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

Approaching God’s Throne for Mercy and Grace

FOMO—I used to have it. Even as a child, I wanted to stay up late so I wouldn’t miss something, and in my youth, I did just that—to my detriment. Now I have a dog who suffers from the affliction of “fear of missing out.” He can be in a dog park with dogs all around him, but what he wants is the one dog outside the fence. We often focus on what we don’t have, perhaps something others have or something we used to have, rather than see the good things right in front of us. During the pandemic, when people wanted to eat in restaurants, they bemoaned their loss instead of getting the same food to bring home. People complained about being isolated but didn’t gather safely outside or take advantage of nature’s bountiful beauty and peacefulness when possible. Christians have the ultimate blessing of fellowship with Jesus Christ but frequently neglect spending time with him. One of the most valuable ways to commune with God is through confession, but because of pride, stubbornness, or ignorance, most believers neglect this essential means of grace. We are distracted by what we don’t have, afflicted with FOMO. We shop, scroll on our devices, eat, and binge on movies and TV. All the while, Jesus is actively interceding for us, and the Holy Spirit is prompting a closer walk with him. 

In Hebrews, the author establishes the unique, sympathetic priesthood of Jesus Christ and calls us to fellowship with him. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) Weaknesses, temptations, and sin are specifically mentioned by the writer. So here our spiritual need for his forgiveness and transformation through repentance is certainly in sight. My prayer for 2021 is that we will be increasingly confident to approach God in confession for repentance, delighting in his mercy and grace.

“This great high priest believers have… Christ and salvation by him…the hope of eternal life and happiness [which is] valuable and there is danger of dropping it…[so] it should be held without wavering; for it is good and profitable; and not to hold it fast is displeasing to God, and resented by him: and the priesthood of Christ is an argument to enforce this duty, for he is the high priest of our profession [and] he prays for the support of our faith.” When Jesus was taken into the wilderness by the Spirit after his baptism Satan tempted him three times—to do a miracle of turning stones to bread, to test God’s love by jumping off a high pinnacle, and to grab glory and worship the world and Satan instead of God (through suffering) (Matthew 4:1-11). These were not small trials for the man Jesus. His victory demonstrated his reliance on the Father’s will to be the second, perfect Adam and on the Word to combat Satan’s attempts to derail him. Jesus further proved his intention to identify and sympathize with his people. (1) “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) “Though Jesus was tempted in every respect, that is, in every area of personal life, he (unlike every other human) remained sinless, and thus he is truly the holy high priest. In their temptations, Christians can be comforted with the truth that nothing that entices them is foreign to their Lord. He too has felt the tug of sin, and yet he never gave in to such temptations.” (2) 

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:  “All those that are justified…[and] enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him, as by a father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation. (3) Given the fact that God has done so much for us through Christ, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16) “We should encourage ourselves by the excellence of our High Priest, to come boldly to the throne of grace. Mercy and grace are the things we want; mercy to pardon all our sins, and grace to purify our souls…We are to come with reverence and godly fear, not as if dragged to the seat of justice, but as kindly invited to the mercy-seat, where grace reigns. We have boldness to enter into the holiest only by the blood of Jesus; he is our Advocate, and has purchased all our souls want or can desire.” (4) “Confidence translates Greek ‘parrēsia’ [as] ‘boldness,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘courage,’ esp. with reference to speaking before someone of great rank or power. It indicates that Christians may come before God and speak plainly and honestly (yet still with appropriate reverence), without fear that they will incur shame or punishment by doing so. God the Father, with Jesus at his right hand, graciously dispenses help from heaven to those who need forgiveness and strength in temptation. (5) 

“Our smallest offense deserves the full wrath of God. [But]…God has not only covered our sin in Christ but also allows us to approach Him continually to receive that grace anew. We also know that God is holy—set apart in His perfection, glory, and majesty. We are sinners who sin every day. Our sin should grieve us but not condemn, because we serve a God who is good and gracious but also holy and just. So, what are we to do with this enigma of our sinfulness and God’s holiness that clings so close to us? Repent and receive God’s amazing grace.” (6) “And this may be done ‘boldly’; or ‘with freedom of speech’; speaking out plainly all that is in the heart, using an holy courage and intrepidity of mind, free from servile fear, and a bashful spirit; all which requires an heart sprinkled from an evil conscience, faith, in the person, blood, and righteousness of Christ, a view of God, as a God of peace, grace, and mercy, and a holy confidence of being heard by him; and such a spirit and behavior at the throne of grace are very consistent with reverence of the divine Majesty, with submission to his will, and with that humility which becomes saints.” (7) 

“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:21-22) Having been chosen, forgiven, and cleansed in Christ, is there any reason you can find to procrastinate or neglect God’s call to receive his forgiveness through regular confession? Our confessions may be spiritually significant, or for simple acts of stubbornness or distrust, doubting God’s faithfulness in some small way. In every case, though, Jesus, our high priest calls us to receive his mercy and grace for our needs. My love for God increases every time I confess and ask for his help to repent—to change my thoughts, attitude, perspective, or behavior. By practicing frequent, humbling repentance, we become more confident to approach God and delight in his mercy and grace for our most challenging, stubborn sins. Our confidence to continue communing with him grows. When we are trapped by FOMO, being afraid of missing out on something worldly, we neglect God’s sweet grace of confession and repentance. But turning to God ultimately results in transformation. What a blessing—to be freed from our sinful entrapments! “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:14-17)

Related Scripture: Exodus 16:9-12; Psalm 8:4; Isaiah 55:6-7; 63:7-14; Matthew 4:1-11; 9:35-36; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:6; Hebrews 7:25; 10:19-22; 11:6; 

  1. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Hebrews 4:14-15, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/hebrews-4.html
  2. English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Hebrews 4:15, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
  3. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 12 “Of Adoption,” 1647.
  4. Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible,” Hebrews 4:16, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/hebrews-4.html
  5. ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid, Hebrews 4:16.
  6. Ligonier Ministries, “Sin, Repentance, and Walking in the Light,” by Trillia Newbellhttps://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/sin-repentance-and-walking-light/
  7. Gill, Ibid, Hebrews 4:16.

March 11, 2021         

Believers—Sinners Who Need to Repent

The CDC website has this statement on its main COVID-19 web page: “COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are extremely high across the United States. To decrease your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, CDC recommends that you do not gather with people who do not live with you at this time. Attending events and gatherings increases your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. Stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” But here’s what the CNN website reported this week: “Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he’s lifting the mask mandate in Texas… ‘It is now time to open Texas 100%,’ he said.” How can our leaders be so diametrically opposed; surely somebody’s right, and somebody’s wrong. Or, perhaps there are nuances that we haven’t considered, such as Abbot’s inclusion of stipulations in the event of the Covid-19 pandemic worsening. Some issues are thorny, without simple solutions, so we must examine the evidence to come to the correct or most reasonable assessment. My friends in Texas all have different physical issues, business and ministry considerations, and vaccination statuses. So we have different ways of responding to the CDC’s and governor’s stands. But some things are sure—the pandemic isn’t over, it’s still spreading, and it’s still killing people; its effects have been felt in every sector of life. The vaccine is a blessing, and more people are being vaccinated every day. But that does not alter the fact that the virus is prospering. 

There are difficult doctrines in the Bible, about which we also must use careful discernment. Some Christians in the early Church were in danger of thinking that they weren’t sinners or that because they were in Christ, their sins somehow didn’t count or matter. Some Christians believe that today, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we mature in Christ, we should have fewer sins as we confess and cooperate with the Spirit’s sanctifying work in us. But we also see our sins more clearly. The only way we will continue to grow, to be less sinful, is by continuing to confess our sins for repentance and its fruit. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his Word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10) God forgives and cleanses us from ungodliness when we admit and confess our sins, but this does not alter the fact that we are still sinners. We need to embrace the truth that we are still sinners who need to repent regularly, to be forgiven and cleansed by our faithful, just, forgiving God.

