“People Of Confession And Repentance” Nehemiah 9 2/3/02
SI: Chapter 9 is a long chapter but it is a great chapter.
One more thing that happens when God brings spiritual revival to His people.
Going to read in sections, start with verses 1-26,
going to skip the names of the Levites in verses 4 & 5
“I have sinned against you; please forgive me.”
“I have wronged you; please forgive me.”
Those are the most difficult words in the world to speak.
If you have ever said them,
you know that it is literally hard to make them come out of your mouth.
It feels like you are ripping your heart out to say them.
If you do manage to force them out, some little qualification almost always
slips out with them, some excuse, or maybe a little joke to lighten things up.
Most people never say, “I have wronged you; please forgive me.”
Instead, if they have to say something, they use a feeble substitute for those
words that isn’t as hard to say like—
“I’m sorry for hurting you.” or “I feel bad about what I did.” or “I apologize.”
Now words like that have a time and place, but they aren’t even close
to the soul-wrenching words, “I have sinned against you; please forgive me.”
If you are able to say those words, and you can only say them truly with God’s help,
then you are giving no excuses for the wrong you have done,
you are not shifting the blame, not pleading extenuating circumstances,
or pleading your own weakness.
You are acknowledging your complete liability.
Furthermore, by asking for forgiveness, you are implying that you hate
what you have done and that you vow, not only not to do it again,
but to pursue restitution and reconciliation with all your might.
And you throw yourself on the mercy of the person you have wronged.
Let’s look at our Bible reading.
Remember what happened in Nehemiah 8.
The wall had been completed and the people gathered for an assembly.
At that assembly, Ezra and the Levites read and preached the Law of God.
And the people began to weep. Wept over sins and consequences of sin.
But Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites stopped them from weeping.
This is to be a day of feasting and celebration of the Lord’s goodness, dry tears.
So the people did. Celebrated for a solid week the Feast of Booths.
The joy of the Lord was their strength. Lots of solemn and confident Amens.
In Chapter 9, the week of feasting is over, and Jews hold another assembly.
This was not a feast but a fast. This was a day to turn their joy into mourning.
They put on sackcloth and put dust on their heads (sign of mourning)
And after listening to the Word of God read and preached.
They confessed their sins to God, expressed their repentance,
and called on God for mercy.
An godly Bible scholar from the 1800s, Matthew Henry calls Nehemiah 9
“A day to afflict the soul.”
Doesn’t that sound out of step with American Christianity?
We have conferences to build our self-esteem.
But the Old Testament church, when God began to revive, assembled
for a day to afflict their souls.
Few things are more necessary for spiritual revival in your heart,
in your home, in your marriage, and in your church than and understanding
that as Christians, God has called us to be a people of confession and repentance.
Spiritual revival is impossible without confession and repentance.
Confession and repentance first of all to God—then, of course, to people wronged
This is a huge topic in Scripture. Impossible to cover every angle in one sermon.
So we are going to focus on Nehemiah 9, what this particular day
of confession and repentance teaches us today.
For note takers, going to examine this chapter and topic under three key words:
Honesty, Holiness, and Help
TRANS: Before we jump into this, I want to give you of two doctrinal
categories so that you understand from the beginning what this chapter is about.
If you get these categories mixed up, this chapter, everything I say confusing.
There are two kinds of repentance.
The first kind you do only once as a Christian.
The other kind you do over and over.
The first one is called by all the old theologians “repentance unto life.”
This is the repentance that takes place at your conversion, beginning of life.
When a sinful rebel, under the wrath of God the Judge, throws himself
on God’s mercy and says, “O God, I am a damned sinner, forgive me for the sake
of Your Son Jesus who died for me. I repent of all my sins.”
This repentance never has to be repeated because God says, “I forgive you.”
And He makes you His son. You are no longer a convict before the Judge.
This repentance is not what this chapter is about.
The second kind of repentance we will call “repentance for restoration.”
This is the repentance that takes place over and over in the Christian life.
