Repenting of Works Righteousness

Do you have a to-do list, a calendar, a phone app, or another method of keeping track of your appointments, meetings, and important tasks? I have used my phone calendar for decades to remember commitments. I take great pleasure in deleting the reminders as they’re finished or at the end of the day. If I didn’t get to something, I move it to the next day, and then when I look at my empty “today” I have a feeling of completion. This organizational habit is helpful when I’m busy, but when I am not, it feels like a layer of unnecessary work since I know what I’m supposed to be doing. Perhaps my tendency toward task completion is what makes me so concerned about its detrimental spiritual influence. It seems like I confess most often about my legalism. Ironically, confession is part of my very structured daily quiet time, leading to even more legalism if I weren’t so cautious. “God himself has placed a self-defeating principle within all ungodliness. Derek Thomas writes, ‘There is no resolution of the insecurity that is at the heart of rebellion. Finding no way to defeat the Lamb, the forces of evil turn upon each other…It is only in Jesus that fullness and light are to be found.’” (1) I became a Christian after a long history of trying to find the “right religion” legalistically. The importance of God’s initiative in salvation can’t be overstated, proving the necessity of rejecting self-righteous justification by works.

I never believed that being born Jewish had any special meaning for me. But for the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time, it was everything. Being Jewish by birth, appearing to follow the Ten Commandments and all the Jewish traditions, checking their religious tasks off the list, and teaching others to do the same is works righteousness. Any attempt to “find” God by personal effort is legalism as if it is possible to earn or deserve salvation. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist began his ministry by calling people to repentance and then baptizing them in Judah’s wilderness. Many Jews came out to see him, and he boldly rebuked them for their legalistic religious beliefs and practices. John the Baptist understood the Old Testament teaching that God desires circumcision of the heart—“a broken and contrite heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Psalm 51:17). He knew that salvation required repentance for trusting in works righteousness. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’…Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Matthew 3:1-12) **

“Repent [was] the first command of both John the Baptist and Jesus (4:17). Repentance is not just sorrow for sin but a decisive change, a turning away from sin to a life of obedience that flows from trust in God. ‘Repent’ translates the OT call to Israel to ‘return’ to faithfulness to the covenant…The arrival of the promised Messiah means that the age of God’s redemptive intervention in justice and mercy is dawning, giving urgency to John’s summons to turn from sin to God for salvation.” (2) Scripture is saturated with God’s unchanging command to repent; believers must confess the only saving gospel that rejects justification by works. “[The Jews] would have been excusing themselves from John’s demand on the ground that they were Jews. ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ they were thinking. John rejected that claim in exactly the way Jesus and then Paul did after him. Jesus told the leaders, ‘If you were Abraham’s [true] children…you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God’ (John 8:39–40)…In other words, not all who are physically descended from Abraham or the other Jewish patriarchs are God’s spiritual or regenerated children. The situation is exactly the same for us today as it was for Jews then. No one is saved by his or her ancestry. You will not be accepted by God because your mother was a Christian or because some other godly relative has prayed for you. You yourself must repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus, who alone is God’s beloved Son and the Savior.” (3) 

The Jewish leaders were to repent rather than mislead and harm their disciples by their false teaching and legalism. “This is a powerful demand. The Hebrew word for repentance means more than simply having a change of mind or even being sorry for one’s sins…John was demanding a radical change of life. On one occasion, a group of children were asked about repentance. One said that it meant being sorry for your sins. But a little girl defined it better, saying, ‘It’s being sorry enough to quit.’ D. A. Carson writes, ‘What is meant is not a merely intellectual change of mind or mere grief, still less doing penance…but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in “fruit in keeping with repentance.’” (4) Instead of trusting in their Jewish heritage, they, like all people, had to trust Christ alone for salvation, which requires repentance for trusting in works righteousness.

The Jews and many people today are guilty of different aspects of legalism: excelling only in external acts of righteousness, focusing only on God’s easy commands, following the letter of the law, but not its spirit, neglecting godly morals, and having a distorted view and judgment of others. (5) 

John warned them according to his limited understanding of the Messiah’s ministry during his first incarnation. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) John knew the Messiah would be both Savior and Judge, but it had not yet been revealed that salvation was Christ’s mission during his first incarnation, and judgment would be finalized upon his return (John 12:47-48). However, the day of grace for repentance is over upon death, and judgment will follow for all who refuse Christ. 

The Apostle John’s visions in the Book of Revelation are meant to prepare unbelievers for the judgment to come in even stronger language than John the Baptist’s words in Matthew 3. “They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give Him glory…People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:9-11 ) “The terrible words of e Revelation 16:9, 11  explain something of hell itself. Hell is not filled with people who have learned their lesson. It is filled with people who still refuse to repent…they suffer and curse God because of their suffering, but they refuse to repent of what they have done. That is what hell is like: an ongoing cycle of sin, rebellion, judgment, sin, rebellion, judgment, world without end…It is written: ‘Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy’ (Rev. 22:11). But Revelation ends with an invitation: the Spirit and the Bride (another word for the church, the people of God) still cry ‘Come!’ (Rev. 22:17). ‘And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17).” (6)

Related Scripture: 2 Kings 1:7-8; Isaiah 5:24; 21:10; 41:14-16; Malachi 3:1-3; John 1:6-7, 32-34; Acts 11:13-17; 13:24-25; 19:1-7; Revelation 16.

  1. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 17:16-17, P & R Publishing, 2017.
  2. The Reformation Study Bible, Matthew 3:2, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.
  3. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Matthew 3:7-8 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-3.html
  4. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” Matthew 3, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  5. Patton, Michael, “Five Characteristics of Legalism,” 10/9/2013, https://credohouse.org/blog/five-characteristics-of-legalism
  6. The Gospel Coalition Devotion, Revelation 16, November 2020

** Two helpful commentary notes on John’s baptism:

“[John’s] practice of baptizing people [was] a sign that they had done what he demanded. They had repented of their sins and were looking forward to the coming Messiah…the uniqueness of John’s practice is seen in [the contrast to] proselyte baptisms [which] signified the admission of Gentiles into the Jewish community and were never administered to Jews. John’s baptism was a once-for-all baptism, and it was primarily for Jews, though John would not have excluded Gentiles.” (Reformation Study Bible, v. 6)

“Christian baptism is not identical with the baptism of John. Although Christian baptism retains the symbolism of repentance and purification, it is performed in the name of the triune God  and signifies our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.” (Boice, Ibid)

February 26, 2021    

Who is Jesus, Who Calls People to Repent?

Recently a dear friend sent a birthday card to me with an Amazon gift card enclosed. Uncharacteristically I used the gift card to purchase a small gift for her, in addition to applying it to my purchase. Not surprisingly, my friend was offended, as if I didn’t appreciate her present. At first, I had no idea why I did this, but later I realized that I felt guilty (for reasons I won’t explain here). My friend forgave me because she is a godly, merciful woman. I now know more about my negative attitude toward personal gifts. Whenever someone refuses a gift, he or she has a reason. When people reject the generous gift of salvation in Christ, they do so from hardened hearts, incomplete understanding of sin and redemption, pride, fear, or a host of otherworldly reasons. Our extended passage today from Acts describes Paul’s witness to two Roman rulers and their rejection of Christ. He was prepared and not discouraged when they scorned Jesus’s divinity. Let us follow Paul’s example to press on for the sake of others who will repent of their unbelief. Jesus is the eternal God who calls us to be his ambassadors.

