Repent or Perish!
A growing debate in our fundamental churches is the issue of repentance. Since large churches are often built by "not scaring anyone away," it is becoming very common to hear sermons and read newsletters which proclaim a repentless salvation. That is, many are boldly proclaiming that one does not have to repent of his sins to be saved. I recently heard a message on tape by a very popular preacher who stated that every New Testament command to repent is addressed to a saved person. His reasoning was that lost people just need to trust Christ and not worry about sins. This man has preached this doctrine for many years, and many have followed in his steps. Most any Bible-believing preacher or personal worker can tell you numerous stories about the so-called "Christians" they've met who were supposedly saved after repeating a brief prayer. There was no Holy Ghost conviction, no change of attitude about the world, the flesh, or their numerous sins, and there was no evidence of a new life after their conversion. Yet, this person was "chalked up" as another new addition to the kingdom of God.
I know of a church which used to send out a monthly bulletin which gave the totals for their converts and baptisms for the month. Nearly every issue stated that between two and three hundred people had been saved in the previous thirty days. This went on for about three or four years, which means that over 7,000 people made professions. Did this church have 7,000 members? No, they did not. Did they have at least 5,000? No, they did not. At least 1,000? Nope. Maybe 500? I think not! On a big day this church might break 300. On an average Sunday, their attendance was less than 200 people. They had 200 in attendance, yet they really believed that they had been leading 200 to Christ every month for over thirty-six months straight! One of their members ran into me at the county fair one night where we were passing out tracts. He said, "Hey, we've had twelve saved tonight!" I don't know if these twelve ever made it to church, but I'm certain they made the monthly bulletin.
The trouble is that too many preachers have been convinced that getting a profession and getting folks to church is the main thing. "If we can just get them in church, we can work on the repentance later" seems to be the rule of the day. Another rule goes like this: "We don't want to say or do anything to scare them off." Naturally, the word "repent" scares the daylights out of lost people, so repentance is forsaken in order to get the person to make a profession and maybe even come to church. As the years roll by, the church becomes a great big nursery filled with lost people and spiritual babies. Less than ten percent of the membership does over ninety percent of the spiritual work of the church. However, the weak majority still FEELS important because they have their picture in the church directory, and they get to argue and vote in business meetings.
This whole stinking mess started when the ambitious preacher got the "bright" idea to ignore a word that occurs over one hundred times in the Bible in its various forms. With the inspired words of God being our guide, let us study the subject of repentance and hopefully help someone to stay on the straight and narrow way.
Repentance in the Bible has three basic elements: a genuine sorrow towards God (II Cor. 7:9-10), a genuine separation from sin (Heb. 6:1; Acts 26:20), and a genuine submission to God's will (Acts 9:6; I Ths. 1:9). In other words, repentance involves a totally changed life. II Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." According to the Bible, all things are new once a man is in Christ, and old things are passed away. Repentance is certainly a requirement. Jesus began his ministry preaching, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mat. 4:17) In Matthew 9:13 he said, ". . . I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." He upbraided cities in Matthew 11:20 "because they repented not." Repentance is required for salvation, and no honest and serious student of Scripture can claim otherwise.
But let's not stop here. The Bible offers many clear commands for preachers to deal with sin and repentance. In Isaiah 58:1, God says, "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins."
How about Isaiah 55:6-7? "Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." God is holy, and he demands that we forsake sin in order to have his fellowship.
We use Isaiah 1:18 a lot in dealing with lost people: "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." That's a great verse, but so are verses 16 and 17: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." God isn't just interested in forgiveness; he's first interested in repentance.
Do you want more? Consider some words from Ezekiel: "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (18:30-31) "Wilt thou judge them, son of man, wilt thou judge them? cause them to know the abominations of their fathers." (20:4) "Now, thou son of man, wilt thou judge, wilt thou judge the bloody city? yea, thou shalt shew her all her abominations." (22:2) Why so much emphasis on sin? Doesn't God know that such negative preaching will scare people away?! Maybe some of the brethren need to send the Lord one of their milky and repentless newsletters to inform him of his errors. Just imagine how many souls could be "saved" if we would all just shut up about sin and repentance!
Remember Achan from Joshua chapter seven? Sin in the camp was harmful to God's righteous cause. Lives were even lost because sin was present. God's Spirit was quenched and the battle was lost.
Question: How can a man be born of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8) while at the very moment of his conversion he is quenching the Holy Spirit by justifying and hanging onto his sins? Does the Holy Spirit say, "Look, I know you have no intention of cleaning up and living for me. I know you'll never go to church, pray, or read the Bible, but I'm going to give you the new birth anyway?" Is that how it works? Chapter and verse please? How can the Holy Spirit be "holy" if he has no standards?
I know that some of these passages are dealing with God's people, not the lost, but there are other passages which are just as clear concerning repentance and lost people. For example, have you considered Acts 17:30? It says, "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent." Those words were preached by Paul to "Ye men of Athens" (vs. 22). There is a Bible-believing preacher telling lost people to repent of their sins, yet we have preachers today teaching that repentance is only an issue between God and his own people.
