“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). These words of John the Baptist and Jesus are a familiar refrain, calling their audience (and us) to repent of sins and turn to God. Yet, it is striking that the reason to repent is not (at least initially) their sin but God’s work in bringing His kingdom. In other words, they are saying repent now because God has already been gracious toward you in the coming of His saving kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Seeing repentance this way makes it sound like the beginning of gratitude.
The proclamation of Jesus and John reveals a fundamental truth of human life bound by sin: we need the Word of God to open our eyes to God’s activity. To be able to give thanks to God for His wondrous works in repentance, we have to first be able to see who He is and what He does. However, our sin creates spiritual blindness, keeping our eyes from seeing His work, leaving us content with our own abilities and ignorant of our deepest needs (Romans 10:3; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-19). John Calvin makes a penetrating observation about our sin-diseased sight when he asks, “For what man in all the world would not gladly remain as he is…so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery?” The proclaimed good news of the kingdom of heaven comes to us as we are bound in sin, and opens our eyes to our great need for a Savior. Additionally, the Word of God points us to our Savior, who fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
When we are called to repentance, we now are able to rejoice, for our eyes are open not just to the reality of our need, but even more to the immeasurable love He has shown us in Jesus. In response, repentance becomes a profound act of gratitude to God for His unchanging character and promised forgiveness. With Paul we are able to see ourselves as we actually are, saying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” and also stand in awe at His great love saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
1. John Calvin, Donald K. McKim, Calvin's Institutes: Abridged Edition; (United States: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2001), 2.