So how does a person truly become a follower of Jesus? What happens when the Mack truck of God’s glory and grace collides with someone’s life? The rest of this book is consumed with an answer to that question, but consider for a moment one word that summarizes Jesus’ summons.
The very first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his ministry in the New Testament is clear: repent. It’s the same word that John the Baptist proclaims in preparation for Jesus’ coming.35 This word is also the foundation for the first Christian sermon in the book of Acts. After Peter proclaims the good news of Christ’s death for sin, the crowds ask him, “What shall we do?” Peter decidedly does not tell them to close their eyes, repeat after him, or raise their hands. Instead, Peter determinedly looks them right in their eyes and says, “Repent.”
Repentance is a rich biblical term that signifies an elemental transformation in someone’s mind, heart, and life. When people repent, they turn from walking in one direction to running in the opposite direction. From that point forward, they think differently, believe differently, feel differently, love differently, and live differently.
When Jesus said, “Repent,” he was speaking to people who were rebelling against God in their sin and relying on themselves for their salvation. Jesus’ predominantly Jewish audience believed that their family heritage, social status, knowledge of specific rules, and obedience to certain regulations were sufficient to make them right before God.
Jesus’ call to repentance, then, was a summons for them to renounce sin and all dependence on self for salvation. Only by turning from their sin and themselves and toward Jesus could they be saved.
Similarly, when Peter said, “Repent,” he was speaking to crowds who not long before had crucified Jesus. In their sin, they had killed the Son of God and were now standing under the judgment of God. Peter’s call to repentance was a cry for the crowds to confess their wickedness, turn from their ways, and trust in Jesus as Lord and Christ.
Fundamentally, then, repentance involves renouncing a former way of life in favor of a new way of life. God tells his people in the Old Testament, “Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” Similarly, in the New Testament, repentance requires turning from the idols of this world to a new object of worship.38
I remember a particular moment with a house church in Asia. We were meeting in a secret, isolated location on the outskirts of a remote rural village. The impoverished homes in this village were virtual warehouses for idols. Satanic superstition abounded as village residents were convinced that they needed a multiplicity of gods to protect and provide for them.
One woman in particular caught my attention during our meetings. She listened eagerly to everything I shared from God’s Word, and it was evident that the Lord was drawing her to himself.
At the end of the day, she expressed a desire to follow Jesus. We were thrilled.
The next day, this new sister in Christ came back and pulled the church’s pastor and me aside. She told us that her home was full of false gods she had worshiped all her life and that she wanted to get rid of them. The other pastor and I accompanied her to her house, and I was overwhelmed by what I saw.
Inside the small, dark, two-room home, black and red posters of false gods covered the walls. Demonic-looking clay and wooden figurines were resting on the floor and sitting on tables everywhere we turned. In the middle of one room, a large idol was mounted against the wall with its foreboding face staring directly at us.
We immediately began taking down the posters and taking hold of the idols, praying aloud for this woman and for God’s blessings on her home for his glory. We brought every one of the idols back to the house where we were meeting, and we lit a fire outside. That day, we began our time in the Word amid the smell of smoldering gods.
This scene is an illustration of what happens in every person’s life when we repent of our sin, renounce ourselves, and run in faith to Christ. We humbly see and gladly sear the idols of this world that we have worshiped. We turn from them to trust in Jesus as the one who we now realize is exclusively worthy of our exaltation.
When that woman became a Christian, it was obvious that she could no longer bow at the feet of false gods in her home, and she needed to get rid of them. Similarly, I think of Vasu, an Indian brother who used to give offerings and present sacrifices daily before a multiplicity of Hindu gods. Upon becoming a follower of Jesus, Vasu began to turn away from these idols. Or I think of Gunadi, a man who used to be a devout Muslim but recently trusted in Christ as Savior and King. In repentance, Gunadi turned aside from the teachings of Muhammad to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
In circumstances like these, repentance seems clear and obvious. Christians from animistic, Hindu, or Muslim backgrounds must turn aside from false gods in order to follow Christ, and repentance is evident in the transformation of their lives. But what about people in a predominantly “Christian” setting who aren’t bowing down before idols or offering sacrifices to false gods?
What does repentance look like in their lives?
This question is extremely important, for it exposes a fundamental flaw in the way we often view ourselves. When we think of worshiping idols and false gods, we often picture Asian people buying carved images of wood, stone, or gold or African tribes performing ritualistic dances around burning sacrifices. But we don’t consider the American man looking at pornographic pictures online or watching ungodly television shows and movies. We don’t think about the American woman incessantly shopping for more possessions or obsessively consumed with the way she looks.
We don’t take into account men and women in the Western world constantly enamored with money and blindly engulfed in materialism. We hardly even think about our busy efforts to climb the corporate ladder, our incessant worship of sports, our temper when things don’t go our way, our worries that things won’t go our way, our overeating, our excesses, and all sorts of other worldly indulgences. Maybe most dangerous of all, we overlook the spiritual self-achievement and religious self-righteousness that prevent scores of us from ever recognizing our need for Christ.
We can’t fathom a Christian on the other side of the world believing that a wooden god can save them, but we have no problem believing that religion, money, possessions, food, fame, sex, sports, status, and success can satisfy us. Do we actually think that we have fewer idols to let go of in our repentance?
For every Christian in every culture, repentance is necessary. This doesn’t mean that when people become Christians, they suddenly become perfect and never have any struggles with sin again. But this does mean that when we become followers of Jesus, we make a decided break with an old way of living and take a decisive turn to a new way of life. We literally die to our sin and to ourselves—our self-centeredness, self-consumption, self-righteousness, self-indulgence, self-effort, and self-exaltation. In the words of Paul, we “have been crucified with Christ and [we] no longer live, but Christ lives in [us].”40
And as Christ begins to live in us, everything begins to change about us. Our minds change. For the first time, we realize who God is, what Jesus has done, and how much we need him. Our desires change. The things of this earth that we once loved we now hate, and the things of God that we once hated we now love. Our wills change. We go wherever Jesus says, we give whatever Jesus commands, and we sacrifice whatever it costs to spend our lives in uncompromising obedience to his Word. Our relationships change. We lay our lives down in love for one another in the church as together we spread the gospel to the world.
Ultimately, our reason for living changes. Possessions and position are no longer our priorities. Comfort and security are no longer our concerns. Safety is no longer our goal because self is no longer our god. We now want God’s glory more than we want our own lives. The more we glorify him, the more we enjoy him, and the more we realize that this is what it means biblically to be a Christian.
Platt, D., & Chan, F. (2013). Follow me: a call to die. a call to live. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale.