From the beginning our Lord’s announcement of the nearness of the kingdom was linked with the demand for repentance and faith (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). This was not accidental, but an inevitable result from the nature of the kingdom. Repentance and faith are simply the two main aspects of the kingdom, righteousness and the saving grace of God, translated into terms of subjective human experience. Because the kingdom is in its very essence a kingdom of righteousness, therefore it is impossible for anyone to be truly in it without having previously repented. Because the kingdom intrinsically consists in the exercise of the divine saving grace and power, therefore it requires in every one who is to share its benefits that responsive and receptive attitude towards these divine attributes which is called faith.
|Objective reality of the kingdom
|Subjective reality in human experience
|“Because the kingdom is in its very essence a kingdom of righteousness, therefore it is impossible for anyone to be truly in it without having previously repented.”
|saving grace of God
|“Because the kingdom intrinsically consists in the exercise of the divine saving grace and power, therefore it requires in every one who is to share its benefits that responsive and receptive attitude towards these divine attributes which is called faith.”
The relation of repentance to the kingdom is strikingly defined in Matthew’s version of the parable of the marriage feast (22:1-14). Comparing this with the form in which our Lord uttered the same parable on a previous occasion, according to Luke 14:16-24, we find among other changes the significant touch added of the man without a wedding garment. It is plain from the nature of the invitation, that what this wedding garment stands for is not to be regarded as in any way entitling the bearer to a place at the feast. Those who come are taken from the highways and hedges, from the streets and lanes of the city and compelled to enter. They are received, therefore, without merit on their part, on the principle of free grace. Nevertheless, when once within, it is indispensable that they should wear the garment appropriate to the occasion. Thus repentance and righteousness, while they do not in any meritorious sense earn the benefits of the kingdom, are yet indispensable concomitants of the state in which alone these benefits can be received.
Our Lord’s idea of repentance is as profound and comprehensive as his conception of righteousness. Of the three words that are used in the Greek Gospels to describe the process:
- one emphasizes the emotional element of regret, sorrow over the past evil course of life, μεταμελομαι (Matt. 21:29-32);
- a second expresses reversal of the entire mental attitude, μετανοεω (Matt 12:41, Luke 11:32; 15:7,10);
- the third denotes a change in the direction of life, one goal being substituted for another, ἐπιστρέφω (Matt. 13:15 and parallels); (Luke 17:4; 22:32).
Repentance is not limited to any single faculty of the mind: it engages the entire man, intellect, will and affections. Nor is it confined to the moral sphere of life in the narrower sense: it covers man’s entire religious as well as his moral relation to God. Repentance in the conception of Jesus is wide enough to include faith (Matt. 11:20, 21). Here as elsewhere, what strikes us most is the God-centered character of our Lord’s teaching on the subject. The state from which a repentance must take place is condemned, because it is radically wrong with reference to God. The sin of the prodigal has for its central feature the abandonment of the Father’s house. The sinful are like wandering sheep, like lost coins, representations which imply a detachment of the spiritual consciousness from its center in God.
The strongest way of expressing this is to designate the state of man without repentance a state of death (Matt. 8:22; Luke 15:24, 32). And Jesus does not look upon this state as a godless state in the purely negative sense of the word. Where the love of God is absent, there an idolatrous love of the world and of self enters, and a positively offensive and hostile attitude towards God results. It is very significant that Jesus, in speaking of the two masters, does not say that to love the one is to neglect the other, or to hold to the one is to renounce the other, but employs positive terms in both clauses, “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). Man is so necessarily bound to God in his inmost consciousness, that absolute indifference or neutrality are excluded.
In the crisis of repentance the offense against God and the need of God are that upon which the repenting consciousness is focused. The sorrow of true repentance is one which arises from conviction of sin. It is also a sorrow after God, such as proceeds from a sense of spiritual destitution. Both principles are well brought out in the parable of the prodigal son, the discourse in which Jesus has so marvelously described the psychological process of repentance. The prodigal “comes to himself.” Previously he had been out of himself, had not known and felt himself in the simple truth of his fundamental relation to God. He realizes that he perishes with hunger, whilst in his Father’s house there is bread enough and to spare. In his confession, the offense against God is significantly placed before that against the human father.
Again, in the new life which follows repentance, the absolute supremacy of God is the controlling principle. He who repents turns away from the service of mammon and self to the service of God. Our Lord is emphatic in insisting upon this absolute, undivided surrender of the soul to God as the goal of all true repentance. Because this and nothing less is the goal, He urges the necessity of a constant repetition of the process. Even to His followers He said at a comparatively late stage of his ministry, “Except ye turn and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). From this necessity, we must also explain the uncompromising manner in which Jesus requires of His disciples the renunciation of all earthly bonds and possessions which would dispute God his supreme sway over their life (Matt. 10:39; 16:25; Luke 14:25-35). The statements to this effect are not meant in the sense that external abandonment of these things is sufficient or even required. The idea is that the inward attachment of the soul to them as the highest good must be in principle destroyed, that God may take the place hitherto claimed by them. Within the kingdom, they are entitled to affection on the disciple’s part in so far only as they can be made subordinate and subservient to the love of God. The demand for sacrifice always presupposes that what is to be renounced forms an obstacle to that absolute devotion which the kingdom of God requires (Mark 9:43). That not the external possession but the internal entanglement of the heart with temporal goods is condemned, Jesus strikingly indicates by the demand “to hate” one’s father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and one’s own life also. The energetic determination of the will to forego even the pleasures of natural affection, where they come in conflict with the supreme duty of the kingdom, is thus described and the word “hating” chosen on purpose to express that in such cases an internal change of mind alone, not a mere external act, can make man fit for the kingdom of God. Matt. 10:37 gives us Jesus’ own interpretation of such seemingly harsh sayings.
Jesus affirms the necessity of repentance for all men (Mark 6:12; Luke 13:3,5; 24:47). In an indirect way, the universal need of it is shown by His utterances on the universality and pervasiveness of sin. Even to the disciples, it can be said without qualification, “If ye then, being evil, etc.” (Matt. 7:11). None is good save one, even God (Mark 10:18).
It is true Jesus draws a distinction between “righteous” and “sinners” (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17). But the context shows that this distinction is drawn from the point of view of the judgment pronounced by men on themselves, not from the objective standpoint of Jesus’ own knowledge of them. These statements were made in answer to the charge of the Pharisees that Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. The Savior means to say that, if their comparative estimate concerning themselves and these degraded people be correct, there is all the more necessity for his associating with the latter in order to save them. Perhaps the reference to the ninety and nine righteous persons, which need no repentance (Luke 15:7,10) must be explained on the same principle.
The connection between faith and the saving grace and power of God in the kingdom is just as close and vital as that just traced between repentance and righteousness. It is a striking fact that in the Synoptical Gospels nearly the whole of our Lord’s teaching on faith attaches itself to the performance of miracles. This implies that the miracles were eminently adapted to bring out the inner essence of faith and to reveal the true reason for its necessity. They embody that aspect of the kingdom to which faith is the subjective counterpart.
Now the miracles almost without exception have two features in common.
In the first place, they are transactions where the result absolutely and exclusively depends on the forth-putting of the divine supernatural power, where no human effort could possibly contribute anything towards its accomplishment.
And secondly, the miracles are, as we have seen, healing miracles in which the gracious love of God offers itself to man for his salvation.
Faith is the spiritual attitude called for by this twofold element in the saving work of God. It is the recognition of the divine power and grace, not, of course, in a purely intellectual way, but practically so as to involve not only conviction of the mind but to carry with it also the movement of the will and the affections. How faith stands related to the saving power of God is most clearly illustrated in the narrative Mark 9:17-24. When the disciples could not heal the child with the dumb spirit Jesus exclaimed, “O unbelieving generation.” The father says, after describing the severity of the case, “But if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” To this Jesus replies, “If thou canst! all things are possible to him that believeth.” This ascribes to faith something that can be affirmed of God alone, viz., absolute omnipotence. Elsewhere also this principle is emphasized by our Lord (Matt. 21:21,22; Mark 11:22,23; Luke 17:6). The explanation lies in this that faith is nothing else than that act whereby man lays hold of and appropriates for himself the endless power of God. If faith were a human endeavor, something working by its own inherent strength, then it would be indeed reasonable to say with reference to the one exercising it, “If thou canst.” On the other hand, if the innermost meaning of faith consist precisely in this, that man with an utter renunciation of his own strength, casts himself upon the strength of God, then plainly all further concern about what is possible or impossible, every “If thou canst” is out of place. Hence also faith is not a quantitative matter, as it would have to be, were it a principle of human endeavor; faith like a grain of mustard seed will accomplish the greatest conceivable results, because, small though it be, it nevertheless, provided it be genuine faith, connects man with the exhaustless reservoir of divine omnipotence (Luke 17:6).
This line of reasoning, however, is not applicable to the miracles only. The miracles illustrate the saving work of God in general. All salvation partakes, humanly speaking, of the nature of the impossible, and can be accomplished by God alone. Jesus answers the question of the disciples, “Who then can be saved?” with an appeal to the almighty power of God, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25,26). All genuine saving faith is as profoundly conscious of its utter dependence on God for deliverance from sin as the recipients of our Lord’s miraculous cures were convinced that God alone could heal their bodies from disease.
But faith is more than a conviction regarding the necessity and sufficiency of the divine power. It also involves the recognition of God’s willingness and readiness to save and is a practical appropriation of the divine grace. Thus there enters into it an element of trust. Jesus never encouraged the exercise of faith as a mere external belief in supernatural power. The performance of a sign from heaven, which men might have witnessed without such trust in God or himself, he persistently refused. Where there existed an antecedent hindrance to the exercise of this trust, he would not even perform any healing miracles. He, who truly believes, vividly realizes that God is loving, merciful, forgiving, glad to receive sinners. Faith transfers to God what human parents experience in themselves with reference to their own children, the desire to help and supply (Matt. 7:7-11). Not to trust would be to ascribe to him the evil disposition of sinful men towards one another.
This reliance of faith is not confined to the critical moments of life, it is to be the abiding, characteristic inner disposition of the disciple with reference to every concern. To trust God for food and raiment is as truly the mark of the disciple in the kingdom as to depend on him for eternal salvation (Matt. 6:30). Faith in those on whom the wonderful cures were wrought may have manifested itself at first as a momentary act, but Jesus frequently called the attention of such people to what faith had done for them, thus suggesting that this faith could be made fruitful also on future occasions. Of the disciples he explicitly required faith as an abiding disposition of trust. When in the storm they came to him saying, “Save Lord, we perish,” he rebuked them because they were without confidence in his presence with them as a source of absolute safety.
Being in its very essence trust, faith necessarily rests in a person. It is not confidence about any abstract proposition, but reliance upon a personal character and disposition. The disciples are urged to have “faith in God” (Mark 11:22). But, inasmuch as Jesus is the revelation and representative of God, nay, one with God, he also is the personal object of faith. It is true, in the Synoptical Gospels this is explicitly stated in one passage only, viz., Matt. 18:6, “These little ones that believe on me.” But this almost entire absence of the formula is easily explained. It was the result of Jesus’ method of not directly proclaiming at first his own position in the kingdom, but rather of allowing it to be gradually inferred from practical experience. It does not prove the assertion of some modern writers, that in the gospel, as Jesus preached it, there was no place for his own person, that it was merely a gospel about God. Though not frequently in so many words, yet in acts we find our Lord seeking to elicit and cultivate a personal relationship of faith between the disciple and Himself and in Himself with God. Conscious of being the Messiah, He could not help assigning to Himself a place in the gospel, and viewing Himself as in a real sense the object of religious trust. This appears from His saying to Peter shortly before the passion, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you (notice the plural pronoun) as wheat: but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not.” Here the crisis of our Lord’s suffering is represented as the great testing crisis of true discipleship. Satan will in it sift the true disciples from the false. The true will approve themselves in this, that, when everything goes against Jesus, their faith fails not. And, on the other hand, when Peter’s faith begins to fail, this is described as a denial of Jesus; faith, therefore, must involve the opposite of denial, an avowal, a personal bond of identification between the master and the disciple (Luke 22:31-34). And it is psychologically inconceivable that in those who were helped by the miracles of Jesus, faith should not have assumed the form of personal trust in him as the instrument of the saving grace and power of God. Faith in God and faith in Jesus here inevitably coalesced [merge].
