This is the third recital of the conversion of Paul in Acts, remarkable given Luke’s compression and the thoughtfulness with which he makes decisions about what and what not to include in his narrative. Indeed, the conversion of Paul is given more space in the NT than any other event except the passion of the Lord. More space is devoted to telling that history than even that devoted to the resurrection of Christ.
For the NT this is the example of conversion par excellence. In some things Christ cannot be our example. He cannot be our example in the confession of sin, for example, or in conversion. Paul serves as our example in conversion, a larger than life example so that the features of true conversion can be clearly seen and understood (divine sovereignty, the change of heart/nature, the consequences that follow from it, etc.).
It was widely held in American fundamentalism earlier in this century that the Gentile mission was not known to OT prophecy and that what was called the "church-age" had not been predicted by the prophets. This was not Paul’s view, nor that of the early church, as we already saw in Acts 15:15-18.
No one doubted Paul’s learning! Festus was little interested in what he would have regarded as the speculations of an obscure sect.
Paul’s response is direct: if Festus wishes to know he can check for himself. Paul is happy to rest his case on the evidence.
Agrippa doesn’t want to answer Paul’s question, there is trouble for him either way. If "yes" then why doesn’t he believe in Jesus as the Messiah; if "no" he is admitting ignorance of what he ought to know about and is inviting Paul’s effort to instruct him. So he evades with what was, perhaps, a light-hearted reply.
There has been a great deal of speculation about this last verse, for it does not seem at all impossible that Festus could simply have acquitted Paul and Paul then have cancelled the appeal. It is not entirely clear what the procedures were and it is possible that Paul may have wanted to proceed with the appeal in hopes that his case would win a general toleration for Christians in cases brought against them by Jews or a new standing for Christianity in the empire.
I want to consider with you this evening the summary of his preaching that Paul gives us in v. 20. What did Paul preach: "that men should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."
Now clearly that is a very short way of saying what is said in a bit more detail in v. 18, where the Lord commissions Paul "to open the eyes of the Gentiles and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."
You can state the demand of the gospel in lots of different ways. Sometimes it is "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" at other times it is "Repent for the kingdom of God is near," at other times it is "receiving the Lord" or "confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord" or "obeying the Lord Jesus Christ" [Heb. 5:9], and at other times "loving the Lord Jesus" [1 Cor. 16:22]. All of these different expressions, and many others, amount simply to different ways of saying the same thing, letting the emphasis fall on one part of the whole or another.
In other words, repentance is not finally a different thing than faith in Christ, for though the two things can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. Anyone who truly believes in Christ will repent of his sins as the reflex of his faith. Anyone who truly repents will do so because he believes. Anyone who believes will receive him, and anyone who receives him will obey him and anyone who obeys Christ, really, will love him. These are different aspects of the true response of the soul to God or what Paul calls here "turning to God." And sometimes the accent falls on one of those aspects and sometimes another.
Here it falls on repentance. And it is good for us to be reminded of the place that repentance occupies in the Bible’s description of the Christian life. Paul made it a centerpiece of his preaching. We already knew that. In Acts 20:21 we read that Paul’s preaching to the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus had been "that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus." Paul did not take the view that the cost of discipleship should not be advertised at the outset for fear that those who might believe in Jesus would be deterred by the prospect of the pain and sacrifice that would have to be made. He certainly never preached the notion that one could "believe" in Jesus without surrendering to his lordship, that is, that one could have faith without repentance. [The recent "Lordship" controversy surrounding the books of John MacArthur and the criticism of some men at Dallas Seminary, esp. Zane Hodges. MacArthur was articulating Christian orthodoxy, especially Reformed orthodoxy, nothing more.]
Taking the Scriptures as a whole, we can say a number of things about repentance.
- Repentance is a grace (that is, as Paul says in Rom. 2:4, it is God’s gift to men and women, his work within us, part of the salvation Christ purchased for us).
So, while we are very often commanded to repent in the Bible, we must say with Augustine, "Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command." And that is, in fact, what we read in the Bible.
Jer. 31:18: "Turn me and I will be turned, because you are the Lord my God."
Psalm 85:4 "Turn us, O God, our Savior."
- Repentance is a turning away from sin to righteousness. The words in both the Hebrew and the Greek portions of the Bible convey this sense of the term. The Hebrew word is the word for "turning" and the Greek term, which means literally a "change of mind" has the same connotation as appears from typical phrases such as "repentance from dead works" (Heb. 6:1), where there is the sense of turning or moving away from something, not simply a change of view, or "repentance that leads to God" (Acts 20:21). In each case repentance suggests a motion away from something and toward something — away from sin and toward the Lord. Paul suggests the very same idea here in 26:20 when he speaks of "repenting and turning to God."
