AMENDMENT OF LIFE
A Sermon by Rev. Daniel W. Heinrichs
Preached in Boynton Beach, Florida (cataloged 8/11/97)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: `Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place'” (Jeremiah 7:3).
The Word teaches that repentance is the first thing of the church in man. We read: “The communion called the church consists of all people in whom the church is, and the church enters into man when one is becoming regenerated, and everyone becomes regenerate by abstaining from the evils of sin, and shunning them as one would an infernal horde with torches in hand, endeavoring to overtake him and throw him upon a burning pile. There are many means by which man, as he progresses in his early years, is prepared for the church and introduced into it; but the means whereby the church is established in man are acts of repentance” (TCR 510, emphasis added).
The truth of the statement just quoted is amply illustrated by the story of Israel as it unfolds in the Old Testament. The Word was given to that nation a revelation of the Lord Himself, given to them through the prophets. In it He taught them how they ought to live in order to fulfill the covenant made with their forefathers. He gave them commandments of life containing things they were required to do, and things they were forbidden to do.
To all appearances they accepted this revelation. They regarded it as holy and were at great pains to protect it and preserve it. They were very strict in observing the rituals of worship which were laid down. Through their zealous adherence to their God, Jehovah, they made an impact on their neighbors far beyond their numerical size and strength, and their political importance. According to historians, it was their fanatical devotion to the worship of Jehovah that brought this numerically insignificant nation into prominence among their neighbors.
Despite their reputation for devotion and zeal, the Jewish Church never became a church in the true sense of the word. The Writings refer to it as a “representative of a church” (AC 2910:3). The reason given for this designation is that there was no internal charity within its worship. Therefore the Lord spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah, saying: “Do not trust in these lying words, saying: `The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these’… Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other Gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say: `We are delivered to do all these abominations’? `Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? `Behold I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord” (Jer. 7:9-11).
It is charity that makes a church to be a church. The quality of a church is according to the quality of the charity among those who constitute the church, just as it is the quality of a person’s loves which determines one’s character. Worship and instruction are means leading to the church and introducing man into it. But it is repentance, or amendment of life, which establishes it. Therefore the Lord said to Israel: “If you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor; if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever” (Jer. 7:5-7). In the Word the land of Canaan represents the church. To dwell in the land of Canaan means to have the church established within oneself.
While the doctrine of repentance is well known in the Christian Church both in the Old and New yet it is not a particularly appealing doctrine. People would rather focus their attention on the more positive aspects of religion: the acknowledgment of God, participation in public worship and the doing of good works. Repentance, or the shunning of evil, involves combat against our natural and instinctive loves; it is seemingly a battle against ourselves. We are naturally disinclined to resist our natural tendencies, for this calls for self-examination, a condemnation of self, and a struggle requiring self-control and self-discipline. Our inclination is to avoid this struggle is we can or, possibly, to postpone it to a later stage in life when we imagine spiritual trials will be less severe.
We may resort to rationalization in our attempts to avoid coming to grips with spiritual reality by asserting that religion is essentially a positive thing while repentance is negative. We may persuade ourselves that if we acknowledge the Lord, worship Him, and do good to the neighbor, then the Lord will forgive us for the evils we do. He will see that we are basically good.
To illustrate the prevalence of the tendency to rationalize on this issue, it is a matter of record that some prominent church leaders have advocated dropping the Ten Commandments from the church liturgy on the grounds that they are negative rather than positive, Judaic and not Christian. They are blamed for making religion unpopular with young people because they consist mainly of prohibitions. Some have even gone so far as to claim that some of the commandments of the Decalogue are no longer relevant, that they are a reflection of the moral standards of a bygone age.
In connection with this view of the Ten Commandments, we would note that the Lord was once approached and asked: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” The Lord replied: “Why do you call Me good? There is none good but one, and that is God; but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:16, 17, emphasis added).
In saying this the Lord Himself established the Ten Commandments as the basis of a spiritual and moral life for the Christian Church. It is interesting to observe that the man asked: “What good thing shall I do?” rather than: “What evils should I shun?” The young man’s saying this is confirmation of the fact that we are inherently disposed to believe that we merit salvation by the doing of good rather than by the shunning of evil. The Lord’s answer, however, dispels this illusion and establishes the fact that heavenly life is imparted to a person as a result of keeping the Lord’s commandments, for He went on to enumerate, in answer to a further question, what evils must be shunned. Jesus said: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness” (Matt. 19:18).