Paul’s witness for Christ, Savior of all

In Acts 26, Luke reports how Festus and Agrippa rejected Paul’s witness of Christ’s ministry and salvation during his trial. “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason, the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day, I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’ And Paul said, ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.’” (Acts 26:19-29)

Jesus, very God of very God

“One of the first marks of our conversion is that we obey Jesus Christ. We might even call it the first mark, except that faith itself is the first evidence. Are you obeying Jesus? Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say?’” (Luke 6:46). If you are disobeying Jesus, you are not his disciple. If you are not his disciple, you are not saved. People who have heard the voice of Jesus Christ just do not ignore it.” (2) There are so many ways to witness for Christ today. Blogs, tweets, social media, emails, phone calls, texts, personal interactions, preaching, Sunday school lessons, family devotions, and cards or letters. The method or medium must dictate to some extent how we approach our testimony for Christ and His invitation for forgiveness through repentance. But “The first and most important thing any person needs to understand about Jesus is that he is the Son of God, ‘very God of very God,’ as one of the ancient creeds puts it. That is because the value of his work, dying for sin, depends on who he is. If he is not God, his death would have no more value than any other person’s death. But because he is God his death has infinite value and is able to take away sins.” (3) 

Jesus, God of love and mercy

“What should our response to such a gospel be? Paul gives this as well, no doubt for the explicit benefit of King Agrippa, Festus, and the others. He says that the Gentiles should ‘repent,’ ‘turn to God,’ and “prove their repentance by their deeds” (26:20)…It means finding righteousness and a new life in Christ. This new life is not only different but better. It is a life lived in and with God.” (4) Repentance is one aspect of our rebirth for a different quality of life that is impossible when we are enslaved to sin. “Being dead in our sin” expresses our inability to have the blessed life outside of the divinity of Christ applied to ourselves. (See Ephesians 2:1-5). Festus and Agrippa would have none of it, being spiritually dead and unable to yield to Christ. They specifically denied the possibility that Christ was who Paul said he was. Festus accused Paul of being insane from too much study. “Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft deftly shows why we must reject the option of Jesus being a liar or a lunatic…Jesus has in abundance precisely those qualities which liars and lunatics most conspicuously lack: His practical wisdom, His ability to read human hearts…His deep and winning love, His passionate compassion, His ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven, His authority; and above all…His ability to astonish, His unpredictability, [and] His creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one who knows the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.’” (5)

Christ, the wisdom and power of God

Then, “Paul, who all along had chiefly been addressing Agrippa, turned to him, making a neat little transition in which he began by replying to Festus but quickly switching over to Agrippa, saying…‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’ Agrippa was no Roman. He would have had some acquaintance with what Moses and the prophets had written. Agrippa probably believed in the resurrection. But he had his position, and he just could not humble himself, acknowledging himself to be a sinner like anybody else, and receive Jesus Christ as his Savior. He was put on the spot—embarrassed, no doubt, before the governor. So he dodged the question, saying, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ This is precisely what men and women do today. When the supernatural gospel of a crucified but risen Savior is proclaimed, a gospel that demands that we turn from sin and begin to show our conversion by good works, the world puts up barriers and rejects it for precisely these reasons: pride of intellect and pride of position” (6) Agrippa diverted Paul so as not to consider Jesus’s divine ability to convert him at that time. The Bible prepares us to hear rejection. For example, Paul encouraged the Corinthians believers: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Paul, like Peter, and all us believers, know that Jesus Christ is “the exact imprint of [the Father’s] nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3) He is God, the Redeemer, Savior, and Propitiation for our sins. “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi…He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” (Matthew 16:13-18) So we continue to witness for Christ, the Alpha and Omega, Almighty God who calls all people to repent—to receive his gift of forgiveness—and we pray for a great, global penitent revival. 

  1. Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Acts 26, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/acts-26.html
  2. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Act of the Apostles,” Acts 26, Baker Books, Software version, 2006.
  3. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 16:13-20 “Peter’s Great Confession,” Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  4. Josh McDowell Ministry a CRU ministry https://www.josh.org/jesus-liar-lunatic-lord/  
  5. Boice, Acts, Ibid.
  6. Boice, Acts, Ibid.

Related Scripture: Isaiah 52-53; Psalm 22; Matthew 3:8-10; Mark 3:21; Luke 2:30-32; John 10:20-21; 12:34-36; Acts 2:38-39; 13:46-48; Romans 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; 15:1-4.

February 19, 2021

The Permanence of Saving Repentance

We live in a world with innumerable choices. People of financial independence can try out different hobbies, travel destinations, even different houses, cars, and vacation homes. Others of us enjoy trying new foods and recipes, walking trails, phones, restaurants—the list goes on and on. And every once in a while, we will taste or experience something that we know we want to make a permanent part of our lives because it will improve them. When my brother taught me how to make Spaghetti Carbonara forty years ago, I knew it would be my favorite pasta (according to the authentic Italian recipe).  On the other hand, the first time I tried cross-country skiing or golf, I knew I would repeat neither since they turned out to be more work than fun for me. I tested religions the way I tried out new foods and sports, looking for the right “fit” (i.e., self-fulfillment)—Reform Judaism, Mystical Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Bahai, Wicca, and Christian Science—all only temporarily interesting. But Christ captured my heart, God did the work of my redemption, as he always does. I knew right away that my search was vain, and the matter settled for him—not for self-fulfillment, but eternal satisfaction in Christ. However, as I told a friend last night, my first year as a Christian was one of intense guilt, remorse, and repentance. The Bible warns us against any temporary faith and repentance in the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-30). As people fill local churches, hear Scripture, make confessions, recite creeds, sing hymns, and pray, they receive the foundational doctrines for salvation. But only those who have Christ’s faith and repentance are preserved by God. Christians build on the foundation of our salvation and pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’s goodness.

The Spiritual Maturity of the Hebrew Christians

The writer of Hebrews did not shy away from tackling some thorny theological problems facing the greater Christian community who were in danger of falling away. One particularly tricky warning is in Hebrews Chapter 6, where the author voices his frustration with his brothers’ lack of spiritual maturity. “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:1-6). “Even unregenerate and unconverted persons may be in the covenant. Ishmael and Esau were originally in the covenant, the wicked sons of Eli were covenant children, and the great majority of the Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles belonged to the covenant people and shared in the covenant promises, though they did not follow the faith of their father Abraham…they are in the covenant as far as their responsibility is concerned. Because they stand in the legal covenant relationship to God, they are duty bound to repent and believe…The special relationship in which they are placed to God, therefore means added responsibility…They are in the covenant also as far as the common covenant blessings are concerned. Though they do not experience the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, yet they are subject to certain special operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit stives with them in a special manner, convicts them of sin, enlightens them in a measure, and enriches them with the blessings of common grace.” (1) 

Building On Our Spiritual Foundation

In his Bible commentary John Calvin writes, “…in building a house we must never leave [out] the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it would be ridiculous…In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements…as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house.” (2)Further clarification about these basic, foundational doctrines is helpful before we proceed. “The writer’s summary of elementary teachings from which Christians are to move on in the sense of building upon a foundation, falls into three groups of two each. The first is repentance and faith and has to do with the Christian’s ‘personal character’. This repentance is a radical reorientation of outlook which results in a turning away from acts that lead to death, that is, from all activity done in rebellion against God. Faith, on the other hand, is both a trust set upon and an obedience rendered to God. The second group involves the ‘outward ordinances’ of the Christian society…The last group is eschatological and has to do with the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (3)

