This morning I was thinking about how the gospel never begins with what we do for God, but what God has done for us. Even the exhortations to repent and believe are not the start of the gospel. The call to repent and believe in Christ is the end of the gospel, the conclusion, what we do once we have been introduced to what God has done.
When we hear Jesus begin his ministry with, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” just because the word “repent” comes first in the sentence does not mean it comes first in the gospel. Even in this sentence, Jesus is telling us to do something “for” or “because” something else is already in effect.
In other words, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is near, is at work all around the people in that space and time, repent and receive the good news! First the people get to experience all that Jesus meant by, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and then they are called to respond to all this work of God in repentance and faith.
This comes out even clearer in Marks record, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” What does it mean “the time is fulfilled”? It means that the people Jesus was talking to were already expecting a “time”. They were expecting something to happen in the timing of God. This thing is “fulfilled,” meaning that the people already expected certain things that were prophesied. When Jesus began his ministry, he was preaching to people who already had in mind what God would do, they just didn’t know when he would do it.
Once people are exposed to the fulfillment of prophecy, the things that were happening just as God said they would take place, the things that brought the kingdom of God “at hand,” the people could then be called to “repent and believe in the gospel.” First “the gospel”, then “repent and believe”.
Why is this so important to the church? Because there is a dangerous pattern of thinking we are beginning with the gospel, but then basing church-life on good works. When Christians struggle with anything, the focus is on what we are supposed to do about it. I have witnessed situations where people have experienced tremendous grief over unresolved inner trauma, and were told they just had to repent and believe. This, of course, added more trauma, since the person’s struggle was already based on how hopeless they felt about doing anything right, and now they were being told that their only hope of getting out of the trauma was getting something right.
However, in the gospel, the message is, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” meaning, the kingdom of God is here to help you, and save you, and deliver you, and heal you. This remains true all through the life of the church. Is something wrong in your life? Do you see how near the kingdom of God is to help you? Can I tell you more? Can I speak to the deepest needs of your soul and remind you of the gospel, the good news of a work of righteousness that depends one hundred percent on the work of God? Can I tell you how the gospel applies to what you are going through, and how the grace of God expressed in Christ is here to help you find God in the midst of the pain, and the worthlessness, and the sin, and the hopelessness?
A consistent pattern in ministry has been the discovery that the common struggles among God’s children are symptomatic of some way that people do not know Jesus. The reason they keep falling into the same sins is because there is some part of them that has not encountered Jesus. The reason they can never do the right thing when they are given a works-based solution, is because that part of them has not seen enough of the gospel, and enough of the grace of the kingdom of God, in fact, has not seen the kingdom of God at all in that part of their soul. To be told to just repent and believe is impossible.
In fact, it is not God’s way. The starting place is to minister the kingdom of God to them; to show them what it means that the kingdom of God is at hand. As they see what is taking place by the Spirit of God, by the grace of God, expressing the love of God, then they can be told that it is theirs if they would repent of the fleshly ways they have been handling things, and receive the gift of God by faith.
Any time that repentance sounds like the work we do to get God to do something, we are not dealing with the gospel. The gospel always brings the kingdom of God so near to us that we can see it in its shimmering glory, and once we clearly see it, we are given the invitation to enter this kingdom, not by good works, but by the childlike, restful, surrender of repentance and faith.
It is of great interest to me that, when Peter spoke on the Day of Pentecost, he did not suddenly begin proclaiming, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Did he says those things? Yes, but only at the end of his gospel proclamation. First he told the people how the kingdom of God was at hand.
How was the kingdom of God at hand? The Holy Spirit had just been poured out on the church as Jesus’ promised. Everyone in the vicinity knew something had taken place, because the Spirit’s coming was with “a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” As a result, “divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
The point is that something happened. It was a God-thing. It was a “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” moment. Jesus said he would send the Spirit upon the church, and this was the kingdom-moment in space, time, and matter when the prophesy was fulfilled. The people in Jerusalem heard that something was taking place, and “at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” As a result, “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
Peter still didn’t say, “repent and believe the gospel”. Instead this situation gave Peter the opportunity to explain what was happening, to make absolutely clear that this was about the kingdom of heaven coming near in the person and work of the Holy Spirit, who was demonstrating the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Peter’s preaching of the gospel was part of the necessary work of God to first present the good news of the kingdom in such clarity that everyone could know what they were dealing with.
When Peter essentially concluded his sermon by declaring, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified,” God had given ample demonstration and explanation that “the kingdom of God is at hand”. Now everyone would respond to what was so clearly offered to them by the Living God.
