As I was preparing for my Wednesday night Bible class recently I came across an interesting statement from the late brother Franklin Camp. He was discussing Eve’s transgression in Genesis 3:6, and said, “The essence of her sin was self will and rejected the will of God (sic). That’s the reason for a long time I thought that repentance was the most difficult command in the entire Bible. I don’t believe that anymore. The most difficult command in the entire Bible is found in Matthew 16:24. “If any man would come after me let him deny himself…” (The Royal Redeemer: A Study of the Book of Matthew, Vol. 1, pg. 30).
I knew immediately why he once thought that repentance was the most difficult command in the Bible, because I have long shared that sentiment. It came from J. W. McGarvey in his sermon, “Repentance,” which he preached in Louisville, Kentucky on Monday, July 2, 1893. Brother McGarvey made a number of cogent points that no one would think to question. He said,
It is not very difficult, in this country particularly, to induce men to believe the Gospel – to plant faith within the soul. Indeed, we may say it is difficult in our blessed land for a man to be an unbeliever…Neither is it very difficult to persuade men to be baptized, when they become penitent believers. I have never yet met with a person, who was a genuine believer and sincerely penitent, that raised any question about being baptized. They are ready to so where they are led.
The difficulty is to induce them to repent. I have often, in my preaching experience, studied and prayed and reflected and read, to find some way by which I could have more power in inducing people to repent. I would rather have that power than all the other power and gifts that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher (pgs. 97-98).
If I have ever read a richer statement (this side of inspiration) on the difficulty of repentance I am not aware of it. This statement by McGarvey is the sort of thing that will “lather” in a sermon, and for that reason it has been used by countless preachers over the years, myself included. It makes sense. It seems unimpeachable. Even so, I cannot say that my own experiences have matched what McGarvey speaks of in this sermon. I have met a number of people not so easily convinced of baptism as he seems in intimate here. You might say, “That’s because they were not brought to the point of belief.” Maybe so.
At any rate, it is interesting to me that brother Camp once believed that repentance was the most difficult command in the Bible for a person to obey, but had changed his thinking. That statement would not have given me one moment’s pause if I didn’t believe I know where he got the idea. He got it from the same place I got it, and where countless other preachers have gotten it…from another preacher. So, I wonder, how many thoughts, ideas, doctrines, do we pick up from other preachers and pass them on as though they are Biblical statements? If we don’t pass them on as Scripture, at least we use the thought to drive home a point in people’s minds, which if good as long as the truth is taught.
So, is repentance the most difficult command in the Bible, or not? J. W. McGarvey said it is. Franklin Camp used to say the same, but changed his mind. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Would you call that a difficult thing to do? Since, for his disciples, taking up one’s cross and following him meant following him to the death, maybe it’s time to rethink the most difficult command.