The actuality of the Gospel call to repentence is very simple to understand, yet it is often only understood simplistically. There’s a lot to say about it as a fact, but that fact has several elements to it, so here’s the first one, as I make the distinction between do-ing and being. It is the difference between doing it ourselves by our own strength, making tough decisions to change, pulling up our “boot-straps” – so to speak. That may be part of it, but this leans heavily towards a works based righteousness that the New Testament condemns. Here, I look at not the do-ing, but the being, our very ontology. It is this that needs the overhaul that leads to newness of life in Christ.
First and foremost then, repentance is about turning from one ontological state to another, one man to another, from our natural-born “in” Adam, to our supernatural-born-again “in” Christ. Therefore, repentance is firstly not simply about the humanly decided 180 degree turn from what we do but who/what we are, our nature: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation (ontologically speaking), the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is supernatural, a gift of grace (Romans 5:15 cf. 6:23).
This means, on this most profound creaturely level, our status before God as sinners is not biblically understood to be about the things we have done, but rather, about who we are “in”, who’s ‘son’ we are, namely, Adam or Christ. Being “in Adam” then is the very reason why the invitation to repent is the first word of the Gospel. To a degree we can within ourselves stop doing sinful things, but we can never change our ontology. We are sinners, for “while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That is precisely why Ezekiel spoke of needing a “new heart” (36:26) because he knew God had to change our very internal affections not just reorder our external rulebook! Christ came so that we would no longer desire what Adam desired, namely the fruit, but rebuking the devil, humanity desires God in the first instance. Martin Luther, himself once a “professional” repenter, finally understood this distinction,
Here Luther employs metaphors of closeness, something he once so desperately sought as he attempted to receive forgiveness through literally groveling in the dust begging God to help. Luther finally understood repentance as C. S. Lewis articulated, “Repentance is simply a description of what going back to God looks like.” In this sense, repentance at the ontological level is going back to God, and more. It is beginning the journey of being as God intended. It is being “born-again.” It is recapitulation into Christ, because, as John Colwell reminds us with deft precision in Living the Christian Story (p.193), “It is not . . . that Christ is made in the likeness of Adam, it is rather that Adam was created in the likeness of Christ.”
Thus, to repent is to keep becoming who we already are – in Christ. And this is, in part, why the call to repentence in the Gospel is a continual, life-giving process and why it is Good News.