Yet You Did Not Return

Amos 4:6

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,

and lack of bread in all your places,

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

Revelation 9:20-21

20 The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, 21 nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.

Yet you did not return. Yet you did not repent. These are the regular truths of lost humanity, even in the face of the true and holy judgment of God.

In Amos 4, five times we read, “’Yet you did not return to me,’ declares the LORD. Those lines, spoken to the people of the northern kingdom, all follow different judgments of God on the land. Multiple times and in various ways, God had chastened the people. The hardships they faced should have drawn the people back toward the Lord. After all, the people had agreed to terms with the Lord in the covenant at Sinai, and that covenant included provision for such judgments should the nation turn unfaithful.

In Revelation 9:20-21 as well as 16:9 and 11, we see something quite similar. When the judgments of God are poured out on the people of earth in this prophetic vision, mankind does not turn from his wickedness. Instead, the nature of the lost is to double-down on sin rather than learn from hardship. So, in the end, the people of the world store up for themselves the wrath of God to greater and greater degrees.

Do not underestimate the capacity of mankind to press forward with wickedness even in the light of true judgment and destruction. If God does not work to change our hearts, we will, worse than a recalcitrant child, stiffen our necks and shake our fists until the Lord takes from us our very lives. Even in hell, the wicked will not be truly repentant. While they will bow to Jesus and know that they justly deserve their fate, none will desire to turn from their wickedness to embrace the Lord.

When you see the nature of mankind to be stiff-necked and rebellious, thank Jesus if you have faith. Only through his sovereign power is a dead sinner made a living saint. And if you are made a child of God in Jesus, your relationship with your God is not based on your works or your goodness. Instead, your hope, my hope, our only hope is the love of Jesus and his perfect grace.

If you know Jesus, remember the nature of mankind. We never stop telling the truth to the world. WE never stop calling people to faith. But we must know that only the Lord can change a human heart. If mankind is left to himself, he fights against God and all that is good.

Finally, if you do not know Jesus, stop fighting. If you have any desire to stop fighting, know that this is a gift of God. Repent. Believe. Trust Jesus. Be saved.

Does Your Gospel Sound Like This?

Luke 24:45-47 – 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

What is the gospel? How do we proclaim it? What is the Great Commission? How do we obey it?

Here at the end of Luke’s telling of the gospel, we see Jesus present the Lukan version of the Great Commission. It does not contain everything that we see in Matthew, but it still shows us something important.

Boiling this passage down, Jesus, in commissioning his disciples, tells them that they should understand his death and resurrection and they should proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is all Luke was led by the Spirit of God to include in his expression of the Great Commission. And I think we should learn from it.

The first part is easy. We know that anybody who gets the gospel must grasp the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, there is no gospel without the Son of God dying to pay the price for the sins of others. There is no gospel if Jesus stays in his grave. We must see that the price was fully paid and that all who are saved by Jesus will live with him eternally just as he lives after death in a glorious, resurrection body.

But how about that other part? When you think about the gospel, when you share it, would you describe your gospel presentation as the proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Is that the message of your church? Or have other things snuck in there?

What is present in this gospel? Those who repent are saved. What is repentance? To repent is to change how you think, how you feel, and what you do. To repent in a gospel context is to stop thinking you are OK on your own. It is to stop trusting in yourself and your own goodness. It is to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and your only hope of salvation through is life, death, and resurrection. It is to genuinely sorrow over your sin and to understand that you have earned the judgment of God. It is to throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, asking for salvation based solely on Jesus and his finished work. And it is a salvation that, once you receive it, leads to a new life of repentance where you continue to turn from sin and continue to trust in and obey the Lord.

What is not in this message? Look at the text. It’s not anything gimmicky. It’s not a sappy, emotion-only appeal. There is nothing here that should lead a church to try to bribe someone into the gospel with giveaways, false promises of prosperity, or capitulation to modern political whims. There is no message that says that you can have salvation while continuing to be and believe all that you were and thought before salvation. There is a demand for faith that will change your very life even as that demand tells you that you are saved by Jesus and not by your change.

