One of the many vulnerabilities of the contemporary evangelical church is a stubborn mistaking of quantity for quality. This can be true at a local and global church level where attendances (or more recently ‘hits’ and ‘likes’) can be the marker for how well things are progressing and how much interest is being shown. It can be evident in statistical analysis of the growth of the gospel in the world, which does not bore down deeply into the nature of the ‘gospel’ being believed in, nor the fruit that it is bearing. We are readily fixated on figures, and often filter our view of the influence of a minister, a ministry, or even of Jesus Christ himself, based on numbers.
This problem has become increasingly evident in the first half of 2020, as society and the Church seek to adjust to the Covid 19 crisis. We are rightly excited at the numbers of people who are re-engaging with religion, who are willing to take gospel literature, and who are tuning in to church services. It is with excellent warrant that we celebrate the final insufficiency of humanism to meet the needs of humans, and that a hunger for transcendence marks the minds and anxieties of those around us. We should rejoice, and seek to exploit to the full, the fact that there is a greater listening ear to what the Bible has to say, that people are reading it and questioning it for themselves. The British press recently reported that at one point during lockdown 40% of people in the United Kingdom were tuning into religious broadcasts online.
To question or probe such figures can give the impression of a sour hyper-Calvinism, or a temperamental tendency towards pessimism, but analysis is surely necessary if we are to speak clearly and authoritatively to the Church and the world. Among all of the figures, and all of fostering of hope among Christians that the tide might be turning on secularism, how do we measure if a society, individuals, or churches desire to truly draw near to God? What metric can we use to ascertain the genuineness and longevity of an early interest in coming to Christ?
In this post, I want to suggest that one key doctrine provides a gauge on where people are in relation to the gospel and God, namely repentance. This facet of biblical truth lifts a lid on where hearts are in relation to the Lord, it exposes motive, it diagnoses misunderstandings, and it might just be the area of God’s revelation that we most urgently need to highlight before the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike.
Love like a morning cloud
The Scriptures often scrutinise the motivation of those who claim an interest in Christ and the gospel. Occasionally such scrutiny is unwarranted on the part of Christians (think Saul in Acts 9:26), and sometimes it is so neglected that false professions arise unnoticed (think Simon the Magician in Acts 8). More often, however, it is God who assesses the depth and sincerity of those who claim to seek him, and there is a sad drop-off rate of apparent believers when we look at things through his eyes.
Across the corpus of Scripture there are instances of those who wish to flee consequences rather than to flee corruption, a kind of rash and rushed evacuation of the scene of the crime for fear of being incriminated, rather than handing oneself in, racked with guilt and a consciousness of offence. This was the case during the days of Hosea’s ministry in which he confronted the nation with their need, but in which early responses were proven to be self-seeking and self-serving. Hosea 6:1-3 disarms readers and has divided scholars precisely because at this point in the prophecy it sounds as though God’s people have repented. There is a desire to return (v1), there is an acknowledgement of consequence (‘he has torn us’, v2) and there is a reassurance that God will act and answer their prayer (v2).
God’s response is entirely deflating. The love of the people is passing ‘like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away’ (Hosea 6:4). What could pass for repentance is actually further evidence of their rebellion, a profane bargaining with God so that they might obtain a ‘get out of jail free card’. What was being sought was God as temporal deliverer, rather than God as personal Saviour, a kind of 999 (or 911) call to the precincts of heaven so that harm might be avoided. This light repentance, often supplemented with unacceptable sacrifices, has the effect of intensifying rather than mollifying God’s anger.
The claimed 40% attendance at online church services is matched by the same percentage of people in the UK who have written their wills in response to Covid 19. These two numbers may or may not be related, but they do at least reveal that people are concerned chiefly about mortality, rather than necessarily about eternity. Part of the human response to existential threat might be to consult a solicitor, and possibly seek out a priest for good measure – all in an effort to prepare for, or to avoid, meeting the undertaker. There can be a hedging of bets, a sending of envoys to the shore of heaven in case we need good passage there should we be shipwrecked by our present problems. This might serve as a fresh line of communication for keen and sensitive evangelists to follow up, but it is no measure at all of proximity to coming to Christ.
