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Repentance from our Unbelief

Repentance from our Unbelief

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” —Mark 1:15

Repentance has a significant place and should not be underestimated in the life of a Christian. The ministry of John the Baptist was characterized by “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). When Jesus began His earthly prophetic ministry, His message was simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:15; Matthew 3:2). The question, therefore, that we must ask is this: “What does it mean to repent, and why is it important?”

Change of Mind

The Evangelical tradition, with its emphases on instantaneous conversion and the transformed lifestyle, defines repentance primarily from a moralistic perspective. We have often heard preachers use the analogy of turning around 180 degrees from our life of sin to a life in God. Paul’s admonition against using our bodies as instruments of wickedness easily comes to mind (Romans 6:13). As people who have been freed from sin, we are called to become “slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). However, the change of lifestyle expected of us may properly be referred to as “fruit of repentance” (Matthew 3:8) but not actual repentance itself.

The Nazarene Manual defines repentance as “a sincere and thorough change of mind in regard to sin.” This definition is accurate to the Greek term used for repentance—metanoia—which literally means “change of mind.” To understand this, we need to look at the New Testament, particularly the messages and teachings of Jesus within the first century Jewish contexts.

For some first century Jews, Kingdom and political aspirations went together. These people, who had been oppressed for several centuries already, developed a longing for political freedom so that they might experience what it meant to be the people of God in the land promised to them. Unfortunately, their means toward achieving this freedom included legalistic separationism and violent militarism on the two ends of the spectrum. N. T. Wright argues that Jesus’ message of repentance was a call “to give up their whole way of life, their national and social agendas, and to trust Him for a different agenda, a different set of goals.”1

This means that Jesus’ call to repentance was a call for His followers to change their minds about their assumed identity, rights, and calling. They also needed to change their thinking about what true salvation meant and how it might be achieved.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly said, “You have heard it said…, but I tell you…” This is also a message of repentance. Jesus was telling them that their understanding of what Yahweh demands from them, based on their interpretation of the law, was wrong. Their interpretation of the law led to legalism. Jesus was calling them to a new way of life characterized by truth instead of falseness, forgiveness instead of retribution, love instead of callousness, and righteousness instead of self-righteousness.

Sin and Personal Guilt

Jesus’ message of repentance was definitely hard for some of the Jews to swallow. Their ways of life had been forged by countless years of indoctrination. Their social and religious laws emerged out of their desire not to repeat the sins of their ancestors that led to the Babylonian exile. Jesus faced resistance, especially from the ruling classes, because He was challenging them head on. How could an ordinary man from Nazareth, a worthless town, have the audacity to challenge the practiced Jewish way of faith and life?

Those who did not follow Jesus after hearing His word struggled with unbelief. This was displayed in the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees in John 8:12-59. The dichotomy of self-assurance and belief in Jesus is important in our discussion of repentance.

First, repentance requires our acknowledgement as sinners fallen short of the glory of God. This was one of the things that the Hebrew people, at times, refused to do. What is intriguing is that John the Baptist’s call to repentance was directed to the Jews, the people of God! If baptism was primarily for proselyte Gentiles who wished to join the Jewish faith, then John the Baptist was essentially saying that the people of God must repent in order to become the true people of God!2 They had to realize who they were in their sin and change their minds about their identity. The implication for us is clear: unless there is personal sense of guilt about our sin, repentance will not follow.

Repentance means changing our minds about ourselves.

Paul taught this, too: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). 

Second, repentance requires an “I believe” in Jesus Christ as God’s instituted means of salvation. It is to believe in Him as the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5) and to accept Him as the Lord and Savior. In the words of Karl Barth, it involves trust, which is “the act in which a man may rely on the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds and that what He demands He demands with necessity.”3 It entails not only an admittance of our incapability to save ourselves but also our complete reliance on Jesus to redeem us from our present abject condition and uncertain future.

To sin, therefore, is to be faithless. On the one hand, sin is unbelief that one is a sinner. On the other hand, and as a consequence of the former, sin is unbelief in the necessity of God and His power to forgive sins. To sin is to not feel personal guilt due to lack of awareness of wrongdoings, or it is the conscious rejection of the conviction that one is engaged in wrongdoings. Barth may be right in saying that the root of sin is essentially unbelief. He writes, “Man sins in that he rejects the confidence that God is the source of all goodness and good to man, that the right which God demands from him is that which alone is right for himself.”4

Glorious Freedom

Repentance requires the enabling work of the Holy Spirit in persons. Jesus spelled this clearly in John 16:8-11. When the Spirit comes, Jesus said, “he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” Notice that the conviction about sin is again related to people’s unbelief in Jesus. The role of the Spirit is to glorify Jesus in the world (John 16:14) by convicting people about His identity as the Son sent into the world and who has returned to the Father. To believe this truth is righteousness. Moreover, the role of the Spirit is to convict the world about judgment.

Repentance does not only entail a change of mind about ourselves and about Jesus Christ; it also entails a change of mind about sin and its effect on humanity. Repentance entails the assurance that upon putting our faith in Jesus Christ, not only is our personal guilt removed and our sins washed, but we have also received a new spiritual life of freedom from bondage and victory over temptations.

Repentance, therefore, has a prospective importance. It involves a change of mind about how we should act in the world as people who have been forgiven, who trust in Jesus Christ, and who are free from the bondage of evil.

When Pharisees and Sadducees went to where Jesus was baptizing, He addressed them harshly, saying: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matthew 3:8-9). True repentance effects change in both our beliefs and actions. Transformation happens in the renewal of our minds, enabling us to no longer conform to the patterns of this world but to obey God’s pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).

Dick Eugenio (PhD) is academic dean at Asia-Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary and discipleship coordinator for the Philippine-Micronesia Field.

1. Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 27.

2. Thomas F. Torrance, “The Origins of Baptism,” Scottish Journal of Theology 11 (1958), 158-171.

3. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 18.

4. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 414.


Holiness Today, November/December 2020

Please note: This article was originally published in 2020. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.