Good news: The message of repentance

Read Mark 1: 14-20 and Jonah 3: 1-10 and then pray; Almighty God, open-up the truth of your Word that I may be spurred on by the Holy Spirit to live a life of repentance, peace, love, and joy. Amen.

After Jesus had been baptised in the Jordon by John (Mark1: 9-11), and after a tough forty-day period of temptation from Satan in the desert (Mark 1:13) – Jesus was immediately propelled by the Spirit he had received into the preaching ministry to which he had been called and prepared. Mark writes;

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!(Mark 1:14-15)

Right from the first moments of his preaching ministry – the emphasis of Jesus was on good news. The word gospel means good news (Mark 1:1) I want to demonstrate today that the message of Jesus, and the message which the Church must continue to present and proclaim today is good news – the good news of God. This good news, includes the uncompromising message of repentance – of radical change – of welcoming the reign of God into human lives afflicted by disorder and chaos. The kingdom of God which Jesus preached, is now available to receive, enter and experience. My emphasis will be that repentance is good news – not negative or disastrous news, because repentance and faith in Jesus, lead to life in all its fullness, freedom, shalom, and joy, and ultimately to eternal life with God. As Mark records here, the Lord Jesus invited people to both “Repent and believe.” He called for both repentance and faith. As someone has rightly said; “Repentance and faith are twins.”

Do you know that the Lord Jesus loved the Old Testament? Jesus knew the OT inside out and its holy contents were soaked into his consciousness. Jesus had in fact, come to fulfil the OT Scriptures and to honour their message. And he was acutely aware of many of the OT personalities – including the prophets, and starting with Moses. He was fully conversant with their lives and ministries, including the life, ministry, and message of the prophet Jonah. Jesus spoke about Jonah and related Jonah’s ministry to his own. In Matthew 12:39-41 we read these words; (Read Matthew 12: 39-41)

You can see that Jonah was called to proclaim a message of repentance to the great city of Ninevah. The large population of Ninevah, including its king, responded positively to that message. What was true of Jonah, was true of every prophet in the OT. Repentance formed the basis of their message. (Ezekiel 14:6, Jeremiah 15:19, Hosea 11:5, Joel 2:13). John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, was the prophet who became an important bridge between the Old and the New. What was his message? Matthew reveals that it was identical to that of Jesus, and repentance was its starting point.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:1) A little later we read this is in Matthew 4:17;

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”

John’s ministry was complete. (Acts 13:25) Jesus’s was just getting off the ground – but their message was the same – and repentance was its starting point. We later discover as we continue to read the gospels and Acts that the Church was commissioned to take up and to take out to the world the same message, but with the cross and resurrection now forming the centerground of the good news of God. (Luke 24: 45-49, Acts 2: 36-39, Acts 3:19, 17:30 26:20)

Repentance must therefore be a fundamental part of the “good news” which the Church presents and proclaims boldly and unapologetically to a world in darkness. This was the message of all the prophets including Jonah, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and all the apostles and evangelists that followed on, and who were called and commissioned by Jesus who is Head of the Church.

There are, I think, several questions that need to be answered given the significance of the place of repentance in the life of the Christian and the Church and its mission to the world. These are;

  • What is repentance?
  • Why is it needed and why is it essential?
  • How does it come to fruition in the life of an individual?
  • Why is repentance good news?

What is repentance? We must be clear about this. Repentance essentially means and involves a change of mind, a change of thinking, which leads to a change of life. It begins with a change of mind! This is made clear by a brilliant parable told by Jesus – the parable of the two sons. (Read Matthew 21: 28-32). The positive change of mind leading to a positive change in action in one of the sons, is the key lesson Jesus wants us to understand. Repentance must be proved genuine by its fruit. (Luke 3:8, Acts 26:20). The apostle Paul explained this universal call and truth to King Agrippa with these words;

First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God, and prove their repentance by their deeds.

Paul himself repented and turned from being violent persecutor to courageous preacher. Matthew changed from corrupt tax collector to honest disciple – so did Zacchaeus. The violence and wickedness in Ninevah ceased, and righteousness was embraced by its citizens. We are told that they “turned from their evil ways” (4:10) and they “gave up” violence. (3:8) Do you remember the story of the prodigal son who was lost in a world of selfish, self-inflicted, loss and darkness? He eventually had a change of mind and heart – and then he returned to his Father who warmly welcomed and celebrated his homecoming (Luke 15: 11-24) I will set out and go back to my father and say to him. Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind, heart, and way of life. It involves a radical and noticeable turn around. It involves a person embarking on a whole of life U-turn. It means saying to Jesus (God), “I welcome your kingdom in my life – your reign. You are now in charge. I give up the way I was living and I embrace your leadership, your authority, your will for my life – and I will now live accordingly.  Note again the response of the son in Jesus’s parable who got things right; “I will not” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went! People must change their mind about Jesus and his call and his demands. All disciples must “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.” (Matthew 16:24)

Why is repentance needed? Why is repentance so essential? This is question number two.

