Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is Repentance an Ugly Word? Part I

I don’t think we hear much about repentance these days? In fact, I’m not sure most people know what to think about the word. Among Christian circles and in deep theological discussions the role of repentance is heavily discussed.
In the next two days I want to say something about this word, although not everything I can or should say (that will come later). But, is “repentance” an ugly word? What do you think?

Let me begin with Mr. John. John the Baptist is known as a preacher of repentance in the Bible. Matthew recorded his words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2, NASB). Luke adds that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3).

What is repentance? And what does Luke mean by the phrase “a baptism of repentance”? Is repentance a condition for forgiveness? And, what does the imagery of “fire” in Luke 3 represent?

In Luke 3 John is talking to Israel, calling her back to covenant faithfulness (=renewed commitment to God alone). That is, to confess her sins and get right with God. He is telling Israel to prepare for the coming of Messiah. They are to be baptized as a symbol of their repentance “for the forgiveness of sin” (v. 3). The “forgiveness” experienced by Israel in v. 3 is one of forgiveness for covenant unfaithfulness (=not living seriously about their relationship with God; See vv. 10-14).

John calls Israel to repentance. What does this mean? The meaning of repentance goes beyond a simple change of mind about something, to describe more the redirection of someone’s life in conformity (likeness) to the character and ways of God. John is calling Israel to perform deeds that prove that they have repented of sin. That is, they must align their lives according to the ways of God because the Messiah is coming and they must be ready (vv. 4, 6.)

Now, there’s another tricky word in Luke 3. It’s the word fire. What does John mean when he uses the imagery of “fire”? Fire in the Bible can be used to refer to several things. One of its references is to eternal punishment. The term can also be used of God’s judgment upon people while they are alive. I believe that the fire described in v. 9 is that of temporal judgment and not eternal damnation (see John 15:6 for the fire of judgment experienced by saved disciples. See also John 13:10-11). In other words, Israel must repent of her waywardness and turn to God in obedience or face God’s response to sin (=wrath, v. 8; see Luke 13:1-5).

Those who truly repented sought out answers from John about how to practice repentance. They asked him three times: “Then what shall we do?” (vv. 10, 12, 14). John provided tangible ways of how to obey God’s commands in terms of their relationship with other people. It's interesting that repentance for sin is here related to how we respond to people. Sin against God most always has a bearing on how we treat or feel toward others. The heartfelt questions and the answers provided by John are the response that God was looking for from Israel. A repentant heart pleases God and restores relationships.

In order to escape God’s wrath or temporal judgment, Israel needed to refocus her complete attention on the Lord by repenting. It is helpful at this point to clarify that repentance can precede the point of an individual’s salvation, or it can take place at the moment of one's salvation and/or follow throughout life. This is not the same as talking about salvation (justification) which is received only by faith in Christ alone (see John 6:47; Galatians 2:16). One can repent of sin in their life without necessarily believing in God’s provision for salvation. However, John is specifically talking to Israel and warning her of her need to prepare for the revelation of the Messiah, in whom they would later need to believe in, or else, face the consequences of their rebellion against him in the coming wrath (v. 7; some believe this to refer to the destruction in A.D. 70), and in the subsequent eternal judgment of unbelievers.

So, is repentance an ugly word? I don’t think so. Tomorrow we will look at how some people thought that repentance was not necessary because they were of the lineage of Abraham. We will also look at some practical applications from Luke 3.
Por Su Gracia y Poder

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