Repent and Believe in the Gospel

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Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
With the arrest of John the Baptist, it is time for Jesus to take center stage. He comes to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” This message is meant to lead Jesus’ first listeners back into the Scripture that they had heard in their synagogues: the Old Testament promises of the Savior, the Son of David, who will establish His kingdom. So when Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand,” those who know Scripture and do not misinterpret it politically are looking for the promised Messiah-King.
The way to the King and His kingdom is to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent means “to have a change of heart as far as sin is concerned.” And it points to the Gospel, the Good News concerning the One in whom they will find forgiveness of sins. Jesus calls on His listeners to turn away from sin, to be sorry they have fallen away from God, and to trust in Him who alone offers forgiveness. Surely that is the Good News mankind needs, whether in Galilee back then or here in Trosky today. But unfortunately, like much of God’s Word, this message has also been twisted and mangled. So many fail to understand what it really means to repent, or to believe, or for that matter, what the Gospel really is.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul explains the difference between true repentance and false repentance: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (7:10).
Sometimes people feel such great sorrow over their sins that they don’t believe they can possibly go on living under the guilt. Even if they dedicate the rest of their lives to “making it right” their past still haunts them. Unfortunately, they only get to the first part of repentance—seeing their guilt and feeling ashamed because of it. But repentance has two parts! Not only does God’s Word expose sin, it also declares to you the forgiveness found in Christ. No matter how horrible a sin you may have committed, God’s forgiveness still is for you, full and complete!
When the devil can’t get you to settle for worldly grief, he tries to get you to misunderstand other aspects of repentance. For example, some think that repentance is the first step every person must take in order to please God and to establish a relationship with Him. But no person can take the first step in repentance. Repentance is a gift of God. Only God can prompt and accomplish repentance by coming to you through His living Word. God does it all.
Many people think of repentance as a one-time conversion experience. But repentance is a daily ongoing activity. Jesus’ call to “repent” in our text literally means to “be repenting” or to “keep on repenting.” Repentance is a cycle that begins and continues in Baptism. Luther writes that your Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in [you] should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that [your] new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
In a related vein, there are those who teach correctly that Jesus died for all their sins, but then they add that a Christian must live a daily life worthy of forgiveness or he will lose that forgiveness. This is a life of constant pressure, filled with endless spiritual anxiety. This is like a judge who frees a prisoner, but says he is free only if he continues to live a holy and perfect life. That prisoner is not really free, but forced to live each day in a living hell of uncertainty without the assurance that he has total peace with God.
Some make repentance a burden. They have turned confession and absolution into a law rather than a gift, by insisting that you must go to a certain place at a certain time, and that you must enumerate every sin you ever committed. Then you must add something else: you must “make satisfaction for” your sins. This adds uncertainty. It is like saying to Jesus, “You didn’t do enough to pay for my sin. I must also contribute to make up what You, Jesus, didn’t finish.”
But private confession and absolution is not an obligation or burden, rather it is a gift that brings certainty. When you go to your pastor and confess your sins to him, believe that the forgiveness he speaks is Christ’s forgiveness.
Believe: that is the second part of Jesus’ proclamation. “Believe in the Gospel.” To believe means to trust in God and His promises. But unfortunately this has been twisted today in the modern church as well. The popular understanding of faith is the free will I have that enables me to “invite Jesus into my heart.” But your will is not free; rather it is bound to sin, self, and Satan. Born spiritually blind and dead, you don’t have the capacity to believe even if you really wanted to.
The Good News is, God has done it all! He not only prepared His salvation in Christ, but He also gives you the gift of faith through His Word and Sacraments whereby you receive these blessings. God has accomplished your salvation from beginning to end. “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This is the Gospel of God.
But sadly many have turned to “a different gospel—which is really no Gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). In fact there are many alternative gospels in the marketplace. One of the most popular false gospels in our age is really a form of an ancient heresy—gnosticism—that used Christianity as a springboard to a supposed higher spirituality attained through mysticism. Pop spirituality uses words and phrases that sound “christianish.” It speaks about “redemption” and “atonement,” but means something entirely different than Christ’s substitutionary death for sins. Sadly, you can also find this in the Church, with sermons and songs that emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus, but insist that He comes through experience and emotion, rather than where He has promised: His Word and Sacraments.
