Does Jesus accept us as we are—or call us to ‘repent’?

u-turnThe idea of ‘repenting of sin’ causes us a bit of a problem nowadays. It causes us a problem in relation to those outside the church as well as those inside the church and faith. For those outside, there is a sense that Christians are ‘holier than thou’, and are telling them that they are ‘sinners’ whilst we are ‘righteous’, which feels like a put down. And there are wider questions about whether the language of ‘sin’ communicates anything at all; it is not a category that ordinary people understand.

But there is a problem for those on the inside too. A couple of years ago at New Wine, Danielle Strickland suggested that we need to recover a sense of God’s creation and blessing of us, rather than continually dwelling on our sinfulness. Some might have heard in this echoes of Matthew Fox’s ‘original blessing’, but others welcomed it; a well-respected evangelical leader said to me ‘We need to get away from our obsession with Augustine on this!’

This is reflected in Pete Greig’s popular and helpful book How to Pray. He uses the acronym P-R-A-Y, and having been brought up with the A-C-T-S of prayer in my youth, I assumed that the R would stand for ‘Repent’ and was taken by surprise when I discovered that it stood for Rejoice. Grieg does does on repentance in one of the later chapters, walking through the Lord’s Prayer and covering ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’, but most of this chapter is about reconciliation, and the discussion of repentance as part of an exploration of the examen occupies less than one page (pp 160–161). This is in stark contrast to the Anglican tradition of confession as a substantial part of worship, not least in the Book of Common Prayer.

Part of this question relates to different understandings of atonement, and whether (for example) we should understand Jesus’ death and resurrection as dealing with the problem of human sin and God’s wrath, or whether (as I believe) there is a range of different ways of understanding this. But there is a much more straightforward issue to consider: the question of Jesus’ own language in relation to his announcement of the kingdom of God.

Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!

There is no doubt that the coming of God’s kingdom means the inversion of current structures of power and the dethroning of the rich and powerful, as Mary in the Magnificat eloquently expresses in Luke 1.46–55. This contradicts many human expectations, and is expressed by Jesus in the saying that ‘The first will be last, and the last first’ (Matt 19.30, 20.16 and elsewhere).

But centre of Jesus’ teaching is the proclamation of the kingdom—even the most sceptical NT scholar has agreed that his teaching in Mark 1.15 belongs to the historical core of what Jesus said and taught. And the announcement come with the invitation not just to receive good news, but also to ‘repent’. The background to this language is the idea of God’s coming in the OT, and in particular the idea that develops of the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’. But this idea is distinctly ambiguous. On the one hand it will involve the deliverance of Israel from its enemies who will be judged by God (Is 2.12, an idea which we also find in Luke 1.71), but also accountability of Israel to her holy God (Amos 5.18). The visitation of God is consistently associated with the purification of his people as well as with their vindication.

It is hardly surprising, then, that John the Baptist’s announcement of the coming kingdom is expressed in the language of judgement, both in Matthew and in Luke. Some of the elements of judgement are not carried over into Jesus’ teaching (compare Jesus’ quotation in Luke 4.18–19 with the original in Isaiah 61.1–2), but the consistent feature of Jesus’ teaching is the inclusion of the language of ‘repentance.’ When I mention this in an online conversation a few days ago, a friend responded ‘Ah, but metanoia is a much richer idea than that.’ Is it? And what precisely does it mean?

I was recently pointed to Craig Keener’s helpful article on ‘Bible interpretation methods you should avoid‘ and it included this important observation:

One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies.  That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated…

For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking.  Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind.  The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins!  The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.

It was interesting to see the despair and anger in the comments online when this was posted; earnest clergy were cross that Craig’s comments were robbing them of well-used methods of word study in teaching and preaching, and he was accused of being ‘elitist’ in his restriction of how we are allowed to read the Bible! The challenge here is the question of how we ever know what words mean.

Many people will look to etymology—the origin of a word. But ‘nice’ originates in the Latin word for ‘foolish’, and that is not what we usually mean when we use the word. (The idea that the meaning of words is shaped by their origin is called the ‘genetic fallacy’). We might then look at surrounding culture—how was the word used in Greek and Roman culture? Metanoia is indeed used in the sense of ‘a change in thinking’ in Plato and Menander (according to the Liddell and Scott lexicon), but this was several hundred years earlier, and in a different context. Just think of how words are used differently in a church context from wider culture.

Keener puts his finger on a key question: how was this term used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (referred to as ‘LXX’). I have a print lexicon (Abbott Smith) which gives exactly this information: what Hebrew word does this Greek word translate. This is vital because of continuity between the OT and the NT, because the NT writers quote the OT so much, and because, when they do, they most often quote from the LXX rather than translating from the Hebrew—because it was the LXX which was most read by both Jesus followers and the diaspora Jewish community. And the verb metanoeo translates the Hebrew term shuv, which literally means ‘to turn around’ and is used in the way we would used the word ‘repentance‘.

