The subject of repentance is one of vital importance for our presentation of the gospel, I believe that some of the shallowness in modern Christianity can be linked to a failure to call people to repentance.
When we read the Bible we find that repentance is a major theme and it has been during the revivals of church history. such figures as Calvin, Jonathan Edward,Wesley, Whitfield, Spurgeon and Finney made this an important part of their evangelistic preaching. It is only in recent years that we seem to want to make the Gospel more palatable to the unbeliever, we certainly would not want to portray the picture of God’s judgement against sin too vividly, in fact the emphasis has been on the love of God at the expense of his righteousness. The modern evangelist tells people that Jesus meets their needs, the ancient evangelist showed his hearers why they need Jesus. Their is a world of difference between these two statements and it is that difference that will inform what I have to say. This is not a sudden thought sent out on a whim but rather it is a subject that I have been thinking about and speaking about since 1976. I first articulated my concerns in two lectures given at L’abri Fellowship, the first lecture looked at the theology of Jonathan Edwards, the second one was a lecture called “The relevance of Paul’s ministry in Athens”.
In the New Testament we soon meet the call to repentance in the ministry of John the baptist and then in the ministry of Jesus both of their ministries could be summed up in their call to repentance. This is Matthew’s summary of John the Baptist’s ministry,
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” (Mt 3:1–3).
Matthew has a very similar description of the ministry of Jesus,
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17).
If calling people to repent was a crucial part of the ministry of Jesus surely it should be a crucial part of our ministry. The theme of repentance occurs throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts and we surely need to regain this emphasis. We are too frightened of being seen as negative, we want to be seen as positive people, I would suggest however that the positive blessing of the gospel can only be grasped in the light of what sin is. People only have a very shallow view of God’s grace if they don’t realise their own sinfulness. Even as Christan’s we don’t like at the plight of man closely, we do not become popular by stressing that a life of sin is one of rebellion against God. In a small group I recently said that the essence of sin is our rebellion against God and that unbelievers are rebels against God, this was immediately objected to,this was going to far I was told.
When Jesus sent out the disciples to preach their message was the same as that of Jesus, Mark says,
They went out and preached that people should repent. (Mk 6:12).
Once again we see this call to repentance as a vital part of their ministry, yes they also cast out demons and brought healing to many. But we cannot understand the ministry of Jesus and his disciples unless we grasp this fact, Repentance is central to the message they proclaim. This did not change with the death and resurrection of Jesus as the book of Acts shows us. before we look at the book of Acts we need to see what Jesus said in the Upper room,
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:45–49).
Notice what Jesus said especially the words I have italicised, Jesus emphasised throughout his ministry and in these words to his disciples that repentance is central to the proclamation of the gospel.
In the book of Acts we soon find the call to repentance, Peter preached in such a way that people were convicted of their sins and when they wanted to know what to do Peter said,
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Ac 2:38–41).
Peter was very clear about the sinfulness of his hearers but his call to repentance made it clear that the new believers would receive forgiveness for their sins. We could go on to look at this pattern throughout the book of Acts but I will look at only a few examples. Notice how Peter and the Apostles defended themselves when they were before the Sanhedrin,
9 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Ac 5:29–32).
Once again the call to repentance is seen as central to the gospel message. I want to look at one more example from the book of Acts and this passage shows that the Apostle Paul also emphasised repentance. When Paul was in Athens he challenged the false philosophies and religion of the Athenians and then he said these words,
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Ac 17:30–31).
Paul is quite clear that the clear that the call to repent has the authority of God behind it, this is not a polite suggestion but the command of Almighty God.
We find that the New Testament call to repentance constantly calls man from his sinfulness to a new life in Christ. The early church and Jesus himself demonstrated the awful consequences of sin. In contrast to this today we tend to want to bring people into the kingdom by stressing the love of God but if people don’t see their need of a Saviour they will never embrace the glories of the gospel of grace. Even from a pragmatic angle it could be argued that when sin has been shown to be the cause of our brokenness thousands have flocked into the kingdom. But that would be to demean the whole subject because the real question is, are we being faithful to the Saviour in our presentation of the Gospel if we omit the call to repentance. I believe that if we are to declare the whole counsel of God, we need to get back to the biblical call to repentance.