3-3-7 Works Meet for Repentance: Objections Considered
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 of sin.
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 fellowship.