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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Thursday, February 02, 2012
Repentance and Obedience
I was reading in the third chapter of Matthew's account of the gospel this morning, where John the Baptist was preaching that men should repent on account of the kingdom of heaven being at hand, when I was struck again, with that same old hunger that has infected me so many times in my Christian walk - a hunger to clarify, to articulate, and to educate.

The truth sets a man free, but in order to be set free, that man must actually hear and understand the truth. We have a murderous enemy in this world, an enemy whose greatest weapon is deceit and falsehood. An enemy who would wash the truth away by setting it afloat upon a flood of lies. Such that I fully expect that many if not most professing believers have, at the very least, an incomplete understanding of what it means to repent.

I recall talking to another believer about a decade back. He attended a larger church where he "ministered" as a sound man for the various local house bands church worship teams. From what I gathered, the church was the sort where one could go and remain anonymous, and fellowship meant singing with others who are singing, and smiling at others who are smiling - then going home to live the next six days with no contact with any of your "church" friends.

The one thing I knew, was that this fellow did not know his bible. I had asked him what repentance was, not as one who was trying to learn for himself, but as one who was probing to see where this guy was at. His answer was shallow and vague, but he dutifully looked into it for me, and came back with a written description he had, no doubt, lifted from some web page somewhere, which was a very well written specimen of that same vague and shallow answer he had formerly given me.

I recall that my challenges to investigate this definition together in scripture were met with the sort of practiced doctrinal inertia that surrounds people who have settled a matter in their mind, and are happy with what they settled on. To press the matter was to challenge what he had already decided was true, and only a hater would ever do such a thing.

I explained in brief why and where I thought his definition could be improved upon, but I was speaking to a mind that was already settled in the matter, and not open to any instruction in that direction. Perhaps a seed was planted that day, the Lord knows, but I don't. He moved to another city shortly after that, but I have thought about that exchange often in the years since.

Not that I am pining for an opportunity to follow-up on this conversation, but rather that it stands out in my thinking as an exchange that is typical of many such discussions with other believers. People can become settled in what they believe, even if what they believe is wrong.

I recall this exchange today because the text I was reading mentioned repentance, and I this was an example in my life where a very genuine Christian was not only confused about what repentance was, but was even satisfied to remain confused, having convinced himself otherwise. Like to untangle knots, and the more so when they are theological, and so very important to a right and healthy faith. To that end I want to take a moment or two more and describe what it means to repent, as I understand it and to do so in the service of God's truth - that He might be exalted. That we may as one draw nearer to Him in love through a deeper understanding of this old truth, and through all that this same truth will provoke in us.

Let's start with a truism: Christianity never allows a person to become content (i.e. make peace) with their sin.

Christ does not lead Christians into failure, He leads them into victory. But not every believer has learned to follow Christ's lead. Hear this: the only way a Christian can fail to overcome sin is if he or she attempts to overcome that sin apart from a settled surrender to Christ. If the believer isn't trying to overcome sin, is is because he or she is ignoring, and therefore grieving, the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is not provoking the "believer" by convicting them of their own sin and of the righteousness of Christ they are to apply to their lives, then that "believer" is suffering from a false conversion. He or she thinks he or she is a Christian, but they are not in Christ, and were never given the Holy Spirit. They may be convinced of their faith, but they have no (biblical) reason to presume themselves to be saved. One does not become or remain a Christian according to his or her ability to convince himself or herself that he or she is a Christian.

All of this is to set the stage, as it were, for a quick lesson on repentance. What does it mean to repent? Those who are confused in the matter might say that repentance means that you stop sinning. I mean, that is exactly what the Pharisees believed. They believed that if they obeyed the letter of the law, suppressing in themselves any outward disobedience, they were being penitent and righteous. Christ told them that they were hypocrites cleaning the outside of their cup, while leaving the inside full of sin.

Repentance then, is not a suppressing of the outward expression of sin in your life. It is not a keeping of yourself from lying, and from stealing from or abusing others. Even if you keep yourself from these things, what more have you done than the faithful Muslim, or stoic humanist? Repentance is something that happens inwardly and can be seen in outward expressions. But those same outward expressions can be aped religiously, and consistently, without ever the hint of a penitent heart.