Repentance is needed because God says it is needed by the rebellious creatures who He made in His own image and for His glory and pleasure. God commands repentance. (Acts 17:30) God’s creatures must return to him on His terms not theirs. God is our Creator. He is the Potter; we are the clay. We do not dictate the terms on which He will receive us and grant us forgiveness, peace, reconciliation, and eternal life. God sets the agenda and God demands repentance.

He tells men and women that they must humble themselves, become like “little children,” change their thinking and their direction, abandon all the things in their lives that offend God’s holiness, righteousness, and goodness, and which have contributed to the darkness, pain, and brokenness of his creation. God wants new creations with new natures who will receive His kingdom (His reign) – and that demands repentance. There cannot be two masters reigning on the throne of a human heart. It is either us or God – and if it is going to be God Almighty – we must submit, change, repent and follow with obedience. Many may resist this, and so will forfeit entrance into the Kingdom of God. Remember the basic message of Jesus; Repent, for the kingdom of God is now at hand. It is a command to be obeyed. It is non-negotiable. It is imperative!

How does repentance come about? How is it possible? This is a very great and significant question. The short answer (which will need an explanation) is that the Holy Spirit works within the heart and life of an individual to lead them to repentance. The Holy Spirit works repentance in us. The Spirit brings us to a point where we feel compelled to repent of our sin and rebellion, and then (with the help and grace given by the Spirit) we actively turn from our sin and toward God with faith and gratitude. Repentance and faith in Jesus are therefore gifts sovereignly and graciously given by the Holy Spirit, but then acted upon by us. Every part of the saving process is by grace, including our repentance and our willingness to decisively turn from sin. Listen to Peter’s preaching in Acts 5:31;

God exalted him (Jesus) to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness to Israel. Listen also to Acts 11: 18 where those in Jerusalem heard from Peter how God had begun to save and rescue Gentiles as well as Jews in significant numbers. When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Did you notice the emphasis? – God (by his Holy Spirit) works and grants repentance to human hearts – hearts that have been softened and quickened by the Holy Spirit – sometimes over a long period of time. Before I became a Christian, the Spirit had been drawing me towards repentance and faith in Jesus for months. It is the same with all who become Christians. Last week, I spoke about how every Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19). But before someone becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit – they have already become a target of the Holy Spirit. The great bible commentator Matthew Henry writes; “Wherever God designs to give life he gives repentance.” And God grants repentance by the gracious working of His Spirit.

What exactly does the Holy Spirit do to encourage and enable a person to repent? The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, actively works to produce a deep and unsettling conviction of sin and God’s judgement upon it. A person then wants this uncomfortable sense of deep conviction to be removed and replaced by a real and abiding sense of God’s peace through their sins being forgiven and washed away in the torrent of God’s forgiving grace and mercy – but that can only occur after they finally embrace repentance. In John 16:8, John records Jesus’s teaching on the coming work of the Spirit;

When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt regarding sin and righteousness and judgment:

So, one of the very best ways to pray for an unconverted relative, friend, or neighbour, is to pray fervently that God, by His Spirit, will graciously work to bring that person to repentance and faith in Jesus. As I said earlier, repentance and faith are twins; Repent and believe said Jesus (Mark 1:14). Recounting the priorities of his preaching and evangelism, Paul tells the Ephesian Church;

I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must (1) turn to God in repentance and (2) have faith in our Lord Jesus. (Acts 20:21)

Repentance then, emerges and blossoms from the work of the Holy Spirit within a human heart, and the Holy Spirit continues to work repentance in the life of the Christian so that they regularly confess and turn from any ongoing sin, and seek to proceed on the path of God’s righteousness and goodness.

Finally, but most importantly, why is repentance which is so central to the gospel, good news – very good news? Repentance seems to have received a very bad press. This is always going to be the case in a lost world that wants to resist moral change and prefers darkness to light. Jesus said, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” The world resists conformity to God’s holy moral law – the world hates repentance; that is why the Holy Spirit must work His wonders. But even within the life and ministry of the Church, repentance seems to have become an idea that is problematic, out of date, or even embarrassing. And yet, according to our dear Lord, repentance is good news. Why is this?