Let it also be clear, before looking at how the people responded, that we are still talking about people who were already expecting something like this to happen. In other words, they already knew who the true God was. They were already “believers” in the sense of believing what the Scriptures said about God’s promise to Abraham, and his covenant with Israel through Moses. They had all the law, and they had all the prophets, and they were walking in their best understanding of the religion that had been handed down to them from their forefathers. They did not need to be convinced about creation, or about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the only true God.
What they needed to know is that all the hopes given in the first covenant were now fulfilled in the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. The kingdom of heaven was at hand as never before. What would they do about it?
So, what happened? “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” The reason the people wanted to know what to do was because they clearly understood that the kingdom of God was at hand. Once that is clear, doing something is quite in order. Until that is clear, doing something is impossible.
Peter’s answer was synonymous with, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”In the words he was given, he declared, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 
Why were the people told to “repent and be baptized”, synonymous with, “repent and believe in the gospel”? Because they had already witnessed that the kingdom of God was at hand. They had seen the evidence of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the clear preaching of the gospel that led them to feel conviction for their sin of killing the Messiah, and the understanding that they had to do something because they did not have the kingdom. They could understand it was near, and they wanted to enter it, but they didn’t know what to do. That is when repentance and faith are explained.
I simply contend that, in the same way as this works for our salvation, leading us into the justification that is by grace through faith, is the way it works in our sanctification, which is also by grace through faith.
In fact, isn’t that the exact pattern of God’s work. First a person must witness and experience some expression of the grace of God, which is God’s active favor towards us, spurred on only by the love that is in God, and nothing good that is in us. When a believer is struggling with things in his or her life that has not yet seen or experienced the grace of God, we do not first focus on what they need to do, but on how to lead them to see what God is doing.
It is when they see what God is doing, often in a Scripture that promises what God will do for them, that we can then encourage them to freely receive what is so freely given. Until we show them God’s work of grace in some personal way, any challenge to do something is only going to feel like a return to law, stirring up the flesh to sinful passions and desires, and leading to the kind of failure that fuels the worthlessness and hopelessness that already resides inside.
One more Scripture that shows this pattern is when Paul told the church to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, FOR it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
See that? In Paul’s sentence, the exhortation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” comes first, but the word “for” is telling us the reason for this, or what comes before us working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
What comes first, that does something in us, that then we can be called do our part? God is already working in us. No one can work anything out in their own lives without experiencing whatever God is working in them. This work includes working “to will” and working “to work”. Prior to us having the will to do God’s will, or stepping out in any activity to work God’s work, there has to be this reality, and this experience, that God is working in us.
This is the good news from beginning to end. “We love because he first loved us” is true in everything God does, and everything we do. First people must feel God loving them, even into these deep, hidden, traumatized, parts of their souls. Then they will feel what God is working in them to will to do, and what he is working in them to work to do.
The conclusion of the matter is, if any of us are struggling with any kind of sin-problem, any kind of feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, or anything that is more similar to the fruit of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit, call out to God. Don’t tell him what you will do for him; ask him what he is doing for you. You are the child, he is the Father, ask him what he is doing. Tell him your hopelessness, and your inability to do what he wants (“blessed are the meek”). As he reveals new facets of his kingdom, it will not be long before you see what he wants you to do to join him in his work.
And, you can be quite sure that joining God in his work will always include something to repent of (since we have been operating in the flesh), and something that requires faith (since it will always be a God-sized work).
Perhaps this post has been a way God is showing you how “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Ask God to make very clear to you how you can join him in the kingdom work he is doing.
© 2015 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~ email@example.com
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)
 Matthew 4:17
 Mark 1:15 This is no discrepancy from what Matthew wrote. Don’t forget that Jesus was saying this same thing over and over again, everywhere he went. That doesn’t mean he used only one rote phrase, but that he kept teaching the same thing everywhere he went, using slightly different words each time.
We do this all the time. When something happens, and we tell it to different groups of people (family, friends, co-workers, etc), we tell the same story each time, even though we don’t use the exact same recited speech. So, Jesus taught the same things everywhere he went, but not using a rote script that he recited word for word. After all, he is the Word of God! If anyone knew how to say the same thing in many different ways, it was him!
 Acts 2:38 (Acts 2:1-47 is the whole context I will be referring to in this post)
 Acts 2:2
 Acts 2:3-4
 Acts 2:6
 Acts 2:12
 Romans 1:16
 Acts 2:36
 Acts 2:37
 Mark 1:15
 Acts 2:38-39
 Romans 7 makes clear the connection between the law, the flesh, and the way sin takes advantage of both.
 Philippians 2:12-13
 I John 4:19
 Matthew 5:5
 I mean this all in the context of someone living as a member of the body of Christ, where Jesus is also working to move his whole body to use their spiritual gifts to serve one another in love. The way God may be doing his work for us may connect with something he is doing in someone else for our ministry.