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Posts Tagged ‘repentance’

This post is continued from here.

I’ve been pleased that, in the last month, the 321 video has been shared so widely.  It’s meant that I’ve been able to interact online with a handful of people who have raised questions about the presentation.  I’d say the reservation people have had is this: “Where’s repentance?”  In fact it’s pretty much the only objection I’ve heard so far.

I was bracing myself for Trinitarian discussions. I was gearing up to present robust defences of Adam’s historicity.  None of that has come up.  Yet.

But a good 8 or 10 times someone has said “This is a deficient gospel because there’s no summons to repent.”

There are a number of ways to respond to this.  One is simply to say “This is only a 5 minute summary.  You can’t say everything.”

Another is to say “the word ‘repent’ is not magic.  John’s Gospel, for one, gets along fine without it.”

Another is to say: “Repentance is not, properly speaking, a part of the good news.  The good news is the announcement of Jesus – His dying, rising, enthronement and return.  The gospel is not about us, it’s about Him.  Repentance is the response to the good news.”

Those things are true and they need saying at some point.  But in most cases I’ve responded with a question of my own.  Roughly speaking I’ve asked “Since 321 presents humanity as lost in Adam with no spiritual life in ourselves and no ability to produce life… and since the new life is presented as coming entirely from beyond us in Jesus… and since the new life of Jesus is presented as an all-embracing, marriage-like oneness with Jesus… what does the command to “be one with Jesus” lack which using the word “repent” would add?”

I’ve asked that kind of question many times but I’ve not yet received an answer.  So let me ask it more generally…

If we proclaim the renunciation of self in Adam and the receiving of new life in Christ, what more do we want in our definition of repentance?

I know that no-one in these discussions wants to question salvation by “faith alone.” But I do fear that – in wanting something more – ‘faith alone’ is exactly what’s in jeopardy.

In some evangelistic presentations I see a desire to present salvation as a discrete series of steps.  There tend to be a sling of synonyms made into stages.  The unbeliever is told to confess and profess and turn and surrender and trust and repent and submit and admit and believe and commit and do.  It’s not the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.  It’s more stream-lined than that.  And it’s about internal, mental hoops to jump through.  But still, so often it’s a system we offer to people rather than the simplicity of offering the Son.

Have you ever heard a “close the deal” evangelistic talk in which Jesus Himself is not presented or offered? Perhaps the preacher has simply piled up illustration upon illustration – “There’s a line… cross the line.  Jesus has given you a cheque… bank the cheque.  In the Matrix there’s a red pill and a blue pill… which pill will you take?” What might begin as a call to “simply trust Jesus” becomes an exhortation to adopt this attitude or that, this resolution or that, and then…  Well the thing is, when repentance is this discrete thing then the sinner who repents is only really left with their discrete repentance.  They’ve “made the step”, or whatever, but they’re in great danger of leaving the meeting with a resolution not a redeemer.

All of which is to say – Offer Christ.  The new life is in Him.  And if a non-Christian hears this offer and says “I’m not sure I have it in me to repent”, tell them:

“You definitely don’t have it in you. But God has given it to you in Jesus. Have Him!”

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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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The Good News of Repentance

True or False: The world likes to hear about forgiveness but it hates talk of repentance.

It’s Guff.  Bunkum.  Garbage.  Balderdash.

The world loves repentance (and it hates forgiveness, but I don’t have time for that post)…

If you don’t believe me, go to your newsagents and open your eyes.  What will you see?

“Wage war on fat.”  “11 carbs you should eat.”  “Improve your game.” “De-clutter your life.”  “Be the You you always wanted.”  “New Year, New You.”

We love, love, love repentance.  The problem is, we’re not very good at it.  We can’t be new.  Lord knows we’ve tried.  If only someone could give us a true repentance!!  If only there really was a Me for me to be.  But I can’t seem to get to that me!

GOOD NEWS PEOPLE!  Christ has risen from the dead into a whole new world – a world beyond sin and selfishness, beyond death and judgement, beyond your every flesh-bound limitation.  And He offers it to you.  Now, as a gift, you can have a properly new you!  Rejoice!

Repentance is not the price to pay for all that nice salvation stuff.  Repentance is your new re-oriented life, liberated from slaveries to self-justification and self-service.  It’s not the heavy cost you must bear for your freedom.  In a deep sense it is your freedom.  And it’s given to you in Jesus.

Of course you must embrace this gift.  But that’s not the down-side that needs outweighing by salvation’s benefits.  It’s part and parcel of our new life.  So embrace the good news of repentance!