Another false gospel is self-help. In this theology, there is no need for Christ as our mediator since God is never quite as holy, and we are never quite as wicked, to require something as drastic as Christ’s death in our place. God is our buddy. He just wants us to be happy, and the Bible gives us instructions for life in this world. Salvation is not a matter of divine rescue from the coming judgment, but rather of how to have your best life now. And Christ is lost in the process. You can lose weight, improve your marriage, or become a nicer person without Jesus. But you cannot have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life without Christ.
“Social gospel” is the false view that the purpose of the Church is societal change. Liberals seek to change the world into a socialist utopia. Conservatives seek to establish a distinctly Christian nation. But anytime the Church becomes entangled with the State, or seeks cultural relevance, the Church comes up the loser, and the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners goes unpreached.
That’s the problem with all of these alternative gospels: they lead away from Christ as the only hope for sinners. Where everything is measured by our happiness rather than by God’s holiness, the sense of our being sinners becomes secondary, if not offensive to our sensibilities. If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivation can become better people, we need only a life coach, not a Redeemer. But the central message of Christianity is not a way of life, or a program for personal or societal change; it is the Gospel.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word for “good news.” Typically used in the context of announcing a military victory, a gospel is the report of an appointed messenger who arrives from the battlefield. That is why the New Testament describes pastors as heralds and ambassadors of the victorious Christ.
It is not incidental, then, that this story of redemption is called the Gospel. If it were merely a program for self-improvement, it would be called something else, like good advice or good idea. But it’s Good News because it is an announcement of the victory that someone else has already achieved for us. When we are distracted from this commission, we begin to think of ourselves not as ambassadors of a great King but as the star of the show. The focus falls on what we do, and Jesus’ role is reduced to a moral example or life coach.  
Yet the Bible provides a very different focus. With the exception of a few important passages in which we are told to follow Christ’s example of suffering loss on behalf of others, the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus is unique in every way: in who He is, what He did, and what He said. Only He could inaugurate the kingdom of God. Only He could die as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. Only He could be raised as the firstfruits of those who sleep.
When pastors are expected to be coaches sending in the plays and their parishioners are expected to be all-stars to take Jesus’ team to victory in the culture wars, the focus must necessarily fall on our stories and strategies rather than on God’s. But this means that much of our ministry today is Law without Gospel, with the accent on “What Would Jesus Do?” rather than “What Has Jesus Done?” None of us is immune to this indictment that we are losing our focus upon, confidence in, and increasingly even our knowledge of the greatest story ever told.
We must return to the true Gospel. We must return to the message delivered by the faithful prophets of the Old Testament, by John the Baptist, by Jesus Christ Himself, and by His apostles: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel.”
And here is that Good News: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for you and your salvation. Jesus lived a perfect life fulfilling the Law for you. Christ was crucified on the cross for your sins. God raised Him up on the third day so that you might be certain that His Word is true. Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand, ruling for your benefit and interceding on your behalf. Jesus will return to raise you to eternal life and take you to live in His presence forever.
In the meantime, Jesus promises to be with you always in His means of grace. In Baptism, He gives you His Holy Spirit and makes you a child of God—a co-heir. In His Supper, He feeds you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. And through His spoken Word, He calls you to repentance and faith that you might remain His child and be conformed to His image.
Repent and believe in this Gospel. Jesus did not die to give you happiness or self-esteem. The goal of God’s Word is to obliterate self-esteem, to destroy it completely. You need self-esteem like you need cancer. The moment you start looking to yourself, you are putting yourself in Christ’s place. That’s why God wants you to die to yourself. He loves you too much to leave you enamored with yourself because looking at yourself and thinking about yourself is killing you.
Instead of looking at yourself, you must look to Christ and Him alone. Jesus did not die for you because you’re beautiful or desirable or loveable. Jesus died for you because He has the capacity to love the most unlovely. It is Christ’s grace bestowed upon you that makes you beautiful, desirable, and loveable. It is His grace that cleanses you and restores you. Indeed, it is by the grace of Jesus Christ and for the sake of His holy wounds, His bitter suffering and death, that you hear and believe   this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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