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In the maze of Christian lingo exists a word that is not used very often today, yet it is foundational to the Christian faith. That word is “repent.” John the Baptist, forerunner to Jesus Christ, first used the word “repent” with his listeners in preparing the way for Jesus Christ by stating (see Matthew 3:2-3):
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he [John the Baptist] who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 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.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Immediately after this scene, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1) where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. The account of his dialogue with the devil at the end of the forty days is found in Matthew 4:1-11. Immediately after this time, John was arrested, and Jesus withdrew into Galilee, living in Capernaum by the sea (v. 12-16), and “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).
Repentance is at the very core of Christianity. Indeed, it is essential.
I was recently in the middle of an email discussion about this very topic with an old friend of mine when he wrote back asking me the following question, “What do you think the word ‘repentance’ means?” I emailed the following answer to him:
I think it [repentance] means that a person, when he or she comes to Jesus Christ, is genuinely sorry for their sins and that they tell him so and that they want him to come into their lives and change them from the inside out, and to learn to live in the ways that he taught us to live. Repent means to turn from sinful ways although nobody is perfect, but genuine repentance leads to change and I firmly believe that as I’ve seen it in my own life, especially after I let go of a spiritual life that was going nowhere and I wasn’t sure why (well, it was stagnant) when I arrived in Houston six years ago to start that job. Call it a “wake up” call, but I started taking my devotional life (don’t mean it to sound religious as it was actually a revival–well, bringing back to life–of my relationship with Jesus Christ to a depth that it had not been in in years) very seriously at that very moment of the “wake up” call and right before my first day of work at the job in Houston. And almost immediately I started to experience a revival in my own life because I was spending time (quality time, sometimes an hour or two depending on how early I got up) reading the Bible and praying. There is so much “crap” out there in the world (especially in America) that can derail Christians even in churches and not just “out there” in society. Without that vital lifeline on a very regular basis we can’t be what he wants us to be because we are too wrapped up in our own “stuff” (careers, family, friends, and everything else). It’s not that those things are not important, but his place should be #1 in our lives and he will direct all of the rest if we truly depend on him, and that requires commitment, discipline, and living (through the power of the Holy Spirit) as he wants us to live.
Can a Christian not do that (beyond repentance as that is vital) and still be saved? Yes, but my question is this why would they want that? Why would a person want to make a commitment that is basically one-sided–all give (what we want from God) and no take (what we are willing to give back). Take education, for example, while I realize after having worked in higher education for over 20 years, that there are some adult students who are just there to get the degree to get a promotion at work and if they could buy it outright without doing any of the coursework, they would in a heartbeat, but what have they learn? How has that made them grow? I’ve had other adult students who, as they took their coursework and over time completed their degree requirements that absolutely blossomed into a new person with a lot more courage and vitality that I’m sure they didn’t expect to get along the way of getting that degree. Now, did both types of adult students stay in to get their degrees? Sure they did, but who got the most out of it and allowed it to truly change their life and world and have a lot more confidence in themselves, too? The second type of student.
That’s the same in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Are there believers who don’t grow? Sure there are–unfortunately, way too many nowadays because of our “inch-deep Christianity” mentality in thinking all we need to say is a little Jesus prayer and we’re “in.” We’ve got heaven so now we can coast. But, weren’t they coasting all along before they said that prayer? So what are they really expecting? A ticket to heaven? A relationship with Jesus Christ is so much more than that, but we live in a culture with so many enticements and little in the way of solid teaching anymore on how to avoid temptation that we cave in all the time, whether it’s gossip, or eating too much, or sex outside of marriage (and many folks just laugh at that one nowadays), etc. Well, I don’t want to make a list but I’m sure you know what I mean.
