The Message of Repentance

‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mark 1:15).

    This passage of Scripture is packed with wholesome substance. It is characteristic of Mark to write with a crisp and concise directness. This means that he is able to squeeze a lot of information in to just a few lines. We have the Baptism of the Lord Christ by John, the prophet sent of God to prepare the way for the Christ. John, as it were, has rolled out the red carpet. Here at last, after thousands of years, the promised Messiah has come to save a people for Himself. The passage also speaks of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan, the commencement and content of His first preaching and the calling of His first disciples. You get all of this in just eleven verses. There is this sense of urgency to Mark’s writings. He uses the word immediately 41 times in his Gospel. It is used four times in the passage I’ve read to you. This is a fast paced, racy, get-to-the-point Gospel. Mark is a man with a message and he wastes no words in getting straight to the point. At the heart of this passage is a message of repentance. John had been a preacher of repentance and the Lord Christ continues that message, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel’. This isn’t a popular message today. People don’t want to hear about repentance, sin, and the judgement to come. Yet these are pervasive Biblical themes. You cannot read the Bible without encountering them on a regular basis and so if we are to be faithful to Scripture then we must deal with this subject of repentance. John the Baptist was a preacher of repentance, the Lord Christ is a preacher of repentance, so I must be a preacher of repentance too. Charles Spurgeon once said, ‘I know that for many this is a very unpalatable doctrine. Well, friend, you had better have your palate altered, for you will never be able to alter the doctrine. It is the truth of the everlasting God and cannot be changed’. Repentance is only unpalatable to the self-righteous Pharisee who believes in self salvation. But for us, who are being saved, we rejoice and glory in the God who does not despise the broken hearted sinner. We have a God who saves sinners, who welcomes the poor in spirit and the contrite in heart. I think that this is the best news a sinner can ever hear!
    1] Repentance is a message sealed with divine authority. At the Lord Christ’s baptism, we read of a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’. The one who brings this message of repentance to us is the Son of God. So the voice from heaven is the voice of God the Father. Here we are glimpsing into the mystery of the Trinity. We see something of the eternal, unchanging, wondrous love that has existed between the three Persons of the Godhead from all eternity. The Holy Spirit descends upon the Lord Christ like a dove and the Father speaks words of love and comfort to His Son. The Spirit is setting His seal of approbation upon the ministry of Christ and the Father is announcing his full approval of His Son. The Lord Christ came into this world. He came from eternity and broke into calendar time, into human history. He came on a rescue mission; a mission to seek and save the lost; a mission to bring fallen men and women back to God. The stamp of approval is set upon his ministry by the Father and Spirit. We see that the three persons of the Godhead co-operate in bringing about the salvation of sinners. It is not that the Son is willing and desirous to save, but that the Father and the Spirit are somehow reluctant to co-operate. On the contrary, our God who is Trinity is one who rescues fallen men and women from their plight and desperation in sin. There is full approbation of the work of Christ. His message, His work, His Gospel is sealed with divine authority. And the first words of His public ministry are ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel’. These are the words of God. They are divine words, holy words, and precious words. These words have the highest authority in heaven and on earth. They are not my words. They are not even Mark’s words. They are the words of the Son of God, who is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit.

    Moreover, this message of repentance does not come to us from the lips of a sinner. It comes to us from the pure lips, the clean lips, of the One who did not give into temptation. He was tempted in the wilderness by Satan and yet He didn’t give in to sin. He was tempted in every way and yet He is without sin. You might say, ‘who are you to tell me to repent?’ Well, I am nobody, I am nothing. I am the chief of sinners and have no right in myself to urge you to repentance. But these are not my words. These are words from another world. It is Jesus Christ who says to you, ‘repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. These are the words of a perfect man; a man without sin; a man who has every right to call sinners to repentance.

    We see here that He is fully God and so His message is sealed with divine Trinitarian authority. It carries the weight of the whole Godhead. And we see also that He is fully man, perfect man, and so His message is just right for us. It is the message that mankind needs to hear. You see, He knows us. He knows our frame. He knows our every weakness. He knows what it is to face the relentless onslaught of Satan’s temptations. He knows what it is to strive against the flesh and the world. This message of repentance doesn’t come from the lips of goodie-two-shoes or from a self righteousness hypocrite. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. These are the words of a man who knew no sin; a man with no deceit in His mouth; a man who was tempted just as we are, and yet remained sinless. This is an authentic, authoritative, honest, message from the man who is God. You must repent simply because Jesus says so.

