By Brannon S. Howse
One night, not long before I began work on this book, my wife and I invited two couples to our house for dinner. During our conversation, one of the guests asked me, “Is repentance required for salvation?”
I explained that it is and pointed out a number of Scripture passages that are clear on this issue. Faith and repentance are both necessary. Our friend agreed with my explanation, so I asked why she had brought it up.
She pulled from her purse several worksheets that her Sunday school teacher had recently given her class. As I reviewed the information, it was apparent the teacher had been telling the class that repentance was not required for salvation; only faith was required, not repentance. He explained that faith is required for salvation, and repentance is required in order to have fellowship with God.
Although I was disappointed to hear that my friend had been subjected to such a false teaching in her church, I was not altogether surprised. Hopefully, it seems like a silly question—to wonder if repentance is necessary for salvation—but this terrible misunderstanding of the clear teaching in Scripture is found in way too many places these days.
Opposite Truths Attract
The Bible is very clear that salvation requires both faith and repentance. They are two sides of a coin. Some would say that this brings up an argument between Arminianism and Calvinism, but, quite frankly, that is a ‘straw man’ argument. I know many people who would not call themselves “reformed” or “Calvinist” but who believe what the Bible teaches—that repentance is required for salvation. There are plenty of people on both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum who hold to the scriptural teaching that faith and repentance are required for salvation.
John MacArthur articulates the central question on this issue: “Are predestination and man’s responsibility both seen in the Scriptures?” And the answer to that question is, “Absolutely; yes, they are.” With respect to predestination, Scripture says we are chosen from the foundation of the Earth: “All that the Father gives to Me . . . I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37, NKJV). God grants repentance, and yet we also see man’s responsibility: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
We also see in the Scriptures that God desires that no one should perish but all should come to repentance. So, do we see predestination? Yes. Do we see man’s responsibility? Yes. Are these contradictions? Seemingly so, but they truly are not because the Word of God cannot contradict itself. It seems like a paradox, but it’s not. Scripture teaches both. It’s so clear in the Bible, in fact, that I tire of the battling that goes on between these camps who argue one side over the other when both are true. This is known as the doctrine of confluence or doctrine of concurrence. Two streams that come together as one that do not contradict one another.
John MacArthur offers an insightful analogy to how this can be when he raises another series of questions, about divine inspiration of Scripture. “Who wrote the book of Romans?” he asks, “Did Paul write the book of Romans?” Yes, he did. “But did the Holy Spirit write the book of Romans as it moved upon Paul?” Yes. They’re both true. It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. This is an example by which we can clearly see that two things are true, and yet we can’t explain exactly how.
In similar fashion with regard to the incarnation, MacArthur asks, “Was Jesus 100 percent man?” Yes. “Was He 100 percent God?” Yes. Can you be 200 percent of something? No. Of course not. One hundred percent man, and yet 100 percent God seems like a paradox, but that’s what we believe about Jesus Christ. We don’t fully understand it, though, do we?
Finally, to fully personalize the issue, MacArthur asked this: “Who lives your Christian life? Do you live your Christian life?” According to Paul, we do: “I buffet my body. I buffet my body. I bring my body into submission. I buffet or I bring my body into submission.” But yet the Bible also says, “It is not I that lives, but Christ who lives in me.” Again, a seeming paradox or contradiction, yet it’s really not. Despite the seeming contradiction, by faith we understand these things to be true, because they are in the Scriptures.
Repentance and Faith
Those who argue for man’s responsibility only or for predestination only are choosing to accept one side of a coin. I make it a point to explain this so you will understand that I am not “taking sides” in the free will/predestination debate. I am simply teaching what the Bible says. Through study of Scripture alone, I’ve come to see that both man’s responsibility and predestination are in the Word of God, and similarly, both faith and repentance are required for salvation. I’ve identified six clear aspects of why this is true.
1) Repentance is meant to change your mind as well as to cause you to turn from sin.
The Greek term for repentance is metánoia. It implies both a changing of one’s mind and a turning from sin. What’s involved in this changing of our minds? Repentance involves changing your mind about who you are, what you are, and what you deserve. Let me explain.
