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The Necessity of Repentance

by Dennis Pollock

Repentance has often been a forgotten aspect of the gospel. We have sometimes turned the gospel into an unbiblical idea of "asking Jesus into your heart." But nowhere in the Bible do we see this term. We do see "believe on Jesus," "receive Jesus," "repent and believe," or "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus," but we never see, "Ask Jesus into your heart." Jesus Christ living in us is certainly a Biblical idea, but there is a danger of presenting the new birth in such mild terms that it becomes nothing more than insurance to protect us from hell, rather than a total transformation of life through a radical faith in Jesus.

The New Testament word repentance is translated from the Greek word metanoia, which is a compound of two words: after and thought. Thus the word means an afterthought or a change of mind. Repentance includes a sorrow over sin, but it is more than that. The Bible tells us: "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow produces repentance, which means it is not exactly the same as repentance. It is the first stage of repentance and leads to the fullness of repentance.

When you see the various contexts of the Biblical use of the word repentance it strongly suggests a corresponding change of behavior. Jesus tells us: "A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went. (Matthew 21:28,29). The word "regretted" is the Greek word for repentance. A more literal rendition of this verse is, "afterward, he repented and went." The son changed his mind, which resulted in obedience. John the Baptist preached: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance…" (Luke 3:8). There are fruits that must accompany true repentance. Where there are no such fruits there is no repentance. This is significant because there are some who water down repentance until it only means a mental change where you stop disbelieving in Christ and start believing, with no reference to a changed life or behavior. Biblical repentance is a much stronger concept than that.

New Testament Repentance

Repentance can be found throughout the Bible, but for our purposes we will confine ourselves to New Testament repentance. We certainly see it in the beginning of the gospel accounts. In Matthew we read, "In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:1,2). Shortly after that Jesus came along and His message didn't vary much from John's. Mark tells us: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14,15).

Later, after the disciples have had a chance to spend some time with Jesus, He sends them out on their own preaching missions. This will be their opportunity to do some "student teaching." The Bible tells us: "And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits… (Mark 6:7). A few verses later we learn the content of their message: "So they went out and preached that people should repent" (Mark 6:12). Repentance is obviously a big deal to God. "People should repent" – This is God's mind about human beings. No doubt He has many more thoughts and ideas about what people should do, but one of His most basic and prominent ideas is that people should repent.

In Luke's gospel Jesus was referring to some Galileans that Pilate had slaughtered as they were preparing to offer sacrifices. He told his audience: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2,3). Jesus used the word repent to describe what we would call getting right with God, or being saved. Repentance is so huge that it represents the entire salvation experience.

 Shortly before ascending to heaven Jesus told His disciples, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46,47). This is a command from our Lord Jesus, the Head of the church, the One who holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Repentance and the remission of sins must be preached in His name to all nations. Whether sharing the gospel in an outdoor stadium, talking to a small group at work, or sharing Christ over coffee with your neighbor, your gospel presentation isn't quite complete if you don't at some point mention transformation of heart and life and the remission of sins.

“What Shall We Do?”

After Peter preached to the large crowd that gathered on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gripped the listeners with a terrible conviction of their own sinfulness. They asked the apostles what they should do. Peter did not hesitate. He told these folks who had not long before been shouting for Jesus' crucifixion: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Peter had been a good student. He was doing exactly what Jesus had told him to do – preaching repentance and the remission of sins through Jesus Christ. In Peter's second sermon, given when a crowd had gathered after a lame man was healed, he again emphasized repentance, telling the people: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out..." (Acts 3:19). The words "be converted" literally mean to turn back or turn around. Peter was telling these men and women, "Change your mind and change your direction by trusting in Christ." Again he was preaching repentance and the remission of sins, as Jesus had instructed.

What about Paul? Surely this preacher of grace would never bring up repentance! He would simply tell people to believe, wouldn't he? Actually, no, Paul preached repentance just like everybody else. In the latter part of Acts, as Paul was describing his many years of ministry to King Agrippa, he stated: "(I) declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance" (Acts 26:20). Like John the Baptist preached years ago, Paul let his listeners know in no uncertain terms that they must not only change their minds, but they must demonstrate this change with behavior appropriate to such repentance.