Repentance, which literally means to turn, is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. It generally involves a commitment to personal change and the resolve to live a more responsible and humane life.

The other issue that Keener raises is the use of the term in the NT, and reviewing this is sobering. If you do a word search, you will find that, far from being a ‘rich idea’ associated with ‘thinking again’, the verb and the noun metanoeo and metanoia are straightforwardly used in the sense of turning from sin in response to the invitation of God.

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt 11.20)

And the consequences of failing to repent are judgement and death.

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish! (Luke 13.2–5)

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? I think not!

There are, of course, rich resources in the NT in relation to ‘thinking again’, not least Paul’s invitation to us to allow God to ‘renew our minds’ in Romans 12.2. And, crucially, grace is linked to repentance, in that it is only God’s grace which gives us the moment, the resources, and the opportunity to repent:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2.4)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self–controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2.11–12).

This does not immediately answer either the ‘inside’ nor the ‘outside’ questions in relation to sin that I started with. But when Jesus (and others) talking about ‘repentance’, they really do mean ‘turning from sin’ and turning to the invitation of God, rather than anything more sophisticated which we might find rather more congenial.

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25 thoughts on “Does Jesus accept us as we are—or call us to ‘repent’?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. Really helpful. As it happens, Ruth is currently reading the Matthew Fox book (no idea why!) and the bits she reads out to me are quite infuriating. But Fox caricatures what he calls ‘fall/redemption spirituality’ (eg describing it as ‘elitist’ and with a tendency to ‘christolatry’) and sets it up as an Aunt Sally to denigrate.

    But I am interested in what you say about atonement and that there are ‘a range of different ways of understanding this’. What have you written before on this, and what resources do you recommend? I ask because this is the very subject of my next 4,000-word assignment at St Mellitus! My go-to text on this is John Stott’s ‘The Cross of Christ’, but are you saying you don’t necessarily agree with Stott’s take on the atonement?

    • I didn’t find Stott’s exposition all that persuasive when I read it (a long time ago!).

      We used Tom Smail’s ‘Windows on the Cross’ in preaching on the different ways of understanding the atonement, where he sets out a whole range of biblical views, and I have found Michael Green’s approach in ‘The Empty Cross of Jesus’ better and broader than Stott.

      And I think that the centre of Paul’s theology is not ‘justification by faith’ but reconciliation and peace with God. See:


      • I admire and value Ian’s website. He posts views with which he disagrees and he has staunchly and patiently defended the Church’s doctrine of sex and marriage. I mostly agree with what he says. But we disagree, on other threads, on two things: the ordination of women and the atonement. On this thread I make, in response to his ‘And I think that the centre of Paul’s theology is not ‘justification by faith’ but reconciliation and peace with God’, just two points:

        Firstly: everyone agrees that human beings have many needs, some of them harrowing. But, reiterating and expanding the point I made in my September 16, 2019 at 2:19 pm post, any doctrine of the atonement must include a doctrine of what we all need to be saved from, and is that our paramount need?

        In that September 16 post I also asked, “Do we all agree that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and that wrath and condemnation becomes retribution for the unsaved on the Day of Judgment?”

        From Ian’s sympathetic remarks on another thread about Stephen Travis’ “Christ and the Judgment of God” I surmise (Ian will correct me if I am mistaken) that he does not believe in God’s retribution for the unsaved. But does he believe “that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God” and that this is our paramount need, and that the death and resurrection of Christ deliver Christians from that wrath and condemnation and when does that deliverance happen?

        My second point is made by Michael Gorman in the piece Ian pointed us to in his post: “Many Christians would be quick to say that ‘peace’ is an important Christian word; indeed, that it is a gift of God in Christ (Luke 2.14), the result of justification via Jesus’ death (Rom 5.1)”. Peace is the result of Justification.

        Phil Almond

    • The quote from F F Bruce mentions ‘the same essential message’. But the atonement debate/disagreement, not least, increasingly, among those who would describe themselves as ‘evangelicals’, is about what IS the same essential message. Obviously the doctrine of the atonement and the doctrine of what we all need to be saved from are indissolubly linked. Do we all agree that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and that wrath and condemnation becomes retribution for the unsaved on the Day of Judgment?
      I hope Ian replies on this thread to Jeremy Moodey’s question.
      Phil Almond

  2. Great article, Ian. Thank you.
    Turning to God, yes! The way that I articulate that to my own life is that repentance in response to the gospel is very much a big picture reorientation away from self-government and self-centredness to being orientated around God’s appointed King, Jesus Christ.

