What if your life mission was to walk the streets of your city, visiting the street corners next to each church, and to cry “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand” – and what if the ones you were calling to repent were the church people who were actually faithfully and diligently living out what they’d been taught were the religious commands from holy scriptures?
This ought to sound familiar. If you did that you’d be following Jesus’ example. (Matthew 4:17)
Jesus Language of Repentance
Across the entirety of His three-year ministry, Jesus often focused on two things: repentance, and the Kingdom of Heaven. And frequently, those two things were tied together.
I think most people consider Jesus to have been speaking to sinners – those who were not trying to follow the Lord’s commands. Today, this sense seems to persist in our emphasis on outreach to the “unsaved” and those outside the church. And even when we try to apply Jesus’ words to ourselves, we usually think in terms of individual acts of sin… lust, theft, gluttony, pride, and so forth.
However, consider that most of Jesus’ repentance language was actually spoken to religious people, who considered themselves to be upright and God-fearing. Consider the following verses:
Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15 NASB)
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 NASB)
Then He began to reprimand the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that occurred in you had occurred in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matthew 11:20-21 NASB)
The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:41 NASB)
A number of such verses, like that last one, were spoken directly to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were actively working to build and sustain and purify a system of thought and action that they believed was righteous and upright. But Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders was usually about how those systems conflicted with His basic paradigm of “Love God, love your neighbor” – where the weak and poor and widows and lepers and oppressed and slaves were being mistreated by the rich and powerful (which in Jewish society, was primarily the religious system).
Jesus and Individual Repentance
There are fairly few examples, in fact, where Jesus was speaking repentance directly to someone living in sin. The woman who Jesus saved from being stoned is the most common example, where He didn’t use the word “repent” but He did say “go and sin no more,” which is certainly repentance language. But rarely in the recorded interactions with people we would obviously call “sinners” did Jesus resort to calling them to repent. Good examples are Jesus’ interactions with Zaccheus the tax collector, the woman Mary who washed His feet, or the demon-possessed man whom He healed. He didn’t even directly challenge the woman at the well to repent, despite pointedly identifying her marital infidelity and adultery. In fact, in each of those stories, His followup conversations called His supposedly-holy listeners and disciples to change their thoughts or their ways. In other words, the only repentance language was towards those who were not obviously sinning.
So on the few occasions when Jesus did speak about individual sins, he was often speaking about how His listeners should respond to it.
One might, in the modern vernacular, consider that when Jesus was addressing repentance, He was instead addressing systemic sin – problems with the entire religious system.
Jesus and Corporate Repentance
Even the resurrected Jesus, speaking directly to the New Testament churches in the book of Revelation, was very direct in His calls for repentance. Consider these verses.
Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and I will remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5 NASB)
19 ‘I know your deeds, and your love and faith, and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:19-21 NASB)
So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Then if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (Revelation 3:3 NASB)
Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:19 NASB)
John and Repentance
John the Baptist also often preached to the religious, and much language in the Gospels focused on his attention to the religious leaders. For example, consider the following verses:
“I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1:23 NASB)
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2 NASB)
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance; 9 and do not assume that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you that God is able, from these stones, to raise up children for Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-8 NASB)
(Note here that John is addressing trees not bearing fruit, and tying that to a failure of the religious system.)
In that same lecture to the religious leaders, he concludes “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12 NASB)
…After John had proclaimed, before His coming, a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. (Acts 13:24 NASB)
Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:4 NASB)
Jesus and John
Jesus also testified about John, pointing out to the religious leaders that even the “sinners” were more receptive of his lessons and did believe John’s message – thus demonstrating repentance.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him. (Matthew 21:32 NASB)
In essence, in many of their calls for repentance, Jesus and John were not directly addressing specific sins, but instead they were challenging the existing religious system’s understanding of how to honor God. They both repeatedly addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees, showing them their misinterpretations and misapplications of God’s written commands. They addressed the people, many of whom were observant Jews, challenging them to reconsider how they applied the Torah to their lives and their relationships. And when met with individual sinners, Jesus was gracious and loving and inviting, allowing His individual ministry to bring a desire for repentance, rather than berating the sinner.
In confronting the religious systems, and calling for the people to “make straight the way for the Lord,” John (as Isaiah before him) was addressing a topic that is dear to many modern religious adherents. Orthodoxy is a compound word meaning “straight beliefs” or “right beliefs.” So John and Isaiah, in calling for making straight the way – the path – the beliefs and practices – were both calling for accurate orthodoxy. After all, they could hardly be talking to sinners to straighten the path.
Note that both John AND Jesus often used the language “the Kingdom is at hand.” Both had a strong sense of imminence, of urgency. Many of Jesus’ parables included elements of being ready, such as the ten virgins in Matthew 25.
With the context of repentance as just described, observe what’s happening across Christendom today. There is a massive surge of “deconstruction.” It’s characterized by people questioning the fundamentals of their faith. For quite a few years this process has been brewing, only to take off significantly in the two years or so.
Many religiously-conservative commentators have decried this deconstruction. They view it as apostasy creeping into the church, as a spiritual attack against the True Faith, as a spirit of division infecting those unwilling to remain committed to the orthodox doctrines. In fact, the vast majority of the critics complain that those who are “deconstructing” are either leaving the faith, or trying to find justification for living in whatever sinful way they wish.
To be sure, there are plenty of such people. After all, many who now call themselves “exvangelicals” (a portmanteau of “ex-evangelicals”) are truly walking away from their faith, either outright atheists, or at best agnostic, and definitely no longer Christian. And most of those point to the abuse they suffered at the hands of the religious systems that they inhabited for decades. And it’s likely that there are plenty of “Christians” who simply wish to avoid guilt for living as they wish.
