Imagine that you go to your primary care physician for your annual physical and he tells you that you have some form of inoperable cancer and have less than a year to live. You ask him if it is an aggressive form of cancer but are surprised to learn that he had known you have had if for many years. When you ask why he did not tell you earlier for treatment, he tells you that he was trying to be nice and did not want you to feel bad about it.
You would be right to be upset at the doctor because his duty is to tell you the truth about your physical condition. His fear of telling you the truth has harmed you instead of helping you. Thankfully, we do not hear stories like this very often, but we hear plenty of stories of pastors and Christian leaders who do far worse damage to the eternal souls of their followers by ignoring the truth that all are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God and failing to call them to repentance (Romans 3:23).
It is the duty of a pastor to tell his congregation the truth about their spiritual condition. This is not some small theological debate for academic discussion, this is the heart of the Gospel and why Jesus came into the world (1 Timothy 1:15). Jesus died for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).
If we are not told of our sinfulness, then we will never know that we are sinners, we will never turn from that sin to God in repentance and ask for forgiveness for our sin, and we will never accept Jesus as our savior. In other words, unless the truth of our sin condition is told to us, we will never receive salvation and will suffer eternal punishment.
The apostle John shows the severity and importance of this truth. He says that to deny the truth of our sinfulness is so dangerous because it is blasphemous. 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.” By believing we have no sin, we are calling the infinitely perfect and wise Creator of the universe a liar. This is certainly a form of breaking the second commandment against using God’s name in vain. The issue of our sinfulness is a serious matter.
Repentance in Jesus’ ministry
The model of calling people to repentance from sin starts with Jesus Himself and we can see that He did this from the beginning of His ministry. The first actions that are recorded about Jesus after He entered public ministry are, “from that time on Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus did not sugarcoat His message in order to gain more followers. Instead, the first recorded word from His ministry is repent. If people were not sinners, then Jesus would not have begun His ministry telling those around him to repent.
Jesus’ pattern was followed by His disciples while He was still on the earth. Mark 6 records Jesus sending out the original twelve apostles out to preach for the first time. After Jesus sent them out, Mark summarizes their missionary work by saying, “so they went out and proclaimed that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). This shows that when Jesus began His ministry by calling people to repent, He meant it as a pattern for all His disciples to follow as well. Both Jesus and His first disciples made repentance from sin the primary issue.
Repentance in earliest sermons
After Jesus’ death and ascension, we can see that His apostles followed the same pattern of preaching repentance.
In the second chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, and they began speaking all the languages of the diverse group of people who had come into Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-5). Those who heard the apostles speaking these languages accused them of being drunk (Acts 2:13). Peter addressed this group in the first recorded Christian sermon, speaking of the life, death and resurrection Jesus and concluding by saying, “let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
When Peter finished preaching the sermon with those direct words, those who listened were convicted of their sin:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38).
Peter made it clear that they were sinners, they responded asking what they should do, and he responded with a call to repentance and a faith. This same pattern is repeated multiple times in the book of Acts (see Acts 3:19, 8:22, 17:30, 26:20).
While it is important to understand and acknowledge our sinfulness so that we can be saved, it is also important to understand that for those of us in Christ, though we do still sin, we are no longer defined by sin. The apostle John illustrates this by contrasting practicing righteousness and practicing sin.
No one who abides in [God] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:6-9).
Those who are in Christ who seek to read the Word of God daily, pray regularly, find ways to learn more about God, participate in worship weekly and perform other spiritual disciplines are practicing righteousness. They will still fall into sin each day, but they are not practicing sin. They are in Christ and therefore a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Let us thank God for faithful pastors who preach the truth of our sin disease, and for the deliverance from slavery God has given us through Jesus.