In certain states of life and at certain times, the doctrine of repentance may discourage and depress us and dampen our enthusiasm for the life of religion. But let us realize that it is nevertheless a rational necessity. Perhaps if we better understand why it is so necessary we may adopt an affirmative response to this doctrine, and thus embark willingly and wholeheartedly upon the road to eternal life through the gateway of repentance.
The key to understanding the necessity for repentance is contained in the Lord’s answer to the man who asked Him what good thing he could do to have eternal life. The Lord prefaced His answer with a remark which at first appears to be irrelevant, but which, in fact, is basic to a correct understanding of the matter. He said: “Why do you call Me good? There is none good but one, that is God.”
The man believed that man, of himself, can do good. He did not know that the person he was speaking to was God incarnate. He addressed him as “teacher.” The Lord, perceiving the man’s opinion of Him, pointed out that God alone is good. Goodness cannot rightly be predicated of man.
This is a fundamental truth: The Lord alone is good! We, of ourselves, can do nothing that is good. We can do good only from the Lord. In fact, since the fall of the Most Ancient Church, man of himself apart from the Lord can do nothing but evil. The fall of the human race from its original state of integrity came about as a result of man’s attributing to himself what he receives from God. That is, he ascribed wisdom, intelligence and goodness to himself instead of acknowledging that he receives these from the Lord. Thus the interiors of his mind were turned away from the Lord toward self. Human nature became perverted.
The Word teaches that man, by inheritance, tends toward evils of every kind. Every evil which is indulged in by a person is passed on to the next generation as a tendency, and so on successively generation after generation. The rampant moral disorders and violence that pervade modern society are stark confirmation of this truth.
As noted in our opening quotation, during childhood and youth we are prepared for entering into the church or for regeneration. Through instruction and worship we learn what is good and true, and what is evil and false. We learn to distinguish between them. But though we know what is good, that does not mean that we will it. Intellectually we may prefer good to evil because we see the consequences of each. But instinctively we desire evil because it appeals to our hereditary nature.
Good and evil are opposites. They cannot be together. They mutually repel each other. Evils must, therefore, be put away or shunned in order that good, which we from reason prefer, may be received. In establishing this point we would quote this vivid and picturesque passage from the True Christian Religion. The question is asked: “Who can introduce sheep and kids and lambs into fields or woods where there are all kinds of wild beasts? Who can make a garden out of a piece of ground that is overgrown with thorns, briars and nettles before he has rooted out those noxious weeds? Who can establish a mode of administering justice according to judicial practices in a city held by hostile forces … before he has expelled those forces? It is the same with evils in man. They are like wild beasts, like thorns and briars, and like hostile forces; and the church can no more have a common abode with evils than a man can dwell in a cage where there are tigers and leopards, or sleep in a bed with poisonous herbs strewed upon it and stuffed into the pillows” (TCR 511).
The life which leads to heaven begins with repentance, or amendment of life. There is no other way. As long as we refuse to shun evils as sins, or avoid doing so, we cannot do good that is really good. No matter how active we are in performing uses to others, no matter how diligently we worship the Lord, we are not doing good, for this apparent good is tainted by evils at the source. The Lord said that a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit (see Matt. 7:17,18). Pure water cannot be drawn from a polluted river.
Let us take to heart these words of the Lord, uttered from Divine mercy, for our benefit: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the oppressor! Defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18). Amen.
Lessons: Luke 15:1,11-32, Jeremiah 7:1-11, AC 8387-8391
Arcana Coelestia 8387-8391
He who wishes to be saved must confess his sins and do repentance.
To confess sins is to become thoroughly acquainted with evils, to see them in oneself, to acknowledge them, to regard oneself as guilty, and to condemn oneself on account of them. When this is done before God, it is to confess sins.
To do repentance is, after one has thus confessed his sins and from a humble heart has made supplication for their forgiveness, to desist from them and to lead a new life according to the commands of faith.
He who merely acknowledges that he is a sinner like all others, and who regards himself as guilty of all evils, and does not examine himself that is, see his sins does indeed make confession, but not the confession of repentance, for he lives afterward as he had done before.
He who leads a life of faith does repentance daily; for he reflects upon the evils that are in him, acknowledges them, guards himself against them, and supplicates the Lord for aid. For from himself man is continually falling, but is continually being raised up by the Lord. He falls from himself when he thinks what is evil with desire; and he is raised up by the Lord when he resists evil, and consequently does not do it. Such is the state with all who are in good; but they who are in evil are continually falling, and also are continually being uplifted by the Lord; but this to prevent them from falling into the most grievous hell of all, whither from themselves they incline with all their might: thus uplifting them into a milder hell.