Commentary for the August 10, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:1-4, NIV
Confession and repentance are difficult topics in the Christian church. Confession is so because we think that at some level others need to make confession to us for past wrongs either real or imagined. We find justification for this in our knowledge that all have sinned,[i] therefore the need for confession of those sins is widespread. If that is not entirely clear, we often stand ready to make the matter clear by pointing out the sins of those around us. Doesn’t the Bible make clear that confession is the only way to be saved?[ii] Shouldn’t we be quick then to point out the sins that need to be confessed in order for that to happen?
On one level this seems to make sense. However, there is a definite demarcation between a general call to repentance like the one issued by Peter in Acts 2:38 and condemnation of specific individual sins. The former we may freely do, but the latter brings us dangerously close to the actions of the one known as “the accuser of the brethren.”[iii] In spite of the sin all around Him, even Christ did not see His mission as one of condemnation.[iv] But if we do not condemn sin where we find it, how will anyone repent of that sin and be saved?
First of all, it is not our work to bring others to repentance. It is God’s. As the passage above from Romans, chapter two tells us, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Sometimes we act like cowboys (and cowgirls) driving the herd of sinners and forcing them through the narrow gate.[v] Whipping the cattle to frenzy with hearty accusations and denunciations, we exhaust ourselves physically and spiritually pushing against the resisting livestock. But is this God’s way?
In the past when I have had the opportunity to go horseback riding, I have noticed that the horses would always pick up speed when they were headed back to the stable. No matter how much we may have had to urge them along the trail before, once they knew they were headed home, they no longer needed any prodding from us. They knew there was fresh fodder waiting, and they would soon be free of both riding gear and riders. They knew the way home, and even if we dropped the reins, they would follow the right path to get there. At that point, the rider becomes superfluous. We were just along for the ride.
Perhaps it is like that for those who need salvation. It is not a matter of pushing and shoving to get everyone headed in the right direction. It is simply a matter of letting them know where home is and what is waiting there for them. Maybe that is why Peter did not even tell his listeners to confess their sins.[vi] He went straight to the issue of repentance. The word in the Greek for repentance is metanoia and means a change of direction. In other words, Peter invited his listeners to stop going away from God and instead begin coming toward Him. He was inviting them to come home.
Now for some it may have been a long time, if ever, since they were headed toward God. These might feel it would be difficult to find the way. Sometimes those with questionable motives prey on such innocents and try to direct their spiritual experience. But God has already provided an answer for their need. As Peter went on to say in his Pentecostal sermon, those who turn toward God will receive the Holy Spirit.
Peter does not leave anyone out; anyone who turns toward God receives the Spirit without exception. That Spirit is all they need to guide them safely home to God. Jesus promised this gift and said the Spirit would guide us into all truth.[vii] This does not leave anything out does it? All means all. We can safely trust the Spirit to reveal to us everything we need to know. There is no secret, hidden knowledge that can only be imparted to us by certain individuals who claim to be “in the know” about such things.
Some who want to control the experience of others claim to do so out of a concern about “fake” repentance. They want to be the inspectors to make sure that everyone has truly repented. However, there is no such thing as fake repentance. Either someone repents or they don’t. There is no possibility of deceiving God about this. Perhaps the whole concern about fake repentance is people are afraid they themselves might be deceived by someone’s repentance. But why would they worry about this? There is nothing to be gained by deceiving other sinners about one’s repentance. It is a path that can only lead to death and not life. Maybe the only reason they might do this is if Christians are showing favoritism and giving material advantages to those who claim to be Christians.
Jesus taught that this is not how we are to be. He pointed out that though there were many widows in Israel during a great famine, God cared for one who was from Sidon, not Israel; He also pointed out that though there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Naaman, God only healed that Syrian.[viii] He also told us to do all that was asked of us by others and more.[ix] There is little room for favoritism in these instructions. Perhaps if there was no material advantage to doing so, there would be no enticement to fake repentance, especially if the path was difficult. After all, who would choose to suffer persecution[x] if there were no material advantage? Only those who were led by the Holy Spirit might willingly take such a path.
When we turn about and head toward God, we will find that we are moving against traffic. It may seem to us that we are the only one going in our direction. We may be tempted to look about for the “One Way” traffic signs pointing the opposite direction from which we are traveling. This alone may make our path seem disagreeable to us and even fearful. If we try to navigate the way on our own or even let others, well-meaning as they might seem, guide us, we may eventually find ourselves headed back on the path away from God.
There is a way to stay on track toward heaven. We must listen to the Guide we have been provided. When we read the road map, the Bible, we must listen for His voice speaking to our understanding. As we become accustomed to that voice we will learn to trust it even when what it says makes absolutely no sense. It was because of that trust that Abraham was able to take his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah as a sacrifice.[xi] He knew that God would not lead him astray.
Jesus said that the relationship His followers would have would be like this. He compared it to sheep knowing who the Shepherd was and that He was trustworthy. His voice was enough for them to trust His leading.[xii] In the same way, as we come to know God’s voice we will trust Him and gladly follow the Spirit. We will be less and less inclined to trust our salvation to the will and control of others who are just as much in need of God as we are. Instead, we will be drawn by God’s love and kindness to seek to be ever in His presence and always to walk by His light with no human middleman through whom that light might shine less brightly.
Some might feel it is dangerous to trust ourselves to God in this way. But nothing is safer than snuggling under the wings of such a God.[xiii] As the horses eagerly headed home to their stable, where they knew they would be provided for, I feel my feet picking up their pace as I head toward home and find myself eagerly listening for God’s voice. Perhaps, even now, He is waiting on the pathway and watching to see His prodigals safely home.[xiv]
[i] Romans 3:23
[ii] 1 John 1:9
[iii] Revelation 12:10
[iv] John 3:17
[v] Matthew 7:13-14
[vi] Acts 2:38
[vii] John 16:13
[viii] Luke 4:25-27
[ix] Matthew 5:40-48
[x] 2 Timothy 3:12
[xi] Genesis 22:1-18
[xii] John 10:1-5
[xiii] Psalm 91:4
[xiv] Luke 15:11-32