Because I believed in Jesus Christ at a very young age (10), I’ve seen the church change in significant ways (as you and many others in our age bracket have experienced, too). Some changes have been good, and some not so good. I grew up in a somewhat legalistic church but I have to tell you the bent on how far it went depended on who the senior pastor happened to be. Yeah, there is a lot of legalism out there with a set of rules for everyone to follow, and of course there is the other extreme where anything goes (in the what I call the “wildly” charismatic churches, but there are also some very sound charismatic churches). Over time, I had to learn on my own that my relationship with Jesus Christ was up to me if I wanted it to grow. Sometimes that was available by way of really solid Bible teaching classes that churches have, etc, and sometimes not so much. Everybody has their quirks so what I learned from all of that was that, bottom line, it’s my responsibility to grow in my relationship with Jesus Christ. He doesn’t force that on anyone but what’s the point of having a relationship if we expect it to be all one-sided. And I’m not talking about a “works-based” relationship, either. Too many folks get that confused with salvation and it has nothing to do with that. But if we truly love someone, don’t we usually want to please them and not just ourselves? Don’t we want to give and not just take, take, take?
Have I faltered? Of course I have. I’d say most of my 30’s were spent working, finishing my bachelor’s degree and then finishing a master’s degree (while working all the time) and when I hit 40, I moved to Fort Lauderdale as I had been awarded that one-year doctoral fellowship at Nova Southeastern University. Is there anything wrong with all of that? Absolutely not, but what was wrong was that I let my relationship with Jesus Christ slide into the background. That doesn’t mean I didn’t pray and I still very much felt like I depended on him for everything, but I did very little on my side to maintain the relationship. But I wanted him to be there when I needed him. Lots of folks get into that rut and don’t even realize it’s a rut. I think there are times, if we truly belong to Him, that he gives us a “wake up” call to see if we’ll “get it.” The last time he did that for me was when I arrived in Houston six years ago to start that ill-fated job. And I have to say the timing was absolutely perfect as if I had not done that, I would not have survived as successfully as I have (day by day by day) for these past six years.
Yeah, I know my life doesn’t look very successful right now, but that’s because our definition of success is very skewed in America. Success means great career, storybook marriage, well mannered kids, lots of money and material possessions, climbing a social latter and knowing “who’s who” and maybe even being one of them. That kind of success has nothing to due with genuine Christianity, not that it might not be a part of a Christian’s life, but it’s who or what we place in “1st place” in our lives that determines the direction of our spiritual lives. If Jesus Christ isn’t 1st, then our relationship with him will suffer in ways I can’t help but think at the end of our lives we will regret. But that notwithstanding (not trying to lay a guilt trip by saying that), if we truly love him and put him in 1st place (and NOT be fooled by all the outward trappings of society’s version of success), he will use us in whatever way he chooses to accomplish the greatest mission statement around as stated in 2 Peter 3:9, and he will use us to accomplish that task in an amazing variety of ways that he gives to each one of us and that is unique to us (e.g., on an individual basis). Now that is worth living for–far more then all the temporary stuff that is here today and gone tomorrow.
Many understand the term repentance to mean “turning from sin.” This is not the biblical definition of repentance. In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14; Acts 3:19). Acts 26:20 declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action (quote source and article here).
“Turning away from sin” is how I have always understood repentance; however, the above statement provides a fuller explanation of what it means. I like that idea of “changing one’s mind” which results in “changing one’s actions.” It is a “turning from” something (e.g. sinful behavior) and “turning to” God through Jesus Christ that will result in a change of actions. However, repentance is not “works” based. So many Christians get “works” confused with salvation; however that is a topic for another time (click here for an excellent definition of “works-based salvation.”
Repentance requires action; it is a heart attitude; a “turning from” to “turning to” as explained above. It requires faith, and everyone has been given a “measure of faith” (see Romans 12:3). Martin Luther described faith as follows (source: Ligioner Ministries)
Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.
Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith (quote source here).
So what is repentance if we can’t do it? The answer, of course, is that it is a miracle. But it is not a miracle in which we are passive. Most of the supernatural healings of the New Testament involved the person who was sick attempting to do what was impossible in response to a command. This was the response of faith.
A good example would be the man with the withered hand who stretched it out to Jesus. Was the healing before or after he stretched it? It could not have been after, but equally could not have preceded faith. They were actually simultaneous—as he began to exercise faith by beginning the attempt to move the arm, so miraculously he was enabled to do so.