When a Christian sins, it separates him from His experience of fellowship
with his heavenly Father. The Christian is still a son of God, but estranged.
The longer and more deliberately a Christian sins, longer puts off repentance,
the more and more distant God becomes, harder life becomes.
Only by repentance is the relationship restored.
Westminster Confession puts it this way:
Christians can never fall from grace, lose salvation “yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.”
This is the repentance that Nehemiah 9 is about.
About the repentance of God’s people who have wandered, experienced His fatherly displeasure, and who seek to have their relationship with God restored.
You must honestly confess that you believe God’s assessment of your life.
The Bible teaches that God, in His infinite love, has filled your life with good
things, but you have responded to His goodness with sinful ingratitude.
You have to confess that honestly to Him.
If you say, Yes, I know God is good and I know I did wrong but . . .
Then you aren’t being honest.
You don’t really believe God is all good. You believe He has a mean streak.
And you don’t believe your sin is all your fault.
Look at the way the Jews expressed this with the help of the Levites.
What we have in verses 1-26 is a magnificent summary of the history
of God’s dealings with the people of Israel from call of Abraham to conquest.
Mention all the great things in between—deliverance from Egypt, desert.
What do the Jews say about God? What do they confess to believe about Him?
Wow! Again and again and again they say that the Lord lavishly poured out
His goodness on His chosen people.
vs. 9 He saw their suffering in Egypt and sent miraculous signs do deliver.
Parted the Red Sea, in the desert gave water, food, protection, guidance,
His good laws for a peaceful and prosperous society.
Then He brought them to the Promised Land—gave them all surrounding lands.
Then gave them the land of Canaan, fully furnished—cities, houses, farms,
wells, vineyards, olive groves.
The Lord was absolutely unwavering in his commitment to bless Israel on account
of His promise to Abraham.
So the Jews on this day of fasting confess over and over with specific examples,
God is good. God is good to us.
And how did Israel respond to God?
Every act of love on God’s part was met and matched by one of disloyalty
on the part of His people.
Look at some examples:
They describe the Egyptians who enslaved them as “arrogant”
Remember Pharaoh’s response to Moses. Who is your God slave?
But verse 16 says that after they were delivered by God, Israel became
“arrogant” and “stiff necked”
they made a golden calf, wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt.
Verse 25, after a vivid description of the land God had given them,
“They reveled in your great goodness . . . But, they were disobedient.”
When times were good they were at their worst.
By recounting the sins of their ancestors, the Jews were not shifting blame,
“Look how ungrateful they were back then.”
They were acknowledging, “We are their children.”
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
God is just as good to us and we have been just as determined to say,
“To hell with your laws, I’ll live how I want to live. I’ll use my body as I want.
I’ll do what I want to with the stuff I have.”
Even though God in His goodness had given them all these things.
You haven’t taken the first step of confession if you are in any way blaming God
for what you consider to be your bad life, disappointments in your life.
If you are bitter toward other people, blaming them, that is really just a way
of indirectly blaming God. He put them in you life.
If you say, God is good but . . .
then you don’t really believe He is good. You aren’t being honest.
You think He is mean.
You haven’t taken the first step of confession if you are blaming anyone but
yourself for your sinful actions, words, and thoughts.
If you say, “I’ve done wrong, but . . .”
then you don’t really believe you are entirely responsible.
You will never be revived spiritually in heart, home, church
if you can’t honestly confess two things—
God’s consistent goodness to you, His goodness overflowing in every way
and your consistent ingratitude toward Him.
But when you do, as the Jews did on this day to afflict the soul,
then the door is open to spiritual revival.
Have you confessed God’s goodness and your ingratitude?
Your confession of sin must be combined with the pursuit of a life of holiness.
Holiness includes two aspects—hatred of sin, love of God and His law.
If you just confess your sin, but you don’t strive after holiness,
you have not truly repented.
A confession of sin that does not include a determination to pursue a life
of holiness is not a true confession, it is a foolish presumption on God’s grace.
