Repenting of Self-Righteousness

Have you ever reached for something on your dresser in the darkness in the middle of the night? I sometimes do that in the bathroom, not wanting to turn on the light. If I am searching for a particular medicine among several, I am careful to find the right one. But I might take something that will keep me awake instead of helping me with my pain to get back to sleep. When we try to fix our problems or make decisions in the dark, we are in great danger of reaching wrong conclusions and sinning against God and others in the process without the light of God’s wisdom. Do you have strong opinions about politics, law enforcement, international relations, community development, the CDC, or a decision with your spouse or for your children? Self-righteousness and judgmentalness are two of the most challenging character faults to overcome because we are often blind to them. We move through our lives blind to our presumptions until we are confronted by others or shaken by natural consequences. But rather than be threatened by the truth, as if blindfolded, we ought to be thankful for opportunities to see our shortcomings.

Sightless to the Truth

Once there was a man blind from birth who met Jesus Christ but didn’t know who him. Christ healed his physical sight and later his spiritual eyes to know Christ, the merciful, compassionate God who forgives. But the proud, sanctimonious Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus remained blind to their self-righteousness and refused to believe that he is the Son of God and promised Messiah, who came to save sinners like them. “[The Pharisees] called the man who had been blind and said to him, ‘Give glory to God. We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’…And they reviled him…We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him…They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him. Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains.’” (John 9:24-41)  

Knowing What We Don’t Know

The unbelieving Pharisees wrongly accused Jesus of being a sinner and the formerly blind man of sinning before he was born. They were blind to the truth but thought they were exemplary and knowledgeable when they were as wrong as they could possibly be. The man in this story is impressive in his transparency and humility, admitting that he didn’t know how Jesus healed him or who Jesus even was. Then, with Jesus, he acknowledged that he didn’t know him to be the Son of Man, and therefore didn’t believe in him. He is a model for us even if we know Christ, in that he was an open book with nothing to hide. Let’s agree that we who are no longer blind to sin should ask the Lord to expose our judgmentalness and arrogance for confession and repentance. On the other hand, the Pharisees, whose eyes had probably been in Old Testament God’s Word for decades were blinded by their legalistic superiority and prejudice. They didn’t know what they didn’t know and therefore remained guilty of unbelief, the unforgivable sin. “Each of the parties in this report said both ‘we know’ and ‘we do not know.’ But both the parents and Pharisees said ‘we know’ first and, only after that, acknowledged that there was something they did not know…Both of these groups were most interested in what they did know, and as a result, were either cowardly or else knew nothing. The man born blind began with an admission of his ignorance…in Christianity, we begin with our ignorance, just as we begin with our sin. We acknowledge both our inability in spiritual things and our shortcomings. Thus, we acknowledge that unless God chooses to reveal himself—which he has done in his Word and in Jesus Christ—we can know nothing.” (1) 

Humbly Confessing Our Ignorance

The Pharisees concluded that Jesus was a sinner “from his breaking the sabbath, as they supposed; though they also aspersed his character, and accused him of other things, yet falsely nor could they prove one single instance of sin in him, though they express themselves here with so much assurance.” (2) The man argued that “you cannot reason me out of this; this I am sure of, that once I had no eyes to see with, and now I have, and that by the means of this man you reproach. And so it is with persons enlightened in a spiritual sense…they were once blind…but now they are comfortably assured, they see the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the plague of their own hearts, the insufficiency of their righteousness to justify them before God, and the beauty, fulness, suitableness, and ability of Christ as a Savior; and that their salvation is, and must be of free grace; and that they see the truths of the Gospel in another light than they did before, and have some glimpse of eternal glory and happiness, in the hope of which they rejoice.” (3) “I think of Martin Luther. Luther was not always the great victor in debates that we sometimes imagine him to be. He was sometimes pressed into making admissions that he did not intend to make when he first entered the discussion…At times Luther admitted his own lack of knowledge, for, as he said, he was ‘only a man and not God and was liable to make mistakes.’ Nevertheless, the more he was pressed, the more certain Luther became of that which he did know—namely, that salvation was by grace through faith and that the Word of God was powerful and would ultimately prevail.” (4) Our admissions of what we don’t know can also lead us to be more sure of our salvation, sanctification, and future glorification. 

God listens to the Prayers of the Penitent.

When we freely and joyfully confess our wrong judgments and presumptions, the Lord leads us in our repentance. “The Pharisees had argued that Jesus was a sinner, and the blind man had declared himself unable to argue with that proposition. He only knew that Christ had healed him. As he thought about it, however, he found that he could say more…he knew that God does not hear sinners.” (5) “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” (Psalm 66:18-19) “To ‘cherish iniquity’ is to aim at it; in context, it refers to praying for God’s help in order to be able to commit some form of sin—a practice the truly pious reject…it reminds the faithful to pray for God’s help in order to give him thanks and to serve him better.” (6) “The Pharisees understand that Jesus is speaking of spiritual sight, and take their stand on their knowledge of the Scriptures. Jesus now shows them that their sin lies nevertheless in their possession of the truth without understanding it, whereas ignorance from blindness is teachable.” (7) At another time, when Jesus was teaching his disciples about the world’s hatred of him and his righteousness, he said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22) We have no excuse for our sin. We prove our love for Jesus with our confessions of prideful self-righteousness for repentance–rather than struggle with our sin in the darkness. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Related Scripture: Psalm 34:15-16; 145:19; Proverbs 28:9; Isaiah 42:18-20; Matthew 11:25; 13:13; Mark 4:11-12; John 5:45-47; 12:37; Romans 2:17-21; 1 Timothy 1:12-15; 1 John 1:8-10.

Notes:

  1. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, John 9:18-33, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  2. Gill, John, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible, John 9:24, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/john-9.html
  3. Gill, Ibid, John 9:25.
  4. Boice John, Ibid.
  5. Boice John, Ibid.
  6. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Psalm 66:16–20, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  7. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, John 9, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.

May 20, 2021            

Practicing Confession

Is there something you would like more understanding, maybe parenting, leadership, teaching, economics, or fishing? When we have been doing something consistently over a long time, we gain wisdom. Fathers and mothers who have raised their grown children have more knowledge than new parents. Someone who has been doing an extreme sport, like base jumping, understands how to open the parachute in time to land safely. But it’s a pretty dangerous sport, so those who know what it is might choose zorbing instead. Doing something without understanding can be catastrophic. Someone who has worked two jobs or worked while attending college classes understands the pressures that accompany it. A person who has never had to work or has worked only a 40-hour a week job won’t appreciate the weariness, physical exhaustion, mental fogginess, and risk of burnout. With practice, any activity or situation becomes more “normal,” resulting in mastery and appreciation for the process. People who have had numerous surgeries and know how to prepare themselves for each step of the process. If the surgeries have been successful, they have confidence in the hospital staff, their instructions, the surgeon, and the recovery process.

Confession is like surgery.

Confession and repentance are a bit like heart, mind, and soul surgery. Understanding God’s forgiveness and repentance—mastering them—is only developed by confessing consistently. Some Christians confess once of unbelief when they are brought to faith by the Holy Spirit. But after that, they become non-repenters, hardly ever doing it, and therefore have little understanding of God’s grace in forgiveness and its fruit of repentance. I have found a few people who repent when they seriously sin, but only then. Other believers are radical repenters, who confess frequently, and have a deep understanding and appreciation of God’s forgiveness. As a result, they also understand and experience God’s power to continue transforming them. Not only that, but drawing close to God in confession allows us the opportunity to wrestle with him as Job did. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6) King David was an extreme repenter. Psalms 32 and 51 are good illustrations of his confessional humility. After David sinned, he wrote, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalms 32:5) God may sharpen our understanding of biblical confession to appreciate repentance more as we study David’s admission about his confession. 

God’s Heavy Hand Leads to Confession and Blessing.

