People seem to want to hit Muslims over the head insisting they repent. I sense in this the aggressive attitude I used to have when I thought repentance was like nasty medicine – a negative thing to deliver a positive outcome.
My mental image was of John the Baptist as a crazed zealot screaming: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt.3:2). Even Jesus’ words seemed stern when he commented on a man-made disaster (a collapsed tower) with the words: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk.13:1-5). How could Peter be any less acerbic at Pentecost when he said: “Repent and be baptised …for the remission of sin and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Ac.2:38-39)
Repentance is not a legalistic stick to beat Muslims with but a grace-provision to woo them to Christ.
Repentance is not “remorse”
In shame-oriented societies it is being found out that is the problem. The selfish streak in Saul reacted by initially denying his sin, then pretending outwardly to be repentant, while inwardly being merely remorseful (1 Sam 15). By contrast when David sinned by adultery with Bathsheba, he repented ‘from the heart’ (see 2 Sam.11-12; Psalm 51).
Repentance is not “penance”
The situation has been made worse by the Vulgate Bible translation of repentance as ‘penance’. This is a profoundly legalistic take, on what is a profoundly grace-oriented concept – but that’s religion for you!
For many Evangelicals, repentance is a change of behaviour, while the Bible teaches that this is merely the ‘fruit of repentance’ (Mat.3:7-8; Lk.3:8) and the fruit is not the root.
So what’s “repentance”?
The original Greek word metanoia means to change (meta) your mind (nouse). So to repent is to change your heart-attitude; not out of pressure in debate or shame or argument or force. It is a voluntary response to an encounter with something so beautiful, it becomes a preferable reality.
Repentance as a gift
This is why the Bible teaches that repentance is a divine ‘gift’ given to nations, peoples and to individuals (Hos.13:14; Ac.11:18; 2 Cor.7:10).
Repentance is beautiful
Repentance is a heart-response to God’s overture of grace; his winsome influence that becomes the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’. The old is dropped and the new is embraced. “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come.” (2 Cor.5:17)
Repentance is an act of will
This helps us to grasp what is going on in texts such as: “God winked at human ignorance in the past (throughout OT) but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Ac.17:30); neither is it necessarily instant – renewal takes time as we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom.12:2).
So far from being a stick to beat Muslims over the head, the good news about Jesus is ultimately a beautiful thing that is increasingly proving to be the preferable future for Muslims who are choosing Jesus.