To honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we Christians might insist anew that the whole life of the Christian is indeed about repentance. Jesus began his ministry with such a call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17), and repentance is the key note in the early church’s preaching (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 8:22, 11:18, 13:24, 17:30, 19:4, 20:21, 26:20).
And this should include not just others’ repentance but our own. Not just confessing sins against God but also sins against neighbor. We have recently learned how to prophetically speak truth to power but have lost the nerve to speak prophetically to ourselves. The problem is always out there, in an unjust institution or a careless or evil person.
We avoid repentance because we remain addicted to the drug of self-justification. “I don’t need to repent because I’m the one righteously calling out the social and personal sins of others.” Or “If I say I am complicit, it will give my political and social enemies leverage against me and my cause.” Or even more to the point, “If I were to really look at and then acknowledge how much self-centeredness and pride infects even my most righteous actions, I would have to admit I’m a hypocrite and a moral failure.”
Well, yes. Aren’t we all? That’s precisely why Jesus came, to save the world from itself and to save us from ourselves. That’s why the word repentance is usually connected to the phrase “good news,” as Mark highlights in his summary of Jesus’ early preaching: “Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15).
Repentance is the means by which we experience the forgiveness of sins, for one. This alone changes everything, of course. And thus it is also the means by which we can change the temperature of the angry debates in church, online, and in our culture.