Apparently, some Christians thought that once they were regenerated, their sins somehow evaporated. I’ve heard some professing believers say the same thing today—“once saved, we’re cleansed of all sins.” We are, in fact, no longer condemned for our sin. We are covered in Christ’s righteousness, to be saved from the final judgment to come. But John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (v. 8) “Sinful acts arise out of the sinful condition that we inherit in Adam (cf. Rom. 5:12-20). Though Christ has paid the penalty of sin for His people, forgiven them, and made them part of a new creation, and though He enables them to grow in godliness, they never become perfectly righteous in this life. Consequently, they continue to battle their fallenness until they are completely sanctified at the end of the age. True, Christ paid for both their pre-conversion and post-conversion sins, which means God’s just penalty has been satisfied, however, to deny that one continues to feel the effects of one’s fallenness and still breaks God’s law is deceitful and falsely implies that there is no need of Christ’s sacrificial death for post-conversion sins.” (1) Verse 8 speaks to a condition of habitual sinfulness and verse 10 to specific sinful acts, according to most commentators. Either way, “we deceive ourselves [if we deny that we are sinful believers]; such persons must be ignorant of themselves…thinking themselves to be something when they are nothing; flattering themselves what pure and holy creatures they are, when there is a fountain of sin and wickedness in them; these are self-deceptions, sad delusions, and gross impositions upon themselves…it is a plain case the truth of grace is not in such persons, for if there was a real work of God upon their souls, they would know and discern the plague of their own hearts, the impurity of their nature, and the imperfection of their obedience; nor is the Word of truth in them, for if that had…worked effectually in them, they would in the light of it discover much sin and iniquity in them; and indeed there is no principle of truth, no veracity in them; there is no sincerity nor ingenuity in them; they do not speak honestly and uprightly, but contrary to the dictates of their own conscience.” (2) God’s forgiveness is a precious treasure that saved sinners should not neglect; regular repentance reminds us of his special mercy to us through Christ.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (v. 9) God’s justice is the basis for our forgiveness, based on his Word in us. “When we repent and turn to Jesus, we are objectively forgiven. Our sin is covered with His perfect righteousness, and we do not stand condemned any longer. This objective reality, however, does not always mean that we feel forgiven subjectively. Often our guilt feelings do not go away even though we know—at least in our minds—that the problem of our objective guilt before the Lord has been solved in Christ. What, then, do we do if we have repented and yet do not feel forgiven by our Father in heaven? The only solution is to keep turning back to what the Word of God teaches about the reality of our forgiveness in Christ. If the Lord says that we have been forgiven in Jesus our Savior, we have no right to question Him. In fact, it is a sin to doubt God’s promises, including His promise to forgive. So, if we do not feel forgiven, we may need to repent for not believing God’s sure pledge to pardon our sins when we confess them.” (3)

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (v. 10) “Through Jeremiah God declared, ‘I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’” (Jer. 31:34). Clearly, if God had spoken such promises and then had refused to forgive sin, he would have been unfaithful. But he is not…What will be true of the individual if God is actually the light of his life? Obviously, the light of God will be doing for him what light does. For one thing, the light will be exposing the darkness so that the dark places are increasingly cleansed of sin and become bright and fruitful places for God’s blessing. This does not mean that the individual will become increasingly conscious of how good he or she is becoming. On the contrary, a growth in holiness will mean a growth in a true sensitivity to sin in one’s life and an intense desire to eliminate from life all that displeases God. Instead of boasting in his progress, the person will be increasingly ready to acknowledge sin and seek to have it eliminated. (4) Personally knowing that God forgives and cleanses us from ungodliness when we admit and confess our sins, why would we not desire to recognize our sins, confess them, and ask the Lord to help us repent? Do we behave as if we’ve come through the wide gate, rather than the narrow one provided by Christ? (See Matthew 7:13-14.) “Here, everybody is in such a rush to make money or to enjoy some pleasure it is difficult even for Christians to keep their hearts and minds in the best of order. Here, one must be very prayerful and exceedingly cautious, or one will be led or pushed out of the straight and narrow way, and give the Enemy the advantage in the battle for men’s minds.” (5) Rather than adopt others’ opinions about current events, let’s be vigilant to examine the issues and embrace a biblical worldview toward others who may have different opinions. Seeking God’s help to confess regularly will humble us in a  prideful society. But “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.” (Psalm 32:5)

Related Scripture: Proverbs 28:13; Jeremiah 2:35; 31:34; 1 Corinthians 15:34; James 3:2; 1 John 3:4-10; 5:18.

  1. The Reformation Study Bible, 1 John 1:10, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 1 John 1:8 https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/1john-1.html
  3. Ligonier, “Receiving God’s Forgiveness,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/receiving-gods-forgiveness/
  4. Boice, James, “Boice Expositional Commentary Series,” on 1 John 1:5-10, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
  5. Thomas, James, Bunyan, John, Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English, p. 227, Moody Publishers, Kindle Edition.

March 5, 2021

Repenting of Works Righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 26, 2021