Note: As I have noted in the past two posts (here and here), back in 2015 I posted a a teaching outline entitled The Doctrine of Conversion: Understanding Faith and Repentance, and this three part series is basically an expansion and reworking of that outline. Again, however, rather than take the old one down, I thought I would simply post these others and allow the blog’s readers the option of choosing which approach they find most helpful.
Over the past couple of weeks we have examined the Biblical teaching concerning saving faith and repentance, which is to say that we have been talking about the doctrine of conversion. We will finish our brief study of this doctrine with this post.
We get the name for this doctrine from the Latin term conversio, which has led to the English terms used to translate a couple of key New Testament Greek terms. Here are a few examples from the King James Version:
KJV Matthew 13:15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted [ἐπιστρέφω, epistréphō], and I should heal them.
KJV Matthew 18:2-3 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted [στρέφω, stréphō] and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
KJV Acts 3:19 Repent [μετανοέω, metanoéō] ye therefore, and be converted [ἐπιστρέφω, epistréphō], that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord ….
One of these passages uses the Greek verb stréphō, which literally means to “turn, [or] turn around” (UBS Greek Lexicon #5649, BibleWorks). The other two passages use the Greek verb epistréphō, which literally means to “turn back, return; turn to [or] turn around” (UBS Greek Lexicon #2511, BibleWorks). Most modern versions translate these words with one of these basic meanings in these passages, but, as we have seen going back as far as the King James Version, the words are sometimes translated, when used in the passive voice, as be converted because in such contexts they clearly have to do with the spiritual change that takes place when we repent of our sins and trust in Christ as our Lord and Savior. This has given rise, then, to our speaking of the doctrine of conversion, a doctrine which could also be referred to as the doctrine of savingly turning from sin to God.
As I pointed out last week, citing the example of Charles Ryrie, there has been a misunderstanding of the doctrine of conversion for some time now among many who would call themselves Evangelical Christians, with 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. (Absolutely Free, p. 144)
There can be no compromise on this point if we wish to preserve and to proclaim the biblical truth of sola fide [meaning “faith alone”]. To make repentance a condition for eternal salvation is nothing less than a regression toward Roman Catholic dogma. (Ibid. , p. 145)
This sounds quite Biblical and orthodox when you first hear it, doesn’t 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 is that it avoids the possibility that a Biblical understanding of faith presupposes and even includes 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. As Robert Culver has astutely observed:
There are two aspects of the act of the sinner in spiritual conversion for salvation – as in every form of conversion, or turning about. It may with propriety be said there are two aspects of one act – one is a negative aspect of turning away and the other the positive aspect of turning toward. The first is named repentance and the second faith. (Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, p. 701)
Thus, as I have already pointed out, we have actually already been studying the doctrine of conversion over the past couple of weeks as we examined the Bible’s teaching of faith and repentance. Today, however, we will look more closely at the Biblical teaching regarding the relationship between saving faith and repentance as the two complementary aspects of conversion. We will then see how faith and repentance continue throughout the Christian life.
I. Faith and Repentance Are Inseparable Aspects of Conversion
Since we are currently 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. At this point, then, 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 explicitly mentioned as necessary in coming to Christ for salvation. There are many examples of this, but we will briefly consider only three.
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.
John speaks of faith – of whoever believes – but he does not explicitly mention repentance. As a matter of fact, repentance is never explicitly mentioned in the Gospel of John at all, a fact that has led some to wrongly assume that repentance is not necessary for salvation after all. But such teachers commit the word-concept fallacy, assuming that because a particular word is not used, then the concept denoted by the word is absent as well. Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John, however, knows that the concept of repentance runs throughout the teaching of Jesus contained in the book. To suggest that John saw repentance as unnecessary for salvation because the Greek terms which explicitly refer to repentance are not there is no more valid than to argue that Jesus did not believe in the grace of God because He never used the Greek term which explicitly refers to grace.
As John MacArthur has observed, “It is true that John does not use the word repentance, but as we have observed elsewhere, our Lord also did not use the word grace. One suspects no-lordship theologians would recoil from any suggestion that the doctrine of grace was missing from Jesus’ teaching” (https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A238/Repentance-in-the-Gospel-of-John).
Besides, as we saw last week, and as we will see again later in this teaching, our Lord Jesus taught the necessity of both repentance and faith, and He commanded His disciples to do the same, so there is no possible way that John would have disagreed. For now, however, let’s consider a couple of additional passages in which only faith is explicitly mentioned. The next one comes from Luke’s account of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Philippi:
NKJ Acts 16:26-31 But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. 27 And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” 29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” [In addition to what he had apparently heard from them, recall also vs. 17] 31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
We do not know precisely what truths Paul and Silas had been singing about, nor what they might have said to the Philippian jailer prior to this point, not to mention what he might have heard of their previous teaching. However, we must understand the jailer’s expressed desire to be saved as a desire to be saved from his sins, for Paul clearly did not see the need to make this plain to him. In other words, the man must already have been repentant, which is why Paul had only to stress the need to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” for salvation.
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.
Here again Paul does not explicitly mention repentance, but, when one considers the entirety of the Epistle to the Romans, it quickly becomes evident that Paul definitely does not mean to deny the importance of repentance when he mentions only faith here.
Second, sometimes only repentance is explicitly mentioned as necessary in coming to Christ for salvation. We shall again consider just three examples, all of which come from the Book of Acts. The first example comes from Luke’s account of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, where we will come in at the end of his sermon:
NKJ Acts 2:36-38 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” 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.”
Peter obviously saw that these people already believed what he had been saying and that he did not, then, need to tell them to believe. He therefore had only to stress the need for repentance.
The next example comes from the preaching of Peter as well, this time from when he preached in Solomon’s Portico after having healed the lame man at the temple gate:
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 ….
The last example comes from the preaching of Paul at the Areopagus:
NKJ Acts 17:29-31 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.
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 in some sense 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. Again we shall consider three examples, the first of which comes from the description of Jesus’ preaching ministry in the Gospel of Mark:
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.”
Jesus clearly sees repentance and faith as two aspects of a proper response to the Gospel message. We are not surprised, then, to find the same idea in Paul’s charge to the elders at Ephesus:
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.”
The author of Hebrews also connects repentance and faith as foundational and as therefore being among the “elementary principles of 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). And, I would add, this turn we commonly call conversion.
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 repenting, 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 faith and repentance 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 Lord and Savior, 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 cease after we are converted. This leads us to our second major heading
II. Faith and Repentance Continue Throughout the Christian Life
As we have seen, faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin, and we cannot have one without the other. In addition, although we must speak of a single act of repentant faith when we are discussing conversion, both faith and repentance must be ongoing in the life of every believer.
First, it is clear that repentance must continue in the Christian life. As Martin Luther aptly stated in the first of his famous Ninety-Five Theses, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance” (https://www.monergism.com/95-theses-martin-luther).
This may be understood, for example, from the way that Jesus taught us to pray, in which He assumed we would need to repent every day:
NKJ Matthew 6:9-13 In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
We saw another example last week, when we saw how Paul had called the Corinthian Christians to repentance and later rejoiced that they had repented:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 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.
The Lord Jesus could also call Christians to repentance, such as when He challenged the church at Laodicea to repent:
NKJ Revelation 3:19-20 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.
These examples should be sufficient to demonstrate the fact that repentance must continue in the lives of Christians as they continue to battle sin.
Second, it is clear that faith must continue in the Christian life. The apostle Paul set an example for us when he spoke of his life in Christ as a life of faith:
NKJ Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Paul also taught the necessity of persevering in faith:
NKJ Colossians 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight– 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
The author of Hebrews teaches that persevering faith is a characteristic of those who have become true partakers of Christ:
NKJ Hebrews 3:14 For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end ….
This means that we must continue to trust Christ to the end, doesn’t it? And this is theme to which the author will return later in the same book:
NKJ Hebrews 10:35-39 Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: 37 “For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. 38 Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” 39 But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
These examples should be sufficient to demonstrate the fact that, like repentance, faith must continue in our lives as we await the return of our Lord or until we die, whichever comes first.
We must therefore agree with the assessment found in Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth, in a section entitled “Gifts That Keep On Giving”:
As a divine gift, then, repentant faith that saves can never be transient or temporary. It has an abiding quality that guarantees it will endure to the end, so that repentance and faith characterize the lifestyle of the true Christian. (John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue, General Editors, pp. 595-596)
For those of us who have repented and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, let us then offer to God all our gratitude and praise for His work in us, and let us give Him the glory for the great things He has done in us, through us, and for us, for He alone could have done them. We should be greatly encouraged by what He has done, and we should be filled with the same confidence about which the Apostle Paul spoke when he described himself as “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
For those who have not yet repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, you should recognize that you have been blessed by Him today to hear the truth of His Word and to receive this additional opportunity to respond in repentance and faith.