What do you think of when you hear the word “repentance”? Maybe you think of a child tearing up after you put them on a timeout… a husband buying flowers for his wife after an argument… or a wife apologizing for… well, actually… it’s never really her fault… but you get the idea…
I think we usually think of repentance in terms of feeling bad… feeling sorry… trying to make amends… make things right. Today though as we focus on God’s definition of repentance we’ll see that there’s more to it than just hanging your head in shame and trying to make up for your mistakes. In defining repentance for us God will open our eyes to the real ugliness of sin and the beauty of his grace.
And this message of repentance was what this man we heard about in the Gospel was proclaiming. John the Baptist was the last prophet God sent his people before the Savior arrived… and the Bible tells us that John was the greatest of all the prophets. Now this had nothing to do with John really… as you heard in Matthew’s account John wasn’t flashy… he wore simple clothes, ate simple food, he lived a simple life out in the wilderness.
Centuries before John lived another one of God’s prophets – Isaiah – would write about John’s ministry. He called him: A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ (Matthew 3:3). And this work of preparation was what John’s ministry was all about. God gave him the amazing privilege to live during the time when the Savior – the Lord Jesus himself – would arrive on this earth. This is why John was the greatest of the prophets – he not only pointed to Christ with his message, but he could point the people directly to Jesus. When Jesus came out to where John was preaching and baptizing John could literally point him out and say, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).
And it was precisely because Jesus was here on earth that John’s message of preparation was so urgent. The King of heaven had come to earth to save his people. But John knew that getting a palace or royal highway ready for Christ’s arrival was not what was needed. There was a much more important spiritual preparation that needed to take place. And John summed it up with the words we hear in our text: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:2).
But when John said “Repent!” he wasn’t simply looking for a head hung in shame or a better effort next time… John was calling the people to God’s definition of repentance. When the Bible uses the word “repentance” it is talking about a change… a change that begins in the heart with a recognition of sin… and a genuine sorrow over that sin. And not simply sorrow that you got caught… or sadness over the consequences of that sin… but sorrow due to the fact that you failed the God who has only and always shown you love and mercy. Sadness because your failure before God has also hurt others. This sorrow over sin is a change in your attitude that God’s call to repentance creates. When we hear the call to repent we are confronted with our sin and shame and are cut to the heart.
But the change in attitude is not simply about being sorry for sin. It is a change in the way we deal with that sorrow over sin too. The call to repent means we turn away from sin… but as we turn from that sin we are turning toward the gracious forgiveness of our Savior Jesus. True repentance is never just shame and sadness… it’s also joy and gladness as we see the outstretched arms of Jesus saying, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37). Repentance is a change of heart that means we no longer look to make up for our mistakes and earn back the love and favor of our God. Instead we see Jesus and know that it is ours already.
And that’s a pretty different definition of repentance than what we’re used to. Repentance that involves both sadness over sin and faith in the Savior from sin is a definition only our gracious God could come up with. And the wonderful thing is that God’s Word which calls us to repentance is the very thing that brings about this godly sorrow over sin as well as the faith that looks to Christ for forgiveness. It’s God’s work, not ours, that brings about true repentance.
But maybe you noticed as I read the text that John talks about fruits of repentance too. Things that you will do when you are penitent. John brings this up because there was another group of people besides penitent believers who were there as he preached.
We heard about this other group in our text… these people that were not really interested in the message John proclaimed. And even though they were the leaders of the visible church at the time, these Pharisees and Sadducees were really not a part of God’s church family. And John called them to account for it. He said they were a brood of vipers… offspring of the serpent really… children of the devil not children of Abraham, children of faith… And he could say that not because he could see their hearts but because he saw the result of unbelief in their lives… the fruits of a faithless heart which were nothing but evil. John said that if they really were God’s children then their lives would reflect that. As he put it: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
And maybe you hear these words… and hear John’s stern warning about an ax at the tree and the fires of judgment… and it makes you wonder if you really are repentant either… After all, there are so many times that we stand here in church and confess our sins only to go out and commit them all over again… so many times we apologize to friends and family only to fail them once more… Are we really penitent if we fall back into sin after we’ve repented? Or are we dead trees like the Pharisees?
It can feel like a vicious cycle, can’t it? But really, that’s where God’s definition of repentance comes in once again to set us straight. Repentance turns away from sin and into Jesus’ forgiveness. And repentance for a Christian is not a onetime occurrence, it is a daily exercise. Martin Luther once famously wrote in the 1st of his 95 Theses that “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Every day we must put off our sinful deeds and desires and turn to Christ for mercy. Every day we must remember our baptism where Christ washed us from our sins and gave us the gift of true repentance. Every day… every minute… every moment of our lives is spent turning away from sin and back to the God who saves. So while the world might see a repeat offender… and we might often feel like a hypocrite… God says we are exactly what he has called us to be: penitent children… who hate their sin and love their Savior.
And because God has made us this kind of people… we will live lives that reflect it! There is no such thing as an impenitent believer. And so there is no such thing as a believer that will not demonstrate his faith with his words and actions. That is why John called the Pharisees and Sadducees to repent – because their lives demonstrated that they still needed to be changed by God. And if, at times, our lives seem to demonstrate the same thing… well, then we too need to be confronted with God’s Word and begin the daily cycle of repentance over once more.
And if you are at a point in your life where you are just sick and tired of the cycle… I don’t blame you. Every Christian feels that way at some point. The Apostle Paul described his battle once saying, “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:19, 24). But the answer to his frustrations is the same answer God would point us to: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
Jesus is the answer because only in him do we find rest from the frustration of our sin and the daily cycle of repentance… Only in Jesus do we find victory in this battle… And that’s because Jesus did what we could not… not for himself, but in our place, he did it for us…
He entered this world with nothing to confess… no sin to turn from… And yet, because God had promised to punish our sin with eternal death, Christ took it upon himself so we wouldn’t have to… he took the guilt for our failures, our rebellion, our willful wickedness, our willing plunges into shame and depravity… he took the blame for it all. The ax of God’s righteous wrath struck at Jesus… and not only did Jesus suffer the physical torture of the cross, but on it the Father turned away from him for all the times we had turned away from God…
Do you see how serious God is about his Word? He cannot stand sin. And yet he cannot stand to leave us in our well-earned hell. And so He dies… that you might live… so that you could hear this call to repent – and empowered by his Spirit who is at work in His Word – you would turn from sin to this amazing Savior. And this means that even though you find the daily battle difficult… and the spiritual preparation is not always as smooth a road as you’d like… in Christ you have God’s forgiveness poured out on you… and that forgiveness turns you from sin… and turns you back to him again and again. Thank God for his definition of repentance. And thank God for his work in bringing about such a miraculous change in us. Amen.