WHILE leaving a jail meeting, some years ago, a brother in Christ handed me a slip of paper. On looking at it later, I found that it contained a list of passages containing the word “repentance.” It was a gentle hint that I had omitted preaching repentance to the prisoners, as indeed, I had.
Let us examine the passages he brought before me and determine, if we can, the Lord’s mind on this subject.
It goes without saying that repentance was proclaimed. But the mere fact is not sufficient to guide our steps. Christ Himself ceased to proclaim it after He was rejected. He confines Himself to the announcement of His sufferings (Matt.16:20; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:31). But when Luke takes up the thread concerning the things which He began to do and teach (Acts 1:1) he reverts to this early ministry and engages our attention with the Kingdom (Acts 2:30) and repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38)—the very same subjects which the Lord had proclaimed before He was rejected.
Now we know that the Kingdom as proclaimed by the apostles was rejected once again (Acts 28:26,27). Stephen is stoned (Acts 7:59). James is killed by Herod (Acts 12:1). Peter is imprisoned (Acts 12:4) and is finally found in Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). Paul’s life is imperilled and he, too, becomes a prisoner (Acts 28:17).
If the Lord Himself stopped the proclamation of pardon and repentance when His message was rejected, it is certainly worth the enquiry: Has it been again withdrawn, now that the same message, proclaimed by His apostles, has once more been rejected?
But first, let us inquire, What is repentance? When we define our terms many difficulties disappear. To repent is, literally, to observe — afterward, to reconsider.
Such reconsideration may lead one to turn about or be “converted” (Acts 3:19), but it is quite distinct from conversion.
Likewise, repentance may lead to work (Rev.2:5), but it is not itself work, as might be supposed from some translations which render it “penance.”
Those truly repentant evidenced it by suitable fruits (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:2,6).
Repentance may accompany faith (Mark 1:15), but for that very reason must be distinguished from faith. It may lead to deliverance, in a sense (2 Cor.7:10), and to life (Acts 2:18), but in itself means none of these things, but only such a reconsideration as these may demand.
The divine picture of repentance is found in the case of Nineveh (Matt.12:41; Luke 2:32). Jonah’s message to that great wicked city was “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” This was no “gospel;” no glad or joyful message. Such a message would not have caused repentance, for if God had a message of joy for them what could they possibly repent of? Repentance is not produced by any gospel. That is why we read (Mark 1:15) “repent ye and believe the gospel.” The proclamation of judgment is generally the moving cause of repentance. The word “preach” when connected with repentance is always a proclamation as in Jonah’s case. It is never evangelize, the word generally translated “preach” (Matt.12:41; Mark 6:12; Luke 11:32; Mark 1:4).
Tyre and Sidon and awful Sodom never were exhorted to repent though they were more susceptible to the proclamation of judgment than religious Chorazin and Bethsaida and high Capernaum (Matt.2:21). If there was any virtue in repentance and Sodom had the opportunity presented to Capernaum it would still be a flourishing city as of old.
There are a remarkable pair of repentance parables recorded by Luke (Luke 13:1-9 and 17:3-6). These will lead us to see the close connection of repentance with the Kingdom of God.
Some there were in that day, as there are now, who believe that God deals men’s deserts to them in this present life. They told the Lord how Pilate had mingled the blood of certain Galileans with their sacrifices. He replies: “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” And so, too, in the case of those upon whom the tower of Siloan fell.
And then, without further explanation, He spoke the parable of The Fruitless Fig Tree. Three years had He been dressing the fig tree and still there was no fruit. Three years had He been calling upon the nation to repent and bring forth the fruits of repentance, but He found none. One more chance would He give it. This is recorded in the book of Acts. But even this effort failed. The fig tree has been cut down. The call to repentance failed to bring about the Kingdom.
The second parable of The Wild Fig Tree (or “sycamine” Luke 17:3-6) is like the first, but views the subject from a different standpoint.
After considering the conduct which He would have them show a repentant brother, they request their Lord, “Increase our faith.” And their Lord replies, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this wild fig tree, ‘Be thou plucked up by the roots, and be thou planted in the sea;’ and it should obey you.”
Israel, politically, is figured by a fig tree; Rome is the wild fig tree. The fruit of this wild fig or mulberry tree is an insipid imitation of the good fig tree, eaten only by the poorest classes (Amos 7:14).
