What Does ‘Repentance’ Mean?
By Rev. Paul J. Bern
Having spent last week commenting on politics as it applies to Christianity, it has come to my attention that more of my readers want me to focus on preaching and teaching the Word to the very best of my ability (so help me God) and a little less on the political stuff. So this week – after all, I work constantly at being a better listener – I’m going to write about repentance and what it means in a Biblical context. I have chosen repentance as a topic because I don’t think there are enough pastors talking about this topic on Sunday morning, or any other for that matter. I’m seeing too much sugar-coated feel-good Christianity and insufficient genuine teaching on how to remain a Christian once one commits their life and faith to Jesus Christ. Anyone can profess their faith in Christ, you can even call yourself an ‘apostle’, ‘bishop’ or ‘evangelist’, or most any other title, but if we’re not living our faith, our words – no matter how many – have no real meaning. As Jesus once said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will see the kingdom of God”.
Repentance simply means to have a change of heart and a renewal of the mind. It means that while we were once acting in a negative, destructive and self-centered ways, we are now conducting ourselves in a positive and uplifting manner that benefits others first and ourselves second, or third if you’re raising kids. Can we do this by ourselves? How about with the help of others? The answer to both questions is no. The simple fact is that nobody in and of their natural selves can be nice to everybody all of the time. And then there are those who simply refuse to be nice to anybody, but that’s a separate topic. The only way we as humans can accomplish this is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Can the Holy Spirit come in and dwell within anyone’s heart on his own volition? No, because Jesus is always the perfect gentleman. He never forces his way into anyone’s heart. We have to ask Him. If we have never asked Jesus to come and live in our hearts before, he’s not yet there. But if we ask Him to come in and make his home within us, not only will he take great pleasure in doing exactly that, Jesus stays there for our entire lifetime on this planet. Jesus stays with his children like a doting parent until it’s time for us to go and meet the Father and to live forever with his Son.
How is all this accomplished? It starts with a simple prayer: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a sinner because of my lack of commitment to you, as well as because of certain bad things I have done in my past. I’m really sorry I did all those things, and for not believing in you with all my heart, mind and soul. Please forgive me, Lord Jesus, and come into my heart to live forever. Let the indwelling of your Holy Spirit change me forever. Help me to better live the rest of my life for you as best as I can. In Jesus’ mighty name, amen.” For those reading this who have never given their lives to Christ before, pray the prayer I wrote above if you have not already done so. You have now professed your faith in Jesus Christ, who is God’s only Son, and you have basically dedicated the rest of your life to serving Him first before anything else. Does this mean we all have to become religious zealots now that we have done this? Not at all! Being religious means being an adherent to a set of beliefs, such as Catholicism, some of the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the other cult churches that are out there. Like it or not, too often there are certain religious people who follow a certain faith instead of the Man who was the very origin of it – Jesus Christ the Lord of all. Being a follower of Christ means we follow Him alone. We don’t follow the cult churches – and all denominations have elements of cultism within them to varying degrees. This is quite the contrary of what organized religion (‘Church, Inc.’) teaches, which is that they have the only correct answer when it comes to the interpretation of the Gospels. Yet I continue to insist that if everybody else is wrong but one, then no single church is completely correct in their interpretation of the Scriptures, starting with the four gospels. This is a regressive teaching, whereas what I teach as the Lord commands is progressive teaching. They are polar opposites of one another.
So after making our commitment to Christ, the next step is repentance. I’m going to use a small portion of Luke’s gospel today to illustrate what repentance actually means. For some people, it’s not going to be what you think. Let’s go straight to the Source for the answer to this question. “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me’, Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ They said to him, ‘John’s disciples always fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking’.” (Luke chapter 5, verses 27-35 NIV)
The first thing I want to point out is how Levi the tax collector reacted when Jesus called him. Let’s pause to get a clear picture of what’s going on here. Did Levi follow Jesus just because his mom and dad always taught him to ‘do as you’re told’? No, there was something intangible in Jesus’ voice that beckoned Matthew, or that attracted him to Jesus right from the start. The flavor of that moment has been lost to antiquity, but it can still be read in between the lines. When you prayed the prayer I composed earlier in this posting, I was beckoning you in the same way as Jesus did for Levi. We can all see what happened next. Levi was so ‘amped’ about his new calling that he threw a banquet for him and invited everybody he knew. But there is so much more to this, and it has to do with the way I’m defining repentance here through Levi’s actions. Levi was a tax collector. He had a function similar in some ways to the Internal Revenue Service that we have here in the US today. As the text says, Levi was sitting in his tax booth minding his own business when Jesus walked by and simply said ‘follow me’. Levi immediately got up and left his tax booth. He willingly walked away from what must have been a very successful career by modern standards. He wasn’t worried about losing his job. He didn’t get very concerned about walking away from his little one-man business. He didn’t care about the loss of income like we would today. Levi placed his complete faith and trust in Jesus, no questions asked. If Jesus returned today, I wonder how many would actually do that.
There is something else going on here that continues unabated in some churches to this very day – religious snobbery. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day literally thought they were better than the common folk because of their alleged religious superiority. Certain hyper-religious individuals that we have the misfortune of running into occasionally have no problem conveying their smugness and spiritual snobbery to anyone who has low enough self-esteem to listen to such nonsense. Just look at the Pharisee’s questions they were asking. Hey Jesus, how come you hang out with tax collectors? Other religious folks fast, so why don’t you? You appear to eat and drink to excess, don’t you see how bad that looks to us? Why do you talk to sinners (nonreligious people)? Jesus’ response is spot-on, as always: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus didn’t come to save the merciless, the arrogant, the conceited, or the snobbish. Jesus came to save those who were man enough – or woman enough – to admit they didn’t have all the answers! Jesus came for those who have come to the realization that they were sinners in need of real salvation. This salvation of the individual man or woman, as opposed to members of entire denominations, comes from a personal commitment to have a personal 1-on-1 relationship with Jesus Christ. He’s the Son of God sure enough, but Jesus also wants to be your best friend and confidant. The Pharisee’s response to this was to accuse Jesus and his disciples of eating and drinking excessively. It was easier for them to condemn than it was to consider Jesus’ words. There are churches today that are still the same way. Make no mistake – there will be no ‘holier-than-thou’s’ in heaven. God has a special place for those people to spend eternity in, and it won’t be paradise. So let’s all be sure and repent of our old ways and our sinful natures. It’s the first step after believing, and it’s how we get close to Jesus.