A Warning Against Temporary Repentance

Having established that his audience has indeed received these important doctrines for salvation the author or Hebrews goes on to warn them about backsliding, hypothetically. Only those who sincerely repent and come to faith in Christ are preserved by God, and he will express his assurance or their perseverance in Hebrews 6:9 “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” We can receive this warning by embracing and building on the foundational doctrines of Christ. And we pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’ goodness. “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6) There is general consensus among commentators that this passage is very difficult to interpret. Does it refer to believers or unbelievers, given the description in verses 1-3? “The question of whether the Apostle speaks of converted or unconverted men is entirely beside the purpose, and may safely be relegated to the limbo of misapplied interpretations…It is more to the purpose to remind ourselves that all these excellences are regarded by the Apostle as gifts of God, like the oft-descending rain, not as moral qualities in men. It may be compared to the opening of blind eyes or the startled waking of the soul by a great idea. To taste the heavenly gift is to make trial of the new truth…All these things have an intellectual quality. Faith in Christ and love to God are purposely excluded. The Apostle brings together various phases of our spiritual intelligence, the gift of illumination, which we sometimes call genius, sometimes culture, sometimes insight, the faculty that ought to apprehend Christ and welcome the revelation in the Son….God has bestowed His gift of enlightenment, but [if] there is no response of heart and will the soul does not lay hold, but drifts away.” (4) 

Eternal Repentance and Sanctification

“These who fall away demonstrate that their faith was never genuine to begin with. Calling the warning hypothetical, however, might have the unintended consequence of implying that we need not take the warning seriously. But since we work our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), it is by taking such warnings seriously that we remain in the faith, by the power of the Spirit.” (5) When God works his redemption in us, we want nothing more than to mature in our faith, unlike those who give up and give in to discouragement. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way…” (Philippians 3:12-15)

Related Scripture: Psalm 34:8; Matthew 19:24-26; John 4:10; Acts 19:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-16; 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 John 2:19.

  1. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology,” pp. 288-9, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  2. Calvin, John, “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Hebrews 6:1-6, Bible Learning Societyhttps://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/hebrews-6.html
  3. “Zondervan Bible Commentary,” F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 6, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  4. “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Hebrews to Revelation” Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, Editors, Zondervan, 2005.
  5. “The Reformation Study Bible,” Hebrews 6:4-12, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 

February 12, 2021    

Zion, the City of God, Only For the Penitent

What did the pandemic motivate you to do last year? Some people found that living in their big city was a distinct disadvantage during a pandemic and moved to the suburbs or more rural areas. I have read reports that people moved out of NYC and San Francisco to places like Austin and Seattle. “While it seemed like everyone was staying at home, they were actually moving in even larger numbers than usual. Looking at the number of movers who filed for mail forwarding from February to July 2020, requests are up 3.92% from the same time the previous year. There have been more than 15.9 million requests in 2020. In comparison, there were just over 15.3 million requests during the same period in 2019.” (*) There is one city whose residents will never want to leave; it is God’s City, also known as the City of David—Zion. In the Bible, Zion is mentioned in the OT historical and prophetic books, in Psalms, and a few times in the New Testament. It represents the place of God’s dwelling, where his people arrive upon redemption by Jesus Christ through faith and repentance. “The Bible frequently promises that those who repent—who turn from their sins—will enjoy life forever in God’s presence (Mark 1:14–15; John 3:16; Acts 11:18). If we read the Bible honestly, we cannot miss its repeated calls for repentance…[and] we are warned that those who do not repent are in danger of destruction (Psalm 7:12)…John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles all call for sinners to repent, to turn from their wickedness and follow the Lord.” (1) To become citizens of Zion. “For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord will do this” (2 Kings 19:31). We become Zion’s citizens upon conversion through our repentance and faith in the Messiah. Zion represents God’s dwelling place and presence to the OT saints—and we are “marching to Zion.”

Zion in the Psalms
The Psalms often speak of Zion as God’s holy city, the City of David, and the location of Mt. Zion. “For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah, and people shall dwell there and possess it; the offspring of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall dwell in it.” (Psalms 69:35-36) “The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling” (Ps. 132:13). “Of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her;’ for the Most High himself will establish her. The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ (Psalms 87:5) “We can hardly read this without thinking of Hebrews 11:10, which praises Abraham because ‘he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ The Hebrews chapter makes clear that it was a heavenly city rather than an earthly residence that Abraham was seeking. So we learn at once that even in Old Testament days the greatest saints did not set their affections on earthly Jerusalem alone, but loved it rather only as a symbol of the greater glories they knew they would enjoy in heaven.” (2) Zion’s residents are those the Lord recognizes as being “born there,” which commentators generally agree refers to the new birth we have in Christ, not our physical birthplace. “But you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:22-24) There is no perfection or entrance into Zion without repentance. Studying the psalms may give us a greater desire for our own repentance and for others to repent. Hopefully, we will pray even more for individuals and collective repentance and talk about repentance in our witness.

Zion in the Prophetic Books
The prophets mention Zion over one hundred times, of which 48 belong to Isaiah in the ESV translation, starting in the first chapter. “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness… It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 1:27; 2:2-3, 5) “The blessing of redemption by Christ is the source and foundation of the other blessings of grace…as justification, pardon of sin, and conversion…for by Zion is meant, not a place, but people, even the church and people of God, who frequently bear the name of Zion in this prophecy, and in other passages of Scripture, both of the Old and of the New Testament…for being the object of God’s love, the instance of his choice, the place of his habitation; where his worship is, he grants his presence, and distributes his blessings…Moreover, in the latter day, when there, will be a redemption and deliverance or the church out of all her troubles and distresses, her converts will manifestly appear to be all righteous, being justified with the spotless righteousness of Christ (Isaiah 60:21).” (3) “The judgment [of exile] is not the end of the story; its purpose is to smelt away the dross, i.e., to remove the unbelieving members of the people (called rebels and sinners, those who forsake the Lord). Afterward, what remains will be a chastened people of God, those…who repent (i.e., who embrace their covenant privileges from the heart). The prophet looks forward to a cleansed people after the historical judgment of the exile, restored to its mission…The Temple Mount in Jerusalem [Zion], though unimpressive from the lofty gaze of human religion, was God’s choice and the true hope of the world. [It was] the highest of the mountains…By a miraculous magnetism, a river of humanity will flow uphill to worship the one true God.” (4)

Zion in Revelation
The New Testament has only a few references to Zion; all of them quotations from the Old Testament except for Hebrews 12 and Revelation 14:1, when John “looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” In his vision of Mount Zion, John “…saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” (Revelation 14:6-7) “Here, the gospel is presented in the form of a call to repent…The coming of Jesus is the good news, calling for repentance and faith. Jesus spoke of the coming ‘kingdom of God’ and the first angel declares that the ‘hour of his judgment’ has come, which amounts to the same thing. He preaches his message to all unbelieving people who ignore Jesus and are comfortable with sin. The angel shows how God calls them all to take notice and heed the message of his Son’s coming. The afflicted Christian church rejoices to know that her enemies either will be converted, joining their own ranks, or will be judged by God so as to deliver his people. Instead of showing indifference to God’s claims, people should take God seriously and grant him the honor he deserves as universal Sovereign…This is basic to the message that Christians speak to the world: ‘There is a God! Grant him the glory he deserves! Appeal to his mercy for the forgiveness of your sins, and then honor him with your lives!’” (5)

God’s Word consistently calls for repentance; His blessings are only for the penitent. Zion, the holy city, will be the permanent residence of believers. But oh, how we pray that our family members, friends, and neighbors will join us there! May our desire for others to repent grow, resulting in more prayers and considered, gentle talk about repentance in our witness. “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6)

Related Scripture: Deuteronomy 28. 30; Psalms 48:28; Ps. 68:15–16; 78:34; Mark 1:14–15; John 3:16; 12:32; Acts 11:18; Revelation 14:1-13.

* https://www.mymove.com/moving/covid-19/coronavirus-moving-trends/
1. Sproul, R. C., Ligonier Ministries, “Repentance Required” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/repentance-required/)
2. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” “Psalm 87, “Zion, City of Our God,” Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
3. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” PASSAGE https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-1.html
4. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Isaiah 1:24–28, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
5. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 4:6-12, P & R Publishing, 2017.

February 5, 2021

God’s Invitation to Repent

Have you ever assumed you would be invited to an event only to discover that your weren’t? We assume that our cars will start, our homes will be safe, and that we won’t be the one to get the Covid virus. So we don’t wear masks, avoid restaurants, or stop hugging our friends. We have seen the effect of living our lives on auto-pilot, taking much for granted. We also presume that God will approve of our choices, thoughts, and conduct toward others. Many people automatically think of heaven as a place of eternal rest—a place to get away from the pain, troubles, griefs, anxieties, and suffering of this life–that equates to a kind of undisturbed void. Other people work anxiously to earn their entrance into heaven, imagining it to be an eternal soft pillow for their heads. But heaven is not that. It is a place of temporary rest until Christians live out the rest of eternity with God on the new earth with new heavens. (See 2 Peter 3:13.) There is no such thing as “salvation by death,” which I call the assumption that all “acceptable” people will go to heaven. The Bible teaches that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by repentance and personal belief in Jesus Christ in this life. Let this devotion be a reminder for us to teach others that repentance of unbelief in Christ is necessary to enter God’s kingdom now.

An Invitation to Stop Working for Salvation
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) “The state of the Jews was then very corrupt, all sorts of men were grown very wicked; and though there was a generation among them, who were righteous in their own eyes, and needed no repentance; yet John calls upon them all, without any distinction, to repent; and hereby tacitly strikes at the doctrine of justification by works, which they had embraced, to which the doctrine of repentance is directly opposite…The Jews had imbibed many bad notions. The Pharisees held the traditions of the elders, and the doctrine of justification by the works of the law; and the Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead; and it was a prevailing opinion among them all, and seems to be what is particularly struck at by John, that the Messiah would be a temporal king, and set up an earthly kingdom in this world. Wherefore he exhorts them to change their minds, to relinquish this notion; assuring them, that though he would be a king, and would have a kingdom, which was near at hand, yet it would be a heavenly, and not an earthly one…Nor ought the Jews above all people to object to John’s method of preaching; since they make repentance absolutely necessary to the revelation of the Messiah and his kingdom, and redemption by him…” (1) Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple leaves no question about the need for God’s people to repent: “…if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their captivity to which they were carried captive, and pray toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, then hear from heaven Your dwelling place their prayer and their pleas, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you. (2 Chronicles 6:38-39)

An Invitation to Enter God’s Kingdom
Jesus began his ministry with the same invitation to repent. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 3:3; 4:17) The kingdom of God (the kingdom of heaven) represents the time when “spiritual and internal grace would be communicated to many, in whose hearts it would reign and make them [ready] for the kingdom of glory; and because the whole economy of the Gospel, the doctrines and ordinances of it are from heaven.” (2) “These verses summarize Jesus’ preaching ministry. The gospel is the ‘good news’ that the kingdom of God is at hand, meaning that God’s rule over people’s hearts and lives is now being established, and people should repent and believe in the gospel. The kingdom is more than simply the rule of the Spirit within people since the kingdom will ultimately include the restoration of all creation (see Rev. 21:1).” (3) And all this is a work of God, not of man.

An Invitation to Change
Living in America, or other developed country, it’s easy to assume that we will have all that we need or even want for our daily substance and pleasure. Take the Covid vaccine—many people assume that everyone offered the vaccine will take it, but there are a considerable number of people who will refuse it for specific reasons. Then most who get both vaccinations assume that we are fully protected, but we are not. Our assumptions and presumptions lead to false conclusions for practical matters and spiritually. The only way to check our spiritual misconceptions is to know what the Bible says and understand the depth of Jesus’s teaching on his gospel. “Observe the great truths Christ preached. By repentance we give glory to our Creator whom we have offended; by faith we give glory to our Redeemer who came to save us from our sins. Christ has joined these two together, and let no man think to put them asunder.” (4) “The doctrine he preached was repentance; ‘Repent ye.’ The word here used, implies a total alteration in the mind, a change in the judgment, disposition, and affection, another and a better bias of the soul. Consider your ways, change your minds: you have thought amiss; think again, and think aright. True penitents have other thoughts of God and Christ, sin and holiness, of this world and the other, than they had. The change of the mind produces a change of the way [they live]. That is gospel repentance, which flows from a sight of Christ, from a sense of his love, and from hopes of pardon and forgiveness through him. It is a great encouragement to us to repent; repent, for your sins shall be pardoned upon your repentance.” (5) Here is a lovely invitation and the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by repentance and personal belief in Jesus Christ in this life. Unfortunately, we tend to separate repentance from salvation by our legalistic view of it, as if we can transform our behavior on our own—as if we are saved by grace and sanctified by our works. R. C. Sproul offers a better way to understand penitence. “To have truly repented does not mean we are perfect; it means we are looking daily to Christ and seeking more and more to deny sin and to live according to His way.” (6)

An Invitation to Spend Eternity With God
So what is heaven? It is a place of rest, purity, peace, and holiness where Christians wait for the new world under God’s perfect rule. Now is the time to practice living under his rule today, through humble repentance for thinking that we deserve that future or earn it in any way. Our first repentance should lead us to a holy, unpretentious view of God’s invitation to rest in him now and forever through Christ’s righteousness. Our initial, saving encounter with Jesus reminds us that we are wrong about God until we turn our back to the world and our face to him. We probably didn’t understand what Christ did for and to us at salvation, so let’s not automatically assume that our friends, family, and neighbors understand the connection between repentance and heaven. But now we know that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by repentance and personal belief in Jesus Christ in this life. Why not invite others to learn to repent of unbelief in Christ as the only and necessary way to enter God’s kingdom? “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

Related Scripture: 1 Kings 8:46-51; 2 Chronicles 6:37-38; Ezekiel 14:6-11; 18:30; John 4:14.

1. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Matthew 3:2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-3.html
2. Gill, Ibid.
3. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Mark 1:14–15, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
4. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Mark 1:14-22, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/mark-1.html
5. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Matthew 3:2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/matthew-3.html
6. Sproul, R. C., Ligonier Ministries, “Repentance Required,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/repentance-required/

January 30, 2021

God’s Justice, Judgment, and Repentance

On inauguration day, the news spoke about President Trump’s failed promises over the last four years. The other big news was the installation of President Biden and his promises for his term in office. There is a website that tracks the promises made by political leaders (1) The site totals and describes the percentage of promises fulfilled, compromised, stalled, and broken. America’s political leaders are held accountable for their promises by other leaders, by countries worldwide, and by the US population. I’m grateful that our leaders are held to account for their pledges and equally glad that I am not one of them. I would probably have a 90% rating for broken promises. That is why I don’t usually make them, following the advice in James 5:12 (“…do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”) But there is one who keeps every promise he makes because he is omnipotent, faithful, sovereign, and perfect. God’s promises reflect his character—they are dependable, sure, and either already fulfilled and in the process of being fulfilled. In particular, we love to dwell on God’s promises to protect us, provide for us spiritually & eternally, and secure our inheritance. We don’t like to think about his commitment to judge unrepentant sinners, though. Yet, this promise will be fulfilled, just like the others, if not now or soon, then at the final judgment. The Lord is glorified by his hatred of sin and wrath for rejection of Christ’s atonement. Unlike the media, God knows every single thing that we do and every confession we make. But, since Christ has redeemed us by his grace, our confessions and repentant hearts are pleasing to him. His forgiveness is so sweet. So then, why meditate on and write about his judgment for the unrepentant? We do it because the Bible has so much to say about God’s coming holy, final judgment. (See 2 Peter 3:9-13.) Since the Holy Spirit superintended over the Bible’s content, through our godly church fathers, we are accountable to him to know and embrace all that it teaches.

A Godly, Eternal Perspective

“If men have no knowledge or belief of the eternal God, they will be very apt to think him such as themselves. How hard is it to form any thoughts of eternity…Settle therefore in your hearts that you shall certainly be called to give an account of all things done in the body, whether good or evil. And let a humble and diligent walking before God, and a frequent judging of yourselves, show a firm belief of the future judgment, though many live as if they were never to give any account at all. This day will come, when men are secure, and have no expectation of the day of the Lord. The stately palaces, and all the desirable things wherein worldly-minded men seek and place their happiness, shall be burned up; all sorts of creatures God has made, and all the works of men, must pass through the fire, which shall be a consuming fire to all that sin has brought into the world, through a refining fire to the works of God’s hand. What will become of us, if we set our affections on this earth, and make it our portion, seeing all these things shall be burned up? Therefore make sure of happiness beyond this visible world…And that we may avoid being led away, we must seek to grow in all grace, in faith, and virtue, and knowledge. Labor to know Christ more clearly, and more fully; to know him so as to be more like him, and to love him better.” (2) God’s righteous judgment proves his indignation toward sin and desire for repentance. As believers, we should rejoice in God’s righteous wrath for sin and unbelievers’ repentance, as we also repent to draw closer to God.

David’s Repentant Heart

David sought to know the Lord more fully through his confessions. Psalm 51 is a well-known testimony of his brokenness over sin, and we will spend considerable time examining it. Today, though, we will see, in Psalm 7, where David was sure of his innocence in a matter where he was accused. God’s mercy and grace for him inspired David to invite God to hold him accountable. Psalm 7 reveals David’s repentant attitude, even when he was innocent of accusations. “O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust.” (vs. 3-5) David’s confidence in asking God to judge him is the result of his repentant heart. Later, he writes, “The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me…God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.” (Psalms 7:8, 11-13)

God’s Justice and Judgement

In Psalm 7, “The singers see their requests as part of the larger picture: God is a righteous judge, to whom all the peoples of mankind, and not just Israel, are accountable;  thus his anger and indignation are directed against those who threaten his faithful ones (the righteous, v. 9; and the upright in heart, v. 10). In the Psalms, judging is more often than not a saving action, God intervening on behalf of the innocent and oppressed…The particular deliverance, then, is part of God’s larger project of putting the whole world back to its right order (v. 9). God’s justice gives hope for vindication when we are in the right. But in the matter of eternal salvation, no one is in the right except Christ alone, and in him we take refuge.” (3) David was innocent in the crime of his accusers, but “David’s…words do not mean that he is perfect, only that he is innocent of the crime of which he was charged. The question is not whether David was morally perfect but whether he was innocent of this particular slander. And he was! David was known for his integrity and for his generous conduct toward enemies… , although David is pleading for justice in his own case, he does not separate his prayer from the concern that God will also exercise judgment over the peoples of the earth. In fact, the cry “let the Lord judge the peoples” and the appeal ‘Judge me, O Lord’ are placed side by side in verse 8. This is not a selfish concern on David’s part. It is the personal side of a broader and perfectly proper concern…The second half of Psalm 7 is an expression of David’s deep confidence in God…David says that God will protect him, being his shield against foes; God is righteous, expressing his wrath against evil every day; God will judge his accusers if they do not repent.” (4)

Rejoicing in God’s Perfect Justice and Mercy

To know God fully and biblically is to accept that “God is angry with the wicked every day; wicked men are daily sinning, and God is always the same in his nature, and has the same aversion to sin continually; and though he is not always making men examples of his wrath, yet his wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men…and when he is silent he is still angry, and in his own time will stir up all his wrath, and rebuke in his hot displeasure.” (5) “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword…” (Psalm 7:11-12) “Amidst the threatenings of wrath, we have a gracious offer of mercy. God gives sinners warning of their danger and space to repent and prevent it. He is slow to punish, and long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish.” (6) These are the days of grace when God allows everyone to repent—to turn to Christ for forgiveness, to become his children rather than his enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) God’s final, righteous judgment proves both his indignation toward sin and desire for repentance. We rejoice in God’s righteous offence for sin—including abortion, racial oppression, and unbelievers’ repentance for violation of the sacredness of life and God’s divinity. Outside of Christ, we are the same.“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6, 10-11)

Related Scripture: Psalm 18:20-24; Isaiah 59:15-19; Lamentations 2:1-8; Nahum 1:6-7; Romans 3:21-26; Peter 3:9-13.

  1. (https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/)
  2. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, 2 Peter 3:15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/2-peter-3.html
  3. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, (Psalm 7:6–11), (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  4. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” Psalm 7, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  5. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 7:11, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalms-7.html
  6. Matthew Henry, Ibid.

January 22, 2021

God Commands Everyone Everywhere to Repent

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it seems as though we have adjusted to the idea that there is a killer virus affecting an increasing number of people. The CDC has an elaborate, well-organized, and easy to navigate website with all the information necessary for COVID, including help for those who have become sick (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/). How many folks have looked at the page and how many others assume they already know enough to be “okay?” Perhaps if you aren’t going anywhere (at all) or interact with no one outside your immediate household (no one), you may not need help. How many of us are doing that or even want to? It’s easy to overlook someone’s ignorance at the beginning of a new crisis, but as the trauma takes on a long-range character, ignorance is inexcusable. Not knowing what to do about my child’s failing grades, my newly discovered cancer, our inability to pay our bills due to work loss, or my grief over a family member’s death is understandable in the beginning. But, as time goes on, the pressure builds to have a resolution or an approach that might lead to a solution. When I think of how we are managing during the 2021 extension of the pandemic, I also think of how we are handling our spiritual needs. We all need a greater hope, a better future, and a goal or objective to aim for if we want to operate at our best possible potential. We don’t give up if we are committed to a life of intentional integrity. And God never gives up on us as we seek his help and glory. Unbelievers do not have the Holy Spirit’s help, so God commands all people to repent, to find their hope in Christ—not a vaccine, a cure for cancer, the educational approach that will work, or the job that will guarantee financial independence. Most people within reach of the internet have heard the truth of God’s Word and the name of Jesus Christ for salvation. What is God doing now for the unrepentant? He’s doing what he has always done, commanding them to repent. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31) 

