When Matthew abruptly introduces us to John the Baptist, he focuses his remarks on the central theme of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2).
Certainly, John said more as he preached in the wilderness; however, this summarization is not an out-of-context soundbite from John’s preaching. Central to John’s ministry and message was the exhortation to repent, in view of the coming kingdom—that is, in view of the coming King. Consider:
John baptized people as they were “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:5)
John turned away the Pharisees and the Sadducees who did not “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8)
John defined his own baptism as a baptism “with water for repentance” (Matt. 3:11)
God sent John into the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of King Jesus, and those preparations required repentance.
What, then, is repentance?
The word for repentance in Greek (μετάνοια; metanoia) carries a basic meaning of changing one’s mind. The common word for repentance in Hebrew (שׁוּב; shûb) has a basic meaning of turning—turning away from one thing, and turning toward another.
So, repentance is more than coming to a different opinion in one’s mind about something. Repentance is a whole turning away from our sin, and turning toward Christ.
It’s hard to beat the answer given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
In my sermon on Matthew 3:1–12, I tried to give a simplified summary of this definition:
Repentance is a change of mind, stemming from a change of heart, resulting into a change of life.
Let’s break these three parts down.
Repentance is a Change of Mind
First, repentance is a change of mind (μετάνοια; metanoia). We must think differently about our sin.
This is more than a merely different opinion. We must recognize that we have been in the wrong, and that being wrong has been sin against God.
We must change our mind to judge ourselves as God judges us: as utterly guilty and condemned before the righteous Judge of all the earth.
Repentance Stems from a Change of Heart
Second, repentance must stem not merely from a different intellectual understanding of our sin (although it is not less than that), but from a different affective (emotional) response to our sin.
Our gut response to sin must no longer be approval and enjoyment, but “grief and hatred.” In the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we must feel the weight of the “filthiness and odiousness of [our] sins” (WCF 15.2).
Repentance Results in a Change of Life
Third, repentance must be a turning from our sin (שׁוּב; shûb). True repentance will “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8) through a changed life. Repentance does this by turning from our reliance upon the sinful flesh, and instead sinking the roots of our lives into the nutrient-rich soil of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As our roots go deep in Christ, the fruit of our lives is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). This is an important point. By repentance, we are not making another resolution to “do better next time.”
Rather, by repentance, we are asking God to “create in me a clean heart…and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). We are turning from our sin by asking God not only to forgive us from our sins, but to change our lives.
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!
This is the reason that repentance is central to John’s message. It is not enough simply to go through the external rites and ceremonies of religion, like the Pharisees lining up for John’s baptism.
Repentance goes much deeper, to the spiritual heart of our lives. Repentance is a submission to King Jesus that turns in the core of our being to his kingdom. For this reason, repentance is an essential part of saving faith.
Therefore, repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!