King David considered himself a blessed man. He begins his psalm, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (Psalms 32:1-4) “These verses support the theme that only the forgiven are truly happy. They recount a time…when the singer refused to confess his sins in order to have God forgive them. The lost vitality of verses 3–4 is really a mercy; it is God’s hand…heavy upon his faithful, to help them come to the point of confessing. Having come to that point, the singer acknowledged his sin, and God forgave the iniquity of his sin; this brings the psalm back to verse 1, with the implication that the singer has now learned more fully the blessedness of being forgiven.” (1) David would not have known the joy of God’s particular forgiveness had the Lord not convicted him with his “hand heavy upon him.” God, in His mercy, not wanting us to continue in our sinful ways, brings us to the end of our strength and ability to “fix” ourselves. “This was Saint Augustine’s favorite psalm. Augustine had it inscribed on the wall next to his bed before he died in order to meditate on it better. He liked it because, as he said: intelligentia prima est ut te noris peccatorem (the beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner).” (2) Only sinners confess; if you don’t think you’ve sinned lately, then you will have no motivation to confess, no fruit of repentance, no deepening of your relationship with God, and no joy when he lightens your burden of guilt.

David Confessed Three Offences Toward God

David acknowledged his sin to God, putting it on display rather than hiding it. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity…” After that, he intentionally and specifically confessed that he broke God’s Law, offending the Lord. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord…'” Finally, he tells us that the Lord forgave his guilt about his sin, “…and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” When he acknowledged his sin to God, David agreed with the Lord about it being sinful, admitting it to be rebellious and unacceptable to the Lord. “This is what makes sin so dreadful, of course—that it is transgression not only against other people, whom we hurt by our sin, but at its root also against God. Alexander Maclaren captures the force of this word when he writes, ‘You do not understand the gravity of the most trivial wrong act when you think of it as a sin against the order of Nature, or against the law written on your heart, or as the breach of the constitution of your own nature, or as a crime against your fellows. You have not got to the bottom of the blackness until you see that it is a flat rebellion against God himself.’…The second word for sin is ‘chattath’…[meaning] ‘coming short’ or ‘falling short’ of a mark. In the ancient world the term was used in archery to describe a person who shoots at a target but whose arrow falls short. The target is God’s law, and the sin described by this word is a failure to measure up to it…The third word for sin is ‘iniquity’…It means ‘corrupt,’ ‘twisted,’ or ‘crooked.’ It rounds out the other terms in this way: The first describes sin in view of our relationship to God. It pictures us as being in rebellion against him. The second word describes sin in relation to the divine law. We fall short of it and are condemned by it. The third word describes sin in relation to ourselves. It is a corruption or twisting of right standards as well as of our own beings. That is, to the degree that we indulge in sin we become both twisted and twisting creatures.” (3) Why spend so much time on understanding the need to confess all three? The more we meditate on them, and confess our different kinds of sin, the more understanding we will have of biblical confession, better appreciate God’s forgiveness, experience more freedom from enslavement to sin, and enjoy peace with God.

The Lord Forgives Fully and Quickly.

“David says that his very bones seemed to be wasting away and that his strength was drawn out of him as if he were exposed to the heat of the summer sun. The reason, of course, is that the Lord’s hand was upon him heavily in judgment, as it will be with anyone who tries to do as David did. When we sin we wish God would ignore our transgression. But God cannot ignore sin and will not. He brings pressure upon us, often very acute pressure, until we acknowledge the sin, confess it, and return to him…What is really striking…is verse 5, in which David explains how God forgave his sin once he had confessed it. God forgave it completely and immediately. It was not brought up again. If this psalm is David’s testimony, then this verse is the heart of that testimony…David confessed it all, and God forgave it all…David said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ Then immediately: ‘and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’…I cannot read this without thinking of the nearly identical sequence in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son had sinned against God and against his father, as he acknowledges in the story (Luke 15:18)…He starts his confession. But before he finishes it the father is already calling out to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate’…God is ready and even yearning to forgive and restore us fully—if only we will confess our sin… “ (4) 

Christians who are experienced at confession and repentance for sins understand the enormous relief and joy of reconciliation with God through his forgiveness. The more we practice it, the more benefit and skill we will achieve, leading to greater transformation. Let’s be radical, master repenters. God has blessed  us twice—through the repentance of unbelief and continuing to forgive us for our innumerable sins. “…blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:8)

Related Scripture: Psalm 38:18; 51:2; 53:1-3; 103:3, 12; 106:43; 119:133; Proverbs 16:17-20; Job 14:15-17; 36:21-23; Isaiah 43:25; Jeremiah 8:6; 31:19; Romans 4:8; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; 1 John 1:9.

Notes:

  1. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Psalm 32:3–5, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  2. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 32, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  3. Boice, Ibid.
  4. Boice, Ibid

May 13, 2021

Repentant Fools

Last Saturday, I chose to drive in torrential downpours all day because I unexpectedly had an opportunity to do some errands. The driving was intense, especially on the highway. When I considered my decision to drive in fog and heavy rain, with pockets of high standing water, I realized that most people would think I was nuts. When I had to wade through about six inches of water around my car after a last-minute lunch out with a friend, I knew it was crazy—but it was worth it. If I had not considered the weather or other factors, I would call myself a fool. However, God’s definition of a fool is not about taking calculated practical risks. Scripture defines a fool as those who reject God—who consider him a non-persona—who has no authority over them. This month, we will drive into the “storm” of scriptural foolishness to consider the seriousness of sin that requires confession and repentance. Even mature Christians struggle to overcome sinful folly. In his doctrinal letter to the Romans, Paul admits, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:22-24) Of course, there is good news for Paul and us when we draw close to God. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, [as] I serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin…[but] there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 7:22-8:1) Biblically, we are all corrupt fools who don’t understand or seek God and do abominable deeds. However, being devoted believers, we confess our foolishness, our need for Christ’s righteousness, and repent.

Confessing the Pleasure of Sin

In the Puritan classic prayer volume, “The Valley of Vision,” one believer prays to God, “No trial is so hard to bear as a sense of sin. If thou should give me choice to live in pleasure and keep my sins, or to have them burnt away with trial, give me sanctified affliction.” (1). The Lord sometimes gives us a choice, the worst outcome being that he would leave us (give us up to) our sins without intervening (Romans 1-3:20). God sometimes lets fools have their way when he doesn’t run after them as the father runs after his prodigal son or corrects his obedient but hard-hearted one in the parable in Luke 15 (vs. 20, 31). Despite God’s intercession, through the Father’s providence, Christ’s atonement, and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling conviction, we still act like fools. The difference with us is that we can see our foolishness, want to confess it, and ask the Lord to help us repent as the fruit of our sanctification. The truth of Psalm 14:1-3 is vital to our self-examination. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” But, “There is a God, and he takes notice of the children of men, and of what is done by them; though his throne is in the heavens, and his dwelling there, yet he looks down from thence, and takes cognizance of all human affairs. This must be understood consistent with the omniscience and omnipresence of God.” (2) God’s watchful accountability should stir us to examine our motivations and desires rather than try to hide from him, like our ancestors Adam and Eve. All of Scripture after Genesis 3:15 teaches us to seek refuge in God’s mercy and grace. We do this especially through our spiritual humility and preparedness to recognize our sins, from which the Lord wants to cleanse us. 

All People Sinners

“The Bible is a big book, but not many things in the Bible are said, word for word, more than once. If the words are repeated, it is for emphasis…What if they are found three times?… Psalm 14 is repeated almost entirely in the Book of Psalms itself. Psalm 53 is a nearly exact duplication; only verses 5 and 6 are changed. Then the most important part of Psalm 14 is repeated in Romans 3:10–12. In fact, the great first chapter of Romans is actually an explanation of…These are words which, to use the often-quoted phrase of the collection from the Book of Common Prayer, we are to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…the folly of the opening verse of the psalm, which we might have imagined to be restricted to a single class of people (fools), is viewed as characteristic of all people in their natural or unrepentant state…The second thing to notice about the inclusive nature of God’s assessment of humanity in these verses is that it concerns not merely a single part of people’s makeup but rather everything about them. It involves their spiritual understanding, their seeking after (actually their failure to seek after) God, and their morality, the same items Paul mentions in his great summary of the race’s corruption in Romans 3. Apart from God’s special illuminating work in the human heart by means of the Holy Spirit, there is no one who understands spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). We do not even understand ourselves. We think we are seeking God when we are running away from him. We think we are righteous when we are most corrupt…We are practical materialists; that is, we are relentless in our efforts to use others for our advantage, profiting from them. We will not learn that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3; cf. Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). And we are prayerless. We ‘do not call on the Lord,’ because we believe that we can manage very well without him.” (3) We are all fools who often don’t understand or seek God and do unrighteous deeds, requiring repentance. But if we confess our foolishness, our need for Christ’s righteousness, the Lord will honor our desires to repent.

