The Necessity of Repentance

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 13:1-9

Would you have liked a chance to ask Jesus what he thinks about current events? Let’s listen to how he answered some folks who did just that.

What do you think Jesus would say about the typical stories that fill our newspapers, magazines and news broadcasts? If Jesus were asked to editorialize about the latest terrorist bombing, gang killing, horrible disaster, or fatal accident, do you wonder what he might write? There is a story in one of the gospels that shows how he actually did react to just such an incident. Luke relates it in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the others because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the one who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9 niv


In the first century, as in every other, incidents of violence and bloodshed made the biggest headlines and set folks to talking. Here comes a group of people who want Jesus’ opinion on one of the latest and most horrifying public tragedies. They told him about the massacre at the temple, where Pilate’s troops slaughtered all those people while they were at worship. And they wonder, “What about this?” What does Jesus have to say? they want to know. Perhaps they hoped he would make some inflammatory, anti-Roman comments. Or they may have wanted his opinion on the theological problems raised by sudden death. Was this the judgment of God falling upon these unsuspecting people?

But Jesus wasn’t interested in those kinds of questions, or at least he didn’t seem to be. Rather, he saw a different lesson in this and other sad events of a similar type. Jesus did not delve deeply into the philosophical and theological issues surrounding the problem of evil. He didn’t issue an outraged call to arms against the Roman oppressor. He did not attempt an investigation into the underlying causes of the tragedy or publish a report outlining steps to prevent its recurrence. Any of those might have been valid responses to a particular incident. But Jesus’ response is much more personal and direct. He concluded that life is precarious and fleeting, and that we should prepare accordingly.

Our lives seem so secure. We take it for granted that we’ll live indefinitely, but our end may be only a moment away. In another age, it was the custom in English villages to ring the church bell when any member of the parish lay at the point of death. It was called the “passing bell.” And as those mournful tones echoed through houses, shops and fields people naturally wondered who was about to die. The poet John Donne answered them: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.” Every death should be a reminder to me that my life is passing away. Jesus took the opportunity, when death was in the public view because of the disasters that had taken place, to utter a solemn and urgent warning to everyone: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This is the lesson that Jesus draws from the fact that death can strike anyone at any time. Perhaps that sounds to you like an odd thing to say, a strange lesson to draw. Jesus didn’t say, “Live life to the full,” or “Treasure every moment,” or even “Use your time wisely,” as appropriate as any of those things might have been. Instead, just this one word: “Repent.” Why is this so important? The Puritan preacher Philip Henry once said, “Some people do not like to hear much of repentance. But I think it is so necessary, that if I should die in the pulpit, I should desire to die preaching repentance, and if I should die out of the pulpit, I should desire to die practicing it.” Why is repentance the great necessity?


I want to suggest three reasons why. First, I believe that repentance is a necessity because each one of us is a sinner. “Unless you repent,” Jesus said, “you too will all perish.” Repenting is what sinners have to do. If you make a mistake, all you need to do is correct it; there’s no real blame attached to that. But if you sin, you have to repent. That means confessing your fault, acknowledging your guilt, and turning away from wrong to do right. The underlying assumption behind Jesus’ warning is that we all have something to repent of. Jesus, we are told in the Gospels, “knew what was in people’s hearts.” He could see inside of each human personality, and what he saw there was sin. The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve into disobedience wasn’t just an old fable or a dusty piece of theology for Jesus – it was a true and accurate description of human nature. The universal testimony of the Bible that “there is no one that does good, no, not one” is exactly what Jesus believed.

It seems that Jesus knows us for what we are. He knows that we are not really the basically good, kind and generous people we think we are, or that we pretend to be to others. Jesus knows that we’re actually filled with a love of ourselves that makes us prone by nature even to hate God and our neighbors, because they compete with our own self-interest. Of course, that’s something we deny about ourselves. We tend to think that “sin” is too strong a word to describe us. We may admit we are somewhat less than perfect, or even weak sometimes, but surely not sinful.

