repent and believe
Our Response to God and his Grace
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in our denomination have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV
Repent and Believe
By Linda Rex
Have you ever had that experience where you were praying about something, asking God to move in some situation, and when things actually began to improve, you were still in the “I have to do something to fix this” mode? It reminds me of the story of Peter being released by the angels from prison, going to find the brethren who were praying for him, but when he knocked no one would believe it was him knocking on the door.
I have no doubt that we want God to intervene and to answer our prayers. But do we really expect him to? Do we really believe God exists and that he wants to and will intervene in our lives and circumstances?
In this culture which is so heavily wrapped around science and proving things according to empirical data, I think it is interesting that we even have scientific studies that prove that praying for the sick actually works. But why do scientific studies of such a thing? Why do we have to prove that prayer works and is helpful?
I wonder if there is a deep inner longing in each of us to experience in a real way something outside of our human existence, something beyond ourselves that is more than we could ever be and that is lovingly inclined towards us and willing to help us when we are in need. And yet if there is such a Being or Force, we most certainly don’t want them to interfere with us or to tell us what to do. We want all the benefits of such a relationship, but none of the responsibilities.
We want to have help when we need it, to have success and good health and all of the glitz and glamour of a blessed life, but we surely don’t want anyone to dictate to us how to go about obtaining it or living it. We like to do life on our own, to deal with our problems our own way, and then to blame God or karma when things don’t turn out like we expect.
And prayer seems to be that guilt thing that we think maybe we ought to do more of now and again. We know prayer would be good to do when we’re in crisis and we don’t know where else to turn. But what do we know and believe about the God who we are praying to? Do we really believe he cares and that he will give us an answer? Or are we essentially atheists or humanists in our prayer life?
There is something fundamentally wrong here, and I believe it has to do with what we believe about God. First off, it is wonderful if we can get it through our minds and hearts that God is real and that God loves us. Period. He did, does and will love us unconditionally, no matter where, when, how we find ourselves—even in the midst of the stupid stuff we do.
And God gives us grace—total, unconditional forgiveness. But in the midst of that forgiveness and acceptance is the unspoken reality that we are in need of that forgiveness. Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics often reminds his readers that inherent in our receiving forgiveness is the acknowledgement of our need for it. God offers through receiving his gift of grace the opportunity to experience a change of mind and heart. This is called repentance and faith.
One of the ways we need to experience repentance and faith in is in this area of our view of God so we see him as a loving, merciful Lord who answers our requests for help and succor. We need to come to see God as a Person who cares about every facet of our life and who is ready and willing to help.
But along with that understanding of who God is needs to come an appreciation and respect for the right he has as a living Lord to personify for us who we are to be as human beings. The lives we live ought to reflect the God he is. How we think, behave and speak ought to correspond directly to the thinking, behavior and speech of Jesus Christ as it is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Scriptures. We need to acknowledge that sometimes the mess we are in is our fault and we need to change.
Don’t get me wrong. God’s not hovering over us waiting for some reason to slap us silly since he knows we’re going to mess up. No. He loves us, and he hates anything that will mess up our understanding and experience of that love. He hates anything that will mar the beauty of his image in us. He longs for us to fully experience the love, joy and peace of a life like his that is whole, blessed and healthy.
He wants us to see him for who he really is and to live accordingly. And prayer becomes a part of that reality in our lives. Because we know him as a God who loves and forgives us, we want to know him better. Knowing him better means we begin to see things about ourselves that need changed. So we go back to him, secure in his forgiveness and love. And our relationship with God grows deeper as we are continually drawn to deeper levels of repentance and faith.
Drawing closer to God means we see more areas of our being and life that do not reflect his glory. So we surrender to God in those areas rather than resisting him. Prayer then is just a natural part of our relationship with God—he shares himself with us, we share ourselves with him, he responds, we respond—throughout our lives it goes on. But we need to be careful not to allow any part of our being or life to be a place where God is not allowed to have a say in how we think, speak or live.
I’m not talking about rules. I’m talking about a real relationship with someone who wants to do more for us than we could ever think of or ask him for. I mean being so close to God in our hearts and minds that we don’t want to wound him in anyway by the things we think, say and do. We seek only to give full expression of God’s glory in and through us in every way possible.
This is tough and it is counter-cultural. It goes against our natural human inclinations and it definitely stands in opposition to all that is dark and evil and opposes the will and purposes of God.
But God stands with us and promises us that he will never leave us or forsake us. He is committed to our becoming all we were meant to be as his adopted children in Christ and by his Spirit. And he won’t quit until he is done. We can count on that.
Holy God, please forgive us our wrong-headed views and thoughts of you. Grant us the ability to see you with new eyes and hearts. Open up to us a new understanding of who you are and how your heart toward us is only good and loving. Grant us repentance and faith, through Jesus Christ and in your Spirit. Amen.
“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20–21