GOD’S BLESSINGS PRESUPPOSE SINCERE REPENTANCE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 3:11-26; PS 8:2,5-9; LK 24:35-48 ]
Does repentance come first before forgiveness, or vice versa? In the Old Testament, the forgiveness of sins was always preceded by repentance. This has always been the teaching of the prophets, including John the Baptist. But the Good News that Jesus came to proclaim is that our sins are already forgiven, even before we repent. We find this in the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son and the Lost Coin. (Cf Lk 15) Jesus demonstrated in His life and ministry when He ate and drank with sinners saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17)
But how is it that the apostles returned to the Old Testament in proclaiming repentance before forgiveness? Both scripture readings apparently underscore the need for repentance to receive His blessings. St Peter said, “Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, and so that the Lord may send the time of comfort.” Then we have the evangelist recording Jesus’ instructions to the apostles, “In his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.” In truth, there is no contradiction. God’s forgiveness was already given to us even before the coming of Christ, but we are not ready to receive His forgiveness. Real acceptance of God’s forgiveness entails repentance of sins.
Truly, there a danger for those Christians who want to receive God’s blessings without repentance. This was the warning of the great Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to his fellow Lutherans in his classic work, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Indeed, when Christianity is professed without commitment, we reduce costly grace to cheap grace. Such nominal profession of faith will not bring us any real benefits in life. This was the case with the servant who was forgiven a great amount of debt by his master but was unforgiving towards his fellow servant who owed him just a day’s wage. (cf Mt 18:23-35) This is the situation of many Catholics as well. They might be baptized and confirmed, but they are not living the life of a disciple of Christ. They do not pray, read the Word of God, announce Him to others, share His life and love with the rest of humanity. Instead, their reference point is what the world says and what others say, not what Jesus has to say about the issues of morality and life. Complacency is cheap grace.
When we choose to continue living a sinful life, it is not that we are not forgiven but we have not received God’s forgiveness that has already been given to us. This is what St Paul meant when he wrote, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9f) Hence, receiving God’s blessings presuppose that we are willing to turn away from sin and turn to Him. This was what St Peter said to the crowd. If they repent of their sins, “then he will send you the Christ he has predestined, that is Jesus, whom heaven must keep till the universal restoration comes which God proclaimed, speaking through his holy prophets.” Again, St Peter reminded them that God’s blessings have always been given to them since the time of Abraham. “You are the heirs of the prophets, the heirs of the covenant God made with our ancestors when he told Abraham: in your offspring all the families of the earth will be blessed. It was for you in the first place that God raised up his servant and sent him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” God has chosen us for Himself. He wants to bless us and our families, but we cannot receive His blessings if we continue to choose evil and selfishness over truth and love.
But how can we receive His forgiveness from our hearts? When we are convicted that we have already been forgiven because of His overwhelming love for us. This was what St Peter sought to strike in the hearts of his listeners. The call to repentance is always the initiative of God. He calls us to repentance through His prophets and His apostles. It is God who invites us to repent and He takes the initiative. When man sins, God responds to our sins by grace. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water[a] of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Tit 3:4f)
How can this be done? He began by making them aware of their foolishness and ignorance that made them do what they did. He said, “You are Israelites, and it is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, who has glorified his servant Jesus, the same Jesus you handed over and then disowned in the presence of Pilate, after Pilate had decided to release him. It was you who accused the Holy One, the Just One, you who demanded the reprieve of a murderer while you killed the prince of life. God, however, raised him from the dead, and to that fact we are the witnesses.” Indeed, many of us sin more out of ignorance and shortsightedness in the pursuit of freedom, love and life. We all want to choose life and love but we have chosen the wrong way because we have been deceived by the world’s offer of pleasure, sex, money, power and fame.
Secondly, we need to use scriptures to convict our listeners. St Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16) Thus, Jesus told the disciples, “‘This is what I meant when I said, while I was still with you, that everything written about me, in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms, has to be fulfilled.’ He then opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins.'” If we go through the scriptures, then we can see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. From Moses, through Isaiah, Zechariah, Jeremiah, the Psalms, Jesus’ passion and resurrection were foretold. It would be the way that God would save the world, through the suffering, death and resurrection of His Son. Jesus shows us the infinite mercy and unconditional love of God. What, then, are we to say about these things? “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Rom 8:31-33)
Thirdly, we need to confirm by our personal testimony, our encounters with the Risen Lord. It was not enough that Jesus died but that He was raised so that we can be certain that He is the One whom God sent to save us. For this reason, Jesus appeared to the apostles, especially to St Peter first, since he, like the rest, needed to be assured of Christ’s forgiveness for them. They said to one another, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Lk 24:34) “They were still talking about all this when Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ In a state of alarm and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said, ‘Why are you so agitated, and why are these doubts rising in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; yes, it is I indeed. Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this he showed them his hands and feet. Their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, and they stood there dumbfounded; so he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they offered him a piece of grilled fish, which he took and ate before their eyes.” It was this sight of Jesus, who came to offer them peace and reconciliation by showing Himself as the Risen Lord that gave them closure for their betrayal of our Lord.
With this forgiveness received, they became apostles for the Lord, proclaiming His forgiveness and mercy to the world. It was Christ that they sought to proclaim; not themselves. Indeed, we know that someone has encountered the Lord when he or she does not draw people to himself or herself but draws them to the Lord. “When Peter saw the people he addressed them, ‘Why are you so surprised at this? Why are you staring at us as though we had made this man walk by our own power or holiness? It is the name of Jesus which, through our faith in it, has brought back the strength of this man whom you see here and who is well known to you. It is faith in that name that has restored this man to health, as you can all see.” Truly, it is our hope as well that people will come to accept Jesus as Lord through the recognition of Him as their saviour, and thereby repent and receive His blessings as a consequence. In this way, with the psalmist, we too can declare, “How great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth! What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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