I would never want us to proclaim a loveless message of a harsh Jesus. Nor would I suggest that there is not beauty in the promise of grace. But I do believe that many a church has mistaken the call to make disciples for a call to make converts by any means necessary. I believe that many seek to draw people to pray a prayer without actually calling them to repentance. I believe that many people are fooled into thinking they have checked the box to gain a free pass to heaven without ever being called to change a single thing about who they are. And that kind of presentation is not a call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Is the message about God’s love? O yes! God is wonderfully, gloriously loving toward his people. All of us have sinned. All of us deserve judgment. God has provided one and only one way of salvation. None of us can work to earn it. The way of salvation is Jesus, his perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. The way of salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone, trusting Jesus alone. And God’s way of salvation can be summarized by this call, “Repent!” All who wish to be saved let go of everything to take hold of Jesus. All who wish to be saved stop thinking they can define morality in their own way, and they surrender to the lordship of Jesus. All who wish to be saved turn from sin to follow Jesus. All who wish to be saved trust only in Jesus. And when they are saved, all who are saved are saved, not by their actions, but by the person and the finished work of Jesus.

A Call to Repentance

When we call people to salvation in the Lord Jesus, if we are being most biblical, we call people to repent and believe. Both of those terms are used time and time again to depict how a person comes to salvation. The two are not separate things.

We know in general what believing in Jesus looks like. But what does repentance look like? WE have pictures in the Bible. IN fact, we see the Lord give us a picture of repentance at the end of the book of Hosea.

God, speaking particularly to Israel, has called them out for their sinful unfaithfulness to him. But in the final chapter of this prophecy, he calls them to repent.

Hosea 14:1-3

1 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
2 Take with you words
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
“Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
and we will pay with bulls
the vows of our lips.
3 Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.”

The word for return here in verse 1 is a repentance word. It literally means to turn back or return, to turn from one thing or direction to another. The word could speak of a person walking in one direction and making a turn. Or it could mean a person turning back from evil and toward righteousness. Obviously, in this context, God is calling Israel to a spiritual change of direction.

In verse 1, we see that returning involves a turning from their iniquity toward the Lord their God. They are to stop chasing after their sin and start (or start again) seeking after the Lord.

In verse 2, God tells them what they should be saying: Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. This is the people going to God, seeking forgiveness for their past wrongs and promising to obey the commands they have been previously disobeying. They are saying they have been wrong in the past, but, from now on, they will return to being under his lordship.

In verse 3, the people are to say to God that they will no longer run to foreign nations for their deliverance. Instead, they will trust in him. They will not trust in their own prowess on the battlefield, mounting themselves on horses, but will trust in the Lord’s protection. It is a turning from self-reliance to reliance on God. It is the kind of thing that God had commanded Israel to do, to trust in him instead of the pagan nations around them, but they were refusing to do.

At the end of verse 3, the people were to say, “And we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” The nation had fought against God by looking at their own inventions, the crafting of idols, and declaring things they put together to be their deities. Repentance would mean that they stop seeing false things as divine, and they would only call God the one true God. And in this repentance the people would find grace.

In truth, what Israel needed to do is very much the same for us today. A person who repents of sin to turn to Christ in faith must turn from self-reliance. We must stop thinking that we are in charge of our lives. WE must stop thinking that we can rely on sinful things to take care of ourselves. We must determine that we desire to follow and obey the Lord. And we must stop calling divine that which is not God. Repentance involves surrendering to the Lord, turning from self and all other evils, and fully turning toward the God who made us. Repentance involves bowing before the throne of God and declaring him our Master.

Part of that repentance is belief, faith. It requires repentance for a person to believe the truth about Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh who came to earth. Jesus lived a perfect life. Jesus died a sacrificial death. Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus forgives all who come to him in faith. There is no religious action or ceremony that contributes to our salvation. No act earns us God’s favor. Only the one who comes to Jesus, repenting, empty-handed, relying on him and him alone will be saved. This requires a repenting belief in Jesus apart from works. And this is how we can say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And this is how we can say that a person must repent and believe to be saved.

Joy in Heaven

In Luke 15, Jesus preached three parables intended to illustrate the fact that there is great joy in heaven when a sinner repents.

Luke 15:7 – Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

These parables tell us of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (sometimes called the prodigal son). In the first two, we see people going to great lengths to regain something that had been lost and then rejoicing over the find.

Though it is simple, this is a place we need to be sure not to gloss over. After all, often the simplest things are the things we forget. God is showing us that there is great joy in heaven when the Lord brings a lost person to repentance. There is great joy in heaven, I would add, when the Lord brings a straying believer to repentance. There is great joy in heaven when God is glorified and someone who is away from the Lord is brought into right relationship.

