Monthly Archives: March 2016

Repentance in the Wrong Direction

“They return, but not upward.” Those five words from Hosea 7:16 provide a brief anatomy of sham repentance from the preaching of the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In response to his message, Israel seems to repent of sin, but it turns out they only wanted to escape consequences.

Repentance is the key theme of Hosea’s preaching. He repeatedly delivered God’s message to Israel, that they must “turn” from their sin and “return” to Yahweh (the Hebrew word is used twenty times). Turning and returning are the same Hebrew word—it’s Hosea’s word for repentance. To turn/return describes what it means to repent, to acknowledge a heart that is off-course and then to make course corrections.

Sin Begins With Unbelief

According to Hosea, the sins of Israel were numerous. God, as if a plaintiff, lists his allegations against the nation: swearing, lying, murdering, stealing, committing adultery, general indulgence and drunkenness, prostitution, greed, idolatry and more (4:1-19).

But the most offensive sin is Israel’s worship of a calf-idol (8:4-6; 10:5-8; 13:2). Whatever the historical details about this calf-idol may be, it represents the first principle of Israel’s sin—Yahweh was no longer their god. They were worshipping at other altars. Their list of sins, though despicable, were but the outgrowth of this root. There was “no knowledge of God in the land…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:1, 6).

This is where sin begins, unbelief. Not believing that God is full of grace. Not believing that his promises are true. Not believing that his commands for us are good and will lead to joy. When God’s character, his promises and his commands are unknown or unbelieved, what results is sin.

False Gods Give False Pleasures

Because Israel had turned away from God, and because their sins were ever-expanding, they experienced misery. They had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (8:7). Indulgence yields misery; false gods give false pleasures. The insightful author David Foster Wallace describes this.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

David Foster Wallace saw half the truth. Anything else you worship will eat you alive. That’s true. But demoting Yahweh to equality with the Wiccan mother-goddess is damning with faint praise. A god with no contours—with no definition, or where definition is meaningless—is as parasitical as unconscious gods like sex, power, intelligence, wealth, or calf-idols.

Israel had been eaten alive by their false worship. “You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil” (10:13-15).

Deliverance With No Deliverer

So Israel is left surveying the damage done by their unbelief. And their misery led them to cry out to God. “Come let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord…he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). This looks like repentance, like they are about to give up their false gods and regain their former knowledge of the one true God, Yahweh.

But again, God’s evaluation—“They return, but not upward”—clarifies the nature of their regret. Those words of resolve were short-lived. They wanted their prosperity to improve and they wanted peace in their land, but in reality cared little for their relationship to God. They wanted deliverance, but not the Deliverer. Genuine repentance aims at a return to God, not a removal of discomfort.

Why We Repent Falsely

The misery sin brings often leads us to false repentance. An employee determines to stop squandering work hours only because of growing anxiety she may lose her job. A husband doesn’t want to live with the bitterness of his wife, so he apologizes to heal the relationship for his own benefit. Living contrary to God’s design often brings misery, either internal misery (anxiety, guilt, frustration) or circumstantial misery (unfulfilled ambitions, broken relationships, lost jobs). And that internal/external misery pushes us to the edge of repentance.

So there’s the pattern. Unbelief gives birth to sin. Sin blossoms into misery. Misery brings regret. Regret compels initial changes. But regret quickly fades and old habits resurface. As God said of Israel’s initial resolve: “ Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (6:4). Repentance for the sake of self-improvement is not repentance, but rather further idolatry. 

Some Marks of True Turning

All the above thoughts are just some observations from Hosea regarding Israel’s false repentance. Much more needs to be said about the ongoing struggle we all have to live up to all that God has called us to, about true repentance, and about the inexhaustible forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So what are the marks of true turning? How can we avoid repenting in the wrong direction? Just jotting down a few suggestions here, maybe I can fill them out later.

  1. Repent before repercussions. Repenting before you are caught in act is evidence of sincerity.
  2. Be specific about the sin. What you did.
  3. Take your sins to the right place. The Christian can see more clearly than Hosea, there is only one place to take our sins: to Christ. He saw this only dimly (Hosea 3:4-5 predicts national repentance in the presence of a second David, an anointed figure, but this vision is ambiguous at best).
  4. Evaluate underlying motivations. Why you did it.
  5. Resolve by God’s help not to repeat. I won’t do it again. “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God” (12:6).

How to Meditate on the Providence of God (Four directions from John Flavel)

flavel-mystery-providenceCreation was God’s originating work; he brings things into being. Providence is his continuing relationship to creation. “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation which he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.” (Millard Erickson, Christians Theology, 387). The Bible teaches that because God created the world, he reigns over it as king. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

The providence of God is usually explained as having two aspects. First, God preserves the existence of creation (sustaining providence), and second, God is actively guiding and directing the course of human events to fulfill the purposes which he has in mind. “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan 2:21).

God is the sovereign king over the lives of individuals. After receiving the child Samuel from the Lord, Hannah gives thanks and says, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1Sam 2:6-7). And the Lord says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). The Lord is even sovereign over things that seem like accidental occurrences. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Even the sinful actions of humans are part of God’s providential working. Probably the most notable instance of this is the crucifixion of Jesus, which Peter attributed both to God and to sinful men, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Knowing what providence is, how can the Christian go about meditating on the providence of God? John Flavel (c. 1627-1691) began his excellent book The Mystery of Providence this way, “It is the duty of saints, especially in time of straits, to reflect upon the performances of Providence for them in all the states and through all the stages of their lives” (based on Psalm 57:2). In the second part of his book, Flavel gives four directions for reflecting on the performances of providence for us.

First, labor to get as full and thorough a recognition as you are able of the providence of God concerning you from first to last.

  • There is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives.
  • Let your meditation be intensively full. Do not let your thoughts swim like feathers upon the surface of the waters, but sink like lead to the bottom.
  • You may look upon some providences once and again, and see little or nothing in them; but look ‘seven times,’ that is, meditate often on them, and you will see their increasing glory.

Second, in all your observations of providence have special respect to that Word of God which is fulfilled and made good to you by them.

  • The Word tells you that it is your wisdom and interest to keep close to its rules and the duties it prescribes (Deut 4:5-6). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells you that your departure from the way of integrity and simplicity, to make use of sinful policies, shall never profit you (1 Sam 12:21; Prov 3:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word prohibits your trust and confidence in the creature (Ps 146:3). It tells us that it is better to trust in the Lord (Ps 118:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word assures us that sin is the cause and inlet of affliction and sorrow (Num 32:23). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word of promise assures us that whatever wants or straits the saints fall into, their God will never leave them nor forsake them (Heb 13:5; Ps 91:15). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word of God is the only support and relief to a gracious soul in the dark day of affliction (Ps 119:50, 92, 2 Sam 23:5). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells us that there is no better way to improve our estates than to lay them out with a cheerful liberality for God, and that our withholding our hands when God and duty calls to distribute will not be for our advantage (Prov 11:24, 25; 19:17; Isa 32:8). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word assures us that the best expedience for a man to settle his own interest in the consciences and affections of men is to direct his ways so as to please the Lord (Prov 16:7). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?
  • The Word tells us that the best way to gain inward peace and tranquility of mind under puzzling and disturbing troubles is to commit ourselves and our case to the Lord (Ps 37:5-7; Prov 16:3). How have you seen the events of providence prove this true?

Third, in all your reviews and observations of providence, be sure that you eye God as the author or orderer of them all.

  • In all the sad and afflictive providences that befall you, eye God as the author and orderer of them also. Set the grace and goodness of God before you in all afflictive providences. Eye the wisdom of God in all your afflictions. Set the faithfulness of the Lord before you under the saddest providences.
  • I see my God will not lose my heart, if a rod can prevent it. He would rather hear me groan here than howl hereafter. His love is judicious, not fond. He consults my good rather than my ease.

Lastly, work up your hearts to those frames, and exercise those affections which the particular providences of God that concern you call for.