God overlooked ignorance before Christ’s incarnation but now commands repentance in light of Christ’s atoning work and future judgment. “Paul’s address begins in verse 22. It is a classic…He has a short but brilliant introduction, followed by four clear points: (1) God is the Creator of all things; (2) God is the sustainer of all things; (3) God is the ordainer of all things; and (4) we should seek him. Paul concludes that we should repent since we have not sought God as we should…We can see why Paul calls for repentance. He has not spoken of the gross immorality of the Athenians, though he could have. He has not spoken of the intellectual arrogance of the philosophers, though he could have. There was a sense in which the Greeks did not know any better in these areas.” (1) God is the one doing everything to bring the Greeks and us to repentance. In the past, he overlooked ignorance of the gospel, he fixed a day for judgment, and he raised Jesus from death, giving us assurance of a resurrection. In the future, he will judge the world. At this present time and throughout the church age, he commands everyone everywhere to repent. Except God is the only One “mighty to save.” (Isaiah 63:1) “By the words ‘to save’ we understand the whole of the great work of salvation, from the first holy desire onward to complete sanctification. The words are multum in parvo [much in little]: indeed, here is all mercy in a word. Christ is not only ‘mighty to save’ those who repent, but He is able to make men repent. He will carry those to heaven who believe; but He is, moreover, mighty to give men new hearts and to work faith in them. He is mighty to make the man who hates holiness love it, and to constrain the despiser of His name to bend the knee before Him. And this is not all the meaning, for the divine power is equally seen in the after-work…He is mighty to keep His people holy after He has made them so, and to preserve them in His fear and love until He consummates their spiritual existence in heaven.” (2) God’s saving grace is irresistible, so his command to repent will not fail for the elect. “Though God only is the author of conversion, it is of great importance to stress the fact, over against a false passivity, that there is also a certain co-operation of man in conversion. The New Testament represents conversion as a deed of man 26 times, and speaks of it only 2 or 3 times as an act of God. It should be borne in mind, however, that this activity of man always results from a previous work of God in man, Lam. 5:21; Phil. 2:13. That man is active in conversion is quite evident from such passages as Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 18:11; Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; Acts 2:38; 17:30, and others.” (3) What the Lord plans, he does, without fail.

The Lord is no longer overlooking the excuse of ignorance, so we should make our concern for the unrepentant a priority. We are to pray for and witness to those who are unrepentant because of Christ in us. Acts 14:16-17 offers some insight into the “ignorance” that God overlooked. “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” “Until the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s special redemptive revelation was addressed almost exclusively to Israel, leaving the pagan nations largely in ignorance (except for the general revelation throughout the cosmos, that left them without excuse, Rom. 1:18-25). God did not impose on the Gentiles the judgment they deserved, and now He has sent Paul to proclaim His truth to all people everywhere, calling them to repentance.” (5) “We need the message of repentance for our generation too, though we are far guiltier than the Greeks. Besides, we need it for ourselves if we have not yet repented. Christianity does not begin by saying, ‘You’re a very good fellow’ and ‘everything is going to be nice for you if you will just get in touch with God.’ Christianity says, ‘You have failed to seek after God. You have gone your own way. You are willfully ignorant. Therefore, God commands that you repent of that ignorance.’ As we repent, God holds out the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.” (6)

‘He will judge the world’ (v. 31) means that God holds people accountable. Later, in Acts 18:5-6, we learn that “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” “Your blood be on your own heads reflects Ezekiel’s words about God’s prophetic watchman (Ezek. 33:1–7). ‘Blood’ means ‘the responsibility for your judgment by God.’ Paul had faithfully discharged his responsibility, so that at the final judgment no part of these Jews’ failure to believe could be attributed to his failure to tell them about Christ.” (7) “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26) The best good news during the pandemic, and in any season of life, is that “If a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:21-23) God never commands what is impossible, by his grace. Should this not encourage us to testify to those who claim to be ignorant?

Additional Related Scripture: Psalm 9:8; 96:13; 98:9; Mark 6:10-12; Romans 1:1-7; Ephesians 4:18; Titus 2:11-12; 1 Peter 1:14; 4:3; Revelation 20:12-15.

  1. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Acts of the Apostles,” Acts 17:16-34, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  2. Truth For Life, “The Best Proof,” January 14, https://www.truthforlife.org/resources/daily-devotionals/1/14/1/
  3. Boice, Ibid.
  4. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, Acts 17:30—(p. 490), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  5. The Reformation Study Bible, Acts 17:30, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  6. Boice, Ibid.
  7. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Acts 18:6, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

January 15, 2021

Repentance For Salvation

Have you ever been in a situation where you were sure of your knowledge of a thing only to realize that after years of certainty, you don’t understand it at all? Take our current American political landscape, for instance. For the first time in my lifetime, I learned about the possibility of an objection to the electoral votes casts by states in November handled by congress every January 5. Previously, I was unaware of the January process for congress’s formal approval of electoral votes (probably because I don’t follow politics closely). Maybe you’ve had this experience with car mechanics, internet technology, or even cooking—you were sure of something that turned out to be different, perhaps even radically different. I am having this experience with the doctrine of biblical repentance, so I wonder how many of us truly understand what it is and how God uses it in our spiritual growth? Let’s start with where Biblical repentance starts for us—when we turn from the rejection of Jesus Christ as the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation to receive him. Only God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience lead us to repent of our cold, defiant hearts toward him. I pray that we will thank God for his goodness, which alone rescues us from his righteous judgment and wrath.

In the middle of a narrative about the sinfulness of all people and the consequences of rejecting God, Paul writes, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4-5) “Paul disagrees with much of the Jewish teaching of his day, according to which the Jews were not storing up wrath but were in good standing with God through their covenant relationship, not needing to meet God’s standard of perfect obedience but needing only an intention to obey God.” (1) Many people today also believe that by not stealing, murdering, lying, committing adultery, or coveting, by attending church, not using God’s name, and honoring their parents, they have earned God’s favor and escape from wrath at the final judgment. But they do not love God, only fear his punishment. “Theologians make a distinction between two kinds of repentance. The first is called attrition. Attrition is a false or spurious kind of repentance. It involves remorse caused by a fear of punishment or a loss of blessing…motivated by an attempt to get a ticket out of hell or to otherwise avoid punishment. Contrition, on the other hand, is true and godly repentance.” (2) Our sinfulness is a reality; arrogantly thinking that we are ok, acceptable, or good enough to earn God’s favor is the sin of pride—idolatry and self-justification, as if God didn’t exist. Many people believe in what I call “salvation by death,” as if everyone who dies goes to heaven by default.

“’Do you presume’ is probably directed against Jews who thought that their covenant relationship with God would shield them from final judgment. After all, they had often experienced his kindness and forbearance and patience. They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.” (3) After years of Bible study, I have adopted a particular order of praying in the morning, including confession. I first recognize God’s attributes, then give thanks. I find it very easy then to move into repentance. I can only do this because of God’s gifts of faith and repentance that I received from the Lord when I was lost, unworthy, and utterly unaware of his grace. I thank God for His kindness, tolerance, and patience that led me to repent of my cold, defiant heart toward him. God rescued me, as he does all believers, from his righteous judgment and his wrath for sin.

“We do not earn salvation by our repentance; nevertheless, Scripture says we do not belong to Jesus apart from repentance. If we profess faith and yet do not seek to follow Christ—who commands us to repent—we do not have saving faith in Jesus (Matt. 7:21-23)… Repentance and faith can be distinguished but they cannot be separated. Saving faith is a repentant faith, and authentic repentance is repentance that trusts in Christ. Daily as we follow the Savior, we should be grieving our sin, asking for forgiveness, trusting in Jesus, and asking Him to strengthen us to serve Him. That is the way of repentance.” (4) Louis Berkhof invites us to see repentance, not as a work we do, but “According to Scripture repentance is wholly an inward act, and should not be confounded with the change of life that proceeds from it. Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance…true repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning,—a turning away from sin in the direction of God…the two cannot be separated; they are simply complementary parts of the same process.” (5) Have you thought of repentance in this way? Let’s be glad to think about this idea in light of Scripture. 

