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The Big Differece a Small Preposition Makes in the Definition of Repentance

In Mark 1:15, Jesus' begins his public ministry by stating, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel."

  • In this single statement, Jesus claims all Old Testament prophecies about the long-awaited Messiah are being fulfilled in himself at that very moment in history.
  • The present kingdom of God represents the invisible, spiritual reign of Jesus that has been inaugurated but not yet fully realized on earth as it will be at his visible, physical return.
  • And the message of the kingdom is called the gospel, which literally means "good news." The good news is that the King of the Kingdom has suffered the death that traitors to the kingdom deserved, enabling traitors like us to be reconciled to God as Father, fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, and dearly loved.

The two words Jesus uses to represent how we enter into the kingdom are "repent and believe."

But what does it mean to repent?

The answer may surprise us.

In December 1998, NASA launched what was called the Mars Climate Orbiter. It's primary objective was collecting data on Mars' climate and weather patterns, serving as a communication relay for upcoming missions. However, shortly after entering Martian orbit in September '99, the orbiter burned up in the atmosphere.

A mission that took years of work and cost millions of dollars was lost.

What went wrong?

Upon inspection, NASA scientists discovered the issue wasn't mechanical. Two of the teams working on the orbiter during production used different measurement standards.

  • One used imperial, US measurements.
  • The other used metric measurements.

A small measurement oversight resulted in total mission failure.

It's the same way with repentance.

Of course, the issue is not units of measurement. It concerns the use of a single preposition.

Question 1: Which preposition is typically used when explaining or defining repentance?

In my seminary courses, I'll often ask the class to define repentance in one sentence.

Nine out of ten people say, "Repentance is turning from my sins to Jesus."

The concept of "turning" comes from the meaning of the Greek word translated repentance, which is metanoia (meta-nóyia), a word that signifies a radical, all-encompassing change of mind.

  • Think of metanoia as doing a mental 180.
  • It's not just a slight turn but a total, complete change in perspective.

The problem with the definition lies with the English preposition from.

Question 2: Why is the preposition "from" a problem?

What does turning from something imply?

For starters, it implies a turning away from something.

When we define repentance as turning away from my sin to Jesus, the implication is that I'm making a promise or commitment to stop sinning and start obeying Jesus.  

What's wrong with this?

The call to turn from sin as a prerequisite for coming to Jesus is problematic for three reasons.

  1. It underestimates human depravity by implying that we have the ability to turn away from sin on our own.
  2. It distorts biblical theology by reversing the order of justification and sanctification, making one's sanctification (spiritual conformity to Jesus) the foundation of our justification (legal status before the law).
  3. It leads to spiritual insecurity by suggesting that we must "clean up our act" before approaching God for grace, turning repentance into penance and creating ongoing uncertainty about one's forgiveness and acceptance by God.

Question 3: How does the cross change the preposition?

Rather than calling us to turn from our sins to Jesus, the cross calls us to turn with our sins to Jesus.

This is the heart of biblical repentance.

Rather than making excuses, shifting blame, or minimizing our sin, we are called to bring our moral treason into the light.

Did you know that short-wave UV light (UVC) has the power to kill germs and viruses? That's why you can purchase devices to clean your phone and keys by putting them under the light.

The blood of Jesus is like that. When we repent, we put our sin not under UV light but under the shed blood of Jesus, which cleanses us, not from germs and viruses, but from unrighteousness. Not just some or most, but ALL unrighteousness.

Therefore, rather than calling us to turn from our sins to Jesus, the cross invites us to live in the light by turning with our sins to Jesus, whose blood washes even the most vile sins whiter than snow.

  • We no longer have to hide.
  • We don’t have clean up our act before we come to Jesus.
  • In order to be clean, we simply come clean and believe we are clean by the blood of Christ.

This is the mental 180.

We realize that although we are more sinful than we ever imagined, in Jesus, we are more forgiven than we could ever dare to dream!

Question 4: What happens when we embrace the new proposition?

Having turned with our sins to Jesus, the Spirit enables us to turn from our sins!

When we abide in Jesus as our Justifier, the Spirit replaces a desire for sin with a desire to honor, follow, and walk in the ways of Jesus—according to his wisdom.

This is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism means when it calls repentance a "saving grace" that leads to "hatred of... sin... with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience."

John the Baptizer expressed the same idea by challenging the Pharisees to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance."

  • The fruit of new life isn't the essence of repentance.
  • It is evidence of repentance.

This turning with our sin to Jesus and then from our sin in the power of the Spirit becomes an ongoing rhythm of the Christian life, not because we're trying to earn God's favor, but because we already have it.

Ongoing repentance allows us to live all of life, at all times, in view of the cross.

From this perspective, instead of seeing repentance as a burdensome duty, we can see it as a gracious gift that leads to new life in Christ.

The ongoing rhythm plays out in horizontal relationships, too. When I sin against someone else, rather than making promises to change, I own the harm I've caused.

Just like we turn to Jesus with our sin, we turn to those whom we’ve sinned against with our sin.

We don’t deny, minimize, or shift blame. Rather, we place ourselves under their mercy by owning offenses with a sense of genuine grief and a desire to heal and restore.

Incredibly, one small preposition has the potential to revolutionize our spiritual lives.

Rather than a call to turn from sin to Jesus, we are invited to turn with sin to Jesus.

As we do so, we'll begin to experience the gospel's power to free us from sin's power, liberating us to live in the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God's grace with renewed freedom and joy.

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