“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). What was the first word spoken by John the Baptist and by Jesus as they came preaching? Each of them returned from his sojourn in the wilderness proclaiming the same thing (Matt. 3:1–2; 4:17). The word repent conjures up a picture in our minds of a wildeyed man with unkempt hair carrying a sign: “Repent, the end is near.” That is exactly the image Satan wants us to have. Many evangelicals avoid the subject of repentance because of that connotation. We must be reminded that the two greatest preachers and leaders of Christian reformation began their initial sermons with the word repent. True reformation begins with repentance.
What did John and Jesus have in mind when they called people to repentance? Their hearers were sinners from the heart whose lives exhibited characteristics alien to the kingdom of heaven. Thus, they were calling them to renounce their sin and take on a new character. There is a false and incomplete repentance that confesses a sin and even develops an animosity and aversion to that sin, yet does not adopt the righteous characteristic opposite the illicit behavior. This counterfeit repentance will not produce reformation. It is not enough that the penitent eschews greed; Jesus calls him to a gospel generosity. Hence, genuine repentance leads to reformation — a reformation of the repentant individual and society. The authenticity of a Christianity that does not change individuals and societies must be questioned.
Repentance and reformation are born from a change in the inner man wrought by God. Man, with his arrogant ego, wants to produce reformation by his own strength. Such was the shallow sanctification of Nicodemus. Outwardly, he was the epitome of religious obedience. Inwardly, he was full of putrid corruption. Jesus’ initial statement to him pertained to a spiritual rebirth in the inner man (John 3:3). The secular world preaches a reformation of outward behavior (the utopian great society) fashioned by the power of education, capital, or government. Such institutions are only placebos that will not reach to the depth of mankind’s depravity. Repentance that produces reformation begins deep in the inner recesses of the heart.
If sin corrupts every part of our being (and it does), then there must be repentance and reformation in every part of our lives. Sometimes we are wont to say that gossip or jealousy or prejudice is our besetting sin. We ignore other areas of our lives, thinking they are quite right with God and others. Who of us can say that there is an area of our lives where we have no need of repentance and change? As a Christian, I know that every aspect of my life is in need of daily repentance, and if it is in need of repentance, it is in need of reformation. There is a reformation continually taking place in the Christian’s life from the moment of his conversion until he is called home. The man or woman who has been a Christian seventy years is still repenting, growing in Christ, and being reformed by the Holy Spirit.
There has always been a tendency to “spiritualize” repentance and reformation so that they do not reach the mundane details of our “real” lives. For instance, the young Christian is often taught that if he desires genuine sanctification he must go into some ministry serving the church. Many of us teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, or serve as officers in the church, thinking these are the only ways we can really express our love for Christ when we live in the secular world during the week. When John the Baptist cried to the crowds to repent, some tax collectors and soldiers came to him and asked, “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:12, 14). John did not tell them to leave their vocations (and many viewed those specific vocations as inherently evil). He did not tell them to become prophets or priests. He told them to repent of the sins usually prevalent in their line of work and to bring a godly character to their careers.
For many years I was privileged to meet with five ministers of very large churches on a regular basis. These conservative churches had a combined membership of 48,000 members. I once asked these ministers what percentage of their congregations understood that they were called of God to serve Him in their vocations. Each minister thoughtfully considered the question and gave his answer. Not one estimate was over ten percent. Ninety percent of these congregations were not bringing repentance and reformation to the places where they spent the majority of their week. We are called of God to bring heartfelt repentance and reformation to every area of our lives and His world. Over the last century, Christians in our society have abandoned the institutions of media, government, education, arts, business, and so on. The strange truth is that we abandoned these institutions in the name of Christ. We must ask, “What Jesus were we serving?” Certainly not the Jesus whose first preached word was repent as He sought to bring restoration and reformation to a lost creation.