“And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.”
In the early 1970’s, a young man stood on a street corner of Chicago and pointed a finger at people who passed by. He shouted one word at them: “REPENT!” “REPENT!” As the people hurried by, there were looks of concern and confusion. “What did the young man mean?” “Repent?” “Of what?”
The church has an answer to that inquiry. Historically, the church has defined the word “repent”, to mean, “to change one’s mind” or, “to feel sorrow for sin.” Today, the word has been reduced in meaning to convey nothing more than simply having an intellectual “faith” in Christ. However, it is obvious from the Word of God that the simple modern definitions do not go far enough. The behavior of the professing church does not match its belief. Perhaps, in the words of Augustine, “we need to repent of our repentance.” It was the serious accusation of the prophet of God, called Malachi, that the people, who had the Law of God, written by the finger of God, would cover the altar of the Lord with tears, confess their sins, but never truly turn from them.
It is easy to write such activity off as merely being hypocritical, and on one level it certainly is that. But there is something else, something much deeper. Experience confirms that inappropriate behavior can get a deep hold even on the heart of a Christian and create a state of mental anguish. This anguish is especially true in those who desire to be more holy. So, what is it that keeps driving a soul from sin, to the comfort of the Savior’s forgiveness, only to return to sin again and again? Why do we do what we do?
There is no simple answer, of course, which is why the Bible calls sin a “mystery” (2 Thess. 2:7). We keep looking for a reason as to why people do what they do, as if sin is rationale. The best the world can do is to give labels to behavior, which is what psychology does. Or, the world can provide its own wisdom, such as that given by Oscar Wilde who said, “The best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Over the years various teachers within the Christian community have arisen to try to tell people how to overcome sin and live victoriously.
For example, there is the technique marked, Good Works. The argument is that enough good deeds will so consume time and energies that there is no room left for sin. The honest heart knows better. In the midst of spiritual work the temptation arises to do wrong, to compromise convictions, and to abandon character.
There is the technique marked, “Let Go, and Let God.” This is a passive approach to sanctification. For those tired of the constant efforts of the energy of the flesh to please God, this advice becomes very appealing. According to this view, sanctification is not something that we achieve, it is something done to us. The basic problem with this view is that there are too many passages exhorting the believer to strive to enter the narrow gate, resist the devil, and put on the armor of God. In order words, sanctification has an active facet.
There is another technique for sanctification marked, Co-crucifixion. This technique uses the language of Paul in Romans 6:6-7. “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.” The believer is taught to consider himself dead, buried, and resurrected with Christ. Denial of existing sin is encouraged, as the act of restoring oneself dead to sin is encouraged. But of course the honest heart knows sin still exists in the soul.
If the focus on self-effort does not work, if the passive approach to holiness is not effective, if the concept of co-identity with Christ still does not stop sin from being repeatedly expressed, what will? Is there any hope? Indeed there is. The divine remedy for sin begins with a renewed understanding of repentance. Implied in our passage are several truths, though they are challenging to receive.
First, the Bible reveals there is a type of repentance that is fundamentally insincere. This form of repentance is so well hidden from the view of the public that much acceptable religious activity conveys the impression of sincerity, which in turn means that there can be a great measure of self-deception. The message of Malachi insists that, on the deepest level, a person must understand their own heart, and then, become honest with God about their basic unwillingness to give up sin, which is evil. Augustine prayed, “Lord, make me holy, but not now.” That was a honest prayer. Only when a person is willing to admit to the LORD, “I love my sin, I love my addiction, I make provision for it, and I am willing, in moments of passion, to be destroyed rather than let it go”— only then is there hope for change.
I know how hard it is to be honest with self, others, or God about our weaknesses. Nevertheless, the Bible says, in James 5:16, to confess our faults one to another, within boundaries of course. Confession of sin can be helpful, if it is done with a view to accountability, or finding forgiveness. Many people who have confessed their sin have found freedom to travel the gospel road to recovery. But, it is hard to be honest with God. True repentance recognizes the hypocrisy, and the falsehood of superficial repentance.
There is something else. It is far easier to cover an altar with tears, with weeping, and crying than it is to truly repent. People are by nature emotional creatures. Listen to the way we talk to each other. “I just love your new outfit.” “I am so happy I feel like I have died and gone to heaven.” “I was angry at what you did.” “I am mad at you.” “I was offended at what you did.”
