If there should ever come a time that can truthfully be described as the “post-Christian” era, the reason for it will be that the Church no longer considers valid the things that are basic to Christianity. This trend already exists, so much so that the Church’s emphases are largely on peripheral matters. Like the Pharisees of old, we spend our time washing the outside of the cup while we pay little attention to the inside—sin in the human heart and God’s provision for its cleansing.
Why is “repentance” a lost word in modern theological jargon?
The first reason is that the nature of sin and its offense against a holy God are played down. Excuses for man’s behavior are given in philosophical and psychological terms that completely evade man’s responsibility to God. Our parents, our environment, our physical condition are blamed for what we do, and many who presume to right men’s ills deny or ignore the basic cause of those ills. Our Lord spoke of the religious leaders of his day as “blind leaders of the blind,” and these certainly have their counterparts today. This is harsh language, but it needs to be spoken, for we are convinced that much that goes under the name “Christianity” in our time has not the remotest relation to Christ and his redeeming work.
Repentance, the very gateway to man’s salvation, is rarely mentioned today. Man in his blindness and self-righteousness does not know that he is a sinner in God’s sight, that the effect of that sin is spiritual death, and that God was so concerned about sin that he took the one step by which sin might be cleansed—the death of his Son.
We need to stop and to realize that in the Gospel there are two imperatives: first, God had no way to redeem men other than by the sacrifice of his Son; and, second, man has no other way than to believe and accept what God has done for him.
Those who have had to deal with alcoholics or drug addicts know that first the addict must have a sense of need and of his own helplessness before the process of healing can begin.
But we, in our wordly wisdom and sophistication, have all but eliminated from our Christian vocabulary and preaching any realization of the lostness of man and of his own inability to do anything about it.
Repentance is sorrow for having done something wrong. It is an admission of sinfulness and of its offense against a God too pure to behold evil. It is the realization that against sin there abides the anger of a holy God, an anger that no longer exists where repentance and cleansing have taken place.
David, guilty of adultery and murder, cried out to God: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” He recognized that basic to all was his offense against the Holy One of Israel.
Job, convicted of his self-righteousness as he became aware of God’s holy presence, cried out: “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).
The New Testament carries the theme of repentance from the ministry of John the Baptist down to the Revelation.
John called on men to repent. Our Lord, did the same. This was the message of the disciples and of the apostles as the early Church came into being, and an emphasis in John’s vision on Patmos.
One day men came to Jesus and told him of Pilate’s killing some Galileans and mingling their blood with their sacrifices. Our Lord’s reply was: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2, 3). In like manner, in speaking of a local disaster that had taken the lives of eighteen people, he said: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
Repentance is more than an attitude of mind; it is a reaction of the will against sin. And true repentance carries with it not only a sense of sin against God but the prayer and determination to turn, by God’s grace, away from that sin.
It is easy to be “repentant” for something we have done when we get in trouble as a consequence, but that is not true repentance. Judas “repented” and then event out and committed suicide. We have known many people truly sorry for the consequences of sin, but that is not repentance.
What God requires is contrition for our sins, for he is holy, and fellowship with him has been broken. Paul makes this plain: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
The relevance of repentance to man’s forgiveness by God must be understood, for the two are inexorably linked together. Man repents, God forgives. Our Lord indicates this in his explanation of the gospel message to his disciples: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name …” (Luke 24:47).
We are prone to presume on the love and mercy of God. We trust in grace and ignore his holiness. Paul says: “Or despiseth thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).
The writer has seen thousands of cases of leprosy. One type attacks the nerves so that local anesthesia results. The unfortunate victims of this often burn themselves because there is no sense of pain. Just so, one of the major problems in every generation is the lack of a sense of sin. As a result, spiritual anesthesia leads men to go on blithely in sin; and those who should warn them seem equally impervious to any conviction of offense.
Christ was unsparing in his denunciation of those who heard and did not repent, telling the people in the cities where so many of his mighty works were done that in the day of judgment it would be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.
Why has “repentance” become almost obsolete in theological vocabularies? This has not happened in a day, but as religious leaders have turned more and more from biblical concepts and terminology an entirely new philosophy has emerged. Sin is explained as something other than an offense against a holy God. Salvation is not something offered but something man already has—a universal condition.
Why repent for sins for which one is not responsible? Little wonder that the atoning blood of the Son of God shed on Calvary is “spurned” and “profaned” and the Spirit of grace is outraged!
Nowhere is the Church failing more in her God-ordained ministry than in neglecting to preach repentance for sin.
In the medical realm, a physician who denied or minimized the reality of cancer or questioned the necessity for early treatment would be called a charlatan.
Where the eternal destiny of man is at stake, shall the vital place of godly repentance be neglected in making the Gospel “relevant”?
Just that is happening.
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