That kind of hollow confession (confession without repentance)
will not lead to spiritual revival, instead, it will further estrange you from God
and cause lots of needless pain in your life.
God is holy. Jesus Christ is holy. He saved you to be holy.
To get right with Him, to be revived and restored spiritually,
you must pursue holiness. It is inseparable from repentance.
Look at the way the Jews expressed this.
What we have in verses 27 – 31 is a history of God’s disciplinary dealings
with his ungrateful people.
God’s discipline follows a cycle. The people of Israel would sin.
The Lord would let them go their way for a time, then he would discipline them.
His discipline would come in the form of foreign oppression (droughts, plagues)
They would cry out, confess their sins, and God would life their oppression.
After things get back to normal, they would go right back to the same old things.
The were arrogant in their disobedience. Confessed when things were tough.
But never made a commitment to holiness—to hate sin and love God and His law
Place you see this most vividly in the Bible is the book of Judges.
Judges were sent by God to deliver the people when they were oppressed
because of their sin.
The judges would deliver, but after they were gone, the people sinned again.
So God’s discipline became more and more severe.
Eventually He brought the nation to complete defeat and captivity.
Two truths that come from this history of God’s discipline.
1. There is something called presuming on the grace of God.
It happens when a believer looks at the infinite goodness of God,
and all His promises to believers, assurance of salvation,
and foolishly imagines that he can ask God for forgiveness
but make no changes in his life.
One of the criticisms Protestants sometimes make of Catholics concerns
the Catholic sacrament of confession.
The believer confesses his sins to a priest, performs penance, absolution.
Protestants say, Catholics go into the confessional, get forgiven,
then they can live like they want to all week. It’s all external.
That is not what the Catholic church really teaches about confession.
It does not teach that confession is just a matter of external motions,
just talking to the priest and saying a few Our Fathers.
Requires commitment to holiness
Listen to the Catholic Catechism on this point:
“Jesus call to . . . penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false . . .”
“Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.”
There are some serious problems with the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession,
and it can lead to the very abuse that Protestants have pointed out.
But my point is this: Don’t we Protestants fall into the very same thing we accuse
the Catholics of doing? Going through outward motions of repentance, no change
Isn’t this especially true of evangelical Christians?
We have emphasized the grace of God to the point of distortion
so that we think we just have to say the right words in private prayer
(see—we don’t need a priest, we can ask God ourselves for forgiveness)
and ta-da, we are forgiven and right with God.
Do you think you can drop all your sins on God in a prayer on Sunday morning
or in your private devotions and then live a basically unchanged life?
God does forgive His children in an instant. He does forgive in a single prayer.
You don’t even have to pray in words.
He forgives you when you just groan over your sins by the prompting of Spirit.
In our Communion service, often urge you in the prayer before Table
to get right with God, repent of your sin and rebellion.
Reason I say that is because it is possible in that moment.
You don’t have to confess to a priest, have High Priest Jesus Christ.
But that prayer must be accompanied by a determination to live a life of holiness.
Must be filled with a hatred for sin and a love for following God’s law in life.
Anything less is presumption and will not lead to revival.
But to the very same cycle the Israelites fell into.
2. Presuming on God’s grace leads to lots of needless suffering.
The Jews, in their confession, drew a direct line from their disobedience
to the agony they suffered at the hand of the invaders.
They recognized that their suffering was God’s fatherly hand of discipline.
They also recognized that God would have gladly, at any time lifted His hand.
No good parents like to spank their children.
But the Lord was certainly willing to punish them again and again,
harder and harder until they got the point.
Sometimes God brings things into your life that hurt you but they are not discipline.
They are meant to stretch your faith.
Peter, writing to Christians who were slaves. Sometimes suffer for good.
But if you get a beating for doing wrong, what credit is that to you?
I watch some of you in this church suffer and your suffering is needless.
You bring it on yourself by your refusal to live a holy life.
You go through the motions of repentance, but then go back to the same patterns.
