Mark 1:14-20

5 Alternatives to Repentance

The first recorded words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are from a sermon:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

If John’s audience was hoping that Jesus would have a different message, they were surely disappointed. Jesus also calls for repentance.  Repentance requires a change in my thinking, a change in my heart, a change in the direction in which I am walking.  Repentance is central to what it means to enter the kingdom of God.  The Westminster divines placed such importance on repentance they wrote this:

Although repentance be not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.     Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.3

These are bold words.  We are saved by grace through faith in Christ – yes- but intimately connected with that faith is repentance.  I turn from my sin (repentance) to the Lord (faith).

And yet we have a difficult time with this doctrine of repentance.  Often we think we have repented when we have not.  Or we settle for something less than repentance.  Or we attempt to avoid repentance altogether.  Here are five alternatives to repentance that fall short of Jesus’ command in this verse to “repent and believe.”

1. Repent of sin only once.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg.  The first on his list was this:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Repentance is a lifestyle.  It is not a one-time event.  It is a lifestyle because we are not free from the presence of sin on this side of heaven.  And so as we see sin in our lives, we repent and turn to Jesus for forgiveness.    We continue to sin; therefore continue to repent.  Jesus’ call for us to “repent and believe” are the motions of the Christian walk with him.  Repent.  Believe.  Repent.  Believe.  We are constantly turning from our sin and renewing faith in Him.

2. Repent of sin generically without getting into the specifics.

Repentance does not mean we identify the category of sin into which we have fallen without getting into the specifics.  It’s one thing to say “God, forgive me for my pride.”  It’s another to confess  “God, forgive me for selfish heart which failed to even consider the needs of my spouse.”  Again the Westminster theologians are helpful here:

“Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.”  Westminster Confession of Faith 15.5

Since we have sinned specifically we ought to repent and ask for God’s mercy specfically.

3. Confess only some of your sin to others and hide the rest.

This is related to #2 but what I mean here is our confession of sin to other believers.  I learned early on after coming to faith that Christians value humility.  And I learned that rather than hiding I could confess my sin to others and actually it made me appear quite humble – even ‘holy.’  But what if I didn’t confess all of my sin but just some of it?   Or what if repented vaguely knowing it was unlikely I would be pressed to be more specific?

Now I am not suggesting we need to provide a list of our sin to every believer we meet.  Certainly confession of sin to others is a powerful means of grace that God has given us.  We should pursue those kinds of relationships where we can talk about what is really going on and be honest about our sin.

What I am saying, is that partial confession of sin blinds us to our need to fully repent.  We think we have repented when we have only vaguely mentioned the category of sin in which we struggle.  Repentance means taking specific sins before the cross.

4. Find a lower standard of what sin is so repentance is not needed.

We lower the standard of what God calls sin.  We settle for a false standard of perfectionism.  If I don’t call it sin, I don’t need to repent.

Here is how the gospel frees us to take a sobering look at the true darkness in our own hearts.  I know that on the other side of repentance is the mercy of God.  Jesus has already earned my forgiveness so no matter how big or small the sin in my life is, I know it is already forgiven.  Mercy not condemnation awaits the believer.  In this way, only the gospel can free us to look deeply into the darkness of our own heart and be serious about what we find.   There will be no darkness that we uncover that it not already covered by the cross.

5. Feel really bad about your sin, beat yourself up, do something good, and eventually return to God.

This is not repentance.  This is called penance.  Penance is a way for us to earn God’s forgiveness.  And for some reason we think we can earn God’s forgiveness.  If forgiveness is earned, it’s not really forgiveness is it?

Imagine you borrow $200 from a friend and then you lose your job.  You go to your friend and say “I’ve lost my job and I can’t repay you.”  You friend says “Don’t worry about it.  Consider it a gift.”  This is forgiveness.  You are unable to pay and your friend forgives the debt.  Now imagine a slightly different scenario.  You’ve borrowed money but rather than losing your job you win the lottery.  You go back to your friend and say “Thank you for the loan.  Here is the $200 back with interest.”  This isn’t forgiveness.  Your friend didn’t forgive you a debt; you paid him back.

This is the difference between repentance and penance.  Repentance says “I don’t deserve it” while penance says “I’ve earned it.”  Forgiveness cannot be earned.

Jesus has secured once and for all the forgiveness of sin.  In repentance I am acknowledging the magnitude of my sin and at the same time depth of God’s mercy for me.  I’ve used this line from Tim Keller many times and I can’t help but use it again because it so powerfully summarizes the gospel:

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”   Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, p.40


Discussion Questions

Read Mark 1:14-20

  1. In what ways do we see Jesus’ authority demonstrated in this passage? Name as many as you can.
  2. What do we learn about Jesus from his first sermon (v.15)?
  3. Jesus immediately calls for a response – to repent and believe. How would you define the word “repent?”
  4. Which of the 5 “alternatives to repentance” is most relevant for you?   How so?
  5. While John simply called for repentance, Jesus calls for repentance and belief in the gospel. Why is it important that we not just repent but also believe in the gospel?
  6. How did the Simon and Andrew, and James and John demonstrate the principal of repentance and belief?
  7. What do you think it was like for them to leave both family and career to follow Jesus?
  8. What sacrifices might believers today need to make to follow Jesus?


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