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    

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