Repentance and Faith as Gift
Fourth Sunday of Easter [c] May 12, 2019
17 Now from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: "You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
In the Name of Jesus.
If we were to think of one word to pair-up with the word repentance, it might be the word obedience.
The two just seem to go together, like peanut-butter and jelly, baseball and hotdogs.
Repentance and obedience, or, repent and obey.
You’ve been going against God’s Law. Repent of that, and start obeying the Law. You haven’t loved your neighbor as yourself. Repent of that, start loving your neighbor. You’ve been stingy with your gifts. Be sorry for that, and start being generous.
Is there any word more natural for us to pair with the word repentance than the word obedience? Repentance and obedience, two sides to the same coin.
But not for Paul. Paul is speaking to a bunch of pastors from Ephesus. The word our text uses is elders. But “elder” is simply one of the words the New Testament uses for the office of pastor. Acts 20:17:
Now from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.
So this is a pastors’ meeting. We might call it a seminary class taught by Professor Paul. Ephesus is one of the great cities of the world at this time. It’s in the area we now think of as Turkey. Commerce, shipping, academics, technology, art—Ephesus has it all.
As he’s on his way down to Jerusalem, Paul stops by to encourage the pastors of Ephesus. And he gives them a course on preaching the Gospel. He is teaching them of how to preach repentance for the blessing of the Church. Acts 20:21:
[Paul said,] I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
We notice, though, that Paul doesn’t pair the word repentance with the word obedience. He pairs it with quite a different word.
For Paul, it’s not repentance and obedience; it’s repentance and faith. And faith is not at all the same as obedience.
Obedience is our work of the Law; faith is gift of the Gospel.
Obedience clings to the Law; faith clings only to Jesus.
Obedience is worked outside of us by our flesh; faith is worked in us by the Holy Spirit.
Obedience is a work; faith is a gift.
And that’s what Paul later writes to the Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
And now we have repentance not in the way of the Law, but in the way of the Gospel.
Repentance as gift received by faith. And faith is a gift of God, not of our works or decisions.
We start out, in our sinful flesh, seeing repentance as something we do. And under the Law, this is true. We must repent, we must turn-back, we must reverse ourselves, we must leave sin behind and keep the Law.
This is all true. But it is also impossible. For we are in sinful flesh. We are sinners. And as sinners we can no more make ourselves not-sinners than water can make itself not wet.
The Law makes the demand, but it does not give the ability to accomplish the demand. The Law commands obedience, but it does not give the ability to obey.
Of the sinner, the Law demands what the sinner cannot fulfill. So the Law ends up not empowering, but accusing.
What the sinner cannot do, God gives as gift.
To the pastors of Ephesus, Paul says he is testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Where will this repentance come from, if not from our work or decision? God grants it—it’s all by gift. It is completely God’s work.
The first part is the Law.
By having his Law preached, God indicts the sinner. By the preaching of the Law, God puts us under the accusation. In this way, there is no rescue for the Old Adam. The sinful flesh must die. We cannot improve the Old Adam, there is no path of progress toward a better Old Adam, there is only death.
God has his Law preached. By the Law’s accusation, the Old Adam of our sinful flesh is daily condemned and put to death in contrition and repentance.
But this is only the first part of God’s work toward us.
The second part, the greater part, the part of God’s work where we can then speak of repentance as pure gift, is God’s Word of Gospel.
God has his Gospel preached. The Gospel is: the sinner is forgiven of all sin. The Gospel is that Jesus Christ crucified is Jesus Christ crucified for us—on our behalf. The Gospel is that Jesus has justified you.
In this preaching of the Gospel, the New Adam is daily created and brought forward. The new man of faith is made to emerge and live before God in the righteousness of Christ.
As God in his Law is daily putting to death our Old Adam of sinful flesh, he is in his Gospel every day bringing to life the New Adam of faith.
This life of faith, then, is not our work, not our decision, never our obedience. It is pure gift of God.
So Paul preaches of repentance and faith.
Two sides of the same coin. God repents us from our sin, from our guilt, and repents us to faith in Christ Jesus, to justification by faith, to life eternal, all as the working of God, all as gift.
So Jesus tells us the parable of the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep behind to search out and save the one sheep that has gotten itself lost.
The lost sheep cannot un-lose himself. That’s the point of being lost, you cannot find your way back.
The Shepherd searches out the lost sheep and gathers it to himself. Luke 15:5:
[Jesus said,] “When [the shepherd] has found [his lost sheep], he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'”
This is repentance as gift. The sheep did not find or choose his shepherd. His shepherd found and saved him.
It is completely the work of the Shepherd, from beginning to end. The sheep is returned to the sheepfold with faith in the Shepherd, and with no faith in his own work, which is, after all, how he got himself lost in the first place.
And the Shepherd rejoices. Not because he has a sheep who will never get lost. But because he has a sheep safe and at home because he, the Shepherd, loves that one and has saved him.
Jesus closes his parable about the returned sheep with this:
“[The shepherd said,] ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!' I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
That’s the repentance Paul teaches the pastors of Ephesus to preach—it’s repentance and faith. Repentance as gift. Repentance as a lost sheep being found by the Good Shepherd and returned to the sheep fold.
It is the repentance the Lord gives to you as gift every time he has his Gospel spoken to you, every time he forgives your sin, every day as he raises you up as the New Adam, the new man of faith.
In the Name of Jesus.