3-3-7 " Works meet for repentance" : OBJECTIONS
A number of passages which appear to run against the general thesis of
our study call for closer analysis. Each of them could be (and are!) misunderstood
to mean that complete forsaking of sin is required before God
can accept us. Even a cursory consideration will reveal that God does
not expect complete forsaking of sin. None of us is in a state
of complete forsaking. Therefore these verses cannot be taken to mean
that we must completely forsake every sin or else we cannot be saved-
or fellowshipped by Christians!
" He that hath clean hands" (Ps. 24:3-6)
" He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart...he shall receive...righteousness
from the God of his salvation" .
We must remember that our heart is corrupt, not pure (Jer. 17:9). This
passage therefore implies that our purity is not so much from forsaking
sin, but rather from the imputation of God's righteousness to us. The
letter to the Romans makes it clear that such imputation depends upon
faith, not works (e.g. rectifying marriage problems). It is God's
righteousness which is credited to us, not our own (2 Cor. 5:21).
God's righteousness is 100%. Let us suppose that the righteousness which
we achieve (e.g. by keeping our marriage in order) is (at a gross over-estimate)
5%. No amount of forsaking sin can make up that 95%. On account
of our faith in God's righteousness in Christ, that 95% is made
up to us. If, for sake of argument, the divorced brother has 4% righteousness,
then 96% must be made up. He achieves this 96% by his faith. Who are we
to say that this 96% is not possible for him, but the 95% is possible
for us? Again, we see the difficulty which we have in defining degrees
of sin, and of making judgments involving the sins of our brethren.
" Repent and do the first works" (Rev. 2:5)
The Lord's words to the ecclesia imply that His fellowship would cease
with those who did not do " the first works" after their repentance.
The implication is that the works they were failing to do affected their
salvation. Only Christ can say the words of Rev. 2:5 to an ecclesia.
And are we wise to apply an ecclesial rebuke to an individual?
Christ alone knows the " works" upon which salvation depends.
There is no Biblical evidence that " works" regarding marriage
must be done, or Christ will disfellowship the individual. We all have
works which we ought to do, but fail to perform. How are we to decide
which omitted works should be made matters of fellowship? Only Christ
can decide. Rev. 2:5 does not tell the sound members of the ecclesias
to disfellowship those who had not done " the first works" .
The " first works" of Ephesus were her " first love"
(agape). Christ is using " works" here (as often in
the New Testament) to refer to attitudes- Ephesus were doing all the right
actions, but the " work" of a loving mind was missing. Only
Christ can disfellowship someone for not having enough agape
love. This is not something which we can make a test of fellowship. In
passing, note a selection of passages where " works" refers
to abstract spiritual fruits like faith, rather than to physical actions:
Jn. 6:29; 8:39; Prov. 12:22 LXX; Rom. 2:15; Col. 1:10,11; 2 Jn. 11,7;
Rev. 2:6 cp. 15.
" Fruits meet for repentance" (Mt. 3:8)
" Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance" must be
connected with our Lord's description of the Gentile believers as "
a nation bringing forth the (vineyard) fruits" of the Kingdom (Mt.
21:43). These are defined in Rom. 14:17: " The Kingdom of God is...righteousness,
and peace, and joy" . Christ's parable of the vine in Jn. 15 explains
that it is the word abiding in us which brings forth fruit. Bringing forth
fruit is therefore a way of life (cp. Rom. 6:21,22). In each aspect in
which we 'bear fruit', we have in a sense 'repented'. Our repentance and
fruit-bearing is not something which we can set time limits on within
this life. Christ would have been satisfied if Israel had borne at least
some immature fruit (Lk. 13:7). Only when there is no fruit at all, in
any aspect of spiritual life, will Christ reject us. Some will bear more
fruit than others- some sixty, some an hundredfold. Mt. 3:8 connects repentance
with fruit bearing. This shows that God may recognize degrees
of repentance and response to His word, as He recognizes degrees of fruit
bearing. It is far too simplistic for us to label some of our brethren
as having repented and others as being totally unrepentant. In any case,
the fruits of repentance are brought forth unto God, not necessarily
to fellow believers (Rom. 7:4). There is a marked dearth of evidence to
show that a believer must prove his repentance in outward terms before
his brethren can accept him.
