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Title: October 2006 - Repentance is a Hard Word
Date: 01-Oct-2006
Description: Bishop's Page

Bishop Hwa YungA visiting preacher was speaking on the subject of repentance in one of our Methodist churches. When he finished, one woman angrily stomped out! Later the church pastor told the preacher that the lady was attending a certain large church in Singapore where some unorthodox teachings are being propagated. These include the idea that Jesus' death on the cross for us means that all our sins have been forgiven. There is therefore no need for us to continue having guilt trips in our lives by stressing the importance and need of repentance. No wonder the woman was angry with the visiting preacher!

Those of us who know our bible will certainly not agree theologically with what is being taught in the Singapore church. But in reality, just how much more seriously do we take the act of repentance? We need to ponder this seriously.

During the Holy Communion service, many of us pray: 'We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us. Have mercy upon us …most merciful Father.' Yet are our lives significantly different after each Communion service?

When Jesus walked into the life of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, something happened. For Zacchaeus repentance meant something concrete: 'Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount' (Luke 19:8). This sounds rather different from the conversion testimonies that we sometimes hear in our churches today. We put up some celebrity from somewhere who tells us of his or her wonderful conversion experience because of a healing or some other blessing from God. But it has been a long time since I heard a testimony like that of Zacchaeus, for whom repentance meant costly restitution for some serious moral failure against others in the past.

Again, think of David who, when confronted by the prophet Nathan of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, repented with heart-wrenching confession and pleas for forgiveness from God. 'Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot my transgressions …Do not cast me from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me' (Ps 51:1, 11). 

For Zacchaeus repentance meant something concrete: 'Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount' (Luke 19:8). This sounds rather different from the conversion testimonies that we sometimes hear in our churches today. We put up some celebrity from somewhere who tells us of his or her wonderful conversion experience because of a healing or some other blessing from God. But it has been a long time since I heard a testimony like that of Zacchaeus, for whom repentance meant costly restitution for some serious moral failure against others in the past.

Or, think of Peter, who failed the Lord so terribly with his thrice denial of Him. On the shores of Galilee, the Lord asked him three times, 'Peter, do you love me?' It was a man whose pride had been completely broken who replied: 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you' (John 21:17). Only after such deep-seated repentance could he move on in his life to become a humble, yet effective, servant for the Lord. Do those of us who are church leaders, both pastors and laity, know such genuine self-humbling before God? Thus the difficult question that we need to ask is, 'How seriously do we take repentance, and how deep does it go?'

In my travels around the country visiting various Methodist churches, it is often a delight to see what God has been doing and continues to do in our midst. People are coming to know Christ as Saviour and Lord, new churches are planted, signs and wonders are being experienced in various Annual Conferences, much prayer and efforts are expended increasingly on cross-cultural missions overseas, and so forth. But side by side with this is also the growing awareness that sin is deeply rooted in many Methodist lives and congregations.

For example, many of our churches are sometimes deeply hurt by divisions and politicking because of in-discipline, self-seeking ambition on the part of some in leadership, or the prevalence of a divisive party spirit in some members. Then there are sometimes the petty fights over property between different churches, in spite of the fact that God has given the Methodist Church so much! Again, some pastors tell me of increasing sexual immorality among our own youths, so much so that many are no longer virgins when they come to the altar on their wedding days. Many of our homes are highly dysfunctional. Sometimes husbands and wives are barely communicating with each other, essentially living different lives. In some cases the problems run deeper, with adultery or physical and emotional abuse throw in. Within such broken or semi-broken homes, children grow up deeply wounded psychologically and spiritually. Despite outward successes and social respectability of many, moral failures like greed, dishonesty in business, spiritual pride, addictions to alcohol, gambling, or pornography, and so forth abound. We can go on.

Of course this is not a problem only with Methodists. I see other churches struggling with the same. But the very brief list above indicates that perhaps we as Christians often do not know what the Bible teaches about sin. Is there a danger that when we think of sin, we think only of the so-called 'big' sins, like murder, idolatry and witchcraft, and sexual sins of various kinds? And so long as we are free from these, we think we are OK. In our minds, God is not too worried about 'small' sins like jealousy, foul language, gambling, unforgiveness, and so on. The truth, however, is that the Bible does not make such distinctions: sin of whatever kind is sin!

In his preaching to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of Christ, John the Baptist (Luke 3:8) cried out: 'Who warns you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance!' His point is a very simple one. True repentance is measured by the fruits it produces. That is why repentance is such a hard word. I have seen how hard it is in many lives, including my own. I wonder how hard it is for you?


Paul, for example, writes in Galatians (5:19-21): 'The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, faction and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like …those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.' Similarly, to the Ephesians (4:30, 31) he writes: 'And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.' Similar lists are found in the rest of the New Testament. The important point to note is that no distinction is made between 'big' and 'small' sins. Sin, whether 'big' or 'small' in human eyes is sin, period, in the eyes of God!

One of the most distinctive aspects of John Wesley's teaching is holiness, something that many Methodists have forgotten today. It began with Wesley's own quest for holiness in his own life, and the formation of the 'Holy Club' in Oxford. It led to his goal in ministry of 'spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.' He required that his followers maintain the same concern in their lives. In one society (that is what the early Methodist churches were called), he expelled sixty-four people: two for cursing, two for habitual Sabbath breaking, seventeen for drunkenness, two for selling liquor, three for quarreling, one for wife beating, three for habitual lying, four for evil speaking, one for idleness, and twenty-nine for carelessness towards spiritual things. It may not be difficult to imagine what Wesley would do if he visits our churches today!

Repentance is a hard word. Nonetheless we are reminded that we are not to 'grieve the Holy Spirit' (Eph 4:30), and that 'without holiness, no one will see God' (Heb 12:14). Without the vision of God, there can be no true religion; without the presence of His Holy Spirit, there can be no real revival. But then true holiness is the fruit of genuine repentance.

In his preaching to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of Christ, John the Baptist (Luke 3:8) cried out: 'Who warns you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance!' His point is a very simple one. True repentance is measured by the fruits it produces. That is why repentance is such a hard word. I have seen how hard it is in many lives, including my own. I wonder how hard it is for you? 


 



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