Its easy for some people to see their need for repentance. Theyve led wild lives. Theyve done all sorts of terrible things, so when it comes time to repent they literally have a checklist of sins they need to start working their way through. Lord, Im sorry for this
and for this
and for this, etc. But there are others who have a much more difficult time seeing their need for repentance. Sure, theyve done some minor things wrong, and maybe their attitude hasnt always been that great, but by comparison to a lot of other people, theyve led very good lives. Theyre decent, law-abiding citizens.
As we read through this passage about John the Baptist, there is something we need to keep in mind: John was telling good people that they needed to repent. Of course there were some rough individuals mixed into those crowds, like tax-collectors and soldiers (Lk 3:12-14), but most of the people who were being baptized were normal, everyday Jews, people who went to work six days a week and then went to the temple or synagogue on the Sabbath. Compared to all the rest of the nations of the earth, these were the best-behaved. The moral standards everywhere else were far lower, and if those people worshipped at all, it was idols. So if you put it in that perspective, the Jews were the group who least needed to repent. They were the good people on the planet. It was their neighbors who had serious sins to confess. But oddly enough, God sent John to these good people to call them to search their hearts and repent. It doesnt make sense
or does it?
John the Baptists revelation (Jn 1:19-34)
In this section of his gospel, the apostle John takes us out to a place along the southern end of the Jordan River and lets listen as John the Baptist testifies about Jesus. He had been baptizing people in water to prepare them for the coming Messiah, and at some point he baptized Jesus. When he did, God revealed to him two foundational truths about Jesus: He saw that Jesus would die for the sins of the world and that He would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit. John stated these insights this way: By calling Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world he declared Jesus would die for us; and by saying that the Father told him, This is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, he declared that Jesus would fulfill the ancient promise that God would come to live inside His people.
Almost 40 years later, as an old man pastoring the church in Ephesus, the apostle John described the ministry of Jesus using three simple words: water, blood and Spirit (1Jn 5:6-8). Each of us, even the best among us, needs all three.
What is repentance? (Mt 3:1-10)
How does a good person repent? Are they supposed to think real hard in order to remember the little white lies they told, or the times they were a bit selfish, or maybe said a bad word? Is God such a perfectionist that Hes going to reject them for just being human? The reason its so difficult to understand why a good person needs to repent is because we dont understand what repentance really is. We think it means telling God were sorry for doing bad things. We think that in order to repent properly we need to be horrified by our past behavior and come to a place where we loathe ourselves. And yes, depending on the choices weve made, some of us will experience tremendous sorrow when we face the facts about what weve done to others and to ourselves. But again, not everybody has made those choices. Not everybody can find things in their history to be horrified about. Theyve been good people.
To understand repentance, lets start with what its not. Its not hating myself. Its not sobbing uncontrollably as I face a shameful memory. Its not apologizing for a list of bad behaviors. These responses are expressions of sorrow, of regret, but theyre not repentance. And if we dont understand this there will be people who find the idea of repentance to be confusing, and even repulsive. They feel like theyre being asked to fake it, to pick through their past until they find something theyve done thats bad and then to focus on that bad thing until they can work themselves up emotionally to a level where they hate themselves. The process Im describing may sound silly to those of us with horrible histories because its effortless for us to remember our sins. Our problem is we cant forget. But there are such people, particularly those whove grown up in church or who had great parents who taught them disciplines and good boundaries from a young age, for whom this is a real issue.
The example of Paul (Php 3:3-9)
Thankfully the Bible gives us an example of just such a person. It was Paul. Yes, after he became a believer in Jesus Christ he realized he had persecuted the church and labeled himself the worst of sinners (1Ti 1:15), but growing up as a young man he had been very disciplined. He was one of those good people.
Listen: Philippians 3:3-6
In this part of his letter he was warning the church in Philippi about false teachers who were trying to convince them that they needed to practice certain parts of the Jewish law. To correct this deception, Paul wanted to show them that even a person who kept the Law of Moses as perfectly as is humanly possible, still needed to repent. So he used himself as an example. He said as a young man he had kept the Law blamelessly.
As a young man Paul had done everything he was supposed to do, and he did it zealously. He was one of those people who have a hard time trying to find something to confess. He told the Philippians that if it were possible for a person to earn a right standing before God, he would have earned it. But then he made an amazing statement which reveals what it is that good people, even really good people, need to repent of. Listen:
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord
and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Php 3:7-9).
Did you hear it? He just described how a good person repents. In fact this is the heart of repentance for everyone, even those who are really bad. What did he do? Paul says he stopped trusting in his own goodness. He totally rejected it. He called it garbage because he realized it had no power to save him. Then he chose to completely trust Jesus, to believe that what Jesus did for us when He died on the cross and rose from the dead provided all the goodness God requires. In other words, he stopped assuming that because he had lived a good life he deserved to go to heaven, and then he reached out and took hold of the gift God offered him. That was his repentance. It wasnt a decision that was driven by sorrowful emotions; it was a choice he made after he realized that salvation can only be received as a gift. And in order to receive that gift of righteousness, he had to first lay down his own. And notice, Paul understood it was not possible to trust both at the same time. Either he would trust himself or he would trust Jesus, and Paul chose Jesus.
The heart of repentance
This is the essence, the foundation, of all real repentance. Certainly repentance will include a willful turning away from the wrong ways Ive lived my life: from my selfishness, from the fact that Ive tried to live my life without God and from my desire to be in control of my own life. But at the heart of it all, at its deepest level, repentance finally comes down to this: recognizing that only Jesus is good enough to please God and then making the choice to turn away from my own goodness and to cling to His. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, to let Him put His goodness around me because thats what Paul means when he says he wants to be found in Him (v9). When God looked at him, Paul wanted to be surrounded by Jesus.
Water, blood and Spirit
Why is it so important to understand this? Because this is the essential step a person must take to be saved, whether they have led a really good life or a really bad life. Receiving the gift of Jesus righteousness involves two decisions: The first is to stop believing that I am, or must be, good enough to go to heaven. The second is to trust completely in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. And actually, there is a third decision God wants me to make, after Ive made the first two. He also wants me to welcome the Holy Spirit to live inside me.
John came up with his own way of describing these three steps. He called them the water, the blood and the Spirit, and by these words he meant the water of water baptism by which we indicate to God that we have repented of our sins, and in particular, of trusting our own goodness; the blood which Jesus shed on the cross which made Gods mercy possible; and the Spirit which is the Holy Spirit with which Jesus baptizes those who come to Him through the water and the blood.
John used these three powerful wordswater, blood and Spiritto capture the basic elements of our salvation. All of us need all three if we are to enter fully into the new life God intends for us. We need to:
Repent (water): We need to turn away from relying on ourselves to please God.
Believe (blood): We need to trust that the cross of Jesus is the only thing that can make us good enough.
Receive (Spirit): Once weve passed through the water and the blood, we become truly righteous before God, and Jesus wants to baptize us with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been with us all along, but now that were clean, now that were a holy temple, He wants to dwell inside us. Jesus is the baptizer. Hes the One who pours the Holy Spirit into us; Hes the One who plunges us into the Spirit, but we must choose to welcome the Holy Spirit and then learn to draw on His power to live victorious and fruitful lives.
Each of us, even the best among us, needs all three.
1) How would you explain repentance to a child?
2) Have you repented? When was the first time you really took that step toward God?
3) Have you welcomed the Holy Spirit to dwell in you? Has He come? How do you know?