  3. I love the following prayer and find the discipline of praying it daily around 6pm during the evening office so very helpful. As someone who had to repent big time 36 years ago so as to fully experience Christ’s grace and forgiveness these words are a treasure and remind me daily of the the priority and need of confession and repentance. What a great prayer. I wonder how often other ordained colleagues use it, daily? Weekly? …….now there’s a challenge! Good words and thoughts for the day, thank you Rev Paul.

    All Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry, and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may serve you in newness of life to the glory of your name.

  4. It is interesting that metaoia/-noeo, being so central to JohnBaptist’s and Jesus’s messages, is largely post Calvary restricted to the big event of turning to Christ in the first place and/or to immature believers – clearly their expectations were higher than ours – on the other hand, higher expectations are the key way of producing higher results.

    No ruling out of post conversion repentances anyway. So Michael L Brown is (as usual) correct to question the so-called hyper grace message of such writers as Darin Hufford. But DH and others are absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that mention of NT post-conversion repentance is not at all central – maybe however this is for the reason I gave above (higher expectations producing higher results unless in the immature) rather than for the reason that being under grace means you don’t have to say sorry any more. I find their presentations especially thin, whereas the gospel is rich. I also find that there is a danger that this message will lead to cultural compromise, which is not merely an error but the common factor in most church errors. It is unlikely to be aligned with zeal or enthusiasm – and that is not a good sign. I too question the term hyper grace as though one could ever have too much grace. It is not the most appropriate term by a long chalk. That does not take away from the fact that the errors in question are indeed errors. I have always found that repentance at the start of a service and at any other time is both especially liberating and essential. And repentance with prayer is the sine qua non of revival. But I would be hard pressed to say that these patterns are especially evident from the NT.

    The best book I know on atonement, and one which brings out its rich multidimensionality, however much some of us want to claim Christus Victor as closest to comprehensive, is F W Dillistone, The Christian Understanding of Atonement.

  5. As Christopher says, there is nothing against post-conversion repentance. Indeed the classic text of 1 John 1:8-10 implies it.

    Many of us will be familiar with the opening of BCP Morning Prayer:

    “Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together…”

    Might not public penitence be the answer to the outside/inside issue? If in our public worship we confess our sin, we are clearly not claiming to be better.

    Unfortunately, I know of even Anglican churches which seem to shun confession. The standard services all contain it. The rubric of a ‘Service of the Word’ states that “[Prayers of Penitence] may be omitted except at the Principal Service on Sundays and Principal Holy Days.” I think this is often honoured more in the breach than the observance. (Having an early Holy Communion and calling that ‘the Principle Service’ I would regard as canonical evasion.)

    Is it regarded as offensive to say to people: “you need to confess”?

    On a different tack, my response to the question posed in the title is that Jesus does accept us as we are. Our repentance is our (continuing) response to that acceptance. I think there is a hint of this in Mark 1:14-15: the kingdom is at hand, [so] repent and believe.

  6. Repentance:
    1 How is evangelical repentance related to faith?
    It is not a discrete external act; it is the turning round of the whole life in faith in Christ.
    Qualification. Is repentance a condition? Repentance is not a qualification for coming to Christ… sanctification makes no contribution whatsoever to justification.
    2 Fruit of faith?
    2.1 While we can not divide faith and repentance we do distinguish them carefully… repentance takes place in the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ. The latter motives the former, not vice versa.
    2.3″Totus Christus ” Christ should be presented in all the fullness of his person and work; faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in him, and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit.
    3 Primacy of Grace,
    3.1Justification by Grace Alone
    3.2 Free justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ Alone lies at the heart of the application of redemption.
    4.1 The faith that UNITES us to Christ also sucks in every spiritual blessing in him.
    In the New Testament they are INSEPARABLE (justification and Union with Christ) since faith, grace and justification are each, in different aspects”in Christ”. Justification and union, imputation and impartation, are not alternatives. Neither exists apart from the other. They should never be set over against each other.
    4.2 … the dominant way the NT describes believers. It is that we are “in Christ”, The expression , in one form or another occurs well over 100 times in Paul’s 13 letters.
    4,3 Renewed mind:
    If this is not the overwhelmingly dominant way in which we think of ourselves, we are not thinking with the renewed mind of the gospel… (and) we are …highly likely to have the tendency to separate Christ from his benefits… as though we possessed them ourselves..
    4.4 Proclamation
    4.4.1 ..and the proclamation of the gospel is made in terms of benefits rather than in terms of (offer of) Christ himself.
    4.4.2 It is the offer of “totus Christus” (Augustine) the Whole Christ.
    Christ is to be offered offered to all, the great, small, poor, rich, high, low, holy, profane, atheist, graceless, ignorant, hypocrites, lazy, lukewarm (James Durham -sermon Unsearchable Riches of Christ)5
    5 Sanctification: in a word, Christlikeness.
    When we behold the glory of Christ in the gospel, it reorders the loves of our hearts, so we delight in him supremely, and other things that have ruled our lives lose their enslving power over us. This is sanctification by going deeper into the gospel, but it’s not merelytelling yourself that you are accepted and forgiven, as foundational as that is.

