True Reformation part 4: The hard work of Repentance
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:17-25
Once we have acknowledged the veracity, reliability and infallibility of scripture and spent time breathing in, what God has breathed out, we must further acknowledge the utter falleness and sinfulness of our condition. This is done not only individually but corporately as well. I have always been amazed by the book of Jonah and the repentant attitude of the Ninevites. It is one of the most stunning sections in all of scripture. A stubborn and disobedient prophet runs from God, because he knew that God was a gracious and forgiving God and did not want to communicate a message of repentance to his enemies. He finally does so, and the entire capital city of his enemies repents, and receives mercy. The clear major message of the passage is about loving our enemies (though still calling on them to repent). But a more minor message is the remarkable change of heart of an entire city, in response to a holy God. I often wonder if a denomination that has fallen so far from God’s holiness and truth, such as my own (the PCUSA) might repent in sackcloth and ashes? If not, will a remnant do so? I believe I have seen evidence of this in the New Wineskins.
“The Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is derived from conversion or return; the Greek word, from change of mind or of intention… departing from ourselves, we turn to God, and having taken off our former mind, we put on a new. On this account, in my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the turning of our life to God…When we call it a ‘turning of life to God,’ we require a transformation, not only in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal…Outward uprightness of life is not the chief point of repentance, for God looks into men’s hearts. Whoever is moderately versed in Scripture will understand by himself…that when we have to deal with God nothing is achieved unless we begin from the inner disposition of the heart.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III.3. 5-6, 16, pp. 597-598, 609-610.
The repentance that God calls forth, for the purpose of renewal and reformation must be sincere, with full knowledge of the holiness that God requires. Instead of repentance my denomination is busy shifting the chairs on the Titanic. We are busy talking about postmodern/emerging church forms, more modern music, modern dress and more seeker-sensitive marketing methods. As they do so, the church takes on the form of the progressive culture more and more each day. Thinking they are being prophetic, they instead mimic the very worldliness that they profess to repudiate. Rather than turning to God with sincerely repentant hearts, we instead turn to the world and apologize that we have not looked more like them. Rather than look into the mirror of the perfect law that brings freedom and turn with hearts full of mourning for our sinfulness, we instead embrace a culture of death and immorality, twisting the infallible Word of God to accommodate for our cultural conversion. Both John the baptizer and Jesus preached repentance, because of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. We, on the other hand, tend to preach a cheap grace based on cultural accommodation.
By repentance we are to mean, not merely sorrow for and hatred of sin, but also the inward turning away from it to God, with full purpose of new obedience. By original sin we are to mean not merely adherent but also inherent sin, not merely the sinful act of Adam imputed to us, but also the sinful state of our own souls conveyed to us by the just judgment of God. When so understood, it would seem sufficiently clear that we must ‘repent of original sin.’ The corruption that is derived by us from our first parents comes to us, indeed, as penalty; but it abides in us as sin, and must be looked upon as sin both by God and by enlightened conscience itself…And thus it appears, that so far from its being impossible to repent of original sin, repentance, considered in its normative sense—not as an act of turning away from this sin or that sin, but of turning from sin as such to God—is fundamentally just repentance of ‘original sin.’ Until we repent of original sin, we have not, properly speaking, repented in the Christian sense at all. For it is characteristic of heathen thought to look upon sin atomistically as only so many acts of sin, and at repentance also, therefore, atomistically as only so many acts of turning away from sinning; the Christian conception probes deeper and finds behind the acts of sin the sinful nature and behind the specific acts of repentance for sins the great normative act of repentance for this sinful nature. He only, then, has really repented who has perceived and felt the filthiness and odiousness of his depraved nature and has turned from it to God with a full purpose of being hereafter more conformed to his image as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. (B.B. Warfield Selected Shorter Writings – 1 (Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), pp. 279-280)
Will we once again turn to God? Will God be sending us a Jonah, and if so, how will we respond? Will we be too busy re-upholstering the chairs on the Titanic, making them more appealing to a post-modern culture, to hear the call of repentance? Will we be too busy accommodating ourselves to whatever the worldly culture has in store for us next, to hear the call to turn once again to a holy God, shedding all the sin that so entangles us? Will we be too busy being inclusive of sinfulness to hear the call of an exclusive gospel? Are we willing to face the truth of our depraved natures, or are we too busy preaching a “feel-good” gospel of self-improvement, and self-esteem? Without hearts full of repentance there is no true reformation.
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