5. The Gift of Repentance?

Meditating on the Will of God: 5:  The GIFT of Repentance?

Rom 2:4  Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

We made reference in the previous study to what is often referred to as “the gift of repentance” but the truth is that that phrase never occurs in scripture. What the Bible does do is show us a God who does things that are meant to lead us to repentance. Repentance is an act of the will whereby the sinner turns around and turns away from their sin, confessing it and acknowledging their need of God’s help.

Note the elements of what we have just said. Repentance involves change, a change of heart and attitude and then, subsequently, of lifestyle. Second it is an act of the will, it is something we choose to do. Third it is an acknowledgement of wrong and, fourth, a desire to turn from that wrong. Fifth, it recognizes our own human inability to change and therefore our need of God’s help to bring about that desired change. We cannot do it on our own. We can desire to, we can want to, we can determine to, but unless God acts on us by His Holy Spirit, we cannot bring about that change in reality. Thus we find within those elements a combination of the work of God and the desire of man.

Our verse above shows us one of the things that should bring us to our senses and to repentance. God expresses “kindness, tolerance and patience” and the foolish sinner  construes these as God’s weakness, whereas as we saw in the previous study from Peter’s first letter and third chapter, God holding back His judgment is simply Him giving us further opportunity to repent. We should realise that the time ahead of us may be limited and come to our senses and repent. That’s why He is giving us this time.

What other things work in us to bring us to repentance. Consider the apostle Paul’s words: “yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor 7:9,10) One of the elements of repentance we noted above is expressed here as sorrow.  Now what was it that caused sorrow in these Corinthians? It was Paul’s words in his previous letter.  The word of God comes to us and convicts us, the truth is placed before us and we are moved by it as the Holy Spirit applies it forcibly within us. 

Suddenly the word before us seems to take on a new life and power and it impacts us. The effect it has is sorrow within us. We realise our failure and our need to bring about change and our need of God’s help. This sorrow is godly sorrow, sorrow brought about by God, and Paul says it is good because of the end result it brings about, our repentance. There is also a counterfeit sorrow. Yes, it is a genuine sorrow but its source and effect are not godly. It is what Paul calls ‘worldly sorrow’, a sorrow that is self-centred, a sorrow that I have been found out and revealed for what I am, and it is a sorrow that grieves that I am being exposed. This sorrow, which we said is self-centred, does not bring repentance but simply an inner grievance and that quenches the Spirit and cuts off spiritual life.

When Paul was instructing Timothy in his role as a leader he said, “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:25,26). Here there were people who opposed the Gospel. Paul reminds us that such people are blinded by Satan to do his bidding. As Timothy brings God’s word to these people it is “in the hope” (it is not guaranteed) that this word will have impact in them and will bring them repentance. Now the word in the original  there rendered ‘repentance’ has a meaning more like ‘conversion’ but of course conversion involves repentance.

To speak of God “granting” them repentance simply recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction. The process involves God speaking to the individual – although they are not aware that that is what is happening at the time – and as they take note He leads them on to a place where they find that the truth is so strong that it stirs a strong emotion within them for the need of change, that we call repentance.  The truth is that there will be many who ‘hear’ His words calling to them but they will not respond and so do not come to the point of conviction. Why some respond and some don’t is a mystery.  The responders get led by the Spirit to a point of conviction and with that comes repentance. God’s help IS needed for the process that leads to conversion but that does not mean He holds back help to stop others, simply they have not asked for it, for at some point they drew back and turned away and refused to heed His calling voice.

The reality is that we may (we do) have a responsibility to respond to the voice of God but when we do, even then it is the work of God that makes us new people, and that was not because we deserved it but simply because loves to give it freely: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus ….” (Eph 2:8-10)  We can come to crisis but unless God would move, we are stuck there at the crisis point, still not able to move. As the apostle Peter preached he declared, quoting the prophet Joel, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”  (Acts 2:21) – He convicts, we repent and cry out – He does the rest. Yes, we have a responsibility to respond to God’s voice, but once we do, it is all the work of God to bring that initial change in us. Thereafter it is a partnership that requires our acquiescence to His leading, and that we’ll look at in the days ahead. 

54. Confession

Meditations in James: 54: The Place of Confession

Jas 5:15,16 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Confession, in some parts of the church, has sometimes been turned into a ritual. If you “go along to confession” it becomes a ritual, something that is done because it is expected of you and it makes you feel better for a minute of two.  True confession comes out of a broken and contrite heart. In Scripture, probably the greatest example of confession comes in Psalm 51, where the heading tells us that David wrote this after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin over Bathsheba. It starts out, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (v.1,2) Confession comes to God with an awareness of needing God’s mercy, for having offended God. There is an awareness of needing to be cleansed and forgiven.

Look how he continues:For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight(v.3,4). David realized that all sin is against God and that it is evil! When the Holy Spirit convicts, this is what follows. Later he goes on, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (v.10,11) Real confession is concerned to be cleansed from the sin and reinstated in right relationship with the Lord (where the sin will not be repeated!)

