s where we’ve got to rethink things and start to make some changes.
Ask someone today about what they know of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and what you’re likely to hear is something about how we baptize and how often we observe the Lord’s Supper. As Alexander Campbell put it long ago, if we were going to be “conspicuous” for anything as a Movement, it is was going to be for the attention that we paid to the Apostolic form and content of the Gospel ordinances. And what I find fascinating about this is that we didn’t start out as a church that baptized by immersion. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were both baptized as infants. Infant baptism was the unquestioned form of baptism that they both knew, experienced, and practiced. But in 1809 they left the Presbyterian Church and started a Movement with slogans like, “We speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” Some members of their new Association were Biblically literate enough to know that “speaking where the Bible speaks” on baptism would have some serious implications for how they would baptize. They knew that when “the Bible speaks” about baptism that it speaks about believer’s baptism by immersion and not about infant baptism by pouring or sprinkling. But when they raised the question, Thomas Campbell was not prepared “to make an issue of it” (Short 27)… yet. It wasn’t until 1812, when Alexander Campbell became a father for the very first time, that Baptism became an issue for us. Upon the birth of his child, Alexander Campbell began a serious study of baptism in the New Testament, “and he finally concluded that he had not in fact been scripturally baptized.” And so he immediately made arrangements to be immersed by a Baptist preacher, and he was joined in the waters by his wife, his parents, a sister, and two other members of the Brush Run Church.
This couldn’t have been easy for any of them. To change a settled and cherished practice, something that you have always seen and done, and been told is right and true, requires a special kind of spiritual courage, a willingness to subject what you believe and what you do to the scrutiny of the Scriptures. This is the kind of repentance that Martin Luther called for when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, a prayerful and careful rethinking of things as a prelude to substantive and faithful change. When the Canadian theologian John Stackhouse wants to help his students understand what the Bible means by repentance, he tells them this story –
Suppose we intend to drive from San Francisco, in northern California, to San Diego, in the far south. I insist on driving, since I’ve actually visited San Francisco once or twice and I never, ever get lost. You graciously concede the wheel, and off we go. The miles and hours go by. You begin to feel uneasy, however, when we pass what looks for all the world like a sign welcoming us to state of Oregon. I insist that “Oregon” must be a region of California, and that Los Angeles surely must be coming up soon. As we drive through Portland, however, you are convinced I am heading in exactly the wrong direction. And as the Washington state line comes up, you become rather insistent on the point. In fact, you want very much to convert me to your opinion. What is it, exactly, that you want when you want me to convert?
First, you want me to recognize my error. I can’t take any further steps until I have agreed that I am, in fact, heading north instead of south. But let’s suppose I do that—“Yes, by golly, this sure looks a lot more like Pacific rain forest than Californian coastland!”—and yet I don’t care. “Hey, Washington is a beautiful place, too. Almost as nice as British Columbia!” Surely true repentance is what you seek from me. Merely recognizing my mistake is not enough. I must regret that mistake. “I’m heading in the wrong direction, and I’m sorry.” Then I must take further action. I must abandon the path I’m on (taking the next exit ramp); turning the car around by crossing over to the other side on the bridge; and get a new start (by getting on the entrance ramp in the opposite direction). Suppose I do all this. Are you now satisfied? Have I fully converted? No. Not until I drive us all the way to San Diego, which was the objective of the exercise. It’s good that I’m properly reoriented. In fact, that binary move is indeed the essential move that has to be made if I’m first heading in the wrong direction. But turning around is not enough. Getting to the goal is all or nothing; …I’m not there until I’m there. (75)
This is the journey that the Risen Christ told the church in Sardis that they needed to undertake. They were heading in the wrong direction, and so the Risen Christ told them that they needed stop, turn around, and start heading in the opposite direction. In the Risen Christ’s word to the church in Sardis we are given a road map to the renewal of the church in every age and place – “Remember what you received and heard; obey it, and repent” (3:3).
“Remember what you have received and heard…”
Timothy George is the Dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. A church historian who has concentrated his lifetime of research and writing on the Reformation, Dr. George has a painting of William Tyndale hanging in his office. William Tyndale is the Father of the English Bible. He as the first person to translate the New Testament into English. As Steve Lawson puts it, if you own, read, or preach from an English Bible, then you are standing on William Tyndale’s shoulders. The painting of William Tyndale in Dr. George’s office shows him holding a copy of his Bible in one hand and pointing at it with the index finger of his other hand. Dr. George says that this image captures for him the essence of the Protestant Reformation. When he spoke to preachers, Walter Kaiser, the former President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, would often tell them that they should never remove their hand from the Bible. If gesturing with your right hand, keep your left hand on your Bible, he’d say. And if gesturing with your left hand, then keep your right hand on your Bible. “A preacher should always be pointing to the Scriptures,” he said. And so should the church. In one of his recent books, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, the first thing Dr. George did was to quote G.R. Elton, an earlier Reformation historian, who said that – “If there is a single thread running through the whole story of the Reformation, it is the explosive and renovating and often disintegrating effect of the Bible” (11). It’s because the Bible is the tool that the Holy Spirit uses to speak to our heads and our hearts, bringing us to repentance and faith, both as individuals and as a church, that we need to “remember what we have received and heard.” This is the first life-giving instruction that the Risen Christ gave to the church at Sardis – Return to My Word. The other two life-giving instructions that the Risen Christ gave to the church concern what we need to do with His Word once we have returned to it.
In a prayer of confession that I frequently pray, I tell God that I am habitually guilty of at least two things – I “leave undone the things that I ought to have done,” and I “have done the things that I ought not to have done.” My life is littered with sins of omission and sins of commission. The second life-giving instruction that the Risen Christ gave to His church in Revelation 3:3 about what to do with His Word once it has been heard and received again is to “obey it.” This is how we deal with the way that we leave undone the things that we ought to have done. Just do it. As A.W. Tozer said in his sermon on the “Fruits of Obedience” –
“Just do the next thing you know you should do to carry out the will of the Lord. If there is sin in your life, quit it instantly. Put away lying, gossiping, dishonesty or whatever your sin may be. Forsake worldly pleasures, extravagance in spending, vanity in dress, in your home. Get right with any person you may have wronged. Forgive everyone who may have wronged you. Begin to use your money to help the poor and advance the cause of Christ. Take up the Cross and live sacrificially. Pray, attend the Lord’s services. Witness for Christ, not only when it is convenient but when you know you should. Look to no cost and fear no consequences. Study the Bible to learn the will of God and then do His will as you understand it. Start now by doing the next thing, and then go on from there.”
If obedience is how we deal with the way that we leave undone the things that we ought to have done, then repentance is how we deal with the way that we do things that we ought not to have done. This is the third life-giving instruction from the Risen Christ to His church in Revelation 3:3 –
A few years ago at the church I was serving the ministers all read a book together about worship. It was full of good ideas about how to worship in ways that make sense to people today. Since we wanted to do that better as a church, we found the book to be helpful, all except for one thing. At the very end of it the author said that a good worship service will always leave people feeling happy. Well, C.S. Lewis said – “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” The invitation to worship that I heard every Sunday morning at the church my family attended when I was growing up said –
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…
I don’t need the church to be the tunnel of cheery affirmation that I see parents form on the field at the end of my grandboys soccer games. I don’t come to worship to be told that I’m great when I know that I’m not. No, what I need is an opportunity every week to sit under the Word so that it can confront and correct me, and to sit at the Lord’s Table where I can be assured of God’s grace for me in Jesus Christ, and to be commissioned as an agent of God’s grace for others in the coming week.
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Those were the very first words of the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door. These were the words that launched the Protestant Reformation. Are they still relevant?
Hold the world up to the measure of God’s Word.
Hold the church up to the measure of God’s Word.
Hold your own life up to the measure of God’s Word.
Where there are gaps between what the Bible says and what you see in the world, in the church, and in our lives is where the work of Reformation must be done. The gaps expose the places were repentance is required. The gaps mean that there are some things that need to be rethought, there are changes that need to be made.
The difference between you and me,” John Stott said Luther told Erasmus, the humanist scholar, “is that you sit above Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” Sitting under Scripture, and letting it judge us is the trigger for Reformation, it’s the posture of Repentance. DBS+