The First Lesson of the New Testament

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From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. So begins Matthew’s account of Jesus’ public ministry.
“We believe and confess that, since the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and therefore prone to all unrighteousness, sin, and wickedness, the first lesson of the precious New Testament of the Son of God is repentance and reformation of life.” So begins Article 6 of the Dordrecht Confession.
When we first read the Dordrecht confession, we may wonder, “Why is the first lesson repentance and reformation of life? Why not just repentance?” To answer this, let us turn to the New Testament’s first mention of repentance. In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Here John issues the call to repentance, and the reason for it: the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But what about the reformation of life? If we were to stop after this verse, we might conclude that it is something secondary. But Scripture should be read a passage at a time, not a verse at a time. As we continue reading, John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come! Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance… every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. When the people asked John, What shall we do then? he answered with examples: He that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise... Exact no more than that which is appointed you... Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, but be content with your wages. The call to a new life was part of John’s preaching, part of John’s baptism. Taken as a whole, John’s message included the call to repentance (“Repent ye”), the reason for repentance (“The kingdom of heaven is at hand”), and examples of the fruits meet for repentance. Just as John gave examples, the Dordrecht confession expands on the “amendment of life” by giving examples. “Those who have ears to hear, and hearts to understand, must bring forth genuine fruits of repentance, reform their lives, believe the Gospel, eschew evil and do good, desist from unrighteousness, forsake sin, put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
Other New Testament passages that discuss repentance similarly give the reason, call, and fruits meet for repentance. From that time, Jesus began to preach and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus described the life of the kingdom of heaven in the Sermon on the Mount. Repent and be baptized, Peter told the Jews at Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins… Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. In an echo of John’s teaching, All that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. For the Jews Peter addressed, repentance required recognizing that God had made Jesus, Who they had crucified, Lord and Christ. They amended their lives by following Christ and obeying His teachings, instead of their former opposition to Christ and His teachings. Hebrews includes repentance as one of the principles of the doctrine of Christ, citing the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God. Here it is again made clear that repentance is a turning from and a turning to. Repentance may be necessary after we begin the Christian life—it was necessary for the church in Ephesus, which had left its first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent. In the case of Ephesus, the call to repentance was a call to renewal, a call to the church to change her ways, to regain her first love: the love of Christ. Here the fruits meet for repentance were doing the first works, which apparently communicated to Ephesus what she must do.
From John’s teaching and through the New Testament, repentance is discussed along with its fruits. An analogy from the physical world: a university physics professor, explaining the relation between electricity and magnetism, told his students that the electric and magnetic fields are not just connected; nor are they just intimately connected; they are coupled. So, it is with repentance and the amendment of life: they are not just connected; they are not just intimately connected; they are coupled. The curious wording of the Dordrecht confession conveys this coupling: the first lesson of the New Testament is repentance and reformation of life. The call of Christ is a call to new life. He graciously gives the power to live this new life to those that seek it. Today there is, and throughout history there has been, an impulse to divide repentance from its fruits, to say that living in obedience to Jesus’ teachings will, or should, or ought to follow repentance, but to speak of repentance itself as somehow separate from these. Because the New Testament so closely connects repentance with its fruits, to separate them is splitting hairs at best; at worst, it presents the appearance of sound doctrine while undermining the power of the call of Christ.
Having discussed what repentance is, we may turn to a few words on what repentance is not. Repentance requires sorrow for sin (witness the Jews Peter addressed, who were cut to the heart), yet outward expressions of sorrow are not necessarily repentance. There is Godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. In The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor puts it this way; “Some people can shed tears for nothing, some for anything,” and “the repentance is not to be estimated by the tears, but by the grief, and the grief is to be valued not by the sensitive trouble, but by the cordial [i.e., deeply felt] hatred of the sin, and ready actual dereliction of it, and a resolution and real resisting its consequent temptations.” “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation...but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” When God spoke to Israel through Isaiah, He said, “cease to do evil, learn to do well.” We must remember that it may take some time to learn to do well. We may have to apply special ingenuity, special arts, and special labors to fight a foe we have only recently declared war on. But at the last, repentance means to follow Jesus’ gracious words to the woman caught in adultery, in the very act: “Go, and sin no more.” We may need to come to the place of saying, “I will not assert now that I have repented. The days, months, and years ahead will show whether I have.” Then we can move forward in the ways of Christ.
Happy were those in Corinth to whom Paul could say, Now I rejoice not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance... Ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. Happy are we if we are witnesses of these things.