Repent or Perish
The first thing that occurs to me about our Savior’s warning is that perish is extremely serious. The consequence of not repenting is certain perishing. Coming from him who is Love, it is a startling word. But if by perish, he means annihilation, then repent rings very hollow. In fact, if perish does not reflect the “everlasting fire” and “burning furnace” of which our Lord so often warned, then why repent? All the motivation to repent is eviscerated if after you die, there is no accounting, no consequences of your works following you into judgment, and no everlasting punishment. Sin now; nothing later. This is the dream of every sophisticated atheist and pleasure-seeking secularist.
Personal annihilation would be a relief to a rebel, his last spit in God’s face, even if he has to endure a few moments of terror before the Judge. You could not turn me, he would think to himself; you can only destroy me. Might makes right, as they say, but I won. I kept my will to the end and all you could do is snuff me out.
No, I think that by perish we shall have to understand hell. Our Lord made many declarations on this subject, and they admit of no lessening by metaphor or hyperbole. If “fire” is a metaphor, is “repent?” If furnace, burning, and weeping and gnashing of teeth are symbols of annihilation, then is everlasting life also metaphorical, a symbol of an undefined happiness but by no means everlasting life? Life and death, heaven and hell, stand or fall together. The eternal joy is parallel to the eternal woe; this is why repent is so imperative. Jesus Christ knows the wrath of God; he shares his Father’s (and the Spirit’s) hatred against sin. He went to the cross and endured the sorrows of hell in order to deliver us, not from the annihilation to come, but from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).
The second thing that we should address is sin and its horrible destiny. Jesus’ warning assumes personal sin. Sin is an offense against God’s law, which is his holy character written down for us and summarized in the Ten Commandments, as well as in our Savior’s “first and greatest commandment” – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind – and his “second like unto it” – you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We have done neither. We have assaulted God’s rightful authority over us, his clear word, and six millennia of world history strewn with the corpses of his enemies and the salvation testimonies of his friends. Sin will be punished. God would not be God were he to leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:5-6).
Sinners turn every sin into a virtue, but this is fallen conscience looking for a cocaine shot of adrenaline to keep fighting against itself, to keep deceiving itself. Blind men deny the very truths that will send so many into the everlasting burnings – there is no such thing as sin, for there is no such thing as a holy God and righteous Judge. What a shock to close your eyes here, and to stand before him one second later, to face the horror of what your conscience sometimes whispered to you in quiet moments, like a little warning bell. With this meeting facing each one of us, what will we then think about men and groups who say things like, “Well, we are positive here, and do not talk about negative things. We do not talk about sin, judgment, or hell – no one was ever scared into heaven.” Satan started this lie, whispering it to some soft-headed preacher somewhere, more in touch with his poetic feelings than God’s objectively true word. Our Lord said otherwise. This very verse is his divine attempt to scare men straight into the arms of God’s mercy by warning them of the reality of sin and judgment.
This is a point upon which the faithful church must bear the cross and the world’s reproach. Our Lord said that the Spirit’s work would be not affirmation of man in his struggles and perceived needs, but conviction and confrontation with his person and work. It is not uncommon to hear things like, “I do not like to feel convicted. Something must be wrong with this preacher, or with my parents or elders. When they talk with me, I feel convicted.” Have you ever considered that this is the Spirit’s main work in sinners – not to make us feel better about life but to convict us of our sins so that we seek the life to come. John 16:9-11 makes this clear. The Spirit confronts and convicts men of the evil of rejecting God’s gift of life and forgiveness in his Son. He confronts them with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Just One, who was raised for our justification because he was personally vindicated as the sinless Lamb of God. The Spirit convinces men that they will soon stand before this crucified and raised Jesus Christ as Judge (Acts 17:31). All of this is spelled out so clearly, but sinners hate the light. It ought to be different in the church. We ought to welcome the conviction that confronts our sinfulness and leads us to take refuge in the Judge as our Redeemer, now before it is too late, lest we face him not as our reconciled God and Savior but as the avenging Judge and wrathful Lamb.
Third, each one of us and all of us – the original has a second person plural pronoun – you all, Jesus’ original audience, his disciples, and all men everywhere – must repent. Repentance is more than feeling bad that you have done something bad. Take the opposite of Aaron when Moses confronted him for his hand in the golden calf wickedness, and you will see true repentance. Aaron told Moses not to make such a big deal of it – “Do not be so angry with me.” We will not repent unless we feel the gravity of sin against a holy God. Aaron: the people made me do it – blame-shifting – and you were away too long, Moses – more blame-shifting, the first lesson we learned from our fallen parents – it is always someone else’s fault. The golden calf magically appeared – I am not as guilty as you assume, younger brother. Always, always, repentance faces the hideousness of its sin, the danger of it, honestly probing the depths of it – against you, and you only have I sinned; deliver me from blood-guiltiness; my sin is ever before me. David’s Psalm 51 is the opposite of Aaron’s Exodus 32.
I do not suppose that sinners have ever been much different, but our temptations are unique and dangerous to us. Men and women today have mastered victimization – the last hiding place of rebels – blame-shifting – ancient fig leaves, withered and rotten but still a favorite outfit for sinners – and mob frenzy – everyone is doing it – I’m no worse than others. We must have separation from the world and quiet to probe our hearts – no screens, notifications, or tweets – quiet before God, examining our hearts before him, with an open Bible before us, praying for light to come from above us. I, you, all of us, must turn from our sins and unto God. This turning is not looking for better feelings but looking for restored hearts and a reconciled God through faith in the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9-2:2).
To conclude, the old truths press us firmly. All the trappings and flickering and conveniences of modern life can distract us from the coming stand we shall have to make before the holy God. Do not allow any version of grace to make you forget our Savior’s call to repentance. Do not allow sinners to convince you that sin is not all that bad and that you do not have much for which to repent – tell Jesus Christ that as he hung naked and bleeding and agonizing on the cross. Do not let any poetic interpreter of Scripture convince you that hell is a metaphor and judgment a myth – again, look at the cross. And reject the gross, cross-oblivious tendency to downplay the seriousness of sin, to redefine it, and to explain it away. The cross forces us to face sin directly, in all its hideousness.
If you have believed upon his name, if you are, as Asaph wrote, “chastening your soul every morning,” rejoice in the forgiveness God promises to you, has given you. You weep before the Lord now, but you will dance before him later. If you have believed in Jesus Christ, fled to him, are crying for him, calling upon the Father in his name, even running back when you fall into sin, you are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. God promises. Moses lifted up the serpent, and the bitten were healed. The Father has lifted up his Son on the cross, and we, the sin-bitten, are healed every hour! If you have repented of your sins, judged yourself before God for them (1 Cor. 11:31), hate and mortify them, and are by the power of the Spirit endeavoring to walk in newness of life, your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. You will not come into this place of torment, for Jesus Christ went there for you. Love and adore him! Sing and rejoice! Hold fast to Jesus Christ and the old gospel truths! They will save you from the wrath to come.