Repentance is great news because firstly it leads us to a life and a relationship with our loving Creator God. Repentance opens the doorway to the forgiveness of sin, the removal of all guilt, the powerful cleansing of the conscience, and deep and genuine peace of heart and mind! Repentance leads to a deep clean. Isn’t that good news? A person can experience no greater or more precious gift than reconciliation, friendship, and peace with God their Creator – but to truly find it there must be repentance – because God, who is our Creator, is infinitely holy, righteous, pure, and just. We cannot expect to know God in an intimate and saving way, if we want to remain intimate with the sin He hates, rejects, and will not tolerate, and which separates us from His presence which is pure Light.

Repentance is good news because through it we can welcome into our lives the “kingdom of God” which Jesus brought and spoke about so much, God’s good reign of peace, joy, and freedom in the Holy Spirit. Repentance enables God’s kingdom to come and enter our hearts, (Mark 1:14) because the repentant soul has finally come to terms with the idea that our reign over our own lives must be rejected and replaced by God’s. According to Jesus, finding the kingdom is like finding the greatest treasure of all, the pearl of great price. (Matthew 13: 44-46) The kingdom is abundant and eternal life which is good news – but it can only be personally entered and experienced through repentance and faith in Jesus.

Anything, and I mean anything, that we give up so that we might receive this kingdom is worth it. This is because what we gain far outstrips anything we may lose or need to cast away. God is no-one’s debtor. When you become a Christian through repentance and faith you “gain Christ” says Paul and “his righteousness” and the “power of his resurrection” working within you. Paul says, and I concur; “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” Repentance is such good news because it enables someone to exchange filthy rags for beautiful brand- new garments. It enables someone to exchange rubbish for the pure gold of Jesus. Jesus shared this remarkable truth with his disciples and millions can vouch for its truthfulness. (Read Mark 10: 28-31).

Even as I speak, there are thousands of Muslims in places like Iran, abandoning Islam and embracing Christ, but in doing so, they nearly always lose their families, their jobs and perhaps their lives. Is such radical sacrifice and change often leading to persecution, worth it? Yes, it is! – because the prize of Jesus, his forgiveness, his kingdom, and eternal life is worth it. Why can so many Christians around the world who face cruel and vicious persecution face it with grace and strength? They can do so because they know that what they have now with Jesus is far superior to anything they had before.

Repentance is good news on an individual level and on a wider community level. We start a study on the relevance of the ten commandments this evening – so I ask you to think about this. If everyone in this nation repented from any kind of stealing (“Do not steal”) would this be good news or bad news for our communities and our nation? What about – “Do not kill?” If killing ceased and hatred in the heart ended through genuine repentance, would that be good news or bad news for the streets of London or anywhere else? Remember, Ninevah gave up violence! “Do not commit adultery” like Herod did, and for which he was rebuked by John the Baptist. Would the faithful preservation and care of marriages and family life including children’s wellbeing, be good news or bad news for us as a nation? If significant numbers of people in this nation repented of their sin, placed their faith in Jesus, received new hearts, and started to proudly serve God wholeheartedly, would it lead to a morally better and stronger nation?

My conviction is that it would certainly lead to a significantly better, brighter, safer, kinder, and more generous and prosperous country – and so repentance is good news, liberating news, life-enriching news, and it is for everyone, without exception or discrimination. Jesus calls everyone to repent whether it is the king of Ninevah or a beggar in Ninevah, the self-righteous Pharisee or the swindling tax collector. Repentance leads to the coming of God’s Kingdom upon the earth and to the transformation of human hearts in the here and now – and that cannot possibly be a bad thing! That is why I personally preach with a clear conscience and a humble heart; “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” I am falling in line with Jesus and I do not apologise for it!

Repentance should not be a hard, awkward, or embarrassing thing to preach and teach. There must not be the initial strong reluctance of Jonah (Jonah 1:3) within the outreach and evangelism of the Church today. We must not run away from delivering the message of repentance! If we find this to be the case, we have entirely misunderstood the gospel of the good news of the Kingdom of God. Jesus leads the way and sets the example for His Church, as he cries; “Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:14) If we fail to preach repentance and faith in Jesus, or even if we tone it down, we are simply slamming the door into/of the Kingdom in the faces of desperate and dying people.

May God give us the wisdom and the courage to not only live lives of daily repentance as Christians, but may God also convince us of the truth that repentance must remain at the heart and forefront of all true gospel preaching and teaching – life and service. And may God, by the power of His Spirit lead many in this struggling and bewildered nation to repentance and faith in Jesus, and to a personal knowledge of forgiveness, restored peace with God, and life and joy in His eternal kingdom. Amen.

Revd Peter J Clarkson (21.1.24)