Wait! Don't click away from this article!!! My hunch is that when many of you saw the word “repentance,” it engendered a curious response. Did you think of fire-and-brimstone preachers? Does the word feel antiquated and maybe a little harsh to modern ears? As we think about youth ministry and reaching 21st century teenagers, repentance doesn’t often come up, does it?
I’ll venture that the concept no doubt seems irrelevant to some. (Maybe it’s because the concept of repentance feels like behavior modification. And we’ve been conditioned to flee from leading teenagers to a faith that is conditioned through, or measured by behavior modification.) But if these previous sentences describe you at all, I would encourage you to continue to read.
Because if this is how you feel about repentance, then you're missing one of the most important aspect of what it means to follow Christ.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. And what was the first thing we see come out of his mouth? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Matthew records the first words of Jesus’ public ministry as follows: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Notice a trend? The word appears 54 times in the New Testament (and 24 in the Old Testament), about 20 of which are directly out of Jesus’ mouth. And yet, when it comes to shaping teenagers’ faith, it rarely comes out of ours.
Why? Why do we neglect this concept?
I think one reason is that we have a categorical misunderstanding of grace. We often teach teenagers as though we believe that grace makes repentance unnecessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grace necessitates repentance. Grace drives repentance. Grace and repentance go hand-in-hand.
Still not convinced? Then give me a few more moments of your time to share with you from Crossway’s excellent ESV Gospel Transformation Bible. (If you don’t own this resource, I would highly suggest picking it up. It has been an invaluable addition to my resource library.) I think these notes nail the heart of repentance about as clearly as you can:
Repentance does not begin with changed behavior that in turn brings God’s acceptance. It begins with a change in one’s perspective on oneself, on God, and on the consequences of one’s rejection of God. The change in one’s perspective then brings about a change in behavior.
See, repentance doesn't start with behavior. So the fear of teaching teenagers works-based salvation, or misguide legalism shouldn’t apply here. Repentance starts with the heart. And the change that is wrought in our heart through the power of the Spirit leads us to turn away from “that which entangles us.”
If you're still with me, allow me to share a couple more points I’ve adapted from the Gospel Transformation Bible, and how I believe they apply to youth ministry.
Repentance is change in the pattern of one’s life from sinful behavior to behavior that honors God.
Great definition here. So many of our students—and let’s be honest, us—don’t even think about their sin habits as sinful. They’ve simply incorporated them into their lifestyles. Repentance is about identifying sin-habits for what they are, and born out of love for God, taking the necessary steps to change those habits.
Repentance involves a heart-change that leads to a change in the direction of one’s life.
As mentioned earlier, any change that is made solely in the habit itself won’t last, and probably isn’t real repentance. We need to address the heart change our students need, doing our best to put them in a position to let the Spirit convict and transform.
Those who repent, confess their sin.
I don’t know how often we stress confession of sin to God. Maybe it’s a tenant of your ministry. Maybe it’s not. But it should be.
Those who repent also understand that they deserve God’s punishment for their sins . . . and trust only in the mercy of God.
This is where a love for and appreciation of the Gospel comes in. Repentance can lead us to a greater love and appreciation of grace and mercy. It can drive us back to the heart of God.
At the end of the day, we are called, in Paul’s words, to be ministers of reconciliation. Our message should be salvation through faith by the grace of God, and what amazing grace it is. But Jesus and John the Baptist made repentance a central part of their message. It should be a central part of ours.
Our students can’t come to faith in Christ, we cannot live in step with the Spirit, without repair. Being a big part of our faith.
If we are not teaching this to our teenagers, we are not teaching them a complete Gospel.