I don’t like debating Christians. I’d rather emphasize our common faith and hope in Jesus (Eph. 4:2-5; John 17:20-23). However, there are erroneous doctrines that need to be corrected (or at least explored further) because they contradict the Gospel at its very foundation. One such doctrine is pejoratively called “easy-believism.” It is described as a faith that consists only in cognitive assent – a simple mental acknowledgement of certain Gospel truths apart from repentance or a determination to follow the Savior. Favoring this doctrine, J.B. Hixson writes:
- Saving faith occurs when one believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again to pay one’s personal penalty for sin and the one who gives eternal life to all who trust in Him and Him alone for it. (Freely by His Grace, 145)
In support, Hixson quotes Charles Ryrie:
- The issue is whether or not you believe that His death paid for all your sin and that by believing in Him you can have forgiveness and eternal life. (146)
However, what does “believing [or trusting] in Him” entail? If we trust in Him, doesn’t this imply that we are trying to follow Him? After all, it makes no sense to say, “I trust in Jesus, but I refuse to follow His teachings!” That’s distrust! That’s saying, “I can run my life better than Jesus! How can this represent trust! Doesn’t trust imply a readiness to commit ourselves to Him? Instead, “trusting” without any intention to follow is like saying, “I trust my doctor so much that I will not take the medicine that he has prescribed.” This isn’t trust but self-deception!
What does Hixson mean by “trust in Him?” Hixson seems to unbiblically separate saving faith/trust from commitment or repentance:
- To require sinners to make the purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pledge to follow Christ as a condition for receiving eternal life is a bit like asking a child to get cleaned up so he can take a bath… No one will be able to change his behavior until after he has been saved by faith alone. (153)
However, the Spirit must already be active in our heart in order for us to exercise faith (John 6:44), and if the Spirit is active, then repentance should also be present. Hixson seems to suggest that salvation can occur (and continue until Christ’s return) without any willingness to turn from the old life. Besides, it makes little sense to claim that we can turn to the new life and not turn away from the old life!
Meanwhile, both sides acknowledge that receiving the gift of salvation doesn’t require awareness and repentance from all of our sins. (Nor does salvation require a mature faith!) This isn’t possible, but a willingness to follow Christ must be present. Likewise, repentance is necessary:
- "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
- “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you--even Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20)
- In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)
- He [Jesus] 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)
- Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Cor. 7:10)
Do these verses that cite repentance as a requirement for salvation contradict the many verses that cite faith alone lest any should boast (Eph. 2:8-9)? Not if faith and repentance are essentially the same thing – opposite sides of the same coin! They certainly seem to be so! For one thing, these concepts are used interchangeably, as if they are virtually the same. Besides, when we turn to God in faith, this same turn is also a turn away from our former life (repentance). We cannot turn to God without turning from something else. Embracing the new life in faith entails a rejection (repentance) of the old life of sin. They also both entail the very same change of heart.
Let’s try to illustrate the inseparability of faith and repentance in another way. If someone says to me:
- Pastor, I really believe in Jesus and want to be baptized. However, I am having an extra-marital affair and I refuse to repent of it.
I would have to answer:
- If you refuse to repent, then you don’t trust in Christ. If you did trust Christ, you would follow Him. Your faith is like the Devil’s faith. He too believes in Jesus, but his faith isn’t a saving faith (James 2:19). A saving faith is one that turns to Jesus, entrusting our lives into His hands. If I baptized you, extending to you the right hand of fellowship, I would then have to withdraw it to bring church disciplinary charges against you and eventually to expel you, if you still aren’t repentant. Don’t you see that a refusal to repent and faith are in contradiction to one another?
The necessity of repentance is taught without any mention of faith. This suggests that faith and repentance are so inseparable that these terms can be used interchangeably! Other verses point to the equivalency of faith and repentance in another way. Both are given as a gift from God. This fact further suggests that they are merely opposite sides of the same coin:
- God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. (Acts 5:31)
- 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)
- And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim. 2:24-25)
If repentance is a gift, then it is not a meritorious work and, therefore, it is not a basis for boasting – a valid concern of the mental-assent-only people. This is supported by the distinction Paul made between repentance and the works that arise out of a repentant heart:
- “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)
“Deeds” and “repentance” are not synonymous. Instead, deeds are the result of repentance. In the same way, faith and deeds are also not synonymous but connected. While faith and repentance represent a change of heart, deeds represent the fruit arising from this changed heart. Therefore, because faith/repentance are given together as the gift of a renewed heart, they cannot be a basis for boasting and arrogance.
Consequently, when we expel the unrepentant from the church, we are warning them that, without repentance, they are still “bound” to their sins (Mat. 16:16-19; Mat 18: 17-18; John 20:21-23). Consequently, their salvation is, at best, in question without repentance.
Besides, the Christian life must be characterized by a changed life. It is not optional:
- If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. (1 John 1:6)
- The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4)
- “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)
- “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2)
- "Then they [who didn’t visit me in prison] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:46; Also, many others - Matthew 5:20; Hebrews 12:14)
A living faith – the gift that comes from God (Eph. 2:8-9) – is a faith that is fertile and productive. Consequently, James claims that a living faith produces works:
- What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?... In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14, 17)
An unproductive faith is a dead and false faith, and it cannot save. Meanwhile, a saving faith says “no” to sin:
- Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:24; Rom. 6:6-7)
A real faith must entail a willingness to follow Jesus! Of course, none of us come close to sinlessness in this life. However, this is not essential, because we can be in right standing with our Savior without sinlessness. He gives us the assurance that if we confess our sins – and of course this entails a willingness to repent – that our Savior will forgive and cleanse us of all of our moral filth (1 John 1:9). However, forgiveness depends on confession/repentance, the result of a new heart!
Perhaps our differences are merely semantic? Perhaps if Hixson thought through what “trust in God” and the provision of a new heart must entail, he might tweak his doctrine. I pray so.
Without insisting that the new convert commit to repentance, we are giving him a false hope. Sadly, there are many who now believe that they are saved even as they refuse to repent of their adulterous, deceitful, or homosexual lifestyle.