- Repentance depends upon faith. It is easy to mistake this point because we think that one must first come to detest one’s sins and to fear their consequences — which we associate with repentance — before he or she will be led to believe in Christ. But that confuses repentance with conviction. One might well come under conviction of sin before one has faith in Christ — indeed, there are folk who experience conviction who never believe in Christ — but conviction, while it is a continuing part of repentance is not itself repentance itself. Repentance is the fruit of faith, not its cause.
One cannot turn from sin to God without faith, one cannot truly begin to practice holiness of life — either the mortifying of sin or the vivifying of righteousness — without faith in Christ, without the aid of the Holy Spirit who is the seal who marks all those who believe in Christ. You cannot truly hate sin, not in the genuine sense, unless you love God and you cannot love God without faith in Christ. What is more, since you haven’t the strength to turn from sin to righteousness yourself, you can only do that through the power of Christ and that power is given only to those who believe in Jesus and turn to him for grace to help in time of need.
As a Puritan once put it, "Repentance, the soul’s pump, is dry…until faith pour in the blood of Christ, and the water of gospel-promises. So that faith must precede repentance, as the cause to the effect, the mother before the daughter." [Zachary Crofton in Packer, Pursuit of Godliness, 173]
Or, as Hugh Latimer put it in his homely way: "Faith is a noble duchess: she hath ever her gentleman usher going before her, the confessing of sins; she hath a train after her, the fruits of good works, the walking in the commandments of God." [Bradford, I, 40n]
Our fathers in the Reformed church made a great deal of this point. Faith is the essential prerequisite of true repentance. Walter Marshall, the author of the greatest work on sanctification in the Reformed tradition, put it this way: "We must first receive the comforts of the gospel in order that we may be able to perform the duties of the law." And, practically, Thomas Halyburton reminds us, "the most effectual inducement to obedience is, a constant improvement of the blood of Christ by faith, and a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul." [Turning away from sin for any other reason than to love God for grace given in Christ and to serve the Lord in gratitude, to fulfill the purposes of his grace in your life, and to honor him as the Savior and Lord of your life is not biblical repentance but the assertion of yourself against God.]
Years ago there was a Hindu society in India that sought to take everything positive in Christianity without compromising its Hinduism. They took over the Westminster Shorter Catechism definition of repentance, leaving out just two words.
Repentance unto life is a saving grace whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.
The two words left out: "in Christ." But Paul would say, there is no repentance and can be none that is not in Christ. Without Christ and faith in him one cannot really turn to God or turn away from sin. "Without me," Jesus said, "you can do nothing."
- In other words, repentance is a quality of the regenerate character, of the new creation, a supernaturally created disposition of the soul, and it is this disposition, what theologians call a habitus that produces a constant stream of penitent acts. Out of the heart flow the issues of life, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. And so out of a heart that has been made penitent by the grace of God, penitent acts will flow by a fixed law.
Like faith, repentance is first a "habitus" a permanent disposition of the soul — a faculty that inclines the soul in a particular direction –, but it is also the acts that are produced by that disposition and flow from it. [A help in thinking through the difference in the case of covenant children who do not have a conversion "experience." They may have the "habitus" very early, before you can notice the acts that are produced by it.]
[By the way, the Vulgate translation of Matt. 4:17 "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" was "paenitentiam agite or do penance." This was a particularly unfortunate translation and powerfully encouraged the development of the Roman penitential system. It placed the emphasis on sacramental acts rather than on that inner disposition that produced the holiness and consecration of the believer’s entire life to God, which alone is biblical repentance.]
- As a disposition of the soul, repentance involves or includes the following aspects: humiliation (i.e. conviction of and sorrow for sin (not only for the danger the sins we have committed pose to ourselves, but as well for the odiousness, the ugliness of sin itself to a regenerate heart, and, especially, for the offense and sorrow our sins are to God); confession of sin to God and petition for pardon; and conversion or turning away from sin to righteousness. The Bible gives us many examples of such repentance in the course of believing life: Job at the end; David in 2 Sam. 12 and Psalm 51 (and Psalm 32), Israel in Nehemiah’s time, the "sinful" woman in the gospels who anointed the Lord with her tears, the prodigal son, etc. In all of these we see: humiliation ("the man came to himself"); confession ("father, I have sinned, and am not worthy to be called your son"); petition ("make me as one of your hired servants" = forgive me); and conversion (return home, but without demands!).
In the Bible this pattern is to mark the life of a believer all his days: humiliation, confession, petition, conversion. Like faith, it is not something that happens once at the beginning of one’s Christian life and never again. What one begins with, one lives with, because it is the nature of our life as Christians, it is the inevitable expression of our new hearts, so long as we are sinners, and the inevitable expression of our love for Christ, to grieve for the sins we commit and the offense we have given to the one we love, to acknowledge our sins and seek their forgiveness, and to turn from them to that life of mind and body that is pleasing to our God and Savior.
