In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus tells us how we ought to respond to disaster. We shouldn’t seek to place blame, whether on God or on men. Rather, disaster should spur our own repentance.
Recognize Your Own Sinfulness
Mankind has always tended to respond to disaster by assigning blame. Surely the victim has done something wrong to deserve this. This must have been a consequence of his own actions. We see that kind of thinking in Job 4:7. And while, like Job, the victim is probably going to struggle with blaming God, those looking on from the outside are likely to look for the sin behind the disaster to explain it. But this is the wrong response. Jesus makes it clear that the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate were no worse than the rest of the Galileans. And those on whom the tower fell at Siloam were not not greater offenders than the rest of those in Jerusalem. As Paul tells us in Romans 3:10, 23, there is not one person who can claim that he does not deserve to die. After all, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Recognize Your Own Mortality
So, when we see atrocities or disasters taking human life, we ought to be mindful of our own mortality. Everyone is going to die (Hebrews 9:27). What is the death rate of sinners? … 100% (Romans 5:12). So, instead of asking what the victim did to deserve to die, we ought to ask why God has not yet demanded our own lives for our transgressions. We shouldn’t ask why it happened to the victim. We should ask why it didn’t (yet) happen to us.
Jesus has just told the crowd that they ought to make peace with God before the judgment. And the path to that peace is repentance and faith. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. But saving faith is repentant faith. We turn to God as we turn from our sins. When you turn to face your Lord, you cannot be facing the same direction. Repentance involves a turning from as well as a turning to.
Repentance involves the intellect
We need to see our sin for what it is: a rebellious insurrection. God has created us. God sustains us with many blessings. We are indebted to him as our Lord. He not only knows what is best for us, he has the right to demand it. When we refuse to do what he tells us to, or insist on doing what he has prohibited, we pretend to be our own master, protector and provider. When we repent, we acknowledge this to be the case.
Repentance involves the emotions
And as we see our rebellion and the mercy that is offered in the gospel, if our repentance is true, we hate our sins. We feel a genuine sorrow for offending God the way we have. And we desire change. We want to turn from our sins and turn to God.
Repentance involves the will
And so we set our faces toward a new way of life. We are determined in the turning. There is effort expended. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, we “endeavor after new obedience.”
Repentance is for Christians, too
When we consider what the Lord, through the Holy Spirit says to the churches in Revelation (Rev. 2:1-5; 3:1-3), we hear the same language that we’ve been hearing throughout chapter 12 and now chapter 13 of Luke. Repent, for the judgment is at hand. Christ will return like a thief in the night. The same repentance and faith that unites us to Christ, carries us through to the end (Colossians 2:6). The whole Christian life is spent striving to live a life worthy of the calling we have received (Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12; Phil. 1:27). Living is a Christian means looking forward to your inheritance. But we know that we will not arrive at perfection until the Lord returns and makes our renewal complete (Phil 3:13–14). So we “strain forward” and “press on.” And that means, moment-by-moment, we turn from our sins and turn to Christ, embracing anew the wonder of his grace and forgiveness.
When we see an atrocity or a disaster, we should take stock of our own impending demise, the nearness of the judgment, and we should repent. In the parable Jesus told, a tree had enjoyed the good ground of the vineyard for three long years, and had not yielded any fruit. How has God blessed you? Are you bearing fruit? If you don’t know Christ, you have still been blessed. God has provided you with sun and rain and food and air to breathe. And he has been patient with your transgressions. And if you do know Christ, you have been blessed with the tools of transformation, the means of grace. Are you bearing the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23)? Or, like the tree in the parable, are you just taking up space in God’s vineyard? The ax is at the root of the tree (Luke 3:9). Now is the time for repentance. Today is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
Faith Follows Repentance
When we turn from our sins and turn to Christ, we don’t rely on our own strength. After all, that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. We do exert ourselves, but we trust both in God’s gracious forgiveness and the righteousness he’s given us, a righteousness we try to live up to. But we also recognize that the righteousness he gives us is given, not earned. We turn with determination. And we trust him to provide all the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about real change.