Second Sunday in Advent: Is. 11:1-10, Rom. 15:4-13, Mt. 3:1-12
Repent! When the Lord is about to come, when He acts to save, when He comes to judge, the announcement is: Repent! And from the first advent to the last advent of Jesus, this is one of the fundamental calls of the gospel: God has come in Jesus to save and judge, and He is coming to save and judge (Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 17:30, 20:21, 26:20). So we need to ask: what is repentance?
“Repentance to life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” – WSC 87 (cf. Ez. 18:21, 2 Cor. 7:10, Is. 55:7)
The Problem: You Can’t Repent
First, let us be clear: Christian repentance is not just saying you’re sorry when you mess up. It is not just feeling bad that you blew it. People can feel really bad for sin and still not be repentant: Esau sought repentance with tears but because he was unwilling to give up his fornication and profanity, he could not find it (Heb. 12:17). Judas was sorry for his betrayal of Jesus but it ended in his death (Mt. 27:3-5, Acts 1:17-18). In fact, when we say that repentance is a “saving grace” we mean that true repentance is actually utterly impossible for us because we can’t save ourselves from our sin. Repentance is not trying harder to be good or trying harder not to sin. This is because repentance is a sheer gift. Isaiah pictures a renewed world, full of peace, with the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea, but notice where it came from: a stump (Is. 11:1, cf. 10:33-34). John calls Israel to repentance, but notice where he’s standing: a desert (Mt. 3:1). Isaiah says that this voice crying in the wilderness is God’s one-man road construction crew. When you think of John the forerunner, the preparer of the way, you should imagine him as a lumberjack with a splitting maul and chain saw, driving a bulldozer, and towing steamroller behind. Why? We are utterly unprepared for God. We must repent, we must turn to Him, but we can’t and we won’t unless He turns us first (Ps. 80:3, 7, 19).
So this is the problem and a warning: it is terrifyingly easy to for people to think that just because they felt bad, because they teared up, they have repented. But Paul says that godly sorrow works repentance to salvation, but the sorrow of the world works death (2 Cor. 7:10). Often those who know the most about repentance are those actually furthest from repentance. Religious people, church-going people (e.g. Pharisees and Sadducess) are those whom John warns most pointedly. Don’t you know that God can raise up children to Abraham from the rocks? Why do we need to hear this? Because we are the sorts of people who think we can contribute, that we aren’t that bad, or because we prayed the prayer and cried it must be real. And some of you are even thinking: it’s not really that bad is it? Why does John call the people to repent if they can’t? Why tell people to do something they can’t? For the same reason Jesus told the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the dead to rise.
The Solution: The Mercy of God in Christ
But this proclamation of the impossibility of repentance is simultaneously the means by which God presents us with the only means of true repentance. In fact, the whole Bible is about this. This is why Paul urges the Roman Christians to remember the “patience and comfort of the Scriptures” that we might have hope (Rom. 15:4). What do we find in Scripture? We find the story of man’s unfaithfulness, man’s failure, man’s disobedience, man’s rebellion, man’s hard-heartedness, and in the face of it all God’s patience and comfort! We provide the stump, we provide the mountains of sin, the valleys of darkness, the crooked places of perversion, and the rough places of bitterness, and God comes to break down our pride, to lift up the downtrodden, to straighten the twisted, to comfort our broken hearts (cf. Is. 40:3-4). Paul was writing to Jews and Gentiles in the early church learning to get along, and he said that the key to receiving one another, the key to being likeminded, the key to repenting of all our prejudice and pride and betrayal and division was to remember how God receives us in Christ to His glory (Rom. 15:7). While we were without hope, while we were sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6-10).
Conclusion: True vs. False Repentance
1. False repentance is only sorry for the effects of sin, but true repentance also hates sin because it separates us from God our Father.
2. False repentance remains grief stricken and often includes reoccurring bouts of depression, but true repentance culminates in hope and profound relief.
3. False repentance is painfully self-aware and calculating, but true repentance is self-forgetful and overflowing because we are set free.
4. False repentance tends to make relationships more complicated, but true repentance simplifies everything.
5. False repentance may use God-words and Bible verses, but true repentance results in vibrant, joyful worship of Jesus.
6. False repentance is full of pride and remains prickly and is easily offended, but true repentance is humble: quick to forgive, quick to forget, quick to overlook offenses because we have been forgiven in Christ.
7. False repentance continues in the grip of sin, but true repentance results in a profoundly new obedience to Jesus.
Often the greatest hindrance to true repentance is only feeling a little bit bad. But until we despair, until we are reduced to a stump of powerlessness, a desert of impossibility we will be tempted to claim some of the glory for ourselves. But God is determined to save sinners “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6). It’s the knowledge of this grace that God is determined to flood the whole world with.