We need to repent of the word ‘repent.’
Shouted from pulpits and street corners, it’s long been a favorite refrain of fire-and-brimstone preachers hoping to provoke fear-induced conversions.
Proclaimed to the faithful, it has long been a pious call to the congregation to enumerate, renounce, and turn from their sins.
Painted on billboards and signs, it has long been a beloved clarion call for self-proclaimed apocalyptic messengers agitating for the end of the world.
Jesus, however, didn’t preach repentance.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. It was technically Jesus’ first recorded command to the masses in Matthew and Mark.
“Repent,” Jesus says, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
But his version of repentance and the dominant version found in modern Christianity, I’m convinced, don’t have much to do with each other. If we hear Jesus say ‘repent’ and what comes to mind are frightful images of condemnation and damnation and not hopeful visions of transformation and new life then we have fundamentally misunderstood Jesus.
Repentance isn’t really about confessing the sins we’ve committed or attempting to make straight our wayward paths. Not exactly and not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things. They are both holy and good endeavors.
They just don’t have as much to do with biblical repentance as we might think at first glance. In fact, typical notions of repentance aren’t at all what Jesus means when he says to repent for the kingdom of God is near.
In the Greek, whenever Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not preaching fire-and-brimstone, he’s not shouting turn-or-burn, and he’s not proclaiming the end of the world as we know it. He’s not even really talking about confessing and asking forgiveness for our sins.
Rather, he’s preaching transformation.
That’s literally what the word —metanoia — means, a transformation in our thinking.
It’s linguistically connected to — metamorphoo — the word we translate in reference to Jesus’ transfiguration. So when we hear Jesus say ‘repent’ maybe we’d be better off envisioning ourselves on the mountaintop transfigured alongside Jesus rather than imagining a fervent sweat-soaked preacher hoping we’ll grovel down the aisle for forgiveness.
Repentance shouldn’t call to mind the penance we need to do to quench God’s anger, but the holy transformation we are undergoing because of God’s unquenchable love. Repentance isn’t punitive or sorrowful. It’s restorative, hopeful, and empowering. In calling on the people to repent, Jesus is proclaiming the transformation of the world and of us. He’s preaching a new paradigm in the world. He is welcoming the new reality of the kingdom of God here among us and within us.
So as an experiment, I went through the Christian Scriptures, replacing the word ‘repent’ and all its damnable baggage with the more accurate word ‘transform.’
You should try it some time. The results are striking, and I daresay, transformative.
“Repent for the kingdom of God is near” becomes “Be transformed, for the kingdom of God is near.”
It’s quite a different note to strike, isn’t it? It also reflects Jesus’ own mission and ministry a lot better than our typical notions of repentance, too.
Be transformed: the kingdom of God is arriving. And to be citizens of the kingdom of God, our lives, our realities, our very way of being in the world must be transformed by God’s love.
It’s not just the words of Jesus that are affected either. Even John the Baptist seems to undergo a metamorphosis.
“Bear fruits worth of transformation,” he says at one point when translated more accurately.
Just think about that for a moment. What are the fruits of transformation in this world? It’s a question worth pondering, really. Jesus indicates those fruits bring about a transformed world where the oppressed and captive are free, good news proclaimed to the poor, the year of Jubilee and destruction of indebted living. That would indeed be a transformation not just to behold but to belong to, to be part of.
When the disciples are commissioned by Jesus to share their Lord’s message, the writer of Mark explains “they went out and proclaimed that all should be transformed.”
Repentance isn’t about telling people they are wrong, in other words. It’s about proclaiming that there is so much more to life, so much more to them, to others, to us together.
Can you imagine if Christians went out into the world and preached true biblical repentance like this?
Imagine if we went out into the world and proclaimed, by word and by deed, “Be transformed, for the transformed reality of God’s love is here!”
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