Faith and Repentance
Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (December 2014)
In the New Testament doctrine on salvation there is a mutual relationship between the concepts of “faith in Christ” and “repentance”. If we truly believe in Christ, repenting from our evil and selfish ways is inevitable. If we fail to recognise the close association between these two aspects of our salvation, giving due recognition to each of them, we are at risk of undermining and distorting the foundations of our spiritual life. Such people may even end up only having a form of godliness because of their biased thinking. Faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour can only be expressed by turning away from the spiritual darkness of sin and taking refuge in Him who alone is able to forgive our sins and save our souls. He is the light of the world, in Him is life everlasting, and repenting is the way towards approaching Him and becoming a member of His spiritual body on earth (the true church consisting of all born again believers).
The basic objective of the gospel message is the proclaiming of faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah and Saviour of the world. To believe in Him implies turning away from our sins and trusting Him for forgiveness and salvation, while committing ourselves to a continued process of growing up towards spiritual maturity. Let us briefly examine the integrated nature of faith in Christ, the universal call to repentance, and the need of growing up spiritually, which are indispensable to prepare us as able and effective witnesses of Christ in a hostile world.
Biblical faith is not a natural attribute of the human mind but a gift of the Holy Spirit. It functions on a spiritual level and is only instilled in a person when he hears the gospel message: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to impart the divine life and promises of God to us. Jesus said: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
When the Holy Spirits calls sinners to repentance He convicts them both intellectually and spiritually of their sinfulness and lost state, and also of the grace of Christ to forgive their sins and give them new life. He empowers them to react spiritually to the invitation to salvation by believing in Christ and receiving Him as Saviour. When they react positively to these convictions their hearts and minds are in agreement, which means that they are ready to believe spiritually and also to confess intellectually with their lips to these truths: “… 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. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).
When the heart of man reaches out to Christ in faith, fully embracing His salvation by virtue of His atoning death and resurrection, a spiritual regeneration occurs. This act is accompanied by a verbal confession during which the person repents from his sinful past by confessing and forsaking his sins and accepting the gracious deliverance offered to him by the Saviour. Being justified by the Lord, his spirit is quickened and renewed while the Holy Spirit also endows him with enlightened eyes of the mind to understand the Word of the Lord and to order his life accordingly.
However, there are also highly deceptive substitutes for conversion in which the spiritual dimension is not adequately emphasised. In such cases the gospel message (usually a simplified and diluted version of it) only addresses the intellect of a person, and he then responds to it by rationally accepting and believing the historical facts about Jesus, His atoning death and His love for all people. He then academically identifies with Jesus as Saviour and is subsequently declared to be saved by pastors who aim to achieve instant results. But mental beliefs of this nature are not instilled by the Holy Spirit and do not constitute a biblical faith. Such people are members of the vast body of nominal “believers” who are only Christian in name – not in Spirit and in truth. They draw near to the Lord with their mouth and human reasoning, and honour Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him (cf. Matt. 15:8).
Superficial preaching which gives rise to the laying of false spiritual foundations in people’s lives usually do not strongly focus on people’s sinfulness and lost state, thereby depriving the Holy Spirit of the opportunity of convicting them of their sin and stirring their hearts to realise their dire spiritual plight (cf. John 16:8). These convictions need to be very explicit before a person will be well prepared to receive the message of Christ’s saving grace. Standing before the Lord as a lost sinner who fully deserves eternal punishment, he will be overwhelmed by the realisation of Christ’s love which moved Him to take the penalty of all sinners upon Himself and to die in their place. The Holy Spirit enables the sorrowful sinner to believe in Christ and to submit his entire life to Him.
A surrender of this nature is described as repentance, and takes the form of confessing and forsaking all sin and iniquities that separated the sinner from God: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). Repentance driven by godly sorrow over sin is the hallmark of a true conversion. Godly sorrow is instilled by the Holy Spirit in association with a vivid consciousness of a person’s sinfulness; but it is also attended by the spiritual motivation and capacity to repent from his sin and put his trust in Christ as Saviour. A sinner will never regret facing the nature and consequences of his sinfulness, and for being emotionally and spiritually shattered by his predicament, because the Holy Spirit uses this experience to guide him towards repentance and salvation.
Sinners who are not confronted by the gospel message often experience remorse for what they have done, but that is merely a fleshly reaction. They suffer from self-pity and are seeking other people’s forgiveness and reassurance, and often also psychological counselling to correct their selfish, lawless and anti-social behaviour. Their problem of being lost sinners is not solved, and therefore this kind of fleshly (or worldly) sorrow only produces spiritual death. The unsaved sinner continues along his way and only resorts to futile humanistic methods to improve his life.
There are also large numbers of sinners who are indeed introduced to Christ as Saviour, but without confronting them with their sinfulness which separates them from God. They are convinced that all they need to do is to accept Christ as Saviour by faith without specifically reflecting on ways in which to deal with their sin through confession and repentance. This is a dangerous spiritual pitfall as it is unbiblical to proclaim salvation by faith without repentance and the confession of sins (cf. 1 John 1:8-9). This humanly-imposed way of salvation leads to a mere intellectual commitment to Christ without clearly addressing the issue of sin, and only produces a form of self-righteousness which is devoid of a changed heart produced by divine regeneration. Such a person is still dominated by the flesh (the depraved human nature) and is therefore not truly a follower of Christ.
