Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Repentance Revisited: Is it necessary for Salvation?

The weightiest objection against repentance as a requirement for salvation is that it undermines the Good News – that God has given us the free gift of eternal life through nothing more than faith in the work of Jesus.

The repentance issue is closely related to the “Lordship Salvation” controversy. Lordship theologians hold that saving faith must include the commitment or determination to make Jesus Lord of our lives. On the other side of the controversy are those who claim that commitment or repentance is not necessary for salvation. They define “faith” narrowly as simply a matter of mental agreement to certain propositions like:

  1. Jesus is the Son of God.
  2. He died for our sins.
  3. Believing these truths is the only route to eternal life.
Sometimes, this theology is called “easy-believism.” I will call it “salvation–by-only- acknowledging-truths” (SOBAT). Arguing for this position, theologian Charles C. Bing wrote:

  • The most critical issue in the Lordship Salvation debate is the nature of faith and its relationship to works. Since a person is saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), faith must be defined in a way that agrees with the nature of grace.  The Lordship understanding of faith contradicts the free grace of God in the gospel by requiring works at some point. (Freely by His Grace, 101)
Bing is right about a few things, and even Lordship Salvation theologians would agree with him:

  1. Our understanding of faith must coincide with our understanding of salvation and grace as free gifts, lest we have grounds for boasting. (However, SOBAT is reluctant to regard faith also as part of free-gift-salvation).
  2. Some Lordship Salvation defenses have wrongly construed works and commitment as meritorious works, undermining our understanding of the graciousness of salvation.
However, in order to protect the teaching that salvation is purely a free gift of Grace, Bing and other SOBATs claim that saving faith is only a matter of mental assent without any need for commitment or repentance. I think that this is a big mistake and will try to demonstrate how mere mental assent fails to measure up to the standard of Biblical faith and then how we should understand repentance in a way that doesn’t violate the concepts of faith or grace.

The demons can also assent to the truths of the Gospel, but this doesn’t save them. James claims that demons believe in “one God” but yet they remain unsaved:

  • But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. (James 2:18-19)
Their problem isn’t that they fail to give mental assent to certain truths. Their problem is that their faith isn’t a Biblical faith. It doesn’t contain any commitment or repentance. In fact, the demons probably know the Gospel better than most of us and could quickly acknowledge its tenants.

However, in opposition to this, SOBAT theologian J.B. Hixson claims that the demons’ problem is not that they lack commitment or repentance but that they lack enough Gospel knowledge:

  • The object of their [the demons’] faith – the proposition they believe- is the unity of God. No one, demons or otherwise, receives eternal salvation by believing in the unity of God. (162)
However, to suppose that demons only understand that God is One is not Scriptural. Clearly, they understand far more. They show evidence that they believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He will judge them:

  • When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. "What do you want with us, Son of God?" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?" (Matthew 8:28-29; also Mark 1:23-24; 3:11; 5:6-7; Luke 4:33-34, 41: 8:28)
Nor should we suppose that this is not all that they understand. They even know something about the way of salvation through the Son:

  • Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." (Acts 16:16-17)
Demons clearly have a lot of knowledge. They know Scripture (Mat. 4:6) and have the ability to deceive us (2 Cor. 11:14-15; 4:4; 1 Tim. 4:1) However, we are not saved purely by our knowledge. The Biblical concept of faith must include more than mere knowledge. And it does.

Jesus told a parable about two people – a Pharisee and a tax-collector – who went into the Temple to pray. Only the despised tax collector left “justified” – saved (Luke 18:9-14). Doubtlessly, the Pharisee could give assent to far more doctrine than could the sinner, but evidently, he lacked saving faith. Clearly, we are not saved by our knowledge of the Gospel alone. While the Pharisee was in denial about his own sin and was consequently unwilling to confess and repent, the tax collector was clearly repentant. Jesus explained that the Pharisees problem was not that he lacked the proper doctrine but that he had refused to humble himself to acknowledge his sin, and that made all the difference. Saving faith must include confession of sin (1 John 1:8-9).


Repentance is not a meritorious work. John the Baptist contrasts repentance with the good deeds that will be brought forth by a repentant heart:

  • But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matthew 3:7-8; Luke 3:8)
 It is easy to say, “I repent of my sins.” It is entirely another thing to “produce fruit” that reflect a repentant heart. Although a change of heart regarding our sins (repentance) is key, the Pharisees were often in denial about their status before the God they professed (Matthew 23; Luke 16:15; 18:9). Consequently, God gave the law to give us an objective measure in regards to our spiritual and moral standing. Bringing forth the fruit (good works) required by the law would reveal whether someone was truly repentant and regretted their sins (Rom.3:19-20).

The fruit wasn’t repentance itself. Instead, it was the fruit of repentance. If we truly regret our sins, we will do something about them. A good tree bears good fruit. At least the effort is there.