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Waking at 5 this morning, I head for Eastbourne’s seafront. Andy and I are filming some evangelistic videos and we wanted to shoot a timelapse sequence of sunrise.

We get there in plenty of time and point the camera East. It’s dark but in the frame you can see the pier and across the gloomy water is Hastings.

Andy pushes on to another job leaving me to take photos at 30 second intervals. It’s cold but invigorating, the sky is clear, the sea is still. Light is dawning and I’m praising God for the scenery when all of a sudden a golden ball of fire rises up out of the ocean… completely out of shot. In fact we were about 45 degrees out. Quite a mistake.

But here’s the thing, I watched the light of the world rise ‘in the wrong place’ and for about 5 seconds, maybe longer, I entertained the thought: “Maybe that’s not the sun.”

Hoping against hope that we’d framed things right, I was even prepared to think ‘Perhaps that orange light emerging from the sea is something else.’ I couldn’t imagine what, but maybe, just maybe, there was some coincidence at play here. This giant orb of light was a diversion. Surely the ‘real’ sun would rise in its ‘proper’ place. And this impostor would be revealed as a counterfeit.

Soon enough the orange fireball rose clear of the ocean and I had to admit: We got it wrong! So I sighed and swivelled the camera around to the right.

It’s scary how committed we are to maintaining our ‘frames’! I suppose we need to take a long hard look at the Light of the World, realise what’s most obviously true, and re-frame our vision to fit.

The Bible calls it repentance – it’s literally ‘a change of mind’. It’s being convinced of the glory of Christ and swivelling around your frame so that He’s at the centre.

The Light has dawned, the Kingdom has come, repent and believe the good news. (Mark 1:15)

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From Spurgeon’s book: All of Grace

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.

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And here’s a paper I wrote on how to preach evangelistically to sinners without demanding repentance first.

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…The younger brother came to himself and said, ‘My dad’s an old softy.  I reckon if I returned looking all dirty and sorrowful he’d bail me out.  Worth a try anyway.’ he reasoned.

And so he rose and made the journey back to his father rehearsing his sorry-speech along the way.

‘Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don’t deserve anything from you.  You’d be well within your rights to shun me forever.  But, father, my father,  I’m throwing myself on your mercy, a poor stinking wretch.  But I know you’re a good dad – will you help me out?’

By the time he got to his father’s house his speech was pitch-perfect.  He rang the door-bell and waited.

Eventually he heard his father’s shuffling steps, then the locks turning in the door, one after the other – four in all.  At last it creaked open a crack and the old man squinted up at his son.

Ahem.  ‘Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don’t deserve anything…’ began the prodigal.

The father’s look began to thaw.  From frowning, to shocked recognition and then he softened.  The speech was good.  Perhaps the best yet.  By the end the old man couldn’t help but blurt out,

‘Ah my son!  You certainly know how to tug at my heart strings.  What can I do for you?’

The son took a moment to congratulate himself on another triumph.

‘Well, father,’ he said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. ‘Wild living ain’t cheap!  And Lord knows how I’m going to afford my ticket back to the far country…’

‘Back?  You want to go back?’ asked the father, his face falling.

‘Well just for now.  Unfinished business you see.  But I’m definitely planning on returning…’

‘…Because, son, you know there’s always room for you here…’

‘Yes, sure. Absolutely dad.  And I’ll definitely be returning.  Probably quite often.  But there’s things I need to do and, well, I need your help.’

‘How much?’

The prodigal couldn’t suppress a guilty smile.  He’d been found out.

‘Well dad, there’s the ticket.  Then I need the deposit on a new place.  I’ve found the perfect pad – downtown, the ladies love it.  But that’s another thing,’ he said chuckling, ‘they sure are expensive those women!’

‘How much?’ he asked again.

‘It’s hard to put a figure you know dad, it could be anything.’

They looked at each other for a full minute.  The father broke the silence.

‘Blank cheque then?’

‘Blank cheque would be great!  Yeah thanks.  Phew.  You’re a real life-saver dad.  Wow.  I’d hug you, but I’m a bit smelly from the pigs.  Speaking of which, do you have any food?  Ham sandwich maybe?’

‘Ham sandwich??  Look, come inside.  I’ll kill the fattened calf.  Tonight we’ll feast!’

‘Gosh, dad.  That’s sweet but I really don’t have time.  Listen, I’ll just grab something from drive thru.  The cheque’s fine.  And, now that I think of it, don’t make it out to the family name.  I’ve changed it.  Yeah, too many people were associating me with you and… well.  You know…’

Within five minutes the younger son was heading back down the drive.  He spotted his brother in the field and, holding the cheque aloft, called out.  “Ciao bro’!  Enjoy the slaving!”

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I was once in a preaching seminar with 15 other young guns.  We were being taught by someone you might call a living legend.  One session I remember was on how to preach Romans 3:21-30.  The point came when the living legend asked us what we thought the application should be.  Now aside from my various misgivings about application I reasoned to myself that if an application was there in the passage it was probably worth flagging up.  I looked down and sure enough I saw what I thought was a pretty clear “”application”” of Paul’s teaching:

Where then is boasting?  It is excluded. (v27)

So I stuck up my hand and suggested that the application might be humility.  More particularly it seemed that, since Christ had taken the work of salvation entirely into His own hands (and out of ours), we ought gladly to shut up about ourselves, our morality, etc etc.

“Wrong!” said the legend.  “The application should be ‘Repent!'”

“Oh”, I said. “Why?”

I immediately regretted asking ‘why.’  Dagnammit we’re evangelicals, we’re supposed to preach repentance, it’s union rules.  Besides, I don’t want to appear soft in front of the 15 other young guns and this living legend!  The legend was more than a little irked by my question and replied: “Because, dear boy, verse 23 says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Sin is the problem, therefore I would have thought that repentance would be a very good idea!!”

You might be surprised to learn that I didn’t answer back to this one.  Oh I wanted to.  But judging by the alarm in the legend’s voice and the mood of the room it felt wise not to imperil my standing any further among such sound folk.

But sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if I’d said what I really thought.  The fantasy goes something like this:

I stand slowly, deliberately, with all the solemnity of the lone prophet.  All eyes are upon me as I bellow with righteous ardour:

“Sin is not the problem!   S i n   i s   n o t   t h e   p r o b l e m !!!

All hell breaks loose.  Outrage.  Pained howls.  Torn garments.  Hurled stones.  I stand immovable.

“… Sin is not the problem… God’s wrath at sin is the problem!  No… better… God’s wrath at us in our sin – that’s the problem!”

At once they are felled by Truth as by lightning.  Cut to the heart, the stones drop to the floor first, then the men.  One by one they slump to the ground, the hand of the LORD heavy upon them.  In breathless awe they ask: “Brave herald, what is this teaching you bring us?  It resounds from the very heights of Zion against our presumption and folly.”

Sporting a fresh cut across my chiselled jawline, I am otherwise unruffled.  Ever magnanimous I continue:

“Dear friends” (the dust in the air has now leant a husky tone to my rich, commanding voice). “Dear friends, let us not define our predicament so anthropocentrically.”

I leave this dread word hanging in the air.  The mere mention of ‘anthropocentric’ elicits groans from the already contrite gathering.  Here was their shibboleth used against them.  It stung.

“I commend you friends…”  They look up nervously – could there yet be grace for them?  “…While many have merely scratched the itch of the modern age, you have refused to pander to felt needs. You have proclaimed the problem of sin and for this I commend you.”

I pause.  “And yet… and yet… you have defined the problem so poorly, so slightly.  You have defined the problem from below.  If we define the problem as something lying in our hands then aren’t we at least suggesting that the solution is in our hands?  But in fact the problem is above us – just as the solution is.  The problem is not fundamentally our sin, the problem is the Lord’s wrath upon us.”

“What’s the difference?!” cries out one of the younger preachers, “Our sin, God’s wrath, it’s all the same…”  He is hushed by the legend who slowly shakes his head.  It is clear now how wrong he has been.

He stands, still shaking his head, unable to look at me or the others.  Eventually he speaks, “Glen’s right. He’s always been right!”  The great one looks like he’s been hung from the ceiling on meat hooks.  He exclaims,

“You must understand…  We faced such terrible dangers in preaching.  We still face such dangers.  I wanted, we all wanted, to resist the me-centred pulpit.  I was so sick of hearing about ‘filling the Jesus-shaped hole in your life’.  I couldn’t stand the invitations to ‘let Jesus into the passenger seat of your life’.  I wanted people to turn.  I still want people to turn.”

I put a re-assuring hand on his shoulder. He meets my eye for the first time and continues.  “I just thought, if we can show them that ‘fulfilment’ isn’t the issue – that sin is the issue, well then maybe they’d come to their senses.  Maybe they’d see their errors and turn from them.”

