The Urgent Call to Prayer—and Repentance

We are a people and nation in imminent danger. We mock God, ridicule His Word and His ways, and flaunt gross immorality.
—Franklin Graham1

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
Isaiah 55:6-7

This is a special week marked by prayer. In Tennessee, two events are underscoring prayer’s importance and urging people to cry out to God on behalf of America.

The first of these took place on May 3. In the Decision America Tour, Franklin Graham, son of well-known evangelist Billy Graham, is traveling to the capitals of each of the 50 states and holding prayer rallies for the nation. While Graham has boldly proclaimed that America’s only hope in is God, he also is encouraging Christians to participate in the political process and to stand firm for biblical truth and godly principles, regardless of their political party. Last year he announced the tour.

As you can see, Graham is heavily burdened for our country. In the May issue of Decision magazine, which is published 11 times a year by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he writes,

There is no doubt that the tens of thousands who have attended [Decision America Tour rallies thus far] know that America is in deep trouble and on the verge of moral collapse—unless God intervenes.…

Never before have I seen such a sharp rift in the moral and spiritual fabric of our country. The Cross of Christ has become the deep divide between a growing segment of our population that no longer fears God and those who follow Christ as Lord and Savior.

In this secular age, the influence of Biblical principles and values has diminishing impact upon education, government and politics. More young people than ever before claim no religious affiliation at all. We Christians are not just simply tolerated—we are under constant, unrelenting assault for our beliefs and practices.…

I wonder if the handwriting is now on the wall for America. Has God decided that our idolatry, immorality and godlessness has become such a stench in His nostrils that we as a people will experience a harsh form of divine judgment? Have our iniquities grown so foul and vast that we will reap the bitter harvest of our wickedness and rebellion against Almighty God?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do believe that God is able to restore and heal us if we repent of our sins—personal and corporate—and turn to Him in humility and reverence. The Bible tells us that the Lord is patient toward us, “not willing that nay should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (ESV).2

On Tuesday, May 3, 2016, the Decision America Tour came to Nashville, Tennessee. The vast crowd, which is estimated to have been more than 8,600, is pictured at the top of this post.

Franklin Graham led the group in a series of prayers for the United States of America that included a prayer of repentance. What are some of our nation’s sins? Graham mentioned abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender confusion as reflective of a nation that has departed from God’s divine laws and plan. Homosexuality, he lamented, is celebrated and flaunted in our streets. He’s right. Even the federal government is participating in this defiance of God’s law, not only by commemorating and celebrating homosexuality and gay rights, but also by seeking to punish North Carolina for trying to keep men out of women’s restrooms! How low can we descend? I use the pronoun we because this isn’t a responsibility shouldered by the Obama administration alone. It’s a national problem. When Christians are silent about issues like this, we become complicit. We cannot shake our fist in God’s face and then expect Him to bless us as a nation.

Graham further lamented that prayer no longer is allowed in public schools and that the Ten Commandments no longer can be posted in classrooms. Essentially he said we’ve kicked God out of public life, so it’s no wonder we’re facing the challenges we are facing. Our only hope is to return to Almighty God!

He also said,

I’ve had people tell me, “Franklin, America’s gone too far.”

Oh, really? Not if the church comes together and begins to pray! God uses prayer! God gave favor to Nehemiah [as he led a contingent of God’s people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem], and God will give us favor here today! You see, the moral and political walls of our nation are crumbling. Walls are meant for protection, to keep bad people out. Gates can be open, and when threats come, gates can be closed. Our moral walls are down. Any type of wicked thought and activity and teaching can come and go. And our educators, our politicians, and many of our churches, sad to say, are more concerned about political correctness than God’s truth and His righteousness.…3

Christians need to pray, but they need to do more.

You may have come today, and you look at the state of our nation, and you say, “What can we do? What can I do? Be willing, in this next election, to vote! OK? Vote! And vote for candidates that stand for biblical truth and biblical principles, and that are willing to live them.

