The repentance involved in New Testament salvation has been given special attention in recent years by Christians concerned that the gospel be correctly preached. A lot of this concern arose because of the justifiable dismay in many godly minds over the lack of holiness these days in the lives of professing Christians.
Some have decided that the problem must be in how the gospel has been preached. Some of the representatives of this theory have concentrated on the way preachers handle the issue of repentance. What exactly is the “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18) taught by the New Testament scriptures?
Interpretations of repentance have swung to the right and to the left, have drawn extreme conclusions, and have fomented heated arguments. Books and articles have been written on the subject, and some of them leave people confused and unsettled. The debate in some arenas has done more harm than it has done good. Certainly we will be helped if we can discern clear facts about repentance from the Bible. And there are several which are both clear and even undeniable. Consider these:
1. Sinners Must Repent in Order to Be Saved
There is no doubt that sinners are called to repent, and that their repentance is required for their salvation. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
Jesus called sinners to repentance. Had Tyre and Sidon seen the mighty works in their day that were done by Jesus in Chorazin and Bethsaida, these wicked cities would have “repented” and avoided judgment, said the Lord (Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13–14).
The words of Jesus remove any doubt about the requirement of repentance for salvation, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” (Luke 13:3). “All men every where,” according to God’s requirement (Acts 17:30), are commanded “to repent.”
God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b). Sinners who want to be saved will have to repent!
2. Repentance Is a Change of Mind
The Greek word for repentance used in the New Testament is metanoia. Without question it means “a change of mind.” Unfortunately, in all the flurry of discussion on this subject, some have ventured to argue that repentance is not a change of the mind. But by its etymology the word clearly refers to action fundamentally in the mind. The root of the word is based on a word that means “mind” (nous, mind; noieo, to exercise the mind). Our word “paranoia” identifies a disease of the mind. The Greek word “anoia” adds the negative prefix to “-noia,” and means “unreason.” It is used in Luke 6:11 in the phrase translated “filled with madness.” Dianoia is an intensive word for “thought” and is used in Mark 12:30 in the phrase “with all thy mind”. Eunoia means “good mind,” and is used in Ephesians 6:7, “with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men.”
Metanoia fundamentally means a change of mind, and that’s what repentance is. In Luke 16, the Lord Jesus tells a story of a man who died and went to Heaven, and another man who died and went to Hell (verses 19–31). In the telling of the story it is said that sinful men must “repent” (verse 30) “lest they also come into this place of torment” (verse 28). Then it says that to repent in this way is to “be persuaded” (see verse 31), using a word in the Greek that indicates the winning over of the mind. Certainly genuine repentance can be expected to affect other aspects of a life, but essentially it is the changing of the mind.
3. Men Must Change Their Mind about Several Things in Order to Be Saved
Often men are told in the New Testament to “repent” (change their minds) in order to be saved. However, it is not only of sin that sinners are to repent. Scripture makes it clear that they are to change their minds about more than one thing. Matthew 3:1–6 indicates that sinners must change their mind about sin. Mark 1:15 says that men must change their minds about the gospel and about their unbelief. Hebrews 6:1 speaks of “repentance from dead works.”
Sinners must repent of their good works as well as of sin and unbelief in order to be saved. This is illustrated in the words of Philippians 3, where Paul testifies that he had to count whatever was “gain” to him as loss, in order to have Christ as His Saviour (read verses 4–9). To trust Christ as Saviour requires a decision. That’s why the word “repent” or “repentance” is sometimes used in connection with it. The sinner must change his mind.
To offer salvation on the basis of accepting a creed, or praying a prayer, or agreeing to a set of facts, is to miss the point. The sinner must decide about the gospel. He must change his mind about sin, about believing, and about depending on his own religion or good works. He must decide to look to Christ alone for his salvation.
4. Repentance and Faith Are Two Sides of the One Salvation Decision
Does the book of John ever address the question of eternal life? Of course it does. More than a dozen times the terms “eternal life” or “everlasting life” are used in John. This could be said to be the theme of the book, which often tells us how individuals may receive eternal life. Yet never once does the book of John use the word repent. Since repentance is required for salvation, isn’t it strange that the book in the Bible that has eternal life as its theme would never use the words repent or repentance? John says that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, through believing in Him or coming to Him. Very many times the word believe is used in reference to the way to eternal life. Yet the decision for salvation is never called “repentance.”
The book of Luke also shows us the way to salvation, but strangely says little about faith in Christ in this connection. The term most used to describe the decision for salvation in Luke is some form of repent. We see this, for example, in Luke 5:32. But then, in Luke 7:50, Jesus tells a woman who had committed many sins, but had come to Him for forgiveness, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” It is really the only place in Luke where faith is mentioned in connection with the salvation of a sinner.
In chapter 5, Jesus calls sinners “to repentance,” and in chapter 7 He tells a sinner that her “faith” had “saved” her. Which is it then, repentance or faith, which brings salvation? The answer to that question is “Yes.” Either one brings salvation. People who repent are saved, and people who believe are saved. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin when Scripture uses them to describe the salvation decision. This is why Luke can tell us to repent and not perish, and John can tell us to believe and have eternal life.
When a sinner believes on Christ for his salvation, he has repented. When a person repents of sin, unbelief, and dead works, and it is real repentance, he has believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. “Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) are not two steps to salvation; they are the one step described in Acts 16 as “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (verse 31) viewed from its two sides.
Salvation repentance is the change of mind necessary for a sinner to trust in Christ for deliverance from sin. If a man says that he has turned from his sin but has not turned to the Remedy for sin, the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, he has not really repented, no matter how many tears he may have shed or how many changes he has promised to make in his behavior.
Salvation repentance is turning from darkness to light, and unless a sinner has turned to the Light of the World, he hasn’t really turned from the darkness. To believe on Christ for salvation includes wanting to be saved. It involves renouncing good works for salvation and deciding to place one’s full trust in Jesus to do the saving. It isn’t faith for salvation unless the sinner wants salvation from his sins, and trusts Christ alone to save him. So Luke says, “Repent,” and John says, “Believe.” Both books are telling us to do the same thing.
5. Men May Be Called to Salvation Repentance without Using the Word “Repent”
Many times in the Bible, men are called to repent without using the word. In Acts 3 where one of Peter’s sermons to Jews in Jerusalem is recorded, in verse 19 we find him telling them, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted.” Then in Acts 4:4, where the response of thousands of those who had been called to repent is recorded, we read, “Many of them which heard the word believed.” In other words, they were told to repent and in response they believed. Nowadays some sermons, and some public invitations, and some gospel tracts include language that suggests that the writer or speaker feels compelled to use the word repent.
If people understand the gospel, and the meaning of the salvation decision, it certainly would not be wrong to say “repent,” but it is not always necessary to include the word because repentance and faith are two ways of looking at the same choice. Jesus offered His salvation with words such as, “Come unto Me” (Matthew 11:28 and 19:14), “eat of this Bread” (John 6:51), “come unto Me and drink” (John 7:37), “Dost thou believe on the Son of God?” (John 9:35), and “believe in the Light” (John 12:36). The decision to turn to Him for eternal salvation can be described in different ways.
Sadly, many of those who insist that we must actually tell the sinner to “repent” somewhere in our gospel presentation have accepted the false idea that there are two steps to salvation. I have heard it explained in such a way that it seemed as though the explainer thought that the converts of John the Baptist were only half-saved (although he actually preached both sides of the coin according to Acts 19:4 and John 3:26–36). He told men to repent, some imply, and then Jesus told them to believe.
It is a false teaching that one must repent first in order to be prepared to believe. It connects somehow back to the wrong ideas related to the old “mourners’ bench” where sinners were expected to weep and agonize over their sins for a period of time before they could be saved. Men are saved in one step, and not in two, as illustrated by incidents in the Bible like the conversion of the Philippian jailor in Acts 16. In response to his question, “What must I do to be saved?” the apostle told him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
6. The Repentance of Christians Is Required for Revival
Christian churches are the ones addressed in Revelation 2 and 3—seven congregations to be exact. They are given direct messages suited to their situations from the risen Christ, and five of the seven are called upon to repent (the Ephesian church in 2:5, the church in Pergamos in 2:16, some in the church of Thyatira in 2:21, the church in Sardis in 3:3, and the church of the Laodiceans in 3:19).
In these significant cases, the issue is the revival of saints, and not the salvation of sinners. Repentance is definitely not exclusively a salvation issue. In any dealing between God and man, sinner or saint, repentance in man will be a necessary step in setting things right. The prophet Zechariah spoke the words of the Lord when he said, “Turn ye unto Me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 1:3).
The call to revival under both the Old Covenant and the New is always a call to God’s people. It is not the call to personal salvation. Revival is the work of God in which He brings His people back (Psalm 85:1–6) and lifts them up (James 4:8–10) to the level of faith and submission where He can bless them. The issue is a need for His people to come back to God. And in revival, God’s people always have to repent.
When Job the servant of the Lord saw the error of his self-justification in the time of his awful trials, he cried, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). But Job wasn’t getting saved when he prayed with these words. He was already a believer with a deep and genuine devotion to His God. What he experienced on that day was revival. The phrase, “The LORD turned the captivity of Job,” used in Job 42:10 is a term describing an Old Testament revival that is used in several other revival scriptures (such as in Psalms 14, 85, and 126).
The repentance required in the salvation decision does not necessarily involve self-abhorrence. Probably an unregenerate man is incapable of having such a deep awareness of the implications of sin. Most Old Testament references to men repenting speak of revival, not salvation, and cannot be used properly to illustrate salvation repentance.
Interestingly, the One spoken of most often in the Old Testament as repenting, with the word being used, is God. From this fact it is clear that to repent does not necessarily mean to turn in grief and anguish from wicked ways and deeds. God never has to do that. It means to change one’s mind, or, in the case of God, to appear to change One’s mind from the perspective of human observance.
7. Sorrow for Sin Is Not Actually Part of True Repentance
Sometimes sorrow, tears, and mourning are associated in the Bible with repentance. However it is clear that the weeping is not the repenting. Second Corinthians 7:10 tells us that, “Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” It can lead to repentance (as we see in verses 8 through 11 of the chapter) but sorrow for sin is not part of repentance. Repentance is the change of mind that the sorrow for sin has generated.
Surely we must face the facts about repentance. It is time for Christians to get back to calling sinners to repentance. When the gospel is preached in the power of the Spirit, sinners will be brought to salvation repentance. We have fussed about the details of the matter enough, and have the duty now to spread the light of the gospel of the grace of God.
Making sinners jump through more hoops to come to Christ does not make the salvation they receive from Him more effective. Regeneration happens when a sinner comes to the Saviour, and believers ought to get back to inviting them to come.