Jesus began his public ministry by calling humankind to the repentance necessary for inheritance of the kingdom of God.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
3 August 2017
When Christ began his ministry he announced: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2, Mk 1:15). These first words of the incarnate Son of God are perennial words spoken to all people throughout all time. They remind us that something wondrous yet mysterious is waiting beyond the visible constraints of this world. When Christ spoke those cherished and long awaited words about 2000 years ago, heaven was indeed at hand, for Christ had brought heaven to earth in his divine and human Person, in the admirabile commercium made a reality by the incarnation event through which the Son of God became man.
Although Jesus makes the kingdom of heaven present, entry into this sublime kingdom is not automatic, not a gift totally without cost which is transmitted without participation or consent on the part of the person. Our Lord’s words connect the necessity of repentance with obtaining the promise of unending happiness and joy found in God alone and life in his kingdom. To access this salvific gift, for our part as sinners we must repent, which is, of course, a response to actual grace received from God.
However, in today’s secularist cultural climate of indifference to sin, the natural law, and disregard for the truth and full meaning of human life, people often disregard the essential importance of repentance. This problem is connected to an abuse of human freedom which sees the use of free will as an absolute, something the individual can often wield without proper restraint and without reference to God or the moral law. This abuse has brought on the “culture of death” and has resulted in a calloused view of sin and our dependency on God.
Additionally, many Americans now ascribe on some level—perhaps often subconsciously—to Neo-Deism, which has become a kind of natural, common-sense religion. The sacrifice Christ won on the cross and the power of his Paschal Mystery in our lives is pushed into the background. The dangerous effects of mortal sin are often dismissed, especially as pertains to the disordered use of human sexuality. The necessity of grace obtained through repentance in turning to the incarnate Son of God in faith is something often supplanted by a Pelagian view in which it is thought “all good people go to heaven” and the purpose of life is to be happy, successful, and get along well with others. Within this construct, there is no talk of holiness of life, sacrifice, self-entrustment and self-gift to Christ, discipleship, the effects of sin, the reality of hell and so forth.
But such a view is not in conformity with the reality of things, with what is really true.
No one gets to heaven devoid of sanctifying grace and apart from Christ, for the Son of God has said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). No one accesses the vision of God by being nice, successful, or thinking themselves subjectively “good” while refusing to repent of sin. Repentance is, in fact, the key to returning to God. It is itself the journey of return to the embrace of the Father and the loving application of his essential mercy and forgiveness. The Catechism (1431) notes this of repentance:
Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).
For Catholics, repentance also presupposes a determination of will to receive the forgiveness of Christ through the sacrament of Penance, through which the sinner is restored to friendship with God and reconciled with the Church (see Jn 20:22-23).
How important is repentance? An excerpt from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus explains the parable of the weeds and the wheat, as well as the harvest at the Parousia, provides the answer:
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. (Mt 13:36-43)
One may be transformed by the grace of God from weeds to wheat. But this will not happen apart from repentance, contrition, and cooperation with God. The reality is, repentance of sin is necessary and the journey of life is far more serious than modern American culture pretends it to be. Heaven is not a prize cheaply won; nor are people forced into the kingdom of God without their consent and apart from ordering their lives to God who is Truth. Let us turn to Christ in repentance and faith, amend our lives, and pray we receive the gift of his grace that we may join in communion with him. It is through Christ that the kingdom of heaven is accessed: he is the doorway to the fullness of human life. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), having entrusted ourselves to God and modeled our lives, assisted by grace, morally on the pattern of the life of Jesus Christ.
Repentance, then, is the way the sinner conforms himself to the reality that he has offended God; he must face that fact in order to return to God’s friendship and step into the kingdom of Christ.
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Photo Credit: Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.