The word translated “repent” in the New Testament has quite a powerful concept. It comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means to change the direction of one’s life.

Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet it can be that lifeline we have been searching for, turning us toward something different or more liberating. It may be a chance to discover how to explore paths or possibilities previously unthinkable.

To repent is not so much the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call, although that is a familiar image for many Baptists. To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life that draws you closer to God and God’s purposes for you. Repenting means you are not going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction!

Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you?

I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel. As he spoke of repentance as “change,” he enumerated things that kept us down, and then through a positive change in our lives, how we could feel renewed or unburdened when making good life choices. He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways we lived before and then after repentance took place.

Making that leap, that change, is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy to bear. In joy we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored.

Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise. To repent is literally a transformative act!

For Christian believers, to repent means turning our lives to the way of Jesus. Rather than wearing ourselves down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, we Christians seek to trace our way through the contours and questions of the gospel.

Reading our way through Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing.

Matthew gave up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, and took up the way of Jesus, who said, “You should love your neighbor as yourself,” and proclaimed that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes.

Repentance stretches us as we continue down a path that we could not previously have imagined. To choose repentance—the decision to reshape our lives—is necessary if we are to choose and follow Jesus.

Matthew’s gospel particularly warns followers of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome. (The writings of Warren Carter and Richard Horsley have been helpful in seeing this theme more clearly.) To live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom we would otherwise claim close allegiance.

In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven is a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (for example, Herod who had just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are declared second fiddle to the sovereign God. Jesus’ selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrated the “otherness” of the kingdom of heaven by raising up those the empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.

In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise. Disciples not only evangelize the good news but live as examples of why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, repentant and authentically devoted Christians have many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: do we merely admire Jesus, or do we follow Jesus? To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s Georgia.

Jordan led Koinonia, a group of people committed to racial integration living as an intentional farming community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother, Robert Jordan, who was a lawyer, for help. Robert refused to give aid, for he believed his helping Koinonia might harm his law practice and his political aspirations. (Hauerwas notes that Jordan’s brother was later a state senator and a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court.)

Clarence pointed out that the two brothers had joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys and answered affirmatively the same questions about Jesus being their Lord and Savior. Clarence’s brother told him, “I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

Clarence replied, “Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”

The brother said back, “That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

Clarence said, “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”

Robert said, “Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?’”[1]


Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.

1. Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew,” Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 57, quoting James William McClendon Jr., Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 110.

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