Let’s see. I put up a post, based on 1 John, suggesting that whether we are remain saved or have fallen away depends on love, and some find that my teaching lacks substance or even implies antinomianism (the absence of law). It’s not remotely true, and so I’ve been wondering why I’m failing to communicate.
It occurs to me that one reason my way of explaining all this doesn’t always communicate is my choice of “repentance” as the word to explain a key part of the standard. Sometimes I forget my roots.
Growing up in the Church, the usual sense of “repent” was found in the doctrine of “grace” we were taught — that to be forgiven of a sin, we must become aware of the sin, confess that sin to God and the person sinned against (going forward for a public sin), make restitution, ask for forgiveness, and repent. In this context, “repent” means “no longer be guilty of that particular sin.”
Now, this is a false doctrine, because it contradicts 1 John 1:7, as I’ll show in a post coming up shortly. After all, if this really is the standard, then we’re all damned because we won’t be saved until we stop all sin! But for today’s purposes, the point is that we’ve sometimes used “repent” to mean “don’t do that sin any more.” And that’s a biblical sense, but it’s not the usual sense of the word. Rather, in biblical usage, “repent” is usually much stronger.
N. T. Wright explains in Christian Origins and the Question of God: Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 263, how “repent” and “faith” were used by First Century Jews. He refers to a story told by Josephus about a Jewish rebel named Jesus –
I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me … ; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.
[quoted by Wright at p. 250.]
Josephus notes that “believe in me” is translated “be loyal to me” in most translations. The phrase “show repentance and prove his loyalty to me” could be equally well translated “repent and believe in me.” “Believe in” or “have faith in” means “be loyal to” or even “submit to as lord.”
Josephus asked Jesus the Galilean brigand leader, ‘to repent and believe in me,’ in other words, to give up his agenda and follow Josephus instead. Jesus of Nazareth, I suggest, issued more or less exactly the same summons to his contemporaries.
To “repent” in this context is not “no longer commit that sin” but “change loyalties.”
(Acts 20:21) I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
“Repentance” is turning toward God, that is, becoming loyal to God.
After Peter had baptized Cornelius and his household and defended himself to the Jerusalem church, they concluded,
(Acts 11:18) When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
“Repentance unto life” is not repenting from some particular sin, but submission to Jesus as Lord, that is, becoming loyal to Jesus.
Interestingly, “repent” is unusual in Paul’s vocabulary. He prefers to express the same idea in very different terms. Hence, in Romans, after he explains how Chrisitans struggle with temptation in chapter 7, he says in Romans 8,
5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Then, in chapter 12, he explains,
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Notice the flow of Paul’s thought. By yielding to the Spirit, the Spirit helps us defeat sin and transforms our minds so that we can live lives of love. That is repentance. Moreover, the repentance that led to our salvation is strengthened by the Spirit’s work in us so that we are transformed into people who take pleasure in love. We don’t have to do all this alone. God works in us to help us, because he wants us to succeed.
Hebrews expresses the same concept from the negative — what not to do –perspective —
(Heb 3:12-14) Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice,do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Who falls away? Those who have unbelieving hearts, those hardened by sin, those guilty of rebellion against God.
(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
And those who fall away are those who “deliberately keep on sinning.”
(Heb 6:4-6 ESV) For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
What caused the people he describes to fall away? Well, they gave up their repentance and so need to be restored to a state of repentance.
These are all different ways of expressing what causes someone to fall away, but it boils down to either a loss of faith or a loss of penitence ( = rebellion, = hard heart, = deliberately keep on sinning).
For now, we want to focus on the penitence part of the question, not the loss of faith. And penitence is a subjective thing. Indeed, Hebrews repeatedly speaks of the state of the person’s heart or in terms of intention. There’s no reference to a particular doctrinal error. Rather, the error that damns (with regard to repentance) is a heart that is no longer loyal to God.
