Repentance is a common term that is used within all Christians groups. The difficulty within Christendom is that many of our theological terms have different meanings. This is usually why there is confusion and inability to understand one another. In our discussions we sound as if we are saying the same thing, but in essence, we are far apart in what we mean.
This will be seen in how each of us use the term repentance.
Repentance has been defined as turning around, heading the opposite direction, turning from sin,
sorrow for sins, having a change of heart, a change of mind, to turn back, around,
or from something.
The other question that follows is how one defines this repentance and it's timing in the order of
salvation. Does repentance follow or precede regeneration?
I will finish with the last question posed by theologians, i.e. who's work is repentance? Man's or
REPENTANCE AND ITS MEANING AND ORDER
All of the previous definitions are valid and can be used. The question is, which definition is Biblical?
The primary division between these terms hinges upon whether the term "repent" is an ethical term, or a neutral term. Is repentance a turning from our sin or previous life, or is it a mere change of heart concerning the work of Christ?
Some shy away from the ethical(1) since in their minds this would somehow be adding something to salvation by faith. The arguments are strong and compelling, but they are short sited. Out of a desire to honor God and to avoid a works salvation, this seems like the only option to take. This is the result of faulty logic which reduces everything to an either/or situation. The one option that they have missed is that saving faith is always accompanied by repentance. If one does not turn from sin, they are not convinced that their sin was the cause of Jesus having to go to the cross on their behalf. They are not really convinced that they need a Savior. Any faith that does not bring
about genuine repentance is a sham faith, and one who persists with such a faith is still dead in their trespasses and sins. This is not works, this is Biblical faith.
Those who desire to eliminate repentance from the gospel argue that it is the result of our
salvation, and not the condition of salvation. This puts salvation first, then repentance following as a fruit of salvation. This is good logic, but poor Bible. Nowhere does the Bible follow this
order. It is always repent and believe, never believe and repent.
Theologian Benjamin Field(2) observed that " It is very common with Calvinistic writers to insist
on faith as preceding repentance. We believe that in the order of time repentance is exercised
first. "There is indeed, a faith which precedes and induces repentance - a belief of the testimony
of God concerning the evil and demerit of sin, and concerning His willingness to receive such as
renounce sin and turn to Him. The former must be believed, or the sinner will see no need of
repentance. The latter must be in some degree apprehended, or he will have no sufficient
encouragement to repentance. But the belief which thus produces penitence is not the faith which
justifies and saves him." Justifying faith has a direct and immediate reference to Christ crucified,
and is consequent upon that penitential sorrow which mourns for guilt and cries for mercy. The
jailor at Philippi was a real penitent when he was directed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist observed the same order in exhortation, "repent ye and believe the Gospel"
(Mark 1:15) ; and so did Paul in his preaching, whether to Jews or Greeks (Acts 20:21),
"testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."
Dr. William Burt Pope wrote(3) concerning this issue, "repentance precedes the faith which brings
salvation. Repent and believe the Gospel is the formula that never will be displaced."...
"Repentance and faith mutually aid if they do not actually spring out of each other."
As an example of the Biblical order, the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14
illuminates this subject. In the pattern that Jesus established, the only one that walked away
justified was the penitent, and only after he had repented. Nothing within the story establishes the
placement of faith, but it does firmly establish salvation as following the occurrence of
repentance, and not before. Verse 14, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather
than the other."
John Wesley clarifies this order(4) and its relationship to good works saying, Good works follow this (saving) faith, but it cannot go before it: (Luke 6:43:) .... It is allowed, also, that repentance, and "fruits meet for repentance," go before faith. (Mark 1:15; Matthew 3:8.) Repentance absolutely must go before faith (speaking of saving faith); fruits meet for it, if there be opportunity. By repentance, I mean conviction of sin, producing real desires and sincere
resolutions of amendment.... But these I cannot as yet term good works; because they do not
spring from faith and love of God."
REPENTANCE: MAN'S WORK, OR GOD'S?
How anyone can ignore this order, and claim that the Bible teaches otherwise is beyond my
There is no doubt that any definition of repentance must include that there is a change of heart,
and there nothing within Scripture that excludes the ethical. The fact that a Believer is a New
Creature in Christ, is converted, born-again, has the Holy Spirit dwelling within, gives us the
implication that an ethical change has been wrought within. It is hard to see how these things
could be possible while one remained an enemy of Christ by refusing to abandon their sin.
This I believe to be the most difficult area to delve into. People tend to lean to one extreme or the
other on the issue. We cannot exclude God from this equation, nor can we exclude man's part.
We must include all that the Bible has to say on this subject.
We must start with the reality of mankind's depravity. By the fall, man has been diseased and
corrupted to the point that we cannot, and will not desire to be reconciled to God in and of our
own power. Romans 3:11 tells us that "There is none that understandeth, there is none that
seeketh after God." And Jesus said "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent
me draw him." John 6:44. We do not initiate salvation through the freedom of the will. God
initiates and offers the gift of salvation and enables our will to respond. In this we are free. "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" in which the opportunity to repent is proclaimed and afforded to everyone when He offers this grace in His own time. The opportunity to repent is
proclaimed and afforded to everyone when He offers this grace in His own time. We do not
choose the time when He will call, but we do choose what to do with the offer when it is given. "
But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God." John 1:12
The ability to repent is a gift of God. The responsibility to repent is man's. God can no more
repent for us than He can believe for us. The command to repent is not directed towards God, but
men. We cannot force the timing of God in salvation. Free-will in man does not mean that we are
free to "decide" any time we want, but is contingent upon the call of God.
A misunderstanding of repentance can lead us down paths that detract from the Gospel. If
repentance is not required in order to be saved, then it cannot be demanded later. This logic has
brought about rank antinomianism within the modern Church. On the other extreme, there has
been too much confidence in the free-will of man. This has reduced the Gospel to the recitation
of incantations (the sinners prayer) as if God was obligated to accept someone just because they
blurted out some words.
Free grace is the emphasis that the Bible puts on salvation, not free-will, or forced will. Grace
freely offered to all in God's own time.
1. Christian Doctrine, Robert E. Goodhart, Church of Philadelphia-Naperville.
Mr. Goodhart give a well stated and compelling argument for defining repentance as a change of heart. But on pages 33 and 34 he says "There are many preachers and evangelists today who say that you must repent of your sins and trust Christ, as separate acts, in order to be saved, and that is terribly wrong! Frankly, it is another gospel, which is really no gospel at all...therefore, you would be counting on a work. Anyone who believes this, has just built a bridge back to Rome. It's just a more sophisticated works salvation." This is a good example of the current fear within theology against good works. The fear of the mere appearance of earning salvation has caused many to remove any reference to ethical living as part of God's plan for salvation, and evade it in their Bibles. This is the poison of
antinomianism and the rotten fruit of a gnostic religion.
2. Handbook of Christian Theology, Rev. Benjamin Field, Methodist Book Concern, 1897 Pages 195-196.
3. A Compendium of Christian Theology, William Burt Pope D.D., Phillips and Hunt, Cincinnati, Second Edition, 1885. Vol. 2, Pages 384-385.
4. Wesley's Works, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Peabody, Mass. Reprinted 1986. Vol 8:47.
This article was written by Mr. Jeff Paton. Mr. Paton has read and studied many of the classic Methodist and Wesleyan theological writings. He is a supporter of Bible Believing Methodism and IMARC. We thank
God for his insight and ministry. If you would like to contact Mr. Paton, you may feel free to do so.