by Peter Ditzel
This article is adapted and revised from The Word of His Grace radio program, "Repentance" that originally aired in 2005.
There is Paul, facing the great minds of his day—the pagan philosophers of Greece. He is standing in one of the very centers of pagan thought, Athens. He is speaking to people who have never heard of Jesus Christ and know nothing of the true God. Greater skeptics one could hardly imagine. Does Paul weaken his message in order to reach these people? Does he say that we really all worship the same god, just with different names? Does he debate with them over their points of philosophy? Does he hire temple prostitutes to dance and sing (with Christian words, of course) to bring in the crowds? No. Emphatically, no! Oh, he uses an anecdote and a stunning opening statement to get their attention. But he never gets down on their level. He held the banner of Jesus Christ high.
Hear his opening words: Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus, and said, “You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you” (Acts 17:22-23). The Athenians are so concerned that they may have left a god out of their religion that they have erected an altar to the unknown god. Brilliantly, the inspired Paul picks up on this and tells them that this god, the god they don’t know, is the God he is going to speak about.
And then Paul tells them about God—how He doesn’t dwell in man-made temples; how He is the Creator of all living things; how He has created all men and predetermined history; that He is not far from us and that, in fact, in him we live, and move, and have our being; and how we are His offspring.
And then he hits them with the obvious conclusion. If God is like that, we ought not to think that we can fashion an image like God. He is far beyond that. Next, beginning with verse 30 of Acts 17, Paul says, “The times of ignorance”—the ignorance of pagan idolatry; “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked.” We might say today that He turned a blind eye. “But now,” Paul continues, “he commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead” (verse 31). God has appointed a day when that man resurrected from the dead, Jesus Christ, will judge the world. And because of that, God now commands—He doesn’t suggest, He doesn’t whimper, He doesn’t plead, and He doesn’t sincerely offer—He commands all men everywhere to repent. Many will be guilty of disobeying the command, but He commands it anyway.
What a message for that pagan world. And what a message for today. Will you be like most of Paul’s jaded hearers and mock the Gospel message and command to repent? Will you simply say, “Oh, I’ll think about it and hear it again another day?” Or will you be like the few, mentioned in verse 34, who joined with Paul and believed?
God commands everyone to repent because a day of judgment is coming. Will you turn a deaf ear and go to eternal condemnation? Or are you willing to hear me out and find out what repentance is, what you are to repent of, and what you are to turn to?
As in the Days of Noah
Not too long ago, while driving through a nearby town, I saw a man standing on the street with a sign that said to repent or we would likewise perish, and the sign referred to the times of Noah. Most people tend to think of such men as wild-eyed fanatics. I wouldn’t doubt if many people thought that the man ought to be put into a mental institution. But, you know, I don’t know what he would have said if I had stopped to talk with him, but what he had on that sign was entirely in keeping with the Bible.
Jesus said, in Matthew 24:37-39: “As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ship, and they didn’t know until the flood came, and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” When that happens, it will be too late. By the time it started to rain, God had already sealed Noah and his family and the animals inside the ark (compare Genesis 7:16 with 7:7-10). Also consider that it was the sovereign God who shut that door so that no one else could enter. Notice also the similar types of God keeping safe those behind closed doors while punishing those outside in Genesis 19:10-11; Exodus 12:21-29; Joshua 2:18-19 and 6:17; Isaiah 26:20-21. Don’t wait until it is too late.
The worldwide Flood of Noah’s time was the biggest natural disaster in the history of humanity. The population of the earth was possibly in the millions or even billions. All died except for eight people—Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives. And it all happened because the people were so sinful that God wiped them out. Is God to blame? No! The Bible tells us that He caused it because of man’s sinfulness.
Today, we tend to think of natural disasters as random occurrences due to natural causes. But why should their cause be any different than the cause of the disasters in the Bible? A few generations after Noah, we see in Genesis 11, verses 1-9 a united, but once again sinful, humanity that God sees must be stopped in its progress. How does He do this? He brings disaster upon them by confounding their language so they can no longer understand each other.
Time and again, we see in the pages of Scripture events that from our human perspective we might see as natural or human-caused events: The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues suffered by Egypt, the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, the enemy raids upon the Israelites during the times of the judges, the famines during the times of the kings, and the eventual enemy invasion and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But the Bible reveals that God caused all of these events. Why? Sin.
What about today? Has God stopped causing “natural” disasters, wars, and other catastrophes? Is He now so weak that He must allow tragedies that He does not will? Is God letting things slip by Him? Is He making errors? No. God does not change. God makes no mistakes.
Individually, as a nation, as a civilization, and as the human race, we are sinful. We are a rebellious, adulterous, covetous, violent people, and we always have been ever since Adam. And what, as a civilization, can we expect?
What Can We Expect?
What can we expect when we have rejected the God of the Bible and replaced Him with a false God of our own making who is nonjudgmental and tolerant and even a savior of unrepentant sinners and people of all religions? What can we expect when we have replaced the true God with science and the blind chance of evolution, or with the pursuit of material gain?
As a people, we serve our economy, our employers, our military, our children, ourselves, or anything else rather than God. We vainly give lip service to God, especially in times of tragedy, but do not obey Him or seek to know Him through studying the Bible.
We reject His Son, Jesus Christ, as the one Way of salvation, and try to enter His rest through every false belief imaginable; or, alternatively, we try to create our own paradise through creature comforts and amusements.
We raise children who are even more rebellious than we. We wonder why we have rising crime rates while we teach children that life arose by chance and humans are descended from animals, and we inject violence into our children’s minds through entertainment. We kill millions of babies before they are even born, and baby and feel sorry for murderers who have brought themselves to death row.
We commit such mass adultery by what we call divorce that a child raised through adolescence by both of its natural parents is a rarity. And then we wonder why they begin to have children without being married at all.
As manufacturers and service providers, we ask as high a price as possible for a product or service and give as little service or product quality as we can get away with in return. Instead of calling this stealing, we call it maximizing profit margins. We elect to high office people who are known liars who then so perfect their art while in office that we can never know that we have the truth about anything in government.
By continually bombarding our populace with advertising, we have made nonstop coveting a way of life.
Jesus Christ said, in Luke 17, verses 28-30, “Likewise, even as it happened in the days of Lot: they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but in the day that Lot went out from Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from the sky, and destroyed them all. It will be the same way in the day that the Son of Man is revealed.” What did the days of Noah and the days of Lot, who lived in Sodom, have in common? They were times of great wickedness right before God brought destruction.
We Are All Sinners
Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand something. I am not saying that those who are affected by disaster are worse sinners than anyone else. Just the fact that they are human makes them sinners in God’s sight. Jesus Christ Himself plainly teaches this.
In Luke 13, in verse 1, we read, “Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Although the legal authorities committed this atrocity, this could certainly be seen as a form of terrorism, a man-created “disaster” that is nearly daily in the news today.
The people, in their quest for an answer to such a tragedy, had come to a conclusion: God had allowed the Galileans to die in such a manner because the Galileans were particularly sinful. This was a typical conclusion for the Jews of that day, who considered that suffering must be the result of particular sin, and lack of suffering a sign of personal righteousness. Nevertheless, they wanted to confirm this belief with Jesus, who immediately set them straight: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no” (Luke 13:2-3a). These people did not so suffer because they were worse sinners than the rest of their nation.
Then Jesus gave an answer that should serve as a warning for today: “But unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way” (Luke 13:3b).
Our Lord saw these tragedies as warnings that we are all sinners, all deserve the same fate, and will all perish unless we repent. To make sure no one misunderstood Him, Jesus repeated Himself in verses 4 and 5 by addressing another tragedy of His day: “Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.” These people died in the collapse of a tower and perished eternally, going to eternal damnation because they were unrepentant sinners. And, Jesus’ message is clear; you will do the same—that is, go to eternal damnation when you die—unless you repent.
Don’t Blame God
Man brought sin and suffering and death into the world. Don’t blame God for it; blame man. When Adam and Eve sinned, they caused sin and suffering for all of their descendents.
This is just what the apostle Paul was writing about in Romans 5. Of Adam, he says in verse 12, “Therefore, as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin; and so death passed to all men, because all sinned.” In other words, by sinning, Adam introduced sin into the world. God said that the result of sin would be death. This is seen also in Romans 6:23 where we read that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Okay, so going back to Romans 5:12, we see that Adam introduced sin into the world, and by introducing sin into the world, he also introduced death into the world because we are all sinners.
Being the first human, Adam was our representative head. When he sinned, his sin was imputed to all his descendents. In other words, Adam’s sin is counted as if it were our sin. Not only that, but when Adam sinned, it also caused human nature to become depraved. That is, we have a tendency to sin. Sin permeates every aspect of our nature—our will, our thoughts, our emotions, and so on. Paul again writes in Romans 3, verses 10-15,
As it is written, “There is no one righteous; no, not one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks after God. They have all turned aside. They have together become unprofitable. There is no one who does good, no, not, so much as one.” “Their throat is an open tomb. With their tongues they have used deceit.” “The poison of vipers is under their lips;” “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood.”
And notice verse 16, “Destruction and misery are in their ways.” Yes, it is humans who have caused destruction and misery. In verse 17, we read, The way of peace, they haven’t known” (Romans 3:17). Why? Why is this? Look at verse 18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
In the second half of this article, we will see how we brought sin and suffering on ourselves, examine more closely what repentance is, and see what happens once we have repented.
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