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The What, How, and Why of Repentance

The first step of repentance is recognizing that we are lost without God, and we are doomed to an eternal death apart from him.

Trent Horn

Once, I was driving to a Catholic summer camp for a speaking engagement in an area without cell phone service. I relied on the car’s GPS unit, though my doubts multiplied as it took me down a featureless dirt road. I then stopped the car and saw the unit display the following: “No Satellite Connection—Indoor Mode.”

I estimated I had gone at least fifty miles in the wrong direction, and a wave of panic swept over me as I looked at the “no service” bar on my cell phone. I reset the GPS unit and saw my estimated arrival time: 6:57 P.M., or three minutes before I was scheduled to give my talk. Thankfully, the hosts understood, and everything worked out. But it worked out only because I realized I had made a huge mistake, stopped what I was doing, turned around, and went the other way.

I share up this story because this is the first thing a sinner must do in order to be saved. And there is a word for it: repent.

The Greek word we translate as “repentance” is metanoia (the verb “to repent” is metanoeo), and it means “to change your mind.” Metanoia’s Hebrew counterpart is tshuva, which means “to return.” For example, God told the people of Israel, “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ezek. 14:6). So when Jesus says, “Repent [metanoeite] and believe in the gospel,” he is basically saying: change your mind about sin, and return to God by believing the good news!

So, in order to be saved, we must repent. Repentance means not just running back to God, but running away from anything that would keep us from God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul laid out a list of sins that would keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God. He said “neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Let that sink in. Paul is saying that these Christians repented from sins like robbery, adultery and engaging in homosexual conduct. Even if the desires still remained in their hearts, they no longer committed these sins. Why? Paul gives us the answer: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” He makes this even clearer in his second letter to the community, saying “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”

Before I was baptized, the priest asked me “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?”—to which I solemnly responded, “I do.” These are the traditional baptismal vows, and they show that a person has repented and now wants God’s salvation. But what makes it hard to preach the gospel today is that people don’t think they need to be “saved” from anything.

The first step is repentance: to recognize that we are lost without God, and we are doomed to an eternal death apart from him because we lack his grace, which makes us alive in him. We must turn away from anything that would lead us away from God and then turn to God in faith.

We won’t make progress as evangelists if we share the Christian faith only as a kind of “self-help” program that take you from “okay” to “A-okay!” Indeed, one thing that makes it hard to preach the gospel today is that people don’t think they need to be “saved” from anything. As far back as 1946, Pope Pius XII said, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” Christianity doesn’t seem like good news unless you think the ugliness of your sins constitutes bad news.

But it’s also tempting for Catholics to fall into a kind of Protestant legalism and treat repentance and the gospel as a transaction: I repent and give God faith, and he gives me salvation. And although it is true that salvation comes from repenting from sin, believing in Jesus, and receiving Jesus through sacraments like baptism and the Eucharist, the Catholic view is more familial than forensic. It’s not a legal transaction; rather, it is about being joined to God’s family through baptism and—when we have turned away from God through consciously chosen grave sins—being reconciled through the sacrament of penance.

My favorite image of this form of repentance and salvation comes from the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). Remember, the son was able to waste a bunch of money in a foreign land because he demanded his inheritance before his father’s death (v. 12). He basically told his dad, “I wish you would drop dead so I could get what’s mine and live the life I’ve always wanted.” When we sin, we say the same thing to God: I wish you didn’t exist so I could do whatever I want with my life. And then he almost starves to death in a foreign country, far away from his family.

Because of what he’s done, the son thinks his father will never welcome him home. At best, maybe he could return as a slave and not starve. But the father, who is our Father in heaven, was always waiting for his son to return. Jesus says, “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

That’s my favorite detail in the story: that the father saw the son “while he was yet at a distance.” As a father of three little boys, I know that if they ever ran away, I would never stop looking for them. The father of the prodigal son probably went to the edge of his land every day to stare at the horizon and see if his son was on his way. When his son did appear on the road, he was probably downcast, slowly shuffling to the house, preparing his “apology speech.” But his father would have been smiling ear to ear and running as fast as he could to embrace him.

That is how God feels when we repent, or return home. That’s why Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). And it is that attitude we should always recall so we can have hope rather than fear when we “turn around” and head to confession . . . even when it is a sin we’ve confessed “a thousand times.” Because God, our heavenly Father, is waiting on the road to meet us.

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