Just as much as true faith in Christ is demonstrated by repentance, the latter is always the consequence of faith and therefore inherently part of the act of believing and trusting Christ. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).
Repentance and the forgiveness of sins can only take place when faith is confessed in the crucified and risen Christ. The Holy Spirit convicts people of their sin and enables them to put faith in Christ and confess their sins to Him. That is the reason why the execution of the Great Commission could only commence after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In the same vein, repentance is used as a key concept when preaching Christ to a lost world: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 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” (Acts 17:30-31). It is obvious that repentance without firmly believing in Christ would not be possible. We are accountable to Christ for what we have done with our lives, and repentance is the way of being faithfully reconciled to God through Him.
It is often argued by extreme dispensationalists that Paul proclaimed salvation by faith alone, without the need for repentance and the confession of sins. The latter are allegedly part of an Old Testament doctrine of salvation based upon human works such as repentance, confession of sin, and a commitment towards law observance. However, this is a complete misrepresentation of the Pauline gospel of salvation. This apostle relates faith in Christ to a spiritual disposition which, in no uncertain terms, includes and actually demands repentance.
Paul explained his divine mandate to evangelise the Gentile world and said that God sent him to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). It is obvious that turning away from the power of Satan towards Christ (repenting) is an act of faith which leads to the forgiveness of sins. The Thessalonians are commended for their “work of faith”, and to this Paul added, “… how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:3, 9).
Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Paul explained to the Hebrew believers that faith and repentance are foundational to their spiritual life as these constitute the point where their relationship with Christ first began. He urged them to continue growing spiritually, “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God” (Heb. 6:1). Could there be any clearer statement than this on the relationship between repentance and faith? True salvation includes repenting from dead works as well as faith in the Triune God.
The message which Paul proclaimed was the same to sinners of all nationalities, “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). He reminded the congregation in Rome that the goodness of God leads them to repentance (cf. Rom. 2:4).
In the light of these pronouncements it is obvious that when Paul says that we are saved by faith and not by works (cf. Eph. 2:8-9), he does not deny the necessity of repentance and the confession of sins, but only discounts human efforts towards good works as a basis of salvation. We must put our trust fully in Christ’s redemptive work. When doing that, we will experience salvation which is rooted in faith, godly sorrow over sin, and repentance (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10). Under the conviction of the Holy Spirit we will flee from our sin and embrace Christ as Saviour.
The fact that the term “repentance” is not frequently used by Paul is due to his preference for other terms which even more clearly convey the meaning of repenting (turning from sin towards Christ). He often refers to our obligation to put off sin and to put on the divine nature of Christ: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:5-10; cf. Eph. 4:22-24).
Our calling to sanctification demands that we continue to search ourselves and put off all sin and fleshliness. We therefore have to continue repenting from sins of which the Holy Spirit convicts us: “Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. … But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts” (Rom. 13:12, 14; cf. Eph. 5:11).
Sin is a destroyer of faith and should not be allowed to do its evil and destructive work in our lives. Paul wrote to the Jewish believers, many of whom were backsliding because of compromising with sin: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:12-14). We should persevere on the way of faith, holiness and dedication to the Lord with a pure heart filled with the love of Christ.
To lose your sensitivity for sin, to make room for it in your life and willingly submit yourself to its domination and slavery, is a recipe for spiritual disaster. Live a holy life and stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free. The biblical way of freedom from the intimidating power of sin is to identify with the cross of Christ to such an extent that you will die to sin, to the flesh and to the world: “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:11-13).
Keep on repenting and obeying the Spirit of truth
The great significance of repenting when you first put your faith in Christ as your Saviour should never be forgotten and allowed to lose its relevance since you are called upon to continue prevailing over sin and temptations for the rest of your life. The Holy Spirit is able to empower you to be more than a conqueror through Christ our Lord, and He will also guide you into all truth if you are fully surrendered to Him. If you continue walking in the light as Christ is in the light, you will have fellowship with Him through His Spirit, and His blood will continue to cleanse you from all sin (1 John 1:7).
Only those believers who fall prey to carnal pride, love of money, or any other fleshly lusts, tend to exalt themselves – even above obvious truths in the Word of God – thereby becoming easy targets to the spirit of error which is ever intent on leading Christians astray. In their fleshly arrogance these deceived believers even condemn other believers who dare to differ from their own understanding of the Word. One of the most common forms of deception in our time is that sin in the lives of Christians is overlooked and condoned, on condition only that they keep on “believing” in Christ. There is no insistence on continued repentance.
But Christ has come to the world to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). It is imperative that we are continually cleansed from all sin and that its power over us should be broken. Paul looks back to the sinful past of the Corinthian believers and confirmed that they repented and were thoroughly cleansed from all these sins: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Jesus Christ did not only die on the cross to save sinners from the eternal punishment upon sinners, but also from the power of specific sins in the lives of His followers. He came to set us free. If we fully embrace His saving and sanctifying grace sin will not reign over us. If the flesh is dethroned and crucified in our lives, the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth and also give us the correct understanding of biblical doctrines (cf. John 16:13).
That is the only biblical way of fostering true unity among believers, as well as singleness of purpose: we should all be fully grounded and rooted in the love and truth of Christ. Paul encouraged the Philippians to this end: “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ … stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).