REPENTANCE By Jeff Paton
Repentance is a common term that is used within all Christians groups. The
difficulty within Christendom is that many of our theological terms have
different meanings. This is usually why there is confusion and inability to
understand one another. In our discussions we sound as if we are saying the same
thing, but in essence, we are far apart in what we mean.
This will be seen in how each of us use the term repentance.
Repentance has been defined as turning around, heading the opposite direction,
turning from sin, sorrow for sins, having a change of heart, a change of mind,
to turn back, around, or from something.
The other question that follows is how one defines this repentance and it's
timing in the order of salvation. Does repentance follow or precede
I will finish with the last question posed by theologians, i.e. who's work is
repentance? Man's or God's?
REPENTANCE AND ITS MEANING AND ORDER
All of the previous definitions are valid and can be used. The question is,
which definition is Biblical?
The primary division between these terms hinges upon whether the term
"repent" is an ethical term, or a neutral term. Is repentance a
turning from our sin or previous life, or is it a mere change of heart
concerning the work of Christ?
Some shy away from the ethical(1) since in their
minds this would somehow be adding something to salvation by faith. The
arguments are strong and compelling, but they are short sited. Out of a desire
to honor God and to avoid a works salvation, this seems like the only option to
take. This is the result of faulty logic which reduces everything to an
either/or situation. The one option that they have missed is that saving faith
is always accompanied by repentance. If one does not turn from sin, they are not
convinced that their sin was the cause of Jesus having to go to the cross on
their behalf. They are not really convinced that they need a Savior. Any faith
that does not bring about genuine repentance is a sham faith, and one who
persists with such a faith is still dead in their trespasses and sins. This is
not works, this is Biblical faith.
Those who desire to eliminate repentance from the gospel argue that it is the result
of our salvation, and not the condition of salvation. This puts
salvation first, then repentance following as a fruit of salvation. This is good
logic, but poor Bible. Nowhere does the Bible follow this order. It is always
repent and believe, never believe and repent.
Theologian Benjamin Field(2) observed that "
It is very common with Calvinistic writers to insist on faith as preceding
repentance. We believe that in the order of time repentance is exercised first.
"There is indeed, a faith which precedes and induces repentance - a belief
of the testimony of God concerning the evil and demerit of sin, and concerning
His willingness to receive such as renounce sin and turn to Him. The former must
be believed, or the sinner will see no need of repentance. The latter must be in
some degree apprehended, or he will have no sufficient encouragement to
repentance. But the belief which thus produces penitence is not the faith which
justifies and saves him." Justifying faith has a direct and immediate
reference to Christ crucified, and is consequent upon that penitential
sorrow which mourns for guilt and cries for mercy. The jailor at Philippi was a
real penitent when he was directed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. John the
Baptist observed the same order in exhortation, "repent ye and believe the
Gospel" (Mark 1:15) ; and so did Paul in his preaching, whether to Jews or
Greeks (Acts 20:21), "testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward
our Lord Jesus Christ."
Dr. William Burt Pope wrote(3) concerning this
issue, "repentance precedes the faith which brings salvation. Repent
and believe the Gospel is the formula that never will be
displaced."... "Repentance and faith mutually aid if they do not
actually spring out of each other."
As an example of the Biblical order, the parable of the publican and the
Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 illuminates this subject. In the pattern that Jesus
established, the only one that walked away justified was the penitent, and only
after he had repented. Nothing within the story establishes the placement of
faith, but it does firmly establish salvation as following the occurrence of
repentance, and not before. Verse 14, "I tell you, this man went down to
his house justified rather than the other."
John Wesley clarifies this order(4) and its
relationship to good works saying, Good works follow this (saving) faith, but it
cannot go before it: (Luke 6:43:) .... It is allowed, also, that repentance, and
"fruits meet for repentance," go before faith. (Mark 1:15; Matthew
3:8.) Repentance absolutely must go before faith (speaking of saving faith);
fruits meet for it, if there be opportunity. By repentance, I mean conviction of
sin, producing real desires and sincere resolutions of amendment.... But these I
cannot as yet term good works; because they do not spring from faith and love of
How anyone can ignore this order, and claim that the Bible teaches otherwise is
beyond my comprehension.
There is no doubt that any definition of repentance must include that there is a
change of heart, and there nothing within Scripture that excludes the ethical.
The fact that a Believer is a New Creature in Christ, is converted, born-again,
has the Holy Spirit dwelling within, gives us the implication that an ethical
change has been wrought within. It is hard to see how these things could be
possible while one remained an enemy of Christ by refusing to abandon their sin.
REPENTANCE: MAN'S WORK, OR GOD'S?
This I believe to be the most difficult area to delve into. People tend to lean
to one extreme or the other on the issue. We cannot exclude God from this
equation, nor can we exclude man's part. We must include all that the Bible has
to say on this subject.
We must start with the reality of mankind's depravity. By the fall, man has been
diseased and corrupted to the point that we cannot, and will not desire to be
reconciled to God in and of our own power. Romans 3:11 tells us that "There
is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." And
Jesus said "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me
draw him." John 6:44. We do not initiate salvation through the freedom of
the will. God initiates and offers the gift of salvation and enables our will to
respond. In this we are free. "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted
repentance unto life" in which the opportunity to repent is proclaimed and
afforded to everyone when He offers this grace in His own time. The opportunity
to repent is proclaimed and afforded to everyone when He offers this grace in
His own time. We do not choose the time when He will call, but we do choose what
to do with the offer when it is given. " But as many as received him, to
them gave he the power to become the sons of God." John 1:12
The ability to repent is a gift of God. The responsibility to
repent is man's. God can no more repent for us than He can believe for us. The
command to repent is not directed towards God, but men. We cannot force the
timing of God in salvation. Free-will in man does not mean that we are free to
"decide" any time we want, but is contingent upon the call of God.
A misunderstanding of repentance can lead us down paths that detract from the
Gospel. If repentance is not required in order to be saved, then it cannot be
demanded later. This logic has brought about rank antinomianism within the
modern Church. On the other extreme, there has been too much confidence in the
free-will of man. This has reduced the Gospel to the recitation of incantations
(the sinners prayer) as if God was obligated to accept someone just because they
blurted out some words.
Free grace is the emphasis that the Bible puts on salvation, not free-will, or
forced will. Grace freely offered to all in God's own time.
1. Christian Doctrine, Robert E.
Goodhart, Church of Philadelphia-Naperville.
Mr. Goodhart give a well stated and compelling argument for
defining repentance as a change of heart. But on pages 33 and 34 he says
"There are many preachers and evangelists today who say that you must
repent of your sins and trust Christ, as separate acts, in order to be saved,
and that is terribly wrong! Frankly, it is another gospel, which is really no
gospel at all...therefore, you would be counting on a work. Anyone who believes
this, has just built a bridge back to Rome. It's just a more sophisticated works
Editor's note: This is
a good example of the current fear within theology against good works. The fear
of the mere appearance of earning salvation has caused many to remove any
reference to ethical living as part of God's plan for salvation, and evade it in
their Bibles. This is the poison of antinomianism and the rotten fruit of a
2. Handbook of Christian Theology,
Rev. Benjamin Field, Methodist Book Concern, 1897 Pages 195-196.
3. A Compendium of Christian Theology,
William Burt Pope D.D., Phillips and Hunt, Cincinnati, Second Edition, 1885.
Vol. 2, Pages 384-385.
4. Wesley's Works, Hendrickson
Publishers, Inc., Peabody, Mass. Reprinted 1986. Vol 8:47.