This helps us to understand how salvation works. We call on someone “dead in trespasses and sins” to repent, and the gift of faith and repentance come simultaneous with their response, giving them both the desire and the power to turn from their old lifestyle and follow Christ.
Spiritual healing works the same way as the physical. Jesus called Zacchaeus to faith, he responded immediately in repentance, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold”, and Jesus’ reply was “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9).
Nobody can ever claim that they can’t repent because they lack the power, because God will always supply it. He says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you two-minded.” (James 4:8).
So the answer is no, repentance is not a meritorious work in any sense. It is simply a turning away from our old direction as we turn to Christ. It is the other side of the coin of faith, inseparable from it. Nevertheless, just as it is true with faith, so it is equally true that repentance without works is dead (quote source here).
I’m glad my friend asked me that question about repentance that started me down that road of understanding the meaning of it this morning. As Christians, we sometimes have the mistaken idea that once we’ve turned our lives over to Jesus Christ that our lives are on “automatic pilot,” and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we have actually entered a “war zone” that requires diligence on our part (see Eph. 6:10-20). There is no “coasting along” in the Christian life. Just “coasting along” will actually take us out of the running.
Perhaps someone reading this post has felt much like I did when I landed in Houston six years ago–like my spiritual life was on hold or stagnant and I didn’t know why. God is still very much there, and maybe he’s trying to get your attention, like he did with me. He can do it right now, and here’s the key . . .
Repent . . .
For the kingdom of heaven is at hand . . . .
YouTube Video: “I Repent” by Steve Green:
At the beginning of Jesus Christ’s public ministry, Matthew 4:17 states, “ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In the two thousand years that have followed since that time, that message has never changed. In fact, in the very last book of the Bible, the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, which speaks of the end times, he stated at the beginning of the book in a message given to the seven churches at that time (see Revelation 2-3) in Rev. 3:19-20, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” And those words are for the Church at large, too, down through the ages and to all believers in Jesus Christ.
In between those two statements are those of us who profess to be believers in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in today’s society we have soft-peddled that message to the point of being so lukewarm that nobody takes seriously the need to repent of anything. A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) made an insightful comment on our “easy-believism” culture today. A short article titled “Evangelism: Modern Salesmanship” by Tozer is available at this link. Also, “rebuke” and “discipline” aren’t even in our vocabulary. And we say, “That can’t be true, right? We can do anything we want as long as we’ve said a ‘Jesus’ prayer that clears the way.”
So what do you suppose the Christians living in Iraq and Syria right now did to find themselves in the situation they are currently in? How about the Christians living in China and all the other places on our planet where Christians are severely persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ? If the Americanized version of Christianity is true, why isn’t it true for them, too? Why aren’t they living “the good life” we’ve been sold here in America instead of going through severe persecution which many times includes horrible atrocities and death? It’s because Jesus never preached “the good life” version that we far too frequently hear in America. It’s not about what we can get here and now on this earth. Eternity is forever, not this earth.
Jesus said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” How much do we really know about what Jesus said, and not just from folks we listen to or by reading their bestsellers telling us what they think he said or meant. I’m not implying that some of those authors and books aren’t good, but discernment is sorely lacking in our culture today, and there’s a lot of crap being published, too. If we aren’t reading the Bible as our one true source for what Jesus has to say about knowing and following after him, second hand information even from a very popular source is not going to cut it. If we want to really know who Jesus Christ is and what he requires of us to follow after him, we must read the Bible on a regular basis and pray, believing that he will show us the way.
And he never said it would be easy. Or selfish. Or only looking out for ourselves.
Unfortunately, a lot of folks seem to be saying, preaching, and writing to sell us on “the good life” message nowadays. And they often say we can do it in ten easy steps. Or is it five now? Maybe it’s down to only one. And that message is as old as the serpent’s message was to Eve in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3). “You can be like God,” he said (Gen. 3:4-5). And she believed him, and Adam followed (Gen. 3:6). And down through the ages we have followed it, too. It’s called, “the easy way out.” And it the oldest lie on the planet–“Do whatever you want to do and get heaven, too.” And it’s from the pit of hell.