Our Lord said "blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". Note, the present tense in this blessing? It isn't that they will one day receive it, it is that theirs is presently the kingdom of heaven. Most of the other blessings will follow later, but being poor in spirit means being in the kingdom of heaven right now.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Well, it doesn't mean blessed are those who are financially stricken, but happen to be spiritual, as some teach. Material poverty is no more a virtue than material abundance is a blessing. The same Holy Spirit who through Agur the son of Jakeh wrote, "Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God." (Proverbs 30:8-9 [ESV]) is not suggesting through Christ in Matthew 5 that suddenly material poverty is to be preferred spiritually. There is nothing spiritual about want or abundance - Paul was content in either (c.f. Philippians 4:11-12).

The poverty here, is a poverty in spirit. It means that you understand that nothing in yourself can produce eternal life. It means that you do not look to your own efforts as a means of pacifying or appeasing God's wrath. It means that you do not think you can avoid God's wrath by being good, because you know that all your good deeds are in fact unclean rags before the Lord (c.f. Isaiah 64:6). It means that you have entirely abandoned self effort as a means of righteousness - that you do not imagine that there is some purity in your own spirit that counts as valid currency in God's economy. You know that you deserve condemnation, and that no amount of changed behavior will undo that. It is a total an utter bankruptcy - a recognition that you have nothing with which you may barter with God concerning your sin. It means that you see and understand that you can only come to God as one who has a debt that cannot be repaid by anything you do, or will do. It is to understand that you are entirely guilty, and have cast yourself upon God for mercy. It is the thief on the cross who has nothing to commend himself to Christ, whose appeal for mercy that is entirely absent of any sense of entitlement, "remember me in your kingdom".

Every true believer knows this as surely as they know themselves. Anyone who is convinced that they have some good in them is confused, and anyone who trusts in this imagined goodness, has fallen short of grace, that is, fallen short of the kingdom of heaven.

So what then is repentance? To repent is to change what your mind is set upon. In order to have a mind that is set on the things of the Spirit, you must repent of having a mind that is set on the things of the flesh.

A lot of people would define repentance with a simpler arithmetic: stop sinning. I both love that simple equation, and hate it. I love it because it is perfectly correct, but I hate it because most people have a doctrinally stunted or truncated understanding of sin.

What makes something you do sinful is if whatever you are doing is being done as an act of rebellion against God. It is the rebellion against God that is the sin, this rebellion may express itself a million different ways, but it is the rebellion itself that is the sin.

Why is that an important concept? It is important because unless you understand the difference, you will never comprehend what is going on inside of you when you stop these five sins over here, but indulge this other sin over there. It is important because it identifies why your version of Christianity may not "work".

Imagine a modern day Jonadab (the son of Rechab, c.f. Jeremiah 35:14), asking his four sons not to drink wine. Now imagine that upon his death, only one son continues to abstain. Which of these has obeyed their father? All have obeyed. But which of these has done the will of his father? Only the one who set his heart upon doing his father's will. The others obeyed, but not from the heart. They did not set their hearts upon doing the will of their father, instead they regarded his command as a stricture they obeyed externally, but never accepted internally.

I am trying to draw out the difference between obedience and obedience from the heart. The one is external only, the other is both external and internal - in fact the other is external because it is internal, and the former is external in spite of the internal.

In the above example, only one son "repented" of drinking wine. The other three did not set their heart on obedience, that is, they obeyed but did so without setting their hearts on obeying. They went through the motions, but their obedience did not reflect what was in their hearts.

It is important for the believer to repent according to what the bible teaches repentance to be. If our repentance does not line up with what our Lord, through the scriptures, describes it to be, then our "repentance" will neither satisfy standard we are called to, or be producing a rich, fruitful, and especially joy-filled walk with the Lord.

I hear/read people almost complaining about their Christian "experience". Why is it that no matter how much I try, I can't seem to break through to God? How come I pray and read my bible, but still God doesn't answer my prayers, and I feel no closer to Him today, than I did ten years ago? Why is it that I never have lasting victory over my sin??

That last question is perhaps the most common, and one that I believe some answer too quickly with empty platitudes. I can tell you why your struggle against sin is so fruitless - it is because you refuse to repent.

Try saying that to a person who is struggling against sin, and you will hear pretty quickly that their struggle is genuine. They sincerely -want- to stop doing things that are sinful, but they want to achieve apart from sacrificing utter control of their lives over to God. They want to be obedient without committing themselves to obedience.

You have read in Paul's letter to the Romans (c.f. chapter 8) that the carnal mind is set on the things of the flesh, rather than the things of God. That the carnal mind not only isn't subject to God's rule, but it cannot be brought into subjugation. The problem with understanding that is you have to understand what Paul means by "carnal mind". By "mind" he doesn't mean your "brain" - he means your settled disposition. I say settled because that is what he is talking about when he says, "the mind that is set on..." - it is set in the sense that concrete sets. It describes a disposition that is set-in-stone.

What does that look like in practice? It looks this way: your heart is either going to be set-in-stone on pursuing an uncompromising, and all encompassing surrender to God such that your obedience is the natural outflow of this same surrender, or your heart is set-in-stone on preserving your own rule, such that your obedience will ever remain only skin deep, and that because we have no power in ourselves to do anything beyond this. The former is an expression of humility which becomes the fount of grace by which we overcome, and the later is an expression of sustained rebellion, dressed up in religious garb, which receives no grace, and keeps the one appealing for it in the rags of his own suppressed sin.

Repentance then, is the turning away from this heart-deep rebellion against God. It is a decided and willful change in disposition. It is an uncompromised and all encompassing abandoning of oneself to God's rule. It is a heart that has become settled in its course - obedience at =all= costs. It is what Christ is talking about when he describes "taking up your cross" - because this is not something you simply do, it is nothing less than dying to self, or the demands of self; it is what Bunyun is talking about when he speaks of the mortification. It is a down-to-the-roots-deep work of the Spirit in you, whereby you choose for yourself, while it is yet today, to serve God. It is an unhitching of your carriage of your soul from the black horse of self rule, and hitching anew the same to the white horse of Christ's rule.

Do you want to know, brother, sister, why you cannot overcome sin? It is because you are trying to overcome sin before you're able. You will never overcome sin in this life if you remain in a state of settled rebellion - if you reserve for yourself the "right" to obey God and disobey God as it pleases you. So long as you retain this "right" - your carnal mind will continue to "live" and continue to rule over you - no matter how many times you obey a little here and a little there. Your obedience is not the obedience of one who accepts God's will, but the begrudging obedience of one who is conquered, but hasn't surrendered.

Like those in Christ's day, who, although they obeyed Roman law, nevertheless did not bow their knee to Rome. Such is one who obeys the commands of Christ without first surrendering the rule of his life to Christ. They are the ones who have built their house on the sand (the rules) rather than the rock (the rule giver). They are the ones jumped in before they counted the cost, the ones who have attempted to follow Christ apart from taking up the yoke of the cross. They have come into the sheepfold, but not through the gate. They cry, "Lord, Lord" but do not do what Christ commands.

If this is you, you have a problem. The problem is you have found the Pearl of great price, or the treasure in the field, but you don't want it enough to surrender the rest of what (you think) you have to lay a legal hold on it. You have instead unearthed it, and taken it, but it doesn't belong to you and all that it promises is being withheld from you because you refuse to let Christ rule over you.

The solution is pretty simple: Surrender to Christ, or, to use the biblical terms: repent. Stop hedging between two opinions - you cannot serve Christ and mammon at the same time - either you are determined to obey your own desires, or you are determined to obey Christ's - the two are mutually exclusive. It is one or the other, and never both.

Can't do it? Talk to God about it - but not that wishy-washy-whiny kind of talk. Get down on the knees of your heart, and cry out to Him who is able to lift you up out of this mire, and set your feet on the rock. You cannot set your own feet there, it is a work of grace - but it is a grace you can cry out for so long as you have breath and the Spirit is willing.

Repentance is more than simply obeying God - it is a surrender to God that, once settled, expresses itself in obedience. It is not (and cannot be) an obedience that exists apart from this same surrender.

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posted by Daniel @ 7:19 AM   3 comment(s)
 
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