So Roman world-wide dominion had the appearance of that Kingdom which will bear the sweet fruits of righteousness. Its soft, brittle timber was a poor substitute for the princely cedars, though it did ape the semblance of the cedar’s imperial majesty (Isa.9:10).
How differently the Master would have them treat these two trees! All His labor was directed to save one of them from destruction. A grain of faith on their part would have transplanted the other to the midst of the sea, far from Israel’s land. In plain words, if they really repented and believed, they would have dwelt beneath the shade of their own fig tree, the Kingdom Jehovah had promised them, and the Roman yoke would soon be broken. Only their unrepentant, unbelieving attitude bound them with the chains of Rome.
Thus we see how vitally repentance is linked with the Kingdom as proclaimed by our Master in His early ministry, before His rejection. And this was in strict accord with Moses and the prophets. The thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy lays down the conditions upon which the Kingdom will come. The very first is repentance. “And it shall come to pass when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind...” This was the foundation of John the Baptist’s preaching, “Repent ye.” Why? “For the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matt.3:2). This Kingdom, which will break in pieces and consume the Babylonian, the Medo Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman world powers, which shall never be left to any other people but the Chosen Nation (Dan.2:44) — this Kingdom will never be theirs until they enter it through the portals of repentance. Those who do not repent and bring forth its proper fruits will be baptized with fire, they will be burned up as chaff.
Once we have grasped the thought that repentance is the key to the earthly Kingdom, we will understand why it is that it is hardly mentioned except when that Kingdom is proclaimed. The Kingdom is in view in the early part of the Gospels, it is again presented in the book of Acts, and it is finally attained in the Revelation. So we find that the verb occurs twelve times (the number of government) in the Revelation; four times (the number of the earth) referring to the Kingdom in the Acts, and sixteen times (four squared) in the Gospels. It occurs only once in a private way in the epistles of Paul (2 Cor.12:21).
As a noun, it occurs only four times in Paul’s epistles proper and none refer to the Kingdom. John had preached the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel (Acts 13:24). The Lord continued this proclamation, and even after His exaltation, He is proclaimed by Peter as “a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel....”
It is not until Peter visits Cornelius that we have any hint that the nations have any part in this. When the events attending Peter’s visit are rehearsed, they were amazed and exclaimed, “Then, indeed, to the Nations, too, God has granted repentance unto life!” (Acts 2:18). But the very next statement shows that they did not follow up its proclamation.
It was not until Paul went to the nations that repentance was proclaimed to them. At Athens, he could say, “now chargeth He all men everywhere to repent.” Why? Not on account of God’s grace as made known in His glad message, but “Because He has appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man Whom He hath ordained...” These are the judgments which will usher in and sustain the Kingdom. It was while this Kingdom was still in view, before Israel was set aside, that Paul testified both to Jews and Greeks, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
But while Paul preached thus in his itinerant ministry, his epistles, written in view of or after Israel’s final rejection of their King, contain nothing of repentance in connection with the gospel. His epistle to the Romans is a grand, complete, exhaustive treatise on the gospel, yet repentance is altogether omitted, except where he notes how the goodness (not grace) of God ought to lead men to repentance, but fails to do so (Rom.2:4).
The gospel of God and the gospel of the mystery (Rom.1:1 and 16:25) immeasurably transcend the proclamation of repentance and pardon, the portals to the Kingdom. Pardon might be withdrawn (Matt.18:21-35). Many of those who repented during the proclamation of the Kingdom, afterwards fell away (Heb.6:6). These, the apostle tells us, it is impossible to renew again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame. The unrepentant nation had crucified their Christ and now these apostates repeat their rejection of the Kingdom, and crucify the King again.
But no such dire apostasy is possible to those who believe God’s glad message and the proclamation of the reconciliation as set forth in the Roman letter. For such there is no condemnation: nothing can separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
And here is where the greatest mischief has been wrought. Not only has the gospel been dragged down from its heavenly height, but those who have believed it are being harassed by doubts which are engendered by failing to recognize God’s distinct message for the earthly Kingdom. There is a grand harmony in all God’s works which is plain enough in nature, but which seems almost unknown to spiritual eyes.
The bird has its home in the air, the fish in the sea and other animals upon the ground. Each knows its place; but God’s people seem continually inclined to swim with their wings or grovel in the ground when their right place is to be pinioned in the heights of heaven.
Let us remember, the Kingdom has been rejected. And all that which was intended to bring it about must not be pressed into service for which it is not fit, but should await the time when finally God sends His Christ again and He falls like a stone upon man’s grand monarchies and grinds them to powder. In view of that time, repentance will again be urged as is clearly seen in the oft-repeated charge in the seven letters to the churches in Rev.2 and 3 and in the charges against apostate Israel (Rev.16:9-11) and the remainder of mankind (Rev.9:20,21).
Then it will be in point to proclaim repentance once again.
Meanwhile, we should proclaim peace. We should point men, not to their feelings or misdeeds or coming judgment, but to Christ. Not even to the judgment due their sins, but His judgment on the cross which fends all thought of wrath.
For the present, God is not counting men’s offenses against them. He is beseeching men to receive the reconciliation effected by the death of His Son. Nor penance, nor penitence, nor repentance may intrude or obscure that marvelous mystery of the gospel, the reconciliation. God asks nothing now from man. Yea, more than that, God Himself is entreating men to accept the reconciliation He has wrought (2 Cor.5:17-20). In the past, our Lord could tell them, “If thy brother repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4) for God was acting so at that time. Now, however, as beloved children, we are to imitate God in forgiving one another quite apart from any repentance on the part of our brethren. The reason for this is found in the fact that God Himself acts thus. He points to Himself and His gift — His Son — and asks alone for faith in Him. He does not ask the sinner to look back or within, but only up. One glimpse of Him will entail far deeper loathing not only of our past, but of ourselves, than any repentance could ever bring about. Indeed our past is in the sepulchre, buried from our sight. Our life is Christ and this looks back to no repentance.
“But,” some will say, “I never saw a real case of conversion yet, but it was accompanied by repentance.” This may be quite true, but, shall we mold God’s word to suit our experience or the experience of others when that experience is itself the result of defective teaching? No! rather let us mold our experience to suit His word, and let us value it only in as much as it agrees with what He has said.
Repentance is not necessary to faith in the gospel. Take the pattern case which God has given us for a standard. Abraham believed God’s good news concerning the seed. This faith God reckoned to him for righteousness. Did he repent? What call was there for repentance? Good news may be believed without a previous repentance.
In the case of the Kingdom, matters are different. It cannot come until God has first emptied the hoarded bowls of wrath upon His apostate people and broken the seals of judgment that right a rebellious world. The Kingdom must be entered through much tribulation. Its nearness means judgment. Therefore we read “Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens, has drawn nigh.” Therefore John the Baptist goes on to warn them of “the wrath to come.”
But nowadays there is no mixture of judgment in the gospel, except that which Christ Himself bore and which is past long since. This is the plain teaching of the fifth chapter to the Romans, “We shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom.5:9).
This is one of our especial blessings, that, in that judgment era, whether we are wakeful or drowsy, we shall live together with Him. For this, He is coming to the air to receive us to Himself (1 Thess.4:15,17; 5:10).
O, that we knew the sufficiency of Christ for everything! We are so anxious to pry men into the “Kingdom” that we invent various crowbars to get them in, all the while ignoring the great truth that the gospel is God’s power for salvation (Rom.1:16). We preach on all sorts of topics from sanitation to sanctification (ever tinkering with man himself) when the gospel is concerning His Son (Rom.1:3). In a word we are trying to “bring men to Christ,” when He would have us bring Christ to men!
How grand it is to fall back upon God Himself! He will see to it that everyone whom He has selected will be invited and justified and sanctified. And He does it in spite of all the stumbling blocks we put in the sinner’s way. Some preach law outright, some regeneration, some the spirit’s work, some baptism, some repentance — but none of these are good news; indeed, there is no good news apart from Christ.
Let it be our precious privilege to preach Christ crucified to those who know Him not; and to those who know Him, Christ glorified. Let Christ be first and Christ be last and Christ fill all between. Let us not look back and vaunt ourselves with, “I prayed, I repented, I was baptized, and I—,” but let us rather shout with the Apostle “no longer I, but CHRIST!” If I had a hand in my salvation it must needs contain a flaw, for I find failure fills everything I do. But if Christ alone deserves the crown, then all like Him is perfect and immutable. Some who repented fell away (Heb.6:6) and it was impossible to renew them again to repentance. Therefore the apostle exhorts them to leave repentance from dead works (Heb.6:1).
It is God’s purpose that in all things Christ should have the preeminence and that all fullness should dwell in Him. He is God’s fullness. He is our fullness. Both God and His saints are mutually and completely furnished in Christ (Col.1:19,20; 2:9,10).
A. E. Knoch
This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).