Associate Professor of New Testament
In one of the most extensive and important studies of the “historical Jesus” John Meier makes a revealing comment regarding Jesus’ statement about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12; Luke 11:4):
It is most significant that Jesus makes the disciples’ forgiveness of others in the present the condition of God’s definitive forgiveness of them at the last day…. Making God's final forgiveness of individual believers depend on their forgiveness of others in the present moment may create problems for Christian theology. But, since Jesus was not a Christian theologian, he seems sublimely unconcerned about the problem.[i]
It is a shame that Meier does not give more attention to the place of repentance in the message of Jesus (even doubting, it seems, that repentance played any significant role)[ii] since that is probably the key to explaining why Jesus’ statement was not a problem for him or for the Christian gospel writers, and should not be a problem for any other Christian theologian either. Recent research into the meaning and significance of repentance for the Judaism of Jesus’ day may shed important light on aspects of his teaching that have caused Christians to scratch their heads from time to time.[iii]
The Synoptic Gospels all agree that repentance was an important part of Jesus’ message (see Matt. 4:17; 11:20-21; 12:41; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 5:32; 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3-4; 24:47), as it was for John the Baptist (see Matt. 3:2, 8, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3, 8). The Old Testament background to the idea of repentance is found, e.g., in Leviticus 26:40-42; Deuteronomy 4:29-31; 30:1-6; 1 Kings 8:46-50 (paralleled in 2 Chronicles 6:36-39); Joel 2:12-14; Jeremiah 29:10-14; and what is known as the penitential prayer tradition (including the prayers of Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9 and several other prayers of the Second Temple Period[iv]). In these texts repentance is understood to be a prerequisite to forgiveness for the sins which led Israel into captivity (and the on-going state of oppression by foreign powers). Key terms or concepts that came to be associated with repentance (due to their presence in the Old Testament texts listed above) include turning to God (and/or from sin), confession of sins (), and seeking God.
Repentance must be reflected in a changed living (just as new life reflects itself in those very same changes), and if there is no change of life there is no real repentance (or new life), but that does not mean the biblical teaching of repentance amounts to salvation by works or by moral effort or rigor. In the context of a call for repentance one’s obedience to God and rejection of sin are not understood as means of meriting, earning, or being worthy of salvation. Rather, it is a reflection of one’s understanding that God’s righteous judgment stands over against us and that we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace and mercy if we are to survive his that coming judgment. The confession of sins and/or request for forgiveness, the turning from sin and seeking after God may all be understood as interrelated manners of expressing one’s recognition of guilt. While a penitential prayer expresses one’s culpability and need for forgiveness verbally, “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8) are non-verbal means of expressing the same ideas.
The Gospel of Matthew suggests virtually all of Jesus’ teaching might be considered under the umbrella of the theme of repentance. Matthew 4:17 says that “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (ESV). Both “from that time” and “began” suggest the message of repentance was a continuous and/or primary theme of Jesus’ teaching from that point on, despite the fact that the explicit language of repentance does not often appear in the rest of the Gospel of Matthew, or in the other gospels, for that matter. Matthew expects us to understand that virtually all of Jesus’ teaching is to be understood within that framework. This is the framework within which we are to understand the beatitudes (including, most obviously, Jesus’ references to being “poor in spirit” and “those who morn”) and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.[v] The petition for the forgiveness of sins in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer may well relate it to the penitential prayer tradition.[vi] While it does not contain a separate confession of sins, the very request that God would forgive us “our sins/debts” entails an acknowledgement of sinfulness and need for forgiveness. And that takes place in the midst of a prayer that is clearly focused on the coming of God’s eschatological kingdom. The reference to fruits by which God’s people can be recognized at the end of the Sermon (Matt. 7:16-20) is the first reference to fruit since John the Baptist spoke of the need to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8-10).
In the beatitudes Jesus promises that the merciful will receive mercy (Matt. 5:7). This presumably presupposes the idea that the merciful are those who (in a repentant spirit) already recognized their own need for divine mercy and who extend similar mercy to others as a reflection of their own repentant attitude. This brings us back to the suggestion that “Jesus makes the disciples’ forgiveness of others in the present the condition of God’s definitive forgiveness of them at the last day.” Understood in the context of a theology of repentance, this hardly means people will gain forgiveness through their own merit or that they will be thought deserving of it because they happen to extend forgiveness to others. Rather, it means the person has come to realize their own culpability before God and their desperate need for his mercy and forgiveness, and has thus begun to live a life consistent with such a repentant attitude.
The Old Testament indicates the change in the lives of God’s people will come as a result of the heart surgery he will do in the eschatological time of salvation. Deuteronomy 30:6 says God will circumcise the hearts of his people so that they will love him. Jeremiah 31:33-34 says God will write his law on the hearts of his people so that they will all know him. Ezekiel 36:26-27 says God will give his people a new heart and put his Spirit within them so that they will obey him. So the changed life of the repentant believer is not a human achievement but a divine work. It is the work that God himself has begun and that he will bring to completion (Phil. 1:6). The Gospel of Luke makes it clear that repentance is something granted by God to both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Acts 11:18).
It is important that we not “explain away” Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of forgiving others (e.g., Matt. 6:12, 14-15), showing mercy (Matt. 5:7), etc., in order to make him say what we wish he had said. But it is also important to understand how it fits into a broader biblical-theological framework (in this case, the framework relating to repentance granted by God in at the threshold of eschatological judgment) which helps explain its coherence with the rest of biblical teaching about salvation.
[i] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Volume 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 301.
[ii] While admitting that the imperative “Repent!” is “hardly impossible in the mouth of Jesus” he agrees with other scholars that “sayings that mention repentance and that can be seriously attributed to Jesus are relatively few, if any” (A Marginal Jew: Volume 2, p. 431). In a footnote he suggests that E. P. Sanders “may be too skeptical about the matter” (p. 485 n. 152, see Sanders, Jesus and Judaism [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985], pp. 106-13). For more optimistic appraisals and fuller discussion of this topic, see, e.g., Joachim Gnilka, Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History (Trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997), pp. 204-8; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, 2; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1996), pp. 246-58; Steven M. Bryan, Jesus and Israel's Traditions of Judgement and Restoration (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 68-72.
[iii] See “repentance” in the subject indexes of Mark J. Boda, Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline, eds., Seeking the Favor of God: Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Early Judaism and its literature, 21; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006) and idem, Seeking the Favor of God: Volume 2: The Development of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Early Judaism and its literature, 22; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), especially Boda’s discussion of the theology of repentance on pp. 27-34 of the first volume. See also Bryan, Jesus and Israel's Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, pp. 57-72.
[iv] See the texts discussed in the volumes edited by Boda, Falk and Werline,
[v] See Gnilka, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 207.
[vi] “Penitential prayer is a direct address to God in which an individual, group, or an individual on behalf of a group confesses sins and petitions for forgiveness as an act of repentance” (Rodney A. Werline, “Reflections on Penitential Prayer: Definition and Form,” in Mark J. Boda, Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline, eds., Seeking the Favor of God: Volume 2: The Development of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism [Early Judaism and its literature, 22; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], p. 209).