The Real Question We Should Be Asking

Matt Evans

Posted May 19, 2020
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[lee en español]

Recently, I was on a Zoom call with a group of pastors and one of them asked the question, “What if COVID-19 is judgment from God?” We were not the first group to ask the question; a recent poll found that 44% of Americans believe coronavirus is a “wake-up” call from God.

Whether coronavirus is or is not judgment from God, it can be used by God to bring about one of God’s great aims for people: repentance.

  • Oswald Chambers, the early 20th-century Scottish preacher most known for the devotional classic My Utmost for His Highest, once called repentance “the foundation of Christianity.”
  • Martin Luther famously said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
  • Jesus’ first words of public ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

If not God’s judgment, then coronavirus—like any form of adversity and affliction—invites reflection and can move us toward God and the development of godliness (Romans 5:3-5; I Peter 1:6-7). Adversity and affliction can, in fact, be a “wake-up” to recognize certain sin patterns, areas of unbelief, and territories yet to be surrendered to Him. Ultimately, any growth in godliness or intimacy with God is always preceded by repentance.

So during this season, we’ve all been asked, “How are you doing?” or “What do you miss the most?” or “Are we in danger?” but have we asked and wrestled with the question: Where is God working repentance in my life (see Matthew 3:8)?

We must not short circuit this question. If repentance is foundational and to mark our lives as Luther said, then we will never lack sins to repent of in our lives. Our prayer should be much like the psalmist: “Who can discern his errors. Forgive me of my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins, may they not rule over me (Psalm 19:12).

Even though repentance is the gateway to salvation, greater intimacy with God, and seasons of spiritual revival and renewal, understanding of true repentance is lacking throughout the Church. The following definition of repentance from J.I. Packer is therefore helpful:

Repentance means turning from as much as you know of your sin to give as much as you know of yourself to as much as you know of your God, and as our knowledge grows at these three points so our practice of repentance has to be enlarged.

Additionally, like many things God values, the enemy has produced a counterfeit. The counterfeit of repentance is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” –

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance …Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Without repentance there is no possibility of salvation.

Without repentance there is no chance of revival.

Without repentance there is no overcoming of sin.

Without repentance there is no way to grow closer to God.

However, God is always inviting repentance (I Timothy 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:25) and the blessings that come after it. So in this unprecedented season, may we hear afresh the first words from the first sermon of our King and Savior:

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV).