Repent: The Gospel Imperative

Anglican Diocese of the South
Canon John A. Roop

1 Corinthians 7: A Homily at Evening Prayer, Clergy Retreat 2023

Matthew 4:17 (ESV): 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Coming, as it does, from near the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel and from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, this text suggests that the primary, the most fundamental imperative of the Gospel is, “Repent.” We must not confuse that imperative with the content of the Gospel: the proclamation of what God has accomplished by, in, and through the incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and reign of our Lord Jesus Christ to inaugurate the kingdom, to defeat the unholy trinity of death, sin, and enslavement to the fallen powers, to reconcile man to God, and to renew the cosmos. The imperative is the response to that Gospel, to that good news, as we see happen at Peter’s first public proclamation on Pentecost:

Acts 2:36–38 (ESV): 36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel imperative was from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, “Repent:” change your mind; reorient your direction; relinquish your agenda; embrace Christ and the way of the kingdom of God; renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil; pursue holiness and virtue.

That means that the Gospel imperative to repent is not one off; it is not one and done. Rather, the Gospel imperative to repent demands the essential and continual re-orientation of the Christian life: conversatio morum, as the Benedictines vow — the continual conversion of life, the continual practice of repentance.

It was the Gospel imperative of repentance that St. Paul proclaimed to the church in Corinth, not just to the man living in notorious sexual sin, but also to the church that failed to address that sin by refusing to exercise godly church discipline. It was the Gospel imperative of repentance that St. Paul proclaimed to the entire church in Corinth when he denounced their divisive spirit, their arrogance, their readiness to embrace false apostles so-called, their refusal to honor the traditions of the Church. It was the Gospel imperative of repentance that animated St. Paul’s visits and letters and that prompted a temporary rupture of relationship between church and Apostle. And yet, in the end, it was the Gospel imperative to repent that did its holy work so that St. Paul could write:

2 Corinthians 7:8–11 (ESV): 8 For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment!

This Gospel imperative is the paradigm for us — for all of us called to ordained ministry perhaps especially, but also to all the people of God, the treasure committed to our charge, the sheep of Christ for whom he shed his blood, his bride, his body (cf THE EXHORTATION, BCP 2019, p. 489). We are to work diligently, with our whole heart, to bring those in our care into the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, and to maturity in Christ, to banish error in religion and immorality in life (ibid). We are to model repentance. We are to proclaim repentance.

Who among us does not long to see in himself or herself and to inculcate in the church entrusted to his or her pastoral care and stewardship such godly sorrow for sin, eagerness for purity, indignation at all that would corrupt the people of God, godly fear of falling and failing, longing for righteousness, zeal for the Gospel and the life of the kingdom? To all who long for this, the Gospel imperative is the answer. The Gospel imperative is clear; the way forward is clear; the way further up and further in is clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent of all within us that is not good, that is not holy. Repent of all within and without that distracts from or distorts the Gospel. Repent of all that does not conduce to increase in faith, hope, and charity. Repent of all within that still resonates with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Repent of everything that weighs us down, that clings to us, that hinders us in our race forward toward our Lord Jesus Christ who loves us and gave himself for us, according to the will of God the Father, in unity with God the Holy Spirit unto Whom one God in three Persons be the glory now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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