Repentance or Faith?

You may ask, "What about 'justification by faith,' 'only believe,' and 'faith alone in Christ alone?' Does not a demand for repentance throw the salvation experience into a program of works? Truly our salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. In Ephesians Paul tells us, "By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). But the Bible's emphasis upon repentance as a necessary aspect of the new birth reveals that repentance is part and parcel of the faith experience. Repentance does not compete with faith; it is a vital element of faith. Without repentance faith is not true faith. This is what the Bible teaches and this is what the church has historically believed. There have been a few fringe groups that have risen up from time to time shouting, "Believe, but don't worry about repenting," but orthodox Christianity has never believed this. Some try to quote the motto of the reformers: "faith alone in Christ alone," but the reformers did not mean this to negate repentance. Suppose you went up to Martin Luther or John Knox, or John Calvin and said, "So it's faith alone in Christ alone, right? This means that I don’t have to repent or change my ways or turn from my sins, right?" They would have blasted you with holy fire, you can be sure. Martin Luther wrote, "To do so no more is the truest repentance." Charles Spurgeon, perhaps the church's most eloquent preacher of grace, wrote, "There must be sorrow for sin and hatred of it in true repentance, or else I have read my Bible to little purpose."

Repentance and faith are in truth but two sides of the same coin. Suppose someone was to say to me, "You must leave Dallas and drive to New York." Is this one command or two? It sounds like two but in fact it is only one. If you could watch me driving from Dallas to New York, it would appear as one action. In like manner to repent and believe on Christ are two aspects of the faith that saves. And just like I could never get to New York without leaving Dallas, neither will anyone ever believe on Christ and be saved without repenting of an ungodly, selfish, lifestyle.

Faith with Works

The apostle James deals with the issue of trying to isolate belief from a changed life. He declares that faith without works is dead. Of course what he was saying was that faith with no transformed life and behavior is not real faith at all. On the subject of repentance, I think we would not be too far off the mark to paraphrase James, and say, "You show me your faith without repentance, and I will show you my faith by my repentance." Repentance, a changed heart creating a thirst for a changed life, is the first evidence of faith. Just as those first rays of dim light at dawn signal the coming of the day, so genuine repentance signals that saving faith in Christ has begun its work in you.

Why is this important? Christ will surely change all who come to Him, so why must we go around telling people to repent? First and foremost, we do this because Jesus commanded it. But we can readily see the reason behind it: without repentance the emphasis upon faith could easily result in turning salvation into a mental assent of certain doctrines. Jesus talked about those who would come to Him on the Day of Judgment and say, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name…and done many wonders in Your name?" He will say to them, "'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' These folks are calling Jesus, "Lord, Lord." This means that in some sense they did believe. But their belief was merely a head belief, not a heart belief, and their lives remained unchanged. They did not repent.

It is imperative that we let people to know that when a thief receives Jesus, he cannot simply become a Christian thief. It is not enough for him to leave a gospel tract at the places he burglarizes. If he is to be saved he must repent and stop his stealing. And when a homosexual is born again, he cannot simply call himself a Christian homosexual. It is not sufficient that he and his partner sing Amazing Grace every night before getting into bed. He must have a deep and thorough change of heart and mind that will lead to a change of ways, "fruits befitting repentance" to use Paul's language.

And so we tell people to repent and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. If you argue that we are so caught up in sin that it is impossible for us to repent, I would agree with you. The truth is that even believing itself is beyond our capability. We are saved by faith, "and that not of yourselves," says Paul. "It is the gift of God." But then Jesus was in the habit of telling people to do the impossible. He told lame people to get up and walk, and men with withered arms to stretch out their hands. The beautiful thing about Jesus is that what He commands He always makes possible by the power of His Spirit. And as we go forth to share Jesus, encouraging men and women to repent and believe on Him, we will find that some will do just that, as the Holy Spirit touches their hearts. He who caused the lame to walk at His command is able to move the hard-hearted to repent and the obstinate to believe as we declare the everlasting gospel of repentance and faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ.

 


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