Such sentiments can, in fact, be harmful in the long term, providing the illusion of a spiritual cash reserve which might be drawn down should things get really difficult. It is to place God and the gospel on a retainer, in case of emergency, and to sideline sin and repentance in such a way as to render their concern impotent in terms of approaching Christ. As Christians, we must be aware of this, and while we should follow up every interest shown in the gospel, we must make sure that what is being sought actually is the gospel, and not merely the escape pod it might be seen to provide.
Related to this is the idea of bargaining with God. In the 1978 film ‘The End’, Burt Reynolds’ character is adrift from shore at risk of drowning and cries out to God. His plea is ‘Let me live, and I promise to obey every one of the 10 commandments’, that he will be a better father, husband and man, that he will be honest in business, just so long as he gets to the beach. He promises God 50% of all the money he makes in the future. As he gets nearer to the shore he assures God that he won’t regret helping him, and now that he is nearer to the beach he promises to make good and to give 10%, claiming that ‘I know it was you that saved me, but it was also you that made me sink’. This is a vivid picture of what can happen at a time of crisis, with the weight of consequence bearing down heavily. Men and women can cut God a deal if only he lets them live, and this can be part of the swell of numbers seeking to connect with the gospel. The missing note again, is repentance.
Take with you words
All of the foregoing is not to deny that there is a new spiritual appetite abroad, not to downplay the opportunity we currently enjoy as the Church. If, however, we do not assess the motives of those who are demonstrating new interest, if we do not entertain the possibility that something less than true conviction of sin is a driver for people engaging with Christianity, then we will not be prepared to help them as we ought to. Jeremiah 6:14 bewails the ministry of prophets who heal the wounds of people lightly, without truly probing the depth of infection and the need for definitive action. If our world’s motives are dreadfully mixed, then it falls to us to preach repentance as a means of refining its understanding of what need the gospel actually meets. The gospel is not chiefly concerned with psychological wellbeing, it is not chiefly concerned to give men and women an arbitrary peace of mind. The gospel at its most fundamental level is concerned with the glory of God demonstrated in repentant sinners having their sins cleansed through the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, in response to God’s unmerited grace and love. The gospel is not concerned simply to make us feel better or be better, the gospel offers true salvation, part of which is a deeply felt conviction of our sin.
The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote that repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six key ingredients: sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, and turning from sin. To preach repentance is to preach a gospel which cuts us to the quick, which shreds all of our potential to make peace with God on our own terms, which demands that we truly see ourselves as singularly condemned by God’s law, and personally under God’s wrath. To preach repentance is to burst the boundaries of a single doctrine, and to bring into view the full orbed nature of salvation’s necessity, as well as the Saviour’s sufficiency. In terms of sorrow for sin, Watson held that it was not a notional acknowledgement of transgression but a wounded heart which laboured under the weight of its position before God, and longingly cried for salvation: ‘we are to find as much bitterness in weeping for sin as ever we found sweetness in committing it’ (Watson).
Repentance is not just a part of certain believers’ testimonies, but a key component in the gospel we preach. If we filter an influx of interest in the gospel according to those who are newly awakened to the holiness of God and offensiveness of sin, we may have a better picture of where those around us are placed in terms of coming to God. This key feature of gospel preaching also puts us to the point in terms of what we declare from the pulpit, or what we presently proclaim online. Is there a call to repentance in our preaching? Is sin as sinful in our words as in the Word of God? Are we crying out to people not merely to ‘come to faith’, but to come to repentance, to own and acknowledge their peril and plight before an offended God? Are we preaching the cross not just for consolation but for conviction, that sin is so sinful that God’s Son must be our Saviour? Are we counselling those around us as God counselled Israel through Hosea that they should take with them words and acknowledge their sin (Hosea 14:2)?
If the answer to the questions above is not in the affirmative, then perhaps we need to search our souls. We could be feeding a casual ‘tick the Terms and Conditions’ approach to Christ which never lays the conscience bear, or strips out the self-defensiveness of the human heart until it experiences repenting self-reproach.
How we should pray for a great national and global turning of hearts to Christ! How we should rejoice that many are asking questions! But how we should pray and preach so that men and women would not merely approach God’s vicinity as a means of comfort, but that they would own their depravity in the light of God’s holiness and come in true repentance and faith to the only Saviour qualified to cleanse them.