Robert Wurtz II
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:4-10 ESV)
After 400 years of prophetic silence, God broke into this present world with the voice of John the Baptist — who was foreordained to preach the message of repentance to the Jews in preparation for the advent of Messiah. At the risk of being labeled a “Preparationist” God neglected the basic premise of Reformed Theology by sending the greatest man who ever lived to preach one of the most important messages mankind had ever heard, “REPENT, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” He then arrested Saul on the road to Damascus and commissioned him to preach the same message. This was not the watered down, inert, twice dead version of repentance as it is preached today, but a fiery call to change the mind (agree with God) and turn from all known sin (repentance). At the risk of being shamed (or even corrected) by modern ministers and theologians, God was not afraid to expect people to bring forth real evidence of their change (fruits worthy of repentance). In fact, so vital is this message that when Paul went before Agrippa he told him that he preached this basic message to everyone no matter who it was ( Acts 26:16-23). This is a Biblical fact in spite of those who assail or resist it. The clear implication of the text is that had he not preached repentance, he would have been disobedient to the heavenly vision.
This was not a new message with John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle being its first preacher. God had been calling the people to repentance for centuries. A cursory reading of the Old Testament will establish this fact. Consider the message of Ezekiel to Israel:
When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:26-32 ESV)
During the diaspora and silent years, the Scribes and Pharisees rose to power. They supplanted the role of the priests whose job was to teach the people God’s word. God’s estimate of them (according to Stephen in Acts 7) was that they always resisted the Holy Spirit. When men take hold of God’s word in a state of resistance of His Spirit they are bound to err greatly. For they will devise many self-serving theologies that accomplish their desires rather than God’s will. It was not just the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus rebuked; it was their willingness to make God’s word of no effect by their traditions (teachings). In other words, they often taught the people the exact opposite of what God’s word said. Albeit, they had plenty of proof texts and commentaries of the ancient sages to buttress their beliefs. Jesus overthrew much of it with plain renderings of Old Testament texts and pure common sense.
For example, the Jews thoroughly believed in Unconditional Election (Predestination). It was the cornerstone of their belief system. They believed God predestined Jews to Himself through natural birth. If one was born a Jew then one was a child of Abraham. If one was a child of Abraham one was automatically, “saved.” No need to repent for the Jews — God had already declared them eternally chosen. In reality, their Divine calling and election was not to salvation; but to a grand purpose. They were elected by God to be a light to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, they erred thinking it was to salvation — so to them, repentance was optional. John the Baptist (and Jesus) slammed this doctrine by telling the people that God was able to make children of Abraham out of rocks. There may have been a play on words here because of the hardness of the people. The message of repentance was designed to soften them up (if you will) and prepare them to receive Christ as both their Savior and Lord. In fact, he told them that the ax is now laid to the root of the trees (not the Tree but trees plural) and that every tree (every individual) who does not bring forth good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire. Jesus (in flagrant disregard of the fact that the expectation of evidence will someday be deemed anathema) contrasted their works with the works of Abraham (John 8:39-40). He concluded that had they truly been of Abraham they would have done the type of works that Abraham did. In other words, their profession and the evidence did not agree.
The writer to the Hebrews takes up this theme as well:
For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation (Hebrews 6:7-9 ESV).
The writer to the Hebrews speaks metaphorically of people being like land and the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Grace) being the rain. This is a picture of God dealing with people to bring about necessary change. God sends His goodness, His word, and the dealings of the Holy Spirit in order to bring about repentance. Figuratively and literally, thorns and thistles are worthless to anything but the fire. This is the plain meaning of the text. They make good kindling, but that’s all. The cultivator (God) expects the land to bring forth good fruit — just as would any farmer. If it does not the only thing to do is to apply fire. Clearly, this is a picture of eternal punishment.
It is a rare thing to hear the word of repentance preached in modern times; so as the old song says, “So you better listen close the first time.” You may never hear it again for the rest of your life. You may even buy into the modern notion that repentance from sin is unnecessary to salvation — in conflict with Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul the Apostle. In fact, it would do many of us well to read Acts 26 until we memorized it. Why? Because it is so easy to read the theologians and listen to the teachers who flagrantly contradict everyone from Moses to Paul on the subject.
Acts 26 is nearing the end of Paul’s recorded ministry. He had been warned prophetically on a number of occasions what was waiting for him when he arrived. He insisted on going. Paul testified in court before two Roman leaders Agrippa and Festus (witnesses) about what he preached and what his understanding of the heavenly vision was. There is no need to debate it after this court appearance. Agrippa and Festus wanted to know and we want to know. Paul, what did you preach? His opening is striking. He tells Agrippa, “I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.” (Acts 26:-3 ESV) I suggest that we also listen to Paul patiently.
He tells us that he was an exemplary Pharisee. He spoke of how the resurrection is not an unreasonable thing to believe in and that his life once consisted of trying to destroy the Church. He tells next of an extraordinary experience, “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” (Acts 26:12–14 ESV) Kicking against the goads was a way of saying that Paul had painfully disregarded the dealings of the Holy Spirit — to his own hurt. He continued and then declared his commission and how he had carried it out. He begins with the words of Jesus.
“For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
Paul then explains how he fulfilled (was fulfilling) this commission from the Lord:
“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.”
Notice that the Jews tried to kill him for preaching a John the Baptist style word of repentance. That is, “Change your mind and turn in such a way that there is real evidence of the mind change.” Some people say they agree with God about sin(s) in general or personal but they never turn from it. Actions and words don’t match. Believing is when you do it — not when you give a mere mental assent to it. Clearly, the text implies that there is an expectation that sin be turned from. As the late great Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson noted: See Matthew 3:8 for similar language used concerning John the Baptist. Paul, the greatest of theologians, was an interesting practical preacher.” (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament)
Paul started in Damascus which indicates that it was immediate. He didn’t wait… he started preaching it right then and there. Persecution followed. However, Paul continues, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”” (Acts 26:16–23 ESV)
I have sometimes said that if we can’t accept Paul’s word in Agrippa’s court room how can we claim to believe in the inspiration of scripture? All scripture is given by God and profitable for doctrine, etc. If we can’t receive the narrative in Acts 26 didactically we may as well rip the book of Romans out of the Bible too. Why? Because we can understand nothing of Paul’s ministry if we cannot accept what he said during that hearing with Agrippa. “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” This is John the Baptist all over again.
In modern times we have a great number of people who want salvation and forgiveness, but they don’t want real repentance. Some even want to receive the Holy Spirit, but they don’t want true repentance. God sent John the Baptist (and Paul) to preach to the people so as to make their heart right (compare the Greek word euthus in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, and Luke 3:4 with Acts 8:21 to understand what “make his paths straight” means). Like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:21, they have done many religious things, but their heart is still not right with God. Why? Because they have never been through the process of genuine repentance. We have empirical evidence that this was the way of the New Testament. How? The change that was wrought in the world. What about our world? How are our doctrines and theologies faring? Have we turned our world upside down? Many professing Christians are becoming more liberal by the day. They don’t agree with God. How can we say they repented if they refuse to agree with God?
If we are ever going to see significant change in our churches, cities, and country we have to begin where God began. We too have to come into compliance with the heavenly vision. It wasn’t just for Paul — it is for all of us.