    There is a deep ocean of comfort for all those who humble themselves and who come to Christ in repentance and faith. In ourselves, in all our works and doings, there is nothing that pleases God. We see our many weaknesses, our shortcomings, our imperfections and our sins, and we despair that God could ever love us. What hope is there for a sinner like me? Let us remember that they who repent and flee into the arms of a saving Christ are loved by the Father because the Father loves those who love and cling to His Son. If you have humbled yourself in repentance and come to Jesus for mercy, the Father regards you belonging to Christ. He sees you as He sees His own beloved Son. If you are joined to Christ in repentance and faith then the Father sees you ‘in Christ’, clothed in His righteousness, robed in His merits, and washed in His blood. If you have come to Christ in true faith and true repentance then the Father sees no spot, no wrinkle, no blemish in you. You are accepted, forgiven, redeemed in the Beloved. When the Father looks on you, He sees only the beauty and glory of Jesus. He looks upon you and sees the face of His Son, and is ‘well pleased’. So who would now be reluctant to repent? He is both willing and able to save all who come to Him believing.

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity joined with power;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing; doubt no more.
Joseph Hart (1712 – 68).

    2] Repentance is a message that addresses our deepest problem. The reason we need to repent is because we are sinners. We only come to grips with the need for repentance when we grasp something of the misery and plight of man in sin. The law of God sets before a perfect standard for living a holy life that is good and well pleasing to God. The law requires that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. That is the first and greatest commandment. And we are to love our neighbours, our fellow man, as we love ourselves. These two commandments are the sum of the law and the prophets. There is not a single person, save the Lord Christ, who has kept the law in full. The law is like a great mirror set before us in which we behold the beauty of God’s holiness, but reflecting back we see something of the grime and stain of sin in our lives. The Bible says that this condition is universal. We have all sinned and fallen short of the holiness, of the glory and beauty, of God.

    This is not the way that God created us originally. God created man good. He made us after His own image and likeness, in true righteousness and holiness, so that we might rightly know our Creator, love Him wholeheartedly, and live with Him in eternal communion, in everlasting happiness, to praise of His glory. But the reason why this world seems to be constantly falling apart at the seams is because of the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. As our representatives, they transgressed the first law of God and we all inherit their guilt and corruption. Iniquity can plead this great antiquity (Thomas Adams). This is why our hearts are so corrupt, why our minds are filled with sinful thoughts, because we are all conceived and born in sin. We are so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any saving good. We are inclined by nature to all manner of wickedness. We are sinners both by nature and by choice. You remember the message that Isaiah was given by God to preach: ‘Go and say this to the people: Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ This is a description of fallen man by nature. Man’s deepest problem is his refusal to know and love God. For since the fall our understanding has been darkened by sin. Men hear and see but they don’t understand and perceive. Our insight has been corrupted by selfishness. We are spiritually blind and we lack the eyes to faith to perceive the invisible things of the kingdom of God. We are deaf to the great truths of God’s Word. Since the fall this has been the sorry state of man. There is a deep darkness in heart of man, a darkness that consumes him, veils his sight, and blinds him to the things of God. The seed of every sin lies within the depths of our hearts.  

    The message of repentance addresses our deepest need:

Repentance is to leave
The sin we loved before,
And show that we in earnest grieve
By doing sin no more.

Repentance is to turn
Away from self and sin,
And come to Christ to learn,
We're saved by grace alone.

    True repentance strikes a blow at the root of our sin. This sin is embodied into the very fabric of our being. Ultimately, only Spirit of God can break, melt and soften our hard and sin calloused hearts and bring us to repentance. Only the Spirit of God can break the chains of sin that bind us to the lusts of this world. If we are to be saved then He must purge our hearts, plant the seeds of true belief and true repentance and cause them to grow. So if you would be saved, you must cast yourself upon God’s grace. For there is mercy, grace and forgiveness to be found abundantly in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the Saviour who has come into this world, not to call those who imagine they are righteous, but to call sinners to repentance. This repentance to newness of life is a saving grace, it is a gift from God, where a sinner, out of a true sense and understanding of sin, and by apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, with sorrow and hatred for sin, turns away from the way of sin and death, flees from the wrath to come into the arms of Jesus Christ and rests upon Him alone for salvation.

    We see therefore that repentance and faith are intimately entwined together. This is why Jesus says ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’. ‘By repentance we must lament and forsake our sins, and by faith we must receive the forgiveness of them. By repentance we must give glory to our Creator whom we have offended; by faith we must give glory to our Redeemer who came to save us from our sins’ (Matthew Henry). These two truths of repentance and faith must walk hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. Repentance must be united with belief in the Gospel. So you’re not being asked to make an irrational decision. Faith in Gospel substance is always at the back of genuine repentance. ‘And this Gospel is large enough to answer all the questions of the mind and reason, to quench the thirst for wholeness in the realm of the mind and also to move us profoundly to the depths of our being’ (ad. Lloyd-Jones).  Repentance is in fact a radical change of mind concerning how you understand the Gospel, yourself, and the reality around you. The word used for repentance in the original is metanoia. That means to change your mind as a consequence of hearing the Gospel preached. The Gospel demands a thorough change of mind which leads in turn to a change in your affections and actions. So far, you have lived a life of sin and the Gospel says STOP. THINK AGAIN. TURN AWAY FROM SIN. TURN TO CHRIST. Follow Him, walk in holiness and love Him forever.

    This Gospel shows us that there is hope for such sinners because the Father, from the depths of eternity past, graciously chose to save a people for Himself from the mass of fallen men. In this Gospel we see that Jesus Christ alone is the way of salvation; that He is the Saviour who comes into facts of space-time history to redeem His Father’s people by dying in their place, bearing the condemnation for their sin in His own body on the Cross, and defeating death and hell by rising from the dead. This Gospel shows us that the Spirit, in due course, irresistibly draws God’s people with the chords of everlasting love, regenerates them, creates faith and repentance in their hearts, applies salvation to them, and sanctifies them by God’s Word. The Gospel teaches us that by sovereign grace alone true believers are kept safe in Him. By His grace, they persevere in faith and holiness through all the struggles of life into their everlasting rest and communion with God. So the Gospel gives us a sight of unseen reality, a sight of God, a prospect of eternity. For in the Gospel we glimpse something of invisible kingdom of heaven, and those who believe in this Gospel are given secure promises of peace with God and home in heaven. This is the Gospel that faith believes. True repentance is always accompanied by faith in this everlasting Gospel.

    So it is not enough to feel a little guilty, it is not enough to shed some tears once in a while for sin, it is not enough to turn over a new leaf, to dust yourself down and start afresh. That’s not what we mean by repentance. Religious education, moral reformation, superficial transformation is not enough. The Gospel demands a radical conversion; a transition from the state of wrath to grace. There must be an about turn. The Gospel must penetrate the deepest fortress and citadel of your heart and shift the focus from self and sin to Christ, so that there is not only a turning away from sin but also a turning to Christ in faith. Your mind is confronted with these eternal realities. The Lord Christ is calling you to repentance and faith. Will you listen to Him? He is freely offering salvation to anyone who calls upon His name. Why will you die? The Lord Christ has opened His heart to welcome sinners? He weeps bitter tears over those who yet refuse Him. ‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,’ He cries, ‘Oh sinner, oh sinner,’ He cries, ‘How I have longed to gather you in as mother hen gathers her chicks’. There is mercy and forgiveness for all your sins in Jesus. Will you not cast aside your pride, humble yourself, and come in repentance and faith to the Lord Jesus? Come and welcome Him as Saviour today. For there is mercy, grace, forgiveness, full pardon, and the gift of the Spirit for all who come in repentance to Jesus Christ.

Come, ye needy, come and welcome;
God's free bounty glorify!
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings us nigh,
Without money, without money,
Come to Jesus Christ and buy.
Joseph Hart (1712 – 68).

    3] Repentance is a message of utmost urgency for everybody. The reason annexed to repentance is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’. This isn’t something you can put to aside and consider some other time at your leisure. Now there are several ways in which we can understand the Kingdom being at hand. Jesus is the promised King and so the kingdom is literally at hand by virtue of His presence. The King of kings is right there in the midst of His listeners. The kingdom has come to the people of Israel in person of Christ. The crowds who followed Him could reach out and touch the high King of the heaven. The promised Messiah came to first century Israel and inaugurated the Gospel dispensation.  We might also say that the Kingdom is always at hand whenever and wherever people of God are present, for they are the subjects of His heavenly Kingdom. John the Baptist had seen many come to repentance and had baptised them in the river Jordan. These early converts are the beginning of the Kingdom. Jesus gathers many more followers during His ministry here on earth. Then at Pentecost and throughout the book of Acts, thousands are swept into the Kingdom. Paul writes numerous letters to growing Churches across the known world. And since then, the Gospel has spiralled explosively throughout the whole world to almost every nation on the planet, even to the ends of the earth. There is a whole kingdom of saints in the world, the city of God in our midst, a people who have repented of their sins and trusted in the Messiah. And in that sense, the kingdom of God is always here in our midst in the hearts of the people of God.

    We might also say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand in the sense that it is approaching its final consummation. One day, the Lord Christ will return to earth on that final day of judgement to establish His Kingdom forever. He will separate those who belong to the kingdom of darkness and cast them into the outer darkness, into that place of blackest darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth forever, where their worm never dies and the fire never goes out. Oh how urgent it is for you to repent in the light of that coming day! And for those who do, He will establish His kingdom of light here on earth forever. This is why Christians are longing for that day when heaven and earth shall meet, when the dwelling place of God shall be with man. Oh how we wait for that day, that glorious day, when He will dwell with us, when we will be His people forever, and God Himself will be with us as our God. Christ will have redeemed a Kingdom of people for Himself from every tribe, tongue and nation. He will have redeemed a culture and a cosmos for Himself; a new heaven and new earth wherein righteousness dwells; a kingdom of holiness; a city of God that will blaze with the beauty of His glory for eternity. The kingdom of heaven is at hand in every possible sense. It has come in the person of Christ, it is here right now in our midst in the people of God, and it will come and be established in the new heaven and earth for eternity.

    There is therefore a comprehensive urgency necessitating your repentance. Now is the appointed time. Today is the day of salvation. Augustine, in his magnum opus, The City of God is deeply concerned with these issues. He says that there are two cities in life. There is the earthly city and the heavenly city. He is not taking about literal cities like Cardiff or Manchester. Rather, he is saying that there are two types, two sorts, two categories of people in this universe. There are spiritually minded people and there are earthly minded people. There are Christians are there are non-Christians. There are those on a broad road that leads to destruction and there are those following Jesus Christ on a narrow road that leads to life. There is a city of God and there is a city of this world. There are these two allegiances among men, two loves. There are those who love God and there are those who love themselves. There is the city of Cain and the city of Abel, the city of Esau and the city of Jacob.

    There is no middle position, no neutral territory in between. You cannot sit on the fence. You have either been saved by God’s grace or you remain dead in your trespasses and sins. On which side of the fence do you stand? Which is your city? Do you belong to the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of darkness? Where do you stand in relation to your God? Are you His loyal soldier? Are you a follower of Christ? Or are you constantly living in rebellion and sin? The only way to belong to the Kingdom of God is humble yourself, to fall upon your knees in faith and repentance. Have you done that? J. C. Ryle puts it like this:

Have we felt our sins, and forsaken them? Have we laid hold of Christ, and believed? We may reach heaven without learning, or riches, or health, or worldly greatness. But we shall never reach heaven, if we die impenitent and unbelieving. A new heart and a lively faith in a Redeemer are absolutely needful to salvation. May we never rest until we know them by experience and can call them our own! With them all true Christianity begins in the soul. In the exercise of them consists the life of [true] religion. It is only through the possession of them that men have peace at the last.

Church membership, being baptised, having Christian parents are good things but they don’t give us title to the kingdom of heaven. Only those who ‘repent and believe’ gain citizenship in the kingdom of God.

    You may know the story of Rowland Hill and the pig farmer. During a low point in his ministry, Rowland was disappointed to see so few turning to Christ for salvation. One day, he was looking out of the window of his study and saw to his amazement a farmer leading pigs in a straight line to the slaughter house. Rowland spoke to the farmer afterwards and said, ‘How did you get the pigs to follow you to their own death? I cannot even get people to follow Christ to their eternal life’. The Farmer answered, ‘Didn’t you see that as I walked along I had some pig feed in my pockets and I just dropped a few crumbs every few steps as I walked? For a few crumbs of food they followed me to their death’. Satan does the same with sinners as the Farmer does with pigs. He gives them a pleasure here, a lust there, a treasure here, but ultimately leads them to destruction. But what are the toys and trinkets of this present world compared with the glory of the kingdom of heaven? What is Satan’s pig food compared with infinite riches in Jesus? What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but loose his own soul? My friend, reject the world’s pig food and follow Jesus. Repent and believe. Lay hold of Christ. ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Matthew 6:19-21). Oh my friend, make Christ your greatest treasure and sing with the hymn writer:

My every need He richly will supply,
Nor will His mercy ever let me die;
In Him there dwells a treasure all divine,
And matchless grace has made that treasure mine.
William Gadsby (1773-1844)
They who gain Christ, lose nothing. So don’t delay in to coming to Him. Turn away from sin today. Come to Him and find salvation rich and free. This is message for you. It’s for everybody. The worst sinner on this planet is welcome to come in repentance and faith to the Lord Christ for forgiveness.