Some may ask, “Franklin, what would your father have done? Well, I can tell you right now, if my father were my age, and had the strength, he’d be doing exactly the same thing I’m doing. My father said in 1952, “I think it’s the duty of every individual Christian at election time to study the issues and the candidates and then go to the polls and vote.” Listen up, church! He said, “If I were a pastor of a church, I believe I would explain to my people where each candidate stood morally, spiritually, and in relationship to the church.” He said, “I feel that we’re going to have to meet our political obligations as Christians and make our voice known if America is to be preserved with the type of Christian heritage which has given us the liberties and the freedom we now enjoy. For unless America turns back to God, repents of its sin, and experiences spiritual revival, we will fail as a nation.”

I believe God honors leaders in high places who honor Him. Ladies and gentlemen, we need leaders today in high places, we need leaders in public office who’re not afraid or scared to honor Almighty God.4

Here are some highlights of the event from a News 2, WKRN-TV, report (edited slightly for clarity).

“I have zero hope in the Republican Party. I have zero hope in the Democratic Party. The only hope for the United States of America is Almighty God,” Rev. Franklin Graham said.

While not making any endorsements or naming politicians that he might uphold the Christian principles he spoke of, Graham said, [You] “might have to hold your nose on the presidential race,” but “pray to God, then go vote. He will tell you.”

Graham emphasized as well the importance of positions held in local governments such as those of mayor, county commissioners, and city council members. Contests for these offices are vital to changing the tenor and moral climate in America, and they must not be ignored. They need to be filled by godly men and women! The good news is that with God’s mercy and grace as well as the cooperation of His people to uphold his truth in their spheres of influence, there is hope for this nation.

The second of this week’s events is a nationwide observance. Thursday, May 5, is the 65th annual National Day of Prayer. Even though America had observed National Days of Prayer on various occasions before (also see this from WallBuilders), a bill passed Congress in 1952 that called on the president each year to set aside a special day other than Sunday for observing a National Day of Prayer (NDP). President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law and issued a proclamation on June 17, 1952. The first annual NDP took place on Friday, July 4th of that same year. You can read President Truman’s presidential proclamation here. Thirty-six years later, in 1988, an amendment to the law established the first Thursday in May as the nation’s annual NDP.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a non-profit organization promoting the NDP, chose the theme for this year’s event. It couldn’t be more appropriate. The theme calls out, “Wake Up, America!”

The theme is based on Isaiah 58:1: “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.” This verse is printed on a variety of NDP 2016 promotional materials, including t-shirts, flyers, and posters.

Yet we need to know that these materials carry only part of Isaiah 58:1. The entire verse reads,

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

The prophet goes on to write specifically about those sins. You can read his God-breathed words here. As echoed throughout the rest of Scripture as well as in this passage, repentance is necessary for a rebellious people. While the word repent does not appear in the passage, the idea of repentance is prominent (see vv. 9-10).

God’s people were going through the motions of seeking Him without really doing so. No wonder God also inspired Isaiah to write,

These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13).

As we have affirmed, the theme for NDP 2016 could not be more appropriate. The challenge for Christians is twofold. First, we need to confess our own sins and get right with God, and second, we need to faithfully challenge others to repent, as they will never find real solutions to their problems without turning away from their sins and turning to the Lord for forgiveness and eternal life.

As believers, especially in light of Isaiah 58:1, let us first heed the call to make sure we are genuinely living out our faith and seeking and serving God authentically. This includes confessing our overt disobedience to God—but it also involves asking God for forgiveness of subtle sins, including the sin of allowing our relationship with Him to drift and/or to cool. It is all too easy to “go through the motions” of Christianity without really encountering God. Christian singer and songwriter Don Francisco addresses the need for an authentic and practical faith in “Steeple Song.”

Along these same lines, in a sermon that includes an exposition of Isaiah 58, pastor Ray Steadman (1917-1992) quotes James 1:27:  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Then he says,

Someone has written of this,

Pure religion prompts you
To give Dad a more welcome greeting
when he comes home than the dog.
To know if the postman’s wife is sick.
To put the hymnals back in the rack
to save the janitor work.
To speak kindly to your younger brother.
To iron the dress for your sister.
To listen to the troubles of another.
To give away not the unwanted dress
but the one you might wear again.
To remind the Sunday school superintendent
that Mrs. Smith might like to teach.
To help paint your neighbor’s basement.
To make benches for the beginners’ department.
To call the elevator man by his name.
To be on time for meals.

