What Ever Happened to Repentance?

A while back, I was witnessing to a group of college-age guys. They were familiarity with Christianity, but it was obvious that they didn’t know the gospel. As I spoke of sin and judgment, one of the guys began squirming nervously. I could tell that he was troubled by what I was saying. Finally, he interrupted me with a question I won’t soon forget: “Hey man, I’m gonna be honest with you,” he blurted out, “I’m living with my girlfriend right now and I don’t want to stop. I know it’s wrong, but I don’t want to give it up… But I don’t want to go to hell either. Can I keep my sin and go to heaven?” At that point, the rest of the guys suddenly became interested in the conversation. What was I going to say in response to their friend’s dilemma?

What would you say?

Sadly, many Christians would argue that he can as long as he simply trusts in Jesus: “That sin isn’t the issue,” they would argue. “You can deal with it later. Good works, after all, can’t save you. What really matters is whether or not you’re trusting in Jesus for eternal life. If you believe in Jesus, He will save you!” Thus, another sin-loving, non-repentant soul would be “led to the Lord” and given a false hope of salvation.

The Great Omission

The doctrine of repentance has become the “Great Omission” in the Great Commission. The biblical command to repent has been replaced by confusing or watered-down invitations to:

  • “Give your life to Jesus”
  • “Ask Jesus in your heart”
  • “Accept Jesus”
  • “Pray this prayer after me…”

The Bible, however, is clear: you cannot be saved if you refuse to repent.

Repentance: A Biblical Overview

Sinners must turn from their rebellion against God to receive His forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Both Testaments are clear that repentance is a non-negotiable response to God’s offer of salvation.

Old Testament 

The Old Testament prophets boldly, consistently, and faithfully preached a message of repentance (Is. 31:16: 44:22; 55:7; Eze. 18:30,32; 33:11; Hos. 3:5; Joel 2:12-13; Zec. 1:3). The theme of repentance was especially pronounced in the preaching ministry of Jeremiah (Jer. 3:6-4:4; 18:11; 25:5; 26:3; 35:15; 36:3). From the Old Testament, we see that “true repentance consists of acknowledgment of personal guilt (Jer. 3:13), remorse for sins (Jer. 31:19; Ezek. 36:31; Jon. 3:8a), forsaking of evil thoughts and deeds (Is. 55:7; Jer. 18:11; Ezek. 14:6; Jon.3:8b), turning to the Lord with one’s entire being (Is.55:6; Joel 2:12), and bringing forth fruits indicative of a changed heart (Hos. 12:6; 14:2)” – Bruce DeMarest “The Cross and Salvation” (p. 245).

New Testament

The message of repentance didn’t end with the writings of the prophets. Jesus and His apostles preached the necessity of repentance as well. When Jesus began His public ministry, His first message was a call to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mr. 1:15). The Great Physician of sin-sick souls stated that His mission was to “call sinners to repentance” (Mr. 2:17; Lk. 5:32). The Lord made it clear that if people refused to repent, they would perish in their sins (Lk. 13:3, 5). When Jesus sent out His apostles on their first mission, they “went out and preached that men should repent” (Mr. 6:12). After His ascension, He commissioned His followers to preach repentance in His name to all nations (Lk. 24:46-47). The disciples obeyed Jesus and preached a gospel of repentance to both Jews (Acts 2:37, 3:19-20) and Gentiles (Acts 17:30, 20:21; 26:18-20).

It is clear from both the Old and New Testaments that no one can be saved if they refuse to repent.

Understanding Repentance

To understand what repentance is, we first need to be clear on what repentance is NOT. Repentance is not sorrow over sin’s consequences, self-reformation, or a casual change of mind about the gospel. True repentance is a turning from sin to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a change of heart that leads to a change of life (2 Cor. 5:17; Mt. 3:8). Repentance does not mean that we will never sin again. Rather, it mean that we will never be at peace with sin again.

When people repent, the following things happen: 

  • They see sin the way God sees it.  
  • They no longer love their sin, but hate it. They have no desire to continue living in it anymore. 
  • They realize that they are sinners who deserve eternal death because of sin.
  • They turn from pride, self-reliance, and sin to God, humbly trusting in gospel grace to be forgiven and reconciled to Him. 

Answering a Possible Objection

So let’s return to my opening conversation. You might be thinking, “So are you suggesting that a person needs to repent of every individual sin before they can believe the gospel?” Here’s what I would say:

When a person truly sees sin the way God sees it, they won’t want to continue living in it anymore. They’ll abhor sin and long for cleansing, forgiveness, and deliverance. They won’t cherish or cling to any sin that that would keep them from turning to Christ in faith.

There are two clear examples of this that we can see in the New Testament. The first is the story of the rich young ruler (Mr. 10:17-27). It was clear that he hadn’t come to grips with the sinfulness of his own heart. He did not detest his pride nor see the gravity of his sin against God. When Christ pointed the finger on his sinful heart of covetousness, he turned away sorrowful. He was not willing to acknowledge his pride or turn from his sin to follow Jesus. His love of darkness kept him from embracing the light of salvation (Jn. 3:19-20).

The other example from Scriptures is Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10). The Spirit was clearly working in his life when he met Jesus. In contrast to the young ruler, this man knew that he was a sinner. He hated his sin and gladly turned from it to Christ, as evidenced by his confession and determination to restore what he had stolen (Lk. 19:8). This man repented, turned to Christ in faith, and received God’s grace in salvation. Jesus affirmed his conversion when He said, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk. 19:9).

Micah Colbert

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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