    You will notice in the text that the Lord Christ’s message of repentance is followed by Him calling some fishermen to be His first disciples. I think that this is very important. We see that Jesus doesn’t choose to call the wealthy, the powerful, or the educated. These first disciples were not men of riches, high social rank or power. They were ordinary people. A man’s value does not consist in the abundance of his riches, or the place of his birth, or the antiquity of his heritage, or the quality of his education. And the kingdom of God does not depend upon such earthly things as these. The advancement of the Gospel in the world is ‘not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 4:6). So we have no right to be choosey about those we invite to hear the Gospel and to follow Jesus Christ. The first followers of Jesus were fishermen. ‘Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world ... so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29). There is a danger of choosing to speak of the Gospel with those who seem most likely to become Christians, or with those who we think would make good Christians. But we find that the Lord Jesus spoke with the lowest of the low. He healed the sick, touched the leaper, and gave sight to the blind. Most of his ministry dealt with the poor, the down and outs, the people you’d just pass by on the street. He didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. He came to seek the lost sheep, the publicans, the prodigals. His followers were tax collectors and sinners. He welcomes all such people to come to him and find forgiveness. In fact, Jesus Christ would have mercy offered to the biggest sinners (and if He can save elephant sized sinners then He can save the moralistic sinners and secret sinners too).

    In The Jerusalem Sinner Saved John Bunyan re-enacts Peter preaching the Gospel of repentance at Pentecost and answering the objections of his hearers:

Peter: Repent, every one of you; be baptised, every one of you, in His name, for the remission of sins, and you shall, every one of you, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Objector: But I was one of them that bare false witness against Him. Is there grace for me?
Peter: For every one of you.
Objector: But I was one of them that cried out, crucify Him, crucify Him; and desired that Barabbas, that murderer, might live, rather than Him. What will become of me, think you?
Peter: I am to preach repentance and the remission of sins to every one of you.
Objector: But I was one of them that did spit in His face when He stood before His accusers. I also was one that mocked Him, when in anguish he hung bleeding upon the tree. Is there room for me?
Peter: For every one of you.
Objector: But I was one of them that, in His extremity, offered Him gall and vinegar to drink. Why may not I expect the same when anguish and guilt is upon me?
Peter: Repent of your wickedness, and here is remission of sins for every one you.
Objector: But I railed on Him, I reviled Him, I hated Him, I rejoiced to see Him mocked at by others. Can there be hopes for me?
Peter: There is, for every one of you. Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

All the objections to repentance arise from unbelief. The Lord Christ answers them all. He cries aloud to all who will listen, ‘Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely,’ and, ‘Whosoever comes to me, I will in no wise cast out’. Don’t you see? There is no sinner too foul for Jesus. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become white like wool (Isaiah 1:18). The worst sinners, the best sinners, the elephant sized sinner and mouse sized sinner, the open sinners and the secret sinners, the religious sinners and the self-righteous sinners are welcome to come and wash in His fountain of mercy, life giving and free. So don’t delay. Don’t wait until you better. It will only get worse if you do. One of the Puritans said, ‘By delaying repentance, sin strengthens, and the heart hardens. The longer ice freezes, the harder it is to break’ (Thomas Watson).  You cannot repent too soon because you don’t know how soon may be too late. So come in repentance and faith today.
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Bruised and broken by the fall;
If you tarry till your better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous, not the righteous-
Sinners Jesus came to call!
Joseph Hart (1712 – 68).

References & Recommended Reading  

    When preparing this message, I primarily consulted the commentaries of John Calvin, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole and J. C. Ryle, as well as the Works of John Bunyan published by the Banner of Truth. I came across the story about Rowland Hill in A Puritan Theology by Joel Beeke (RHB). Louis Berkhof's chapter on the subject of conversion in his Systematic Theology of is well worth consulting.