" Works meet for repentance"
Men " should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance"
(Acts 26:18-20). As with Mt. 21:28-31, this refers primarily to baptism.
" Repent and turn to God" surely matches " Repent and be
baptized" in Acts 2:38. Turning to God is associated with baptism
in Acts 9:35; 11:21; 15:19; 1 Thess. 1:9.
Following conversion, our works should match the profession of faith
we have made. But there is no proof here for the equation 'Forgiveness
= repentance + forsaking'. The " works" seem to refer to positive
achievement rather than undoing the results of past failures. Works meet
for repentance are fruits of repentance (Mt. 3:8 cp. Lk. 3:8). We have
shown that there are different degrees of fruit/ repentance which God
accepts, and that this fruit is brought forth to God, and that
its development takes time. We cannot therefore disfellowship a believer
for not bringing forth fruit in one aspect of his life. At least we should
be able to tolerate ecclesias who are willing to tolerate slow development
of fruit in some of their members.
Working In The Vineyard
Mt. 21:28-31 condemns the man who tells Christ that he is going to work
in the vineyard, but does not go. This has been taken to mean that sin
must be forsaken completely, or else we will be condemned.
Working in the vineyard is defined later in the chapter as bringing forth
the spiritual fruits of the Kingdom (Mt. 21:41-43; Rom. 14:17). The verbal
confession " I go, Sir" (Mt. 21:30) connects with the
calling on Christ as Lord (cp. " sir" ) at conversion / baptism.
There is then a commitment made to bringing forth spiritual fruit, which
some converts never live up to. But the judge of whether such fruit has
been developed is Christ, not us. And the final assessment of whether
the convert really has gone to work in the vineyard can only be made at
the judgment seat. Mt. 21:32 defines the working in the vineyard as believing
in John's message about Christ, and doing the will of God (v. 31). The
will of God and the " work" which God requires both relate to
our faith in His son (Jn. 6:29,40). 'Working' in the vineyard therefore
refers to the work of faith, rather than specific forsakings of sin.
" Faith without works is dead"
James 2:17 shows that faith must be mirrored by works. However, we tend
to make a false distinction between these two things. Real faith is, by
its very definition, shown in practical ways. However, each of us fail
to reflect the abstract principles of the " One faith" in our
daily life. Does James 2:17 really teach that we are intended to single
out one specific aspect of another's life, where his works do not match
his faith, and disfellowship him for this? James 2:15,16 gives an example
of faith not being matched by works: whenever we say 'I've got faith that
God will help our hungry brethren (e.g. in Africa)' and make no practical
response, we have not matched faith with works. So often we are all guilty
of this kind of mismatch between our faith and works. Yet we do not withdraw
fellowship over this issue. So why pick one specific area of life and
insist that there, works must exactly match faith? If we are
going to believe that past a certain level of mismatch between faith and
works we must withdraw fellowship, then what is that level? Will it not
vary between brethren and ecclesias- even if we decide that such a line
ought to be drawn by any of us?
" Whoso confesseth and forsaketh..."
" He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth
and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13) cannot mean that
God will not fellowship us unless we forsake every single sin we commit.
We have given ample evidence for that earlier. And neither does this verse
address the issues of whether we ought to forgive those who have
not fully forsaken their sins, or whether we can fellowship those whom
we have not forgiven. This verse speaks about God's response to confession
It may well be that Prov. 28:13 is the Old Testament equivalent of Paul's
plea not to continue in sin, that grace may abound. If we " continue
in sin" we are evidently not 'forsaking' our sins. We have shown
that some sins cannot be 'forsaken', and that all of us continually sin,
confess and commit the same sin again. 'Forsaking' therefore does not
refer to never committing the sin again. If our brother sins 490 times
a day and confesses his sin, we are to forgive him- accepting that he
has 'forsaken' the sin each time he confesses it. It is therefore difficult
for us to say that a brother has not forsaken his sin if he confesses
it. In the case of the brother who sins against us 490 times a day, his
'confessions' to us have to be treated by us as 'forsakings'. How God
looks upon such a brother's continual sinning is not relevant to how we
are supposed to respond to him. Therefore for us, 'forsaking'
is to be understood as almost a synonym for 'confessing'.
