LOOKING AT YOURSELF

All of us have mirrors and look into them every day to see how we look. Sometimes we are pleased, and at other times not so pleased.

In my Lenten Devotional reading today I was challenged to look at myself beyond what I see in the mirror. Day 9 in Paul David Tripp’s JOURNEY TO THE CROSS got my attention and nudged me to some self-examination.

The last sentence on the second page of the four page devotional stopped my reading and spurred my thinking. Tripp’s observation that “Anyone who argues against his [or her] own need of grace is in grave spiritual danger” (p. 56). We all need grace and most of us know it.

To further emphasize the point Tripp then called his readers to listen to what the Apostle John wrote in I John 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). I fully agree with Tripp’s assessment, “These are strong words, but we all need to hear and consider them” (p.57).

I can’t imagine that many people would deny that they have sinned, but Tripp reminds us that too often we “point the finger of blame” at someone else and “deny our own responsibility” (p. 56).

Tripp’s final paragraph pressed his point on me and gave me some direction I hope to take in the coming days and weeks and years. He begins the paragraph commenting on the season: “Lent is all about pointing the finger in the right direction. It is about humble self-examination, honest confession, and grief over sin that causes you to seek and celebrate the grace Jesus was willing to suffer and die for” (p. 58). And in his next to last sentence he spoke directly to me: “The more you see your sin, the more you will respond tenderly to other sinners and want for them the same grace you have received” (p. 58).

Don’t quit looking in the mirror, it’s ok to want to be presentable. But from time to time it is also good to take a look into our hearts.

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BASKIN-ROBBINS AND CHRISTIANITY

Those observations reminded me of something I have been saying in my teaching the past several years. When I was teaching Bible at Hope International University my classes included students from a variety of churches and denominations. The same was true more recently when I was teaching Bible at Amarillo High School and College.

On multiple occasions I reminded my students that Christianity can be compared with Baskin-Robbins in terms of their many flavors of ice cream. The flavors are different, but they all are ice cream. To me it is quite similar to the various denominations and churches within Christianity. For my money they are all Christians in terms of the foundation, but there are a variety of differences in terms of the flavors.

Not all readers of this post will agree, but I think we need to be more gracious in how we view those of different flavors and tamp down our tendency to try to convince them we are right and they are wrong.

I know what I believe and why I believe what I do, but I think as a Christian I should be respectful and understanding with regard to fellow believers who do not believe or practice their Christian faith exactly as I do. None of us should think or claim that we know it all and have it all together when it comes to what we believe and how we live.

I’m especially sensitive to this matter when it comes to Protestants and Catholics. In my role as a pastor I have been grieved more than once when a catholic questioned whether a protestant was a Christian and when a protestant questioned whether a catholic was a Christian.

All of us as Christians are free to believe what we do, but we need to be cautious about coming across as though we have it all together in what we believe and do while others do not. We can be convinced of what we believe and how we live our belief without attacking or arguing with Christians who differ from us.

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WHAT ARE YOU CALLED AND WHAT DO YOU CALL OTHERS?

A lot people use a variety of words to designate and/or describe others. The fancy name for these tags, labels, and nicknames is monikers. Recently I’ve been thinking about monikers people use for me as well as those I use for others.

What we call others can be affirming and honoring or demeaning and shaming. All of us have probably been on the receiving end of both as well as on the giving end. Obviously affirming and honoring monikers are pleasant and encouraging, but demeaning and shaming ones are hurtful and embarrassing (even if the recipient does or doesn’t respond).

When it comes to demeaning and shaming monikers the well-known saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is clearly only partially true. Yes, sticks and stones may break bones, but words can also hurt.

Here are just a few monikers I have heard people called that can hurt: flake, lazy, weakling, fatty, cheater, and loser.

I remember well an important teaching and insight I learned in a class in Marriage and Family I took over 40 years ago. The professors (a wife and husband team) stressed the potential long term damage that can be inflicted upon a child who is called demeaning and shaming names. And it’s not just children who can be damaged by such names.

The term those professors used for parents labeling their children a variety of monikers was scriptwriting. By scriptwriting they were not referring to a dialogue for a skit or play, but rather planting a thought in a child’s mind of what he or she is and could grow into being.

Scriptwriting can plant a thought in a child’s mind that is hurtful and demeaning, but scriptwriting can also plant a thought in a child’s mind that is affirming, encouraging, and challenging (and realistic).