“Some people even claim that if we say repentance is necessary for salvation we’re adding works to the gospel. They claim that if repentance is required then we’re no longer saved by God’s grace alone, but by what we do as well. But what does the Scripture say? Jesus says, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32) Jesus told his disciples to proclaim ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ in his name to all the nations (Luke 24:47). When the apostles preached in Acts, they called people to repent of their sins in order to be forgiven (See Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:32, 17:30, 20:21, 26:20).The apostle Paul makes it clear that those whose lives are characterized by sin ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 6:9-10; see also Rom. 8:12-13, Gal. 5:21, Eph. 5:5). According to the unanimous testimony of Scripture, repentance is absolutely necessary in order to be saved. Only those who turn from their sin, trust in Christ, and live lives that are characterized by righteousness will be saved on the last day. But then is repentance a ‘work’ we must perform in order to earn our salvation? Not at all! repentance and faith are really two sides of the same coin. Repentance is turning from sin. Faith is turning to, trusting in, and relying on Christ. Repentance is not a ‘work’ any more than faith is: we simply renounce our sin and rely on Christ.” (6)

In Romans 2:4-5, “Paul has spoken of two paths open to human beings as a result of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience. One path is the path of contempt for God’s blessings. The other path, the one Paul recommends, is repentance. Paul argues that the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God are to lead us to repentance. But will this happen?” (6) “There is an interesting image suggested by Paul’s language at this point, for Paul speaks of the stubborn and unrepentant person ‘storing up wrath’ for the day of God’s judgment. [“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5)] It is the image of a greedy individual, a miser, who has been storing up wealth which, contrary to his expectations, is destined to destroy him…That is the way it is for those who pile sin upon sin and show contempt for God’s kindness…They think of their sins as building up a life of future happiness and freedom. But each sin is actually a storing up of wrath.’” (8) “I want to give you three reasons why you should allow [God’s] attributes to lead you to repentance and should no longer despise the goodness of God. First, if God is a good God, then whatever you may think to the contrary in your fallen state, to find this good God will mean finding all good for yourself…Second, if God is tolerant of you, it is because he has a will to save you…Third, if God is patient with you in spite of your many follies, it is because he is giving you an opportunity to be saved…If God is good in his patience, his reason for being so must be to do good. His patience must be to give you opportunity to turn to him.” (9)

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” (Psalms 130:3-7)

Additional Related Scripture: Psalm 119:128; Job 42:5-6; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 2 Peter 3:15.

  1. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Romans 2:4-5, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  2. The Reformation Study Bible, Article: “Repentance” (p. 1964), Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  3. ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid.
  4. Ligonier Ministries, “Repentance Required,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/repentance-required/
  5. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Scriptural View of Repentance”, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  6. 9Marks, “Is repentance necessary for salvation?” https://www.9marks.org/answer/repentance-necessary-salvation/
  7. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 2:4-5, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  8. Boice, Ibid.

January 8, 2021        

God’s Gift of Repentance

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve I pray about my new blog theme. I also ask the Lord to give me a big-picture Scriptural view for guidance for the new year. My passage for spiritual direction and growth in 2020 was Job 40:6-9. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?’” This year the theme of rebuke and repentance continues, but from Job’s perspective. “Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6) Biblical repentance is the topic for my devotions this year. I am already humbled and respectfully terrified to write on such an essential aspect of the Christian faith. But, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (the writer, not the jurist) once wrote, “To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.” (1) Repentance is the gift from God that not only provides our wind but rekindles our faith to stay on course, close to Jesus.

Many people and organizations will pressure us to “turn over a new leaf” or “be the best we can be” in 2021, as if that’s even possible in one year (or a few months). But in Africa, I enjoyed the tradition of praying in the new year, which is a radically different approach than making New Year’s resolutions based on felt needs and personal strength. Instead, we should repent of our independence, autonomy, and empty boasting. Some secular writers and speakers realize the need for deeper self-examination. For example, in the introduction to “First Things First,” the authors warn that “To get the most out of this material requires that you become involved with it in a deep way—to be willing to examine your life, your scripts, your motives, your ‘first things,’ and what you represent. This is a highly introspective process…It’s impossible to get deeply absorbed in this kind of profound self-knowledge and not emerge unchanged. You’ll see the world differently. You’ll see relationships differently. You’ll see time differently. You’ll see yourself differently.” (2) I agree that good material can change us dramatically. However, their conclusion is utterly unbiblical. “We’re convinced from our own experience that principles produce both personal peace and dramatic results.” (Covey, Ibid.) Their book, nor any book other than the Bible, can deliver peace; principles do not deliver biblical shalom or lasting results. And, only through repentance can we see God differently as Job did.

Rather than depend on someone’s principles, let’s go to the Lord of truth and righteousness, the only One who promises us peace with him through reconciliation in Christ. At the first act of biblical repentance, God gifts us with faith to believe in Jesus. Peter proclaimed the message of repentance on the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. He was especially familiar with repentance, as all of us should be, from his initial awakening to Christ as the Son of God (Matthew 16:16-17) to his very human, sinful insistence on his own power to follow Jesus (Matthew 3:2; 14:29-33; Matthew 26:73-75). Repentance is also the gift from God to walk with Jesus as we navigate this life. Repentance in the Old Testament called for a change in a person’s attitude toward God that impacted one’s actions and life choices. It always involves the idea of leaving one way of thinking and living differently. Peter’s Bible was the Old Testament so he would have been familiar with this doctrine. Then Jesus arrived on the scene, the beloved Son of God, proclaiming the same message of repentance because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” On Pentecost, Peter preached, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:36-41)

“This new life will reveal itself in conscious repentance followed by unconscious holiness, never the other way around. The foundation of Christianity is repentance. Strictly speaking, a person cannot repent when he chooses— repentance is a gift of God. The old Puritans used to pray for ‘the gift of tears.’ If you ever cease to understand the value of repentance, you allow yourself to remain in sin. Examine yourself to see if you have forgotten how to be truly repentant…Repentance always brings a person to the point of saying, “I have sinned.” The surest sign that God is at work in his life is when he says that and means it. Anything less is simply sorrow for having made foolish mistakes— a reflex action caused by self-disgust.” (3) The result of the Spirit’s work through Peter’s preaching at Pentecost was the addition of several thousand souls—true believers—who wanted to know more about Christ. So Peter continued to teach them. “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:40-41) 

The difference between those who are content to make New Year’s resolutions and the work of the Spirit is seen in how believers long to know more about and follow God, his doctrines, his ways, commands, and his people. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, And which is the same with the doctrine of Christ…this the apostles received from Christ, and constantly taught in their ministry…and this these young converts had embraced gladly; and were not only believers of it, but persevering believers; they were constant hearers of it; they continually attended on the ministry of the apostles, and held fast the form of sound words they had received from them; and stood fast in the faith of the Gospel, notwithstanding all the reproach cast upon it, and the afflictions they endured for it: and fellowship; with the apostles and other saints, in spiritual conversation with them, in private, and in communion with them at the Lord’s table in public… and in prayers: not only in their closets, and in their families, but in the church…they observed all opportunities of this kind, and gladly embraced them.” (4) Repentance is an ongoing process of yielding ourselves to Christ’s discipleship for biblical change and growth. 

Will we also long to know God better in 2021? There is no restoration or renewal of our faith apart from repentance, both initially in regeneration and in our sanctification. “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21) Will we take these words to heart, though it might cause us pain to see our sin? Will Easter 2021 be a true celebration of Christ’s life and death, having humbled ourselves at his cross? When you use your Christmas gifts in 2021, will you also remember to use God’s gift of repentance and pray for a revival through it for many to enter the kingdom this year? Happy New Year in the Lord!

Related Scripture: Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 28:18; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 24:45-47; Acts 2:21; 3:19-21; 16:30-34; 20:18-21; 26:16-18; Romans 14:7-9.