That message won’t save anybody, and it doesn’t change in any way Jesus’ original message. So who are we going to believe? All those folks who peddle an easy type of Christianity? Or Jesus Christ? Our lives and how we live them point clearly to who (or what) we believe in, and it’s often not Jesus although we are sure good at disguising it (or at least we think we are, but the rest of the world is not so easily fooled).
Back on October 24, 2013, I wrote a blog post titled, “Because the Time is Near.” In that post is a brief description of the seven churches addressed at the beginning of the book of Revelation (Chapters 2-3). Those seven churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, and they are descriptions of not only literal churches that existed back then, but also types of individuals/churches throughout history right on up through today. Here is a brief description of those churches from “Got Questions?org”:
The seven churches described in Revelation 2-3 are seven literal churches at the time that John the apostle was writing Revelation. Though they were literal churches in that time, there is also spiritual significance for churches and believers today. The first purpose of the letters was to communicate with the literal churches and meet their needs at that time. The second purpose is to reveal seven different types of individuals/ churches throughout history and instruct them in God’s truth.
A possible third purpose is to use the seven churches to foreshadow seven different periods in the history of the Church. The problem with this view is that each of the seven churches describes issues that could fit the Church in any time in its history. So, although there may be some truth to the seven churches representing seven eras, there is far too much speculation in this regard. Our focus should be on what message God is giving us through the seven churches. The seven churches are:
We (believers) can all find ourselves somewhere in that list. We need to take seriously the word of Jesus Christ and we need to, as Jesus stated, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Don’t just swallow the lies that are so prevalent on our society without at least investigating the truth. And we can only find that truth in the Bible and by seeking God’s face. Not man’s face, but God’s face.
After the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 is Revelation 4, a picture of the Throne in Heaven with Jesus Christ seated on it. This picture is given to us by the apostle John, who was given this entire book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ in a vision to write down for all of us. Let’s read it:
After this I [John] looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
Stop for a few minutes and really contemplate the picture that John paints for us–Jesus seated on the Throne in Heaven. That’s where he is right now, at the right hand of God. All
powerful, all knowing, worthy to be praised. Holy, holy. holy.
What follows after Chapter 4 is a picture of the seven-year Tribulation period (the last 3 1/2 years of this period are known as the Great Tribulation), a time Jesus described in his last days discourse in Matthew 24 as follows, “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21). In Matthew 24:3, Jesus disciples asked him, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And in Matthew 24:4-14:
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Read that second paragraph again. This is already happening to Christians in Iraq, Syria, China, Egypt, and all over our planet on a mass scale now. To think that it won’t come to our own shores here in America is a grave misunderstanding on our part. It is already happening as evidence of the clear and rapid changes going on in our culture right now. Jesus clearly stated to his disciples in John 15:18-25:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’
We (believers) can’t afford to just coast in neutral and look for “the good life” here and now. Real Christianity has never been about seeking after “the good life” or any life apart from Jesus Christ. We can’t afford to miss the boat because we are heading in the wrong direction. Read the three parables immediately following Jesus’ last days discourse (Matthew 24) in Matthew 25. We can–way too easily–be asleep at the switch here in America as there is so much in our culture today that pulls us away from the only secure place we have–our faith and relationship in Jesus Christ.
I’ll end this post with words from the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:1-20:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us “be very careful how we live–not unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” and the time is growing short, too. And let us remember on a daily basis Who it is we really serve . . .
Holy, holy, holy . . .
Is the Lord God Almighty . . .
Who was, and is, and is to come . . . .
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!
I’m including two YouTube Videos below that are relevant to the message above. Let’s move on from the winding road of indecision/lack of commitment in the first song to the Solid Rock in the second song. If we say we are going to follow His lead, then we need to follow it and stop making excuses. And we can find it in the pages of the Bible, so let’s start there.
YouTube Video: “Revelation” by Third Day:
YouTube Video: “Revelation Song” by Phillips, Craig and Dean: