For some time now there has been a misunderstanding of the doctrine of conversion among many who would call themselves Evangelical Christians. For example, there have been attempts to redefine
either faith or repentance, or both. There have also been attempts to separate
repentance from faith and even to say that repentance has nothing to do with saving faith. Teachers of such a view abound, and they can be very winsome and sound quite orthodox in some of their assertions. Notice, for example, the way in which one popular advocate of such thinking, Zane Hodges, speaks of faith and repentance with regard to conversion:
Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life. (p. 144)
There can be no compromise on this point if we wish to preserve and to proclaim the biblical truth of sola fide [“faith alone”]. To make repentance a condition for eternal salvation is nothing less than a regression toward Roman Catholic dogma. (Absolutely Free, p. 145)
This sounds quite Biblical and orthodox to many sincere Christians when they first hear it. After all, don’t we all want to preserve the true Gospel that salvation is by grace through faith alone? Of course we do! But the problem with Hodges’ view here is that it ignores the possibility that a Biblical understanding of faith includes and even presupposes repentance and that, therefore, when the Apostles taught the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, they had in mind a repentant faith. In my view, this is precisely what the Apostles meant when they spoke of trusting in Christ for salvation. This is why I think Wayne Grudem – whose work I will be citing a number of times in this post – has done a better job of Biblically and succinctly defining conversion as “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation” (Systematic Theology, p. 1238). Today I hope to explain why I think this definition is correct. This means we are going to spend our time on a brief survey of some of the Biblical teaching on faith and repentance. In the process we will seek to understand 1) the proper meaning of both faith and repentance, 2) the proper relationship between faith and repentance, and 3) that both faith and repentance are gifts from God.
I. We need to understand the proper meaning of both faith and repentance.
Since we are dealing here with conversion, then of course we are interested in understanding what the Bible teaches about initial saving faith and repentance rather than with the ongoing need of faith and repentance in the life of a believer. With this distinction in mind, we will focus first on faith and then on repentance.
First, the Bible teaches that saving faith is more than mere intellectual assent and that it involves personal trust in Christ to save us from our sins. This understanding of saving faith is reflected in the way that it is described as receiving Christ. For example:
NKJ John 1:12 “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name ….”
To believe in Christ is to receive Him. This refers to a personal acceptance of Christ as He has revealed Himself to us, not merely to an intellectual knowledge of, or assent to, facts about Him.
NKJ John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Wayne Grudem is again helpful in explaining the sense of the Greek phrase employed by John and commonly used in the New Testament:
John 3:16 tells us that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here John uses a surprising phrase when he does not simply say, “whoever believes him” (that is, believes that what he says is true and able to be trusted), but rather, “whoever believes in him.” The Greek phrase pisteuo eis auton could also be translated “believe into him” with the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person. Leon Morris can say, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.” He understands the Greek phrase pisteuo eis to be a significant indication that New Testament faith is not just intellectual assent but includes a “moral element of personal trust.” Such an expression was rare or perhaps nonexistent in the secular Greek found outside the New Testament, but it was well suited to express the personal trust in Christ that is involved in saving faith. (Systematic Theology, p. 711)
So, to believe in Christ is to personally trust in Him. But believing in Christ can also be described as coming to Him. This again refers to a personal encounter with Him, not simply an intellectual knowledge of, or assent to, facts about Him. For example:
NKJ John 6:35 “And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”
After considering such passages, it is easy to see why James warns against equating faith with mere intellectual assent:
NKJ James 2:19 “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!”
There is a huge difference between believing the right things about Jesus and actually trusting in Him for salvation! For example, when I explain saving faith to children, I like to show them a chair and ask them if they think I should believe that it will hold me if I sit in it. They typically reply that of course it will. But then I explain to them that believing that the chair will hold me is not the same thing as trusting the chair to hold me. I trust the chair to hold me only when I sit in it. This is why Wayne Grudem is again correct to assert in his Systematic Theology that “Saving faith is trust in Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life with God” (p. 710).
Second, the Bible teaches that repentance is a turning from sin to follow Christ. Here it is important to consider examples from both the Old and New Testaments, since the New Testament Greek terminology is heavily influenced by the Old Testament Hebrew terminology, and since the Scriptural concept of repentance has been under such attack these days.
Examples from the Old Testament
As we look at these texts, it is quite easy to see what the true nature of repentance is, that it involves sorrow for and turning from sin. We will begin with an example from the Book of Job:
NKJ Job 42:5-6 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent [נחם, nāḥam] in dust and ashes.
The Hebrew nāḥam means “1. to regret: a) to become remorseful… b) to regret something [lists Job 42:6]… 2. to be sorry, come to regret something …” (HALOT # 6096, BibleWorks).
NKJ Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return [שׁוּב, šûḇ, often transliterated shûv] to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
The Hebrew šûḇ here means “to turn around, repent” (HALOT # 9407, BibleWorks).
NKJ Jeremiah 8:6 I listened and heard, but they do not speak aright. No man repented [נחם, nāḥam] of his wickedness, saying, “What have I done?” Everyone turned [שׁוּב, šûḇ] to his own course, as the horse rushes into the battle.
NKJ Ezekiel 33:11 Say to them: “As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn [שׁוּב, šûḇ] from his way and live. Turn [שׁוּב, šûḇ], turn [שׁוּב, šûḇ] from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?”
NKJ Joel 2:12-13 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return [שׁוּב, šûḇ] to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return [שׁוּב, šûḇ] to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.
So, as pointed out above, these passages demonstrate that repentance involves a sorrow for and a turning from sin.
Examples from the New Testament
We will see in the following passages that the New testament concept of repentance is the same as in the Old Testament. We will begin with an example from the Gospel of Luke:
NKJ Luke 3:8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia], and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
The Greek noun metánoia means “repentance, change of heart, turning from one’s sins, change of way” (UBS Greek Lexicon #3986, BibleWorks). Paul’s use of the word in his second epistle to the Corinthian church lays great stress on the idea of sorrow for sin that leads to turning away from it:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 7:8-10 For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. 9 Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia]. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow produces repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia] leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Having gotten a grip on the meaning of the Greek noun metánoia, we may now turn our attention briefly to the related verb metanoéō. For example:
NKJ Acts 3:19 Repent [μετανοέω, metanoéō] therefore and be converted [ἐπιστρέφω, epistréphō], that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.
The Greek verb metanoéō means “repent, have a change of heart, turn from one’s sins, change one’s ways” (UBS Greek Lexicon # 3985, BibleWorks). The Greek verb epistréphō used here in conjunction with metanoéō, may be defined thusly: “intrans. (including midd. and aor. pass.) turn back, return; turn to; turn around; trans. turn, turn back” (UBS Greek Lexicon #2511, BibleWorks). Note the similarity in meaning of these terms to the Hebrew šûḇ in the Old Testament.
Again we can see that Wayne Grudem defines the concept well when we writes that “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ” (Systematic Theology, p. 713).
II. We need to understand the proper relationship between faith and repentance.
Again, since we are speaking of faith and repentance with respect to the doctrine of conversion, we are of course speaking of initial faith and repentance in Christ rather than the ongoing need to believe and repent in the Christian life. Thus we will focus our attention on those passages which speak of faith and repentance in the context of conversion rather than of the Christian life subsequent to conversion. In the process we will see that, although it is true that faith and repentance are not always mentioned together in Scripture, they are nevertheless two inseparable aspects of conversion and that the mention of one always presupposes and implies the other. Let’s take a look at the basic ways in which Scripture refers to faith and repentance when addressing conversion, and I think you will see what I mean.
First, sometimes only faith is mentioned as necessary in coming to Christ for salvation. For example:
NKJ John 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
NKJ Acts 16:31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
NKJ Romans 10:9 … that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
Second, sometimes only repentance is mentioned as necessary in coming to Christ for salvation. For example:
NKJ Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, “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.”
NKJ Acts 3:19 Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord ….
NKJ Acts 17:30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent ….
How is it that the Apostles could thus preach repentance when proclaiming the Gospel if repentance isn’t somehow essential? And why do these same Apostles sometimes demand faith and sometimes demand repentance if they do not see them as connected and even interchangeable? That they are so connected will become clear as we consider the next point.
