Repentance: that beautiful, ugly word

“Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three,—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness.” – John Wesley

There was a time, not too long ago, when I adamantly loathed the word “repentance.” That little term has the capacity to illicit negative responses from many of us, primarily due to the harshness by which the concept is often preached.

Images of a fiery evangelist undoubtedly enter many of our minds when the word is pronounced. Whether intended or not, the message we receive is that of an angry God who is itching to send us to hell if we don’t “get right.”

It is unfortunate that so many lives have been hurt and countless people have been repelled by Christianity due to poor proclamation on the concept of repentance. After coming to a truer understanding of what it means to repent, I now regard the idea as one of the most beautiful aspects of our faith.

To repent literally means to change one’s mind and heart and to subsequently respond appropriately. The bad news is that we are sinners, all of us. We can’t help it, it comes with our fallen nature. We all have certain sins we struggle with more than others, and no one is excluded or immune.

The good news is we have a God who cares. God doesn’t hate people; He hates sin, and He hates what it does to us. When God initiates a conviction of sin in our hearts, He is truly looking out for our best interest.

To repent is to recognize that conviction and to experience a change of heart through God’s grace and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit inside us. God leads, we follow.

Pastor and author J. Heinrich Arnold once wrote these words on the doctrine of repentance, which I think are a wonderful summation:

“People dislike (the call to repentance) because they do not understand what repentance means. Repentance does not mean self-torment; nor does it mean being judged by others. It means turning away from the corruption and mammonism of fallen humankind and letting our hearts be moved by the atmosphere of the kingdom of God. Anyone who has gone through true repentance knows that it makes the heart melt like wax, that it shocks us by showing us our sinfulness. But that should not be the central experience. God must be the center of a repentant heart – God, who was revealed at the cross as love, and who alone brings reconciliation.”

I preach repentance today because I have experienced it, and, through God’s grace, continue to do so. This is part of the lifelong process of sanctification, a primary teaching in Methodist theology, and I hope it never stops.

I preach repentance today because it is my desire to see others reap the beauty of turning away from sinful hearts and embracing the glory, love, and peace of God’s Kingdom.

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