December 2, 2020

Repent It Forward

Advent season was designed to be a season for repentance, which begs questions like, “What is repentance?” or “How do I repent?” and “How does repentance prepare me for Jesus’ coming?”

Sometimes when I hear about repentance, I don’t hear much grace and I don’t see much Jesus. It’s more about examining myself, focusing on and correctly identifying my sins, learning to mourn over them and despise them, and submitting to disciplines that help me mortify them.

On a congregational level, calls for repentance often include exhortations to come back to the fold and submit oneself to the “boundary markers” that set that particular faith community apart. Repentance means stop trying to make it on your own and get back in the system.

Repentance was a primary provoking issue that led to the Protestant Reformation. Before his career as a reformer, nobody repented better than Martin Luther! He was a pro at it. He was so scrupulous about trying to scrub his inner life clean that his mentor had to tell him to go away and come back when he had some real sins to confess.

The freedom of the Gospel may never have been appreciated by anyone more than Luther, the meticulous monk whose religion was repentance. And that is why he became concerned about the abuses that the medieval church had accumulated around matters of repentance and absolution. That’s why when he took his hammer to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517, the subject of Luther’s 95 Theses was repentance. His first statement set the theme: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent”, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

Martin Luther was not saying that believers should never participate in special acts of penance such as the practice of confession and absolution with a minister, or the keeping of fasts or vigils (such as Advent or Lent). He was, however, saying that, at its root, repentance is a daily matter that is about the direction of our lives. It happens every day when we reenact our baptism: “[Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism).

Daily we die to sin, daily we rise to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4, 11).

By linking repentance with the sacrament of Baptism, Luther was saying something profound about the nature of repentance under the New Covenant in Jesus — repentance is the way forward, not the way back. Repentance leads us to the newness of the Gospel, not to the bondage of legalism, moralism, or self-preoccupied religion.

N.T. Wright has clarified Jesus’ teaching on repentance in Jesus and the Victory of God. He notes that the wider Jewish notion of repentance in Jesus’ day was “what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end,” and if her fortunes are to be restored at last. The call to “repent” would have had two emphases:

  • It was an eschatological call — calling Israel to recognize the great moment in time in which she found herself. Jesus did not come as a moralistic reformer calling Israel to look back to the Law and mend their ways so that they could return to a more perfect legal obedience under the old covenant. Rather, he came as the designated Messiah, calling the people to recognize him as the Promised One inaugurating the reign of God among men. The invitation to “repent” then, means to recognize the turning of the ages and enter the new creation in which “old things have gone, and look — everything has become new!” (2Cor 5:17, Kingdom NT).
  • It was also a political call — Jesus invited Israel “to abandon one set of agendas and embrace another.” He not only called individuals to repent, but also keepers of the religious system and the political leaders of Israel. To “repent” meant to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law, the Temple, and the sacrificial system, and to put trust in him rather than in those old covenant institutions. It meant to acknowledge Jesus as the King who overcomes evil with good and not with violence or rebellion. It meant to recognize him as the new Moses, who delivers his people from slavery and leads them to the Promised Land under a new covenant of love not law, one written on the heart not tablets of stone.

One important Old Testament word signifying repentance is the word shüb (pronounced shoov), which means to “return.” Before the exile the prophets used this word to call Israel back to the observance of the Law. For example, this classic passage in Hosea 14:1-3 —

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
   for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you
   and return to the Lord;
say to him,
   ‘Take away all guilt;
accept that which is good,
   and we will offer
   the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
   we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, “Our God”,
   to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.’

Hosea was calling Israel to repent. But this message was in Old Testament, pre-exilic terms. He was calling the nation to “return,” to “go back” to the ways set forth by God’s Law. The final verse in this passage affirms: “For the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.” (14:9) The prophet appealed to the nation to abandon the ways of the “transgressor” and take up the path of the “upright” once more. He was exhorting them to forsake their idols and return to obedience to the First Commandment. He rebuked them for putting their trust in Assyria or military might to protect them and challenged them to take refuge in the same Lord who had delivered them from Pharaoh and so many other foes over the course of their history.

Hosea and the other pre-exilic prophets were trying to save Israel from exile and destruction by calling them back to the Law, back to the Sabbath, back to the Temple, back to the sacrifices, holidays, and feasts, back to Moses, back to Mt. Sinai, back to the words inscribed on stone by the finger of God.

With the exile, the message changed direction and began pointing to the future.

Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

• Isaiah 55:3-7

Isaiah’s “return” to the Lord is not a call to return to the past — it’s more like “back to the future.” It’s a return to the God who is doing something new. He is making an everlasting covenant. The promises God made to David are being established. A king is coming who will rule over all the peoples, all nations. There will be mercy and pardon for all.

It is this second part of Isaiah that caught John the Baptizer’s imagination when he came on the scene to “prepare the way” (Isa. 40) for Jesus. And so, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4-5).

