This question is hot and central to the Gospel. Recently, Alan Chambers, the last president of the now defunct Exodus International, a ministry helping gays leave the gay lifestyle, raised this very issue. He claimed that unrepentant gays “believers” are fellow brothers in Christ and will therefore go to heaven:
· Is there condemnation for those who are in Christ? There is not! There are people out there living a gay Christian life, an active Christian life. God is the one who called them and has their heart and they are in relationship with Him. And do I believe they will be in heaven with me? I do!
Although Chambers believes that gay sex is sinful, he does not believe that salvation requires repentance, but simply a profession of faith. However, Chambers isn’t alone in this belief. The dispensational theologian, Lewis Sperry Chafer, taught that even a refusal to repent did not impact the question of salvation. Instead, insisting on repentance for salvation violated the Gospel:
- Scripture is violated and the whole doctrine of grace confused when salvation is made to depend on anything other than believing. The divine message is not “believe and pray”…”believe and repent”…If they were as essential to salvation as believing they would never be omitted from any passage wherein the way to be saved is stated. (Major Bible Themes, 187).
In order to protect the teaching that salvation is purely a free gift of Grace, Chafer claimed that saving faith is only a matter of mental assent or agreement to certain truths without any need for commitment or repentance.
Although I respect his concern about upholding the nature of grace, I think that his attempt is misguided. How? Mental assent alone fails to measure up to the standard of Biblical faith. 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, dispensational 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 [simply]
believing in the unity of God. (J.B. Hixson, Rich Whitmire, Roy B. Zuck, “Freely by His Grace,” Grace Gospel Press, 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 – one that includes repentance. 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 Pharisee’s 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.
Let’s return to the original question: Is repentance necessary in order to be saved? While Chambers and the original dispensationalists claim that repentance is unnecessary for salvation, they face a landslide of verses claiming that it is necessary.
There are many evidences that a real Biblical faith and repentance are synonymous and therefore inseparable. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Therefore, most of what we say about faith can also be said about repentance. For one thing, 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).
Are they two separate gifts? Evidently not! We cannot have a willingness to trust and believe without also a willingness to turn from sins (repent). Indeed, they are a package deal and go together:
· “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
Here is another indication that faith and repentance are inseparable. Repentance leads the way to salvation as does faith. There are many verses that mention repentance as the requirement for salvation without any mention of faith:
- 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)
Jesus didn’t have to mention faith in regards to the “forgiveness of sins,” because a born-again heart turns from sin (repentance) and turns to God. They come to us as one single gift. Therefore, the repentant heart is a heart open to faith, and a heart that truly believes is a heart that has repented from the old life and has turned to the new. This represents only one turn – from sin and to God.
Consequently, many of Jesus’ parables mention “repentance” in regards to salvation rather than “faith.” Why is faith left out of the equation? It isn’t. It is merely the opposite side of the same coin. Repentance assumes the presence of faith and faith assumes the presence of repentance. They are inseparable. Therefore, in the parable of the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and lost son, repentance is in view without a mention of faith:
· “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7, 10)
In many ways, Jesus equates repentance with salvation:
· “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” (Luke 10:13-14; 5:32)
The consequence for not repenting is judgment, same as not believing. Paul also contrasts repentance with “God’s righteous judgment”:
· Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:25-26)
Paul warned the Athenians that they must repent or face the judgment of God:
· The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31; 20:21)
All of these verses suggest that we cannot be saved without repenting of the sins of which we are aware.
Paul directly connected repentance to salvation:
- Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Cor. 7:10)
So too Peter:
- 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; 8:22)
These verses are clearly referring to salvation – forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. 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 faith – both being opposite sides of the same coin - then it would be unnecessary 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, is a ludicrous idea. Likewise, trusting in God, while continuing to trust in our own sinful devices, is equally ludicrous.
The Hebrew Scriptures often mention “repentance” or “turn back” in the place of faith. In consecrating the Jerusalem Temple, King Solomon specified repentance as a condition for forgiveness and restoration:
- "When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you, and when they turn back to you and confess your name, praying and making supplication to you in this temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them back to the land you gave to their fathers.” (1 Kings 8:33-34; also see Jer. 24:7; Ezek. 18:30-32; Mal 3:7; Isaiah 1:27; 59:20)
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. Dispensational 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)
In contrast, the “gay Christians” do not loathe their sins. 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.
Both repentance and faith open salvation’s door. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus informs five churches that that they must repent if they are to be saved. For instance, He promises the church at Laodicea:
- Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:19-20; also see Rev. 2:5; 16; 22; 3:3)
They were naked and Jesus told them how they could obtain “white garments” of salvation by means of repentance. Salvation was the issue. There can be little doubt of this. The church at Sardis had been encouraged that if they did repent, “I will never blot out his name from the book of life” (Rev. 3:5).
Telling people that they need not repent in order to be saved might be comforting, but it is a false and temporary comfort. Chambers is telling gays that they need not repent to be saved. However, he is condemning them to a false hope. Instead, the gay must be told, “If you refuse to repent, you are also refusing to believe and to trust in the Lord. If you trust in Him, you will do what He tells you to do. Since you are not doing this, it means that you haven’t placed your trust in Him. You must repent and trust in Him.”
Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that if they didn’t repent, He would remove their lamp-stand. However, if they did repent, they would “eat at the tree of life” (Rev. 2:7).
This is the very type of message we need to be telling the “gay Christians!” However, we shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of the temptation faced by gays. Nevertheless, love requires that we call them to repent.
Repentance is not a meritorious work, as some dispensationalists claim. If repentance is meritorious, then it would give us a basis to boast – the very thing that God has intended to eliminate (Eph. 2:8-9). However, both faith and repentance come as the free gift resulting from a new heart. Nevertheless, both faith and repentance, if genuine, will yield the fruit of obedience.
There is an important distinction between repentance and good deeds. John the Baptist contrasted repentance with the good deeds that will be brought forth by true repentance:
- 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 (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).
Obedience isn’t repentance. Instead, obedience is the fruit of repentance. If we truly regret our sins, we will turn from them. At least, we will try. A good tree bears good fruit.
Paul made the same distinction between repentance and its fruit. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul distinguished repentance from the “deeds” of repentance:
- “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)
Clearly, Paul did not regard repentance as a meritorious act or “deed.” Instead, true repentance brings forth deeds as does faith.
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.
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 entirely separate activities. When I turned to Christ, I simultaneously decided that I no longer wanted my old life.
“Well, if faith and repentance are God’s doing, His gift to me, then it is not my doing!” Many wrongly conclude this way. Others will correctly observe that the Scriptures are filled with commands to repent and to have faith. How then can these be a gift?
Here, I think, is the easiest way to explain this. God must initiate this process by opening our heart, giving us faith and repentance. However, we will then want to walk according to this gift, according to God’s directions:
· If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:25)
If we have this gift of the Spirit, we must nurture it. Likewise, if we have been given the gift of a tree, we must plant and care for it. The gift doesn’t stop with simply receiving it.
Admittedly, this analogy breaks down. How? Nurturing the tree is totally our responsibility. However, keeping “in step with the Spirit” is not our work alone. We have One at our side directing our steps.
Ah, the mysteries of our Lord!