This is part of a series exploring the interaction of 321 and the four events which more commonly organise an evangelistic presentation. We’ve had
— 321 and Creation
— 321 and Fall
— 321 and Redemption
Now we’ll consider 321 and Repentance.
You’ll notice that I’m not considering Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. More properly those are the four gospel events – all four resting in God’s hands. I’m considering “repentance” rather than “consummation” simply because the evangelistic presentations with which we’re familiar tend to finish with our work not God’s. And perhaps that’s significant! We’ll see.
Today we’ll examine repentance according to 3, 2 and 1. Tomorrow we’ll draw out some implications…
How does 3 shape our understanding of repentance?
Trinity means that God is Giver (see here). Therefore the Fall is a failure to receive from the giving God (see here). What then will repentance involve? Well it can’t involve a summoning up of religious resolve! It can’t be the determination of the sinner to “get serious” and start making up the missed payments. That kind of self-will is virtually the essence of sin!
No, repentance with the triune God means receiving the gift of the Son. The Father has given Christ to the world (John 3:16). The new life is not in us – it’s in Jesus (1 John 5:11). Repentance – the new life we must have – is a gift of the Father, present in the Son, offered by the Spirit (Acts 5:31; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25).
How does 2 shape our understanding of repentance?
Adam cannot repent. Adam can only perish. This is a vital point to grasp and Edward Fisher in The Marrow of Modern Divinity expressed it well in dialogue form:
— I conceive that repentance consists in a man’s humbling himself before God, and sorrowing and grieving for offending him by his sins, and in turning from them all to the Lord.
— And would you have a man to do all this truly before he come to Christ by believing?
— Yea, indeed, I think it is very meet he should.
— Why, then, I tell you truly, you would have him to do that which is impossible.
According to Paul, the unbeliever is dead in transgressions and sins and bound to Satan (Eph 2:1-3). No exercise of moral or religious effort can deliver such a person (Phil 3:1-9). The law, even the law of God, is powerless to save (Rom 3:20; 8:3). And so the unbeliever is sunk in sin and flesh, bound to Satan, under the law’s condemnation, without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12). There is nothing within the unbeliever that will help them. Asking Adam to repent is like asking a corpse to ‘get fit’. There needs to be a new life. But the unbeliever is in no position to summon it.
How does 1 shape our understanding of repentance?
When I married my wife, “single Glen” died. That old existence was put to death in our covenant union. In this sense “old Glen” did not contribute to the marriage, “old Glen” was killed by the marriage. I became new in one-ness with my wife. And this newness was a radical, all-of-life revolution. Nothing remained the same. Every aspect of my life had to be rethought according to my married identity. But I didn’t earn any of this. It was all a gift that came part-and-parcel with the marriage.
In the same way, sinners are offered covenant union with Christ. In this oneness they are killed and given a new existence. Everything is different. Nothing remains untouched by this unbreakable oneness. The sinner does not (and cannot) earn it. But in Jesus there is, suddenly, a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So then, what kind of “repentance” does 321 preach?
Let me break it down into some propositions that I tweeted earlier in the year:
- Adam cannot repent. Adam can only perish.
- True repentance must be done to us (as faith is done to us) since the greatest sin is to imagine that we can ‘do penance.’
- There cannot be impenitent faith (if it’s true faith) or unbelieving repentance (if it’s true repentance).
- Repentance and faith are not two separate stages of salvation. They are two sides of the same coin. But note – this is a coin God gives to us!
- Repentance is given to us because Christ is given to us – and that’s the direction of travel, from Him to us.
- We do not offer repentance to God as our part of the bargain. We’re summoned to repentance in the gospel because this is the life of faith.
And as we offer Christ, we tell the unbeliever exactly what a life of one-ness will look like with Jesus. Just as ‘marriage prep’ unveils the good and the bad of the union on offer, so we prepare people for the radical, total-life-change which Jesus brings. But at the end of the day we offer Christ. And we say as Spurgeon did:
Do not attempt to touch yourself up and make yourself something other than you really are, but come as you are to Him who justifies the ungodly. …The Gospel will receive you into its halls if you come as a sinner, not otherwise. Wait not for reformation, but come at once for salvation. God justifieth the ungodly, and that takes you up where you now are; it meets you in your worst estate. Come in your disorder. I mean, come to your heavenly Father in all your sin and sinfulness. Come to Jesus just as you are: filthy, naked, neither fit to live nor fit to die. Come, you that are the very sweepings of creation; come, though you hardly dare to hope for anything but death. Come, though despair is brooding over you, pressing upon your bosom like a horrible nightmare. Come and ask the Lord to justify another ungodly one. (From “Justification of the Ungodly” by C.H. Spurgeon. A sermon on Romans 4:5 – found in “All of Grace“)
For more on preaching repentance in evangelism, see this paper I wrote a few years ago.
And stay tuned for part two where we’ll tease out some more implications…
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