To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: “Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.” Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith.
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Matthew #76 Matthew 21:28-45
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I want us to remember that the verses today are continuation of Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders about John the Baptist, and whether or not he (and Jesus) preached with the authority of God.
Jesus continues that discussion by laying out an allegory; sometimes we call it the parable of the two sons. He makes it clear how that parable applies to the religious leaders. Next, he tells another parable. There are two important themes running throughout all of Jesus’ words today: Repentance and Faith.
In the story about the two sons, the key thing about the first son is that he changed his mind (verse 29). Jesus then reminds the people that when John came along, preaching repentance, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. They repented and they believed. But the religious leaders did not believe John, and they did not change their minds.
I want us to be clear on this. A number of people are fatally confused about the attitude of Jesus towards sinners on the one hand, and Pharisees and religious leaders on the other. The sinners to whom Jesus refers here are not entering the kingdom of God because they are sinners. They are entering because they repented and believed. The religious leaders are not excluded because they are religious. They are excluded because they will not repent and trust Jesus.
Too often, people take this attitude: “Well, Jesus really didn’t like religious people, but he liked sinners. I’m a sinner, so I’m probably better off than all those church goers.” But that misses the point. No one is better off without repentance and faith. Being religious does not help you. Being a sinner does not help you. Your only hope is repentance and faith.
The vineyard story is also all about repentance, and the lack thereof. The vineyard Owner sends two groups of servants. Each time the tenants of the vineyard, who owe a debt to the owner, mistreat and reject them. Finally, the Owner sends his son. Not only do they reject him, but they kill him.
The Owner was very kind and patient. He gave the tenants many opportunities to repent – but they reject every single change they were given. As a result, the Owner destroys them, and seeks new tenants.
We in the Western world have become confused about Jesus and his teaching. To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.
Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith. They call us to turn away from our sins and from living for ourselves, and to put all of our hope and trust in Jesus Christ alone, and to live for Him. That is the message Jesus is giving to the religious leaders here. He is pointing out how they have failed to repent, and how they have failed to trust Him. In case this passage alone does not convince you, let me remind you of a few others. Jesus himself consistently calls people to repentance:
31 Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32, HCSB)
20 Then He proceeded to denounce the towns where most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent (Matt 11:20, HCSB)
17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near! ” (Matt 4:17, HCSB)
1 At that time, some people came and reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2And He responded to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed — do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! ” (Luke 13:1-5, HCSB)
Jesus also taught his disciples to teach others to repent. He did this both before and after his resurrection:
12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. (Mark 6:12, HCSB)
44 Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48, HCSB)
Repentance was a key part of the message that the apostles consistently taught after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit:
38“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” 40And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation! ” (Acts 2:38-40, HCSB)
19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, HCSB)
30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, HCSB)
20 Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. (Acts 26:20, HCSB)
Repentance is not a work we do to earn our way into heaven. It the humbling of ourselves, giving up both our pride and efforts to be self-righteous, and also giving up our sins. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him. To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.
Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that you are going a different direction now. You may fall down sometimes as you walk in the new direction. You probably won’t walk it perfectly. But after you repent, your direction is different than it was before. Once in a while, perhaps, you fall back into the same actions as before. But your overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.
Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” I repeat: To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.
Again this doesn’t happen perfectly at first. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.
I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that he starts the process all, in one moment, and then for a period of time we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).
A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. Many people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the Bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.
Let me add one more thing. What Jesus and the apostles preached was repentance accompanied by faith. Truly repenting of our sins is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. We repent away from sin, and toward Jesus. This is why Jesus quoted Psalm 118 to the religious leaders. Here’s the quote, in context:
19 Open the gates of righteousness for me;
I will enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous will enter through it.
21 I will give thanks to You
because You have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23 This came from the LORD;
it is wonderful in our eyes. (Psalm 118:19-23, HCSB)
Jesus quotes this to show them quite clearly that he is the gate through which everyone enters. He is salvation. He is the cornerstone, which, though rejected by many, is the object of true faith and salvation. Matthew records that the religious leaders understood what he was saying, and hated him for it (Matt 21:45-46).
But the fact remains that we are called not only to repentance, but also to faith. The Greek New Testament generally uses the same word for belief, trust and faith. Theologically speaking, when we are talking about Jesus, I think the most appropriate word is trust. When we trust someone, we are giving them power over our lives.
For example, if we trust a bank with our money, that means that the bank, not us, keeps our money on our behalf. When we trust a friend to drive us someplace, that means the friend has control of the car, and where it goes. When we trust someone to run and errand for us, we have given that person the power to take care of whatever that errand is.
So Jesus invites us to turn away from our sins, and turn toward him in trust. Paul describes his experience of doing this as follows:
I have been crucified with Christ 20 and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB)
Paul is “crucified with Christ” – that is repentance, a complete turning away from his old life where he was in charge. Now he lives by faith – trust – in the Son of God. Jesus has control of his life.
You may wonder, “how can I get that for myself?” The Holy Spirit grants us both repentance and faith. If you want them, ask for them! I promise you, that is a prayer he will answer.