by David C. Grabbe
CGG Weekly, April 8, 2016
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience."
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus defines the two great commandments of His law—the two highest principles: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Because sin is the breaking of the law (I John 3:4)—including these two great commandments—sin can also be understood as any failure to love God or our fellow man perfectly. Sin goes beyond breaking the letter of the law to breaking its spirit, which is summarized as love toward God and man. This is a high standard indeed!
It is no wonder, then, that under the New Covenant God says that He will put His laws in our minds and write them on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). Those laws define sin, and thus they define how we have turned, and continue to turn, away from God. Because He wants us to walk with Him, it is an absolute necessity that we understand God's law to know when we have transgressed—so we can repent and return to Him.
Another example of the continual need to repent is quite serious. It is found in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, which are applicable in numerous ways:
They applied to first-century churches.
They have applied to seven church eras throughout history.
They will apply to seven end-time churches seen in John's vision of the Lord's Day.
They apply to seven attitudes that can exist at any time.
Their application could also be a combination of some or all of these. The sobering fact is that Christ tells five out of the seven churches to repent (Revelation 2:5, 16, 22; 3:3, 19)! These are groups of believers who have been called by God and given His Spirit, yet five out of seven—71%—are out of alignment with the Head of the church in ways critical enough that He has to point them out and tell the people to change.
From what Christ says to these congregations, chances are good that we are also in need of repentance. If we consider the letters from the standpoint of attitudes, a 71% chance exists that our approach to God is in need of a significant change. If we look through the lens of seven end-time churches or groups, the same 71% chance exists that our group needs to acknowledge sin and return to God. But if we consider the letters as applying to church eras throughout time, there is a 100% chance that we are in need of repentance in this final, Laodicean era. This is a broad and inexact analysis, but it is still worthy of consideration.
This does not mean that the churches in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13)—those He does not criticize—are without sin, for all of God's people sin. It indicates that they are actively repenting of and overcoming their sins so that they are not in disagreement with God over the right way to live. Even though they certainly stumble at times, they readily acknowledge their sin and are determined to get back on track so that nothing separates them from God. However, for the other five churches, Jesus must tell them that they are going the wrong way and that He will act with strong judgment if they do not turn back.
These letters teach critical lessons about repentance:
The first is that Jesus Christ is exceptionally serious about our turning from sin, in contrast to the popular conceptions of a Savior who is essentially unconcerned about conduct.
A second lesson is that repentance should be an ongoing practice, as we all have a tendency to veer off the right path.
A third lesson is that, even among those with God's Spirit, it is easy to be blind to the areas of life in which we have turned away from God. It is natural to believe that we are in good standing with Him, even as He insists that we are heading the wrong way—which is the crux of the matter in the letter to Laodicea. God is not keeping the right way to live hidden from us. The problem is that we have such a difficult time consistently seeking first the Kingdom of God and God's righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Only two out of the seven churches appear to do that.
The essence of the gospel message brought by Jesus Christ and His servants is preparation for the Kingdom of God. The first step in that preparation is repentance. It is not the only step, as much needs to be built on that foundation, but without that initial and continual step, we will not be fit for God's Kingdom. We will still be in opposition to God over the right way to live.
Seeking first the Kingdom of God begins with faith and repentance, and repentance depends on our having the right understanding of God's instructions for living. As we seek that understanding and grow in it, we will be struck with remorse over the ways in which we frequently fall short. But that remorse—called "godly sorrow" in II Corinthians 7:10—is a positive thing because it motivates us to turn to God more fully and to take another step in living as He lives.