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Repentance in the Time of Coronavirus

Gregory E. Reynolds

“There were some present at that very time who told him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1–5).

Accidents, disease, and crime take lives every day, but when a mass disaster like the World Trade Center attack of 2001 happens it raises questions. Why did the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spread and attack some nations and some cities more than others?[1] Was it because some nations or populations are more sinful than others? Some Christians believe that the answer is, “Yes.” Believers in biblical times made the same mistake. In Luke 13 Galileans among Jesus’s audience brought news of Pilate’s injustice towards some of their own, perhaps because they were perceived to be revolutionaries. These were killed at Passover by Pilate (v.1). And Jesus has his own disaster story. The tower of Siloam, connected with a reservoir supplying Jerusalem with water from Gihon, collapsed and killed eighteen.

So, the question is: Is every disaster or evil, great or small, God’s special judgement on individuals or groups? Many people today, including believers, think so. According to the Bible there is only one nation in history with whom God has established a covenant: Israel. In the new covenant the visible church is the covenant community distributed among the nations. In the Mosaic covenant God established blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience, so there is a correlation between the spiritual and moral state of the nation and God’s relationship to them. The theocratic situation is the only time in history when covenantal religion and civil government were coextensive. The prophets were called to bring covenant lawsuits against the disobedient nation of Israel. We also see that the Lord judged certain pagan nations, like Egypt, the Amorites, and the nations of Palestine during the exodus when their sin reached a fullness (Gen. 15:16 “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). But we only know this because God’s assessment is given to us in his Word. It is a mistake, therefore, to apply these sanctions to America, any other nation, or any group of people. Jesus’s words are instructive, then, in this regard.

On the personal level Job’s “friends” made the same mistake. Counselor Eliphaz is functioning in light of a covenant of works when he says, “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7). Blessings and curses were an exact payment for obedience and disobedience: “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24–25).

So, was Pilate’s attack on the worshipping Galileans or the victims of the falling of the tower of Siloam more sinful than others? Jesus answers with an emphatic “No!” But note how he phrases his answer: “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others?” All accidents, tragedies, deaths, and disasters are a stark reminder that all people are presently and continually under God’s wrath and curse, as Romans 1:18 clearly teaches: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Jesus assumes that all people are sinners! Again Paul is clear in this universal indictment: “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, . . . so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:9, 19, 23). However, this is not to say that every disaster is not a form of God’s judgment. The mistake is in saying that a particular disaster is necessarily a punishment for the particular sins of particular individuals or nations.

Good and bad things happen to all people. There are common curses and common blessings on all people. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People[2] begs the biblical question: Why do good things happen to bad people? The answer is God’s common grace, or undeserved favor, as Jesus said in the Sermon of the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44–45).

What should our response be to a worldwide disaster like the present pandemic, affecting 184 nations as of this writing? Jesus answer could not be plainer: “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (vv. 3, 5). The coronavirus should first of all work deep repentance in us Christians as we remember that we deserve God’s judgment and that it is only God’s utterly remarkable grace that makes us righteous in his sight, and will spare us from the final judgment, because Jesus has been judged for us. The present tense of the verb “repent” (metanoēte, μετανοῆτε) reminds us that the Christian life is to be one of continual repentance, a constant turning from the practice of sin to the way of righteousness.

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4–6)

As the Westminster Larger Catechism answers the question: “What is repentance unto life?”

WLC Q. 76. A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.

These Scriptures are among the proof texts for this answer:

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matt. 3:8)

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:10)

The consequence of not repenting is that “you will all likewise perish” (vv. 3, 5). The comparison “likewise” does not mean one of the same in kind, but that judgment will come with unexpected suddenness and finality. All evils and disasters are a foretaste of final judgment. Great disasters, like COVID-19, are meant to be stark reminders of this extremely serious reality. On that great and awful day the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).

Instead of looking at the wicked with disdain, which we are often tempted to do, compassion is the order of the day. If we remember what we are by nature, we will learn the lesson Paul was teaching the Corinthian church about their attitude toward the wicked, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Seek to be a comfort to those who are suffering in this pandemic. All the heroism and help that people and nations are offering is a revelation of God’s goodness and mercy, a blessing of his providence.

Along with being part of the help we should be seeking opportunities to compassionately warn our neighbors and families to flee the wrath to come by turning and trusting Christ, freely offered to them in the gospel. Religion presently is thought to be a general comfort for the suffering and the fearful, a kind of mere placebo. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to distinguish Christianity by the undeserved favor of God shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:18–21)

Along with the uniqueness of God’s grace in Christ, we need to communicate the power of the historical nature of that gospel. It is only truly good news because the eternal Son of God came into this world as a man to redeem us from sin and death.

The idea of transcendence has lost its footing in the assumptions of modernity. All is material and physical health; life in this present world is all many people have. We can often be caught up in this mentality and the way of life it demands. The gospel view is radically and thus wonderfully different:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)

The hope of another world and the historical resurrection of the dead is central to the exclusivity of our message: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:19–20).

A day of ultimate reckoning is coming! We need to remind ourselves of this and call sinners to turn to the Lord of the present world and the one to come.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:33–35)

The “greater sin” is an unrepentant and thus unfruitful life. Of all our blessings how much  is used for the glory of God? Every disaster is a reminder that we all need to repent and believe the gospel.

Endnotes

[1] This article is based on a sermon that I preached shortly after 9/11 at Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, on September 23, 2001.

[2] Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Random House, 1981).

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, May 2020.

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