This paper first appeared in The Free Methodist Herald
Breast-beating, tears, dredging up spiritual sludge -- isn't this what "Repent!" brings to mind? It's little wonder that our society shuns the word and disdains what it things the word represents. People understandably shy away from rubbing their nose in their personal garbage pail, especially when guilt and depression and self-belittlement are expected to effervesce.
Nonetheless, our Lord Jesus Christ, who comes only to impart healing, help and wholesomeness -- life -- summoned people to repent every day of his public ministry. His summons was always urgent. "Don't put it off for a minute. Can't you see it's the only sensible thing to do? The kingdom of God, his end-time restoration of a world in bondage to sin and evil ever since the Fall, is upon you. Abandon yourself to God's deliverance!" The urgent summons to repent is one of the major building-blocks of our Lord's ministry. Pull it out, and his ministry would be unrecognizable.
In view of the good news of the kingdom, an about-turn is needed. Repentance is this about-turn. To make an about-turn is plainly to return. And in fact everywhere in the older testament to repent is to return. To turn into the kingdom of God is to return to the God made us, who grieves over our defiant departure from him, and who longs for our return to him.
When our Lord cries, "Repent, return", he has in mind three startling pictures painted by the Hebrew prophets before him.
(i) The first image is that of an adulterous spouse returning to wife or husband. Adultery is horrific at any time. For adultery is the betrayal of the most intense intimacy; adultery is the violation of a promise; adultery is personally degrading; and adultery is a public humiliation of the faithful partner.
To repent, then, is to return to God and recover that intimacy with God which we were created to know and enjoy as covenant-partners with him. To return is to uphold the promise we have made to him on countless occasions throughout our lives. To return is to leave off our self-degradation (for make no mistake: however much our society ridicules a doctrine of sin as "Victorian" or Puritan" or even "mediaeval", sin remains invariably degrading.) To return is to turn from publicly humiliating God to publicly praising him for his incomprehensible patience.
(ii) When the prophets, in the name of God, urge their people to repent, they speak of pagan idol-worshippers returning to the worship of the true and living God. The Hebrew word for "idols" is literally "the nothings." At the same time, only a fool would pretend that "nothing" is inconsequential. A vacuum is nothing, yet a vacuum has immense power: it sucks down everything around it. A lie is nothing, for a lie is a statement without substance. Yet lies destroy people every day. Delusions are nothing, for a delusion is without foundation. Yet deluded people are at best utterly misled and at worst out-and-out insane. Most tellingly, perhaps, is the fact that we are inevitably conformed to what we worship. To worship any of the "nothings" is to become nothing ourselves.
Since stubborn refusal of the kingdom of God is self-annihilation, why don't we repent, return, and become someone, that child of God created in his image and impelled to cry, "Abba, Father", eternally? When our Lord pleads with is to repent he is pleading with us to renounce our pursuit of nothing (the lie, the delusion, the spiritual vacuum) only to find ourselves plunged into truth and reality, the kingdom of God.
(iii) The third prophetic picture of repentance is that of rebel subjects returning to their rightful ruler. The rebel subjects have thought they could rule themselves, only to find that their inept attempts at self-rule have left them chaotic and fragmented. Their rebellion was born of ignorance of themselves, and their ignorance was born of ingratitude to their sovereign. Grateful now to that rightful ruler who alone can subdue disorder, and possessed now of the self-knowledge that without him they will be forever self-destructive, they return. Then the only sensible thing to do is suspend foolish rebellion and fall at the feet of the king himself.
As the meaning of "Repent!" permeates informed hearts, the command is understood as invitation: "Come unto me...." And repentance itself is now known to be nothing less than resurrection and life.