Many verses in Proverbs allude to incidents in Israel's history. Prov.
28:13 clearly refers to David's confession of sin regarding Bathsheba:
" I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou
forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Ps. 32:5)- after a period of trying
to 'cover' his sin. The emphasis on confession rather than any undertaking
not to lust after women again suggests that 'confession' and 'forsaking'
in Prov. 28:13 can be seen as synonymous.
The first part of Prov. 28:13 surely refers to Adam covering his sins
in Eden, and the second half to his situation after confession. He did
not 'forsake' disobedience to God's word, or giving in to the lust of
the eyes and flesh. Likewise, David continued sinning after the Bathsheba
incident, but Prov. 28:13 describes him, like Adam, as having 'confessed-and-forsaken'.
He could not 'forsake' the specific sin with Bathsheba; but he had done
so mentally, and God counts this as forsaking. There must be many Christadelphians,
not to mention those who have married out of the Faith, who have mentally
forsaken their sins of the past, and have truly confessed their sins;
yet they find it impossible to rectify their position in outward terms.
Another feature of the Proverbs is their frequent allusion to the Mosaic
law. The Hebrew for " forsaketh" literally means 'to let go',
and a related word is used concerning the scapegoat being 'let go' into
the wilderness, bearing Israel's sins which had been confessed
over it. This is a reference to the day of Atonement. " He that covereth
(atones for) his (own) sins (by himself) shall not prosper: but whoso
confesseth (them over the scapegoat) and (lets them go) shall have mercy"
. Thus the reader is encouraged to really believe that his confessed sins
were being 'let go' in the scapegoat. This was the way to atonement, rather
than trying to cover over one's sins as if they had never happened.
" Let the wicked forsake his way..."
" Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts
(Is. 55:7) is in the context of conversion. Is. 55:1-3 describes the process
of coming to Christ: " Ho, every one that thirsteth...incline your
ear, and come unto me" . Then v.6 makes a prophecy concerning calling
upon the Lord's name in baptism: " Seek ye the Lord while He may
be found, call ye upon Him while He is near" (cp. God being 'near'
potential converts in Acts 17:27). Is. 55:7 then speaks of the works meet
for repentance which should follow conversion. But note the parallel between
the wicked's " way" and " his thoughts" ; they are
unrelated to God's thoughts/ ways (Is. 55:8). Is. 55:7 is therefore saying
that after conversion there must most importantly be a change of mind,
an aspiring after God's unattainable thoughts/ways. We would not withdraw
fellowship from those who do not attain God's thoughts/ ways. We are all
in the process of forsaking our thoughts/ ways and adopting those
of God, 'seeking the Lord while He may be found', 'returning unto the
Lord'. This language of 'returning unto the Lord' is at the root of the
prodigal son parable- which is therefore something which we live out many
times over in our lives.
Is. 55:6,7 implies that we can find God in this life, we can return to
Him. But Is. 55:9 then says that " as the heavens are higher than
the earth, so are (God's) ways higher than your ways" . This seems
to be one of the many Isaiah allusions to the book of Job: " Canst
thou by searching find out God?" , the answer being 'No'. This shows
that although ultimately we cannot find God by our searching,
such is His moral infinity, yet if we seek to find Him, He will
count us as if we have found Him. Thus God will impute
complete forsaking of human thinking to us. Our least response is to impute
forsaking of sin to our brethren.
This does not mean turning a blind eye to their weaknesses- the thesis
we have outlined in this study is often misunderstood that way. We cannot
help be aware of their failures. Possessing human nature makes it well
nigh impossible to pretend we just haven't seen others' weaknesses! Our
Lord certainly did not turn a blind eye to the sins of first century Israel;
and neither does God today. We must relate to " the man Christ Jesus"
within each of our brethren, to their inward, hidden man, rather than
to the outward man of the flesh. When their outward man imposes itself
on our attention, we need to use the power of the word, aided by our own
experience of constant spiritual failure, to bring out the Christ-man
within them. Only when there is a clear, wilful denial of the one Faith,
or of the existence of the Christ-man within them, should we withdraw