“Repent” said on its own like that can sound blunt, especially when yelled as a threat by fire-breathing preachers, that we’d better repent, or else – the “or else” usually meaning a fearsome future in an ever-burning hell.
Can these preachers be blamed – or even criticized – though, for being so blunt, when Paul was just as blunt in Acts 17:30-31? “In the past,” Paul told the Athenians, “God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For,” take note, “he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
Paul was just as blunt in Romans 2:5 too, when he writes to his fellow Jews, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed,” because that’s when “God will give to each person according to what he has done,” verse 6.
It’s not surprising, then, that repentance is associated with severe warning of judgment by an angry God if one’s behaviour doesn’t improve. The Pharisees and Sadducees would certainly have heard it that way when John the Baptist yells at them, “You gang of snakes; who gave you the idea you could escape the coming wrath?” No way will they escape God’s wrath unless they “produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” because, like an unfruitful tree if “you don’t produce good fruit you’ll be cut down and burnt” (Matthew 3:7-8, 10).
Add to that Hebrews 10:31, that “It’s a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” and we get the picture – that God is not to be messed with.
But there’s another side to repentance that reveals God in a different light. It’s first seen in the book of Job, where we see God letting all sorts of horrible things happen to Job, but the result is Job saying, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” Job 42:6.
It dawns on Job how arrogant he’d been in challenging the great God himself. He even thought he could ask God questions that God couldn’t answer. How on earth could he think such a thing? Because of his pride, that’s how. But on seeing it Job repented, because he suddenly realized it was in his own head where the problem lay, not in God’s.
And it set the scene for what God is bringing every human to see eventually, that pride in our own abilities, opinions and judgments makes us think we have within us whatever it takes to handle any problem we face, and we don’t need God. And clearly, based on what God allowed Job to go through, it’s the toughest lesson we have to learn. How many of us, for instance, based our lifelong thinking on what Jesus said, that the truly blessed in life are those who are “poor in spirit,” who realize they’re just as ignorant and limited in their understanding as Job was, and like Job desperately need God to strip away their blindness so they see the damage their thinking has done to them?
But this is the point God brings us to, where it dawns on us what our brains and attitudes have made us think and do, and we just sit there, stunned, wondering “Now what?” Which is exactly what happened to the Jews in Acts 2, when Peter revealed the astoundingly embarrassing and horrifying news that they’d just killed the Messiah they’d so much been looking forward to, because of their pride and ignorance. It knocked the wind right out of them, verse 37; “they were cut to the heart and said, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
Peter’s immediate reply of “Repent” in verse 38 was good news, because there WAS something they could do. They could admit how blind, helpless and stupid they’d been, just like Job, because this was exactly the raw material needed for God to rewire their brains. It’s what God had allowed the horrible mess they’d made to bring them to, so now he could heal and bless them, just as he promised in Acts 3:26.
It may seem, then, that God is being harsh and cruel allowing us to reach that point though suffering, but in reality it’s love, because only he can heal a pride driven brain, and only he who can help us see it. And once that’s done he does for us what he did for Job; he fills our lives with new attitudes that bring us blessings we never knew existed.