- Repentance is expressed and proved in life by the deeds that are its fruit.
Here Paul speaks of proving repentance by deeds. John the Baptist commanded his congregations to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 3:8). James speaks of faith without works being dead. Jesus warns of the five foolish virgins being shut out because they were lacking the extra oil. Moises Silva, late of Westminster Seminary, in a sophisticated study argues that the "oil" in that parable stands for good works, the fruit of true repentance.
Now, my brothers and sisters, if this is the quality and character of a true Christian life, a living and continuing penitence, producing the acts of repentance — both the turning away from sin and the embrace of righteousness in all its parts and forms — then we must be sure that this repentance is characteristic of our lives. We must be sure that we are always about repentance — humiliation and contrition, confession, request for pardon from God, and conversion to new obedience. It is not enough to have done this once, or to have done it before; the life of repentance is to be our daily experience. As Tertullian wrote, "[I am] born for nothing save repentance." And as Rutherford advised, "Break off a sin or a piece of a sin each day…"
The Christian life is joy unspeakable and peace that passes all understanding. But it is also sorrow and the hardest and most painful and most worrisome work. It is both of those things together and repentance is that harder, gloomier thing.
Bunyan has two characters if The Holy War who are representatives of penitence in the Christian soul. Mr. Wet-eyes and his friend, Mr. Desires-awake, who went around the city of Mansoul with a rope around his neck, the public acknowledgement that he deserved to be hung for his sins and Mr. Wet-eyes, whose father was Mr. Repentance, went about the town always wringing his hands. Bunyan is telling us what must be in our own hearts as well, that godly sorrow for sin and over our own sins, that produces grief, confession, heartfelt prayer for pardon, and a determination to live righteousness thereafter. We are to be Wet-eyes and Desires-awake (that is we are to have desires awake for holiness of life).
How many times through the years have I read to you from Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions and this particular prayer:
"I need more grief, O God; I plainly need it. I can sin much, but I cannot correspondingly repent. O Lord, give me a molten heart. Give me tears; give me a fountain of tears. Give me the grace of tears. Drop down, ye heavens, and bedew the dryness of my heart. Give me, O Lord, this saving grace. No grace of all the graces were more welcome to me. If I may not water my couch with my tears, nor wash thy feet with my tears, at least give me one or two little tears that Thou mayest put into Thy bottle and write in Thy book!"
Imagine how your life would change and how it would change if every day was a day of real repentance! Not the feigning of repentance– not like that reprobate in Dante who, all the time he was repenting, had his eye on his next opportunity to sin [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, vol. 1, 118-120], but a real breaking off of a piece of sin every day.
Let me give you an illustration I happened to read this past week. In the Great Awakening of the 18th century, there was a man named John Davenport upon whose preaching the Spirit of God came with terrible power. Many were saved. But Davenport, unfortunately, encouraged the display of emotion, he gradually developed a very censorious spirit toward other ministers whom he felt were not as godly or zealous as they ought to be. He would even publicly pronounce to be unconverted ministers who were clearly godly men and fast friends of the gospel. In one particular place a church that had shared richly in the fruit of the revival was decimated by Davenport’s ministry, with two-thirds of the congregation leaving their faithful minister, who was a strong supporter of the revival and under whose preaching a strong church had been built up.
Over time, however, Davenport came to understand his error, his poor judgment, his unbiblical spirit of judgment, etc. He came back to the places where his ministry had been so schismatic and where he had done such harm to the reputation of other ministers and to the people who had been effected by his sins, he made his confession and sought forgiveness, as he told the audiences who heard him, he had confessed his sins to God. And then he did his best to put the churches he had divided back together again under their ministers. He sought to unite the churches he had divided and to affirm the ministries he had condemned. He did much good in this way, though some of those who formerly followed him in his extreme and unhappy practices now left him and accused him as becoming as cold and lifeless as the ministers he attacked before.
Now imagine yourself doing that, in a hundred different ways, in regard to your sins — whatever they may be — humiliation, confession, seeking pardon from God and man, if need be, and turning from sin to righteousness. And to do that every day of your life. You may not know all the sins you need to repent from, all the righteousness you need to repent to, but you are all too well aware of some of them! You have repented from those sins in the past, but you know you are not now repenting of them — not as you could — anger, lust, prayerlessness, indifference to others, … The work of every day — every morning: What repentance today? every noon: Am I repenting? Every night: Did I successfully repent and turn from my sin? A wonderful transformation of perspective — not on your disappointments or jealousies, or irritations — but on what is your truest business — breaking off another piece of sin every day. Concentrate on that! Wonderful things will happen. It is not enough to believe in repentance; one must practice it, prove it by one’s deeds, as Paul says.
And to the very last day. Augustine had the penitential psalms written on the wall above his deathbed so that he could pray them as he left the world. What we live by, we may die by as well. And if we do both, we will live and die to the glory of God.