‘Repentance’ is a word that you come to know quickly in Christian circles. It’s not a phrase that is used all that much in daily life outside of the church. You might talk about someone as being ‘repentant’ if they are particularly sorry about something or other, but repentance itself is a concept reserved for church life.
Repentance is essential for the Christian life. When Jesus began his earthly ministry, as he went around the villages of Galilee and Judaea, his message was ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ If we are to grow in following Jesus, therefore, it is important that we grapple with the idea of repentance.
When we think of repentance we most likely think of it in relation to the start of the Christian life. To become a Christian is to repent of our sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness. That may well be the way in which we summarise the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls all people to come and repent, and repentance is the gateway into the kingdom of God.
All that is true, but it presents a one-sided view of repentance. It only shows the negative part of repentance: what we turn away from. But repentance contains a positive too: we turn away from things, in order to turn toward something else. For the Christian the essence of repentance is that we turn from sin and turn toward God.
This is, I believe, a helpful way of thinking about repentance as not only the start of the Christian life, but the way of living the Christian life. Certainly we continue to sin, and continue to have sinful behaviour that we need to turn away from and bring to Jesus for forgiveness. But more than that, our daily life as followers of Jesus is turning away from our own sinful and selfish ways and turning back towards Jesus Christ. It is turning Godward.
Another summary of the gospel could be found in Isaiah chapter 45:
“Turn to me and be saved” Isaiah 45:22
The daily discipline of repentance is moment by moment turning Godward. This is more than an action, it is an attitude and a way of life. It is looking to God for our strength and wisdom; it is turning to Jesus as the way and the truth and the life. Turning Godward involves all three members of the Trinity: we turn our face toward God the Father, we turn through the saving work of Jesus the Son, we are able to turn by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
I find this idea of turning Godward to be a tremendous help in cultivating a life of repentance. I am not only turning away from what is bad; I am turning toward all that is good and holy and right. Being a Christian is turning to Jesus, not once but always. Following Jesus is turning Godward day by day.