What about Repentance?

The subject of repentance has become a hot issue among many fundamentalist churches and this is understandable. Nothing is more important than the gospel and how a person can find peace with God. Many people have an incorrect understanding of Biblical repentance. Many have never thoroughly thought through the issues from a scriptural basis. Instead, many approach the issue from pre-conceived opinions and parrot phraseology that they have heard someone else speak.

The Problem

The misunderstanding that concerns repentance comes from the problem of people making professions of faith in Christ and then nothing further becoming of it. This can be frustrating for sincere Christians and it often leads the soul-winner to faulty conclusions.

Firstly, the soul-winner assumes the person never truly got saved. This certainly may be the case but we can not always assume this. Just because someone doesn’t perform as quickly as we would like them to doesn’t indicate that there is no conversion. Nobody would have assumed that Lot was a “righteous” man from his outward behaviour in Sodom and yet the New Testament declares that the sin around him “vexed his righteous soul from day to day” (2 Peter 2:8). This work of grace, however, was inward and was not immediately observable to those around him.

Secondly, the soul-winner may conclude that he made salvation “too easy.” He feels he must make it harder so he can weed out those unwanted false professions of faith. Certainly a Christian may make the gospel “too easy.” Simply praying words without faith never saved anyone and to leave people with that impression is very wrong.

Yet it seems that repentance has become the way in which well-meaning people have sought to make salvation not as easy as just believing on Christ. Repentance has been redefined to mean something that it does not mean and, in some cases, has become the means whereby some have added a requirement other than faith to the gospel.

Let us not forget that clear and simple answer to the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The message could not be simpler: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).

But what about repentance? Is that not also a requirement for salvation? We shall discuss that in a moment, but firstly let us define the meaning of the word “repent.”

Most agree that the word ‘repent’ simply means a change of mind. The word itself carries no more meaning than that. The son, who Christ spoke of in the gospel of Matthew, said concerning his father‘s request, “I will not” but afterward he repented, and went. This perfectly illustrates the meaning of the word – he changed his mind.

The problem lies in that people have come to believe that repentance means to “turn from sin.” Certainly, a person can repent of a sin, but a person can also repent of something that is not sinful. Many people are shocked to read in the Bible that the Lord repented. In I Samuel 15:35 we are told that “the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.” The people of Nineveh asked the question, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9). The reason many people find difficulty with these statements is that they automatically assume that repentance means to turn from sin. Of course these Bible examples show clearly that the word does not mean that at all.

Why then are well-meaning Christians calling upon the world to “repent of their sins” in order to be saved? Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to repent of our sins in order to be saved. This may surprise some readers, but it is an unanswerable fact.

Repentance and The Gospel

How then is repentance used in connection with salvation in the Bible? Well, let me firstly say that usually it is not. Take the Gospel of John for example. This gospel had a unique purpose. It’s purpose was stated in John 20:31, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Is it not astounding that in John’s gospel the word “faith” or “believe” is used some ninety-nine (99) times while the word repentance is never used? This is quite astounding in light of the fact that there seems to be an increasing number of misguided Christians who will berate the soul-winner for not emphasising repentance enough in his gospel presentation.

Here is another amazing fact: In the entire book of Romans we have the clearest and most defined explanation of salvation in all the Bible and yet the word repentance is only found once (2:4) in relation to man, and it is never used when Paul teaches clearly how a person may be saved! If repentance includes something other than placing faith in Christ, how could it be left out of the two most important places where it should be found?

So how does repentance fit in with “faith alone” as a basis for salvation? And what about those verses which do include repentance in the demands of the gospel? Repentance for salvation is used in two simple ways:

1. As a Synonym for Faith:

Jesus stated that the Holy Spirit would reprove the world of sin. What sin is the Holy Spirit especially seeking to reprove the world of? “Of sin, because they believe not on me” (John 16:9). Man is condemned to hell because of all his sins (Eph 5:6), but there is only one sin that is stopping a man from being forgiven and that sin is unbelief. Lying will not bar a man from heaven. Stealing will not hinder a man from being saved. Not even adultery can keep a man from being forgiven. But unbelief will most definitely ensure the damnation of a man’s soul. Faith secures salvation while unbelief guarantees damnation.

The issue with the gospel is faith. As John 3:36 clearly states, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” Therefore a man must repent of unbelief in order to believe the gospel. “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).

Therefore, repentance is necessary for salvation because it is necessary for faith. A man cannot have faith until he repents of unbelief.

