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The Possibility of Repentance (Mark 1:4)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Centuryá February 24, 1982, p. 196. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. áCurrent articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. áThis material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins [Mark 1:4].

John the Baptist knew that the decisive moment was at hand, and he interpreted that moment in terms of his sense of outrage over sin. However, his proclamation of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” strikes most of us, if we are honest, as a call from another world -- a voice from a wilderness that has long since been brought under human control. Even if we are relatively pious, it would be hard to keep a straight face if -- on our way home from church, for example -- we were beset by an itinerant preacher like John who wanted us to “repent.” Such a declaration is born of a moralism too na´ve for our modern Sensitivities and insights.

We tend, quite properly, to relativize human frailties in terms of a social and psychological situationalism. People who have suffered great privation might be excused for a certain grasping acquisitiveness born of a fear of want. People who have been psychologically abused because of their race or sex may find it impossible ever to feel reconciled to members of the groups that have caused them torment. Those who have been exposed to violence often respond with violence. Our liberal, social-scientific perspective has made it axiomatic: trace down the empirical roots of human attitudes and actions, and you will understand them, and “to understand all is to forgive all.”

For John, understanding and forgiveness can be reached only by way of “repentance.” Judah was an occupied land, victimized by tyrants foreign and domestic. John, however, did not suggest that the nation’s suffering mitigated its guilt. We cannot but shudder at the ice-cold rectitude of John’s announcement. He knew that the wretchedness of Judah had reached such desperate proportions that a holy God must act, that the very depth of the lowliness of his people called into question God’s honor. John’s genius was flamed by an apocalyptic urgency. God must send the Messiah soon. Nevertheless, for John, the suffering of the nation did not excuse its sin. It stood accused; it needed the baptism of repentance if it were to prepare for a day of reckoning in which one’s only hope was to have already radically turned around.

We for our part, from a distance of almost 20 centuries, stand amazed. What was the nation’s terrible sin? We are overwhelmed with the compassion of those who understand weakness. For us, the wonder is that the faith survived at all. John’s courage against Herod, his martyrdom -- these we admire. However, his usual audiences were the victims of Herod. Was all this doomsday prophecy primarily the afflicting of the afflicted?

Jesus was the fulfillment of John’s messianic hope, and yet Jesus and John were not at one in their understanding of the eschatological moment (Luke 7:19). John was living proof of the fact that God fulfills our hopes in ways that surprise and even confound us. We who follow Jesus today are equally out of phase with him. Jesus confounds us moderns as well.

Jesus did not come in order that he might teach us to understand evil in order that evil be excused. There can be no free forgiveness of sin. Jesus forgives sins, but at a terrible cost. The price is the cross. Nevertheless, Jesus did not come as a fierce, moralistic ascetic either. Eating and drinking are not the problem (Luke 7:34). The problem relates to the demons. Jesus came not to castigate the victims of sin but to cast out demons which bind us in sin -- the demons of despair, of self-righteousness, of vengeance. Jesus did not come preaching repentance; rather he came to overcome the darkness. Unless this victory is won, our repentance is impossible, for we are not free. In an unexpected way, he was the warrior Messiah of first century Israel’s hope, for he vanquished the elemental spirits of the universe; he conquered sin and death. By setting us free, he cast our repentance in a wholly new light.


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