The acid test is not, “What does my religion do for me?” but, “What does it make me do for others?”

In this day of animosity toward God and righteousness, we as believers never have more desperately needed to practice an authentic faith, which includes loving and serving others and boldly declaring God’s truth. Put another way, it isn’t just with our voices that we must call on America to wake up, but also with transformed lives.

In our prayers on this, the 65th annual National Day of Prayer, let us ask the Lord to enable us to faithfully witness in all of these ways.

 

Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Notes:

1Franklin Graham, “Is the Handwriting on the Wall for America?” in Decision magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, (Charlotte, NC, May, 2016), 15.

2Graham

3,4For several hours following the Decision America, Nashville Tennessee Prayer Rally, a video of the proceedings was posted here. Quotations were transcribed from that video.

Image credit: Decision America Tour, Nashville, Tennessee

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Bible quotation marked ESV is from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV® Text Edition: 2011. The ESV® text has been reproduced in cooperation with and by permission of Good News Publishers. Unauthorized reproduction of this publication is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Reflections on Repentance

There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.
—Proverbs 14:12; 16:25—

us_22_u_turns

Repentance means taking a U-turn.

Repentance is a tough sell. For one thing, all people need to hear and heed the call to repent, but only a handful actually do. For another, the message of repentance is difficult to deliver. In fact, more than one of God’s spokesmen in the Bible resisted a divine assignment to preach it.

God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and essentially tell him to repent of holding the Hebrew people in bondage. Moses came up with one excuse after another and obeyed God only after trying His patience and running completely out of “reasons” to turn Him down.

Jonah is the classic example of a reluctant preacher. Did he become that example, at least in part, because God called him to preach repentance? Yet, in the end, even the Ninevites, notoriously wicked though they were, received Jonah’s warning and humbled themselves before the Lord. God spared them, but unfortunately, Jonah didn’t even allow himself to rejoice with God over his hearers’ response. As a result, He had some serious repenting to do himself.

It should not surprise us that repentance is highlighted frequently in the Bible, because no one can be made right with God without it. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments, and with varying degrees of receptivity. In addition to Moses’ and Jonah’s preaching, here are a few examples.

  • Noah had 120 years to build the ark that sheltered him, his family, and two of every species of animal from God’s judgment in the form of widespread deadly floodwaters. During that time, other people also would have been saved had they acknowledged God and His coming judgment—but no one did. Surely Noah urged them to come to safety, for he was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). Acknowledging God in a way that would have compelled a person to step on the ark also would have compelled that person to repent of his or her sins.
  • After King David had committed adultery and murder, Nathan confronted him about his sins. David confessed and repented. God forgave him, but some of the damage could not be reversed, and David reaped bitter fruit in his family relationships thereafter (2 Sam. 12:1-14; Ps. 51).
  • In Jeremiah 7:16-27, the Lord warned Jeremiah that his hearers would not listen but would remain stubborn and unrepentant.
  • Significantly, the message given to John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, was a message of repentance (Matt. 3:1-10; Acts13:24-25). Why did he not first call on people to celebrate or to praise God? Repentance was paramount.
  • Jesus declared that repentance is essential to salvation (see Luke 13:1-5) and that few people would be saved (see Matt.7:13-14).
  • At Pentecost, Peter preached a bold sermon urging people to repent and continued preaching repentance for the rest of his ministry (Acts 2:38-41; 3:19-21; 5:29-31; 8:18-23; 11:1-18; 2 Pet. 3:9).
  • Paul preached repentance during his entire ministry as well (see Acts 17:30 20:21; 26:19-20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; 12:21; 2 Tim. 2:24-26).

Why is repentance so widely avoided? As Scripture declares, Satan has blinded people to the truth (see 2 Cor. 4:3-4). Perhaps one way he does this is by promoting a short-term perspective.