The nation Israel had rejected Christ as their Messiah and ordered His death. After hearing the apostle Peter’s sermon they asked, “What shall we do?” Peter’s first word was, “Repent.” That is, “change your minds concerning who you believe Jesus Christ really is.” They were an unbelieving nation and unless they repented they would surely perish.

Therefore, repentance can be used as a synonym for faith when it is understood as repenting from unbelief.

2. As a Preparation for Faith:

Suppose a man holds a belief that is keeping Him from being saved. Perhaps he believes…

  • That he is not a sinner.
  • That Christ is not God.
  • That there is no God (atheism).
  • That his good works will save him.
  • That his other “gods” are just as real.

This man is not ready nor is he able at this point to place his faith in Christ for salvation. These wrong beliefs must be repented of.

Paul summed his message up as “testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Here repentance is seen as being separate from faith and yet necessary for faith. This was very important, especially when preaching to the ‘heathen’ world. When a man is taught that there are many gods, he might be tempted to believe on Jesus as just “another god.” This is not salvation. Paul said that when he preached to the Gentiles he told them to “repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20). Any man who does not yet recognise that there is only one God and only one Saviour is unable to believe on Christ. He must repent and turn to the true God and place his faith in Christ alone for salvation. Paul described the Thessalonians’ conversion as ones who “turned to God from idols” (I Thess 1:9).

Paul also taught that those who were resisting the truth should be meekly instructed in the hope that God would “give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). Repentance here has nothing to do with turning from sins, but repenting of wrong beliefs so they can acknowledge the truth and be saved.

Repentance and Sin

We should not, therefore, be calling upon people to “repent of their sins” in order to be saved. This is unscriptural and confusing for the sinner. This also begs the question, “Of what sins must they repent?” Of every sin? Can an unsaved person turn from every sin in their life before they can be saved? Is this not adding to faith? And if this is a requirement for salvation, why did not Paul labour this point in Romans 10?

Yes, there is a call to repent of our sin in the Bible but it is a call to Christians. The word repent is more often applied to God’s people than it is to the world. The church at Ephesus was told to “repent” while individuals in the church of Thyatira were commanded to “repent of their deeds.” Similar commands were given to the churches at Sardis and Laodicea. The Corinthian Christians were brought to repentance by Paul’s first epistle. The truth is, the entire Christian life is a life of continual repentance.

Christians should be commanded to repent and to do works meet for repentance but to command a sinner to do this for salvation under grace is called “another gospel.”

Too Easy?

Perhaps some would object to this because it sounds too easy. Some would even call this “easy believism.” Though it is possible to over-simplify the gospel and many are certainly guilty of this, it is also just as erroneous to make it complex. To be saved is certainly simple, but it is not necessarily easy. It is not easy for some people to reject what they’ve grown up believing their whole life; it is often not easy for a Catholic to admit that his sacraments will not save him; it is not easy for a proud self-made man to admit that he cannot save himself; and is not easy for a man to reject the idols he has revered his whole life and turn to the true and Living God.

To have faith means to rely upon. Most people do not understand what faith in Christ means, and therefore we must be diligent to explain it. Faith does not mean that we merely believe that Jesus exists, but that we truly trust and believe on him for our soul’s salvation. We must emphasise what God does: faith.

Many people will affirm they “believe” but then ask them their hope of heaven and they will talk about their good works. They do not believe. We must quote the promises of God and challenge them to truly believe the gospel “with the heart” (Rom 10:10) or “with all [their] heart” (Acts 8:37). If they are holding to beliefs that are stopping them from being saved we must tell them to “repent or perish.”

We will never completely weed out false professions of faith. The Lord Jesus Himself had those follow him under false pretence. Even Paul had those who he wrote to as brethren but stood in doubt of (Gal 4:20). We cannot know the heart of people, but there are things we can do to avoid some false professions when trying to lead people to Christ.

  • We should avoid “drawing the net” when we are rushed and have not had the opportunity to fully present the gospel.
  • We should ask the person questions to make sure they fully understand the gospel.
  • We must make sure the person understands their sinfulness, that they are separated from God and destined for His judgment.
  • We should labour the point of “faith alone” especially to those who are likely to be trusting good works and we must make sure they concede.
  • We should never force a person to pray to receive Christ if they do not want to pray, or if they are disinterested, or if we sense they have not grasped the gospel.

May God help us to clearly preach the “gospel of the grace of God” to a needy world as God intended.

Taken from the booklet “Repentance – What does the Bible teach?”
Published and edited with permission.