Having heard a number of people on counseling situations, confessing to the Lord their sins, I have to say that rarely is there whole-hearted, unrestrained pouring out of sorrow to God for those sins. Mostly we have a great deal of difficulty in genuinely facing what we’ve done and genuinely saying, “That was wrong, that was evil, and it affronted God.” but that is real confession!

James’ references to confession flow in the context of healing and after the words we considered yesterday he says,If he has sinned, he will be forgiven”. Suddenly forgiveness and healing are linked. Not every sickness is linked to sin, but some is. Sometimes our sin has caused or made us vulnerable to the sickness, and so for the healing to flow, the sin has to be dealt with first. There is a very strong principle here which accounts, we suspect, for why there is so much illness in the world today. Having said this, James realizes that this needs further explanation.

He continues, Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. There can be no other explanation for what he says other that what we have said in the above paragraph. There is a divine order here: sin – sickness – confession – prayer – healing. It is interesting to note that TWO things are needed: confession AND prayer, confession by the sick person and prayer for healing by the elder. An Old Testament example of this is,Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again,” (Gen 20:17) after Abimelech had had dealings with God. He confessed but God required His representative, Abram, to pray for him. The prayer of the elder adds significance to what is happening and he acts as God’s representative to declare forgiveness and healing.

In the New Testament the classic example of this is Jesus and the man let down through the roof. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said,Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 5:20). The man’s willingness to come to Jesus was equivalent to his confession but before he is healed, Jesus pronounces forgiveness. Jesus knew there was a sin and forgiveness issue here and so dealt with it. He subsequently brings the healing: He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (v.24). There is a clear link between the sickness and the need for forgiveness followed by healing.

We should note, however, that this is not always the case as John shows us in his Gospel. As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.(Jn 9:1-3) Sin was not the issue behind this man’s blindness. He was just part of the Fallen World, and so Jesus simply brought healing without the need of confession and forgiveness.

James concludes,The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. The righteous elder praying for a sick member of his flock, is in the position of God’s representative and, as long as he is a righteous man, he is therefore in the position to bring prayer to bear that has a powerful impact – to bring healing.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions to ask, that arises out of these verses, is do we have an open and submissive and humble heart that is willing to seek out its spiritual leadership and confess, when we become aware of our sin? Such confession is an indication of a heart that is indeed open, submissive and humble, and that is the challenge, because that is the sort of heart we are all supposed to have.

4. Those who Mourn

MEDITATIONS IN THE BEATITUDES – 4

Mt 5:3 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

We do not look forward to mourning; it is not something we would consider as a good part of life yet Jesus, in only the second of these Beatitudes, says those who mourn are blessed. How can it be? Mourning follows death! Solomon seemed to have the same idea: “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” (Eccles 7:3,4). The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning? Whatever does he mean?

Having recently been to a funeral of a family member, I have recently been reminded of another aspect of death and of the mourning that follows: it sheds light on life, it makes you think about life and what follows it. Death brings a perspective to life that is often missing. Yes, there is grief there for the loss of a loved one, but in the midst of that is this inner reflection that goes on, what is life about, what follows it? That’s what Solomon meant.

Before we put any spiritual sense to today’s verse, let’s take it at its face value. Those who mourn will be comforted? Is that always true? Well time, they say, is a great healer, but does it bring ‘comfort’? I think ‘acceptance’ is probably the right word, the ability to come to terms with the fact that death has occurred and life must go on, but not ‘comfort’. Comfort suggests a positive, good feeling. For many people with no spiritual experience or no relationship with God, death is a thing to be feared, or even hated, as it is seen to have snatched a loved one away. No, mourners are not always comforted, so what was Jesus saying?

When we put it in the context of the previous beatitude, when we think back on the things we thought about in the previous meditation, we realize that part of the process that we referred to, of coming to an awareness of our spiritual poverty and our need, does in fact involve mourning. We realize that the life we have lived fell far short of what we felt it could have been. We come to an awareness of our own failure, our own shortcomings and we anguish for that life. Indeed, even though that life is still there, we mourn over it, we grieve because of it. It is this process that brings us to the recognition that we must get right with God, and if God have provided a way for that to happen, we must accept that.

In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul uses the language of death: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:2-4), “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.(v.6-8), “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.(v.11)

What Paul was saying was that to become a Christian we have to die to our old life, we have to give it up and let God bring us a new one. Now we don’t mourn the old life after it has gone, that is the strange thing. No, we mourn for it, while we still have it. It is that mourning, that grieving over it, that brings us to Christ, that brings us to a place of surrender, where we are willing to let go our old life and let Jesus renew us. While we are in that state of mourning we wonder if indeed we are hopeless. Speaking of our old life, the apostle Paul said, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” (Eph 2:1). He then added, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” (v.4,5). That’s the life we had before we knew Christ – we were spiritually dead and hopeless and helpless, and then the Holy Spirit started convicting us and we started mourning that hopeless deadness. That was a vital part of bringing us right through.

So, the first beatitude shows us our need to come to an awareness of our spiritual poverty (dead in your transgressions and sins) and the second one shows us our need to realize the awfulness of that life, and mourn over it. These are the initial stages of us coming to Christ, the ‘bad news’ that precedes the ‘Good News’.