I have received phone calls, and visits, from people who were angry and upset with me, and in that anger said very unkind things. Some were willing to listen to the truth, and calm down. Others did not want to hear the truth. Jack Nicolson was more right than wrong when he said in the movie, A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Many people cannot handle the truth from the prophets, and from the Scriptures, about their failures in the sight of God, and so there is a large amount of emotional sorrow over sin in worship services, but not sincere sorrow.
The emotional sorrow for sin comes in acts of worship because it takes a very cold heart not to be moved by the story of the Cross of Calvary and the Savior’s love. The heart is naturally thrilled to hear about the hope of the resurrection. But emotion is not repentance.
Because emotion is not repentance, people can fall on their knees, determined to be better, to do more, to be more faithful to the services, to Bible study, or to give, and then arise and forget all about the promises they just made to God. Long ago, Malachi observed the vacillating feelings of the people of Israel. The pomp and pageantry associated with Temple worship in Israel evoked a strong emotional response, but no genuine repentance. There finally came a day when God said, “Enough is enough.”
There came a day when God looked at the outward forms of repentance in Israel and said with dynamic force, “Stop it! I will not regard your offerings anymore. I will not receive worship from you.”
When the prophet Malachi announced this to Israel, the people should have been alarmed. The national leaders should have been concerned because the ultimate security of the nation was in jeopardy. In the Law, God warned His people that one form of divine discipline would be national disintegration. The national security of any nation does not depend upon military might, but upon the good favor of God. Psalms 20:7 Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. “Why?” The answer is simple. As goes the spiritual life of a people, so goes the nation. Malachi was telling Israel that God was angry with them, and the LORD knows just how to deal with people He is angry with.
Again, the priests should have been concerned at the message of Malachi. The people expected the priests to teach them the Law of Moses, and offer their appropriate sacrifices to God. But God was putting everyone on notice. He would no longer accept the worship without true repentance. He would not accept the meaningless rituals from the priests, and He would no longer accept the mindless worship from the people.
It was not only the insincere repentance that offended the Lord, but the very words of the priests and the people that wearied Him as well. Notice Malachi 2: 17. “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words.” No doubt about it. The nation of Israel was religious. They had lovely music. They had ceremony. They had beautiful buildings. They talked to God. They talked about God, and yet the Divine verdict was that the words of the people wearied God. In what way? Three ways are mentioned.
First, the people were doing wrong by telling each other their evil was good. “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord…” (Mal. 2:17). Like Eve offering the fruit of rebellion to Adam, people sin, and then encourage others to sin saying that the evil they do is good. Homosexuality is proclaimed to be good. Raising children in single parent homes is said to be good. Genetic engineering of embryo’s to harvest body parts is said to be good. Abortion is declared to be good. It is argued that positive results can come from evil acts, according to the situation. But situational ethics is a lie of the devil. Evil produces nothing but evil. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18).
Not only were the people telling each other that evil was good, they were telling each other that God approved of what they were doing. “And he delighteth in them…” (Mal. 3:17b).
Third, the people were also saying that there was no reason to fear God. They boldly asked in mockery, “Where is the God of judgment?” In the modern day church, the fear of God is not preached about because again, it is not recognized. The modern church dares to say, “Where is the God of judgment?” And so the doctrine of hell is denied in favor of soul sleep, or annhilationism.
The conclusion of the matter is that it is possible to worship God without genuine repentance. This is done by protecting a divided heart. False repentance refuses to confess and put away sin. False repentance will justify covetousness, lust, and anger. False repentance will have a fundamental contempt for the local church. False repentance will insist that evil is good.
It was an act of amazing grace when God sent His prophet, Malachi, to speak honestly to the people, and to bring them to true repentance. Malachi had to tell the people plainly, “There is a repentance that needs to be repented of.” The reason why the LORD sent Malachi to Israel was simple. God loved His covenanted people, and had their best interest in mind. God still has the same love for His own today, for the LORD changes not.
The challenge for the church today is the same as it was for the church in the Old Testament era. The church must learn to worship the Lord in such a way that He is not wearied with our words, but pleased. But for the LORD to be pleased with our worship, there must be an honest examination of ourselves so that the sacrifices of our lips, and the meditations of our hearts, can be acceptable in His sight.
Perhaps there is someone who needs to confess to a repentance that needs to be repented of. May God grant us gospel grace to truly repent.