What was Jesus’ first public command?
Think about it. “Love your neighbor?” Good thought.
“Judge not, lest you be judged?” You’d think so, wouldn’t you?
No, it’s much messier, much more offensive; much less agreeable. Jesus’s command was to repent. I’ll paraphrase it this way: “change your mind and life.”
But what does repentance mean? If you grew up like me in evangelical circles, you learned something like this: repentance means turning from sinfulness and towards God; agreeing with God about your sin. Repentance is turning from making yourself God.
But as I have continued to follow Jesus, I have learned how multi-faceted repentance is. As the work of the Spirit is dynamic throughout our lives, so is the nature of repentance. Whereas repentance is frequently taught as a static, one-time turning from secret individual sins, I see Jesus in the scriptures challenging every aspect of our lives: what we do with our minds and hands, how we spend our money, and how we view others in our own culture and around the world. Jesus reforms the whole person. Here are a few examples from the scriptures.
“Bear Fruit in Keeping with Repentance”
For those of you who don’t speak King James English, let me paraphrase Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8. “Let your repentance be perpetual, ongoing.” Repentance is not a solitary event done at the altar on Sunday, or during a teary conversion, but a lifestyle, a constant reforming of one’s mind and behavior (Rom. 12:2). I believe our reforming forefathers in the faith tapped into this with their phrase semper reformanda (“always reforming”). Repentance doesn’t always look like a silent prayer, but can also call for a revolution of structures, thoughts, and processes. If you are a Christian, you have a whole life full of repenting ahead of you.
Restitution and Restoration
Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was a wealthy man through exploitation and theft. He met Jesus, heard his teaching, received His grace, and his initial reaction was recognizing restitution as part and parcel of a proper response to Jesus. Why didn’t he say, “Lord, I’m not going to steal anymore, but will now act justly”? He knew he could not continue to live in his wealth and stature and follow Jesus. Once injustice is committed, a simple return to “playing by the rules” is not the proper response, as it does not acknowledge the damage done by the exploiter. If damage is done by one’s motor vehicle, whether bodily or to property, society doesn’t demand that the driver repent by driving within the law from then on. Amends must me made, and that which was lost must be restored, relationally and economically. Zacchaeus knew this, and acted accordingly. Read our other contributors’ thoughts on Zacchaeus here. (I’ll be diving into what restitutive repentance might look like in “Economics of Repentance pt. 2,” a forthcoming post.)
Economics of Repentance
Read Luke 3:10-14. The crowds ask John the Baptist what repentance from sin looks like. He responds with strictly socio-economic commands. Share your clothes and food with the poor. Tax Collectors, don’t steal. Soldiers, don’t extort people by force and violence, and be content with your wages. This is a far cry from the intensely internal-focused, individual repentance we hear coming from the majority of our pulpits. In a world full of poverty, hunger, and oppression, why have we not found a space in the modern evangelical conversation for the economics of repentance? I fear the answer.
In conclusion, an encouragement. While the above discussion reveals aspects of repentance we must amend, we ought not forget who moves in and calls us to this action: The risen Jesus. He has made promises. He is trustworthy. This turning we speak of, this intentional wrecking of one’s thoughts and beliefs for others is life-giving. I echo the men of Jerusalem in Acts 11:18 in their prayer that God would grant us “repentance that leads unto life.”