Defining Key Words in the Lordship Debate: Repentance (Part 3 of 7)

by Doug Smith

Having established that a sinner is justified by faith alone, but that the purpose of this faith is to produce good works, one may consider the role of repentance in salvation. When one hears of the need to repent and believe, is one hearing what God requires from sinners or is one hearing a message of salvation by works? What does the Bible teach about repentance and salvation?


Jesus clearly claimed that his purpose in coming to the earth was to “call…sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). At the very start of his ministry, Jesus preached a message that required repentance and faith as responses: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15 ). He stated the necessity of repentance: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Three parables in Luke 15 illustrated that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15).


Jesus’ disciples also preached the same message during their Master’s time on earth: “They went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). They continued to preach the same message after his death and resurrection: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19; cf. Acts 2:38 ).

Someone may argue that the earthly ministry of Jesus (and the beginning of the disciples’ ministry after his ascension) was primarily directed toward the Jewish nation. But notice the preaching toward the non-Jewish peoples: “God…now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). The apostle Paul testified “both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). This was simply obedience to the command of Jesus “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Peter wrote that God “is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Repentance is therefore required if perishing is to be avoided. So, repentance is a universal requirement, not for Jews only [1].


Since repentance is necessary, one must find out what it is; what it produces; and whose work it is.


Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. Taken separately, the constituent parts of the Greek word for repentance mean “an afterthought.” Some may argue that one cannot define repentance as anything but a change of mind, that to say a change in behavior is connected is to add something to the word which is not there, since metanoeo literally means to “think afterward” or to “change the mind.” However, when determining the meaning of a word, one must not commit the fallacy of assuming that an apparent compound word cannot mean more than the sum of its individual parts. As D. A. Carson points out, one cannot “determine the meaning of ‘butterfly’ from ‘butter’ and ‘fly,’ or the meaning of ‘pineapple’ from ‘pine’ and ‘apple.’ Even those of us who have never been to Hawaii recognize that pineapples are not a special kind of apple that grows on pines” [2]. One must determine the meaning of repentance not only by its etymology, but by its usage in the Bible. Its usage shows us that it is connected with a change of behavior, as will be demonstrated below.


Repentance is not, in itself, sorrow for something, although it is certainly connected with one being sorry – so sorry, in fact, that the mind is changed so that the behavior will be different (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). In regard to salvation, repentance is a changing of the mind regarding one’s sin and one’s Savior. It is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a desire to be on a different path. It admits that one’s good works are not good enough for God but that the work of the Son of God is what one needs to trust in.


Repentance results in a changed life. It is connected with the idea of turning: “Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30; cf. Acts 20:21 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). If one claimed to have a change of mind about his direction on a pathway but continued in that same direction instead of turning the other way, his claim to have repented would be quite suspect! John the Baptist warned his hearers to “bring forth therefore fruits meet [or, fitting] for repentance” (Matthew 3:8, cf. Luke 3:8). In the Luke passage, he proceeded to spell out practical results of repentance for his audience:


And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:10-14)


The apostle Paul also spoke of how people “should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance produces a return to God: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).

Whose work is repentance? Since it is commanded, many assume that it is a meritorious human work. But faith is also commanded, so is believing in Jesus also a meritorious work? The answer is no. It is the responsibility of a sinner to repent and believe, but such responses are hardly automatic. Esau tried to repent, but “found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:17 ). The words of 2 Timothy 2:25 indicate that repentance is a gift from God when Paul writes about the pastor patiently instructing people, “if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” Repentance was not something they could automatically do, but something God had to work in their hearts. Jesus is the One who saves ” his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 ), and He must get the credit even for our repentance.


We are justified by faith alone, but repentance always accompanies true faith, like the front of the coin always comes with its back.


[1] The book of John is sometimes cited as a book in which the purpose is to bring people to faith in Christ, but repentance is not mentioned. However, this assertion seems difficult to maintain when the concept of the need for repentance is inherent in John, particularly in the following quotes. Not long after John 3:16, which speaks clearly of faith in Christ, we read “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God” (3:20 -21). One of the things Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery was, “Go, and sin no more” (8:11 ). Jesus taught self-denial, which is related directly to repentance: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour” (John 12:24-26). “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). Jesus said to the religious leaders that their works revealed their condition before God: “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (8:39 -42, 44, 47).


A related theme in John’s Gospel and first epistle is light and darkness. Jesus said, “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness” ( 12:46). However, “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now” (1 John 2:9).


Another key teaching concerns the keeping of God’s commands. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him…If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him…For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1 John 2:3-4, 29; 5:3)


[2] His source was Louw’s Semantics of New Testament Greek, 27. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 30.


NEXT TIME: Lord

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