Repentance as a Church Priority
By Vance Havner
This scribe has wasted considerable time watching television panels where experts pool their ignorance discussing the fix we are in and what to do about it. Like Omar, I usually come out the same door I went in. God is writing on the wall these days, but the soothsayers and “smoothsayers” cannot decipher the heavenly hieroglyphics. (Witness, for instance, a seminar on the Middle East!)
Likewise, I read the speeches of church men in our religious conclaves trying to arouse the brethren about evangelism or social action. The audience reaction is usually, “I move we accept this as information and be dismissed.” It will take more than highly promoted conventions with a parade of celebrities to meet our problem of a sick church trying to minister to a sick world. If God ever rends the heavens and comes down again in real revival, he may begin in some obscure country church where a little band of nobodies in holy desperation prays like Jehoshaphat, “We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon thee.”
One of England’s best preachers has said:
I am never tired of saying that what the church needs to do is not to organize evangelistic campaigns to attract outside people, but to begin herself to live the Christian life. If she did that, men and women would be crowding into our buildings. They would say, what is the secret of this?
Evangelism is the outflow and overflow of the inflow of the Spirit in a normal New Testament church. By “normal” I do not mean average, the average today is subnormal. Nor do I mean perfect, for there are no perfect churches. There can, however, be healthy churches, blameless though not faultless, mature though not perfectly so. When we try to pressure half-hearted and indifferent church members into soul-winning drives, it is an admission that we have failed in the New Testament pattern of faith in Christ, fellowship with Christ, faithfulness to Christ, and fruitfulness for Christ. If we abide, we shall abound.
If the time, money, and effort spent in trying to work up evangelism in lukewarm churches were spent in calling the churches themselves to repentance, confession, cleansing, and empowering, evangelism would be the natural result. We are trying to produce the results without the cause, the fruit without the tree. The New Testament epistle writers concentrated not on stirring up Christians to evangelize but rather on developing healthy Christians through spiritual food, rest, and exercise. Healthy Christians are naturally soul-winners, by life and by lip.
God ordered the human race to be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth and then put within man the instinct to mate and carry out the divine commission. Our Lord said, “Go, make disciples.” As someone has said, the fruit of a Christian is another Christian and the Holy Spirit has been given to motivate us in carrying out the Great Commission. Trying to organize and stimulate Christians to evangelize without the urge is an exercise in futility. Pep meetings are not necessary to urge young people to fall in love, marry, and raise families!
Which comes first, revival or evangelism? This is not a chicken-or-egg question. Scripture, reason, and experience teach that God begins with His own people. David must have the joy of salvation restored before he can teach transgressor’s God’s ways and see sinners converted. And Peter must be converted himself before he can strengthen the brethren and feed the sheep. But revivals should not be necessary. God meant that we should grow in grace continually. Springtime is often used as an illustration of revival, but Christian growth should be continuous, not seasonal. Periodic backsliding and repenting are not normal Christian experience and should never be so regarded. When we have a vigorous daily Christian experience, revival is unnecessary, for a glowing fire does not need rekindling. But because our condition is subnormal, revival is necessary to get us back to normal. Then it has served its purpose. Revivals are not supposed to last; to try to live at revival pitch all the time would make Christians and churches abnormal. Excesses have followed some revivals because some dear souls attempted to live on the mountaintop all the time.
Nevertheless, just now the number-one item on the agenda is repentance in the church accompanied by confession and forsaking of sin, reconciliation and restitution, separation from the world, submission to the lordship of Christ, and the filling of the Spirit. Finney said, “Revival is a new beginning of obedience to God.” It is not an emotional binge, although of course it affects the emotions because it affects the whole man. Nor does it begin happily; it starts with a broken and contrite heart. Evangelism is happy business because we are getting out the Good News, but revivals do not begin with singing choruses and working up good feeling as one might do at a Rotary Club.
As I read report after report of great church congresses and conferences and conventions that spend all their time on peace, poverty, and pollution and leave the primary need, I long to read of one session where programs are thrown into the waste basket and the assembly goes to its knees. We have passed enough resolutions. God’s people must be called to repentance, and the repenting must begin with the delegates! Our Lord’s call to repentance in Revelation began with the angels of the churches, not the backsliders out on the fringe. To recruit a Gideon’s Band, we must begin with a Gideon.
If someone objects that we do not have time in our great meetings for this, the reply must be that we don’t have time for anything else! The time is too short, the need to great. There is of course the element of divine sovereignty in revival, “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” but God has never failed to visit his people when they call on Him in desperate, prevailing prayer. But as long as we feel we have a few tricks up our sleeves, however, He will leave us to perform them. Laodicea was rich, flush with goods and in need of nothing. Nothing much will happen until we realize that we are wretched, miserable, blind, poor, and naked in the sight of the Lord of the Lampstands, the Christ of the Candlesticks.
It is going to take some robust and rugged preaching to sound this trumpet blast. Are we afraid to call the church to repentance? Is popularity too precious to risk? Do we fear the threats of Jezebel if we call for a showdown on Carmel? Are we unwilling to offend church members who give checks to the church while they live for the world, the flesh, and the devil? True revival is no bargain-counter proposition; the price is high for the preacher who preaches it and the people who respond. So we politely dodge it. We substitute evangelistic pep rallies and social-action crusades. We put on shows and call in the world to popularize the gospel. If God ever grants us a visitation, we will be red with embarrassment because of the pitiful ways we have tried to promote the work of God in the energy of the flesh.
So this scribe still longs to read of a meeting held somewhere for the express purpose of calling the church to repentance. How many would come I do not know. Of course, it could be worked in typical American fashion, with committees and fanfare and the governor there to make a speech. It would have little use for our boasted expertise and know-how. The publicity might come later, as in the Welsh Revival. Nowadays we try to create the revival before it happens. Pentecost was its own publicity! The crowd came after the Spirit came! If what we need comes, it may put to shame our pet projects, the programs that we set up on our own and then ask God to bless. We cannot make it happen or regulate it by stopwatches. God is not promoting religious extravaganzas, and the minute flesh begins to glory in his presence, the Shekinah fades and “Ichabod” is written over the door. But there is hope today if a few hungry hearts, unwilling to be satisfied with the good, will press through as Elisha did with Elijah, unwilling to stop at Bethel or Jericho though schools of the prophets line the roadway, determined to make it to Jordan and God’s very best.
We thank God for present-day evangelism in all its forms, for every gospel sermon preached, every soul saved. But the good can be the enemy of the best. The hour is too late and the need too desperate for half-way measures. Ought we not to concentrate on church revival since that precedes and produces all else we seek? There is no use working on item 2 or 3 or 4 until we have attended to item 1. When the channel has been cleared to the inflow of God’s Spirit, the outflow and overflow will be assured. Why not start at the beginning?
Used by permission.