If you ask people the question “Why do you think God would let you into heaven?” most will say it will happen “because I’ve been a good person.” Yet, Scripture says, “There is none righteous, no, not one. . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23, NKJV). When people truly repent, they understand this truth about themselves. They change their minds about who they are and no longer claim to be “a good person” worthy of heaven.
According to Scripture, if you break one of God’s moral laws, you’ve broken all of them. A repentant person understands that he or she is a totally depraved sinner who deserves God’s wrath, not heaven. Repentance answers the three key questions about yourself this way:
- Who are you? A sinner.
- What are you? Totally depraved.
- What do you deserve? God’s wrath.
The change of mind through repentance produces a change in your priorities, a change in your desires, and a change in your direction. You turn away from the direction of sin.
The problem some people see with the idea that repentance is required for salvation is that they believe it adds works to salvation, but it does not. Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of people. Unfortunately, biblical repentance is not often taught in modern evangelicalism, and as a result, churches are filled with false converts. I was once one of them.
2) Repentance is necessary for salvation.
I was raised in a Christian home and went to both a Christian church and a Christian school, but until I was an adult, I was a false convert. Yes, I prayed the sinner’s prayer at age five. I walked the aisle at seven, and I got baptized. But I didn’t have a hunger for God’s Word. I experienced virtually no spiritual growth, and I didn’t have a great change in my life or direction. I wondered about myself, though. I couldn’t understand why I lived the Christian life without much hunger for God’s Word, for studying the Bible, or for being with other believers. While I enjoyed intellectual arguments about God, I lacked a true hunger for righteousness and right living, holiness, the study of God’s Word, a love for others, and particularly other believers. Those characteristics were not produced in my life until I became a true believer, until I truly repented and understood who I was, what I was, and what I deserved.
I thought I was a pretty good person who deserved some punishment, but certainly not hell. I needed a little bit of the cross but not all of it. However, when I finally understood who I was, what I was, and what I deserved in light of God’s character and nature, I had godly sorrow that produced repentance unto salvation.
For a while I wondered, “How could I have been raised in a Christian home and school, been involved in Christian work, and be a false convert?” Then I came across 2 Corinthians 7:9-11. I love these verses, because they helped me grasp how I ended up being a false convert for so many years. Look at what 2 Corinthians 7:9-11 says:
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (NKJV)
Notice the phrase, “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry.” The missing ingredient in my life was repentance. Like me, many people are sorry, but that’s not the same as repentance. Some are sorry they got caught. Others are sorry because they’re embarrassed that they got caught. They may be sorry for the consequences of getting caught. A lot of people are sorry when they stand before a judge with a black robe and gavel, ready to pronounce sentence. They’re sorry when they face the wrath of the court. Even criminals get sorry at a time like that. This is a sorrow of the world, but it doesn’t accomplish the repentance explained in the rest of the Corinthians passage.
Many people say they’re sorry for their sins, but they continue to be workers of iniquity or lawlessness. They pursue a lifestyle of habitual sinning.
To be sure, believers are not sinless. We continue to battle the old man, described in Romans 6 and 8, and continue to have to make sure we do not serve sin. We have the advantage, though, that we are no longer slaves to sin but to God only. Each of us has been purchased with a price, so God owns us. One of the hallmarks of a believer is that his or her life is marked more by obedience than by disobedience. A true believer is repentant. He or she turns from sin and pursues righteousness, sanctification, and holiness.
When we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior through faith and repentance, we are immediately justified. Then sanctification begins. The true believer exemplifies a lifestyle of repentance, but someone who exhibits only worldly sorrow claims to be sorry but goes back to sinful living. This person’s life is marked by open, flagrant rebellion and sin. There’s a vast difference between stumbling into sin and wantonly jumping in with both feet. It’s the difference produced by godly sorrow as opposed to worldly sorrow. One leads to life, the latter to death.
My friend’s Sunday school teacher must have misunderstood 2 Corinthians 7:10 to say, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to fellowship.” It doesn’t of course, and plenty of other verses reinforce the real meaning. In Luke 13:3, for instance, Jesus says “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (emphasis mine). Matthew 4:17 records Jesus words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And in Matthew 3:2 John the Baptist preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Then, James 2:19 adds a fascinating observation: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” James is cautioning the religious Jews who believe the Old Testament teaching “the Lord Thy God is one God” that their belief is not enough. He’s even being a bit flippant or sarcastic, as if to say, “Well, good for you that you believe in one God, but even demons believe—and are afraid of what they know!”
Merely believing in God is not enough to be saved. You must also repent. In Romans 10:9, Paul explains how this is accomplished: [I]f 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.” This is confession and believing. We see this all throughout the Scriptures as the examples below demonstrate.
- Acts 3:19—Peter declares, “Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (He doesn’t say repent and have fellowship!)
- Acts 20:21—“. . . testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Acts 17:30—Peter declares, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”
- Acts 2:38—Peter declares, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” To be clear, Peter is not teaching here that baptism saves. The actual translation, as we looked at in our series on Twisted Scriptures, Twisted Theology is, “Because of, or on the occasion of the remission of sins, be baptized.” So, this is not a proof text for baptismal regeneration. You don’t have to be baptized for your sins to be forgiven.
- Mark 6:12—“So they went out and preached that people should repent.”
- Luke 24:47 (the Great Commission)—”[R]epentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” The Great Commission includes the mandate to preach repentance and remission of sins.
- 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.”
- Proverbs 28:13—“He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them [repents] will have mercy.”
Repentance is clearly necessary for salvation.
3) Believing in Jesus Christ is not enough to be saved.
The issue of “believing in Jesus” is related to the repentance question. To see how, take a look at Luke 8:13: “But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation, fall away.”
In this parable of the sower and seed, the seed falls on different types of soil, but notice in particular that those who fall on the “rock” believe, but theirs is not a belief unto salvation. It isn’t a faith or belief that includes repentance. These people do not attain a complete faith in Christ—who He is, what He did for us, what we deserve, His Messiahship, Lordship as our Savior, and the only One who can save us from our state of sin and transgression. Their belief does not lead to salvation through repentance; it’s a worldly belief.
So, the Scriptures clearly teach that there are many who have believed but who are not saved. A story in Acts 8 also reflects this same truth. If you read only Acts 8:13, you might think belief alone is sufficient: “Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.” Reading this far in the passage, you would likely think that Simon the Sorcerer was saved because this verse says he believed and was even baptized (you’ll see that this also proves baptism doesn’t save, by the way). A few verses later (18-22), the situation takes a different turn:
And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this, your wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.”
A. T. Robertson claims that a more accurate translation of Peter’s first words would be, “To hell with you and your money.” Simon the Sorcerer had not truly believed and repented. He did not have faith and repentance. His was merely a worldly belief. Simon remained bound by iniquity.
When people hear this teaching, some get worried. They ask, “On that day, will I be called a worker of iniquity? Will I be called a worker of lawlessness?” These are the right questions to ask, but to give a clear answer, we have to explain exactly what a worker of lawlessness or iniquity actually is. A worker of iniquity or lawlessness is a person who has made a lifestyle choice of continually breaking the moral law, breaking God’s commandments, violating His character and nature, willfully living in sin, and wantonly rebelling against God. Although true Christians who have repented of their sins still struggle with sin, it’s not a lifestyle. Even King David fell into gross sin and immorality, but then he understood what he had done and repented—not for salvation, but for restoration to a right position and fellowship. This is not repentance for salvation, because the Bible is clear that once you receive Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, if you truly repent of your sins and place your faith and trust in Christ, no one can pluck you out of His hand.
On the Day of Judgment, some who believed will be shown not to have had a belief and repentance unto salvation. These are the ones to whom God will say, “Depart from Me, I never knew you, you worker of lawlessness, you worker of iniquity.” That’s what Peter meant in Acts 8 when he told Simon the Sorcerer, “You said you believed. You were even baptized. But you are not a believer. You have not repented. I know you said you believe, but you were not saved. You’re bound in iniquity and sin.”
Even the demons believe and tremble. But certainly, they are not saved.
4) Repentance does not mean we become sinless or perfect.
Repentance does not bring us into a state of sinlessness or perfection, and neither is it a work we do to gain salvation. Some people misunderstand this teaching. They think a belief that repentance is necessary for salvation means we’re teaching a works-based salvation, but we’re not. Scripture teaches that repentance is a work of Jesus Christ.
