REPENT and BELIEVE!!!

REPENT and BELIEVE!!!
REPENT and BELIEVE!!!
REPENT and BELIEVE!!!

No doubt, this phrase evokes certain reactions, memories, and even emotions: Street preachers making fools of themselves and the religion they represent; Christian protestors rallying for a cause in counter-Christian ways; or hellfire and brimstone sermons preached with a commanding zeal more reminiscent of a drill sergeant than minister of the gospel.

Well, this Sunday I had the privilege (challenge?) of preaching from the passage in Mark where Jesus says these very words:

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 (NIV)

This is a loaded text. And as I’ve shown, “repent and believe” is a loaded phrase.

Typically Christians have defined repentance and belief quite narrowly.

Repentance: Sometimes described as the “negative side of conversion,” repentance is the catch we don’t want to tell people lest they get turned off from the Christian message of grace. In this line, the focus is on personal morality, the call to live Christianly. The idea of “turning around” or switching direction as the word literally means, is applied to individual living. Repentance is about behaviour, our actions.

Belief: If repentance is about our actions, then belief is mainly about our intellect. Often translated “faith” or “trust,” this word refers to our intellectual system of beliefs and the decision to apply those beliefs to our life. Hence we “trust” God and have “faith” in what we “believe” is true about him from Scripture and our experience in the world.

These two common definitions aren’t wrong. We are called to turn from sinful behaviour (repent). We are called to put our faith in Jesus (belief). But if we make Jesus’ message primarily about a personal morality or faith experience, we undersell the reality of this good news Jesus proclaims: the kingdom of God is here.

Instead of viewing repentance and belief as primarily a personal choice of religious devotion, Jesus’ words offer an invitation to participate in the present reality of God’s action in the world. In fact, for Jesus’ Jewish audience, “repent and believe” only made sense in relation to how they defined “kingdom of God.” As N.T. Wright describes, the Israelites had a specific vision for how God should treat his people:

“If the kingdom meant the end of the space-time universe, and/or the literal descent of the earth, riding on a cloud, of a human figure, this obviously had not happened. That, however, would have made little or no sense to a first century Jew. If it meant that Herod and Pilate were no longer ruling Judaea, and that instead a Jewish kingdom had been set up under the direct rule of Israel’s god, this too – though it would have made excellent sense to Jesus’ contemporaries – had obviously not happened. The problem, though, is that Jesus spent his whole ministry redefining what the kingdom meant. He refused to give up the symbolic language of the kingdom, but filled it with such new content that...he powerfully subverted Jewish expectations” (Jesus and the Victory of God)

For Israel, Jesus was calling them to redefine their expectations for the kingdom of God, to turn away from their own agenda to set up a government through political will or even brute force. Repentance goes beyond a moral ethic, becoming a radical redefinition of what it means to be the people of God.

Along these lines, then, the message “repent and believe” is not exclusively an invitation to ‘them,’ the outsiders who need to accept their need for forgiveness and new identity in Christ. No, “repent and believe” is for ‘us’, the religious folks, not unlike the Israelites, who have certain ideas for how God should operate in the world. We do not create nor do we control the kingdom of God. Rather, we participate in the reality of God’s kingdom. This is Jesus’ call for repentance and belief. It is bigger than ourselves. As Christians, we are God’s people, the new Israel to which the message of Jesus still applies:

"The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

Will you participate? Will we participate?

2 comments:

prushton said...

"the message “repent and believe” is not exclusively an invitation to ‘them,’ the outsiders who need to accept their need for forgiveness and new identity in Christ. No, “repent and believe” is for ‘us’, the religious folks, not unlike the Israelites, who have certain ideas for how God should operate in the world."

Well said Dave. Great insight into a misused text!

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Phil. N.T. Wright (and others) continues to broaden my categories for what it means to be part of the people of God in the world. It's exciting stuff!

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