Note: As I have noted in the previous post, back in 2015 I posted a a teaching outline entitled The Doctrine of Conversion: Understanding Faith and Repentance, and the three part series I am continuing today is basically an expansion and reworking of that outline. However, as also previously noted, 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.
There has been an increasing attack upon the teaching that repentance from sin is necessary for salvation. For example, there are some who agree that repentance is properly understood as a turning from sin, but they would argue that such a turning from sin is not a necessary aspect of conversion, and they simply eliminate repentance as a part of Gospel preaching altogether (an example of such a teacher will be given in next week’s post). Yet there are others who redefine repentance so as to eliminate turning from sin as a necessary component of repentance. Charles Ryrie represented that latter point of view when he wrote in his Basic Theology that:
… unsaved people can repent unto salvation. This saving repentance has to involve a change of mind about Jesus Christ so that whatever a person thought of Him before, he changes his mind and trusts Him to be his Savior. That is the only kind or content of repentance that saves (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 2 Pet. 3:9). However, saving repentance may be preceded by a repentance concerning sin (which activates an individual’s sense of need for forgiveness) or a repentance toward God (which alerts him to the fact that he has offended a holy God and therefore needs a way to appease Him). (Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, e-Sword, italics mine)
By redefining repentance in this way, so that it doesn’t require the concept of turning from sin (even if this may sometimes occur), such teachers actually deny that repentance from sin is essential for salvation. Today we shall see that such views are in direct opposition Scripture. We shall see that 1) repentance is turning from sin to follow Christ, 2) repentance is necessary to salvation, and 3) repentance is a gift of God.
I. Repentance Is 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 examples from the Old Testament, it is quite easy to see what the true nature of repentance is, namely 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 verb nāḥam means “1. to regret: a) to become remorseful… b) to regret something [Job 42:6 is listed here] … 2. to be sorry, come to regret something …” (HALOT #6096, BibleWorks). and the use of this word to describe Job’s repentance clearly indicates that sorrow for his sin led him to turn from it.
The Prophets also regularly speak even more plainly of turning from sin in order to follow the LORD. We will begin with an example from the Book of Isaiah:
NKJ Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake [עָזַב, āzaḇ, leave] his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return [שׁוּב, shûv] to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
The Hebrew verb shûv here means “to turn around” or “repent” (HALOT #9407, BibleWorks). It is the most common word used to denote repentance in the Old Testament, as we shall see in the following examples as well:
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, shûv] 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, shûv] from his way and live. Turn [שׁוּב, shûv], turn [שׁוּב, shûv] 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, shûv] to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return [שׁוּב, shûv] to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.
As pointed out above, these passages demonstrate that repentance involves a sorrow for and a turning from sin. But they also show us that repentance has both a negative and a positive aspect. It involves both turning from sin and turning to God in faith.
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.
Here John the Baptist used the Greek noun metánoia, which means “repentance, change of heart, turning from one’s sins, change of way” (UBS Greek Lexicon #3986, BibleWorks). He insisted that, where true repentance has occurred, a changed life will result. There will be “fruits.” Clearly, then, John believed that repentance meant forsaking one’s former sins, just as the LORD had declared through the prophet Isaiah, as we saw earlier.
Paul’s use of the word metánoia 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.
Here Paul is describing the heartfelt repentance of the Corinthian church, who had finally exercised discipline upon one of their brothers who had been guilty of sexual immorality with his father’s wife (see 1 Cor. 5:1-13). The church had been tolerating such behavior, but, after Paul wrote to challenge them about the issue, they did the right thing and dealt with the issue. Paul describes their proper response in this passage, commending them for their “godly sorrow” for their sins which had led them to repentance. There can be no doubt in this context that Paul uses the noun metánoia to indicate a turning from sin.
Having thus gotten a grip on the meaning of the Greek noun metánoia, we may now turn our attention briefly to the related verb metanoéō. Here one example should suffice:
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, essentially means to “turn back, return; turn to [or] turn around” (UBS Greek Lexicon #2511, BibleWorks). Note the similarity in meaning of these terms to the Hebrew shûv in the Old Testament. These words are being used in the same way to indicate the same idea, turning from sin and turning to God in faith.
Given such Scriptural evidence, we can see that Wayne Grudem defines the concept well when he 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. Repentance Is Essential for Salvation
Consider, first of all, the Gospel preaching of our Lord Jesus:
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 [μετανοέω, metanoéō], and believe in the gospel.”
Jesus clearly saw repentance as an essential aspect of His Gospel preaching, didn’t He? No wonder, then, that He also charged His followers to preach repentance as an essential aspect of their Gospel ministry as well:
NKJ Luke 24:46-47 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia] and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
We may see in the example of the apostle Paul that the early Church was faithful in fulfilling Jesus’ command to preach repentance to all nations. Consider first his preaching 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 [μετανοέω, metanoéō], 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.”
Consider also 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 [μετάνοια, metánoia] toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul clearly taught not just that faith in Christ was a necessary aspect of gospel preaching, but that repentance from sin was necessary as well.
We must therefore agree with the assessment found in Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth:
Scripture is unmistakably clear: repentance is not an optional element but is an essential component of the true gospel. Those who insist that it is possible to savingly trust in Christ without repenting of sin – to believe in Jesus as Savior but not submit to Him as Lord – find themselves in direct contradiction to the gospel according to Jesus and the apostles. (John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue, General Editors, pp. 595-596)
Yet we must not think that we are able to repent in our own strength any more than we are able to believe in our own strength, which brings us to our third and final point.
III. Repentance Is a Gift From God
Las week we saw that saving faith is a gift of God, so we should not be surprised that repentance from sin, which is also essential to salvation, is a gift of God as well. We shall briefly consider three passages which teach this concept. The first comes from the defense of Peter before the Sanhedrin:
NKJ Acts 5:31 Him [the Lord Jesus] God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give [δίδωμι, dídōmi] repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia] to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Our next example comes from the reaction of the Christians in Jerusalem to the news that Cornelius and his household had come to faith in Christ:
NKJ Acts 11:18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted [δίδωμι, dídōmi] to the Gentiles repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia] to life.”
Our final example comes from Paul’s pastoral instruction to Timothy:
NKJ 2 Timothy 2:24-25 … And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, 25 in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant [δίδωμι, dídōmi] them repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia], so that they may know the truth.
These passages make it quite clear that repentance is a gift from God, don’t they? As John MacArthur aptly states, “All true repentance is produced by God’s sovereign grace (Eph. 2:7), and without such grace human effort to change is futile (cf. Jer. 13:23) (MacArthur Bible Commentary, e-Sword).
Sadly, however, many 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.
If you have not yet repented of your sins and trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then I urge you to do so today. For God has shown His kindness to you by giving you more time to repent, as the Apostle Paul says to sinners:
NKJ Romans 2:1-4 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia]?
The apostle Peter also speaks about how the longsuffering of God leads us to repentance:
NKJ 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance [μετάνοια, metánoia].
The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place, taking God’s punishment for our sins upon Himself, and He rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death on our behalf. Afterward, He ascended to Heaven from whence He reigns as Lord and Savior, offering the free gift f forgiveness and everlasting life to all who trust in Him. In His patience, He is giving you time to accept His sincere offer of salvation. Will you turn from your sins today and trust in the Lord Jesus to save you from your sins?