The trouble has to do with the actual meaning of the word. Webster defines it this way: "Real penitence; sorrow or deep contrition for sin, as an offense and dishonor to God, a violation of his holy law, and the basest ingratitude towards a being of infinite benevolence. This is accompan- ied and followed by amendment of life." As we shall see, Webster has it right. Repentance begins in the heart (sorrow, deep contrition) and then is followed by outward fruit. John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees to "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance." (Mat. 3:7-8) Well, no one can bring forth such fruit if they haven't purposed in their heart to do so. Repentance begins in the heart and is then followed by an outward action.
For this, let us consider the law of first mention. The first case of repentance in the Bible is found in Genesis 6:7: "And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them." Notice how God's repentance is an inward thing pointing to an outward action. He makes up his mind about the flood, and he then sends the flood later.
Here lies the answer--if only the brethren would accept it. Preachers who do not believe that repentance is a requirement for salvation often believe that repentance involves an immediate turn from all sin with an immediate life of holiness being manifest. They realize how this is practically impossible for most people, so they throw out repentance altogether! If only they really believed the Bible!
When I stand on a street corner and say, "Repent, or ye shall all likewise perish," I am not saying that my listeners can't be saved until they quit their drinking, their smoking, their fornicating, their cursing and their rock-n-rolling. I am not saying that they must stop all those things and start living a holy life before they can trust Christ. Indeed, that would constitute a works-based salvation. When I say, "repent," I am speaking of a Biblical repentance which begins with a simple change of heart (Gen. 6:7). Since the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart (Mat. 12:34), I can expect the candidate for salvation to say some things that indicate a changed heart about sin and righteousness. He may not overcome his smoking habit for a good while, but he readily admits that it is wrong and it displeases God. He may not immediately "break up" with his shack-up honey, but at least he now admits that God is not pleased with his way of living and some action needs to be taken. It's the change of heart that we need to seek because, if the heart changes, God has begun a work, and he will continue it: "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." (Philip. 1:6)
However, let us not forget the fruits and actions that should always follow the change of heart. Jesus said, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." (Mat. 7:20) I can know a person is saved by examining his fruit. If a man says he received Jesus Christ as his Saviour when a preacher visited his home a year ago, yet he hasn't read his Bible, he hasn't prayed, he hasn't attended church services, and he still lives like the devil, then he probably never received Christ. At least some fruit should be evident after a whole year! You can plant a tree and not see much growth in just a few days, but after a whole year, you'll see significant changes.
Consider Exodus 13:17-18: "And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt." The repentance here would start with an inner change of heart (due to fear) and end with an outer action (returning to Egypt).
Consider Ezekiel 14:6: "Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations." See how the word "repent" is followed by an outward action?
John the Baptist would not baptize people until he had seen some FRUIT which indicated that they had really repented (Mat. 3:1-8). He didn't require a truckload of fruit, but he did require enough to convince him that these converts were real. Please read the passage and see that people are confessing their sins at their baptism! Sin was not avoided. It was preached against, and it was confessed. Only the Pharisees and Sadducees avoided the sin issue. Notice our Lord's command to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:5: "Remember there- fore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." The order is "repent" and "do." An action always follows genuine repentance. To say that re- pentance is just a change of heart is incorrect. Repentance begins with a change of heart, but it doesn't stop there.
Ezekiel 14:6: "Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations." Again, repentance is more than a change of heart.
Matthew 21:29: "He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went." Was his repentance only a change of heart or mind? No, it was more than that. His repentance was followed by FRUIT.
Stephen believed in repentance: "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." (Acts 7:51-55) Notice the mark of a Spirit- filled preacher: he preaches against sins and expects repentance.
Do you remain unconvinced? Please consider the case of our Lord and the Samaritan woman: "Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly." (John 4:13-18) Jesus informed her that she needed the water of life. When she expressed interest in this water (salvation), he brought up the sin issue by telling her to go call her husband. He knew she had an immoral life, and he called it to her attention. Sin must be dealt with when bringing a sinner to a holy God.
Remember that the ark of the covenant was not at the front of the tabernacle. It was in the very back of the tabernacle. Upon entering the tabernacle, the sinner came face to face with a brazen altar where blood sacrifices were made for sin. A burnt offering always stood between the sinner and God. No doubt, if God had allowed man to design the tabernacle, the ark would have been out front, and the brazen altar would have been hid in the back behind a curtain!
God is holy and he requires holiness in his people. To introduce a sinner to Christ, the holy Son of God, and not expect him to repent is a disgrace. In fact, to not speak to sinners about repentance is to withhold a precious gift from them. Acts 11:18 says, "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." Repentance is such a part of New Testament salvation that it, like salvation, is spoken of as a gift which God grants to men. Who are we to hold back the gift that God is offering to sinners, especially when this gift is part of an unbreakable package? So many have ceased from preaching repentance for so long that no one thinks of it as a gracious gift anymore. It has become a hard and cruel burden which very few will bear. Consequently, the sinner's attitude is, "You mean I have to quit drinking and I have to quit fishing on Sundays?" His attitude should be, "You mean God is willing to forgive me of all my sins? After all that I've done, he is willing to forgive me? Wow! What must I do? I'll do anything--just tell me!"
There may be numerous reasons for this change in attitude over the past 150 years, but one chief reason is that preachers quit preaching against sins, which allowed sinners to stop feeling like sinners. So, repentance has become a burden instead of a blessing. God help us!
Copyright © 2002 James L. Melton
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