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Repentance Required

By Rev. James Gracie

This Editorial was published in the Presbyterian Standard, No. 32, October-December 2003.

IT IS recorded in Scripture that the Lord Jesus Christ sent out the twelve apostles to preach the kingdom of God, gifting them with extraordinary powers to exorcise demons and to heal the sick. The age of miracle-working men concluded with the passing of these apostles, for these signs were given primarily to accredit them as bearers of new revelation (2Cor.12:12), but the work of gospel preaching goes on. It is important for us to see how these early preachers went about the work of proclamation. One vital point concerning their ministry is brought to our attention: "And they went out, and preached that men should repent" (Mark 6:12). It is a useful thing therefore to survey what the Bible has to say about the need of repentance.

An Essential Note in Gospel Preaching

Throughout the New Testament the note of repentance is a dominant one in gospel preaching. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, "did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4). When our Lord began His public ministry it was with these words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15). We have already seen what the apostles preached at the commencement of their commission. The theme of repentance was reinforced by Christ Himself after His resurrection: "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46,47).

We then find this note prominent at Pentecost. The Jews who were gathered at Jerusalem were convicted by the bold preaching of the apostle Peter, and cried out under their sense of guilt, "what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). They were told: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (v.38).

The apostle who was "born out of due time" (1Cor.15:8), Paul the apostle of the Gentiles, summarised his long ministry in Ephesus when taking his leave of the church there, in this way: "testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21).

Lastly we have the ascended Christ preaching from His throne in heaven to the church on earth. To three of the seven churches in Asia - Ephesus, Pergamos and Sardis - the burden of His message was, "Repent!" (Rev.2:5,16; 3:3). The exhortation to repent is not merely good advice; it comes as a command from the living God to all men everywhere (Acts 17:30,31). Repentance is our serious duty. A preacher is a herald making a royal proclamation in the name of the King of kings. He lays a divine obligation upon every one of his hearers, warning them to flee from the wrath which is to come upon the disobedient. "Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek.33:11). We must repent of our sins!

We are bound to say, Is this not a missing note in preaching today? We hear much from evangelical pulpits about the importance of faith and the need to commit our lives to Jesus Christ, but little about mourning over our sins, humbling ourselves before a holy God and seeking His mercy for our souls.

An Essential Feature in Coming to Christ

Repentance is required in becoming a Christian. Like faith it is a saving grace. Why is repentance so important? In many of the texts already quoted a link will be seen between repentance and forgiveness of sin. The Bible constantly connects the two. The result is that no man should expect to be pardoned and accepted by God unless he has truly turned from his iniquities. Peter, one of the twelve apostles, proclaimed to the worshippers at the temple, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19).

Faith and repentance are the two sides of the coin called conversion. They may be separated in our thinking but they must never be separated in our experience. If they are then we have good reason to fear concerning our spiritual state. Faith without repentance is merely intellectual, being seated in the head, not in the heart. We are warned against this sort of faith. "Even so faith, it if hath not works, is dead, being alone" (Jam.2:17). Repentance without faith is merely emotional, affecting the heart but not the head. Again we have a word of warning: "For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (2Cor.7:10). True repentance is a broken, contrite heart; it is a change in the mind and will respecting one's entire life. We are leaving our sins behind and coming to the holy Sovereign who is Lord of all. We must bow to God in our spirit and assume our proper place before Him - in the dust of self-abasement.

Much so-called 'repentance' never truly brings the sinner to God. It comes short of salvation. It is like the repentance of Judas Iscariot, who saw that through his sinful actions Christ was condemned by men and he was condemned by God. He "repented himself" – but then he "hanged himself" (Matt. 27:3,5). He confessed his error to the chief priests and elders but never to the Lord. It was regret for his own folly that moved him rather than regard for God's glory.

Have you thought upon your former ways and turned your feet to God's law like David (Psa.119:59)? Have you turned to the Lord with all your heart, soul and might like Josiah (2Kings 23:25)? This is what God requires of us.

An Essential Feature in Continuing with Christ

Repentance is required daily in our lives as Christians. The believer is called to a life of self-examination, a life of amendment, a life of repentance. This must be so, because sin will remain in our hearts until the day of our death. Only in the next life do we enter into that blessed company of "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb.12:23).

The believer is already in this life living in fellowship with the thrice-holy God. The words spoken by God through Amos come to us as a continual challenge: "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3). Repentance involves our mind being brought into agreement with the holy mind of God as it is revealed in Scripture. We willingly to take God's side against our sinful selves.

We need the continual reproof of the Word of God if we are to avoid falling into sinful habits again. It is good to sit under a ministry which is searching and discriminating, one which seeks to take forth "the precious from the vile" (Jer.15:19). But remember that there is much that is also vile in the Lord's people while they remain in this world. We have our 'chaff', the chaff of our sin which must be separated from the 'wheat' of our grace. We must be winnowed too. God will thoroughly sift His own before He finally takes them into His heavenly garner.

When we do fall into wicked ways we need a heavenly Father's chastisement to correct us and to bring us through repentance to a more obedient walk. "If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail" (Psa.89:30-33). No child of God will come to "a perfect man" (Eph.4:12) apart from God's loving rebukes and the heartfelt repentance which follows.

It was Job, a man renowned for his piety, who had such a profound experience of God's wisdom and power and his own worthlessness and nothingness that he was constrained to say with feeling: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5,6). Have we ever been brought this low before God?

The encouraging truth for believers is that we walk with a Saviour who was once crucified. The mighty hand which holds us and will never let us go contains a nail-print, reminding us of how we were purchased out of our lost and miserable state by the payment of a ransom. The crucifixion of Christ was the satisfaction of divine justice and the provision of divine mercy for poor sinners like us. May that mercy ever meet us as we heed the call to repentance.