There was a man who attended our services off and on for a couple years, but who finally had enough and left. He had strange opinions about a great many things, most of which were conjured up in his own head. I say that because it was nearly impossible to reason with him. He didn’t listen to any respected pastors, and he apparently didn’t read the classic works on theology or the Bible. He didn’t appear to be the follower of any man. So today he has chained his wife and children to his feet and has formed a “church” in his own home.
One of the last differences between us revolves around “repentance.” He adamantly condemns the modern preaching of repentance. If he had the courage, I’m sure he would have withstood John the Baptist and even Christ Jesus – both of whom said things like, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I think the man’s problem revolves around his own distorted definition of the word. He seems to confuse the Roman Catholic doctrine of “penance” with the Biblical doctrine of repentance. He also confuses “penitence” with repentance. “Penitence” involves the things people do, in penance, when they feel guilty about something. And “penance” is one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church in which when those folk make confession, they are absolved from the sins which they have committed after baptism. Without doubt, Christ, John, the apostles and God’s later evangelists were not thinking of “penance” or “penitence” when they used the word “repentance.”
Here in Matthew 3 the ministry of the Lord Jesus was about to begin. But first there was a forerunner, a one man vanguard, an usher in a dark world with a spiritual flash light in his hand. As we shall see, it was John’s divine commission to prepare the way of the Lord and to encourage others to prepare themselves. The angels and the star had done their work thirty years earlier, and it was soon to be John’s turn to point toward the Son of God, declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” But in the mean time, his task was to make straight a pathway for our God – our Saviour. Which, by the way, is an indirect proof of the deity of Christ Jesus – God, Saviour; God, Saviour.
If you were asked to characterize or summarize John’s ministry, how would you do it? I’m sure that he preached about many things – specific things – doctrinal things – expositional messages. But when Matthew was led of the Spirit to summarize his ministry he wrote of only two points – First, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And in relation to that – John’s message was – “get ready through repentance.”
Once again, I take up an old, old theme. “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If that message was good enough for the man whom the Lord Jesus described as … “among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist…” then it ought to be good enough for the rest of us. It has been the theme of every true preacher of the gospel, including the Lord Jesus. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Repentance was the theme of Enoch and Noah in the very early days, and of Isaiah and Jeremiah later. It was the message of Peter, James, John and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. The greatest preachers since close of the New Testament have all demanded repentance before God.
Sadly, if those men heard much of the most common preaching today, they’d be checking their GPS to see what planet they were on. Imagine Noah standing on the bow of the ark, shouting “Jesus loves you.” Picture Jeremiah promoting his new book “I’m OK; you’re OK” just before they threw him into the pit. And how about Jonah entering the gates of Ninevah declaring, “Smile, God loves you! He has a wonderful plan for your life.” During the Tribulation when earthquakes, tsunami’s and falling rocks are crashing down on the wicked, the two witnesses will not be taking about how “possibility thinking will toss those mountains into the sea.” Their message will be, as John’s message was: “The times (your) ignorance God winked at, but now commandeth all men every where to repent.”
A moment ago, I quoted our Saviour when he said, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth… for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” “Go ye and LEARN what that meaneth” – learn, among other things, what it is to repent.
I have no doubt that John Baptist urged, commanded, explained and taught what it meant to repent. Because that is a subject considered to be of great importance in heaven itself. It is one of the things the angels of God find most exciting here on earth. But neither God nor angel can pass by a human spirit panting in pain over its sin. “There is joy in presence of angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
I am not disturbed to teach once again about repentance, because it brings good hearts great joy. Rowland Hill used say that there is only one thing on earth he would miss when got to heaven. He correctly believed that once he got to glory he‘d never see nor experience sin again. And if a person HAS no sin and DOES no sin, he will never need again to repent. Hill said that when he went Heaven he would miss that “sweet, lovely sorrowful grace of repentance.” And Spurgeon added, “I’m never more happy than when I am weeping for sin at the foot of cross.” Did the first Baptist think the same sort of thoughts?
