Repentance must come before Salvation by Martyn Lloyd Jones
If we wait until we understand, we will never believe. It is extremely difficult for a logical person to believe before he understands. But Jesus says, “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3 TEV) We know, little children do not understand, yet they believe their parents. So, we must change and submit ourselves like little children to the Bible and from our hearts, believe what the Bible says: it is God revealing Himself in it. Once we start to accept the Word of God in the Bible, the truth will be revealed to us and then we will begin to understand.
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God’s Way Not Ours Isaiah 1,” They were delivered between February 3 and April 7, 1963 but was published in 1999.
Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:10 KJV)
The world is not interested in Christ for the simple reason that it does not see any need of him. Campaigns are held and evangelists shout: ‘Come to Christ.’ But the people do not come to Christ, the masses do not come to him, because they see no relevance in all this. Why should they come to Christ? They are all right as they are, they say. In fact, it has never been so good!
No, you must have a reason for coming—‘They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came,’ says Christ, ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2:17 NIV). The Pharisees never believed in him, they rejected him; it was the tax collectors and the harlots who went crowding into the kingdom. Why? Because they had seen their need of him. They were the people who were crying out in different ways, ‘What shall I do?’
Now all that is involved between verses 9 and 10 because the prophet goes on to say this: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah.’ If you do not want to be overwhelmed, as the cities of the plain were, listen. If you are asking what must be done, here is the answer: ‘Listen.’
Verse 10 is what we may very well describe as the call to repentance and this is a most important matter. I have already reminded you of how the people cried out as they interrupted Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost—‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’
Back came the answer: ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 2:38). That is the answer: ‘Repent and believe.’ But repent first, then go on to your belief. The Bible indicates to us that this is always the way when people reach the point when they cry, ‘What shall I do?’
It is easily demonstrable that repentance must always come first—and that is always the way to Christ and salvation. The first preacher in the New Testament is John the Baptist and he preached ‘the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (Luke 3:3). He was the forerunner, the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’ The apostle Paul reminded the elders of the church at Ephesus that day and night, both in public and in private and with tears, he had preached, ‘repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21).
So the first message of the gospel is not, ‘Come to Jesus,’ it is, ‘Repent.’ I will go further and say that no one truly comes to Jesus without repentance—it is impossible. There is no such thing as a Christian who has never repented. The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of light, and a Spirit of order and of method. He always does these things in the same way, as God does in all creation, in everything. In this great matter of salvation, he does God’s work on a system and on a principle.
These are vital matters. We cannot afford to play with these things, life is too urgent, too desperate. You see, you can think you are a Christian, and not be a Christian. You can have a nice feeling and think that means, ‘I am a Christian.’ But it does not necessarily follow. Do you know why you are a Christian? Do you know what it means to be a Christian? Can you ‘give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet. 3:15)? Now that is where repentance comes in. The true Christian has first repented and then believed. And I cannot think of a better way of putting the doctrine of repentance than this verse that we are now considering: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. . . give ear unto the law of our God.’
‘What must I do?’ says someone.
Let us divide it up like this. The English word ‘repent’ comes from a Latin word which means to think again. To think again is always the first step. Look at it in terms of these children of Israel. They had been turning their backs upon God; they had all gone their own way; they were ‘laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters’. They ‘provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward’ (Isaiah 1:4). Because of these things, God had been punishing them but, as we have seen, they went on with their sinful life. ‘Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more’ (verse 5). They were covered with bruises and open sores and yet they went on in this wrong way saying: I shall continue. I’m not going to listen.
So Isaiah is saying: In the name of God, stop for a moment and ask questions.
Let me give you the great New Testament illustration of all this. The prodigal son leaves home and, with his pockets full of money, goes to a far country where he has a wonderfully good time! But famine comes and the money all goes. Yet he still does not think at all. The devil does not allow us to think; he just keeps us going on and on. If only we stopped and did some thinking, we would soon leave him, but he does not allow us to do that. And there is that poor fellow there in the field with the swine and the husks. What is the turning point in his story? ‘He came to himself and he said. . ’ (Luke 15:17). What does he say? It is something like this: ‘What in the name of conscience am I doing in a place like this? What is my father’s son doing in a field sitting down among swine and eating husks? What does it mean? What’s happened to me? Where is my brain, my reason? What sort of fool am I?’
He begins to talk to himself—he begins to think—and it is only then that he really does begin to think. Before that he has only grumbled, and while you are grumbling you are not thinking, you are just complaining because the money is going and because the famine has come. Thinking means that you face the situation. So the prodigal son begins to do that, and it is the means of his eventually going home.
So, then, says the Bible, if you have recognized the cause of your trouble, and seen that the things that are happening to you are the consequences of what you have been doing, and of your rebellion against God, stop and think. Pull yourself up. Say, ‘Now I am going to face things.’ If you do, you begin to ask yourself questions:
Where am I going? How have I arrived in this position? Why are certain things true of me now that used not to be true of me? What has brought it about? Why have I done it? What advantages have I derived?
Then you ask: Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of humanity? What am I doing in this world? Do I just go on round and round in a never-ending circle? What is it going to lead to? What is the ultimate end of all this? Where am I going to find myself? Furthermore, what about death? What lies beyond? I’ve just gone on doing the things that I’ve been wanting to do, and see everybody else doing. Nobody has stopped to think or to ask questions. I see now that I’ve got to stop.
Of course, you may say that you have already thought and that the life you have been living is the result of it. All right! Those were your modes of thought; that was your philosophy of life. But now you realize that you are in trouble. So what do you do? You think again—that is all. You examine your philosophy. You say, ‘Now I really am going to look at this seriously and soberly. I shall not continue to go round and round in circles. Like the prodigal son, you ‘come to yourself’.
That, then, is the first step in repentance. And, of course, I take it that you are clear about this. When I say that we must think, I do not mean that we go on repeating the clichés. That is not thinking, it is a substitute for thought. I must not go on about this now, but I think that we all need to be taught how to think. I know many people today who do not think, they only read books! Ah, but you say that reading books makes you think. Are you sure? Are you sure that when you read a book you do not just repeat it like a parrot? Repeating things you have read is not thinking. A machine can do that, a parrot can do it! Thinking is a process in which you do not just repeat the clichés, and say what everybody else is saying. No, you sit down and say, ‘I wonder if all that is right? I know that it is what everybody says, but look what it leads to in the world. I must examine this.’
Have you really thought about life? I do not care what age you are. You may be young. Have you thought what the meaning of life is? Do you know where you are going? I ask the question still more to the middle-aged who have settled down in life, perhaps. I ask it to the aged: Have you thought? Think again—‘Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.’ If you do not, you will be involved in the disaster.
The second meaning of ‘repent’ is, ‘change your mind’. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for repentance—metanoia. The Latin, ‘think again’, and the Greek, ‘change your mind’ together give us a complete meaning. Repentance is not only thinking again, because if you do that it does not follow, of course, that you will come to the correct conclusion. You may arrive at the same thoughts as before, you may confirm yourself in your previous decision, and that is not repentance. Repentance involves a change of mind.
So when the prophet calls upon us to hear, he says: I want you to listen and to think in a particular way. Repentance involves a realization that we have been all wrong in our thinking. That is a terrible blow to us, is it not? Particularly today, when we are so proud of our thinking and our philosophy. The first thing the gospel asks us to do is admit that we have been wrong in our thinking—and equally wrong, therefore, in our living and in our entire behaviour. That is what the Bible is saying to the whole world today, to the world in sin, in its shame, its sorrow, its anguish, where there is starvation in one country and plenty in another. Some people are dying because they do not have enough, while others are throwing food into the sea, or burning it because there is surplus. That is the world, that is what men and women have brought it to. People in their cleverness! It is not God who has done that, it is men and women departing from God who have done it. There was no problem like that in Paradise; that is humanity’s work.
Let me sum this up by giving you the classic example of it—none other than the apostle Paul. There he was, that proud, self-righteous Pharisee, hating Jesus Christ, blaspheming his name and trying to exterminate the Christian Church. Why did he do it? Well, as he told Agrippa and Festus when he was on trial—and what a confession it was—‘I verily thought with myself . . .’ Exactly! ‘I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Acts 26:9). He was everything, speaker and audience, talking to himself and agreeing with himself! And that is what we all do until we become Christians. We defend ourselves and put up a case that we can answer. We are marvellous at this: we talk to ourselves and we think with ourselves, and we know we are right: we are unanimous!
But when the Spirit of God takes hold of the word of God and speaks to us, we cease to be unanimous and realize that we have been totally wrong. ‘I did it in ignorance, in unbelief,’ said Paul in effect. ‘I thought I knew so much, but I was a fool, I knew nothing!’ We admit that all our thinking and all our living have been altogether wrong and confess it to God, without making any excuses.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, God has ‘made foolish the wisdom of this world’ (1 Corinthians 1:20) and no one is a Christian until he sees that. Every one of us is born with the mind and the outlook and the philosophy of the world. ‘The world was very old indeed when you and I were young,’ says E. C. Bentley. Exactly! We all are born as old men and women; we have received the thinking and the philosophy of humanity in sin and we absorb it almost with our food and with the very breath that we breathe in. We have to be convinced that it is all wrong, that the wisdom of this world is the cause of the mess that the world is in. We must confess this; it is an essential part of repentance.
We have not repented until we have done what David did in Psalm 51. He confesses, ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (verse 4). ‘Have mercy upon me, 0 God’ (verse 1). We must say, ‘Whatever made me do it? What’s wrong with my thinking that I should ever have done such a thing? I even wanted to do it, and justified myself in doing it! God, I have been all wrong. Cleanse me, give me a new mind. “Renew a right spirit within me”!’ That is always the second step.
The third point is that in the light of this, men and women must cease, therefore, to rely any more upon their own capacity and their own wisdom: they must. The challenge that comes to them in 1 Corinthians 1:20 is this: ‘Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?’ Those are the questions that the great apostle hurls at those clever Greeks in Corinth to whom he was writing. Have you heard those questions addressed to you? You are wise; you are a scribe; you are a reader; you are a student; you are a disputer. You are the clever one in the debating society. You can put the world right. You can always prove your argument and you get applause from all who are listening to you. Where are you, disputer of this world? What have you got to say? ‘Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?’
And if ever that was true of any generation, it is surely true of this one. Look what the wisdom of this world has brought us to. In the twentieth century, it has not been ‘the thing to do’ to believe in God. Indeed, ‘the thing to do’ has been not to believe in him—to ridicule Christianity, to say that it is sob stuff, opium of the people. The clever person, the disputer of this world, the wise, the scribe, the learned, sophisticated person, has ridiculed it all. But what has such wisdom produced? Where has it landed us? Where is it leading us? What has it to give us? Is it not about time that we began asking these questions? And I would hold that Christian men and women are people who admit that they no longer have confidence in their own minds nor in the minds of others. They are ready to admit that they are all inadequate.
Have you come to that or are you still holding on to the wisdom of this world? Do you really believe that the statesmen understand the cause of our ills? Do you believe that the philosophers understand it any better? The scribes, the disputers of this world, are patently failing; they are entirely at sea; they are absolutely baffled and bewildered. And so are you. Are you ready to admit that yet, or are you still putting your faith in your own brain, in your own reasoning power and in all the propositions that you can put up?
Now all this is implied here: ‘Hear the word of the Lord,’ which means that you no longer rely on your own word nor the word of anybody else; you have finished with the wisdom of the world. The extraordinary thing that sin does to us is that it makes us hold on to our opinions and our views, and though the world is on fire around and about us, we still think we can understand and deal with it! But if you really want to know what to do next, says the Bible, there is your answer: ‘Hear the word of the Lord.’
I do not expect you to believe this gospel message if you believe some of the modern philosophers; it would be folly for me to expect it! If you are a logical positivist, if you are a follower of Bertrand Russell, you will not believe the word of God. If you put your faith in that philosophy, the Bible will be nonsense to you. You must finish with the one first and then, and only then, will you be ready to listen to the other. And if, after listening to the Bible’s analysis of the nature of sin, and having looked at the consequences of sin in yourself, and in society and in the whole world, you can still go on putting your faith in that modern philosophy, then all I can say to you is that you are very much in Sodom and Gomorrah. And if you do not change your mind and if you do not give that up, then beyond any question you will be involved in a final destruction.
That, then, brings me to my last point, which is that the final step in repentance is utter submission to God’s word—‘Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.’ Sit down, stop, give up, listen. That means—and this is absolutely vital—acceptance of revelation. Let me put it in the words that I am so fond of quoting. The great Blaise Pascal saw this fact very clearly. He was a brilliant mathematician, with a fine French mind; its logic and debating capacity have probably never been surpassed. And this is how Pascal put it: ‘The supreme achievement of reason is to bring us to see that there is a limit to reason.’ And the moment we see that there is a limit to reason, and not until then, we are ready to listen to revelation. And this is the very thing that is held before us here. You must submit utterly and entirely ‘to the word of the Lord, and unto the law of our God’. What does that mean? It means that with regard to the great problems of humanity and life and living and death and eternity, with regard to the great problem of what makes the world what it is at the present time, and all the agony and the shame and the remorse and the suffering, with regard to all this, it means believing that the only wisdom that has an answer is the Bible.
What is the Bible? It is God’s word, God’s revelation. We must renounce human wisdom and say, ‘I want the wisdom of God that I find here.’ The Bible is not a collection of books in which men have expressed their own wisdom and thoughts. As we have seen, it was written by men who say that God came to them and spoke to them and opened their eyes and gave them a message. They say: I don’t do this of myself, the Spirit came upon me. God gave me this burden. God gave me this message and I just repeat it. It is not mine, it is his.
To submit to God’s word, then, means that from our hearts we believe and say that the Bible is God’s revelation, and renouncing every other guidance and teaching and wisdom and philosophy, we submit ourselves as little children to the Bible. We believe that here we have the mind of God. Here we have God speaking to us and telling us about himself. Here we have God telling us that he is over all and that he is the Creator, that there would never have been a world at all if he had not made it. Here we have God telling us the truth about humanity—that man and woman were made in the image of God, and made for God with glorious possibilities. Here we are given God’s wisdom with regard to what is the matter with humanity and why the world is as it is.
And here, thank God, is the thing we want to know most of all: how we can be delivered. Here is God’s plan and God’s wisdom with respect to our salvation. The apostle Paul says, ‘We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23—24). This is it—we are hearing the word of the Lord, and we are giving ear to the law of our God. In the Bible we find a message that tells us that there is only one way whereby we can be delivered: it is God’s way and here it is. This is God’s wisdom.
And what is God’s way? It is not that God has sent us another teaching, a new philosophy, which we must strive hopelessly to keep, but that ‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son.’ We find the preparation for his coming in the Old Testament, and then in the New Testament we find his coming, his teaching, his miracles, his death, his burial, his resurrection, his sending of the Spirit, his sending out the apostles, and their message concerning him. Here it is, this is God’s way of salvation.
So that is what repentance means—that, having come to the end of our own wisdom, and of all other human wisdom, we submit ourselves utterly and absolutely to this message because it is the wisdom of God. To do this is not easy because our natural prejudices are against it—‘unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks [nothing but, just] foolishness’. It is unlike anything we have ever heard.
‘What!’ asks somebody. ‘Are you asking me just to believe that and then all will be well? It’s not like that in the world! I’ve had to earn everything I’ve got. I had to work for my exams. I’ve had to work to make money in my business. And yet you say, “Take it all for nothing!” It’s impossible, it’s against everything I believe, everything I’ve experienced. It’s against all my prejudices.’
All right, I agree. But if you are a Christian, in spite of everything, you will believe it. Why? Because here is something that starts with the supposition that we are all failures, and that is not what people say, but God. The gospel of Jesus Christ cuts across all our preconceived ideas. It tells us that we are all fools, that we are all muddled in our thinking, that we have all gone astray in our thinking. Who likes to be told that? But whether we like it or not, that is the message of the gospel—God has made this world’s wisdom foolish and he has given us his own wisdom. ‘Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called’ (1 Corinthians 1:26). Of course not! Why? Because they are proud of their intellects; they believe they understand. They are still holding on to their thoughts though their world is in chaos. Fools! Christians are people who have repented, who have thought again and seen that they cannot think aright. They say, ‘Very well, I cannot help myself. I’m to come as a little child, as Christ told me to come.’ He said, ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:3). Little children do not understand, they believe. They take what is given to them. And you must be like that, says Christ. Come, follow me. Follow me in your mind. Follow me in everything. Confess you cannot do it. Just follow.
You must do that, in spite of your prejudices; you must do it, also, in spite of your failure to understand it fully. Oh, this is, again, very difficult, is it not? Men and women, with their pride of intellect, want to understand everything. They say, ‘I’m not going to believe a thing if I don’t understand it. You say I must believe in God, but I can’t understand him.’
And because of that, they do not believe in God; they do not realize that they are making fools of themselves. If you could understand God, you would be equal to God! By definition, God cannot be understood. What you do in the presence of God is not try to understand, but bow down and worship—mystery!
Oh, yes, says Paul, we ‘speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom .‘ (1 Corinthians 2:6—7). What is this? It is the mystery of God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. You cannot understand the doctrine of the Trinity—three Persons and yet just one Godhead! You cannot understand the mystery of Christ. ‘Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh’ (1 Tim. 3:16). There I look at him and see a man and yet he is God. He is divine and eternal and he is human within time. Can you understand that? Of course not! You try, but it seems utter folly.
You do not understand, but you believe because you see it before you. He has lived in history; you see what he has done. There he is. I do not understand him, I just fall at his feet in adoration, and I rise up and follow him. You believe in spite of your lack of understanding. If you wait until you understand, you will never believe. You must be content not to understand. ‘If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world,’ says Paul again to the Corinthians, ‘let him become a fool, that he may be wise’ (1 Corinthians 3:18). Let him admit that he knows nothing, let him receive the revelation, then he will begin to understand and he will go on understanding, throughout the countless ages of eternity.
So you believe inspite of your prejudices, though you do not understand, and in spite of the laughter and derision of the world. The world will say that you have surrendered your intellect, while it is holding on to its intellect—the intellect that does not understand, that does not know what man is, or what life is, or why things are as they are and that cannot devise a way of salvation. All civilization has failed. All human efforts come to nought. And yet people pour scorn upon the Christian who says, ‘I see now that I cannot understand and nobody else can. I will accept and believe and submit to the wisdom of God.’
Let the world laugh! Let the world go on laughing at Christianity; let it laugh itself into hell. Let it make its clever jokes. Let it get its applause—it will not last long. The actors and the clappers—they are all dying and will all go to destruction. The world laughed at the Son of God; it ridiculed him; it poured scorn upon him. ‘Aha,’ it said, ‘he who saved others; let him save himself’ (Luke 23:35). How clever! It laughed at him and did not realize that it was laughing at itself.
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name.
So if you want to know what to do, here is the only answer: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. . . give ear unto the law of our God.’ Everything you need is here. Whatever you may have done until this moment, I do hope that you are now ready to say like Samuel, ‘Speak; for thy servant heareth’ (1 Samuel 3:10). Or, say with Saul of Tarsus—who thought so much with himself and was so proud of his thinking yet fell to the ground on the road to Damascus—‘What wilt thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6)
And here is the answer: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. . .’
Believe this message, accept the wisdom of God, and you will find yourself a new person in a new world with a new mind and above all a new hope and a new power. You will not only be enabled to live, you will be enabled to die, and you will know that beyond death you will go to be with Christ which is far better, to be with God, to be in the glory everlasting. (104-118)