Temporary Fools

Being different from fools who reject God, we say in our hearts, God is here, and through Christ (our good Savior), we serve him. When the Lord looks down from heaven on us believers, he sees the Spirit at work in us to understand spiritual things and seek after God. We (should) want to turn toward the Lord, not aside from him, confessing and repenting of the corruption in our hearts, minds, and lives. “[Psalm 14] is more like a prophetic message than a psalmist’s lament, since God is not addressed…[the subject] (Hebrew) ‘nābāl’ does not connote a simpleton, but one whose moral thinking is perverse; he has deliberately closed his mind to the reality of God and to the implications of His moral rule, [without] understanding by submitting to God’s authority.” (4) “The Christian’s moral experience (for Paul would not be telling his own experience to make theological points, did he not think it typical) is that his reach persistently exceeds his grasp and that his desire for perfection is frustrated by the discomposing and distracting energies of indwelling sin. Stating this sad fact about himself renews Paul’s distress at it, and in the cry of verses 24, 25, he voices his grief at not being able to glorify God more: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ Then at once he answers his own question: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’” (5) 

When I got home on Saturday, I was soaked to the bone from my ankles to my toes and pretty damp altogether and very grateful to change into dry clothing. I was relieved of my discomfort for a couple hours until it was time to walk the dog. When we confess and ask the Lord to help us repent, we have significant mind, heart, and soul relief. But we will sin again, so we should be prepared by humbling ourselves. We have God’s assurance for our readiness to confess and repent: “Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” (Isaiah 57:15) 

Related Scripture: Genesis 6:5; 11:5-9; 1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 10:4-6; 11:7; 143:2; Isaiah 3:14; 59:4; 64:3-7; Jeremiah 5:1; Hosea 4:1-2; Amos 2:6-7; Zephaniah 1:2; Romans 1:19-23

Notes:

  1. Bennett, Arthur, Ed., The Valley of Vision, “77—Confession and Petition,” Banner of Truth, 1975
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 14:2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalms-14.html
  3. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” Psalm 14, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  4. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Psalm 14:1-3, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition
  5. Boice, Ibid, Romans 7.

May 6, 2021

Gospel Refreshment Through Repentance

Have you ever had CPR? I understand that the experience of being “dead” is intense, without any consciousness of what is happening to you. We take our lives for granted until something dramatic happens, like a heart attack. And I have heard that after a heart attack or equally intense interruption, one’s physical life is esteemed. I was profoundly affected by my pastor’s sermon introduction last Sunday. He talked about how people devalue important things and take them for granted. “This is something Christians do sometimes…they take the gospel for granted. If we really understood the gospel message we would be astounded every day. We would start every day on our face praising God for the good things He has done for us in Christ and the salvation that we have…We need the gospel to save us. We need the gospel to sanctify us. The gospel is the door, the way we come in but it’s also the pathway of faith. It gives us gospel confidence, gospel power, gospel righteousness… CPR…we all need cardiopulmonary resuscitation, gospel style.” (1) I like his analogy. It’s not an exact one since those of us who are already in Christ don’t have faith that dies. But it’s close enough since we have faith that we often take for granted, devalue, and which becomes quite faint. We need the gospel to refresh us, which it does when we repent. Our sins are erased (at least for a time), and we are refreshed by Christ.

The Necessity of Repentance for Refreshment

“The absolute necessity of repentance is to be solemnly charged upon the consciences of all who desire that their sins may be blotted out, and that they may share in the refreshment which nothing but a sense of Christ’s pardoning love can afford. Blessed are those who have felt this…when sinners are convinced of their sins, they will cry to the Lord for pardon; and to the penitent, converted, and believing, times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord.” (2) This is Matthew Henry’s commentary on our passage today: “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) In my first devotion of the year, I cited this passage and asked, “Will we take these words to heart, though it might cause us pain to see our sin?” (3) I ask now, “Will we repent as often as necessary to destroy our sins, to be refreshed, enjoy and serve Christ?” Having been recipients of Christ’s atonement, having repented initially by God’s grace, to have our “sins blotted out,” we now can look for “…times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus…” (vs. 19-20) Ironically, our most effective refreshment comes as a result of remembering that we will all be accountable on the last day (described in verse 21). 

“When the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord…[meaning] seasons of spiritual refreshment, joy, and peace, through the great and precious promises of the Gospel, and by the application of the blood and righteousness of Christ, to such penitent and converted sinners; which refreshment and comfort come from the Lord, and are accompanied with his gracious presence: or else seasons of rest, and deliverance from the violent heat of persecution; which was the case of the saints at the destruction of Jerusalem; they were not only saved from that ruin, but delivered from the wrath of their most implacable enemies. [And of the new world to come]…’ better is one hour of refreshment in the world to come, than the whole life of this world.’” (4) What will make the new, eternal world so much better if not the utter absence of sin and suffering that results from sin? There is no better way to access some of that blessedness now but through confession and repentance, resulting in God’s forgiveness and its refreshment. And this repentance is not only for individuals. “Times of refreshing (a mark of the messianic age), [refers to] people [who] are ‘refreshed’ in their spirits when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within them. This ‘refreshing’ comes also to the world in general as it is affected by believers who are changed by the power of the Spirit.” (5) I know without a doubt that much of the improvement in my Christian character is a result of consistent daily confessions and desire for repentance, based on Bible study. But now, God calls me to a broader view of repentance. We all have the opportunity to extend our understanding of his Word. The people around us will be divinely affected by our gospel refreshment.

Remembering Judgment Day For True Refreshment

“There is nothing which doth more prick us, than when we are taught that we must once give an account. For so long as our senses are holden and kept in this world, they are drowned, as it were, in a certain drowsiness, that I may so call it. Wherefore the message of the last judgment must sound as a trumpet to cite us to appear before the judgment-seat of God. For then at last being truly awaked, we begin to think of a new life. The sum is this, that Christ, who is now unto us a Master, when as he teaches us by the gospel, is appointed of the Father to be a Judge, and shall come in his due time…there is a double prick, wherewith the faithful are pricked forward when as they are told of the last judgment…For the life of the godly is full of miseries. Therefore our hearts should oftentimes faint and quail, unless we should remember that the day of rest shall come, which shall quench all the heat of our trouble, and make an end of our miseries. The other prick whereof I spoke is this, when as the fearful judgment of God causes us to shake off delicacy and drowsiness. So Peter mixes  in this place threatenings with promises.” (6) What John Calvin calls “threatenings” I call warnings. Scripture is replete with them, for our benefit. Verse 20’s, “that he may send the Christ appointed for you” is a reminder that Christ will return  as Judge, not Savior. But here is also the good news of Christ’s future transformation of the world “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (v. 21)

Seeking Christ Now

Christ is present in heaven now and provides His Spirit to attend to us. “We must seek for Christ nowhere else save only in heaven, whilst that we hope for the last restoring of all things; because he shall be far from us, until our minds ascend high above the world…Therefore, if at this day we see many things confused in the world, let this hope set us upon foot and refresh us, that Christ shall once come that he may restore all things. In the mean season, if we see the relics of sin hang on us, if we be environed on every side with divers miseries, if the world be full of wasting and scattering abroad, let us bewail these miseries, yet so that we uphold with the hope of restoring.” (7) Paul writes in Romans 8:22-25, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” “Haven’t you known times when Jesus became so real and the gospel so vivid that your whole spirit, soul, and body were revived? If you want times of refreshing, times that make life really worth living so you can say, ‘Oh, it is good to be a Christian,’ turn from sin and follow close to Jesus.” (8) Lord Jesus, help us to repent as often as necessary to destroy our sins and be refreshed; to enjoy and serve you as we anticipate your glorious return. Use our repentance to administer gospel CPR to us. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” (Psalm 51:7-8)

Related Scripture: Psalm 51:1, 9; Isaiah 43:20-56; 44:21-23; Mark 2:7; Luke 1:69-75; 24:26; Acts 2:38-39; Romans 8:18-25; Colossians 2:11-15; 

Notes:

  1. Taha, Allen, Sermon on Romans 1:16-17, https://www.trinityboerne.org/sermons/sermon/2021-04-25/staying-with-the-gospel)
  2. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Acts 3:19-21., https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/acts-3.html
  3. Colvin, Joanne, “—God’s Gift of Repentance,” January 1, https://divinewisdomforchristians.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1293&action=edit&calypsoify=1&block-editor=1&frame-nonce=82e7761970&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwordpress.com&environment-id=production&support_user&_support_token&in-editor-deprecation-group=1
  4. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Acts 3:19-20,  https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/acts-3.html
  5. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Acts 3:20, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  6. Calvin, John, “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Acts 3:20, Bible Learning Societyhttps://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/acts-3.html
  7. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” Romans 7, “Grappling with Sin,” Baker Books, Software version, 1998.

April 29, 2021

Training for Good Works

Are you training for anything right now? Perhaps you’re learning a new sport or hobby, a different exercise routine, or trying a diet. There is a particular mindset of a person in training. “The main aim of sports training is to prepare a sportsman for the highest possible performance in a main competition in a particular sport/event. Besides this, the following should be considered as the aims of sports training: improvement of physical fitness; acquisition of motor skills; improvement of tactical efficiency; [and] education and improvement of mental capabilities.” (1) As a dog owner, I am a trainer because I want my pup to be his best. There are levels of training: puppy skills, basic, intermediate, and advanced obedience, and then, in my case, AKC good citizen training. Many people who see my dog think he’s already completely trained when he is just at the intermediate stage. Many people would stop here. Tim Challis writes, “Like most people, we planned to train our dogs until they were perfectly behaved, until they could go head-to-head with a police dog and perform just as well. For a little while we made good progress…The initial things were simple enough and it was no great challenge to train the dog, so she was halfway respectable. After that it got much more difficult…we gave up long before the dog could master any of these. In the end we, like most people, settled for a barely-trained but tolerable dog. We settled for good enough.” (2) 

Is Good Enough for Us Good Enough for God?

“God calls us to train ourselves to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). We do this by killing sin—by killing sin and coming alive to righteousness. We put aside old patterns and habits and come alive to new, better ones. God does not call us to bruise our sin, or injure it, or slap it around a little. God calls us to put our sin to death, and that is a hard business. God assures us that with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit we can do this, to beat it to death, to see its hold on us drastically, radically diminished. But so often we stop short. We train ourselves for a while, but then grow weary when those last vestiges of the sin refuse to die, or when we realize that sin has much deeper and stronger roots than we had expected, or when we realize that we actually kind of like our sin. We end up half-trained, good enough Christians. Yet God calls us to persevere in the battle, to train ourselves thoroughly and completely, to fight for holiness and godliness from the moment of conversion to the moment of death. We answer this call only when we doggedly persevere.” (3) Paul’s letter to Titus is of great help to know precisely what the Lord expects of us. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14) God’s grace through salvation in Christ’s sacrificial redemption purifies and trains us to be zealous for godly works as we await his reappearance in glory. The question is: are we willing to continue our training, renouncing our ungodliness through repentance?

Our Training Rests on God’s Grace

“…See our duty in a very few words; denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, living soberly, righteously, and godly, notwithstanding all snares, temptations, corrupt examples, ill usage, and what remains of sin in the believer’s heart, with all their hindrances. It teaches to look for the glories of another world. At, and in, the glorious appearing of Christ, the blessed hope of Christians will be complete: To bring us to holiness and happiness… Redemption from sin and sanctification of the nature go together, and make a peculiar people unto God, free from guilt and condemnation, and purified by the Holy Spirit.” (4) “One cannot truly claim to be a recipient of saving grace without also being a pupil of ‘training grace.’ This change in lifestyle is rooted in the atonement (v. 14) and the expectation of Christ’s return (v. 13).” (5) But it’s not enough to just know that Christ died for our transformation, to live zealously for him, eagerly awaiting his return. We are to behave and live as those in training for godliness. We are to embrace Christ’s mission for us to be pure and godly through repentance of ungodliness and worldly passions, to produce good works zealously. 

Rejecting worldly passions and ungodliness

We are explicitly being trained by God’s grace “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (v. 12). How can we reject, deny, and abandon our attachments to this world and it’s godlessness except by repentance? If we are to be more self-controlled internally, upright and honorable with others, and pleasing to God through our obedience, we have to work at it. We work at the Spirit’s pace, not like a dog stubbornly driven by whatever attracts his attention, straining at the leash instead of walking by his owner’s side. What Christ has started in us through our redemption and justification, the Spirit continues through our sanctification with our cooperation. Our training is ongoing until we are taken out of this world, or Christ returns. Our sure hope of Christ’s future reappearance strengthens our will to be more like him. We are in training while “…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” “The Greek for waiting often carries a connotation of eagerness. Eagerly expecting the return of Christ is the way grace trains Christians to renounce sin and live in a godly way. Setting one’s mind on the truth of Christ’s return impels a person to holiness (1 John 3:2–3).” (6) Jesus Christ paid a great price in his mission to make us pure and godly; now, the Spirit works through our repentance of ungodliness and worldly passions to zealously produce good works. Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14) We cannot actively engage in ungodly conduct and produce good works, which is our calling.

Our voluntary work is based on our Savior’s voluntary work.

Christ’s “work was voluntary, substitutionary and infinitely costly. Its stated purpose must be regarded as having a dual aspect, namely Christ’s achievement, and the Christian’s obligation. (a) To redeem from: must be given the full meaning of ‘right away from’, and all wickedness must also be given its widest significance. (b) To purify: Sanctification, which is complete in its formal sense, and progressive in its ethical is the goal of the Redeemer’s work. Saints thereby become a people essentially His, who may be identified by their zeal to do what is good.” (7) “Paul anchors his call for godliness in the fact that one purpose of Jesus’ death was to make his people holy. To forsake godliness is to despise the sacrifice of Christ.” (8) [We are] “these people, for whom Christ has given himself, and whom he has redeemed and purifies, are a ‘peculiar people’…Christ’s portion and inheritance, his peculiar treasure, his jewels, whom, as such, he values and takes care of…redeemed and purified by Christ, through the power of his grace upon them, people zealous of good works… not only perform them, but perform them from principles of truth and love, and with a zeal for the glory of God, and the honour of his Gospel; and with an holy emulation of one another, striving to go before, and excel each other in the performance of them.” (9)

Will we embrace Christ’s mission for us to be pure and godly through repentance of ungodliness and worldly passions? Let’s not be half-trained. “…what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3:11-14)

Related Scripture: Psalm 67:1-3; Ezekiel 37:23; 1 Corinthians 1:5-8; Galatians 5:5; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 4:2; 1 John 2:16-17; 3:2-3.

Notes:

  1. https://sssutms.co.in/UploadDocument/EContent/Complete%20Guide%20to%20Sports%20Training.pdf
  2. Challis, Tim, “The Half-Trained Dog,” December 28, 2015  https://www.challies.com/christian-living/the-half-trained-dog/
  3. Challis, Ibid.
  4. Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Titus 2:11-15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/titus-2.html.
  5. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Titus 2:11–14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  6. ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid. 
  7. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Titus 2:14, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition
  8. ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid.
  9. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Titus 2:14 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/titus-2.html

April 22, 2021           

Greater Repentance Than Jonah

Do you remember hosting a party or event, or made a presentation (before Covid)? You knew every detail for the menu, environment, guest list, and program. You were the one most familiar with those providing services, solving problems, and knowing the essential questions to ask. Preparing to teach a book of the Bible by thorough study beforehand allows us to have a similar kind of familiarity. I am preparing to teach the Book of Jonah for the first time and finding a new, rich depth to Jonah’s story. Jonah knew about Nineveh and Assyria personally—better than any historian can describe. Jonah was a loyal Israelite who was tremendously nationalistic and hated God’s enemies, Assyria among them. The last thing he would want to do as a nationalist is to be compassionate to those trying to destroy his people. “Jonah must have enjoyed great popular respect as a true prophet when Syrian border raids against his native Galilee came to an end. This may explain his reluctance to accept a less popular commission, which might fail and cause him to lose substantial face.” (1) 

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish…the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up…the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them…they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” (Jonah 1:1-3a, 4, 10, 15-16)

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord…And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:1-10) When Jonah confessed his disobedience, the sailors repented and worshipped God. When Jonah repented of his disobedience, he proceeded to Nineveh and the people repented. 

Nineveh’s Repentance Dependent Upon Jonah’s

There is great wisdom and depth of theology in Jonah’s account, and I can recommend its study using two excellent commentaries, which were recommended to me by my pastor. (2) One of the most controversial aspects of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh is whether the Ninevites truly repented. Coming a close second is Jonah’s repentance, a main theme of the book. Was it for his rebellious heart (wanting to run away from God’s calling), his disobedience (getting on a ship carrying him in the opposite direction), his pride and superiority resulting in his lack of compassion for Gentiles (the nation of Nineveh), or distrust of God’s plan for both Israel and Nineveh? Jonah is only a man, with his sins and faults, but was used powerfully of God. God’s grace to and through him is remarkable, through his partial repentance and obedience, in spite of his cold heart toward Ninevites. 

Jonah, a Jesus figure

In what way did the Ninevites understand repentance? We know that a ruler cannot legislate spiritual repentance; the king proclaimed repentance for social injustice and evils. Only God can work true spiritual repentance. “Jonah is the only minor prophet referred to specifically by Jesus, and the only prophet with whom He compares Himself. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was significant in pointing to salvation for other sheep outside the house of Israel…The teaching of Jesus implies Jonah’s historicity (Mt. 12:38–42; 16:4; Lk. 11:29–32). He considered the repentance of the people of Nineveh to have been accomplished through the preaching of Jonah. The reference to three days and three nights  suggests that Jesus Himself gives His authority to the typical view of Jonah as pointing not only to Israel, but ultimately to Himself.” (3) “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:40-41) We must conclude that there was heartfelt repentance on the part of some, given Jesus’s comparison of his crucifixion for salvation with Jonah’s experience on behalf of Nineveh. (See Note 4 for the other side of the argument.) Of course, we should pray for, talk about, and urge people, nations, and the world to repent of both unbelief and injustice. 

Jonah’s Repentance

Rather than stay in the comfortable territory of analyzing Nineveh’s repentance, let’s consider Jonah’s, which is more relevant to sanctifying repentance for us believers. “It is easier to repent of open sin as the Ninevites have done, than to repent of a grudge in the heart as Jonah must. Jonah’s attitude here is surely a picture of Israel’s attitude to the Gentiles…the essential teaching is that the Gentiles should not be grudged God’s love, care and forgiveness. The knowledge that God was infinitely gracious haunted their pride: there arose a jealous fear that He would show His grace to others…In which case, what was the use of their uniqueness and privilege? (Let the Lord’s elect in every age ponder that!) Everything [storm, sailors, fish, Ninevites, vine, worm, hot wind, creatures] but Jonah has obeyed God’s direct command, even an insect pest…[When] the elect fail God will chasten and purify the elect.” (5) It seems that Jonah repented of his rebelliousness to God when he told the sailors to throw him into the sea, understanding that he deserved the consequence, but the sailors did not. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” (1:12) He repented of his disobedience to God’s call when he prayed in the belly of the fish, praising God. “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (2:9) He went to Nineveh and proclaimed God’s message. But did he ever repent of his pride and superiority resulting in his lack of compassion for Gentiles (the nation of Nineveh) and distrust of God’s plan for both Israel and Nineveh? I think not, given that he was angry about God’s mercy to Nineveh (4:1-5).

“Jesus is truly greater than Jonah in his willingness to lose face and to be misunderstood.” (6) If we are followers of Jesus, we must do the same. “We must be permeated by the conviction that if grace is being conferred on us, it is primarily for others. The Christian is not just the man who is saved by Christ, he is the man whom God uses for the salvation of others by Christ.” (7) Let’s devote ourselves to knowing how to confess our reluctance to repent fully. With the Holy Spirit’s indwelling help we can be of even greater use on Christ’s behalf. “…Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:14-15)

Related Scripture: 2 Kings 19:36; Psalm 31:22 42; 88:6-7; 115:3; Nahum 1-3; Zephaniah 2:13; Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 29:30.

Notes:

  1. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Introduction to Jonah, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  2. Much of my thinking is based on these two excellent commentaries: Keller, Timothy, “The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy,” Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2018; and Ferguson, Sinclair, “Man Overboard,” Banner of Truth, May 31, 2008.
  3. Zondervan, Ibid, Ch. 2.
  4. “In the days of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges, the people of Israel repeatedly turned their backs upon Jehovah, and after experiencing the displeasure of God, repented of their sin and returned unto the Lord; there was a national conversion in the kingdom of Judah in the days of Hezekiah and again in the days of Josiah. Upon the preaching of Jonah the Ninevites repented of their sins and were spared by the Lord. These national conversions were merely of the nature of moral reformation. They may have been accompanied with some real religious conversions of individuals, but fell far short of the true conversion of all those that belonged to the nation. As a rule they were very superficial. They made their appearance under the leadership of pious rulers, and when these were succeeded by wicked men, the people at once fell back into their old habits.” (Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, pp. 482-3, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993.)
  5. Zondervan, Ibid, Ch 4.
  6. Zondervan, Ibid.
  7. Zondervan, Ibid.

April 15, 2021

Are You Prepared to Repent?

Covid has us worshipping at home, but it’s not the first time for many of us who have worked or ministered on Sundays, celebrating the Sabbath another time—Saturday, Sunday night, in airports, on airplanes, buses, or places of work. Whenever I had to travel overseas on the weekend, I planned for a time to quiet down and worship God in the best way I could. Sometimes I was interrupted, but having a plan always ensured that I would find at least a little time to give God the attention he so rightly deserves. Now I am always at home, but I also plan my morning time for Bible study and prayer, depending on my morning schedule. Many Christians do the same but don’t remember the critical aspect of repentance. For the last twenty years, I have repented every morning and have never run out of something vital for which I need forgiveness. Being prepared to repent is one of the most effective ways to stay close to Christ.

Solomon’s Penitent Prayer

King Solomon gathered materials and skilled laborers who worked for many years on the Lord’s temple that his father, David, envisioned. Preparation alone took three years. “At the close of these thirteen years preparations for the dedication of the temple were made on a scale of the greatest magnificence. The ark was solemnly brought from the tent in which David had deposited it to the place prepared for it in the temple, and the glory-cloud, the symbol of the divine presence, filled the house. Then Solomon ascended a platform which had been erected for him, in the sight of all the people, and lifting up his hands to heaven poured out his heart to God in prayer (1 Kings 8; 2 Chr. 6, 7).” (1) Solomon’s glorious prayer for dedication was full of praise for God’s faithfulness and mercy, along with honesty about Israel’s faults. Solomon anticipated the sins of God’s people. He must have seen, as we have, that no man is without a sin nature, and collectively Israel was capable of unified transgression against God. Solomon prayed for Israel to be prepared to repent sincerely in exile, pleaded for God’s compassion to them, and their love for unbelievers. His prayer ends with supplications for Israel’s repentance. As we consider Solomon’s powerful prayer for God’s mercy and Israel’s repentance, let us, the True Israel of God, recognize and embrace the power of sincere repentance for our Christian witness. He prayed:

“If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near, yet if they turn their heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly,’ if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you 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 in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people, and your heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace). Let your eyes be open to the plea of your servant and to the plea of your people Israel, giving ear to them whenever they call to you. For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God.” (1 Kings 8:46-53)

Repentance is God’s Remedy for Ongoing Sin

Previously in his prayer, Solomon also admitted the sin-nature of the Israelites: “If a man sins against his neighbor” (v. 31); “When your people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against you” (v. 33); and “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you” (v. 35). In verses 46-48, Solomon summarizes: “there is no one who does not sin” and optimistically prompts Israel’s repentance by admitting that ‘We have sinned and have acted perversely and wickedly.’” The Lord had granted Solomon great wisdom, including that which knows to pray ahead of, for prevention from, and humility in the face of sin. We cannot escape from our sins, except with God’s help in particular instances. Matthew Henry comments on Solomon’s wisdom: “Sin is the plague of our own hearts; our in-dwelling corruptions are our spiritual diseases: every true Israelite endeavors to know these, that he may mortify them, and watch against the risings of them. These drive him to his knees; lamenting these, he spreads forth his hands in prayer. After many particulars, Solomon concludes with the general request, that God would hearken to his praying people...In this manner the Israel of God is established and sanctified, the backslider is recovered and healed. In this manner the stranger is brought nigh, the mourner is comforted, the name of God is glorified. Sin is the cause of all our troubles; repentance and forgiveness lead to all human happiness.” (2) In her book, “The Gospel Comes With a Housekey,” Rosario Butterfield writes, “We are called to repent of the original sin that distorts us, the actual sin that distracts us, the indwelling sin that manipulates us. This is a high and hard calling.” (3) God provides the strength we need to fight against the power of sin in us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we take full advantage of God’s invitation to confess and engage in heartfelt repentance? Our witness for the gospel is that much more pure and effective.

God’s True Israel Repents

If God had not adopted us, brought us into his kingdom, given us to Christ, and sent the Holy Spirit into our beings, we would not know how to repent. But he has done all that and so much more. The Lord chose Israel and “separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt” (v. 53). Israel was expected to live up to God’s plan and power in them to remain faithful. How can we stay faithful in the face of our ongoing sin? We fight with all our heart, mind, and will to conquer it. As we do, we find that God will do all for us that Solomon requested for Israel. In verses 49-52, Solomon makes eight requests of God: to hear their prayer and plea for forgiveness; to maintain their cause; to forgive his people who have sinned against him; to forgive all their transgressions committed against him; to grant them compassion; to help them to have mercy on their captives; to have his eyes open to the plea of Solomon and Israel, and to listen to his people when they call on him. Since sin separates us from the Lord, it is not surprising that Solomon repeats his request that the Lord actively listen and consider the prayers of sinful Israel. As the True Israel, God indwells us, so there is no question that we have his help whenever we call on him and to help cry out to him. The other day I did something that I shouldn’t have that could violate trust with someone. I am grateful to the Holy Spirit for awakening me to my error the following day, to confess my negligence of a valuable relationship. He helped me acknowledge my mistake and repent. Then God graciously gave me the perfect opportunity to go to a person to rescind my actions. This is how the gospel works in us when we value repentance. My heart was lighter, and my spirit joyful in having resolved the issue before it damaged any of my relationships. My confession and request with the primary person also led to greater depth in that relationship.  

 When I joined a ministry for my full-time work at 40, I learned many “Christian” idioms. The one that has always stayed with me is to keep short accounts—that is, don’t let potential sins, offenses against others, or those toward you linger and fester. Jesus advises us, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) This is what Solomon had in mind for God’s people, but he recognized the reality that they would fail. So he prayed for God’s compassion to them and theirs to unbelievers. We who have God’s indwelling Spirit can do better; there is no reason not to embrace the power of sincere repentance for our Christian witness. Are you prepared to repent, knowing that the Lord will guide you through it? “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9)

Related Scripture: Leviticus 26:40-42; Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 14:2; Psalm 106:6, 44-46; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Jeremiah 9:12-14; Daniel 9:4-6; 1 Corinthians 1:9; James 3:2; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 1:8-10.

Notes

  1. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, 1 Kings 8, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  2. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, 1 Kings 8: 22-53, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/1-peter-3.html
  3. Rosario Butterfield, The Gospel Comes With a Housekey, Crossway, March 30, 2018.

April 8, 2021             

Christ, Our Help For Repentance

On this first week of April in 2021, a white police officer is on trial, having been accused of applying excessive force to restrain an African-American who died in the process. I heard an NPR reporter start her report with “…, who killed George Floyd” with no hesitation, making a pre-determined judgment before the trial. I was surprised and assumed that she was just plain wrong in making that statement before the jury’s decision. Then I decided to google “NPR reporting “killing of George Floyd” and realized how controversial this issue truly is. (1) Maybe she was wrong, maybe I was, or maybe we’re all wrong about the event—only God knows the truth, but a jury will determine the police officer’s legal culpability. Hopefully, most of us will never see the inside of a courtroom where we are the accused because we see, confess, and repent of our sins before they become criminal. Recognizing our errors or potential errors is a crucial precursor for repentance. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey for the Passover, days before his crucifixion, many Jews hailed him as the next king of Israel, not a suffering, spiritual Messiah. They were wrong but didn’t recognize their error because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves and see Jesus for who he is. After he was raised from death, leaving the tomb empty, they still didn’t consider that they were wrong and sought to justify this disappearance as anything other than a supernatural resurrection. (See Matthew 28:11-15) Their error was spiritually criminal, leading to their condemnation. 

New Clothing of Righteousness

The Jewish unbelievers in Jesus’s day lost their chance to repent, as did all other hard-hearted Israelites and Gentiles who have died without faith. However, God’s gives us, his elect believers, the ability to recognize our sins against him, the desire to confess them, and the will to eradicate them. Repentance is the culmination of putting our sins off as we put off our old selves. This weekend we will celebrate Jesus’s glorious resurrection from death, having provided substitutionary atonement for our sins, through propitiation of God’s wrath, paving the way for our resurrection. He reigns and continues to intercede for believers and sends his Spirit to unbelievers for saving faith. Repentance means clothing ourselves in Christ’s righteousness. “…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and…be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-24) We must first “undress” from our sin, as  David did. He confessed, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). Here is a devoted servant of God who was plagued by his sinful transgression of God’s laws, knowing that sin was in his very being from birth. God has preserved Psalm 51 as a model of confession and repentance for us. We have the Holy Spirit who confronts us (or other loving people) and should deep conviction of our sin as David did. Only then can we repent. 

David’s Penitence in Psalm 51

This month we will begin an extended study of Psalm 51, on and off through the rest of the year because it is “A uniquely powerful statement of the depths of sin and the heights of repentance. It is the most striking of the “prayers of penitence”, a type of lament. This psalm exposes the need that results from moral failures. (2) “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:1-5) “David’s sin, in which he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later, after discovering that she was pregnant, arranged to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle, is the dark background for the psalm (see 2 Sam. 11–12). But this very blackness led David to the light.” (3) “David had such a deep sense of his sin, that he was continually thinking of it, with sorrow and shame. His sin was committed against God, whose truth we deny by willful sin; with him we deal deceitfully. And the truly penitent will ever trace back the streams of actual sin to the fountain of original depravity.  He confesses his original corruption.” (4) Surely David knew that Proverbs 28:13 was to be taken seriously. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” 

Repenting and Original Sin 

“The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “Despite this verdict on human shortcomings, the idea persists in our humanistically dominated culture that sin is something peripheral or tangential to our nature. Indeed, we are flawed by sin. Our moral records exhibit blemishes. But somehow we think that our evil deeds reside at the rim or edge of our character and are inherently good. But if we lift our gaze to the ultimate standard of goodness—the holy character of God—we realize that what appears to be a basic goodness on an earthly level is corrupt to the core. The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption…Total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.” (5) Unfortunately, even our ideas and knowledge about repentance are corrupted by sin. Therefore, God must do the work of repentance in us when we desire it. Our work is to yearn for the transformation enough to pray for and appreciate the Spirit’s conviction of our sins. We will then seek repentance for them and obey the Spirit’s guidance to change. “Repentance is not just saying sorry to God. Genuine repentance is conviction of sin, humble contrition over sin, confession of sin, consecration to turn from sin.” (6) 

Repentance for Falling Short with God

Repentance can be confusing and is usually difficult; therefore, we often need to work through repentance repeatedly for the same sin or slowly. (See last week’s devotion–). While teaching his disciples about forgiveness, Jesus said, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) “But how do we know whether the repentance is genuine? It is easy to say we are sorry, and Jesus obviously has that in view because he said, ‘If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him.’” (7) Romans 7 also describes Paul’s difficulty with persistent sin as a mature Christian. “Here is how Packer summarizes [Romans 7:14-25]: ‘Alive in Christ, his heart delights in the law, and he wants to do what is good and right and thus keep it perfectly…But he finds that he cannot achieve the total compliance at which he aims…the Christian’s moral experience is that his reach persistently exceeds his grasp and that his desire for perfection is frustrated by the discomposing and distracting energies of indwelling sin. Stating this sad fact about himself, renews Paul’s distress at it, and in the cry of verses 24, 25 he voices his grief at not being able to glorify God more: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ Then at once he answers his own question: ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’” (8)

As we approach our Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday calls us to grieve the need for Christ’s crucifixion and black hours on the cross because of our indwelling sin. On Good Friday, we rejoice that our Savior was willing to endure and complete his painful calling of crucifixion. But on Easter Sunday, we sing “hallelujah!” because he victoriously lives to make intercession for saved and unsaved sinners. Whenever we confess and seek repentance, Christ is there for us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1-4)

Related Scripture: Psalms 14:1-3; 32:5; 53:2-3; Proverbs 28:13; Romans 3:10-12, 21-26.

Notes:

  1. See https://www.washingtonian.com/2020/06/04/npr-once-counseled-it)
  2. The Reformation Study Bible, Psalm 51 Introduction, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  3. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Psalm 51, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  4. Henry, Matthew, “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, Psalm 51:1-6, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhn/psalms-51.html
  5. Reformation Study Bible Study, “Human Depravity,” p. 889, Ibid.
  6. Parsons, Burk, Pastor, St. Andrews Church, Sanford, FL, Editor of TableTalk, Tweet 12-10-2020.
  7. A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke’s Gospel)
  8. Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, The “Man” of Romans 7 is a Mature Christian (7:14-20), Ibid

April 1, 2021  

Repentance In The War Against Worldliness

So much has changed because of the pandemic. We no longer linger in some places where we used to feel relaxed, comfortable, and safe. We have visited restaurants, stores, hair salons, and gyms, knowing that there is some risk involved. But, it has taken a year-long, continuing epidemic to change our viewpoints and habits. This is not surprising given our very human propensity to stick to the same routines and hold onto perspectives on ourselves and others. It usually takes something intensely dramatic, such as an illness, injury, or major life event, for us to see things differently. The most radical change we will ever experience is conversion from unbelief in Jesus Christ to Christianity. We used to look at the world with confusion, cynicism, or Pollyanna-like ideals, but now we see it for what it is…a strange, dangerous, godless place of temptations and seductions. Christians have this perspective on the world at large; the Bible consistently calls us to oppose Satan, the ruler of this world, and his schemes. We were once comfortable and content in the world with its pressures to conform to foolish fads, sinful lusts, and all kinds of distractions from reality. But now we are different. Christ has called us to live as pilgrims in this dark world, to witness for him. Viewing the world as alien and repenting of our conformity to it honors Jesus. 

From Similar to Peculiar

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:9-11) Three characteristics of our former life are mentioned: living in darkness, not God’s people, and without mercy. But then we were regenerated, defined by Berkhof as: “that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy…a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction.” (1) The change in our identity is as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession results from being brought into God’s marvelous light, having received mercy. Now we identify ourselves as sojourners and exiles of the world, not permanent residents. The KJV Bible translation refers to believers as “a peculiar people.” We should appear strange, odd, weird, abnormal, and maybe even obsessed with Christ to the world. Instead of blending into darkness and godlessness, we stand out as being different. Since God has called us to live as pilgrims in this dark world, to witness for Christ, we must confess when we get pulled into the world’s values and priorities to turn toward God instead through repentance. 

How Does Repentance Look?

“We all recognize that the first act of repentance is only the beginning. We recognize that sins must be mortified. We recognize that there is the problem of indwelling sin in the life of the believer. But I suspect that we don’t often attach repentance to these things. In part, this may be because we do not have a sense of what repentance looks like when God is working repentance in us.Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine repentance as a man walking in one direction who suddenly realizes that he is walking in the opposite direction from which he should be walking. He stops. He turns around. Then he begins walking in the new direction. It is a quick and simple process. He realizes. He stops. He turns…The process is the same for a man in a speed boat. He has to slow down, enter the turn, and come back. But the time and distance required to do so is much longer than what was required for the man walking]. Now imagine that the man is piloting a supertanker. It takes him miles to slow the ship down enough to even begin to make the turn. The turn itself is immense, taking him quite a distance from his intended course. Then again it also takes a large amount of time to get up to full speed in the new direction.Now apply the images to repentance. Some sins are small and easy. We stop and walk the other way…But some sins are enormous. We may not be aware that they really are sins. Or they may be so deeply ingrained in us that we are not willing, at first, to recognize them as sins. God works patiently with us, carefully slowing us down, as the captain does with the ship, so that He can bring us through the turn and into the new direction, where He can bring us up to full speed…God does not work repentance in us instantaneously, but over time. So the awareness of sin and the desire to change come gradually. God brings us, as it were, to a full stop slowly and carefully…The slips and falls have gotten fewer. But there seems to be little progress. We seem to be dead in the water. At that point, we are in the turn. Speed will pick up. Godliness will grow. But it will do so slowly, as God patiently works with us. So if you have prayed for repentance for some particular sin, and there has been no instantaneous change, keep praying. God has promised to work, and He will. And you will be glad in the end that He did it slowly and carefully.” (2) 

Fundamentally Different in Holiness

“If you are a Christian, you are being prepared in the beauty of holiness so that the purifying of your character is a primary task of this life. But you are already betrothed to Christ, your eternal destiny in his love having been made certain by his sacrifice for you. You are fundamentally different from everyone who is not a Christian, and your lifestyle is to reflect this difference in holy obedience.” (3) “God’s elect are a peculiar people, to whom he bears a peculiar love; God, who has chosen them into a spiritual kindred and relation, made them kings and priests, sanctified them by his Spirit, and redeemed them by his Son, as a peculiar people.” (4) Various translations of 1 Peter 2:11 names us sojourners, exiles, strangers, aliens, outcasts, and pilgrims—all convey the idea that we don’t fit into the culture. We’re not meant to conform, adjust, or reflect the values of the world. Like the Israelite exiles, we build homes, support the community, and do our work—being in the world but not of it (Jeremiah 29:28; Luke 9:24; John 8:23). 

Rejecting Ungodly Passions 

“We are citizens of heaven, and therefore we ought to live not according to the laws of this world, which is most corrupt, but of the heavenly city…The children of God live not according to the flesh, that is, according to that corrupt nature, but according to the Spirit.” (5) “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (v. 11) “As we grow in spiritual maturity, we see the depths of our sin and the deceitfulness of our hearts ever more distinctly. Yet we may have confidence that we will make progress in godliness because God has promised his Holy Spirit to be at work in our hearts, generating his fruits of righteousness and holiness. The work may not progress as fast as we would wish, but its progress is assured because God has promised it. We are not simply to sit back, to ‘let go and let God’; we are to strive with every fiber of our being toward the holiness for which God has designed us…God will work his righteousness in us on the day we stand before him. In the meantime, he will also use our awareness of our own sin to drive us again and again to the cross in thanksgiving for his long-suffering and grace with such unprofitable servants as ourselves. (6) “We are not permitted to look into God’s Book of Life before the final judgment, but we can identify the distinguishing character of those whose names are there. J. C. Ryle points out that, first, ‘they are all true penitents.’ Those destined for the new Jerusalem have felt the condemnation of their sins, have grieved before God for their guilt, and have hated the presence of sin in their lives.” (7)

The pandemic has turned our comforts into dangers. Through Christ, the Spirit of God also turns our view of the world from comfortable to dangerous. We must war against our conformity to it through repentance as pilgrims “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).

Related Scripture: Job 1:6-13; 2:2-7; Matthew 4:10; 16:23; Mark 1:13; 4:15; Luke 22:3, 31; Acts 5:3; 26:18; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Timothy 5:15; Revelation 2:13, 24; 3:9.

Notes:

  1. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “Regeneration and Effectual Calling,” pp. 468-9., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  2. Shaw, Benjamin, “An Illustration of Repentance,” Ligonier, January 20, 2021,  https://www.ligonier.org/blog/illustration-repentance/
  3. Phillips, Richard D., Revelation—Reformed Expository Commentary, Revelation 21:9-14, P & R Publishing, 2017.
  4. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 Peter 2:9, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1peter-2.html
  5. Geneva Study Bible, 1560 Edition, 1 Peter 2:5-14.
  6. Duguid, Iain M., “Esther and Ruth – Reformed Expository Commentary,” P & R Publishing, 2005
  7. Phillips, Ibid, Revelation 21:22-27.

March 25, 2021

Repentance For and Before Bitterness

Bitter people are no fun. “It’s so nice when toxic people stop talking to you. It’s like the trash took itself out.” “Just because some people are fueled by drama doesn’t mean you have to attend the performance.” Miserable people love to make other people miserable. I don’t hate them, I just feel sorry for them.” I copied these quotations from the internet.  Perhaps you’ve met some of these people, as I have, and can appreciate the sentiments here. Maybe you’ve been this person, and there may even be some slight bitterness lurking in the recesses of your heart. When we are hurt or disappointed, there is always the chance that we will feed the hurt instead of letting it go or asking God to help us with it. It grows into bitterness that affects us and others in ways we cannot imagine. There is only one solution for peace, and that is confession and repentance—even if the hurt was deliberately inflicted on us—we’re still the ones with resentment. The three quotations in my opening reflect those who want to announce, wallow in, and complain with bitterness—about bitterness. Today our Hebrews passage deals with just this problem and calls us to use an example in the Old Testament as guidance to prevent hatred in our hearts. 

Bitterness spreads

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” (Hebrews 12:15-17) Esau sought God’s blessing too late, after trading or selling it for a bowl of stew. He devalued God’s gift of his birthright and wasn’t sorry until Jacob received his father Isaac’s blessing instead of him. He never repented and was rejected by God for only wanting His gifts rather than God himself. God will refuse those who show only superficial remorse for losing his blessings. Hebrews 12:15 refers back to God’s OT warning about His covenant with Israel. “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed. And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them, lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:16-19) One Israelite’s bitterness toward God would become a poison that infected many and result in God’s rejection. The many examples of bitter Israelites include Aaron’s sons and Korah, who rebelled against the Lord in their bitterness. (See Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16.)

Dealing With Our Bitterness

When we are resentful, we dwell on our hurt, have trouble concentrating, have imaginary conversations with the offending party, avoid them, are happy when they have a problem or fail—all characteristics that oppose godliness. If we don’t find the root cause of our bitterness, it can continue for years, even decades. When I was in my 40s, I decided to organize our first ever extended family reunion. I worked on it for a year, and when the day came, it was a delightful summer event. Only afterward did my mother tell me that it was the first time she had seen or spoken with her sister in over 20 years because of a grudge; we rejoiced over their reconciliation. Unfortunately, this was not the only bitterness that entrapped my mother, so I am very familiar with the effects of holding onto hurt. Our immediate family was affected by her deep pain, but she would never talk about her disappointments and refused to get any help. Perhaps it’s no wonder that she became so angry in her late stage of Alzheimer’s. I have no idea if she ever repented, even in her last two hours when God gave her a brief time of lucidity, and I shared the gospel with her. Receiving the forgiveness of Christ was her only help; repentance can only follow confession and release of bitterness. I have learned this myself since I also have had hurts that led to some bitterness. I thank God for helping me to recognize, confess, and repent of my resentments. But Esau didn’t recognize his need to repent, became bitter, lost God’s blessing, and was rejected by God. God rejects insincere remorse and sorrow for consequences; only sincere, heart-felt regret will lead to reinstatement in God’s favor with his blessing. 

Esau’s Failure to Repent 

“Esau is presented as an example of one who despised the promises of God (in contrast to the people of faith in ch. 11) and whose loss was irrevocable. [Whereas] Moses traded Egypt’s treasures for the disgrace of Christ because he saw the reward (11:26), Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of food because all he could see was lentil stew. Readers remember the second stage of Esau’s loss, when his brother Jacob took his place as their father Isaac gave the solemn blessing. This blessing included the substance of the promise made to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3, 27-29). Though Esau mourned his loss with tears, he did not actually repent of the sin of despising God’s promises. Another view is that the repentance he sought was [only] a change in his father’s mind.” (1) “Tears are not an infallible sign of repentance: men may be more concerned for the loss and mischief that come by sin, than for the evil that is in it; and such repentance is not sincere; it does not spring from love to God, or a concern for his glory; nor does it bring forth proper fruits: or rather, the sense of the words is, that notwithstanding all his solicitude, importunity, and tears, he found no place of repentance in his father Isaac; he could not prevail upon him to change his mind; or revoke the blessing he had bestowed on Jacob, and confer it on him, for he plainly saw it was the mind of God, that the blessing should be where it was; whose counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure. This latter seems to be the better interpretation of the word: ‘all the days of Esau the ungodly, they expected that he would have repented, but he repented not.’” (2) Accepting our hurts and insults without becoming resentful (or confessing if we do) leads us to recognize and accept God’s providential sovereignty over our circumstances.

“The author is not saying that Esau longed to repent but God refused to forgive him, for it can be seen from Peter’s denials and subsequent forgiveness that those who repent are always forgiven. ‘In the phrase’ though he sought it with tears, “it” probably refers to the blessing rather than repentance. Esau still wanted the blessing. If one understands ‘it’ to refer to repentance, then the verse likely means that Esau desired the good consequences of repentance but was not truly sorry for his sins.” (3) Esau lost his place in our faithful fathers’ hierarchy, replaced by Jacob after Abraham and Isaac. “The Church is to guard against the growth of any bitter root, an expression which, coming as it does from Deut. 29:18, probably means a person whose heart has been turned away from the Lord and who becomes ’a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit’, thereby causing trouble within the Christian community and defiling many besides himself. The Church is also to make sure that no second Esau arises among them, a person who is sexually immoral or godless, a person who does not value spiritual things. The writer warns that a decision like Esau’s is irrevocable. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.” (4) 

The Repentant Lifestyle

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses questioning the Catholic sale of indulgences for penance begins with this statement: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (5) “The pivotal first thesis questioned the entire understanding of penance, which was not something one does, but should characterize the entire life of the believer.” (6) Peter offers us a good NT example of repentance to prevent bitterness. And Hezekiah is a good example of one who was bitter and repented. “A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness… ‘Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.’” (Isaiah 38:9, 17-19) This is the day of grace and time for us to approach God for repentance over bitterness. 

Related Scripture: Genesis 25:29-34; 27:30-38; Deuteronomy 29:18-20; Job 7:11; 10:1; Proverbs 14:10; Lamentations 3:1-5; Ezekiel 3:14-15; Acts 8:18-22; Romans 3:10-18; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Ephesians 4:31-32.

  1. The Reformation Study Bible, Hebrews 12:16-17, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 12:17 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-12.html
  3. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Hebrews 12:16–17, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  4. Zondervan Bible Commentary, F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 12:15-17, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition
  5. Luther’s 95 Theses, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html)
  6. Reformation 500, https://reformation500.csl.edu/timeline/luther-posts-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-the-wittenberg-castle/

March 18, 2021