  1. Hyatt, Michael; Harkavy, Daniel, “Living Forward,” Baker Publishing Group, 2016, Kindle Edition.
  2. Covey, Stephen R.; Merrill, A. Roger; Merrill, Rebecca R., “First Things First,” Mango Media, Kindle Edition, 2015.
  3. Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost For His Highest—Repentance,” December 7, https://utmost.org/repentance
  4. 4.    Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Acts 2:42, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/acts-2.html

January 1, 2021        

Our True, Glorious Freedom in Christ

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” So goes the classic song written by Sara Evans in 2014, and it is so appropriate for us during this COVID Christmas! Today, many people are complaining that their freedom to travel to be with family on Christmas is ruining the holiday for them. I appreciate the oft-repeated phrase, “Christmas has not been cancelled!” But are you wondering how to celebrate and then close out 2020, to finish the year without discouragement about the ranging pandemic? First, I suggest considering the freedom we have in Christ in every circumstance. Then, you might google “best nature photos of 2020,” go for a long walk or hike to appreciate God’s creation, or journal about what you’ve learned about God, yourself, and the world this year. An excellent way to study Scripture is to consider what God is teaching us about himself, the world, and ourselves in the context for the original audience. The Bible offers us freedom from our human intellectual and emotional constraints that keep us bound to the past and inferior perspectives. God also gives us a completely different view on what true freedom is and how we can have it regardless of life’s trials or entrapments. I have been writing about the fruits of the Spirit this year to expand our views of what is possible for us who have the indwelling Holy Spirit—to think and live freely in Christ. Once again, our fathers of the Faith have wise words to appreciate that “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

I recommend reading all of Galatians 5 right now since this conclusion for the year’s blog series brings us full circle to the context of Galatians 5:22-23, the fruit we have from Christ. Christ has freed us from slavery to sin, and the Spirit produces fruit for our gospel witness. This season, it is my goal to enjoy my freedom in Christ through godly living and loving,  fruitful works. In Philip Ryken’s commentary on Galatians, he writes: “…the only kind of theology that interested Paul was practical theology, so his epistle ends with ethics. Beginning with chapter 5, the apostle takes the good news of the cross and the empty tomb and applies it to daily life. The theme of these chapters is announced in the very first verse: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’…What many Americans [and others] want these days…is not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion…Freedom from religion is not freedom at all, of course; it is another form of bondage…The best and truest freedom is the kind described by John Stott: ‘freedom from my silly little self, in order to live responsibly in love for God and others…Our former state is portrayed as a slavery, Jesus Christ as a liberator, conversion as an act of emancipation and the Christian life as a life of freedom.’”

 (1)

“The obligation that is gone for the Christian is the obligation to obey the law to be saved, which is impossible to achieve. But now that we are saved wholly and freely by grace we are, if anything, more obligated to obey the law! Why? Because we have more reason to love God than we ever did before. Love arises from gospel faith and hope (vs. 5-6), and overflows into loving and serving our neighbors, rather than using them to serve ourselves. And loving our neighbor is ‘the entire law … summed up in a single command’ (v. 14). (2) Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15) Paul’s strong language is necessary since we try to justify ourselves by disparaging or condemning others’ reputations and character to appear superior or righteous. “We are born in sin, and thus we are evil by nature. We are destined to die, having been made mortal by God’s curse against Adam’s sin. Finally, we are tormented by the devil, who tempts us to sin and seeks to drag us down to the very pit of hell. True freedom, therefore, is not self-fulfillment. It is not merely political independence or social equality.  It is not the kind of liberty that leads to license, the freedom to do whatever we want or believe whatever we choose.” (3)

“True freedom means liberation from sin, death, and the devil. And by the grace of God, this is exactly the kind of liberation Christ has come to provide. First, Jesus set us free from sin, and especially from its guilt…Second, Christ has set us free from death…Third, Christ has set us free from the devil. There is nothing I have to do to win God’s acceptance. Now that God has accepted me through Jesus Christ, I am free in him. And this freedom is the key to gospel holiness. The old Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander (1772–1851) asked a question that continues to trouble thoughtful Christians today. He wanted to know why ‘Christians commonly are of so diminutive a stature and such feeble strength in their religion.’ There are many answers to this question, but here is the one that Alexander emphasized: ‘There is a defect in our belief in the freeness of divine grace.’” (4) 

“[Galatians] Verse 1 is the summary of the last two chapters of the book (and, in a sense, of the whole of the book). First, Paul tells us that we have a profound freedom in Christ. He literally says: ‘For freedom Christ freed you’. Both the noun and the verb are the word “freedom”; freedom is both the means and the end of the Christian life! Everything about the Christian gospel is freedom. Jesus’ whole mission was an operation of liberation…Yet second, he warns that this freedom we have in the gospel can be lost. It is important that Paul mentions this, because the emphatic, triumphant declaration of the first half of verse 1 might lead us to believe this gospel freedom is so great and strong that it can’t be lost…Paul says, though, that despite its divine source, our freedom is fragile and can slip from our grasp…In short, despite the fact that we already have been saved by Christ, we must be continually diligent to remember, preserve, rejoice in and live in accord with our salvation. We cannot lose our salvation, but we can lose our freedom from enslavement to fear…So this is a critical passage. Paul wants to show us that gospel freedom from fear and condemnation leads us to obey God, not to please ourselves.” (5)

“Believers…are very pertinently exhorted to stand fast, in consequence and consideration of their character; that is, they should highly prize and esteem it, as men do their civil liberty; and maintain it and defend it, at all hazards; abide by the doctrine of it without wavering, and with intrepidity; not giving up anyone part of it…and keep up the practice of it, by obeying from the heart the doctrine of it, by becoming the servants of righteousness, by frequent attendance at the throne of grace, and continual observance of the ordinances of Christ.” (6) All this we do through and because of our love for God, which the Spirit renews in us day by day, not as a set of rules or to-do checklist. Christ has freed us from slavery to sin, including the sin of self-sufficiency and independence. The Spirit produces fruit for our gospel witness continually as we enjoy our freedom in Christ through the godly living and loving, fruitful works. “The gospel does free you to live any way you want. But if you truly understand through the gospel who Jesus is and what He has done for you, then you will ask: How can I live for Him? And the answer will be—look at the will of God expressed in the law. The gospel frees us from the law, for the law. It does away with our old, selfishly motivated and unloving law-obedience. And it motivates us to obey the law out of love.” (7)

What is your perspective this Christmas? Are you thankful for the freedom you have in Christ or begrudging the civil liberties you lack? We have an excellent opportunity to put the Spirit’s fruit to work right now. “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:7-14) Are you at home with Christ this Christmas?

  1. Ryken, Phillip Graham, “Galatians-Reformed Expository Commentary, Galatians 1:1-16, P & R Publishing, 2005.
  2. Keller, Tim, “Galatians For You,” Galatians 5:1-16, The Good Book Company, United Kingdom, 2013.
  3. Ryken, Ibid.
  4. Ryken, Ibid.
  5. Keller, Ibid. 
  6. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Galatians 5:1, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/galatians -5.html
  7. Keller, Ibid.

2021 Note: My topic for devotions will be “Repentance,” starting with the next one on January 1, 2021. I hope you’ll be as passionate as I am to understand biblical repentance and exercise it in a world desperately needing this gift from Christ for salvation and sanctification. 

Related Scripture: Psalm 51:10-11; John 8:31-32; Acts 15:10-11; Romans 8:5; Galatians 2:4-6; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Philippians 1:27; 4:1.

December 24, 2020