John’s words and actions were all forward-looking. He called his fellow Israelites to repentance and baptized them in the Jordan River. Why? It is likely his actions were meant to portray a new entrance into the Promised Land. As Joshua led God’s redeemed people through the waters of Jordan from the wilderness of exile, so John invited Israel to leave behind the wilderness of their spiritual exile and wash themselves in Jordan’s waters so that they might enter into the place of God’s blessing. And then he pointed to the One who was coming to bring forgiveness and the renewing of the Holy Spirit — the hallmarks of the promised New Covenant.

  • The pre-exilic prophets had called Israel to die to the “new” — idols, trust in military alliances, ways of living and leading that they learned from the nations — and to come back to the “old” — the Law, the Temple, the sacrifices, the feasts.
  • Now John (and following him, Jesus), in a climactic message springing from the exilic and post-exilic prophets, called Israel to die to the “old” — the entire Old Covenant way that Israel had failed to follow — and to embrace the “new” — the Messiah who would succeed where Israel failed, the inauguration of God’s reign on earth, the Word of the Gospel, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the formation of God’s new community.

Understanding this throws a brighter light on “repentance” for me.

For a believer in Jesus, repentance is not a matter of “going back.” Instead, when we repent by reliving our baptism each day by dying to sin and rising again in Jesus, we awake to continual newness of life.

New covenant repenting is not about putting ourselves back under rules, obligations, requirements — “old” style ways calling us to “live for God” and be his light to the nations. Repentance in this new era is about turning our back on self-generated religion and spirituality, on the rules and boundary markers we put in place to define ourselves as “in” and others as “out,” on the kinds of moralism and separatism by which we set ourselves apart from “sinners” and fail to live from transformed hearts of love.

Repentance must never be construed in any way that ends up with us reverting to a position that puts us “under a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

Repentance in Jesus is well described by the prayer of confession we speak in our weekly service at my church: “For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways. For the glory of your holy name. Amen.”

Forgive us, yes. But then, bring us even further into the newness of life in Christ, Lord. And lead us — lead us forward, lead us onward, lead us to Jesus.

This is one reason I think Advent as a season of repentance can be so powerful.

In our repentance we are looking forward, anticipating the newness, on the lookout for Jesus.

Repentance is an act of preparation for what is to come, not a return to what was before.


  1. Thanks, Mike. Very helpful.

  2. I have always envisioned repentence as being deeply regretful of letting down someone you love dearly. I had a nightmare last week that seemed to embody that feeling. In the dream, I had been wildly unfaithful to my young husband, running off to a “Woodstock” type festival and leaving him back on duty and in uniform. When I was found and returned to him, it was decided that he be banished for being associated with me, effectively taking away his livelihood as well as my devotion.

    In the dream, he stood back and looked at me with such love, pain, forgiveness and confusion that I threw myself to the ground.

    Even when I first woke, my first thought was “that is how Christ would look at a sinner like me”. I am glad that this was just a dream and my failings as a wife have been much more mundane and innocent, but at the same time I want to live my life so that I never see that look on His perfect Face when I leave this world.

    • wow! what a dream! when both the visual representations in a vivid dream along with their associated emotions are so sharp & remembered, i would say that yes, it was one of divine origin & not just the pizza eaten the night before…

      i dream multiple dreams every night. various scenarios play out in the dream state that have repeated themes, but mostly in that weird dream arrangement where things can be a truly mixed bag of settings…

      however, there have been maybe half-a-dozen very vivid dreams i have had that still have divine fingerprints all over them. not nighmares at all, but powerful insights with very obvious spiritual parallels…

      simply insight stuff. not future happening things, simply a peek behind the veil to ‘see’ with spiritual eyes what the natural eye could not perceive…

      amazing thing dreams. and the one you have recounted is very significant…

  3. “Repentance must never be construed in any way that ends up with us reverting to a position that puts us “under a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)”

    It seems to me that so much of religion does just that. Turns everything in on ‘us’. Puts us at the center, and moves Jesus and His great love for sinners to the edges.

    Repentance is a realization that we can’t. But that He can, and does, and already did…for us.

  4. “The invitation to ‘repent’ then, means to recognize the turning of the ages and enter the new creation in which ‘old things have gone, and look — everything has become new!’ ”

    I love this. Now, if only I can REMEMBER this!

  5. This post is rich and deep. “Thanks” seems so puny, but I’m all out of frank-in-cents and myrrh (those scrabble words…..aaaarrgh). This topic is NOT handled well in my neighborhood, last week it was Malachi 3 and tithing, oooh my…. These words are a great early Christman present, thanks Chap Mike.

    Reminder to self: let the new covenant/testament interpret the old….rinse and repeat…


  6. Another wonderful post, CM. There’s no other comment I can add.

  7. Danielle79 says

    Hey, thanks for another interesting and timely post. I’ve been working my way through some of Paul’s letters this past month. On this go (it’s been a while), I am quite aware of my familiar Reformation heritage of reading Romans as a discourse on the futility of “works” (“things we do to become righteous before God”) and the potency of “faith.” But I am far more aware this time around that letter primarily about something closer to this question: How are God’s covenant promises to Israel being fulfilled? Reading the letters through that lens could reinforce some answers I am familiar with. Then again, perhaps posing this question sends one toward other implications. And so I’ve commenced some reflection (yay!) and old-fashioned worrying (boo!). And hoping that a bit of wonder, fear and anticipation may, in some way, be an appropriate way to spend my Advent.

