The Church: A Repentant People

Mark’s Gospel quickly takes you right to the heart of what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about. In Mark 1:4 & 15 you notice that the preaching of both John the Baptist and of Jesus included a strong emphasis on repentance. Yet, as Psalm 51 reminds you, repentance characterizes God’s people. The church is made up of a repentant people.

The time has come for repentance. The last time has come. The time is God’s appointed moment. The public preaching of Jesus announces the fulfillment, the last time. The term has overtones of judgment, parallel to “the day of the Lord” in the Old Testament. God himself prepared the time. He sent his Son in the fullness of time, Galatians 4:4. The expression looks back over the entire Old Testament: the promise in Eden, the covenant with Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt and other deliverances, the intercessory work of the priests (including the whole sacrificial system), the prophets, proclaiming the day of the Lord, the kings—David and others, implementing the kingdom—though terribly imperfectly. Now the time is fulfilled. It has come. The kingdom is a reality. Hebrews describes the time that began with Christ’s earthly ministry as these last days.

The kingdom is near. “At hand” or “near” means close, very close, but still future. Christ can speak of it as coming, Mark 9:1, and yet also as something that has been fulfilled, that has arrived, Luke 4. You cannot think of the kingdom apart from the King. The King is present, and yet this is just the beginning of his public ministry. Who he is and what he has come to do is just starting to unfold. The presence and growing power of the kingdom will be seen in the preaching of Jesus (v. 27), in the calling of the disciples, in the conflicts with demons (v/ 23), and in the miracles of healing. The power and effects of sin are rolled back. Your life in the kingdom of God continues to have that already/not yet tension. The King has come. He has redeemed you. But you have not been snatched immediately into heaven (nor have the new heavens and earth arrived). You live and serve your King in a world that is still under the curse of sin, where the conflict between Christ and the prince of darkness continues to have ripple effects in the lives even of God’s people. Because you live in that tension of belonging to God—but not yet free from sin, you need to repent. What does not belong in the kingdom, what does not belong in your life is sin.

Turn away from sin. Hate sin—it offends God. Because the kingdom is God’s kingdom, it is characterized by his righteousness and justice. God is perfectly righteous. We are sinners—and the wages of sin is death. The news of the kingdom is a summons to repent, to turn away from sin. Repentance is more than feeling sorry for sin. It involves hating it, rejecting it, and seeking by God’s grace to turn from it. See the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 87 and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV. Certainly you ought to repent because God will judge all the ungodly, all the unrepentant. But don’t just be sorry because of consequences. Recognize that your sin is first of all an offense against a holy God, Psalm 51:4. Notice how deeply sin is ingrained in our beings. “[R]epentance contemplates our sin and the cost of it to the Saviour. . . . [P]eople being led to repentance should see and sense the danger of their sin too. . . . But sinners must not only see the danger, but also the filthiness and repulsiveness of their sins. . . . Sin is also a personal affair, for sin is set against God himself, the one to whom we ought to have been faithful.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 194–195).

Forsake sin. Repentance involves turning away from sin. John’s baptism was not the same as what Jesus commanded in Matthew 28 and has been practiced since. It was closer to Old Testament ceremonial cleansings. John called his hearers to specific, concrete acts of repentance, Luke 3:7–14. He challenged them to produce fruit worth of repentance, Matthew 3:8. Don’t satisfy yourself with a vague, Lord, forgive my sins. Repentance was a crucial element in apostolic preaching, Acts 2:38; 5:31; and 17:30. The initial point of the Christian life is a turning from sin to Christ—and that is what characterizes you every day until you are in glory.

Turn to the Lord. Believe the good news! “Repent” and “believe” go together, are mentioned together, and imply each other, even if only one is mentioned. Faith (or believing) is the opposite side of the coin of repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin. Believing is turning to God in Christ Jesus. Believe the good news. The good news is not just that God has made salvation possible. Rather, it is the news that Christ has come as the substitute for sinners. Mark’s Gospel introduced you to Jesus as he came to John, who was baptizing sinners, to receive baptism from him. That identification with sinners continues through the Gospel. He not only eats and drinks with them, shattering the hypocritical standards of the leaders of Israel, but he identifies with sinners by bearing the guilt and punishment of their sin, suffering and dying in their place on the cross. The command to believe the good news is an instruction to trust, not in yourself, not in anything you are or do, but only in the work of Jesus Christ in your place. The news is good because of what Christ has done in your place. The news is good because the great King who establishes his kingdom is also your Savior and your Lord. “[Mark’s] interest in the history of Christ indeed is not that of the modern biographer or historian. It is rather that of one who has set as his goal the aim to present the glad tidings concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . . It had to do with the joyful significance of the appearance and action of the Son of God in Galilee and Jerusalem.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 37).

Experience the mercy of your God. There is no sin too insignificant to avoid the penalty of eternal judgment. But there is also no sin too great to be covered by the death and resurrection of Christ. That gives hope to us sinners! “True repentance not only sorrows for sin but sees a Saviour. This is so important for us to grasp. As we consider what God thinks of sin, we must also consider his mercy to sinners.” (Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 195). Repentance is not some abstract doctrine that you need to learn about. It is something that you need to experience. The church is a body of people who have repented—and who continue to repent each day.

The message of Mark 1, and of the entire Scriptures, is: Repent, and believe the good news! Your King has come. He has died for you and been raised again. You have confidence before God because you are united with him in his death and resurrection.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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