Repentance: The Forgotten Word of the Gospel (Matt. 3:1-3)

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze”, says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root or branch.”
But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing”, says the LORD of hosts. “Remember the Law of Moses My servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.
Behold, I am going to send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (Malachi Chapter 4)

And with those words, the book was closed. The Old Testament was finished. And the word of the Lord was silent. For generations, nothing again was heard from God. He promised an “Elijah”, who would come and restore His people, lest they be smitten with a curse. Note the significance that the Old Testament came to a close with its last word being the word “curse.” But years went by. Nothing more was heard from God. Not for the next generation. Not for 100 years. Not for 200 years. For 400 years, NO word was heard from God. To put that in perspective, the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 — 400 years have not quite gone by from the time those first settlers landed in Massachusetts until now. So for as a great time as from the settling of America by the pilgrims until today — about 400 years — no word came from God. The Hebrews knew from the Old Testament that one day a Messiah was coming. They knew that before he came, an “Elijah” was going to come to get God’s people ready for Him. But since then they had heard not a word from God. For 400 years, the heavens were silent. NOTHING.

Until: “In those days, John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” He was clothed in a garment of camel’s hair. His diet was locusts and wild honey. And what did he say? After 400 years of SILENCE from God — do you think that his message might be of some importance?

Verse 2 of Matthew 3 tells us that the message God gave him was: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It was the message that after 400 years, Israel needed to hear most of all. And it is undoubtedly the message that God’s people today need to hear most of all as well!

I. The Meaning of Repentance

What is the meaning of this word, that after 400 years was the first word of God for His people?
“Repent” is a Bible word that comes from two Greek words, “meta–noeo” — literally meaning “after, to think.” It means to have a change of mind; a change of direction; a change of life. It means to be going one way, then afterwards, to think better of it, and to start going another way.

It means to make a U-turn. I occasionally go to the McDonalds on exit 105 on my way to the office in the morning, and when I do, when I come out of the McDonalds onto Highway 18, the road is divided right there as you know, so and I have turn right, which takes you towards downtown Morganton. Well, that is not where I want to go; I am going to the church office, so at the first light I pull into the left lane and wait for the light to change, and I make a “u-turn.” I was going towards downtown, but I turn around and go back towards the Interstate where I can go to Exit 100 and Pleasant Ridge. But I had to make a “u-turn” to get there.

And that is what repentance is. It means to think better afterwards about the direction you have been going in life, and making a “u-turn” to go in another direction.

We see an example of what this means spiritually, in the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Nineveh was a wicked city, and so God sent Jonah to preach to them. When he did, Chapter 2:8 tells us that the King of Nineveh commanded his people “Let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way, and from the violence which is in his hands.” It is significant that in the New Testament, in Matthew 12:41, Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh … REPENTED at the preaching of Jonah.” So Jesus tells us that what the people of Nineveh did that day was an example of “repentance”: they had been rebelling against God; they were wicked and violent, but when they “repented”, they afterwards thought better of what they had done, and called out to God and turned away from the wicked things they had done. They “repented.”

— the people of Nineveh made a u-turn;
— Zaccheus made a u-turn
— the thief on the cross made a u-turn
— the Apostle Paul made a u-turn
— the Prodigal Son made a u-turn
All of these made a “u-turn” in the direction of their life — in other words, they “repented.” To “repent” means that you change your mind about your rebellion against God, and you go in a different direction and come back to Him, to follow Him from that day forward. That is what it means to “repent.”

II. The Necessity of Repentance

Now we need to understand just how important this concept of “repentance” is. We get a hint of it first of all by the fact that it was the first word that God gave His prophets for His people in over 400 years! The first word out of the mouth of this “second Elijah” God sent, John the Baptist, was “repent”! It must be of vital importance.

Then as the story of Matthew unfolds, you see in the second part of this chapter that Jesus appears on the scene, and He gets baptized in the Jordan River at the last part of Matthew 3; then Matthew 4 opens with how Jesus gets tested by the devil before He begins His ministry. And then His ministry begins. And Matthew 4:17 records for us the first words out of the mouth of Jesus in His public ministry — and what are they? Exactly the same words God gave John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”! Do you think these words might be important? Don’t you think we would be foolish to ignore them?

And the priority of repentance in scripture doesn’t end here:
— Jesus said in Luke 13:3, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
— When He appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, Jesus commanded His disciples to take the gospel message out, and He summarized that message as “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to be proclaimed to all the nations. (Luke 24:47)
— When Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and first proclaimed the gospel to the crowd, and they asked him what to do, Peter’s invitation was: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
— When the Apostle Paul met with the leaders of his missionary church for the last time, he reminded them that he had held nothing back from the gospel message, that he had “solemnly (testified) to both Jews and Greeks of repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He said the summary of the gospel message he proclaimed: is repentance and faith.

So all through the New Testament, from John the Baptist, to Jesus and to the Apostles, we find that repentance is at the heart of the Biblical gospel message.

We see this reflected in places like Romania and Eastern Europe today, where repentance is such a part of the gospel that Stefan Berci calls new believers “repenters.” There they see that repentance is at the heart of the Biblical gospel, and it’s reflected in their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, repentance is a message that has been omitted in many contemporary American presentations of the gospel. Many preachers and teachers here don’t tell people to repent of their sins any more; they tell them “just accept Jesus” or “just ask Jesus in your heart” or “just believe” — as if people can just keep on doing what they’re doing now, just as long as they “believe” in Jesus or whatever, and they will be saved. But folks, that is a FALSE gospel! You cannot just keep doing what you’re doing now and be saved. That is a lie from hell. Satan has sowed the seeds of a false gospel among the churches to raise up tares instead of wheat. John said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus said, “Unless you repent, YOU will likewise perish.” You must repent of your sins in order to be saved. This is at the heart of the gospel message.

In the 1930’s the Christian church in Germany had fallen into compromise. They refused to stand up to Hitler’s takeover of the church, and they compromised Biblical doctrines. But in the midst of that compromise, one man stood up: a German pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He spoke up against Hitler, and he preached against the compromises he saw in the church. He wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship in which he outlined what true Christianity was, as opposed to the false practices of the German church. He warned them that they had fallen prey to what he called “cheap grace.” He began his book with the words, “Cheap grace is deadly enemy of our Church. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. … grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin, and from whom sin departs. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” (Pp. 45-47)

And folks I am here to tell you as God’s messenger today that the same “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the German church about in the 1930’s is the same “cheap grace” that many preachers and teachers are now flooding the market with in America today!
— “Just believe.”
— “Just ask Jesus in your heart”
— “Just come as you are and stay as you are.”
— “You don’t have to change anything to come to Jesus”
— and on and on. Folks that is a LIE and it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ! The genuine, Biblical gospel demands that you repent of your sins and follow Jesus as your Savior.

See, whether you use the word “repent” or not, the idea of repentance is at the heart of the gospel message. God created us to spend eternity loving Him and being loved by Him. But we turned away from God in our sins and went our own way. Isaiah 53 says “All we like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.” We have gone away from God — that is what sin is. Now God is a God of amazing love and grace, and so in His mercy, He sent Jesus to die on the cross, and pay for our sins, so that if we would turn back to God, we could be forgiven and have the relationship with God that He always intended for us to have with Him. But for us to “come back to God”, we must stop going away from Him, and actually “come back” to Him. And that is what repentance is: turning around from where you were going, and coming back to God. If you don’t repent, then you haven’t come back to God. You cannot possibly be saved unless you turn back from the wrong direction you were going, and come back to God. That is what repentance is.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of doing chapel for the Christian school where Ashley Duncan serves, and I shared that morning on Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son. Among other things I shared and how when the Prodigal Son was starving among the pigs, he came to his senses, and got up and returned to his father. It is a wonderful example of repentance. But what if that son had stayed in that pig slop in which he found himself, but began telling everybody: “I have been reconciled with my father. We just have the greatest relationship now. We have made up.” People would look at him and say: “But you are still here; you didn’t go back to your father. Nothing has changed.” To be reconciled to your Father, you have to actually turn around and go back to him!

And that is exactly the situation that many people find themselves in today. They have been living a life of sin, going their own way, doing whatever they want to do, ignoring the commandments in God’s word, but then all of the sudden they say something like: “I’ve come to the Lord. God and I have this great relationship and I’m going to church” — but nothing in their life has really changed, and they are still disobeying God the same way they were before. We need to help these people understand: if you have not changed what you are doing, then you have not repented, and you have not come back to God.

To come back to God, you have to come BACK to Him! You’ve got to repent:
— You’ve been going one way, away from God; now you’ve got to turn around and start going a different way, back to God.
— You’ve been breaking His commandments; now you’ve got to start keeping His commandments.
— You’ve been doing whatever YOU want to do; now you’ve got to stop doing that and do what GOD directs you to do instead.

And if you do NOT do that, then you have NOT repented; you have NOT come back to God; you are NOT saved, and you do NOT know Him! You may wax eloquently about this “great relationship” you think you have with God, and you may “feel” really good about it — but if you have not repented of your sin, you do not know Him, and you do not have a relationship with Him. There is no salvation, and there is no real relationship with God apart from repentance!

Now a person may say, “But pastor, I believe in Jesus!” You believe in Jesus? That’s great! You know what: the devil does too — and he is going to hell. And you are going to be right there with him, unless you repent. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, YOU will all likewise perish.”

If this is “new” to you this morning; if you have never heard that you must repent to be saved, then I apologize:
— I apologize on behalf of compromised churches who haven’t told you the truth
— I apologize on behalf of compromised pastors and evangelists who haven’t shared the whole gospel with you.
— I apologize on behalf of friends who weren’t courageous enough to tell you that you can’t keep doing what you’re doing and be saved.

But I do not apologize for sharing the message of repentance:
— It was the first word of God for His people after 400 years of silence.
— It was the first message from the lips of Jesus when He came to earth and began preaching.
— It was the first word that Peter shared in the invitation of his first gospel message.
— It was the summary of the gospel message of the Apostle Paul: “repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is the heart of the Biblical message, and if you’ve never done it, you need to do it — and you need to do it today: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

About Shawn Thomas

My blog,, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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