Over the course of the first three weeks of Lent, I have been thinking a lot about two words. They’re very appropriate words for Lent, and they’re words that one hears week in and week out in churches all across the country. The two words that I’ve been dwelling upon are repent and believe. These words get a lot of coverage in altar calls and baptismal vows, in evangelical churches and mainline churches alike. I grew up hearing the message proclaimed weekly: “Repent, and believe the Gospel!” But what does this mean? Growing up in rural Southern Baptist churches, this meant acknowledging our sins, apologizing to God, and asking him to come and live in your heart, to enable you to live a Christian life. Is this really what Jesus meant when he went about proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!”? Have we watered down the Gospel to an affirmation of certain doctrinal statements and intellectual agreement when it is so much more? How can we reclaim the full message of the Gospel? To do so, we must repent, and believe.
Repent, typically understood in modern-day Christian culture, means (basically) to acknowledge your sins and to apologize to God for making them. This is a purely spiritual understanding, which only affects an individual’s real life secondarily. In many churches this is a means to becoming a member of the in-crowd, of being welcomed into the church family, of being called a Christian. Nothing else is required except that you repent and believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose again, and you’re good to go! This is where we water down the Gospel.
Jewish historian Josephus tells a story from his days of being military governor in Galilee. In the 60s he was sent to deal with issues being created by faction of the army bent on violently overthrowing Roman rule. When he discovered a plot against his life by the leader of the separatist faction, he offered him a chance to smooth things over. The words that should interest us here are his command to the potential rebel leader: “Repent, and believe in me.” Now, Josephus certainly wasn’t commanding the leader to have a sad religious experience and devote his soul to Josephus, but instead, to turn from his violent, revolutionary aspirations and to instead follow Josephus’s plan instead.
The word repent literally means to turn around. This involves every aspect of one’s life. The word believe means to place our whole trust and whole devotion into another plan of action. Repent and believe the Gospel is therefore not only a command to feel sorry for our sins and affirm certain doctrinal positions. Repent and believe the Gospel is a call to abandon our way of doing things. It is a call to abandon our militarism, violence, busyness, aggression, domination, dehumanization, and our upholding of systems that thrive on these false demonstrations of power and success. It is a call to abandon the ways of the world, in light of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. It is a call to turn away from placing our hopes and trust in anyone other than Christ crucified and risen. To repent is to turn away from the Caesar’s of the world and to wholeheartedly proclaim that Jesus is Lord. To believe is to live the kingdom reality into the world around us each and every day.
This Lent, may we daily repent and believe the good news, that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, and orient our lives around this truth.