  • As there are various affections planted in your souls, so there are various graces planted in those affections, and various providences appointed to draw forth and exercise these graces.
  • Let us suppose the most afflicted and calamitous state a Christian can be in, yet why should sad providences make him lay aside his comforts in God, when those are but for a moment, and these eternal (2 Cor 4:17)?
  • Mortify your inordinate affections to earthly things. This makes providences that deprive and cross us so heavy. Mortify your opinion and affection, and you will lighten your affliction. It is strong affection that makes strong affliction.
  • Under all providences maintain a contented heart with what the Lord allots you, be it more or less of the things of this world. This grace must run parallel with all providences. Learn how to be full, and how to suffer want, and in every state to be content (Phil 4:11, 12).


These four directions are taken from John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence, chapter 9.

How God Uses Heresy

heresyHeresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, challenges the ascendent notion that heresy is the orthodoxy of history’s losers. That thesis, put forward by Walter Bauer and popularized by Bart Ehrman, reflects the postmodern preferences for a destabilized view of truth and opposition to authoritarian structures.

“It seems to have become axiomatic in recent years that heresy is morally and intellectually liberating, to the extent that orthodoxy is stifling. This tells us a lot about the cultural mood of postmodernity, and the agendas of some of those who find heresy to be attractive” (191).

At an even more popular level than Bart Ehrman, this appreciation for heresy as the underdog was seen by the massive appeal of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2009),

What is Heresy?

McGrath defines heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith.”

How Does God Use Heresy?

Belief in the essential core of the Christian faith must constantly be reaffirmed in new settings. This often means that in order to be understood correctly, the Christian faith must be expressed in new ways.

“Orthodoxy is thus, in a certain sense, unfinished, in that it represents the mind of the church as to the best manner of formulation of its living faith at any given time.” (221) Orthodoxy is constantly developing, not away from Scripture, but toward it in sharper and clearer articulation. Old truths, retaining original integrity, receiving fresh clarity.

N. T. Wright points out an example of the unintentional benefit of heresy in Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains the history of the quest for the historical Jesus. Those familiar with this “quest” will remember that it began in 1878 with Hermann S. Reimarus (2 years after 1776, at the height of deism, a child of the Enlightenment). Reimarus intended to discount the claims of Christianity on the basis of history. “His aim seems to have been to destroy Christianity (as he knew it) at its root, by showing that it rested on historical distortion or fantasy….The thesis is devastatingly simple. History leads away from theology” (16-17).

But Wright goes on to point out the irony, “Reimarus, or somebody like him, must be seen, not just as a protester against Christianity, but, despite his intentions, as a true reformer of it. This is not to side with Reimarus and other Enlightenment thinkers against Christian orthodoxy; it is to acknowledge that the challenge of the Enlightenment might, despite itself, benefit Christianity as well as threatening it” (17).

“Reimarus pulled back the curtain, thinking to expose the poverty of Christian origins. But the invitation to look more closely, once issued, could not be withdrawn; and within the unpromising historical specificity of the story of Jesus we can now, I believe, discern after all the buried treasure of the gospel” (18).

The benefit of the quest for the historical Jesus? Reimarus dug a deep ditch between the faith of Christianity on the one side and the historical evidence on the other. But the digging of this ditch only forced thoughtful Christians to examine the evidence further and develop clearer articulations about the truth of Jesus and the gospel, thus filling the ditch back in, closing the gap between history and theology.

Many other historical examples could be given like this of heresies that have sharpened the thinking of the church. Heresy forces orthodoxy to develop greater clarity in its articulation of Scripture. In this way God has employed orthodoxy toward his own larger ends. Perhaps what Joseph said of his brothers’ scheme could also be said of heretics through the centuries: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Pointing Forward

Back to McGrath and Heresy. He concludes with this challenge to the faithful (a challenge being fulfilled perhaps by N. T. Wright in his trilogy, Christian Origins and the Question of God):

If Christianity is to regain the imaginative ascendency, it must rediscover what G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) termed “the romance of orthodoxy.” It is not sufficient to show that orthodoxy represents the most intellectually and spiritually authentic from of the Christian faith or that it has been tried and tested against its intellectual alternatives. The problem lies deeper, at the level of the imagination and feelings. If Christ is indeed the “Lord of the Imagination,” the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy ought to have significant imaginative implications. The real challenge is for the churches to demonstrate that orthodoxy is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating. We await this development with eager anticipation. (234)