We Need the Verb "Repent"

When the apostles were sent out to preach by their Rabbi, what did they preach? What was the content of their message? 

The Weighty Title ‘Apostle’

Before the answer, the question gains weight by considering what Jesus meant by using the term “apostle.” It all started when “he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired.” He chose twelve men he wanted, and he then called them “apostles” (Mark 3:13-14). Why?

The Greek word apostolosis nothing too fancy in itself. It simply means “one who is sent.” But when it is used by Jesus, there is weight. Importance abounds, but not in the word, neither in the men; but in the Sender. The Son who gets the “well-pleased” vindication from the Voice above, the Holy One whom these demons seem to know, the Hand which does miracles, the alleged Son of Man, is sending these men.

Being sent by him—being apostles of Christ­—they represented him. They spoke in his name. More than they knew at the time, it meant they were ambassadors of God the King Jesus. This is why Jesus sends them out. “These twelve Jesus sent out” (Matthew 10:5).

What then did these ‘sent ones’—sent by the Sender himself—preach? It can be, and biblically is, summed up in one word: repent.

The Proclamation to Repent

Mark 6:12 makes it plain: “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.” These are the men sent from this God-man who is full of compassion. These are the men of the authoritative, amazing teacher. These are men sent from the incarnate God of Love. And what do they preach? “They preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12, NIV). With people most likely flocking to them since they knew that these men were with the famous Rabbi, these men tell people to turn. That’s their message. “Turn, turn, turn!”

It’s a message they got from their Master himself. As apostolos, it couldn’t be any other way. Jesus’ message: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Their message was the same.

There’s Many Other Options! 

I was struck by this. God is walking around—finally. This is the fulfilment of the entire Old Testament. The Gospel writers labor to show that passage after passage after passage were always pointing to this time of the Messiah; a time now come. He’s here. He’s talking. He’s proclaiming something. Now he has men purposed to do the same. And the message? Repent.

Oh how many options there were for main message themes! They could’ve proclaimed forgiveness as the main theme. They could’ve emphasized the compassion of God in his coming. They could’ve focused on God’s faithfulness in the coming New Covenant. The list could go on. (And to be clear: These things are mentioned much in the New Testament, but it isn’t the main theme of God’s apostles as they go and proclaim. Repentance is.) 

So why this focus?

What This One Verb Includes

This one imperative verb was the main command, and it communicated so much. It did so then, it does so today as well. Essentially, as stated above, the verb means “to turn” or “to change.” The command is to turn, to change. But what does that even mean? Here’s where the word communicates much.

First, the word implies the reality of personal sin and wrong doing. Specifically, using the imagery of turning, if we must turnthen we must be going the wrong way. So not only wrongdoing, but wrong-walking, wrong-living, wrong-being is involved. The command, then, implies: turn from that wrongness.

Second, the verb shows that if we don’t turn from this wrongness, then we’re not right. Specifically, we’re not right with the living God. His holiness, therefore, is also implied. The necessity to turn is rooted in our missing of the mark, with his holiness being the mark. But turn to what?

Third, the word reveals the reality of something different, better, healing to turn to. If this wasn’t the case, the word would have no meaning. Herein lies the verb itself. Here’s the commanded action: turn to something better. Which is why the word doesn’t just stop there.

Fourth, the command points to an available forgiveness and restoration. This is the only way Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom is near can be ‘good news.’ If this kingdom only includes a just judgment by the King of our wrongdoing, then it wouldn’t be ‘gospel.’ It’d be a verdict. It’d be a ruling. It’d be a decision of God against us. But it wouldn’t be gospel. The good news lies in the fact that although we’re going the wrong way against God’s holiness, there is not only something better, butthere is a specific remedy. Which bring us to the last implication.

Fifth, the word directs us to a way to enter into this arrived kingdom. This is the anticipation of the whole Old Testament; this is the goal of the good news: to be in the kingdom with the King himself. This is why it is the gospel of the kingdom. Here’s the destination. No longer wrong-living against the good and perfect God, we turn back to him, find forgiveness and restoration, and then live forever in the kingdom with the King.

Or to say it in a word, we “repent.” We then ask others to do the same.

Why We Must Use the Verb Frequently

A lot is at stake if we underemphasize what Jesus and his apostles firmly emphasized. As a pastor, teacher, and preacher myself, this obviously applies to me. But it applies to any Christian who speaks about Christianity (which, by definition, must be all of us).

‘Repent’ sounds scary. It sounds harshly accusatory. It makes us think that people won’t listen. But that’s on us being more products of our culture than people of the Bible. Biblical evidence shows it does produce effects. Peter continued using this verb in his famous sermon in Acts after Jesus had ascended (Acts 2:38). And many responded rightly. Church history shows the need as well.

But to be clear, our fear that people might find it accusatory isn’t mistaken. They will find it accusatory. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The good news proclamation is accusatory—at least at first. It’s accusing us and all people to be going the wrong way. That’s why we are in need of turning. 

Yet being accusatory didn’t keep the God of Love from using it. Neither his apostles. Because the accusation is for our good. It’s a needed diagnosis. The diagnosis is that we’re all heading the wrong way. We’ve all sinned against our good God. So, we must turn back to him or face the right judgment. There is hope; we can turn back to purpose and joy. But we must first realize the accusation sticks: We are going the wrong way.

But someone may say, “We can say that in nicer ways than the word ‘repent.’” True, we can. But we should then expect less results—less people to be deeply transformed by this glorious gospel. Time does not permit to argue this all here, but much of the nominal Christian culture state we’re in right now might be due to the mushy, repentance-lite, God-loves-you-only ‘gospel’ we have been preaching. Why? Because this message is easy to accept. It’s an add-on to your life, rather than a life-turning message. Often when it is ‘accepted,’ many continue to walk the way they always have been but now are said to be in ‘a relationship with God’ or knowing that God loves them—and sometimes even more.

But they’ve never turned.

What’s At Stake

And there’s the deep danger. There’s the need. People need to know that there is a massive reason for each of us to turn. And they need to know that the turning is a real thing—in what we confess, yes, but also in our minds, hearts, and lives. They need to know that without that genuine turning, any professed accepting of this gospel isn’t real conversion.

So may we discuss repentance. May we proclaim repentance—to ourselves and to others. It is God himself who calls all of us to repent. It’s for our good. It’s a glorious thing to turn. We get to turn to him. But we must beware of forsaking the emphasis of the apostles in favor of more ‘hearable,’ or ‘compassionate,’ or ‘loving’ verbs. When we do so, we most likely will communicate in such a way where people never truly hear the gospel, where people never really know God’s deep compassion, and where they are kept from his true love revealed at the cross. Thus, in seeking to be palatable, we will not only forsake power, but preciousness as well. 

This is at stake at our preaching of repentance. “They went out and proclaimed that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). May we boldly and lovingly do the same.