Thursday, November 26, 2009

Taking on the “repent and believe” gospel

(Blogger’s note) I wrote the following in response to a letter by a father and son team who call themselves evangelists and essentially approach people on the street telling them various reasons that they need to “repent and believe” in Christ. “Do you know if you died today, whether you would go to heaven or hell?” That type of thing.

In any case, for this father and son team this approach is what passes for “preaching the gospel.” I wrote this to share biblically why their approach is not the biblical gospel—there is no repenting before there is believing (which is the work of the Holy Spirit—our new birth, John 3). In other words, if you have not yet received the gift of faith, you will have no desire to repent:  
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:14)

You wrote: We believe that Jesus died ONCE for ALL our sins. When we repent and receive Him, we are SAVED. That's all we do. The reformers called this Sola Fide.

I responded: I must disagree. This is not what the reformers called sola fide because sola fide means “by faith alone” but you say, even without faith in Christ, one has the ability to repent and receive him, as you put it, “That’s all we do.” Repentance comes not before but only after we are given the gift of faith (born again). Otherwise it is a “work” of man. Again, “Without faith it is impossible to please God. Without me you can do nothing…”
1 Peter 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

24 For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: 25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

1 Cor. 21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

As a former cradle Catholic for more than 40 years, I dare say your father and I sought to confess our sins time and again in true repentance before our priest friends. But, as for me, the first day I knew I was truly forgiven was the day that the Holy Spirit brought me to admit that Christ alone had saved me and I had would never be able to contribute anything to the salvation he alone has won for me.

Then and only then was I truly able to repent of my sins, because, until that time, I had not believed in the true Christ. The Christ I had been taught about was an idol of the pope’s making. He had died only to make me “savable”—not to save me completely. That idol christ—which was no Christ at all—bid me to do many things such as attend daily Mass, receive and pray to him in the form of bread, repent of my sins and rely on priestly mediation to get the worst of my sins forgiven, etc…

What I am saying is that from a practical standpoint, practicing “repentance first” all those years never did a thing for me and your dad as Roman Catholics. What made all the difference was to believe the true Gospel. After I received faith in the true Christ who had totally accomplished my salvation by his death on the cross, I knew I was forgiven, even before I repented, though I did indeed repent in tears of sorrow and joy.

2 Timothy 1:9 …who has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done (repentance) but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,

Romans 1:17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[ 1:17 Or is from faith to faith] just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."[ 1:17 Hab. 2:4]
Romans 3:22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

What I’m urging you and your father is to preach the true Gospel first and then you will occasionally see the true repentance that comes from belief in a God who did (and does) it all.

And what is that true Gospel?—that Christ alone has won the salvation of all those who come to believe just that—he did it all. That does not mean that we don’t seek the good works he gives us to bring glory to him among men, but that we fully realize those works won’t get us to heaven—Christ alone will. Something he plainly promises: He who believes…has everlasting life. ..I go to prepare a place for you…No one can snatch you out of my hands…

For me, the tract version of that Gospel goes like this: Christ, the Son of God, is Lord, Savior and God in the flesh, who died to rescue those who believe in him from everlasting hell and secured for them everlasting life with him.

If they hear and believe that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they’ll know they need to repent—and then you can help them more.

However, your gospel, has Christ dying for everyone, those who believe and those who do not ultimately believe, to secure their ability to at least repent and receive. The only problem is that you have no direct biblical basis for this belief.

You make your own case for this “repenting before faith” by insisting that John the Baptist and Christ himself would not have preached “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near” unless all people on earth (or at least all the Jews at that time) were able to repent and receive the faith to be saved. You conclude: So clearly man is able to repent, without the need of God needing to supernaturally and individually help man to respond to this divine command. In other words, you admit the basis of your gospel is only “implied” by certain verses such as those from the Baptist and Christ.

This much is clear: Everyone on the face of this earth has the responsibility to repent of their sins. As Paul tells us, they have no excuse. But having a responsibility and the actual power to carry out that responsibility are two entirely different things (Again, without me you can do nothing).

Your premise that Christ didn’t command the impossible is negated throughout the scriptures, where he often commanded the impossible

“Young man, I say to you arise.”

“Little girl, arise.”

“Lazarus, come forth!”

“Therefore you shall be perfect…”

“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Christ even explained on one occasion that it is, for all practical purposes, impossible for a rich man to get to heaven. His disciples countered with “Who then can be saved?” “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

However, by insisting that man is somehow of him or herself able to repent without the benefit of faith, you are saying that all men are able of themselves to initiate a saving process. Since you insist they are somehow able to do this without the benefit of faith, it’s the same as the so-called fathers of Trent insisting that natural (ungenerated) man can prepare himself to receive saving grace.

“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” (Canon 9 on Justification, Council of Trent)

Without faith, the repentance you speak of would certainly seem to qualify as an “action of our own will” which means that, no matter how many times we say we are saved by faith alone, we do not truly believe that we are saved solely by faith—by Christ through faith—because we were able to repent of our sins without it (without him!).

All this also reminds me of that Catholic teaching that I used to so cherish that we are somehow born with a “spark” of the divine in us, a spark that we ourselves somehow have the ability and a responsibility to kindle. Taken together, all of this is the reason that Roman Catholics are labeled semi-Pelagians. I know you’ve heard of Pelagius. He, of course, claimed that man could do much more than simply repent. However, since you teach me that my repentance was strictly of me—I too can qualify as a semi-Pelagian.

The other thing that bothers me about all this is that you seem to desperately try to separate grace and faith, to try to prove that faith is somehow not a gift. For by grace we are saved through faith… How can the two be separated if God’s grace is indeed, as his word indicates, delivered or instrumented through faith? The grace of God is this: that we are saved by Christ through faith. The word says “Without faith it is impossible to please God..”, yet you and I would surely agree that repentance is pleasing to God. Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. Surely that is enough to indicate that it is a gift if you choose to discount the clear revelation of Ephesians 2:8-9. If that’s not good enough, try these:

Faith as a gift…

Matthew 16:16-17 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, " Blessed are you Simon Son of Peter for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but My Father who is in heaven. (faith is a gift of God)
Romans 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
Acts 3:16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through Him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Luke 17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" (faith is a gift)
James 2:5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
2 Peter 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as gold.

That’s another thing that’s scary about your work on Calvin and your reaction to the verses I sent you. It’s as if you tend to reject or avoid certain bible verses that Calvinists use, simply because they use them. I trust that is not correct and that you embrace every word from God, at least as much as you seem to embrace every word from Ruckerman.

None of this should be taken to mean that we should not preach the Gospel to all. Indeed we should preach it to all. Christ commanded such. But we should certainly ensure that it’s the correct Gospel. Evangelizing techniques (sinners prayers and altar calls, etc…) should not be the basis for Gospel doctrine.

Did Christ truly die for all the world? For everyone? The pope tells me he did. You also listed several verses (in your Calvin article) but you failed to point out the qualifiers in and around them. Such as John 3:16 “whosever believes” What did Christ say? “He who believes in me has everlasting life.” And before he went to his death, he prayed to the Father::

John 17:9 I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.

Here Christ is preparing for his death on the cross and he refuses to pray for the world, that verse certainly needs to be thrown into the mix in order for you to properly weigh the others. Here’s a few more worthy of inclusion: “Even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive because it seeth him not…” (John 14:7) “…For all men have not faith.” (2 Thess. 3:2)

---Bro. Jim