John’s message of repentance was over; the time had come for Jesus’ message to begin. Jesus’ message is not identical to John’s. John was preaching about a time to come; Jesus preached that the time had come. John preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; Jesus preached that the kingdom itself was at hand, so believe the gospel. John did not preach the gospel; he preached that the gospel bearer was coming (for more on this, see Introduction to Mark).
|After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
illustration by James Tissot
Repentance and faith
Jesus preached the gospel, the good news that God had fulfilled his promises to Israel by sending the Messiah, or the Anointed One, to save the people. As a whole, however, the nation rejected Jesus as Messiah, because he did not fit the commonly accepted profile of what the Messiah should do. The Messiah was expected to lead the Jews to victory over the Roman occupation forces and restore the nation to a place of dominance in the world. Jesus showed no signs of becoming such a Messiah. Even John the Baptist finally began to wonder whether Jesus was really the one sent by God (Matthew 11:3).
The Messiah God sent was different from the one the people expected, because God’s purpose in the world was different from what the people expected. The people expected God to vanquish their enemies and make their nation great. But God’s purpose was to make a new covenant with the people, to write his laws in their hearts.
In the very midst of Israel’s rejection of God’s Messiah, a rejection in which every human shares, God chose to bring all sin to a head and destroy it once and for all. In that act of turning the pinnacle of human rebellion and opposition to himself into the means of human salvation, God not only fulfilled all his promises to Israel for their redemption (Acts 13:32-33), but also his word of promise for all the world (Genesis 22:18).
In other words, we are saved by God’s act of salvation on our behalf, not by our repentance and faith. Were it not for the righteousness and the faith of the Son of God, we would not have repentance and faith. Our repentance and faith have meaning only because they are taken up into Jesus’ righteousness and faith on our behalf and given meaning in him, for they neither have meaning nor substance on their own.
Not a transaction
It is a popular notion that repentance and faith are two different things. The idea is that a person has to repent of all his sins and then ask Jesus to come into his life, and then, on the basis of this repentance and commitment to Jesus, God will forgive the person’s sins and grant him salvation.
That is not the gospel. The gospel is not a transaction. It is not a deal. It is not a tit for tat, nor an I’ll-do-this-if-you-do-that arrangement. When we believe the gospel we are not causing God to save us. We are not satisfying some prerequisite. What we are doing when we believe the gospel is trusting God’s word that he has already saved us through what he has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Our faith enables us to enjoy the gift we already have; it doesn’t cause God to give it to us.
The gospel is good news. It is the good news that God loved everybody so much that he did something to save them from the destruction and alienation of sin. What God did — send his Son — he did purely and simply because he wanted to, not because we did something, or said something, or thought something in our hearts to bring it about.
We are saved because God already, in Christ, did everything necessary to make our salvation the reality that it is. Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” not “God so loved several carefully picked ones.” For us to repent and believe the gospel is to turn from our empty lives, ignorant of God’s love and grace, and turn to belief in God’s word about who he is for us and what he has done for us in Christ. It is a matter of believing a thing that is already true. And it is a matter of believing it because God tells us that it is true.
That is not a transaction. It is not a matter of the gospel not applying to us unless or until we do the right thing. Salvation is not remuneration for repentance. It is not remuneration for faith. It is not remuneration for anything. It is a gift, and a gift given to the world is ours, whether we like it or not.
Role of faith
To believe that God has given you a gift is not a pathway to receive the gift. It’s a gift, and it is given by grace, not by saying the magic words. But believing is the path to taking up, using and enjoying the gift. If you don’t believe you have a gift, you’ll never take it up and use it, and you’ll never enjoy its benefits.
So it is with the gospel. The gospel is true for us because God made it true for us. It doesn’t suddenly become true when we repent and believe. It does, however, suddenly become plain to us what God has given us when we repent and believe. And in belief, or faith, or trust, we can walk in the light of Christ, where we once walked in darkness because of unbelief. Our unbelief did not mean that the gospel was not so for us; it only meant that we could not sense it. We were in the dark about it. We didn’t know that God had redeemed us in Christ long before we were ever born.
The gospel was fulfilled when the Son of God became one of us for our sakes. He was the fulfillment of all the prophecies to Israel (Acts13:32-33), and the means by which Israel became a blessing to all nations (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:8). He transformed the meaning of human life, human history and human time. All times, from the creation to the end of the world, are redeemed in him. All of human history — past, present and future — including your personal history, are redeemed in him. Human life itself, including your human life, is redeemed in him, made new, saved (see Colossians 1:19-20; Ephesians 1:9-10).
This is not something we are waiting for — it is fulfilled already, though we do not yet experience its fullness. We still wait for the redemption of our bodies, as Paul said, when “this mortal shall put on immortality.” We still wait for the revealing of the new, clean and righteous us, which is hidden with Christ in God and will be revealed with him in glory when he is revealed (Colossians 3:3-4). But we already walk by faith in the light of the knowledge of the Son of God, tasting and drawing on today the fulfillment of the reality that awaits us with Christ in the age to come. Christ has wrought a new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), which we do not yet see in full, but we are part of it. In believers, the age to come has already begun to manifest itself.
It is this light, the light of the gospel, that we seek to share with all those who still walk in the darkness of unbelief. When we share the gospel, we are not saying, “You are hanging by a thread over the fires of hell; say these words and God will change his mind about you.” Instead we are saying, as Thomas F. Torrance put it,
“Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him…. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him…in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as your Lord and Saviour” (The Mediation of Christ, page 94).
When we understand the gospel of the unconditional grace of God, we no longer rely upon our faith or our commitment, but upon what Jesus Christ has done for us. Indeed, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.
What is the scope of the reconciliation that God has worked in Jesus Christ? (Colossians 1:19-20; Ephesians 1:9-10).
Author: J. Michael Feazell, 2003, 2012