We can often think of repentance in very negative ways. The call to repent can bring to mind a person standing on a street corner, telling people to turn from their sins because judgement is coming that will result in condemnation for all who are not living the right way. Repentance is often based on threats and can be motivated by guilt and fear.
When we listen to John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Matthew 3, we can hear him urging those who are listening to him to turn from a particular way of living. What is important is that John was talking this way to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious people of his day (v7). John was telling them that going through a religious ritual with no intention of making changes in their lives was worthless. Instead of thinking that they had no need to repent because of their religious goodness, they needed to produce the fruit that comes from a changed heart and mind in their lives.
This is a challenge to all of us. It can be easy for us, too, to go through the motions of turning up to church, saying a prayer of confession, hearing the forgiveness, without it making a difference in our lives. When John the Baptist calls us to produce fruit in keeping, he is saying that repentance will show in the way we live and relate to other people.
For example, during Advent we celebrate God’s gifts of hope, peace, joy and love through the birth of Jesus. This is a good time to look at our lives and ask whether we are producing the fruit of hope, peace, joy or love in our lives. If we are turning up to worship, lighting the candles each week, singing carols and other songs, but not finding hope, peace, joy or love in our lives, then we are not too different from the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up to be baptised by John but were not willing to change their ways of living. It might sound harsh, but when John says that the axe is at the root of the tree, ready to cut it down if it is not bearing fruit (v10), he also warning us that God wants to see the fruit of hope, peace, joy and love in our lives.
What produces this fruit is turning towards God by trusting in the promise of his coming kingdom. Matthew writes that John’s message of repentance was the same as Jesus’ message at the start of his ministry: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2; 4:17 NIV). They both call people to turn to God and be part of his coming kingdom on earth. The coming Kingdom of Heaven is good news for us because Christ’s kingdom brings with it all the goodness of God in the person of Jesus. John and Jesus both call us to repent, to turn towards God, on the basis of the promise of God’s goodness coming to us in his kingdom. We can hear this call to repentance as the promise of something good and not just a threat of punishment.
With the coming of Christ’s kingdom is everything we need to produce the fruit God is looking for. If I am trying to grow fruit on a tree, the best way to help it produce a good crop is to feed it, water it, care for it and nurture it. God does the same with us by giving us what we need through Jesus to produce fruit in us. This is called ‘grace’. If we are lacking hope in our lives, Jesus gives us hope as the one who defeated death and whose life is stronger than anything that might try to take our hope away. If we are in conflict, either with ourselves or with others, Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross establishes peace between us and God which we can live out in our relationships with ourselves and with others. If we are lacking joy, the good news of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection can give us joy as we live in the reality of God’s grace and love for us. And if we are finding it hard to love God, others or ourselves, the love that God show us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection can inspire love in us for everyone who needs it. Whatever fruit we may be lacking in our lives, by turning towards Christ’s kingdom through faith, the Holy Spirit provides us with all we need to produce the fruit of repentance in our lives.
That is why John the Baptist calls us to repent. Instead of spending our lives looking for hope, peace, joy or love in ways that will ultimately fall short, he is calling us back to the one place where God provides us with everything we need to produce what he is looking for. Repentance is a vital part of the lifestyle of the follower of Jesus. It grows when we trust that God has everything we need for this life and the next and gives us what we need as an on-going act of grace through the coming of his kingdom in Jesus. Repentance is much bigger than turning up to church sometimes and saying a ‘sorry’ prayer. By participating in acts of confessing sin with sisters and brothers in Christ, and by receiving the forgiveness God has for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit will continue to grow us to maturity so we can produce the fruits of repentance which God is looking for in our lives.
More to think about:
- Do you tend to think about repentance as turning away from judgement & condemnation, or turning towards the hope, peace, joy and love Jesus brings in his coming kingdom? is the difference important? Can you explain why?
- I have talked about some of the fruits of repentance as hope, peace, joy and love. What are some other fruits that grow out of turning towards Jesus & living in his kingdom?
- The New Testament talks a lot more about repentance than confessing sin. In what ways are repentance & confession different? In what ways are they connected?
- What is one aspect of your life where repentance (making changes) is hard? How can being connected with Jesus help you make changes in your life? (see John 15:1-8)
- It can be a lot easier to pray a prayer of confession in church than it is to repent by confessing to someone that we have wronged them. Is there someone that you have wronged to whom it would be good for you confess to? How can this help establish peace in your life this Christmas?