I give a look to the legend, he nods, “I know, I know, that’s the problem.”

“What’s the problem?” asks one of the young guns.

The legend sighs deeply and turns to the others.  “It puts the focus on us.  If we just preach sin and repentance the whole focus is on us.”

“It’s anthropocentric” mutters a young gun, latching onto his favourite word.  He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed his firm grasp of the issues.

“I don’t get it” another pipes up, “I thought sin and repentance was God-centred preaching?  Isn’t that what you taught us??”

The legend is speechless.  I break the silence.  Crouching down to their level, I ask, “If we simply preach sin and repentance how exactly is God at the centre?  He may well be over and above our conceptions of sin and repentance – but how is He in the middle?  In such a sermon isn’t God actually on the periphery?  He’s hardly the principal Actor!”

At this stage the one who muttered ‘anthropocentric’ is nodding in the way failed quiz-show contestants nod when they’re told the right answer.

I go on, “It’s like our passage from Romans 3.  Sin is certainly there!  Sin is certainly a problem.  I mean we’ve been told from verse 9 that all are under sin.  And we’ve been told in verse 20 that observing the law will never get us out from under this condition.  But given that this is the case, wouldn’t it be strange if Paul then told us that ‘repentance’ was this new work – better than the old Mosaic works?  Actually Paul doesn’t mention any of our works in this passage, not our obedience, not our repentance.  No, what does Paul point us to?  Verse 25, the blood of Jesus – a propitiation for our sins.  Now we all know what propitiation means right?”

Young noddy blurts out “A sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath!!”  I gesture with my hands to calm him.

“Ok, yes. Well done.  It turns away God’s wrath.  Because that’s the real problem.  The problem is, chapter 1 verse 18, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against us.  It will culminate in, chapter 2 verse 5, a day of wrath.  And Paul is at pains to say we all deserve it, we are all unrighteous and there’s nothing moral and nothing religious we can do to turn aside this wrath.  We are helpless.  BUT, a righteousness beyond us has come.  And He is the sacrifice who turns away God’s wrath.  Through His redemption we are justified freely.  That’s the gospel.  That’s what we preach.  And who is at the centre of this story?  Not us.  Him.”

“So we shouldn’t preach sin and repentance?” asks another.

“Of course we should.  But those are comprehended within a much more profound perspective.  Wrath and redemption are the deeper truths.  You know I’ll bet that all the sermons you hear are about committed sin and sanctification?  You know the kind.  ‘God says: Don’t do X, we all do it, let’s ask His help to stop.’  Where are the sermons that major on original sin and justification?  Why don’t we plunge them to the depths and then take them to the heights?  Why all this middle of the road stuff that puts us at the centre?”

A couple of young guns knowingly mouth ‘anthropocentric’ to one another.

I continue “Take Islam.  It’s a classic religion of repentance.  God remains far above, it’s down to us to clean up our act.  In fact all human religion is man justifying man before a watching god.  But the Gospel is God justifying God before a watching humanity.  He takes centre-stage and we need to move off into the audience to watch Him work salvation for us.  Christianity is not a religion of repentance, it’s a religion of redemption.  And that’s quite a difference don’t you see?”

As I speak, the young guns have been picking themselves off the floor one by one.  The room has been won to the side of Truth.  I look upon them with fatherly benevolence.

“So my friends – now that you know these things: What would be a good application of Romans 3?”

In unison they reply “Humility!”  And for a moment all is right with the world.

Until the harmony is shattered.  One of the young guns speaks up:

“Hey, if humility is so important, how come you’re so proud?”

The mood of the room takes a decisive turn.  Another piles in “And how come you’ve been dreaming us up for the last 10 minutes to feed your ego.”

Here’s where the fantasy turns pretty nasty.

“What kind of egotist spends his time winning theological debates in his head??”

“Yeah, debates he never actually won in the real world!”

“I think I know ‘Where then is boasting?’ – he’s standing in the middle of the room!!”

At this point the fantasy is basically unsalvagable.  So then, I hate to do it, but sometimes you just have to pull rank.

“Quiet all of you!  This is my fantasy.  Either you submit adoringly to my theological genius or get out now.”

Faced with those options they instantly choose non-existence.  One by one they vanish, though somehow their looks of betrayal and disgust seem to linger on.

“You’ll be back” I say to the departed phantasms.  “Pretty soon I’ll need to feel right about something else and you’ll be right back in my imagination, bowing to my unquestioned brilliance.

“Ha!” I say.  The laughter echoes around my empty head.

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