The church is convinced of their need to personally engage this lostness through the truth of the Scriptures and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
The Sending Church Elements are a framework for growing as a sending church. They point out the strengths and weaknesses of churches in missions. Embracing Spiritual Conviction describes a transformation of the sending church, in which a theology of mission flows from the peoples’ minds into their hearts. This series will address why spiritual conviction is important and explain the means God gives us to grow in conviction.
In the previous article of this series we considered the role of corporate prayer in a church’s development of the true spiritual conviction to send well. As the church body obediently cries out to God together during worship gatherings, within small groups, or by themselves (as guided by church-wide prayer initiatives), God has the unique capacity through his Spirit to affect hearts. As mentioned previously, this can result in new heights of adoration, dependance, and unity. No doubt, church leaders want those characteristics blossoming in their people!
But what about repentance? Is church-wide repentance something to be aimed for? Does it have anything to do with sending? Let us allow the prophet Isaiah to answer these questions. His response is worth quoting at length:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go…” Isaiah 6:1-9
It’s likely a familiar story to you. Here we have the prophet Isaiah, in a seriously discouraging era among the people of Israel, receiving an overwhelming vision from the Lord. It would be a moment he would never forget. The difficult-to-describe glimpse of God and angels did not immediately bring encouragement, but rattled Isaiah to the core. One would think he might respond with awe and wonder, but instead he cried out painfully, “Woe is me! For I am lost”. In light of God’s raw, holy display, Isaiah was an exposed man. In the presence of pure perfection, Isaiah’s skin crawled with his imperfections, his sins.
Isaiah’s lament was directed toward his “unclean lips”. God had revealed to Isaiah a very particular sin. That sin testified to a more serious condition of the heart. No wonder Isaiah pronounced woe upon himself! He stood before the living God under condemnation and without any protection. He was looking upon the Lord and knew he would surely die (Exodus 33:20). He was horrified. He was broken. He repented.
Yet God in his mercy atoned for Isaiah’s sinful lips, the very instruments through which God would then speak to the rest of his unclean people. Isaiah’s repentance and rescue immediately led into his explicit calling in God’s redemptive purposes. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God asked. Although Isaiah may not have understood in the moment, we who have the full story know that he would go on to speak words of judgment and words of salvation; words that are still speaking today; words that provide some of the richest Old Testament descriptions of Jesus Christ.
Without repentance there would have been no atonement. Without atonement there would have been no “Here am I! Send me.”
And this isn’t simply an Old Testament phenomenon. Consider Peter, who experienced God in a no-less remarkable way:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11
Isn’t Peter’s response to the miraculous catch of fish fascinating? A glimpse of Jesus’ divinity brought him to his knees. His woe was no less than Isaiah’s. He, too, was exposed as a sinful man. And though his words reflect the distance he felt from the Master, it was this posture of repentance that actually brought him near, made ready to follow.
In return to our original questions… yes. Yes, church-wide repentance is something to be aimed for. And yes, it has much to do with sending. Perhaps the revivalism of the last couple centuries have made such repentance seem outdated and out of touch. If so, that’s unfortunate. It’s actually as fresh as the Bible itself.
This does not mean we are saying you should set up a tent revival and give ’em the ol’ turn-or-burn. Unfortunately, guilt-induced motivational tactics for getting Christians excited about missions are already common enough. True repentance comes from a true encounter with God – neither of which can be produced by us. We are desperately dependent on him to reveal himself (John 6:44, Matthew 11:27).
So what can be done to lead a church to encounter God, repent of sin that so easily entangles, and follow Jesus into his mission? Here are a few suggestions:
Start with yourself. Seek to embody what you desire in your church. Draw near to the Lord through his word and Spirit. Ask him to reveal your heart and renew your sense of calling in light of his kindness (Romans 2:4).
Seek to help your church members encounter Jesus by sharing your own need to repent. If you are a leader, be a lead repent-er (1 Timothy 1:15).
Point to Jesus through the Scriptures, not just as the example for mission (law), but the sacrifice for mission (grace).
Ask God to reveal himself, convict hearts, cultivate repentance, and call on mission afresh.
Give voice to the need for repentance during worship, prayer, and teaching. Provide space for people to respond (such as a pause for confession during worship). Show expectancy.
Organize a church-wide time of fasting and prayer for spiritual renewal and mission zeal.
Celebrate stories of repentance in the church.