It was another beautiful, autumn day in New London Connecticut, the skies were blue, and there was a slight crisp in the air. I had seen the guy so many times as he stood in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Parade Plaza. He seemed almost always to have a new sign. Sometimes his sign was a protest against some governmental overreach or some religious statement. This day, his sign read, “Turn or Burn.” I couldn’t help but think: I am sure he hasn’t had too many converts with a message like that. Turn or burn: what does that even mean to most people? Probably not a thing except that this guy may be off of his meds.
Unfortunately, too many Christians in the world today have a “Turn or Burn” theology. If you read it in the wrong context and have a poor definition of words, the Bible can appear to be full of that sort of thing. “Repent” seems to be one of the problem words in the vocabulary of many Christians. We often compare its use to a scolding mother who slaps your fingers and shouts, “You stop that right now, or else!” Too often, we equate “repent” as the final warning to stop a particular sin before God ceases to love you and sends you to hell for your evil deeds. This is a terrible misuse of a completely lovely word.
So what does that word “repent” really mean? Let’s take a look at the word through the eyes of our fathers in the faith.
First, we look to the understanding of our Old Testament fathers. The word for repent in Hebrew is shuwb, pronounced “shoob.” As with many words in Greek and Hebrew, it has several meanings, but all of them have a sense of turning away or turning back. But to what or to whom are we turning?
The Old Testament Prophet Joel gives us a clue of what we are turning back to: “Return (ushuwbu – you return – you repent) to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”(Joel 2:13). We are called to return to a loving God who is slow to anger and has boundless love for His children. Joel calls us to go back to the place of mercy, not a place of wrath. This isn’t “a stop that - or else” move, but a welcoming invitation to come home to where you are loved.
Over and over again in the Scriptures, we are called to return. The most famous example of repentance in the New Testament is the parable of the Prodigal Son. Even though the Greek word for repentance (metanoio – I repent) is not employed, it is possibly the clearest teaching on repentance in the Bible. We know the story well. There was a man with two sons. The youngest was tired of farm living and asked for his inheritance so that he could go off and live in the big city and do fancy, big city things. By requesting his inheritance, in essence, he wished his father dead. For reasons we cannot fathom, the father allowed it. The kid blew everything on fast living and ended up homeless and working with pigs (the most unclean of all animals for a Jew). Of course, he came to his senses and realized that the servants back home were treated better than how he was being treated. He returned to his father’s home (or repented), willing to forfeit his position as a son with the hope his father would hire him as a servant.
The disobedient son came back with a well-prepared speech of contrition. But before the words could come out of his mouth, he was restored to his proper position as a son of the Master. With many shed tears of joy, the Father rejoiced, threw his youngest a big party, and was beside himself with giddiness. “My son was dead and yet he lives, he was lost, and now he is found!”(Luke 15:32).
The love of our Father in Heaven is the heart of repentance. When one sinner repents and turns back toward his rightful place of fellowship with God, the place Adam and Eve knew before the fall, there is a party in Heaven. God, the angels, and the heavenly hosts rejoice and dance a jig for a beloved child has returned to the Lord his God who is truly gracious and merciful, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Too often, we equate “repent” as the final warning to stop a particular sin before God ceases to love you and sends you to hell for your evil deeds.
Yet how does one return to this place when he is spiritually stillborn and cannot do anything but decay in the death of sin?
Such a return is only possible through the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Through the Word of God in all its forms attached to the water in Holy Baptism and the bread and wine in communion, the life-giving Holy Spirit of God enters into our lives and points us homeward.
It is God alone who gives us the will to go home, but it is also He who grants us the metanio or shuwb necessary to realize that our Father’s house is a place of love and mercy for sinful, prodigal children, for us.
We who were once dead, because of Christ’s life-giving sacrifice on the cross and His glorious resurrection, are no longer left to rot in the pig pen. Instead, our feet are placed on the homeward path, and we press on toward the glory that is set before us as we are gifted new life. It is not us who do this work, but it is all a gift of God who gives us the strength to turn towards home.
It is not our inner strength that causes us to turn from our sins, for we are weak beyond all measure. Instead, it is truly the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance. St. Paul tells us this in Rom. 2:4, “it is the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance.”
Repentance is therefore never a work. The law threatens, condemns, kills us, and drives us to repentance. The Gospel, then, is that power of God which changes our hearts and minds.
It is the Lord who gives us the desire to return to His house. It is Christ’s life-giving death that gives us a new life and a new heart to go home to the place of pure love, compassion, and mercy for sinners. Repentance is, therefore, a gift, a waking up and remembering where we belong and who we really are: children of the King and people under a promise.
Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people, and it is a work of God in the heart of man. In truth, it is God who turns our hearts toward Him and away from sin and corruption. God repents man as God turns us from being only sinful to being saints.
Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people, and it is a work of God in the heart of man.
Of course, daily, that old sinful self, even though drowned in the waters of baptism, continues to resurface and get the better of us. The Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, whispers in our soul, “Come home where your Father waits and the heavenly host is ready to raise a glass once again as you confess your sin and rejoice in the God of all mercies. Repent, come home, the feast awaits.” The Spirit of God gives us a new heart and a new will to simply be embraced by our Heavenly Father who sheds tears of joy.
How often do the prodigal kids of God return to that pig pen? Everyday. And yet, every day, our Father hopes with great anticipation that we will once again return to His merciful and loving embrace when once again with tears of joy, He holds us to Himself and proclaims us to be His children.
It is this love of God that on the last day has the last word. Along the way, the Spirit who leads us back to our Father’s embrace teaches us that our sin is not worth it and shows us how it breaks our Father’s heart. How and why would I want to keep running from Him instead of running toward Him? Perhaps it is simply because deep down in our sinful hearts, we buy the lie that we are unlovable. But God never got that memo. He loves you no matter what.
Turn or burn? If I could do such a thing, then Jesus died for no good reason. He, the Father and the Holy Spirit would be superfluous, and fallen mankind could earn salvation. But a God who out of love and mercy turns us back to Himself - this is a God we can believe in. In the Lord’s house, the Feast of the Lamb that has no end is waiting for your presence with joy and mercy. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.