Repentance and forgiveness of sins was the main point of John’s baptism. Mark says that John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance (Greek: metanoia or “changing of the mind”) for (or “into,” “for the purpose of” – Greek: eis) the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4).
John, of course, was not unique in calling God’s people to repent in order that they might be forgiven. The Old Testament is filled with similar prophetic voices. Many of John’s contemporaries also believed very strongly in the importance of repentance.
To be forgiven, one must repent. Rabbi David Blumenthal says there is a wide historic consensus in Judaism about the meaning of repentance: “Teshuvá [editor’s note: Hebrew for repentance or “turning around”] is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The tradition is not of one mind on the steps one must take to repent of one’s sins. However, almost all agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition of one’s sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét’), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét’), restitution where possible (peira’ón), and confession (vidúi). “
I like those so much that I’m going to put them in a list. Whatever else repentance means, it includes:
- Recognizing that one’s sins are indeed sins
- True remorse over one’s sins and their consequences
- Stopping the sinful behavior
- Making amends where possible
- Confessing one’s sins to God and asking for forgiveness
All four gospels portray John’s baptism as the forerunner of Christian baptism. Christian baptism may mean more than John’ preparatory rite, but it certainly does not mean less. Repentance is an integral element of the church’s sacrament of initiation.
For Christians, repentance is not a one-time event. Following Jesus’ own baptism and temptation in the wilderness, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15) The English hides an important point of Greek grammar in the verb “repent.” It is an “active imperative” which indicates ongoing action. “Be repenting” or “keep on repenting” or “continue repenting” might be an inelegant way to capture something of the sense of the verb. The Christian’s life into which we are baptized is one of continuing repentance – not for the same sins repeatedly (one would hope), but growing in the knowledge of God and oneself. We are a people who are ever re-forming – or perhaps better – being re-formed and trans-formed by the spirit and word of God. For Christians, baptism is not the end of the journey; it’s not even the end of the repenting!