    All of the above is from The Whole Christ” by Dr Sinclair Ferguson.

    Is a similar vein, though I’ve only listen to the first lecture, is this from Dr Grant Macaskill, Aberdeen University on which his book “Living in Union with Christ: Paul’s Gospel and Christian Moral Identity” is based. Thanks to Ian Paul for the “heads-up” for the book.

  7. Craig Keener is surely right in that contemporary use of a word trumps its etymology. It is interesting Ian that you mention “nice” —which when said with a certain intonation (of which the late Terry Wogan was a master) means not nice.

  8. Great stuff Ian

    I like John Wimber’s dictum “the way in is the way on”
    He was speaking of our need for repentance

    I will stop repenting when I stop sinning

  9. The NT does not give a full picture of the earliest church – there are bound to be gaps. The Rev letters (and Corinthian letters etc) do confirm that postconversion repentance was expected.

  10. Hi Paul. You might be interested to know that a Thai friend of mine recently became a Christian. She was from a Buddhist background and knew very little at all about Christianity. Jesus appeared to her in a dream and the first thing he did was show her her sins and then said to her in Thai “Repent of your sins”. She didn’t know how to repent so she rang me for help. She repented of her sins, has given her life to Christ and been filled with the Holy Spirit . That encounter with Jesus completely changed her life. I am surprised that there is any doubt about Jesus’ call to repentance. When my friend told me her story I said that it was clear to me that she had indeed encountered Jesus because of his call to repentance.

  11. Some of my friends are strong on the ‘grace message’ and I feel uneasy when they seem to be interpreting the words of Jesus out of context.

    Thanks for this article, Ian.

  12. Thank you for this post. I think you’re absolutely correct to say that repentance is a key component of the way the gospel is represented in the New Testament. I also think there are some important nuances about what repentance means that tend to get lost in liberal vs. conservative assessments of the question.

    It seems like conservative-minded believers focus on the types of personal repentance that are emphasized in the early New Testament epistles, especially the pastoral epistles that encourage Christians to set aside former lifestyles and behaviors widely considered to be harmful to themselves and others. Because this comes from the earliest layers of the New Testament record, it is hard to imagine that anyone could say that repentance from sin–the conscious disruption of moral harm and the substitution of a constructive behavioral alternative–is not an essential part of the gospel as the disciples of Jesus imagined it.

    In more liberal circles, calls to repentance seem to parallel the repentance model of the later synoptic gospels, where Jesus is depicted as preaching repentance to large groups, typically (but not exclusively) encouraging them to turn aside from major cultural and social sins; his public ministry is in many ways a challenge to or disruption of the public theological trends that ultimately contributed to Rome’s catastrophic reaction against Jerusalem in 66-70 CE–namely, militant nationalism, messianic literalism, and dogmatic exclusivism. The preaching of Jesus in the gospels to “repent” in this context is a call to adopt a new type of thinking about what the Kingdom of God is and what it means to be a child of God in the world, and condemns and corrects the moral errors of institutions and groups in places of large-scale spiritual influence and religious authority.

    It seems like both of these meanings or applications of repentance exist in the NT, but whenever a conservative exegete says “Repent,” a liberal audience says “Yeah I sin sometimes but what about these major cultural sins that are harming souls on a massive scale?” and whenever a liberal says, “We have to repent of these national or institutional sins that are harming so many people and will lead us all into disaster,” a conservative tends to say, “Oh but what about all the personal sins you are not addressing? That’s where the real problem lies!”

    So we have to have room for both notions of repentance, and if we don’t, we are probably distorting the New Testament representation of how and why repentance is important to the spiritual life.

  13. I have always understood ‘metanoia’ as a turning from something/someone and then one turns from that to something/someone else ‘Epistrepho’ as two separate actions. Because that is not explained, we have a lot of ‘Christians’ who have not really turned from their old ways, they have just simply turned to God without dealing with the past sin.

  14. My reading this morning included this verse:

    ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. (Luke 10.13)

    The ‘sackcloth and ashes’ associated with the repentance implies sorrow over sin.

    It is also interesting that Jesus seems to imply that the purpose of miracles is to bring people to this kind of repentance.

  15. Two points to make:
    1. Of course the call to repentance will be offensive to ‘outsiders’ – rebels don’t like being told to lay down their arms!
    2. I don’t see the dichotomy between ‘change your mind’ and ‘turn’. Surely one can only turn from living independently of God to living in submission to him BECAUSE one has changed one’s mind?


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