Sometimes even preachers find themselves trapped within popular culture ideas—even of Biblical concepts. I think that’s the case with a very Biblical word: repent. Some of us jump to fire-and-brimstone: “First you have to deliver the bad news before you can bring the good news.” Others, who want to avoid unpleasantness in the pulpit, avoid the word altogether.
But what if there’s a third way? Perhaps you could try this approach the next time you preach about repentance:
Imagine receiving a message so good that it caused you to rethink your entire life. The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and now suddenly you discover your house is paid off, or a total stranger has paid off your student loans. your abusive husband has turned a corner and now treats you like a queen; the doctors call to say the diagnosis was wrong, and you don’t have cancer after all.
All of these examples represent the best kind of news: no more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; no more walking on eggshells, afraid that some trivial event will anger your spouse; your fears of endless treatments and medicines vanish in a moment. The good news has come from afar and has pitched its tent with you. The old reality is gone, and new day is born. But you quickly discover a problem: the morning after the good news arrives you wake up still worried about money, still afraid that your husband will relapse, or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. And we immediately understand why: we have spent months, even years, thinking about life based upon our problems. Financial woes are daily woes. Fear of abuse is factored into every choice you make. Health concerns are like a houseguest who has moved in forever. Old habits die hard, and the habits of the mind must be taken to the cross. This is the meaning of repentance.
To receive good news, to really receive it—to take it in and discover a new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know: you thought repentance meant remorse, determination, trying harder or feeling guilty. Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word “repent” means rethink your life. The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change your world. There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, wipes away the past or presents a future filled with joy. Better yet, all three. Jesus presented this hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus proclaimed the world would be forever different because God had come down, and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.
God would not be stopped: the old order of things was condemned, and a new order was made real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”
Grace comes with good news and a requirement: Rethink your life because everything has changed. Repentance is a rational response to God’s grace.
"Repent" is the first word of the good news. Belief comes as we help our listeners rethink a way of life based upon what God has already done. Good news requires that we rethink our way of life—have you preached this kind of repentance?