In December 1998, NASA launched a spaceship called The Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO). Its primary objective was to collect data on Mars’ climate and weather patterns, serving as a communication relay for upcoming Mars missions. However, shortly after entering Martian orbit in September 1999, the orbiter burned up in the atmosphere. A mission that took years of work and millions of dollars was lost.
What went wrong?
Upon inspection, NASA scientists were dismayed to discover the issue was not mechanical. Two of the teams working on the orbiter during production used different measurement standards. One used imperial (US) measurements, while the other team used metric.
The orbiter was lost because of the failure to use consistent units of measurement. Such a small oversight led to mission failure. An oversight that easily could have been corrected.
When a Small Error is a Big One
The same idea is true for repentance. Repentance is a pivotal part of our doctrine as followers of Christ. A small misuse of the term, however, could mean a colossal misunderstanding for Christians. It all comes down to the use of a preposition.
Although the word repentance isn’t used in Galatians, faith is, and in a big way. In fact, the main theme of Galatians is the centrality of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It also talks about how that same faith becomes the motive and power for sanctification. Repentance may be in the shadows, but it is present.
Using the wrong preposition in how we describe the concept could unintentionally cause grace to burn up in the atmosphere, preventing not the Mars Obiter, but the gospel from landing in our hearts. That’s why we need to rethink the preposition we use to define repentance.
The English word translated as repentance is metanoia, which signifies a radical change of mind. Think of metanoia as a complete 180-degree turn of the heart. It’s not just a slight adjustment but a total, complete change of direction, especially concerning how I view my personal sin and the nature of God.
In my seminary courses, I often ask the class to define repentance in one sentence. You may identify with nine out of ten people who answer, “Repentance is turning from my sins to Jesus.”
“From”—What’s the Problem?
Turning implies a movement away from something. It implies a resolve to change my life. In other words, the phrase “turning from my sin to Jesus” sounds like I’m making a promise to stop sinning and start obeying.
This is problematic for several reasons.
First, a call to turn from sin underestimates human depravity by communicating that we have the moral and spiritual capacity to turn away from our sins on our own, which neglects the reality of our inherent incapacity to free ourselves from sin’s bondage.
Second, a call to turn from sin distorts biblical theology by reversing the relationship between justification and sanctification.
In Christian theology, justification—our being declared righteous in God’s sight by grace alone through faith in the redemptive work of Jesus—precedes and is the ground for sanctification—the progressive change that takes place in our lives by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
By implying that we must turn from our sins in order to come to Jesus, we subtly (and disastrously) make sanctification the foundation of our justification.
Finally, a call to turn from sin as a first step leads to crippling spiritual insecurity resulting from an assumption that we must “clean up our act” before we can approach God for grace. This turns the grace of repentance into the work of a deadly penance cycle where I make promises, break them, and make more promises with greater resolve. Only to break them again.
This process blinds us to the cross, creating spiritually neurotic believers who are never sure if they are really forgiven and accepted by God.
The gospel is not a promise I make to God. It is believing the promise God makes to me.
This is why the cross offers us a different and better preposition as a first step to repentance.
“With”— The Invitation of the Cross
Rather than calling us to turn from our sins to Jesus, repentance calls us to turn with our sins to Jesus, who, with open arms, reveals not a scowl but a smile, making sure we clearly see his nail-scared hands.
This is the 180-degree, revolutionary change of mind and heart that affects how we see our personal sin and the nature of God.
We discover God is much more merciful, gracious, loving, and kind than we ever dreamed possible! In fact, in Romans 2:4, Paul asks the Jewish believers, “Don’t you know that it is the kindness of God that leads you to repentance?” God is a judge who decreed that any criminal who simply turned themselves in to the precinct would receive a full pardon.
Can you be serious? What’s the catch? Because of the cross, there is no catch. Just mercy for the guilty.
Because of the cross, I recognize my rebellion against the will, wisdom, and goodness of God is not a petty crime, but equates to treason—crimes against a King. And in view of the King’s kindness, I grieve not only the consequences of sin but also the personal offense I have created by my sinful action.
This means salvation from the penalty and power of sin is not about what I can do about it. It is about what Jesus has done by serving my sentence of death. This incredible truth compels me to abandon self-merit and rest in sovereign mercy.
Rather than calling us to turn from our sins to Jesus, the cross invites us to live in the light by turning with our sins to Jesus, whose blood washes even the most vile sins whiter than snow. We no longer have to hide. We don’t have clean up our act. We simply come clean through the blood of Christ.
This kind of simple, pure, genuine repentance is seen in the tax collector in Luke 18:13 who cries out to God, “Have mercy on me, the sinner!” This is moral honesty, without equivocation, minimization, shifting blame, or making excuses.
The Fruit of True Repentance
Having turned with our sins to Jesus, the Spirit enables us to turn from our sins!
As we abide in Christ as our sin-bearing, righteousness provider, the Holy Spirit fills us like sap into a branch, replacing a desire for sin with a desire for the fruit of righteousness. This is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism means when it calls repentance a “saving grace” that leads to “hatred of… sin… with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
John the Baptizer expressed the same idea by challenging the Pharisees in Matthew 3:8 to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The fruit wasn’t the essence of repentance—it was evidence of repentance.
Turning with our sin to Jesus and then from our sin in the power of the Spirit becomes an ongoing rhythm of the Christian life, not because we’re trying to earn God’s favor, but because we already have it. From this perspective, instead of seeing repentance as a burdensome duty, we can see it as a gracious gift that leads to new life in Christ.
And as we do so, we will begin to experience the full weight of the gospel’s power in our lives–a power that frees us from sin’s hold, liberating us to live in the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace with a renewed freedom and joy that overflows in mission.