It doesn’t bother me to preach a subject again which is so essential to our souls. Some preachers rightly declare again and again the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. And while that is true, repentance is just as necessary. Faith and repentance are the two sides of the same coin. To preach faith without repentance is trying to fly a Boeing 747 with only one wing. If preachers refuse to proclaim repentance or to correctly teach it, they destroy both repentance and faith. Put a penny on rail-road track and both sides will be obliterated. Faith and repentance are siamese twins. If one is sick, the other of necessity cannot be well; they live one life. If one goes to the doctor, so does the other; if one goes to heaven, so does other. So John’s message was: “Repent and behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.”
There are many people who think that they have repented of their sin, but who have not. Their understanding and definition of the subject are wrong. They are like some beginning language student trying to say something in a foreign language, but getting an important word wrong. Some things are embarrassing, while other mistakes can be deadly.
John helps us to see that there are many things thought to be repentance which are not.
When John “saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.”
It is a common mistake to think that fleshly sorrow is the same thing as true repentance. There might have been a few Pharisees who made that mistake. By “sorrow,” I refer to “remorse” or “regret” that a sin was committed. Or more particularly, some sin was recognized, and the sinner was caught. Sometimes it is the detective of police who catches the man. And sometimes it is the man’s conscience which apprehends him. But sorrow for being caught in some sin is not the same thing as repentance. Of course, the classic example this kind of repentance can be found in Judas. “Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” In one sense Judas “repented,” but it was not spiritual repentance, and it was not before God.
How close does Judas’ repentance come to Biblical repentance – the kind of which Jesus said, “Except ye repent ye shall likewise perish”? First, as a step in the right direction, it was an acknowledgment of sin. That he committed a crime worthy of hellish punishment there can be no doubt. He gave the Son of God over into the hands of murderers and blasphemers. He should have defended the Saviour, or at least offered to do so, but that wasn’t Judas’ plan. Later, he was right to acknowledge that he had sinned – but that was not repentance. Judas’ repentance, like those of the Pharisees who came to John, didn’t involve a life-change. It was a statement of obvious fact, like declaring the answer to a math problem. But math answers do not indicate a change of life and heart. According to scripture, true confession of sin comes as product of repentance. They are not the same thing, and confession is not an acceptable substitute for repentance. One is the child of the other; confession and godly sorrow, are born of repentance. John refused to baptize anybody who was not already repenting and showing the results of repentance. Part, but only a part, of that fruit is sorrow for sin. There too many people who get caught in some sin and then think that their tears wash away the guilt. It didn’t work for Judas, and John wasn’t going to let the Jewish hypocrites get away with it either.
True repentance is a product of the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Paul counseled Timothy to be the kind of servant which the Lord could use in the ministry. “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” Repentance which comes from any other source but the Lord himself is not true repentance. “Know ye not that the goodness of God leadeth thee (step by step, step by step) to repentance?
What is more, fleshly sorrow actually produces death. That was all that it did for Judas, who went out and hanged himself. In II Corinthians Paul was talking about an earlier letter which he had written to that church. “Though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” John was working very hard to make sure that the sorrow of his listeners was not that of the flesh.
Very closely related to fleshly sorrow, is GODLY SORROW, and that isn’t repentance either.
The words of II Corinthians 7:8-10 which I read just a moment ago, give us an opportunity to consider several things, including the definition of repentance. For example, we notice that verse ten says that “godly sorrow produces repentance.” That means that not even godly sorrow is the same thing as repentance. A father and his son are not the same person, even though they are in the same family. A parallel can be found in the Biblical statement, “Tribulation worketh patience.” Can we say that tribulation is patience? No, quite clearly, it helps to develop patience. And similarly, sorrow worketh repentance – it is the soil in which it grows.
Godly sorrow is what the Holy Spirit produces in us as He convicts us of our sinfulness. It is one of the steps that leads to repentance and faith in Christ.
John had no interest in PENANCE – only repentance.
According to the dictionary “penance” is “an act of self-mortification or devotion performed voluntarily to show sorrow for a sin or other wrongdoing.” And a more “religious” definition would be that it is “a sacrament in some Christian churches that includes contrition, confession to a priest, acceptance of punishment, and absolution.”
