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By Anton Bosch [Note: Permission received to publish this article in full.]
In Paul’s letters to both the Corinthians and the Galatians, he warns about the potential of “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:6). From the context of both these passages it is clear that this other gospel is very similar to the real gospel and could easily be confused with the real thing. However, Paul says that anyone who preaches any other gospel is to be accursed. This he says twice to make sure we understand that that is exactly what he meant (Galatians 1:8,9). It is therefore important that we are sure we are preaching and believing the right gospel and that we are able to differentiate between the true and the counterfeit.
One of the aspects of the true Gospel that is absent from many modern versions is the matter of repentance. Yes, many will emphasize believing and the fact that salvation is by faith, but will never speak of the need for repentance. Repentance was an essential part of the first exposition of the Gospel by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). It was also at the heart of Paul’s message, both to Jews and Gentiles: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:19-20).
One reason why the need for repentance is omitted from so many of the modern versions of the gospel is because it may put potential joiners off. Many people will join the church and even go forward in response to the altar call if they do not have to change anything about their lives and still escape hell and get all the blessings that are promised to those who “believe”. However, the moment we tell people that they will have to change their lifestyle if they want to be Christians, the number of respondents drop to almost nothing. Thus, we want to make it as easy as possible for people to join our church and we hope that somehow by osmosis they will adopt a Christian lifestyle. Unfortunately, this does not happen and, in fact, the reverse happens. As these new “joiners” begin to multiply, they reach a critical mass where they begin to impose their values on the church instead of the other way round.
I know that many will argue that the message of repentance could become a salvation by works and indeed, that is possible, but the presence of many hypocrites in the church should not stop us from living the kinds of lives that please the Lord. We repent, not because repentance will save us, but because having understood the futility of our old lifestyle, we have no more need for it and we truly sorrow over our disobedience and rebellion to a holy and righteous God.
It is interesting how many times Jesus linked repentance to salvation. Only once Zacchaeus had offered to restore what he had taken wrongfully did Jesus say: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). The rich young ruler turned away from eternal life because Jesus required that he turn his back on his possessions (Luke 18:22). This young man had a great advantage because it says that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21), and yet in spite of the fact that there was so much about him that Jesus loved, Jesus would not make it easier for him to become a joiner. He had to turn away (repent) from his material things. Do you think Jesus would approve of the millions who join the church today and of the zeal with which churches do everything in their power to make it as easy as possible for people to join? No never! In spite of the rich young man’s many obvious talents, zeal and attractive personality, Jesus would not allow him to join without repentance.
At the heart of this issue is the same problem Israel always struggled with – serving Yahweh as well as other gods. The reason the Lord brought them out of Egypt was so they could be His and His alone (Exodus 19:4). He brought them through the Red Sea that the way of retreat back to Egypt would be cut off. The reason they had to clear the promised land of other nations was that they may not be contaminated by the idolatry of the heathen nations. And yet, they constantly tried to serve two masters and in the end, were scattered among the nations because of their lack of commitment to the one true God. Repentance means cutting ties with the world and its values, lusts and pleasures and making a total commitment to the Lord. There is little doubt that if the thousands of people who join the church every week were told that they had to make a clean break and turn to the Lord and to Him alone, most would turn away just like the rich young ruler.
Our God is jealous God who wants and deserves our full and total love and devotion. He will not share us with other gods and when we come to Him, we must decide whom we want to serve. Repentance means turning away from all others and committing totally to Him who loved us and died for us. Jesus said that no man can serve two masters and when people come to the crossroads, they have to choose the path that leads to life or the broad way. You just cannot walk both paths at the same time because they lead in opposite directions. Yet, many will depict the point of decision as a minor course correction. It is not. It is a total reversal and a 180 degree change in direction. Where once we were serving the world, the flesh and the Devil, we now serve the Lord. Once we were on the broad way leading to destruction we now tread the narrow way to eternal life. Once we were lawless, now we submit to the perfect law which brings liberty. Once we were bound, now we are free. Once we were lost, now we are found.
Turning from hell toward God is a radical, dramatic change of life and direction. Those who have not come to that point where they can say “old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17) may have become religious but may not be saved. The message of John the Baptist and of Jesus still rings clear today: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17).