After centuries of silence, the covenant Lord spoke to His people again through John the Baptist. Beginning around 27 a.d., John prepared the way for the Messiah to inaugurate God’s kingdom, calling Israel to repentance because the nation as a whole had not shown contrition for the sins that led to exile from Palestine. In John’s day, the people were not ready for the kingdom to come.
John’s call is laid on all of us throughout the Bible. “Repentance” is the English translation of the Greek term metanoia, which literally means “change of mind.” Repentance expresses sorrow for the ways in which we have offended God (Ps. 51:4), but it is also much more. Repentance is a change of mind and actions wherein we cease our approval of wickedness and justification of bad behavior. It is foremost a decisive reorientation of one’s life away from the self and toward the Lord. This does not mean we repent only once at the start of the Christian life and then go our merry way, for confession of sin is needed until life’s end (1 John 1:8–9). But this subsequent repentance flows from and confirms the initial act wherein we realize our desperate state, admit our need of pardon, and come to Jesus in a childlike manner (Matt. 19:13–15).
John Calvin comments on today’s passage, saying, “Repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruits in a change of life.” It is not enough to profess sorrow for transgression; we have not truly turned from sin if our lives are unchanged (Isa. 29:13–14; James 2:14–26). Scripture does not teach that sinless perfection is possible before we are glorified, nor does it deny that some sins are harder to overcome than others. What it does say is that those who are truly repentant do what they can to “resist the devil” (James 4:7) and flee temptation. They also look for others to help them bear their burdens, to hold them accountable and help them find strength when they are weak (Gal. 6:1–2). The truly repentant lapse into sin on occasion, but they always return to the narrow path of righteousness. True converts will not find their assurance in denominational membership (Matt. 3:9–10) or in a past act of devotion. They find it in a justified life of repentance and faith.
One of the more neglected tools that can help us grow in our holiness is the confession of sins one to another (James 5:16). It can be difficult to admit to other people that we have sinned, but loving brothers and sisters in Christ can help assure us of His forgiveness and help us overcome persistent temptations. Without being involved in the lives of other believers we will not find these opportunities. Take the initiative and be a part of the lives of other Christians.