Imagine you are a grain of sand in the top portion of an hourglass. In this imaginary scenario you are not accompanied by other grains of sand but are by yourself. You enjoy plenty of space and lots of latitude; you call the shots. Traveling downward through the narrow neck of the hourglass is, for the purposes of our illustration, representative of repentance. All you can see as you look down that path is restriction of your freedom, loss of independence, and an end to any and all enjoyment in life. Will you go that way? “Never!” You tell yourself.

Yet in reality, what lies beyond the narrow neck? A new, wide world of opportunity! A world of freedom, though here we clearly are talking about a different kind of freedom than the one you now know. Yes, the new world involves guidelines for holy living, but it also involves a new outlook that chances your desires.

A person certainly can repent and enter the new arena without prior knowledge of the new kind of freedom that will be his on the other side. Indeed, he can’t know a great deal about it (see 1 Cor. 2:14). He must first understand how hopeless his situation is without Christ because of the requirements of God’s law (see Gal. 3:24). Still, in addition to this, if more sinners caught glimpses of the other side, they might more readily turn to God. Only God can convict them and convince them of such truths, so we need to pray He would do so. Here are some declarations and observations that capture aspects of the new arena—and that describe the old one. Let’s look at some Scripture passages first, then some quotations from various Christian leaders.

Scripture Places the Two Arenas in Stark Contrast

  • Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He also said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
  • Jesus also declared, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).
  • These statements of Jesus also are especially pertinent to our discussion: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and by burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
  • In Romans 7:15-24, Paul wrote of being enslaved to his fleshly nature (note that this passage climaxes with a cry of desperation from the apostle): “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then, in 7:25–8:2, Paul wrote with obvious joy, “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” Freedom on the other side of repentance? Yes! Jesus makes this a reality for those who trust Him and rely on Him for strength for daily living!

Christian Leaders Give Insights Regarding the Two Arenas

  • Ravi Zacharias said, “Jesus Christ did not come into this world to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live” ([Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], 219). Thus, the top half of the hourglass represents death, and the bottom half (the world after repentance), life.
  • Josh McDowell has said that many people think of freedom as being able to go out and do whatever they want to do, but that isn’t freedom at all. True freedom is having the power to do what you ought to do. The top portion of the hourglass, then, is a world of restrictions that seem like freedom, and the bottom is an arena of freedom that seems overly restrictive to the many who aren’t there.
  • In a Christmas sermon, Dr. Francis Schaeffer declared (note especially the statement we have italicized): “When we perceive the simplicity and yet the grandeur of what is involved, we are overwhelmed. The second person of the Trinity lies in the manger for a reason. Because He loves the world, He has come not just to eliminate the peripheral results of man’s fall (though these will be totally removed at His second coming); He is here to cut the nerve of man’s real dilemma, to solve the problem from which all other problems flow. The ‘condition of man’ is not what modern man thinks it is. Man is a sinner who needs an overwhelming love. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins. This is not to say that He has no interest in…other things now, but we must not get the matters reversed—the central thing is central” (Francis Schaeffer, “What Difference Has Looking Made? (A Christmas Study)” No Little People, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 3: A Christian View of Spirituality, [Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982] 123-124). While with God’s help, the sinner repents—he or she turns away from sin to God—God brings about a transformation in that person’s life on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. This is why Jesus came into the world. Among other things, therefore, repentance involves a recognition of the true condition of the human heart.
  • Note the words to the second stanza of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” by German theologian Joachim Neander (1650-1680). Especially notice the italicized words.

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what he ordaineth?

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, repentance will remain important, but I believe it will even take on an unprecedented urgency for our nation. As believers, we affirm that no one can get to the new world of life, freedom, and opportunity without repenting of his or her sins and trusting Christ as Savior. We affirm as well that America, as a nation, is at a crossroads. She will not survive as a free country if her people do not experience a spiritual awakening that involves repentance. Let us boldly declare the message of repentance in the context of the gospel given to us by our Lord, and let us remain confident concerning its message.

Restrictive though it may seem, genuine repentance leads to authentic freedom.

 

Copyright © 2015 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.