I think the same basic idea can also be true when it comes to adults – spouses, families, co-workers, friends, and others. The monikers and nicknames we use have the potential to be affirming and up building or discouraging and hurtful.

Here are a few of my favorite monikers people call me: Jan’s husband, dad, grandpa, friend, pastor, teacher, brother, and golf partner.

Hopefully we will keep in mind the potential power for positive or negative impact when it comes to monikers.

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ON BEING SALT AND LIGHT

One of my Christmas gifts (that I requested) was a book by Gordon T. Smith entitled Wisdom from Babylon. It is a discussion and consideration about how the Church and Christians can relate to Secularity.

In two of the twelve chapters Smith explores “Four Contemporary Responses to Secularity” borrowing from Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book Christ and Culture. Simply stated, secularity refers to the non-Christian part of the society in which Christians live. Option A is labeled “The ‘Go Along to Get Along’ Response,” Option B is “The Monastic Response,” Option C is “The Culture Wars Response,” and Option D is “The Response of ‘Faithful Presence’.”

Of the four options, it is clear that the preferred response is Option D: “The Response of ‘Faithful Presence’.” Option D is in tune with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to his followers in Matthew 5:13-16, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Faithful Presence means more than just influence, but it certainly does mean influence. Influence, either for good or bad, is not necessarily intentional. Like both salt and light, much of Christian influence is simply the result of the presence of Christians. As Smith reminds us, “We are not merely the church gathered; we are also the church dispersed and present in the world” (p. 140).

The starting point of the metaphors Jesus gives his followers to be salt and light is the example they set. And good examples are to be seen both in the church gathered as well as in individual members when the church is dispersed. Such examples often lead to opportunities to go further with those who have taken notice.

I’ve always been encouraged by the Apostle Peter’s words in I Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The implication is that the way Christians act and live may create interest from those who observe how they conduct themselves.

Peter’s next instruction in how to respond is something all of us need to make sure we do when we talk about our faith: “do this with gentleness and respect.” It is not about being argumentative, preachy, pushy, judgmental, or condescending; none of which is setting much of an example.

Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world is both a privilege and a responsibility for Christians. It begins with our example and often results in opportunities to share our faith, as long as we do so with gentleness and respect.

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photo credit: symphony of love Albert Schweitzer Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. via photopin (license)

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WHAT IS WATCHFULNESS?

Early in December I received a promo suggesting some books and I ordered the one that most intrigued me.  The title of the book is Watchfulness by Brian G. Hedges and was published in 2018 by Reformation Heritage Books. The title got my attention, but the small print RECOVERING A LOST SPIRITUAL DISCIPLLINE closed the sale.

During all my years of studying the Bible and theology I had never seen or read anything about watchfulness. Richard Foster’s popular 1978 book Celebration of Discipline has one short paragraph in the chapter on Fasting dealing with “watchings.” The index of Dallas Willard’s 1988 book The Spirit of the Disciplines cites six places in the book where he mentions watching as a discipline. I don’t remember any of the references.

Hedges’ book informed, inspired, instructed, convicted, and encouraged me to give some attention to the Spiritual Discipline of Watchfulness. What is watchfulness? The basic definition of watchful is to be “vigilant, wide-awake, alert meaning being on the lookout especially for danger or opportunity. Another suggested definition is “being watchful means staying alert and constantly vigilant.

The spiritual discipline of watchfulness is pretty much the same thing as the non-spiritual definition of watchful with a focus on one’s spiritual life as a Christian.

We’ve all probably heard or read these selected biblical references, but looking at them again all together (and in their context) tells us more:

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (I Corinthians 16:13).

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Timothy 4:16).

“The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray” (I Peter 4:7).

“Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully” (II John 8).

Walter A. Elwell’s entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (edited) explains: “Watchfulness suggests a preparedness in order to avoid being taken unaware by an enemy (Psalm 127). It involves fighting carelessness to reach a desired goal (Proverbs 8:34; see Nehemiah 4:9; 7:3). In the New Testament three basic emphases are found: (1) be prepared for the Lord’s return; (2) be on guard against temptation; and (3) struggle in prayer. Watchfulness characterizes the attitudes of the disciples who await with hope the return of Jesus. The Pauline epistles echo a similar theme. Believers must resist evil so as not to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. Watchfulness implies sobriety, an avoidance of worldly excesses associated with darkness. Paul urges the church to pray with unfailing perseverance. The actions of watchfulness and prayer are indissolubly united. Prayer is an act of vigilance and vigilance a consequence of prayer (Ephesians 6:18-19). Vigilant watchfulness is a manifestation of genuine spiritual life. It keeps the church faithful in avoiding being lulled into false security.”

