“What is repentance?” “Is repentance necessary for salvation?” “How does it differ (or does it differ) from faith?” All of these questions are valid and illustrate the importance of a correct knowledge of repentance. The noun “repentance” (Gk. metanoia) is used twenty-two times in the New Testament and the verb “repent” (Gk. metanoeo) is used thirty-four times. There are aspects of repentance that apply to believers, but for this discussion its use will be confined to how repentance pertains to salvation.
When the average person thinks about repentance, he may, in his minds eye, picture a sinner under extreme conviction, coming forward in church with tears running down his cheeks, seeking forgiveness from his sins. All of these things may be connected with biblical repentance, but none are identical to repentance. Sorrow, conviction of sin, and a desire to be forgiven may lead to repentance, but they are not one and the same. The Greek word metanoia literally means “a change of mind”. Vincent calls repentance “an after-thought, different from the former thought…
There is nothing inherent in the etymology of the word that has anything to do with sorrow, contriteness, sin, or a change in lifestyle. What it does mean is the individual has changed his mind about something, nothing more. Any added meaning must be gleaned from its use in context. For instance, we must guard against the assumption that every time repentance is mentioned that turning from personal sin is in view.
Repentance Discovered (repentance in the New Testament)
In Acts 3 Peter addressed the unbelieving Jews boldly declaring that they had crucified their Messiah. He then challenges them in verse nineteen: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out…” It is obvious that Peter is telling them to change their mind about Jesus Christ. Rather than continuing in their rejection of Christ, they should believe in Him (see also Acts 2:36-38).
So also, in Acts 17, Paul arrived in Athens and spoke to the idolatrous philosophers on Mars Hill. His approach was to confront their false view of God, to inform them of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to warn them of coming judgment. He also declared (verse 30) “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.” So the repentance in this passage concerned their view of God; they needed to change their mind about their idols and trust in the living God.
Thirdly, in Hebrews 6:1, the writer speaks of the elementary truths of “repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.” Notice that this change of mind concerned their religious works not their sins. This change of thinking is what is required of those who are trusting in their own righteous works to save themselves. Note the Apostle Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3. After reviewing all his accomplishments as a religious Pharisee he says, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” He changed his mind about the things he had placed his confidence in; and instead, placed his faith in Christ. In verse nine Paul went on to say, “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
That is true repentance.
Repentance Delineated (repentance and faith)
Repentance and faith, while being closely related, inseparable, and sometimes even used interchangeably, are not identical. Repentance is the negative aspect of saving faith while belief is the positive aspect. One must change his mind about any and all other confidences (or anything which keeps him from placing his faith in Jesus Christ) and must believe the gospel to be regenerated. They are two sides of the same coin and occur concurrently when a sinner trusts Christ for salvation.
Repentance Demonstrated (repentance & evangelism)
There are certain non-negotiable aspects of the gospel message.
1) The sinner must be presented with his sinful state under the wrath of a holy God (Romans 1:18, 3:10, 23, 5:12, Ephesians 2:1-3);
2) There must be enlightenment and conviction by the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11);
3) The sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Christ to provide forgiveness and eternal life must be made clear (Romans 3:24-26, 5:6-8, II Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:24, 3:18); and finally
4) The unbeliever must be shown the need to put his trust in Christ alone to save (John 1:12, 5:24, 6:47, Romans 4:5, 5:1, Ephesians 2:8-9, I John 5:11-13).
When all of these take place salvation will be the result. There is no need to require repentance as a separate act. Steven Waterhouse contends, “If a potential convert can trust in Christ… he has done all the repenting that needs to be done in order to have salvation.” It is not wrong, however, to include repentance in our gospel presentation if it is properly defined. It may, in fact, help the potential convert identify the causes of his unbelief.
A word of caution, often there is confusion between repentance and its results. Notice the words of A. H. Strong: “That repentance, in each and all of its aspects, is wholly an inward act, not to be confounded with the change of life which proceeds from it.” (emphasis mine)
Note the following verses:
Matthew 3:7-8 “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:”
Act 26:20 “But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.”
Both these verses speak of things which should accompany true repentance. Repentance, like faith, is invisible and can be seen only by God because it occurs in the heart and mind of the individual. However, the results of repentance can be observed and give evidence that a change of mind has occurred. When there is no indication of a changed life, one may doubt whether there has been genuine repentance.
The danger is that works can be subtly incorporated into the gospel message by making requirements such as “turning from certain sins”, “changing one’s lifestyle”, “quitting bad habits”, or “making Jesus Lord of one’s life”. These are things that relate to discipleship and are the fruit of salvation not the means of salvation. God is not asking the sinner to stop sinning. The sinner is “…dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) and is powerless to save himself. If a drug addict is told that he give up drugs in order to be accepted for salvation, an impossible obstacle has been placed in his path. But if that individual is given the promise that Jesus came to forgive his sins and to set him free, that is “good news” indeed!
The hymnist Charlotte Elliott wrote (perhaps in view of the promise of John 6:37, “…him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”):
“Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God I come! I Come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”
I pray that we all may have a better understanding of repentance and how it relates to the gospel of the grace of God.
Vincent, Marvin Richardson: Word Studies in the New Testament. Bellingham, WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002, S. 1:23
Note: Acts 20:21 “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Gospel of John never mentions repentance but refers to faith almost one hundred times indicating that John viewed repentance as a part of saving faith. Likewise, the book of Romans mentions repentance only once (2:4).
Waterhouse, Stephen W. Not By Bread Alone: An Outlined Guide to Bible Doctrine (Amarillo, Tx: Westcliff Press, 2003), 141
Strong, Augustus Hopkins: Systematic Theology. Bellingham, Wa. : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004, S. 834