Third Week of Advent: Repentance

I imagine that anyone reading this who has grown up with siblings should be well-versed in the topic of repentance by now. I have long lost count of the number of times I heard the words, “apologize to your sister” growing up. In most cases, I was compelled by one or both of my parents to apologize for my actions towards my sister. Begrudgingly, I mumbled those few words, “I’m sorry” with little recognition of my own fault or the harm I may have caused my sister through my prior actions.

My simple example provides only a small glimpse of the complexities involved in the broad theme of repentance. This theme spans the entire Bible, but a few noteworthy characters and passages especially stand out. The third week of the Advent season will be focusing on Psalm 51 – King David’s personal cry for repentance, and Luke 3:7-18 – John the Baptist’s public call to repentance.

We will see that repentance is an action-producing state of heart, for the purpose of restored relationship with God and other people, brought about with help from God himself.

I’m sure we can all take great comfort in the fact that King David – a man after God’s own heart – was capable of committing such a terrible string of bad decisions (if you are unfamiliar with the story, see 2 Samuel 11 and following). After committing his great blunder, and following a confrontation (which was itself an act of God’s grace!), David offered up his heart to Yahweh, providing a model of what genuine repentance looks like.

Psalm 51 is categorized as a “Penitential Psalm,” meaning a psalm of repentance, and is one of seven in the book of Psalms. The entire Psalm is powerful, and I urge to take some time this week to read and further reflect on it. Or, you can take my wife’s advice, and listen to Jon Foreman sing it here.

David understood that genuine repentance required an inward change.

And yet he also understood that he could not bring this change about on his own. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” he prayed, “and renew a right spirit within me” (v. 10).

David also recognized that repentance had far reaching effects. Following his request for forgiveness, David adds “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13). Instead of asking for his own forgiveness and stopping there, David proceeds to tell God that he will instruct other people so that they too can be restored to a right relationship with him.

While David’s words in Psalm 51 begin to hint at the wide-ranging dimensions of repentance, John the Baptist’s brazen public call in Luke 3:7-18 leaves little room for doubt. John’s ministry –  preparing the people for the return of Yahweh – is found in all four gospels, enjoying a wider presence than even many of our favourite stories about Jesus. John’s preaching of repentance also provides a link to the Old Testament theme of returning to Yahweh.

Central to John’s message was the need to repent as preparation for the coming of Yahweh to his people.

While David’s prayer acknowledges our need for divinely-transformed hearts, John the Baptist emphasizes the necessary broad, action-oriented, dimensions of repentance. Like James, who tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), so John emphasizes that genuine repentance will produce a change in one’s behaviour. On this he told his crowds, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”

Repentance is ultimately about a change of direction, about making a turn.

At the prophecy of John’s birth, the angel Gabriel told John’s father Zechariah, “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). And indeed he did. This time, it is about a return to Yahweh.

Eventually, following John’s ministry, Yahweh himself returned to his people – in the person of Jesus. Both Jesus and his disciples carried John’s message forward, “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

This advent season as we reflect on his first coming, and anticipate his second, may we remember that repentance is a part of the Christian journey. Just as we need to be reminded to believe, so also do we need to remember the place repentance has in the Christian walk. We are all prone to wander.  

In keeping with our overarching Advent theme of “Preparation and Welcome,” I invite you to examine yourselves, and to ask the Holy Spirit to show you areas in which you may be beginning to stray from him. The well-known Christian maxim “the devil condemns, but the holy spirit convicts” is helpful here, as we remember that the Holy Spirit seeks repentance for the purpose of restoring our relationship with him, and with one another. At the same time, let us recognize that we have a helper with us in our journey, renewing and strengthening us, day by day.

Create in us clean hearts, O God.

Josh Wilhelm

Josh has been attending Redemption church with his wife Katrina ever since their first full day in Vancouver. Originally from Ontario, both Josh and Katrina came to BC for further studies - and are genuinely enjoying their West-coast adventure! An animal lover, Josh enjoys lifting weights, playing the drums, and sharing laughs with friends.