Let me conclude with a few selected statements from Hedges’ book that impacted me:

“All believers, regardless of their season and station in life, need to be watchful” (p.2)

“Not everyone who starts well finishes well. Many aspire, but few attain. The dangers of backsliding and the warnings against apostasy are real” (p. 9).

“To be watchful is to be wakeful. Watchfulness also requires attentiveness” (p. 25).

“Watchfulness requires effort” (p. 39).

“Decay sets in gradually, slowly, imperceptibly. The same is true in our spiritual lives” (p. 58).

“It’s not enough to know what watchfulness is and that it’s necessary . . .” (p. 67).

I hope all of this whets your appetite and stimulates your thinking about this important but underemphasized spiritual discipline of watchfulness.

Perhaps we can become more watchful spiritually in the New Year.

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MARY: AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW

One of the key persons in the Christmas account in Luke’s Gospel is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some protestant Christians believe Roman Catholics elevate Mary too high, but my sense is that in response to that Protestants don’t honor her enough. Mary should be highly regarded and is an example for all of us.

In Luke’s account Mary welcomed and accepted the gift of God’s grace. Both the greeting of the angel in Luke 1:28, “Greetings, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you”, and the explanation in verse 30, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God,” contain the root word for grace.

“Favored” and “favor” are essentially the same word as grace in the New Testament. The angel’s words make it clear that God’s favor is on her and that Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. Grace is an extremely important word in Christianity – perhaps the second most important word of all – second perhaps only to love. Grace is God’s unmerited love for us; we don’t do anything to earn, deserve, or merit it. We accept it from him.

Mary welcomed and accepted God’s grace. There is no achievement of hers that is being singled out, not mention of anything she has done to merit God’s favor. The emphasis in Christianity is upon God’s grace and not how we have to earn his love. Grace is about God loving and accepting us without measuring up.

Mary is an example of one who received God’s grace. And as Christians we too are those who have received God’s grace—his unmerited and undeserved love, acceptance, and forgiveness. And since we have received God’s grace, we need to live by grace and show it to others. We don’t live under a system of do’s and don’ts to earn God’s favor. We don’t live the way we live as Christians to be loved and accepted by God, we live the way we do because we have received God’s grace and know he loves us and has accepted us. And because of God’s grace given to us, we appropriately show it to others.

Not only did Mary welcome the gift of God’s grace, she also humbly submitted to God’s call for her to conceive, carry, and give birth to his son, the Messiah, the Savior. Remember, however, that her submission wasn’t immediate. After the angel’s explanation of what God was going to do in Luke 1: 34 Mary asked the angel, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” And that’s an obvious question given her circumstances – she wasn’t married, she was only engaged.

Some say we shouldn’t question God, but Mary did. She asked “How?” One insightful observer notes, “There is a difference between asking God ‘how’ and asking him ‘why’.” Asking how can be helpful. It’s obvious Mary’s question arose from her faith, not doubt. Following Gabriel’s explanation in Luke 1:38 Mary made it clear she would submit declaring, “I am the Lord’s servant.” It’s as though she responds, “Whatever God says, I accept.” We may be so familiar with the account that we miss Mary’s heroism.

I agree with one pastor’s reflection: “Every time I read Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement and explanation, I am awed. Here is a teenager facing misunderstanding and rejection from her family, her betrothed, and her townspeople. And yet she agrees. Mary affirms the bedrock truth that undergirds our discipleship: “I am the Lord’s servant.”

Mary’s response is an example for all us who accepted God’s grace and determined to follow Jesus. We have to decide if we are going to be and do what God calls us to do and be. Sometimes submitting to the Lord is challenging, but in the end it is always worth it. It’s part of our response of welcoming and accepting God’s grace in Jesus.

Let’s note finally, Mary wholeheartedly responded in faith and trusted God’s promises to her. Again, Mary’s question “How can this be?” was not a statement of unbelief, but a request for further information. Other than the appearance of the angel and what was said, Mary had no concrete evidence to believe. But she did have God’s promise from the angel and she believed it.

The heart of Christianity is belief and trust in the promises of God. That’s what Mary had and that’s what you and I need to stand on. Pastor James Kennedy reminds us, “When you and I come to the end our lives and look back over the years God has given us, we will see that everything has been based upon the promises of God.”

