Repentance is Essential to Salvation
The Old Testament closes with God’s rejection of the corrupt worship practices of His people, enumerating through the prophet Malachi the many sins and transgressions being committed by the nation of Israel. Though their iniquity was exceedingly great, it is not the desire or purpose of God that any should “perish but for all to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9), and therefore He called on Israel to change their conduct, saying, “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes, and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7).
The New Testament begins by highlighting the preaching of John the baptizer who preached in the wilderness of Judea, crying out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When certain Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John, he refused, commanding them to “bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance” (3:8). The language of John suggests the true relationship between repentance and the reformation of life. When one repents, he is involving a determination of conscience effort to change the manner of life which is opposed to the divine will.
The verb translated “repent” is metanoeo. Thayer describes repentance as “the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, so that it embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds” (1958. p. 406). Too often people think of repentance as mere sorrow and asking for forgiveness, but as clearly defined, repentance entails more than sorrow or remorse for one’s past conduct; repentance is the determined change of conduct issuing in a new direction of living.
Jesus began His personal ministry by reiterating the very cry of John, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Another inspired writer records Jesus as saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When the Jews insinuated that certain among them had experienced calamity on account of their great sins, Jesus rebuked them with a stern admonition to repent, saying, “Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they have suffered these things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. ” (Luke 13:2–5).
When the twelve had been chosen, Jesus sent them out under the authority of the limited commission to preach in pairs. The message they preached was that all men should “repent” (Mark 6:12). W. E. Vine says repentance “signifies ‘to change one’s mind or purpose,’ always, in the NT, involving a change for the better, an amendment” (1996, p. 525). Under the great commission charged to the apostles near the time of His ascension, Luke records that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47).
The Acts of the Apostles furnishes proof that repentance was intimately connected with the preaching of the gospel and forgiveness of sins. In the midst of the very first gospel sermon, those being convicted by the words of the preacher began asking Peter and the other apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37, 38). During the second sermon recorded in Acts, Peter reflects more fully upon the language of Jesus from Luke 24:46, 47, saying, “But the things which God announced by the mouth of the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and return, that your sins might be wiped away” (Acts 3:18, 19).
In preaching to the polytheists at Athens, Paul calls upon them to forsake the meaningless objects of their worship and to return unto the “God who made the world and all things in it, since He is the Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17 24). Paul further states, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring that all men everywhere should repent” (17:30). Repentance called for the polytheists to abandon the sinful practice of idolatry, and Paul’s uncompromising admonition that “God is declaring that all men everywhere should repent” signifies that we all have something in our lives to abandon through repentance.
The forsaking of sinful practices indicates that the view often held today, even by some in the church, that one in a sinful condition may simply beseech the Lord for pardon while remaining entrenched in the sinful behavior, is totally incompatible with the meaning of biblical repentance. Perhaps no sin is quite as prevalent in the church under this ideology as is the marriage/divorce scenario. Multiple divorces and remarriages - outside the authority of New Testament (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) - are engaged with no intent to honor the teachings of Christ. Christians often seek to sanction the continuation of these illicit unions by simply asking God for forgiveness, as if the waving of the hand may justify living in sin (cf. Romans 6:1ff). Repentance entails more than asking for forgiveness.
Through the preaching, teaching, or reading of the scriptures, the sinner learns the difference between right and wrong, between the will of God and the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-24). Recognizing the evil activities of his own life, the sinner acknowledges belief in the gospel message by expressing guilt and sorrow for the transgressions he has committed. Based upon the knowledge he has gained from the truth of God’s word, he determines to turn away from the wrong, and do the right. Changing the course or conduct of life is true biblical repentance. To willfully persist in an adulterous marriage union, or any other sin, is to forfeit any hope for forgiveness. The child of God cannot afford to be entangled and overcome by sin (see II Peter 2:20-22).
The Hebrews’ writer connects repentance to the most basic and fundamental aspects of the church (cf. Hebrews 6:1f). The primary acts of obedience are all identified by the writer as the ABCs of Christianity. The church at Corinth was told by Paul, “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God…for the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (II Corinthians 7:9, 10). Everywhere Paul preached the message was the same. He told King Agrippa, “I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19, 20).
Repentance is essential to salvation. No man can receive the forgiveness of sins without first repenting of those sins and turning to God in obedience. The virgin’s Son was named “Jesus, for it is He who will save the people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Man is not saved “in” his sins, but “from” his sins (cf. Romans 6:1ff). The preposition apo means “from, away from” (Aland, 1998). When the sinner repents and turns to God, provisions are made through baptism for the washing away of sins in the blood of Christ (cf. Revelation 1:5; Acts 22:16). As belief changes the heart, so repentance changes the conduct. Have you repented of your sins in obedience to the gospel?
Aland, Kurt, et al. (1998), The Greek New Testament, Fourth Edition (Interlinear with Morphology)
(Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems).
Thayer, J. H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T.
Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White (1996), Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old
and New Testament Words: with Topical Index (Nashville: T. Nelson).