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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Basic Christian Conversion and Repentance

Jun 2, 2013

Fifty-five years ago the very important volume Basic Christianity by John Stott was published. Since appearing in 1958 it has gone through countless reprints and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And well it should – it is a classic volume laying out the essential beliefs of biblical Christianity.

Stott, who passed away in 2011, was a towering figure in the evangelical world, and made an enormous contribution to its growth and development during the second half of last century and beyond. I have written about this great man elsewhere: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2011/07/28/notable-christians-john-stott/

Here I want to focus on just one aspect of his vital volume. His book is divided into four sections: Christ’s Person; Man’s Need; Christ’s Work; and Man’s Response. It is that final section which I want to explore more fully here.

In fact, what I really want to do is simply quote hunks of it for you. The words contained there are just as valuable today as when first written. He heads this section with the subtitle, “Counting the Cost”. That phrase comes from Mark 8:34-38, and it is that passage which he elaborates on in the pages ahead.

By way of introduction he writes, “Clearly we must do something. Christianity is no mere passive acquiescence to a series of propositions, however true. We may believe in the deity and the salvation of Christ, and acknowledge ourselves to be sinners in need of His salvation; but this does not make us Christians. We have to make a personal response to Jesus Christ, committing ourselves unreservedly to Him as our Saviour and Lord.

“Jesus never concealed the fact that His religion included a demand as well as an offer. Indeed the demand was as total as the offer was free. If He offered men His salvation, He also demanded their submission. He gave no encouragement whatever to thoughtless applicants for discipleship….

“He never lowered his standards or modified his conditions to make his call more readily acceptable. He asked His first disciples and He has asked every disciple since, to give Him their thoughtful and total commitment. Nothing less than this will do.”

He continues, “At its simplest, Christ’s call was ‘Follow me.’ He asked men and women for their personal allegiance. He invited them to learn from him, to obey his words and to identify themselves with his cause. Now there can be no following without a previous forsaking. To follow Christ is to renounce all lesser loyalties. In the days when he lived among men on earth, this meant a literal abandonment of home and work.”

He then breaks down what this forsaking means. “Let me be more explicit about the forsaking which cannot be separated from the following of Jesus Christ. First, there must be a renunciation of sin. This, in a word, is repentance. It is the first part of Christian conversion. It can in no circumstances be bypassed. Repentance and faith belong together. We cannot follow Christ without forsaking sin.

“Repentance is a definite turn from every thought, word, deed and habit which is known to be wrong. It is not sufficient to feel pangs of remorse or to make some kind of apology to God. Fundamentally, repentance is a matter neither of emotion nor of speech. It is an inward change of mind and attitude towards sin which leads to a change of behaviour. There can be no compromise here. There may be sins in our lives which we do not think we ever could renounce; but we must be willing to let them go as we cry to God for deliverance from them….

“When he puts his finger on anything, give it up. It may be some association or recreation, some literature we read, or some attitude of pride, jealousy or resentment, or an unforgiving spirit. Jesus told his followers to pluck out their eye and cut off their hand or foot if these caused them to sin. We are not to obey this with dead literalism, of course, and mutilate our bodies. It is a vivid figure of speech for dealing ruthlessly with the avenues along which temptation comes to us….

“Second, there must be a renunciation of self. In order to follow Christ we must not only forsake isolated sins, but renounce the very principle of self-will which lies at the root of every act of sin. To follow Christ is to surrender to him the rights over our own lives. It is to abdicate the throne of our heart and do homage to him as our King. This renunciation of self is vividly described by Jesus in three phrases. It is to deny ourselves: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself.’

“The same verb is used of Peter’s denial of the Lord in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace. We are to disown ourselves as completely as Peter disowned Christ when he said ‘I do not know the man.’ Self-denial is not just giving up sweets and cigarettes, either for good or for a period of voluntary abstinence. For it is not to deny things to myself, but to deny myself to myself. It is to say no to self, and yes to Christ; to repudiate self and acknowledge Christ.

“The next phrase Jesus used is to take up the cross: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ If we had lived in Palestine and seen a man carrying his cross, we should at once have recognized him as a convicted prisoner being led out to pay the supreme penalty. For Palestine was an occupied country, and this is what the Romans compelled their convicted criminals to do….

“The third expression which Jesus used to describe the renunciation of self is to lose our life: ‘Whoever loses his life… will save it.’ The word for ‘life’ here denotes neither our physical existence nor our soul, but our self. The psyche is the ego, the human personality which thinks, feels, plans and chooses. According to a similar saying preserved by Luke Jesus simply used the reflexive pronoun and talked about a man forfeiting ‘himself.’

“The man who commits himself to Christ, therefore, loses himself. This does not mean that he loses his individuality, however. His will is indeed submitted to Christ’s will, but his personality is not absorbed into Christ’s personality. On the contrary, as we shall see later, when the Christian loses himself, he finds himself, he discovers his true identity. So in order to follow Christ we have to deny ourselves, to crucify ourselves, to lose ourselves.

“The full, inexorable demand of Jesus Christ is now laid bare. He does not call us to a sloppy half-heartedness, but to a vigorous, absolute commitment. He calls us to make him our Lord. The astonishing idea is current in some circles today that we can enjoy the benefits of Christ’s salvation without accepting the challenge of his sovereign lordship.

“Such an unbalanced notion is not to be found in the New Testament. ‘Jesus is Lord’ is the earliest known formulation of the creed of Christians. In days when imperial Rome was pressing its citizens to say ‘Caesar is Lord,’ these words had a dangerous flavour. But Christians did not flinch. They could not give Caesar their first allegiance, because they had already given it to the Emperor Jesus. God had exalted his Son Jesus far above all principality and power and invested him with a rank superior to every rank, that before him ‘every knee should bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’

“To make Christ Lord is to bring every department of our public and private lives under his control. This includes our career. God has a purpose for every life. Our business is to discover it and do it. God’s plan may be different from our parents’ or our own. If he is wise, the Christian will do nothing rash or reckless. He may already be engaged in, or preparing for, the work God has for him to do. But he may not. If Christ is our Lord, we must open our minds to the possibility of a change.”

That is a very fine exposition of the response of sinners to what Jesus has done for us. Respond we must, if we are to avail ourselves of the free gift of salvation. And that involves biblical repentance: turning from sin and self and fully committing to Christ.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

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4 Responses to Basic Christian Conversion and Repentance

  • Thank you Bill for bringing us back so often to the basics of the gospel. I try to remind myself every morning as to who God is and to who I am. I never thought I could be so forgetful or stray so quickly, but as I become more sensitive to the requirements of a Holy life and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, I also recognize more and more the gap between my imperfection and His perfection and therefore my need of His grace to truly grow up into the measure of Christ. So it seems repentance is an ongoing work and not just a one time decision.
    Thank you for this very helpful article.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew C19:V25).

    “In days when imperial Rome was pressing its citizens to say ‘Caesar is Lord,’ these words had a dangerous flavour. But Christians did not flinch. They could not give Caesar their first allegiance, because they had already given it to the Emperor Jesus.”

    Sitting here at my computer typing this, I would not dare to compare myself with the Christians in Rome, the best I can hope for is that if the crunch ever came where my life was on the line, that the Lord would give me what I need to stand firm for Him. Could I do it without Him – NO WAY!

    Steve Davis

  • Hardly got any sleep last night after reading this article!
    Steve Davis

  • Yes I haven’t been quiet the same since reading this.
    Beautiful.
    Daniel Kempton

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