Even nature itself bears witness to the truthfulness of God’s promises. The changing of the leaves and the beauty of fall always comes after summer. And the freshness of spring always comes after the cold of winter. The light of morning always comes after the darkness of night. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we celebrate this week is the fulfillment of one of God’s many promises.

Many of us who grew up going to church probably remember singing that great hymn “Standing on the Promises.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves from time to time, “Am I really trusting and standing on the promises of God?” There is the promise to us who have claimed Jesus as Savior and Lord that God will forgive us. There is God’s promise that he hears our prayers. God does not promise us problem and pain free lives, but in Romans 8:28 Paul tells us, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And in I Corinthians 2:9 Paul reminds us, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

I believe what God has said and trust that he will keep his promises. Do you? Mary believed the angel and trusted that God would he keep his promises. May he help us too have an unshakeable faith in his never failing word.

These thoughts are taken from the second part of the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Washington Avenue Christian Church. If you are interested you can watch the entire service and message at the following link:

https://wacconline.org/media/mary-an-example-to-follow-christmas-revolution-part-4

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Merry Christmas!

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AN OUT OF THE ORDINARY CHRISTMAS

Most us would agree that Christmas 2020 is out of the ordinary from what is usual. And the primary contributor to this year’s unusual celebration, of course, is the Covid-19 pandemic in which we find ourselves.

The photo above makes the point. It’s a Christmas angel that was on a gift I received in our staff white elephant gift exchange. Note the angel is made from two masks like the ones most of us have worn the last several months. The person who made it wrote the year 2020 on it as a reminder of what we have experienced this year.

Obviously we have not completely done away with Christmas, but we have cut back and will miss a lot. This week I went to do some shopping and could hardly believe how few shoppers there were.

Many will follow suggested guidelines and not travel to be with family, or even have family gatherings with those who live nearby. The reason, of course, is to avoid as much as possible being in situations in which the virus can be passed on to others.

In following suggestions from government officials a lot of churches will not have their traditional Christmas Eve services so as to avoid crowds. To cancel a tradition that so many look forward to each year is an indication of how serious the pandemic is.

As I have reflected on how out of the ordinary Christmas will be this year I have been reminded how out of the ordinary the first Christmas was. Although it was the fulfillment of prophecy and God’s promise, it was the only time what happened ever happened. It was certainly out of the ordinary – far more than our Christmas celebration will be this year.

Even if the ordinary happenings of Christmas like shopping, decorations, cookies, family gatherings, giving gifts, singing carols, feasting, and more may not take place this year, we can still celebrate.

For me four words express the heart of Christmas: hope, love, joy, and peace. The birth of Jesus that we celebrate reminds us of these four beautiful and needed words, ideas, and feelings. Even in this unsettling time, celebrating the birth of Jesus can renew the promise of peace, joy, love, and hope that he brought and still brings to us.

Perhaps our out of the ordinary Christmas this year will result in a more focused recognition of what it is we are celebrating. Merry Christmas!

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IS FEAR A SIN?

I want to be very clear in my answer to the question asked in the title of this post, “Is fear a sin?” I don’t know for sure, but my sense is that maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; it all depends.

I’ve never run the numbers myself, but I have heard from multiple sources that “fear not” appears in the Bible 365 times – one for each day of the year. The repeated instruction “fear not” is clearly something Christians need to hear and take seriously.

I read a article yesterday by Megan Briggs in which she reported “the Bible verse most shared, bookmarked, and highlighted on the YouVersion Bible app during 2020 is Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Through the years I have used that verse many times in funerals I have conducted and other difficult situations. It is a comforting and encouraging statement relevant to many situations we face in life.

But there are other passages in the Bible that instruct us to fear. Most readers probably are familiar with Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Not everyone will remember the book, chapter, and verse; but most readers will have heard Ecclesiastes 12:13 and 14: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

Which is it? Are we to fear or are we not to fear? My answer is both. To fear God doesn’t mean we cower in fear of him, but rather to respect, honor, and worship him for who he is and what he has done and does. In Luke 12:4 and 5 Jesus tells us more: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” 

Sometimes Christians overstate the maxim that faith overcomes fear. Faith certainly helps us face and deal with fear, but it doesn’t always melt our fears. Two definitions I read that make sense to me are “fear is threat of harm, real or imagined,” and “fear is one of the most basic human emotions,”

I’m pretty sure the reason the most popular Bible verse(s) of 2020 tell us “not to fear” or “fear not” is the Covid-19 pandemic. In the interest of transparency, I have been fearful at times of being infected. And I’ve also been fearful of what the outcome could be for me if I did become infected.

Here’s the point I want to make about this subject of fear: to not fear does not mean because we are Christians everything will always go well for us.  Nor does to not fear mean we can be irresponsible, overly casual or reckless, take risks we don’t have to take, or think we are somehow not vulnerable to problems, illness, tragedies, pain, and many other things both unbelievers and believers fear.

Because of our deep and growing faith we should appropriately fear God and continue to trust him as we experience and deal with the many fears of which we may be vulnerable. And when we do realize we are fearful, we might remind ourselves that our Heavenly Father is a God of grace and forgiveness.

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LETTING GO AND MOVING ON

The opening sentence in author Scott Peck’s classic 1978 book The Road Less Traveled is as true today as it was then. The observation “Life is difficult” may be even truer today than it was over four decades ago.

One of the things that makes life difficult is the wounds we receive along the way. All of us have been hurt in a variety of ways by others. Often unintentionally, but sometimes intentionally, we are hurt and wounded by family, friends, foes, and others.

Some of our wounds are lesser scrapes and bruises and we heal quickly. Others are painful deep cuts that do not go away easily. Deep cuts, bruises, and scrapes are all inflicted by words, actions, betrayals, and misunderstandings.

(In this post I am focusing on our wounds, but we should also note that not only are we wounded in life, we also wound others. Perhaps this reminder that we also wound others will challenge and convict us to be more aware of pain we inflict.)

Through the years I have noted a variety of situations in which a person who was wounded has not allowed the wound to heal. Deep wounds are slow to heal, but holding on to and picking at one is not helpful. And the reality is that even as the worst wounds heal they do leave scars.

For many the challenge of a deeply hurtful wound is with the passing of time to let go and move on. I’m not suggesting that doing so is easy or automatic. Letting go means we don’t repeatedly replay in our minds what happened and how hurtful it was. Letting go also means we give up the idea of getting back at or paying back the one who hurt us. Letting go does not mean a person who has been wounded puts himself or herself in a position to be wounded again by the same person.

As we let go we also need to move on as well. I’m not exactly sure what moving on means in every situation of a deep wound.  It doesn’t mean we miraculously forgive and forget or that we get over it. Some wounds are so deep and painful we never get over them. But for our own healing and health I do think we need to make progress looking ahead and not stay stuck in the past.

Deep wounds can be the result of such things as abuse, abandonment, neglect, infidelity, divorce, termination from a job, constant belittling, gross disrespect, false charges, rejection, and much more.

Not to say Scott Peck was wrong, but I prefer to say life can be difficult. Most of us know that because we have been recipients of pain and wounds from others. When wounded our challenge is not to aggravate or prolong the pain ourselves. What seems appropriate to me is that we take steps to let what hurt us go and move on. It may take time and effort, but will hopefully be worth it.

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ME, REPENT?

The answer to my short question in the title of this post is “yes.” The truth is that I need to repent more often than I wish I did. Since I read an article last week by David Smith entitled REPENTANCE I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the subject: both the verb and the noun.

I think the thing that has impacted me the most in terms of my thinking and reading is that to repent means much more than simply saying you are sorry. Most of the time it is not at all hard to say, “I’m sorry.” Too often we say we are sorry but don’t do anything to make needed changes. One common definition or repent is “to turn around.”

The word repent is used a total of 78 times in the Bible: 24 in the Old Testament and 54 in the New Testament. Given that it is used that often suggests that it is important.

In Matthew 3:1 and 4:17 both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And in Matthew 3:8 John the Baptist sheds some light on the meaning of repentance: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Clearly John is saying that when a person repents it results in some changes in his or her life.

In Luke 3:3 John the Baptist tells us more about the outcome of repentance, “He went into all the country around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In the book of Acts repent and repentance are used 10 times often referring to becoming a Christian and receiving forgiveness.

Repentance is a vital element in coming to Christ for salvation; but it is not limited to becoming a Christian. A call to repent is given 10 times in the book of Revelation addressed to Christians about changes they need to make.

In a Google search I came across a definition I think hits the nail on the head: “Repentance is the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to and actual actions that show and prove a change for the better.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good about feeling contrition and regret when I mess up. The challenge for me is not just to say I’m going to do better, but to put into practice actual actions that show a change for the better. Not to bring anyone else down, but I don’t think I’m the only one who needs to do more.

(Those who are interested may find Thomas Watson’s book The Doctrine of Repentance informative, instructional, and challenging.)

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