Does that mean there is no content to penitence? Well, no. We’ve just read what Paul wrote in Romans, and he expends nearly all of chapter 12 (and 13 and 14 and 15) teaching us how to love one another. He seems to think it’s pretty important. And it’s not easy. But Paul does not spend a word in Romans on how to worship or organize. In his greatest, most comprehensive work on salvation, he focuses almost exclusively on love and says nothing about 5 acts of worship or congregational autonomy.
But love has other consequences. For example,
(1 John 3:16-18) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
(Heb 13:16) And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
(Phil 2:14-16) Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life — in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.
“Hold out the word of life” is surely a reference to evangelism.
(Eph 4:15) Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
Just so, as “truth” refers to the gospel, to speak the truth in love is to be evangelistic.
(1 Pet 2:12) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Just so, God intends that we do good deeds that draw people to Jesus.
You see, two of the most natural consequences of “love your neighbor” are benevolence and evangelism — not as church programs but as lifestyles. And so, yes, there’s plenty of content in love.
Now, the part that’s missing in the minds of many is the ecclesiology — the rules for worship and church organization. To many, this is what church is all about. But by now, surely it’s obvious that Christianity is all about faith expressing itself through love, and therefore acting for our neighbors’ good in ways that draw them to Jesus. Christianity is all about forming a community that so loves one another that people see Jesus in us.
Get that wrong, and you’ve got it all wrong.
So where does that leave ecclesiology? Well, ecclesiology serves love. Love doesn’t serve ecclesiology. If your theory of church autonomy or worship somehow causes you to be unloving, you’ve got a bad theory.
And all the verses — every last one — that speak in terms of who falls away speak in terms of faith and love or repentance. Not a one speaks in terms of ecclesiology.
The boundaries of the kingdom are not defined by the rules for worship. Rather, the boundaries are stated in terms of faith in Jesus, love, penitence, and even the Spirit. Not instrumental music.
But those who love God will obey all God’s commands — to the extent they understand them correctly. But their salvation depends on their willingness to obey what they understand, not how well they understand.
Does God expect us to grow in our understanding? Of course. How could we love him and not want to know his will better every day? Does that mean that there comes a day when we’re accountable to get the pattern of worship exactly right or else go to hell? No. Indeed, to even ask the question is to misunderstand what we’ve been saved to be and to do.
We weren’t saved to worship according to a pattern. We were saved to join God’s mission to redeem the world by showing and bringing the love of God to a broken creation. Focusing on patterns of worship and congregational structure is to completely miss the point of why Jesus died on the cross.
A long time ago, when I was a little kid, I had a solar system mobile in my bedroom. It was tied to the light on the ceiling by a slippery black thread, and I wasn’t very good at tying knots at the time. Every few days, it would fall to the floor in a jumble of threads, rods, planets, moons, and sun.
To re-hang it, I had to find the thread that tied to the sun. But there were lots of threads. Sometimes I’d try picking it up by Pluto or Haley’s comet, and it would just be useless, tangled mess. It had all the right parts, and they were all tied together, but you couldn’t tell anything about anything.
But if I could ever find the one right thread, as soon as I lifted it, everything else fell into place. I could then see not only the sun, the planets, and the moons, I could see how they all fit together — which ones were closest to the sun, which ones revolved around which other ones. I could see the system.
Just so, if we try to study the scriptures by first picking up the “acts of worship” or “congregational autonomy” thread, we may have all the right parts, but we won’t have a clue how they fit together. Pick up the faith and love threads first, however, and everything else just kind of falls into place — provided we’re willing to stand back and look at the whole thing rather than ignoring the sun and Jupiter and earth so we can focus on Ceres. Ceres — an asteroid — is a good thing to study, but it’s not nearly the most important thing.
One last note: the scriptures do discuss worship and congregational organization. But nearly 95% of what we’ve taught on those subjects is wrong. But we can’t profitably talk about those things until we get the scriptures hanging from the right threads — so that the Son is in the middle.