Think about how this might impact you if you take it seriously. God loves us sinners coming to him in repentance and faith. We need to never forget that. We need to take action to see it happen. We need to pray that the Lord will make us a part of the process. We need to love there being great rejoicing in heaven.

One angle on this is that you and I, Christians, need to love taking the gospel to the lost. We do not compromise it. We do not reshape the gospel to make it something that the world will tolerate but which lacks the truth of saving grace. We just graciously and lovingly and honestly take the truth of Jesus to all we can. We want to call all people everywhere to repent and believe.

I would add that this also applies to how we deal with straying believers. When a child of God wanders from the faith, we need to be loving enough not to write them off. We need to honestly and clearly and lovingly call for repentance. Yes, we may work through the process of church discipline. But we never work through that process with a desire to just slam the door and get rid of somebody. We are always working for, praying for, striving for that person’s repentance, return to faithfulness, and reconciliation with the church.

We love the glory of God. We love doctrine. We love the truth of God’s word. And if we really do love these things, we will love what God says he loves. And God says he loves it when sinners repent. May we be a part of seeing that kind of joy in heaven to the glory of God.

Grace and Repentance

I love grace. I really do. I love to recognize how deep is the love of God for his people. I think, in many situations, we fail to realize just how marvelous it is that the Lord would actually choose us and love us, love with a genuine affection and not a begrudging forgiveness. God calls us his children and really loves us like a good Father loves his children.

But if we focus so much on grace that we forget that salvation is transformative, we have a problem. Salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet the call to salvation in Scripture is always both repent and believe. Salvation comes to us when we trust in Christ. But trusting in Christ includes a yielding to his lordship and repenting of sin.

Think of this paragraph from John.

1 John 1:5-10 – 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Look at the two sides of the coin that simply cannot be ignored. God is light. God has no darkness at all. So all who claim to belong to the Lord turn from sin, from darkness, and walk in light. That may sound all spiritual, but it really is not deep. God is good. If we are his, we will walk in goodness. God hates sin. If we are his, we will walk in righteousness and not in sin.

But, if we took that light and dark stuff as the only message, we would be overwhelmed. You are a sinner and so am I. Christians are still battling sin, and we do not always win in our day-to-day. So does that mean that, if my life has sin in it, if I ever fail, then I am not a true Christian? Praise God, no! Verse 8 reminds us that a claim to have reached sinlessness in ourselves would be us calling God a liar. But, what marks Christians is that we confess our sin, find cleansing in Jesus, and then strive to change and walk in the light as Christ is in the light.

What makes this passage so beautiful and so worth considering on any day is that it paints the picture of us rightly. It shows us grace and repentance side by side.

Are you a Christian? I hope that you are someone who has come to Jesus in faith and repentance to find salvation. If you are, then walk in righteousness. There is no such thing as a Christian who does not turn from sin and seek to obey Jesus. Living a life that obeys the commands of God is part of biblical Christianity. And any faith that pretends that we are not supposed to be changed and to live righteously is an antinomian religion, something wholly non-Christian.

But, before we let the burden of law and righteousness crush us, we also see that Christianity is a gracious, cleansing, loving thing. WE confess our sin. WE own our failing. We bring it to Jesus. And he cleanses us. That means both that we are forgiven and that we are helped by God to live more purely. We are sanctified by the Spirit of God so that we actually turn from sin and walk in the light.

So, dear friends, test your claim to faith. Are you walking in the light? Are you battling sin? Where there is sin, are you confessing it and bringing to Jesus? Are you being cleansed and led to repentance?

Forgetting How to Blush

How do we handle texts from the prophets condemning the sin of Israel and Judah? That is not as easy a question as one might imagine. On the one hand, it seems simple. Sin is sin. God is not pleased when nations do the things he forbids. But the prophets are speaking something more.

The prophets who speak to Israel and Judah are speaking to a people who have made a covenant with the Lord. They have promised to obey his laws. They have accepted God’s promise of protection and provision. They also have accepted his promise of judgment if they refuse to obey him.

In our modern setting, our national government is not a one-to-one parallel with Judah. America is not Israel. Even if many of our founders were genuine believers, even if you accept the narrative that the nation is truly intended to be a Christian nation, we are not in covenant with the Lord. What Israel was is different than what we are. And thus to apply the words of the prophets directly is not exactly fitting.