I was watching a news report recently about another one of those seemingly endless criminal cases involving a famous celebrity. “He showed poor judgment,” one of the man’s friends explained – as if getting involved in drugs and prostitution were the equivalent of making a bad choice at the super market. But Jesus tells us we have to repent, not merely apologize, make an excuse, or correct a minor mistake. No. Repent! Repentance is a necessity because each of us is a sinner.

Secondly, repentance is a necessity because unrepented sin is unforgiven sin. “Unless you repent, you too will perish,” says Jesus. Each of us faces the problem of personal sin every day, but most of us attempt to deal with it on our own.

The commonest way is simply to ignore it. “I don’t want to think about it,” we say. “I’m too busy for that.” “Don’t lay a guilt trip on me.” Or maybe we make light of our sin. We tend to minimize it in some way. It’s not so bad. It’s not all that serious. Don’t blow this out of proportion. It’s just a fault that I happen to have. It’s a bad habit maybe, a little problem. I’ll work it out.” Or we normalize our sin. “Everyone does that; I’m no different. Besides, I can’t help it; that’s just the way I am.” And these are the ways we try to rationalize our sins rather than repent of them.

But there really is only one way to finally deal with sin. There’s only one way to remove its guilt and break its hold upon us, only one way to find full and complete forgiveness. That is the way of repentance. There is no other. We cannot find forgiveness until we repent, until we turn in sorrow away from our sins toward God. That’s what repentance is.

Of course there is no question here of our earning forgiveness by something we do, even by repenting. I hope you know that God’s gift of love, grace and forgiveness is offered to you freely. You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it in any way. Through Jesus Christ God has found a way to forgive us even when we don’t deserve it. But God’s great provision for forgiving sin is of no avail unless we repent – even God can’t forgive someone who refuses his gift. “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” said the psalmist, “then you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

As long as we refuse to repent, we’re continuing to embrace our sin. We’re clutching it to ourselves like a child holding a doll. And it’s impossible for that sin to be forgiven until we loose our grip of it, let it go and turn to receive God’s mercy. Jesus can and will cleanse and save us, but on one condition: We must turn from our sin to him. We must repent. So repentance is a necessity because unrepented sin is unforgiven sin.

Finally, repentance is necessary because unforgiven sin will destroy us. Did you listen to what Jesus said? “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Many of us simply don’t comprehend the destructive effects of unforgiven sin and the guilt that accompanies it. Listen again to the psalmist: “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”

Sin destroys in many ways. It destroys individuals. It destroys relationships. It even destroys nations. And not just the open and obvious sins like murder or adultery, but those sins that linger and eat away like a cancer within, sins like hatred, pride, greed and jealousy. In a sense, you could say that all the tragedies in the world, whether they are real-life tragedies or the tragedies that fill the world’s literatures, are variations played out on this single theme: the destructive effects of sin.

But Jesus was talking about more than just the psychological or physical destruction that comes from sin, as terrible and real as those things are. What he ultimately was warning us of was the final destruction of eternal death. The damage sin does in everyday life is a sign and a warning of another more terrible destruction. Some people never sense the most terrible thing of all. They’re never aware of the final damage. They never realize the desperate seriousness of the issue – that people whose sin is not forgiven are lost in the end. “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”

Let me close with this word. Now is the time for repentance. Today is the day to do something, to turn away from your sin and to embrace the forgiveness, love and grace of God. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ little story about the extra year given to the fig tree. God has graciously allowed us an extension of time. We’re like that tree. God is looking for fruit in our lives. And the fruit that he especially wants is the fruit of repentance. “Do you not know,” wrote the apostle Paul, “that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

Did you know that when he spoke these words in Luke 13 he was talking to religious people? It’s not just open and notorious sinners who need to repent. It’s not just the “tax collectors and sinners” that the New Testament talks about (today we would say “the drug dealers and terrorists.”) No, it’s people like us. We are the ones – church-going, Bible-reading folk – who sometimes can be the most ignorant of our sins.

“Unless you repent, you too will all perish!” Jesus was speaking to me and to you when he said that. Do you think he knew what he was talking about? Do you think he was telling the truth? What will you do about it?