Jesus began His ministry with a simple message, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15 ). “Repent” is a simple word with lots of religious baggage, so what does it really mean? A few verses will get us to the point and explain how to repent.
One simple meaning is found in the book of Job, which describes a prolonged crisis in the life of the author. God allowed him to be stripped of his possessions, family and health. Most of the book is a dialogue between Job and his friends about possible reasons for Job’s suffering. Job defends himself, insisting he is innocent. Then God meets Job and impresses him with His power over all creation. Job concludes, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). The word translated “repent” (nihameti) comes from the verb “to be sorry”. Job was sorry for talking too much, instead of allowing God to defend him from his accusing “friends.”
In our case, repentance certainly includes sorrow but it goes much further and is expressed by another word (b’shubah). God promised, “In repentance and rest you shall be saved” (Isa. 30:15). The word includes the idea of turning back on a path, turning from evil and turning to good—a U-turn.
David knew the importance of U-turns. Once, while he was king in Jerusalem , he committed adultery. The royal residence stood on the summit of a small hill; other houses were built on the steep slope below. As he looked down one evening, he saw a woman bathing below. David tumbled down the precipice of lust. When he eventually acknowledged his sin, he turned his life around. Psalm 51 is David’s repentant prayer to God. He asked for forgiveness and said, “create in me a clean heart” (v. 10). God immediately accepted David’s U-turn and he became Israel ’s most celebrated king – repentance led to salvation. David’s heart-change was evident in his promise to help others turn to God (v. 13) and in his desire to praise God (vv. 14-15).
The New Testament makes a similar point. Sorrow might be part of repentance, but it is not enough: “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). Godly sorrow leads to a U-turn. The New Testament word for repentance, metanoia, comes from two words: “change” and “mind”. It indicates the same kind of turn that David made – changed thinking produces changed behavior. We will never regret such a decision.
That first simple message of Jesus is packed with meaning. His society was a frenzy of political and religious activity. A few people believed in the system; some fought for or taught for a better world; the hopeless clung to survival. Jesus came with good news—God’s kingdom within reach. All it took was a U-turn. Turn from sin, from dead religion, from dependence on political activism or idealism, and from despair; turn instead to belief in Jesus and His message.