Faith is not represented by our Lord as an arbitrary movement of the mind, which would be independent of the deeper-lying dispositions and tendencies of life. Jesus knows of antecedent states of heart by which faith and unbelief are determined. The unbelief of the Jews He explains from the fact of their being “offended” in Him. What Jesus was and did and taught stood at almost every point in direct antithesis to what they expected their Messiah to be, to do and to teach. But these expectations and beliefs of the Jews were deeply rooted in their general religious state and character; their unbelief, therefore, resulted from the fundamental disposition of their hearts. They that refuse faith do so, because they are an evil and adulterous generation. If they were what they ought to be and had not broken the pledges of their covenant marriage to God, if their attitude towards God were normal, they would believe on Him whom God had sent. And all this is true likewise of faith. In its ultimate analysis, faith is, according to Jesus, a divine gift. Faith must be the work of God in man, because only so can it be in harmony with itself as the recognition that we owe everything to God’s working for us and in us. It is the Father who reveals to the babes what he hides from the wise and understanding (Matt. 11:25). Jesus prays for Peter, that his faith fail not; that which we pray for we affirm to be dependent on the operation of God. When Peter makes his confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus declares that not flesh and blood has revealed this unto him, but the Father in heaven.
In the discourses of the Gospel according to John, several important points of our Lord’s doctrine of faith are brought out with greater clearness and explicitness than in the Synoptical statements. Faith here is, from beginning to end, faith in Jesus, and not merely in Jesus as the instrument of God, but as the image and incarnation of God, so that to believe in Him is to believe in God. Consequently this faith in Jesus is also more clearly represented as a comprehensive faith in Him as a Savior for life and death, for time and eternity, and not merely faith in Jesus as helper in a concrete case of distress. Still further our Lord here by anticipation describes how faith will stand related to his atonement and resurrection, how it will become faith in the heavenly, glorified Christ (John 3:14; 6:51; 7:29,38; 11:25; 15:7,16; 16:23,24).
Because the testimony of Jesus concerning himself in this Gospel is so much fuller and richer, faith is more closely identified with knowledge (John 6:69; 8:24,28; 14:9, 10, 20; 16:30).
We have already seen above, however, that knowledge here means far more than intellectual cognition. It implies practical acquaintance, confidence and love (John 10:4,14,15; 17:25,26).
Finally, our Lord is here much more explicit on the causes of faith and unbelief than in the more popular Synoptical teaching. Faith and unbelief are experiential states and acts in which the whole spiritual condition of the individual comes to light. Not to believe is the great sin because the deep inherent sinfulness of the heart displays in this sin its true character of hostility towards God (John 9:41; 15:22,24; 16:8,9).
In the same manner faith is the outcome of an inward condition of the heart. This our Lord describes as a doing of the truth, a working in God, a being of the truth, a having of the love of God in one’s self, a hearing from the Father, a learning from him, a being drawn by the Father, a having been given by the Father to the Son, in virtue of which believers are Jesus’ own sheep even before he manifests himself to them (John 3:21; 5:42; 6:44,45; 17:11; 18:37). In all these respects the teaching of Jesus here recorded is not in contradiction with, but simply the legitimate expansion of that delivered to us in the three other Gospels.