By Harris Franklin Rall
The message of Jesus was one of hope and good cheer. "Love is the law of God's life," he said. True, the Pharisees too spoke of God's love; but they said, "God loves the good," and they were ever separating the sinners from the saints. For the saints they held up promise of reward, for the sinners only condemnation. Jesus said, "The heavenly Father loves all." To harlots and taxgatherers and all manner of outcasts he declared, "God is your Father and is ready to receive; nay, more, he has gone out to look for you."
Such a proclamation seems at first glance to take out of religion all moral demand, to leave the matter of righteousness wholly to one side, to make religion a pure gift, a mere matter of God's mercy. If God thus loves the evil as the good, what have men to concern themselves about? Only the shallowest thinking can so regard Jesus' message. The good news is not an encouragement to rest easy; it is a tremendous call to repentance and righteousness. If God so loves, if he is waiting to receive you as his son, then it is time to hate the old ways, to seek the new ones. Such love shows what sin really is, such love summons men to turn about, such love demands faith and life. No man ever condemned. sin like this prophet of love and mercy, and no one ever issued such a trumpet call to repentance.
Jesus' Teaching About Sin
The Heart of Sin.—There is always a danger that our ideas of sin and righteousness shall become conventional and shallow. There are people who are narrow, selfish, censorious, domineering, and yet who consider themselves unusually pious, it may be, because they observe this form or avoid that amusement. There were men in Jesus' time who ignored pride and hardness of heart, but who were horrified at the breaking of some Sabbath rule. It is interesting to note what Jesus points out as sinful in the Sermon on the Mount. To be selfish or hard or unforgiving toward your brother, that is sin. To care for anything else more than for the right, that is sin. To fear anything more than you fear God, to love anything more than you love God, that is sin. Fear, worry, selfishness, greed, half-heartedness toward God, hard-heartedness toward men— these are the sins that concern Jesus. The heart of sin is the denial of the heart of goodness.1 The test of goodness is man's "Yes" to the highest that he knows; the test of sin is man's "No" to good and God. The heart of goodness is the inner spirit of love, or good will; the heart of sin is selfishness.
Sin in All Men.—Jesus saw this sin in the hearts of all men. It is true he recognizes differences; he speaks very simply of the good man and the evil man (Matthew 12. 35). But goodness is simply relative here; over against the standard of God even good men are evil (Matthew 7. 11). It has been pointed out that Jesus calls some men righteous, and declares that he came not to call these, but sinners, to repentance (Matthew 9. 10-13); but a little attention will show the irony in Jesus' word. These men were "righteous" after their own fashion, but it was not the righteousness of God; for God said, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," and these men were hard and unforgiving. Plain and unmistakable is his position in the parable of the two in the temple, where he speaks of those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at naught" (Luke 18. 9-14).
A Keener Sense of Sin Needed.—One of the deep needs of to-day is a keener sense of sin. We are too indifferent toward sin, too ready to condone it. There are certain forms of sin which we are quick enough to condemn, but they are not always the most serious. If a man but keep within certain limits he may be arrogant, self-seeking, lacking alike in humility and brotherly kindness, and we pass it by ofttimes without a word. We praise a man as a benefactor though the girls in his shop do not get a living wage. He may make himself rich out of the needs of the poor, but we are silent so long as he observes the forms of the law. And how often do we tolerate in our own lives the thing that we know to be impure or selfish or unbrotherly? We need to feel more deeply the eternal difference between right and wrong, the shame of all evil, the glory of all good. Especially do we need in all our leaders of Church and state a deeper passion for righteousness, a greater abhorrence of all self-seeking, a more loving and earnest concern for the common man.
Social Repentance.—In one aspect we may find some encouragement to-day, and that is in the new social passion and social penitence. It is significant that it is here that Jesus' indignation against sin was the strongest. Tender and patient with the individual, he was stern enough with the sins of men toward others. His woe is pronounced against the man that makes the little ones to stumble. That is why priest and scribe and Pharisee felt his scourge. We are coming, though slowly, to share Jesus' vision. We have been wont to point out the individual consequences of sin, to warn men of the hell to which they are tending. We need to point out the hell upon earth that sin makes for others. Sin is that which hinders God's kingdom; sin is that which curses our brothers and sisters. And we are all responsible. It is easy to rail at saloon keeper and dive keeper and corrupt politician, but how long could these live if good people had the goodness that Christ wants? Such goodness must know how to hate evil and love good and fight with God.
The Message Of Repentance
The Demand of Jesus.—The call to repentance had been John's stirring summons. He had told the people that the coming of God's kingdom meant not so much the triumph of the nation, as a day of judgment and of separation for the people. Let them therefore make ready and repent. It was this word that Jesus took up when the great prophet's lips closed in death: "The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1. 14, 15). John saw that men were not ready for God's judgment; Jesus saw that they were not ready for God's love, and so his whole ministry is one great summons to repentance. He sends out his disciples with this message (Mark 6. 12). He declares that the purpose of his coming is to call sinners to repent. He tells the Pharisees that he is like another Jonah, calling the age to repentance (Matthew 12. 41). It is the failure to repent with which he upbraids the cities of the plain (Matthew 11. 20). His last week in Jerusalem is one great appeal to the nation to turn from an evil and mistaken course. The doctrine of Jesus is not that of an easy and indulgent Father overlooking the sins of men; it is a heroic call to a change of heart and life. And man's answer to that call, he declares, fills all heaven with joy (Luke 15. 7, 10).
What Is Repentance?—The Greek word used in our Gospels, metanoia, means literally a change of thought, or mind; but that does not give Jesus' full thought. Neither is it enough to think of repentance as being merely a feeling of regret or sorrow, no matter how deep. Nor does it refer simply to the past. All these elements are included in repentance and more, for it is nothing less than a revolution in a man's life. Repentance includes a change of mind, or thought. The man that repents, like the prodigal, comes to himself. He has been beside himself; now for the first time he is sane. He sees his sin and he sees life in the right light. His whole attitude of mind is altered. But this is more than a change of thinking; his feelings are stirred. There is a sorrow over sin (2 Corinthians 7. 11), a hatred of it. And finally his will enters in. Tears may mean remorse; of themselves they do not mean repentance. Repentance is man's "about face" in purpose as well as in mind and feeling. And so repentance looks forward as well as backward; the turning away from sin involves a man's longing for something higher.
Pictures of Sinners.—All this we gather not from so many words spoken by Jesus, but from his pictures of sinners and his own dealings with them. There is the prodigal son. His repentance begins on a pretty low plane; he is simply hungry. But the stomach pangs of the wanderer, like the need of many a wretch who has drifted into a rescue mission, are simply God's opportunity. When at last he turns home, he knows his sin and he wants his father; it is his sin that he talks about when he meets that father, and not bread. The publican in the temple shows even more clearly the thought of Jesus (Luke 18. 13). Here is the very essence of repentance: its humility that will not so much as lift up its eyes, the sense of sin that cries "me a sinner," the longing for God that makes him plead "God be merciful." And so Jesus approves the poor publican, just as he did that son who at first refused but afterward "repented himself, and went" (Matthew 21. 28,29).
Jesus' Intercourse with Sinners shows clearly what he thought of repentance, how he rejoiced over it, and how tenderly he dealt with those that were stirred with his sorrow. There is the story of the woman who washed his feet with her tears and anointed them with ointment (Luke 7. 36-50). The Pharisee, Jesus' host, saw only a sinner, a woman of ill repute; Jesus saw a soul stirred with the passion of penitence that gave promise of a new life. The story of another and like woman in John's Gospel (8. 1-11) shows Jesus' contrasted attitude toward penitent and unrepentant. Jesus saw that the woman taken in adultery was not the only sinner present in that company; indeed, was there one of those about him who had not been guilty at least of evil desire? And was not their presence a sign of hard vindictiveness? Only, these men were unrepentant. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." With that word and with one look he convicted them and sent them out. We are not told that the woman repented, but who can doubt from that final word of Jesus what happened? She came hard, defiant. She stood in that presence which was as pure as it was merciful. She left in penitence with his words in her ears: "Neither do I condemn thee: go thy way; from henceforth sin no more."
Repentance and Righteousness.—The meaning of Christian repentance may be seen when we recall Jesus' idea of righteousness. If righteousness is an inner spirit and life, then it is not enough for men simply to stop doing evil deeds and begin attempting good ones. The inner attitude must be changed. A man must not only leave sin, but learn to hate it. He must not only turn to the new life, but he must do so with an inner passion of desire and devotion.
Jesus' Teaching About Faith
What Is Faith?—What we have to consider here is not the broad question of faith in general, but faith as joined to repentance at the beginning of the Christian life. What was the faith that Jesus asked of men? First of all, it was not mere belief. It is true we read in Mark 1. 15, "Repent ye, and believe in the gospel." But the word "believe" is put here in our English Bible because we have no verb in English that corresponds to the noun "faith." The original Greek has such a word. Faith with Jesus meant a personal trust and surrender. That was what he asked of men in relation to himself. He did not begin by saying: "What do you believe about me? Do you consider me to be the Messiah?" He said, "Arise, follow me I" That was what he asked of men in relation to God; not, "What do you believe about God?" but, "Will you give yourself to this God in trust?"
Why Faith Is Needed.—Such faith is the beginning of the Christian life and the source of all its power. Without it repentance would be helpless and hopeless. With. this faith there come the forgiveness of sin and all the gifts of the new life. All this follows from Jesus' thought of God. All power, all love, all joy and peace, every good gift is with God. And God does not give them grudgingly. He does not keep them for the few, for the righteous and deserving. Giving is the very life of God; to give to men is his joy and his deepest desire. He waits to help, to heal, to forgive, to save. He is the father who goes out to meet his returning son upon the way. What, then, is needed that men may have all this? Just one thing: faith. Not a system of doctrines hard to accept and harder to understand, but the trust of a child going to his father. God can make his sun to shine upon the evil and the good; he can give rain and harvests to the just and the unjust. But he can give forgiveness and love only to men of trust and of the open heart.
The Door of Life.—This, then, is the door to all life and joy and peace, an utter and self-abandoning trust in God, simple and whole-hearted like that of a child. In such faith lay Jesus' own power; he declares that it is by the finger of God that he casts out demons. In that trust he faced and vanquished the tempter, and in that confidence he went to the cross. He asks that faith of others, and where it is lacking he cannot heal (Mark 6. 5). Where he finds it, it fills his heart with joy (Matthew 8. 10). "Thy faith hath saved thee," he says, when he forgives or heals (Mark 5. 34; Luke 7. 50). All things are possible to the man with faith, he declares to the father of the epileptic boy. But he is willing also to take even the feeble faith that cries out, "I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9. 23, 24).
Directions For Study
The Scripture passages: Matthew 6. 22, 23; 7. 11; Mark 1. 14, 15; Luke 13. 1-5; 15. 7, 10, 17-19; 7. 50; 11. 20; Mark 9. 23, 24.
Recall the main points in the last three lessons; they are fundamental for all our study. Note God's character as perfectly righteous and as perfectly good. From the first comes Jesus' demand as to man's righteousness; from the second comes the great message of mercy, that the Father is willing to give sonship to men.
Read carefully the lesson discussion, looking up all Scripture passages. Note how the discussion all the way through builds upon the previous lessons.
Now go back to the three main points of the lesson: sin, repentance, faith. Concerning each of these ask yourself two questions: What is Jesus' central teaching? and, What has that to say to me? Give a definition of each.
Why are repentance and faith necessary before there can be any fellowship with God?
1) See Chapter IV.