And you wonder why you are hurting.
Do you think that God the Father, with His great love for you,
will ever quit holding you accountable?
The reason you may be suffering is because you are presuming on God’s grace.
You have not really repented, you might have said the words,
but you don’t hate your sin and love the righteous life God has called you to.
Maybe it is that mouth of yours that is causing your suffering.
You use filthy language, harsh language, gossip, talk too much
God has disciplined you for it. You’ve gotten in trouble. Repercussions. Hurt
You’ve said “I’m sorry.” But have never really pursued holiness.
Never hated your sinful tongue, determined to use your words to build other up.
Until you do, more and more pain.
Maybe it is sexual sin.
God has disciplined you. Maybe discipline still gentle at this point.
You’ve felt pangs of guilt and have asked for forgiveness.
But you have fallen again. Because don’t hate your sin.
Haven’t determined to follow God’s law.
Unwilling to take even basic steps necessary to guard yourself against temptation.
Unwilling to confess to those people you have wronged.
And you wonder, why am I hurting so much?
Why is this tender, private part of life that could be so wonderful so empty
Maybe you sin with your money.
Some of you are stingy and some of you are wasteful.
Maybe God has disciplined you, brought financial pain on account of sin.
And maybe you have recognized that this is an area of life have not
submitted to God. And you have asked forgiveness because desperate.
Maybe God has given you a little breathing room, opportunity to change things.
But as soon as you feel some room, you go back to the same habits
of stinginess or wastefulness.
Unwilling to use your money to the glory of God. Give sacrifically, live simply.
Could go on and on. You get the idea.
If you are hurting from your sin. That is God’s gracious discipline.
Confess. Repent. Determine to live in holiness.
Hate your sin. Love the path of obedience that God has laid before you.
Whenever you confess your sins honestly, desire to live a holy life,
the Lord’s help is at hand.
This is a sobering chapter but it ends with a great encouragement.
Don’t want you to be discouraged, especially if you are hurting because of your sin.
The Lord is tender toward the suffering of His people,
even if it is His own hand of discipline on you.
Jews end this day of repentance by making one request of God.
“Don’t let our suffering seem trifling in your eyes.” We’re hurting, look at us.
In this request they make no excuses, no defenses, they come clean before God.
We have been wrong, we have brought this on ourselves,
You, O Lord are right in all your discipline, but we are hurting.
Look and us. Don’t let this seem trifling in your eyes.
They don’t tell God how they think He ought to change things, just want His look.
Because they know how God has treated His people in the past.
Know He always restores them when they come in humble repentance.
Now my dear friends, if the Old Testament saints could come with that confidence.
Think how much more confident you can be!
Because you can look back and see the greatest display of the Father’s love—
He sent His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to die for you.
He loves His chosen people that much.
For the Jews in Nehemiah’s time, the coming Messiah was a shadowy hope,
for you it is a firm reality. You have seen the love of Jesus. You know Him!
Every one of you here has experienced His love in tangible ways.
On the basis of Christ’s love and sacrifice, can say to Father in heaven,
I know I’m under your discipline—but I’m hurting, look at me for Jesus’ sake—
and He will!
No matter how far you feel you are from God. No matter how hard you have been.
No matter how heavy His hand of discipline has been upon you.
If you call out to Him. He will hear you and begin to heal and revive you.
An old hymn says:
If with sore affliction Thou in love chastise,
Pour thy benediction On the sacrifice;
Then upon thy altar Freely offered up,
Though the flesh may falter, Faith shall drink the cup.
Do you believe that? Do you believe that God in His love chastises you?
Do you believe that God wants you to confess His goodness and your ingratitude?
Do you believe that He wants you to live a holy life before Him?
Do you believe that He stands ready to help you, and that the greatest proof
of His tender love is the sacrifice of His own Son to deliver you from sin?
If you believe that, if we believe that, then we will be a people of confession
and repentance and we will enjoy the revival of our hearts, homes, church.