The prophets were speaking to people who were in covenant relationship with the Lord, who had accepted his governing, who had signed off on his justice, and who then turned and rebelled. And I still want to ask, what is the closest parallel? How do we apply something like the following?

Jeremiah 6:12b-15

for I will stretch out my hand
against the inhabitants of the land,”
declares the Lord.
13 “For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
14 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
15 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,”
says the Lord.

Notice with whom God is most upset. God is speaking powerfully against the religious in Israel who are speaking a false peace to the people of the land. God is speaking to false prophets and other such men who are telling the people of the land that they need not repent. God is promising judgment to come for those who should have the truth, and out of a love of sin or a love of comfort or a love of status are telling the sinning nation around them that it’s all just fine.

Now, do not think for a moment that God is giving the non-religious of the land a pass. They have committed abomination, but they do not even know how to blush. The concept of shame for grievous sin against the Lord is simply gone from that society. And thus the judgment of God is coming.

How do we handle this? I’d say two things at least are in order. On a simple side, sin is sin, and we need to see that our land is full of evil. Be careful not to let gratitude for our nation and those who have helped us maintain freedom prevent you from seeing our need of national repentance. WE embrace as a nation what God calls abomination. We have legalized the shedding of innocent blood. We have publicized sexual immorality and condemn those who still know how to blush. And if we do not repent, repenting as a nation, we are under wrath that we will not survive.

But, as a Christian, I need to be really careful not to let this passage make me only point fingers at the lost world around me. God’s strongest condemnation here is for the people who claim to be his people, the religious leaders, who speak peace to a land in rebellion against the Lord. We cannot do that and be faithful Christians. We need to weep. WE need to blush. We need to call our land to repentance. We need to warn of judgment and not rest in a supposed righteousness built into our culture.

Our nation is not Israel. We as a people do not have covenant promises of favor from God. We would do well not to boldly commit abomination before the Lord. Those who are in covenant relationship with the Lord, his church, need to be sure first not to participate in the sins of the nation. We next need to be sure not to pretend that the sins of the nation are OK. And we need to warn the nation to repent by first coming to Christ and then by turning from the evils that bring the wrath of God down on any nation.

Does this make me about modern social justice? Nope, I’m about repentance. I’m not about allowing the secular academy to tell us what is and what is not acceptable repentance. I’m about the word of God calling the people of God to stand in opposition to all things that dishonor God. So I hate racism. I hate murder. I hate abuse. And it is my job, as a Christian, to let the word of God command me how to live and how to call others to repentance.

A Powerful Reaction to Sin

Once the temple is completed in the book of Ezra, we watch as the continuing sin of Judah is exposed. The people of God have chosen to directly disobey the commands of the Lord. They have intermarried with the people of other religions, not caring about the fact that such actions violate the law of God.

When Ezra discovers what has happened, his response to the sin of the people is strong.

Ezra 9:3 – As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled.

The remainder of chapter 9 of Ezra is his prayer of confession. Ezra sees that the nation has just returned from exile for their sin. Yet, the nation has returned, almost immediately to the same kind of sin as earned them their exile in the first place. And Ezra confesses to the Lord that they deserve his judgment.

What strikes me as I read through this is not the overall story, but the passionate reaction of Ezra to the sin of the people of God. Ezra cared. Ezra was mortified that the people who claim to be followers of God would flat refuse to obey a clear and simple command of the Lord. And the command they violated was one of great personal danger. This was not making themselves unclean by a bad food choice. This was the people making permanent changes to their families in opposition to the Lord.

What I wonder for us is when is the last time we have hated sin with that kind of passion? When is the last time that we looked at our own choices and wanted to tear our clothes and pull out our hair. No, I’m not interested in an odd monastic flagellation. What I simply wonder is when is the last time we really cared, emotionally, deeply, gut-wrenchingly cared about the fact that our sin is a direct rebellion against the commands of a gracious God.

I love gospel. I love grace. I want us to live as people under grace. But we cannot live well under grace without recognizing that sin is significant. We cannot love God well without caring about his law. Jesus said that the one who has and obeys his commands is the one who loves him (John 14:15). WE cannot love God without obedience.

No, I do not want you to beat yourself or others for failing. But I do want us all to care about the Lord, about his holiness, and about the word. I want us, like Ezra, to see that God has given us grace upon grace. I want us to love that grace, but to never belittle that grace in presumptuous sin. May we be a people who repent well, including being a people who hurt when we sin so that our turning from sin will last.