Conservative scholars commenting on the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Rev 2,3) generally agree that these messages from the Lord Jesus have more than a single significance. They were certainly letters to actual churches in the first century, but they also seem to pre- sent an overview of church history as it would unfold through the ages. Finally, the letters provide a warning of the problems against which all churches must be on guard.
In any case, one needs only to read through them quickly to notice how often the word “repent” is found. Since the Lord had so much to say about it, it must be important, – so important that I’d like to devote two articles to the subject. Is there a message for the church today? If so, what part can elders have in fostering a genuine work of God rather than something that deals only with externals and leaves hearts unchanged? Laying the groundwork carefully will pay dividends once it’s time to make some practical applications.
A proper understanding of the words “repent” (verb) and repentance” (noun) are important not only because we want to know the truth, but also because there is widespread misunderstanding about the idea these word express.
Simply stated, the words mean, “to have another mind.” We might say, “to have a complete change of mind.” Not a whimsical or emotional change but a decision that the present course of action is wrong and can only be corrected by a 180 degree change of direction. Think of the motorist who sees a road sign informing him that he is heading south when he wants to be going north. He may feel regret, re- solve to correct the matter, and even shed tears over the lost time, but until he actually stops the car and turns around, he has not repented in the Biblical sense of the word.
A sad example is Judas Iscariot whose remorse over the betrayal of the Lord (Matt 27:3-4) is an eternal reminder of the difference between an emotional response and a change of direction resulting from a change of mind and heart. Had Judas come to the Lord who alone forgives sins rather than going to the Jewish priests, he would have received the Lord’s forgiveness as a fruit of genuine repentance. We must remember that although various emotions may be experienced and may have a legitimate place in times of crisis, they do not by themselves constitute repentance.
Nor should we think of repentance as a separate step preceding faith in Christ. Sir Robert Anderson in his famous book, The Gospel and Its Ministry, explains how repentance and faith are but two sides of the same coin. The Thessalonian believers “turned to God from idols” (I Thes. 1:10), a clear picture of the genuine faith that forsakes a wrong course of action to grasp a right one. Anderson makes the interesting observation that the Gospel of John with its stated purpose of helping people believe in the Lord Jesus (John 20:31), does not once use the words “repent” or “repentance.” One word (faith) implies the other (repentance).
A Modern Day Problem
Can a true believer also repent when he sins? Absolutely, and there are numerous examples in Scripture. But sad to say, the church in its preaching has often become so occupied with the need for unbelieving sinners to repent, that one rarely ever hears about the need for repentance in the life of Christians, much less churches! Of course, a believer’s repentance does not have to do with salvation but with preserving fellowship, which is an essential part of the Christian life. Yet let the reader ask himself when he last heard a message about repentance centered on Christians or churches?
How can this be, when the churches addressed in Revelation that lived only a few decades removed from the earthly life and ministry of the Lord and the apostles were already in need of repenting? Imagine a church, founded by the apostle Paul, being told some years later that it needed to repent? How can we not look with serious interest into this subject? What might the Lord say in letters to churches today?
The Lord’s Usage of the Word “Repent”
Of the 58 times the words “repent” or “repentance” are found in the New Testament, nearly half (25) are spoken by the Lord. They were at the heart of John the Baptist’s ministry, and as soon as John was put into prison, the Lord took up that same message using virtually the same words (Matt.3:2; cp. Matt 4:17).
In time, the focus of His message shifted, a subject that is beyond the scope of our present study, but He continued to use these words right to the end of His earthly ministry. It is not surprising then, that years later when the apostle John is commissioned to write and send letters from the risen Christ, we find the word “repent” sprinkled throughout the correspondence.
Since our particular concern is repentance as it relates to the church, we must look in greater detail at the way the Lord uses the word in these seven letters. Before making a more detailed study, it will be helpful to list some general observations in summary form:
1. As the Head of the church (Eph 1:22), the Lord has intimate knowledge of each local assembly and can say, “I know your works,” – an expression found in all 7 of the letters.
2. Repentance as applied to local churches should not be considered a rare thing, as it is found in five of the seven letters sent from the Lord.
3. The grievances against which the Lord protests involve major doctrines, not small details or variations in customs or methods.
4. Failure to repent will mean loss of testimony (the light), or loss even of the particular local church itself (the lampstand).
5. In each message, the proper response begins with the need to, “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
6. In no case do any of the churches discipline or disfellowship another church. Each is answerable directly to the Lord, as expressed in our word “autonomy.”
7. Repentance may be painful and embarrassing, but it brings beautiful promises of spiritual life and health in its wake.
In the next article, we will look in greater detail at the things that displeased the Lord, and we will discover how very relevant this whole subject is for the church today. But the brief thoughts given above justify the preliminary conclusion that repentance involving a local church is an appropriate subject for study, and the lack of it may be one reason why blessing has been withheld from the work.
Further, because we are speaking not so much of individual repentance, but the repentance of the congregations, the elders as the responsible “under- shepherds” of the Chief Shepherd who originally gave the words ought to be first in hearing and responding to what “the Spirit says to the churches.” Facing sin is not a work for the half-hearted, but could any subject hold the promise of greater blessing for a church?