Is Repentance a Condition for Salvation?

In the previous post we made the point that evangelicals overreacted to the works salvation adopted by Mainline denominations by asserting that repentance as traditionally understood is not required for salvation.

The Traditional View of Repentance

The traditional understanding of repentance entails turning from the sinfulness of one’s self-directed past and submitting to the authority of Christ, who calls us to live righteously. It is important to recognize that repentance refers to a commitment to live differently and not the actual living out of that commitment. In other words, repentance does not mean that one must live a holy life to be saved. It does mean, however, that the individual intends to live a holy life and commits himself to do so through the power of God. Therefore, repentance does not constitute works per se, but rather the intent and commitment to do good works. In other words, repentance deals with a heart orientation.

I find the analogy to marriage helpful in understanding this point. When a bride says her vows, she in essence commits to leave her life of singleness and begin a new life committed to her husband. Likewise the intent of the groom toward his bride. Therefore, expressing this intent in making this commitment does not entail any works as such, but rather involves an expression of intent.

Scripture Teaches that Repentance is a Condition of Salvation

The challenge for those who want to exclude repentance as a condition for salvation is found in the many passages indicating that it is a condition for salvation. The first recorded word in the public ministry of Jesus is “repent.” “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 4:17) Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost did not even mention faith or the need to believe, but rather called the people to repent. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38) Likewise with the apostle Paul in his presentation to the pagans of Athens. “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent….” (Acts 17:30)

Evangelical Redefining of Repentance

How then do those rejecting the inclusion of repentance as a condition for salvation deal with these passages? The answer is that they redefine repentance. The words that make up the Greek term “repentance” literally mean “to change one’s mind.” Therefore, some have concluded that repentance calls the unsaved person to change his mind regarding the basis for salvation. Previously he was trusting in his own good works or something else for his salvation, but now he needs to change his mind and trust in Christ to save him. This understanding of repentance solves the problem of works for them since it has nothing to do with a commitment to change one’s behavior.

Why This New Definition of Wrong

The problem with this position is that the definition of a word must be determined not by the words that comprise it but by its use. We can find many examples of this in English. We do not use a fireplug to plug fires. Using the words that make up this term would be erroneous. Instead, the definition of a word must be determined by its use.

In Scripture, repentance is used to refer to one turning in his heart from a life of sin to a new life governed by God’s authority. We find this connotation in the words of Christ to the church of Ephesus: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5) Christ does not call this church to change its mind regarding their view of salvation but to reject a lifestyle devoid of godly works and recommit themselves to the works to which God called them. Likewise in Revelation 2:22 Christ calls those in the church of Thyatira to repent of their deeds, not an erroneous view of salvation. “Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 2:22) Other passages could be sited to demonstrate that repentance deals with rejecting a sinful lifestyle and commitment to the Lord’s authority leading to a lifestyle pleasing to Him.

We Must Repent for God to Receive God’s Acceptance

Therefore, we conclude that God is not pleased with the unsaved person and calls him to repent as a condition for salvation. Therefore, the view that salvation merely entails receiving God’s unconditional acceptance is not scriptural.

This conclusion raises the question of how repentance relates to faith. In a previous post we affirmed that Scripture presents faith as the condition that needed to be met in order to be saved. But in this post we showed that some passages cite repentance as the condition. How do we reconcile these teachings? That is the topic ahead.

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