Let’s look at a few key scriptures that teach what I’m saying here. First, Titus 3:5: “...not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Salvation is an act of God, of the Holy Spirit. It is a miracle, not something we do. God gives us salvation.
Next, Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
This clearly tells us that works cannot save us. And if works cannot save us and repentance is required for salvation, then repentance cannot be a work of man, because the Bible cannot contradict itself. Here is the marvelous, biblical understanding that salvation is a gift from God. Repentance cannot be a work, because we can’t be saved by works. Salvation is by faith—“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit, a work of God.
Notice also Acts 26:20: “...but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” At this point in the process, salvation is complete, and true conversion produces a fruit of repentance. I’ve heard it said—and agree—that, “Works are not the root of your salvation; works are the fruit of your salvation.” A person who is truly saved will produce biblical fruit. Jesus Himself said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, NKJV). That happens naturally for those who are saved.
Now look at James 2:18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Again, this is not saying salvation comes through works. It’s another reference to works as the fruit of salvation. Matthew 3:8 is similar: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We are to do works befitting of someone who is pursuing righteous.
Finally, Luke 6:46-49 addresses this point:
But why do you call Me “Lord, Lord,” and not do the things which I say? Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock.
And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great.
This passage points out that people may hear but do nothing about it. Like Simon the Sorcerer, they believe but are not really saved.
The Bible is clear that if we build our house on the foundation of Christ, we have a solid faith. But the Bible also tells us that those who say they’re saved but don’t have their faith built on Christ have not built on a sure foundation. They’re false converts who don’t produce fruit worthy of repentance. Fruit reveals true repentance.
5) Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit and not a work of man.
This is a corollary to what we’ve already said, but it’s important to go a little deeper on this point. God is the One who grants people the ability to repent. We cannot repent on our own. Therefore, it cannot be defined as works. Notice how clear 2 Timothy 2:25 is in this regard: “...in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God, perhaps, will grant them repentance so that they may know the truth.” (emphasis mine)
Who grants repentance? God. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. This passage can refer to a believer who is in sin, who has strayed, or to a believer embracing something false and in need of repenting from that. But it also speaks of the unbeliever. Either way, the bottom line is that God grants the ability to repent so the person can know the truth.
Acts 11:18 reinforces this understanding: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’” Who granted this repentance unto life? God.
Acts 5:30-31 also teaches this: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Again, God gives repentance.
6) Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin.
For some reason, many people can grasp that faith is not a human work, but they think repentance is. The truth is, though, neither one is a work of man. God gives the ability both to believe and to repent. Romans 10:9 shows how they are both necessary: “[I]f 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.”
Acts 20:1 also shows this “two-sided coin” when it says: “…testifying to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Jesus says, “All that the Father gives to me . . . I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). This giving to Him is the Holy Spirit that allows us to understand our sinful state and repent of sin.
Many people today are misled by what I call “easy believism.” The church is filled with false converts because we have not taught a biblical Gospel that includes the teaching that faith and repentance are both required for salvation.
I recall an especially poignant example of easy believism at work. At a Wednesday night prayer meeting a few years ago, I listened while parents and grandparents offered prayer requests. One after another made requests like this:
- “Please pray for my grandchild. He’s in prison for drugs and alcohol and robbery, but I know he’s a believer. He walked the aisle in this very church. He’s saved, but he’s just not living for the Lord.”
- “Pray for my daughter. She’s living with her boyfriend. She’s living deep in sin and has walked away from the faith. She doesn’t want to come to church and even says she no longer believes in God. But I know she’s saved, because she walked the aisle and got baptized into this church.”
These people hold onto the notion that walking the aisle and getting baptized means the person is saved. While that thinking may make the parents and grandparents feel better, the feeling has nothing to do with the person’s actual salvation. The fact that these people are not producing fruit reveals their true conversion—or not. Their works do not befit repentance.
So, if you wonder why the Church is in the state that it is in, it’s because people believe unbiblical, heretical concepts like “you can believe in Jesus and be saved, and repentance can come later.” Yet, that is another gospel—a completely false one.
Copyright 2016 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.