Third, sometimes faith and repentance are mentioned together as necessary in coming to Christ for salvation. For example:
NKJ Mark 1:14-15 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
NKJ Acts 20:17-21 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, 19 serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; 20 how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
NKJ Hebrews 6:1-2 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
Thus we see that faith and repentance are really “two sides of the same coin.” You cannot have one without the other, and when you assert one – at least in the same way that the Bible asserts it – you presuppose and imply the other. As Phil Johnson has put it, “repentance is turning from sin, and faith is turning to Christ, but it is one turn from sin to Christ” (Q&A session at the 2013 Springfield Bible Conference). Wayne Grudem also summarizes this relationship well when he writes that:
Scripture puts repentance and faith together as different aspects of the one act of coming to Christ for salvation. It is not that a person first turns from sin and next trusts in Christ, or first trusts in Christ and then turns from sin, but rather that both occur at the same time. When we turn to Christ for salvation from our sins, we are simultaneously turning away from the sins that we are asking Christ to save us from. If that were not true our turning to Christ for salvation from sin could hardly be a genuine turning to him or trusting in him. (Systematic Theology, p. 713)
Thus when we accurately proclaim that people are sinners deserving of God’s wrath and punishment and hell, and when we accurately proclaim that they must trust in Christ to save them from their sins, then people will not trust in Him without repentance, and they will not repent without trusting in Him. This is no doubt why the Apostles didn’t always see the need to stress both in the same way and in every instance. In a situation in which people had already recognized their sins before God and were clearly repentant, all that needed to be stressed was faith in Christ. And where people clearly believed the message about who Christ is as Savior and Lord, all that needed to be stressed was repentance from sin when coming to Him for salvation.
But before we finish our brief Biblical survey today, we must also understand that neither faith nor repentance are things we can do in and of ourselves. This leads us to our third and final major heading.
III. We need to understand that both faith and repentance are gifts from God.
Here we address another point of contention among Evangelical Christians today, for there are many who seem determined to confine both faith and repentance to the work of man even as they inconsistently decry works salvation. The Bible, on the other hand, sees both faith and repentance as coming from God.
First, the Bible teaches that faith is a gift from God. For example:
NKJ John 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”
Recall that earlier in the context Jesus used the terminology of coming to Him as equivalent to believing in Him (vs. 35). So, when Jesus says here that no one can come to Him unless it has been granted to him by the Father, He means that no one can believe in Him unless it has been granted to him by the Father.
NKJ Acts 13:48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.
As Anthony Hoekema has correctly argued, “the faith of those Gentiles who believed was a fruit of divine election and therefore clearly a gift of God” (Saved By Grace, p. 143).
NKJ 1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Paul clearly has in mind not merely a mouthing of the words “Jesus is Lord,” but rather a genuine statement of faith in Jesus as Lord, when he asserts that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” This faith is seen, then, to be a product of the Spirit’s working and thus a gift of God.
NKJ Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God….
ESV 1 John 5:1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him.
Anthony Hoekema is again helpful in his discussion of this verse:
The Apostle John tells us, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God” (1 John 5:1, JB). The word rendered “has been begotten” (gegennetai) is in the perfect tense in the Greek, a tense which describes past action with abiding result. Everyone who has faith, John is therefore saying, reveals that he or she has been begotten or born of God and is still in that regenerate state. Since God is the sole author of regeneration, and since only regenerated persons can believe, we see again that faith is a gift of God. (Saved By Grace, p. 145)
Sadly, many do not see that they turn faith itself into a work of man when they deny that it is a gift from God and thus the work of God in man.
Second, the Bible teaches that repentance is a gift from God. For example:
NKJ Acts 5:31 Him [the Lord Jesus] God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
NKJ Acts 11:18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
NKJ 2 Timothy 2:25 … in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.
These passages make it quite clear that repentance is a gift from God, don’t they? Sadly, however, again there are many who do not see that they turn repentance into a mere work of man when they deny that it is a gift from God and thus the work of God in man. And it is sad as well that so many today think that they defend the true Gospel when they deny that this essential work of God in man has no place in a man’s conversion.
Conclusion: I will conclude by reminding you all that there is a very pernicious error floating around so-called “Evangelical” circles these days, namely the idea either that repentance has nothing to do with turning from sin or that, if repentance does involve turning from sin, it has nothing to do with conversion. Sadly, such teaching has led many to assume that they may be saved without turning from their sins at all! I pray that we will all see this heresy for what it is and not put asunder what God has joined together as two inseparable aspects of conversion, what we might call repentant faith.