What relationship has repentance to faith? Must a man repent before he can be saved?
ONE OF the great and important Bible doctrines is that of repentance. Yet it is to be feared that much of the teaching on this subject, as it relates to salvation, falls into one of two extremes. Either the necessity for repentance is altogether ignored, or it is made to be a separate act from believing and the sinner is led to think that he must do two different things: repent and believe. We trust that the consideration of the subject in this article will clarify its meaning, so that we may see the teaching not only for what it means in itself but also in relation to the other great doctrines about salvation.
The salvation which God has provided for believing sinners, through the death and resurrection of His beloved Son, is of such tremendous scope that God has given us many different views of it in His Word. These come to us in the form of the great doctrines relating to salvation, of which repentance is one.
The New Testament words which are translated "repent," "repented," "repenteth," and "repentance" mean to have another mind, to think differently, to care afterwards. Thus such words denote a reversal of decision. In the Old Testament the words are, in most cases, translated from a Hebrew word which means to ease or to comfort. In the Old Testament references to repentance, however, it will be observed that it is actually a change of mind which eases or comforts the one who repents, so that the word means much the same in the Old Testament as in the New.
Let us notice, without comment, some of the most familiar references to repentance. The message of John the Baptist to Israel was: "Repent ye, for the kingdom heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). On the day of Pentecost Peter told the Jews assembled in Jerusalem: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Paul wrote thus in his letter to the Romans: "Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4). He told the Ephesian elders that he had testified "both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). The Lord Jesus spoke from the glory, and said: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent" (Rev. 3:19).
It is thus evident that repentance has to do with all three classes of mankind mentioned in I Corinthians 10:32: "The Jews...the Gentiles...the Church of God."
There are many different things which men mistakenly call repentance, which are not repentance at all.
Sorrow itself is not repentance, though repentance may be accompanied by sorrow. Even weeping about sin is not in itself repentance. Many have sorrowed and wept at sin in their lives, not because they have seen the awfulness of it and have desired to have it right before God, rather because they have suffered a ruined reputation, or some physical infirmity, or because some cherished ambition has been thwarted.
Neither does the making of resolutions necessarily imply a repentant heart. It may simply be the desire for approval of men, or to have a feeling of self-sufficiency.
And certainly the doing of penance, so-called, can be simply an outward thing, to salve the conscience or to appear righteous.
None of these things, in itself, constitutes repentance
Real repentance is a "change of mind" that reaches the heart. It is to think differently about God and about one's self. We see a beautiful illustration of repentance in the parable spoken by our Lord Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 21:28-30: "But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went" (vss. 28, 29). The action of this son proved that he had had a change of mind. It is ever so with true repentance, which can only be wrought by the Holy Spirit.
Does God ever repent? Certain Scriptures tell us that He does, for example, Exodus 32:9-14, when the Israelites had made and worshiped the golden calf: "And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff necked people: now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people?... Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; Thy servants, to whom Thou swearest by Thine own self... And the LORD repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people."
In reading such passages, we must remember that the Lord uses accommodative language so that we may be able to understand it. As it looks to us, God repents. Looking at it from His side, He does not change. "Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18). "God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?" (Num. 23:19).
Let us notice repentance in regards to Israel. They were chosen by Jehovah to be His people. To them "pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises" (Rom. 9:4). Yet even before they entered the land of promise, they began to turn away from the Lord. Over and over, throughout their Old Testament history, He called upon them to repent. Through Ezekiel He said: "Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin" (18:30). But the nation as a whole did not repent, and when the promised Messiah-King appeared 1900 years ago, His message to them was: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). John the Baptist, Christ's forerunner, told the leaders to "bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance" (Matt. 3:8).
The Jews did not repent, however. Instead, they "crucified the Lord of glory" (I Cor. 2:8). So, on the day of Pentecost, Peter again called upon them to have another mind. "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). Though three thousand of them did this, there was no national repentance, nor has there been until this day. Nevertheless, in the day of our Lord's return, He promises that "they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced" (Zech. 12:10) and will then have another mind about themselves and Him.
God's Word has much to say to believers about repentance. The saints at Ephesus had "left [their] first love" (Rev. 2:4), as so many since then have done. The Lord Jesus speaks thus to them: "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (vs. 5). To them He had to say: "You do not love Me as you did at first" (Williams translation). They needed to think differently about this, and doubtless there are many Christians today who need to do the same thing. For a believer to fail to judge himself and repent, there must of necessity be chastening from our faithful and loving Father. "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent" (Rev. 3:3). To us He gives warning: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent" (Rev. 3:19).
It is through the Word of God that we see the need of repentance in our lives. In fact, true repentance is to think differently about God and sin, because the Word of God thinks differently from the human heart which "is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9).
Observe how the Word of God produced repentance in the hearts of the saints of Corinth. In his first letter to them, Paul rebuked them sharply for allowing unjudged sin in their church fellowship (I Cor. 5). In his second epistle he wrote: "For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter" (II Cor. 7:8-11). Here we have a picture of the Word working in hearts, and lives being changed as the result. This is true repentance for the Christian, and it should be a continual thing in our lives.
Now, what part does repentance have in salvation itself? The Apostle Paul testified of the need of "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21), and that Jew and Gentile alike "should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance" (Acts 26:20). We read that "the goodness of God leadeth...to repentance" (Rom. 2:4) and that the Lord "is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (II Pet. 3:9).
On the other hand, we have other salvation verses in which repentance is not mentioned: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31); "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Rom. 10:9); "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Indeed, the Gospel of John speaks about 100 times of believing on Christ for salvation whereas the word "repentance" is not found in the book.
We must therefore conclude, in the light of such passages as those quoted above, that repentance and faith are not two separate acts required of the sinner in order to be saved but that repentance is included in and is a part of saving faith. Only those who have seen their lost condition and their need of the Saviour will come to Him. The very fact that a person who is blinded by Satan (II Cor. 4:4) and dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) realizes that he needs the Saviour, is evidence that true repentance has come. Such a convicted sinner has another mind about himself and God. He thinks differently about sin. There is a reversal of decision about these things. So, though the sinner is not required to do a certain amount of repenting first and then a certain amount of believing, as two separate and distinct acts, repentance is nevertheless always included in saving faith.
Let us also notice that conviction is not repentance. It is possible for one to be convicted of sin, even to the point of trembling (as in the case of Felix [Acts 24:25]), without repentance and faith. Real repentance, like real faith, will be evidenced by heartfelt actions, the bringing forth "fruits meet for repentance" (Matt. 3:8).
Repentance then is a reversal of decision which Israel must yet have before she is saved nationally. It should be a continual attitude in the believer's heart. And it is included in that faith which saves the sinner.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation by John B. Marchbanks. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970. Chapter 1.
Selections from Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation