THE GIFT YOU SHOULD RETURN
1 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
2 Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3 Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” 4 I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 6 his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. 7 They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
8 O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. 9 Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.
— Hosea 14:1-9, ESV
We Americans seem to be unsatisfied with our Christmas gifts. Returns have risen rapidly for the past decade. Last year over half of us returned one or more gifts and over one-third of total gifts were returned by January 1.
Of course, some gifts never get returned, like cash, the twelve-year-old bourbon, and the new car in the snowy driveway with the big red bow. Other gifts are often returned. The most common are shoes (apparently we’re not good at judging the size of someone else’s foot, so men, err on the small side!?), make-up (are you trying to tell me I’m ugly?), and sweets (thanks a lot, my diet starts in a week!).
If you are a Christian, it is because God has given you the amazing gift of amazing grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, the free gift of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. God’s method of delivering the gift is not a fat man in a red suit. God's means of grace, His way of saving us, is by gifting us faith and repentance.
Faith is a gift from God (ref. Ephesians 2:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Repentance, too, is “an evangelical grace” (Abstract of Principles, Art. IX), a gift that saves (ref. Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). These gifts, two sides of the same coin, are gifts God wills you to return, give back, and not just once, but daily.
When God gives us faith, we believe. We “believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” (The Apostles’ Creed). We trust in the person and work of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe by the regenerating and gifting power of God the Holy Spirit, who makes every Christian a new creation in Christ. We believe the word of God, the Bible, and learn and obey its truths. We believe with the people of God, the church, and assemble with her for worship and scatter with her for witness. We believe, and not just once, not just to check off some religious box, not just to get fire insurance from Hell. We believe, daily, constantly, returning this gift of faith over and over to the One who gave it to us.
The rock group Journey had a big hit with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Most professing Christians don’t. They may deny every cardinal doctrine in Scripture, live like the worst pagan on the planet, never open a Bible or darken the door of a church, but they’ll still tell you they still believe in Jesus Christ.
The problem, though, is too many have stopped repenting. God gave them the gift, according to their profession of faith, but they never returned it, gave it back to God, with daily, ongoing, heartfelt repentance. The New Testament writer James said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (ref. James 2:17). But faith without repentance never lived, is not genuine, and cannot save.
So today we turn, return for some of us, to the Old Testament prophet Hosea. His is the most heartbreaking book in Holy Scripture, even though his name means "salvation." It is the story of a faithful prophet with an unfaithful wife. I suppose any man marrying a woman named Gomer should watch out. She made his life miserable, but it was misery ordained by God, to deepen the prophet’s character, to make his preaching more illustrative and urgent. Sadly, the people Hosea preached to, the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC, were unfaithful to God. They had neglected to return their repentance to the Lord.
The prophet’s final appeal is a two-fisted, doubly impassioned plea to “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God,” and again he says, “Return to the LORD” (vs 1-2). The prophet admonished his nation as a whole, Israel, to repent. And, the prophet personally appealed to every other person of professed faith to return that gift of repentance to the Lord.
Repentance on a National Level
I speak as a New Testament Pastor to a single church. The Old Testament prophets were spokesmen to the nation, the whole country. In Hosea’s case, this was Israel (the northern of the two divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah). We should consider some astounding parallels to Hosea’s country and our country.
Israel and the United States broke away from the “mother country” about two centuries prior. Both economies would be considered prosperous. Both had major enemies to the east. Both had been born with a belief in the one true and living God, but present realities reveal a people who worship other gods or no god at all. Sexuality that was once considered perverse was mainstream. Crime rates were rising rapidly. Those who clung to the old time religion were considered hateful or mentally unstable.
The old time prophet, Hosea, rebuked Israel and spoke of their specific sins of “iniquity” (vs. 1), “apostasy” (vs. 4), and worshipping “idols” (vs. 8). Iniquity is deliberately disobeying God’s word and breaking God’s plain moral and spiritual laws. Apostasy is abandoning faith in the true God to serve false gods. And, of course, an idol is anything or anyone a professing follower of God puts ahead of God. Israel had turned away, wholesale, and needed to re-turn, repent, and get right with God.
As you may well know, they did not. Israel went from bad to worse, even with the good prophet Hosea giving them excellent preaching and sound advice. Their morals became hideous. Their economy collapsed. Their chief enemy to the east, Assyria, came in 722 BC and sacked their capital, killed their soldiers, and enslaved their people.
I know what you are thinking. Ancient Israel sounds a whole lot like modern America. But Israel is nowhere in Scripture meant to be a parallel to any country, but rather to the people of God, which in our age is the church, and every member of the body of Christ.
Repentance on a Personal Level
God has never saved a nation, although Israel was the apple of His eye in the Old Covenant. God saves people, individually, and since the first advent of Jesus Christ, God's New Covenant is offered to every person of every kindred, tongue, and tribe on the earth. Anyone can be saved, by grace alone through faith (and the flip-side, repentance) alone, in Christ alone.
God saves people by enlightening them enough to know they are in darkness. They know they are separated from God, lost, drowning in a sea of sin. They know they cannot save themselves. They are thrown a lifeline from God, the gospel, which appears to them like a lifesaver on a rope. The lifesaver is faith, the rope is repentance.
Professing Christians today love the lifesaver, but they don't carry the rope. They want the benefits of believing, but they revolt at the responsibility to repent. The confess a pseudo-faith in Jesus on one hand, but with the other engage in "iniquity," "apostasy," and "idol[atry]" in lifestyles no different from lost people.
People who are truly saved, however, real Christians, hear and head the words of Hosea. Repentance is a gift they keep giving back, they keep returning to the Lord, and not just to the Lord. Listen carefully to how the prophet Hosea says repentance should be returned.
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD" (vs. 1-2).
God's word is "return." Even the best Christian turns away from the Lord, His word, His will in various ways and means. We all "stumble" in our walk with God, and the word indicates a sin that can cause others to sin, too. A believer's sin grieves the heart of God, and most often hurts the heart, mind, or body of another person or persons. So, when we sin, which is daily, it is time to return the gift. Repent to God, and if others have been injured, take the gift back to them, too.
How? "Take with you words." Try two. I'm sorry. Use any set of three, I was wrong, Please forgive me, I'll do better. Apply as many words as necessary to show sincere, humble, deep repentance towards God and any person you have openly wronged (no need to share sinful thoughts with others, since only God heard them). God will forgive you. Godly people will, too.
Can you imagine what a better relationship with God you will have if you regularly return His gift of repentance. Can you imaging the strong relationships in other realms real repentance can foster? Think about the churches, the marriages, the friendships, the nations that could be improved with the right use of God's means of faith and repentance.
It could have saved Israel from the Assyrian destruction. It could save our country from the moral, economic, and political abyss to which we are running, downhill. It could save your marriage. It could save your children. It could save your soul.
The promises of God are plain, thanks to Hosea. God will "take away all iniquity" (vs. 1). He will "heal their apostasy ... love them freely ... [turn] My anger" (vs. 4). You will "blossom ... take root" (vs. 5), have "beauty" and "fragrance" (vs. 6) for the Lord in this world. And you will "dwell beneath My shadow," says the Lord, and "flourish" (vs. 7).
"Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them" (vs. 9).
Christians, we have this God-given gift of repentance. Return the gift.