Does the Church need Repentance?

Image: The High Kirk of Edinburgh, or St Giles' Cathedral

Does the Church need Repentance?

We noticed recently a leading religious commentator acknowledging that the West will collapse without a Christian revival. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a rapid moral decay. He went on to say that the West will fall unless it rises up against the forces that oppose it. But how is it going to rise up? Where is there a body with the moral fibre to undertake that fight? It should be the role of the Christian church, which is known as the ‘church militant’, in distinction from the ‘church triumphant’. But is the church in the West in any condition to engage in such a warfare?  

If we look at the Bible and church history we read of victories achieved by the people of God. We see how at times Israel overcame her enemies. In Psalm 44 we are told: “they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them: but thy right hand and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favour unto them.” (v.3) This is the Psalmist recalling the past history in a time when things were so markedly different in the nation. He goes on to describe the present situation: “But thou hast cast off and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies.” (v.9) “Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and a derision to them that are round about us.” (v.13) It reflects our situation today.

The church in all generations is dependent utterly upon the favour of God and the light of his countenance. This is so in the case of the individual Christian. When we backslide and turn away from the Lord we are visited with his Fatherly chastisement and the hiding of his face. The way of return to God is always by way of confession, humility and repentance (James 4:6-10). What is true of the individual is also true of the corporate body. As someone has said: “The supreme duty of the church is to see that she offends not her God and her Saviour.” However, when, as it often happens, she does backslide, what is to be done? 

1) There is a call for leadership

It is sadly true that the church, in a state of backsliding and under judgment, is often fast asleep. She needs to hear the voice of God and be roused from that slumber. In Scripture we find an Elijah coming from obscurity, heralding the Word of the God “before whom I stand”, to confront Ahab and the nation steeped in idolatry. Baal worship must be cast out. The prophet “repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down” and destroyed the false prophets (1 Kings 17:18). Time and again God raises up a prophet to call the people back to obedience. Even after his people have been chastened by the Captivity in Babylon and have returned to Jerusalem, God raises up Haggai to say, “Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:5) – and then the people “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God” (v.12). In the Book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 Christ comes, through his servant John, to trumpet his displeasure with the evils tolerated in some of the Seven Churches of Asia and to call for repentance. 

There are frequent examples in history of God using leaders to break the slumber of his church. We have Athanasius standing against the world. There is Martin Luther, described by Melanchthon as “Elijah of the last time”, defying the Pope and the Roman system with the Word of God. John Knox is raised up to blow His Master’s trumpet to rid the Church in Scotland of Roman superstition and idolatry. George Whitefield ‘the Revived Puritan’ bursts in upon a dead Church and a decadent London and saves the nation from disaster. C H Spurgeon stands firm against the rising tide of unbelief, in an age of decline. Dr D M Lloyd-Jones calls the decadent Church of the mid 20th century back to a God-centred outlook. But where is the leadership in the Church today? Men in the Reformed and Puritan mould seem unwilling to sink their minor differences and strive in unity for the voice of God to be heard again in our land. 

2) There is a call for zeal

It was zeal for the glory of God that motivated the leaders in the history of Israel. Moses, God’s chosen one, “stood in the breach” (Exod. 32:11-14; Psa. 106:23). When “Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor” and the anger of the Lord was kindled, Phinehas “stood up and executed judgment”. The Lord said of him: “he was zealous for my name’s sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy” (Numb. 25:3,11; Psa. 106:28-31). The Psalmist could say “My zeal hath consumed me, because mine enemies have forgotten thy words” (Psa. 119:139). David was so moved by the dishonour which men did to God by ignoring his Word that the intensity of feeling had the effect of wearing out his life. It was said of Christ in dispelling the moral darkness in the temple, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Psa. 69:9; John 2:17). 