In actual fact, “penance” doesn’t even come close to what the Bible means when it speaks of “repentance.” Repentance is not “self-mortification” – it is not a self-inflicted anything. True Spirit-sent repentance grounds the sinner to powder so that he no longer has a self-will to mortify. Repentance is the miracle of God which gives the sinner a heart and mind changed to fully agree with God about sin, righteousness and judgment. Neither John nor Christ Jesus never said, “Except ye perform acts of penance ye shall all likewise perish.” They said, “Except ye repent…”
You could say that the difference between penance and repentance lies in their central location. Repentance is an act of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner; it is internal. Penance, on the other hand, are external acts of designed to repair in part the damage that sin has done. You might say that Judas carried out the ultimate act of penance, but later scriptures declare that he is in hell today; his penance was fruitless.
Penance has to do with deeds we carry out in order to remove the stain of sin – according to Catholic doctrine. It is often the infliction of punishment on our flesh. It comes upon the orders of men, but not the men of the Bible – apostles or prophets. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit inside the sinner, which brings the heart and mind of the sinner into agreement with the will of the Holy God. From there, fruit will be grown which proves the existence of the repentance and faith in Christ.
Repentance is not the same thing as REFORMATION or the correction of the effect of sin.
Granted, when John demanded of his Judean visitors, “Bring forth therefore fruits mete for repentance,” he was talking about reformed lives as proof of repentance. But a cleaned-up life – a less-sinful life – in itself is not repentance. When Jonah went to Nineveh, he preached judgment, and the Lord produced repentance among the people. When the repentance had done its work the people had changed lives to prove it. “The people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.” Another illustration of the results of true repentance is seen in Acts 19:17-19 – “And fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, burned them before all men…”
We could go on describing different types of Satanic pseudo-repentances.
But let me try to explain the thing that John was preaching.
He was declaring that God requires repentance of us. “God hath commanded all men everywhere to repent.” No one can build a big house on a small foundation. The idea of trying to be a Christian without repentance, is like trying to steer a 1000 ton diesel/electric Burlington Northern engine across the mountains without any tracks.
First of all repentance is spiritual, not fleshly, psychological, mental or worldly. It is a part of the new creation which only the grace and omnipotence of God can produce. As dead men cannot run, jump or play volleyball, neither can the spiritually dead repent. There must be the working of the grace of the Lord first. How essential it is that Christians pray for the Lord to work in hearts of specific lost people.
Second, repentance is always pointed toward God, to no one and nothing else. In the question of salvation, everything depends on “from what” and “to what.” On what or whom do you believe, and towards what do you repent? Some think that repentance has reference to the Law of God. No, no the law is the instrument which the Holy Spirit uses to show us that we have offended Jehovah. Our repentance must be toward the Lord, and not toward the law. One old preacher said, “One might as well repent toward the jaws of crocodile as to the Law.” What would humbly repenting towards a twenty-foot crocodile mean? It would mean death. If you are submissive and sorrowful before that man-eater, you’re likely to become his food. So it is with the law of God; it is designed to eat you, not cure you. And although it involves you, repentance isn’t about you; it’s about your relationship with God. Our repentance must towards the Lord, who designed the law to condemn us. The focus must not be what we have done; repentance isn’t even negatively focused on the sinner.
Third, repentance links us Christ by way of the road called “faith.” Although no man will see God in any attitude but wrath unless he repents – repentance, good or bad, has never saved single soul. My commission before you is to exhort you to repent toward God and to have faith toward the Lord – Christ. “By grace are ye saved, through faith,” which is built on the foundation repentance. “If you from sin are longing to be free, look to the lamb of God.” But make sure that your lookout position is on the ground of repentance.
And finally, repentance produces acceptable fruit in the penitent’s life. Fruits such as confession of sin and correction for the effects of sin. Fruit, like the forgiveness of others who have trespassed against us. Fruit, such as humility before God, and before the ministry of the Spirit. And true repentance produces more repentance. By that I mean that repentance is not a one time thing. Should we ever quit repenting? Not until we quit sinning and not before we are incapable of sinning. Is person saved by a single act of faith? He his not. Nor is his repentance a single act. As one poet put it – “Repentance is to leave the sin we loved before, and show that we in earnest grieve, by doing sin no more.”
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Have you done as John has commanded? Have you turned from your sins to trust in Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour?