“All of life is repentance.” These were the words of Martin Luther—the first of many that he nailed to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany. Luther had shirked his father’s expectations of entering the legal profession in order to become a monk. Though a deeply religious man, he spent countless nights in mortal terror. What if he died without confessing all his sins? Surely if he died with sin still staining his heart, he would stand before God an unjust man.
So what led this troubled young man to turn from his fears and become a catalyst for a movement of change? It’s simple. Fear can only motivate for so long. What changed Luther’s life, was what one historian called the “glorious rediscovery of the gospel.” Luther came to realize that he could stand blameless before God not because he had “repented” properly, but because of a grace that would cover even the sins he’d been too blind to see.
CALL TO REPENTANCE
In Ezekiel 33, we hear God change His voice from one of violent judgment, to a call to repentance.
10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? 12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live. (Ezekiel 33:10-33)
Are you as confused as I am? The people have finally recognized their own failings. But God says that righteousness is no help for the person who sins (v. 12). Why not? Because if God’s standard is total purity, then even a single sin can ruin a lifetime of spotlessness. Who can possibly stand before God?
Have you ever felt this way? There are times in my own life that I simply don’t “feel” forgiven. And I know I’m not alone in this. “I know God forgives me,” you might say. “I just can’t forgive myself.” Or perhaps you wonder if God will forgive you for a sin that you keep committing. If I ask God to forgive the same sin over and over, will He really forgive me?
The answer is simple, though mysterious. The gospel tells me that my forgiveness is not determined by the purity of my repentance, but on the purity of the Savior. I am forgiven by grace, not works. I may not “feel” forgiven, but why would I trust my own moral standards? God declares me clean—whether it’s the first time I ask His forgiveness, or simply the latest in a string of clumsy prayers.
THE DAMAGE OF SELF-DETERMINATION
Still, this question raises still others. If I am consistently stumbling in a particular area, what is it that prevents me from approaching victory? Granted, there are some sins—addictions in particular—that result in a lifetime of struggle. But while the Christian life isn’t defined by perfection, it is nonetheless a quest for maturity. And—as we have repeatedly emphasized—there is no greater barrier to spiritual growth than a focus on individual rights. Here’s what God says through Ezekiel:
17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. 20 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”
21 In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.” 22 Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and he had opened my mouth by the time the man came to me in the morning, so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute. (Ezekiel 33:17-22)
Sometimes we fail to repent simply because we don’t trust that God’s way is truly better. A lifetime of obedience doesn’t offer the immediate thrill of pornography or the power of gossip. No wonder Jesus would describe the Christian life as a “narrow road.”
CALL TO MINISTRY
The answer comes in the example of Ezekiel himself.
23 The word of the LORD came to me: 24 “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ 25 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? 26 You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land? 27 Say this to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: As I live, surely those who are in the waste places shall fall by the sword, and whoever is in the open field I will give to the beasts to be devoured, and those who are in strongholds and in caves shall die by pestilence. 28 And I will make the land a desolation and a waste, and her proud might shall come to an end, and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that none will pass through. 29 Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have made the land a desolation and a waste because of all their abominations that they have committed.
30 “As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ 31 And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. 32 And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. 33 When this comes–and come it will!–then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:23-33)
In today’s world, we assume that spirituality is on something of a spectrum. We can look to “religion” as a source of values and general principles—but let’s not be a “fanatic” about it. And yet, as Ezekiel’s life demonstrates, maturity comes when we begin to see God as the greatest treasure of our lives. And yet, as Ezekiel’s life also demonstrates, there will always be those whose treasure lies elsewhere. We cannot measure our lives through small-minded notions of “success.” Instead we devote ourselves in faithfulness, and in quiet confidence, every step of the way.