But my experience has been that the dozens of people I know who are actively in the deconstruction process, and many whose writings I read lately, are neither apostate, nor opportunistic sinners.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, they’re actively assessing their faith practices, and the actual details of what they were taught, because they’re deeply passionate about a closer walk with God and a more accurate understanding of Jesus’ teachings. They’ve never been closer to God in their lives, although it looks extremely unconventional to anyone who has not deconstructed.
Yes, they recognize abuses they have suffered – or, in many cases, they see how others have been affected by abuse by the organized church or by fellow Christians, and simply don’t see the church doing anything about it, or gaslighting them, or covering it up. They identify (and often talk about) ways the church is not accurately fulfilling Jesus’ commands and following His actual example. In seeing this sin and hypocrisy, and failing to see it addressed, they begin to wonder if what they’ve been taught for so many years is really true and viable after all.
And so begins the process of digging into literally everything they were taught, examining it deeply and critically, carefully casting off every preconception, reducing the Bible’s teachings to their barest, most direct essence, and beginning to rebuild their theology from the ground up. And they actively seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in that process, and seek the counsel and wisdom of their fellow Christians as they relearn doctrine.
What if, rather than assuming that deconstruction is sinful or apostate, we hearken back to Jesus and John’s call, “make straight the way of the Lord” and “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand?” Perhaps what is taking place in this season is the very doing of the Lord, where many real Christians are truly repenting of wrong beliefs and assumptions and practices, finding themselves in a new place with their Father, in a new relationship with Jesus, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, and rediscovering true orthodoxy?
Surely there ARE some walking away from their faith. Perhaps they never truly knew Jesus in the first place; after all, He predicts in Matthew 7:21-23 that many who called Him “Lord” will be told they were never His disciples, so this is not hard to believe. And 2 Thessalonians 2:3-17 (and plenty of language in the Revelation of John) speaks of a great falling away in the last days. Maybe they did once truly know Him, but were so wounded or disillusioned that they fell away.
But in any case, the existence of those who fall away does not ALSO mean that all of those who are deconstructing are also falling away. The testimony of those I speak with, and the evidence of the fruit in their lives, speaks to me of a powerful new connection with the Living God, rather than apostasy.
It’s just as different from what used to be, as Jesus’ Kingdom looked to the Jews.
There was a good reason Jesus told the Jews to repent: it was necessary, absolutely necessary. It wasn’t about mere sin: They needed to change their thinking about the very Kingdom itself, and be willing to set aside their religious opinions to get hold of the Truth.
The Wheat and the Tares
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus teaches a parable about wheat and tares, a kind of weed that looks much like wheat until it matures. Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven in that parable is that the owner of the field tells his servants to allow the tares and wheat to grow together until both mature, at which time the fruit is easy to discern. Just as righteousness will mature, so will unrighteousness. Then, the wheat will be gathered, but the tares burned.
At the appropriate time, the fruit of deconstruction will become clear. For some, it will bring destruction and eternal fire. For others, it’s likely to bring a harvest of righteousness. Jesus’ message in that parable is that the owner of the field was not willing to uproot the tares, lest the wheat also be damaged. This was a clear instruction to us, Jesus’ followers, not to be too quick to judge the righteousness of other’s lives before the fruit appears.
So I see that the church has a choice. In fact, from my perspective, it is being offered two distinct choices, one dependent on the other.
First, the church must choose to repent or not. This deconstruction seems to be full of those crying “make straight the way of the Lord.” “Wake up and trim your lamps!” “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Perhaps, just perhaps, there is truth in those calls. Perhaps the church needs to reexamine itself, and the foundations of its doctrine, and understand if anything being proclaimed by those who are deconstructing is in fact worth following.
Second, if the church determines that those who are deconstructing are completely wrong, it must choose how to respond. Will it uproot what it sees as tares, and risk further damaging the wheat, further alienating those who simply deeply wish for righteousness within the Body and are willing to ask any question necessary, and in uprooting the tares, thereby drive the wheat away beyond any hope of recall? Will the church’s actions alienate those who watch this deconstruction, and participate in the church at some level, but have not yet left?
Or might the church need to welcome those difficult and painful questions with patience and love and diligent study, laboring with them to uncover truths both new and long forgotten?
Violent Men Take It By Force
Perhaps what we see is a measure of fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11, when He said:
11 “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13 “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:11-15 NASB)
Right now, clearly, people are doing violence to the Kingdom. Many of them are truly “the least in the Kingdom.” They’re not studied. They don’t have degrees in Bible theology. But it’s not inconceivable to me that perhaps it’s not destructive violence. They are wrestling diligently and forcefully with the Kingdom, grappling with fresh understandings, and willing to challenge anything that doesn’t look like the Kingdom that Jesus described. Maybe some of them are even wrestling with the Lord Himself, as Jacob did, and they’ll come away with a limp testifying of their struggle, but perhaps blessed to be the fathers of nations yet to arise.
At the same time, in this season, many trusted prophets across the body of Christ have been warning the church of its vulnerability and of the Lord’s intention to shake everything that can be shaken (Hebrews 12:27). Perhaps even what we believed as orthodoxy wasn’t so straight as we had assumed, and the Lord Himself is leading these who deconstruct into a new awareness of His truth.
Either way, it seems to me that the parable about wheat and tares applies. Let the wrestling and deconstruction continue. Don’t discourage it. Don’t preach against it. Don’t tell them that they’re apostate for asking tough questions. Let it bear fruit, and be willing to be surprised that what you think is tares might actually be wheat.