    Anyway. not knowing exactly what to do next, I decided it might be time to read N.T. Wright since he’s so well-verses on the first-century and has a book conveniently titled “Justification.” So just last night I downloaded it to my Kindle. And viola, this morning, here some goodies from one of Wright’s other books!

    So, thanks monastery writers. A lot of it turns out to be relevant to what I’m struggling with. I’m sure that is the same for others.

  8. “Repentance is an act of preparation for what is to come, not a return to what was before.”

    Wow. Just — wow. This one’s going to keep me busy thinking all day. Thanks for putting it so succinctly, CM.

  9. What a beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you!

    In the barren wilderness and deserts of our lives – that’s where God shows up and baptizes us into a new life in Him! That’s the way He likes to work. In our brokenness and shattered dreams, God instills His Spirit within us. Jesus shows us the way. The Holy Spirit is our great comforter and constant companion. Our Father pours out His Spirit on those who cry out to Him in helplessness. What a wondrous God we have!

    “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior…” (Lk 1.46-47)

    Peace, Brian

  10. David Cornwell says

    In the past I thought that repentance was an act that one must go through in order to be saved. So if one wasn’t sufficiently repentant then salvation could not be found. As time goes by I’ve realized that repentance may happen to an extent before one becomes a Christian, but in point of fact more repentance happens after that point in time (which I’ve come to question also) but will happen on a daily basis. Now I realize that the repentance we bring with us to Christ may be very shallow, but that after walking with Him for a while, we will realize that in some ways, this or that, we have not repented at all or very shallowly. And as mentioned above, it will involve the giving up of our idols and those things, other than Christ, that we’ve learned to depend on. It may involve whole processes of thought, preconceived interpretations, political systems, dependencies, or something else that has defined us and to which we will cling for dear life. At first it may scare us, but realizing that the grace of Christ can free us of all this, then it becomes a precious liberty, that can be found in Him alone.

  11. A lot to ponder here. Repentance is both old and new and I tend to think we (I) do tend to focus on the old just as the OT folks did. Conceptuually, it is also both past, present and future. And here again, we can tend to focus on present looking back or returning vs. present looking forward in Christ but in light of the eternal work of Christ. It is an openess to the coming of the Spirit into our lives afresh to lead us in repentance today as we are moving forward. Repentance is like the mystery of eternally now. It is akin to Paul’s description of the Lord’s supper. The cup that we celebrate today (present), we do so in remembrance (past) as we look forward to his coming (future).

  12. Sometimes repentance takes place even in the midst of sin. It’s about where the eyes of our hearts are. The sooner we begin to fix our gaze on Him, the sooner we are moving forward. That can only be done through mercy and grace. When we offend each other there is first the question of whether we will be forgiven and then a span of time where the forgiver must work up the mental space to forgive. That might be 2 minutes or 2 years. Because of that we think that God has the same time rules but basically every second of life spent with our eyes averted from Christ our redemption, is a wasted second. Rejoice in the Lord always might also be stated ‘Repent in the Lord always’. Rejoice always, give thanks in everything. Those are spiritual admonitions not high school cheers. FIXING our eyes on Him means throwing off the chains and embracing salvation.

  13. Like so many of your posts, CM, this one clearly and more deeply puts into words something that I have stumbled to express many times. There is much to ponder and appreciate. Thank you.

    Bottom line for me is the realization that repentence is much more than an act; it is a way of being, an orientation if you will. It is part of who we are as transformed people, both living in and looking forward to the present and coming kingdom of Jesus.

    But it’s very hard to express this to the many people who are the busines of repentence as mere sin management.

  14. thanks for this post. It’s important for youth to know that repentence is more than just sin management…it’s one of the reasons i stopped attending youth. Topics that never came up were meaningful repentence & grace(mentiond like once a year). Repentence doesn’t equal sin management. Its alot closer to life itself in terms of equality. The life of looking ahead towards christ , as he throws lightening bolts of grace towards you.

    • No kidding…youth group, in my experience, was some goofy game followed by exhortations to keep our pants on until we got married.

  15. Leaving aside the references to sacraments and faith communities (which are entirely beside the point), I loved this expression of the nature, importance, and scope of repentance. Truly, we are to live lives of repentance -and this is seldom proclaimed – at least in the U.S.

    What would happen if every person who has made a commitment to Jesus Christ were to live from this moment forward with the constant awareness of Jesus watching every thought, word, and deed?

  16. Kerri in AK says

    “What would happen if every person who has made a commitment to Jesus Christ were to live from this moment forward with the constant awareness of Jesus watching every thought, word, and deed?”

    And then knowing that he loves us truly, deeply, unbelievably despite or inspite of our brokenness, unfaithfulness, and willfulness? *That* is what brings me to contrition and repentence; that I am not in the least bit worthy but it doesn’t matter because I am a precious child of God. All I can and want to do is keep turning around and coming into his presence with nothing but my plea “have pity on me, a poor sinner” and being forgiven over and over and over and over. Seventy times seven or seven thousand times seven hundred. Always. What joy to be loved so much!