The ISBE defines “repentance” (Greek, “metanoeñoô”) as:

  • Spiritual change implied in a sinner's return to God. The term signifies "to have another mind," to change the opinion or purpose with regard to sin. 
In some instances, the ISBE defines it as a feeling but never as a work or as obedience. As a change of heart and mind, it seems to be almost synonymous with faith.

  1. Faith is a turning to God; repentance is a turning away from sin.
  2. Faith is a trust in God; repentance is a rejection of trust in self.
  3. If faith is the determination to live for Christ, then repentance is the determination to turn from what we had lived for.
Seen in this way, faith-repentance represents a single turn away from sin and to God. They are opposite sides of the same coin, not two separate activities. When I turned to Christ, I correspondingly decided that I no longer wanted my old life.

There are many evidences that a real Biblical faith and repentance are inseparable. They both come as gifts from God:

  • For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephes. 2:8-9; also Rom. 12:3; Phil. 1:29; Acts 18:27; 16:14; 13:48; 3:16)
The same principle also applies to repentance. It is granted by God:

  • When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life." (Acts 11:18; 3:36; 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Also, repentance leads to “life” – salvation from our sins. There are many other verses that list repentance as the requirement for salvation without any mention of faith:

  • He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
  • Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, (Acts 3:19; also Acts 2:38; 17:30)
These verses are clearly referring to salvation – reconciliation with God. This can only occur in conjunction with “forgiveness of sins.” Why is there no mention of faith here? Are these verses suggesting that faith is unnecessary for salvation? Of course not! However, if repentance is inseparable from the concept of faith – both being opposite sides of the same coin - then it would be redundant to say “repent and believe.”

Consequently, when John the Baptist and Jesus preached “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” it was understood that this command also entailed a trust in God. Repenting from sin, while totally neglecting God, was a ludicrous idea. Likewise, trusting in God, while continuing to trust in our own sinful devices, is equally ludicrous.

A refusal to repent is a refusal to trust in God. Just imagine one of your congregants requesting that you baptize them, saying:

  • Pastor, I fully trust in Jesus and believe whatever He teaches. However, I must be totally honest with you. I simply refuse to stop molesting little boys. It’s just too important to me. However, I understand that faith is simply mental assent to the truths of Scripture. Therefore, I agree that pedophilia is wrong, but I’m not going to give it up.  
This, of course, is ludicrous. If someone trusts in Jesus, he will do what Jesus tells him to do! When someone refuses to do this, it means that he doesn’t trust in Him. Instead, he believes that he knows better about what is good for him than does Jesus. This is not faith but self-deception.

If you were to baptize him and extend him the right-hand-of-fellowship, you would then have to quickly retract it and bring church disciplinary charges against him. How ludicrous!

However, it would have been very different if the pedophile had said instead:

  • Pastor, I don’t have the strength to quit molesting, but I want to trust that Jesus will help me.
In contrast, this is a cry of repentance and a willingness to follow Jesus! This is also a demonstration of faith.

Faith entails repentance and therefore, repentance is not an extra condition for salvation. SOBAT theologian Charles C. Bing defines saving faith (“pisteuo”) as merely “to be convinced of something” (101). However, this falls far short of the robust portrait of faith that we receive from Scripture. In Scripture we find that faith is not simply a decision to acknowledge certain precepts. Because the natural man is opposed to the light (John 3:19-20), regards the things of God as “foolishness” (1 Cor. 2:14), and, consequently, does not seek God (Rom. 3:10-12), a change of heart is required.

Moses confessed to Israel that “to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know” [or believe] (Deut. 29:4; NASB). However, Moses promised that God would “circumcise your hearts…so that you may love him” (Deut. 30:6). As Ezekiel revealed, faith is predicated upon a new heart and Spirit:

  • I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
This new heart (along with the Holy Spirit) – the pre-condition for faith – would not only produce assent to His truths, but also a love for God and a readiness “to follow my decrees.” It will also produce a willingness to turn from the old life (repentance):

  • Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. (Ezekiel 36:31)
Faith and repentance are a package deal. They are inseparable. They come from the same gift of a new heart. The reality of the New Covenant will not allow us to affirm a faith that lacks commitment and repentance. In the end, when God pours out His Holy Spirit upon Israel, they will not simply acknowledge a certain set of truths, but they will also repent of their sins and seek Him (Zech. 12:10 -13:1).  Jeremiah described this New Covenant reality: God would "put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). As a result:

  • They will always fear me [faith]…so that they will never turn away from me [repentance]. (Jeremiah 32:39-40)
Being born again – receiving and new heart and the Spirit – means that we will receive those truths that we had once hated and rejected. It also necessarily means that we will repent of our former ways, including our hatred of the light! It is impossible to believe if we still retain our former hatred of truth and refuse to repent of it. Faith and repentance are as inseparable as the heads and tails of the same coin.

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