It was zeal for the glory of God that enabled Paul to fight the good fight and stand when others were falling (2 Tim. 4:7, 16-18). A similar spirit inspired the early Christians under fierce persecution, so that “they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11). Early Protestant Reformers like Wycliffe, Hus and Wishart were fired with zeal. Protestant martyr John Frith was in the Tower of London awaiting execution when Thomas More sought to reclaim him for Rome. Frith’s answer was: “I assure you I neither will nor can cease to speak; for the Word of God boileth in my body like a fervent fire, and will needs have issue.” It was zeal for the glory of God that created the Puritan movement. In them there was “a holy ardour kindled by the Holy Spirit in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.” Richard Baxter said: “To love God without zeal is not to love him, because it is not loving him as God.” Had the Puritans renounced their zeal, history would have been very different and there would not be for us today that “fiery substance in the old Scripture-steeped sermons of Puritan pastors”.

3) There is a call for repentance 

It is true zeal for the glory of God that will bring about repentance in the church. The very thought of the need for such a thing is alien to most evangelicals. John McArthur said recently: “We all like to call the nation to repentance, but when do we call the church to repentance?” The doctrine of repentance is something that is sadly lacking even in Gospel proclamation today. However it is at the very forefront of the New Testament. The call is on the lips of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2), the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 4:17) and the Apostles (Acts 2:38). But repentance is what pertains to the Christian life as a whole. The first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, nailed to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, declared: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17) he willed the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” Philip Henry affirmed that he hoped to carry his own repentance to the gate of heaven. 

Although Scripture gives general calls to repentance, we have specific sins highlighted for a demand to repent. One of the most striking is in Revelation, chapters 2-3. The sins of the churches corporately, and of their membership individually, are specified. As Dr J I Packer brings to our attention: “these churches have failed to maintain a spirit of love for their Lord, righteousness without compromise, intolerance of the intolerable, zeal for God’s glory, and willingness to exert effort for Christ. Of these specific failings – all of which have to do with the quality of their discipleship and loyalty to their king – Jesus himself now requires them to repent.” (A Passion for Holiness, Nottingham, 1992, p.141)

The idea of the need for times of public confession, prayer and fasting came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rejected fasting to obtain merit (as is done in Lent) but eagerly embraced the practice for aiding prayer and confession of sin. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in April 1578, under the Moderatorship of Andrew Melville, ordained that “an universal Fast shall be kept through all the Kirks of this realm to begin the first Sunday of June next to come, and to continue to the next Sunday thereafter inclusive, with the accustomed exercise of doctrine and prayers i.e. according to the Order and Doctrine of the General Fast” (Edinburgh, 1574). Some years later the Rev John Davidson of Prestonpans was grieved over the state of the church and nation, a generation after the Reformation. He brought an overture from the Presbytery of Haddington to the General Assembly of 1596, declaring “the necessity for universal repentance and earnest turning to God”. 

The Assembly appointed Davidson, as the originator of the proposal, to lead them in their confession. In a gathering of four hundred men in St Giles Kirk on the Tuesday of the Assembly, “the doors being shut”, Davidson preached and exhorted that “they were all to enter into a new covenant with God that being sanctified by repentance, they might be the meeter to provoke others to the same”. The effect was that a sudden emotion took possession of the gathering as they humbled themselves and for a quarter of an hour the building resounded with the sobbing of strong men. The occasion is recorded by Calderwood in his History of the Kirk of Scotland (8 volumes, Edinburgh, 1845):

“There were such sighs and sobs, with shedding of tears among the most part of all estates that were present, everyone provoking another by their example, that the Kirk resounded, so that the place might worthily have been called Bochim; for the like of that day was never seen in Scotland since the Reformation as every man confessed. There have been many days of humiliation for present or imminent dangers, but the like for sin and defection was there never seen.” (Quoted in John Davidson of Prestonpans, R Moffat Gillon, London, 1936, modern spelling)

The challenge before Western society is indeed great. We are living in desperate days. The church has the potential, but there is a crying need to “break the slumber”. She requires to be cleansed as the temple of old (John 2:13-17) by men with zeal and united endeavour.