One of the most glorious doctrines of the Christian faith is that of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The fact that we as those who are in absolute rebellion against the one, true, living God can be declared to be right in His sight by trusting in the Person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is beyond the scope of what we can truly grab hold of. At the same time as we affirm that justification is through faith alone, we also must affirm what the bible says about another topic: repentance. In Mark’s account, the first words he wrote down for us that Jesus Christ spoke after being tempted in the wilderness by Satan were these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus gave two commands there in verse 15 of Mark chapter one: repent and believe. Jesus did not speak any careless words. If he said people are to not only believe but to repent, He said it with purpose. Why do we bring this up? We bring this up because it is becoming more and more popular to hear teachings which state that repentance is not necessary in order for a person to be saved. People say that with the best intentions – they wish to preserve the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They wish to honor what Scripture says about a person being saved by faith apart from any of their works. They look at the doctrine of justification by faith alone and draw the conclusion that to require a person to repent would be adding a work to faith, destroying the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We understand that intent. However, we also understand what the Scripture also clearly teaches, as Jesus said in Mark 1:15: Believe…AND repent. That does not make justification a matter of faith plus a work. Why do we state that? Because that’s the language of the Bible. In these few minutes, let’s look at this issue of repentance.
First, what is repentance? The word itself, at its root – “repent” – is a “change of mind.” It’s a rethinking, or a thinking again. When the Bible uses the word, however, it gives it a deeper meaning. It’s not a mere change of mind, although that is part and parcel of repenting – but when Scripture commands us to repent, it’s telling us to not only change our mind, but have that change of mind be reflected in a change of course, or a change of action. The parable of the two sons in Matthew 21 is a good example. Two sons are told by their father to go work in the vineyard. One son said he would go, but never did go. The other son said he would not go, but he changed his mind…and he went – Matthew 21, verse 29. The change of mind in that one son was tied in with a change of course, or a change of direction.
Another example is in Matthew 12, verse 41, where Jesus says the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. Jonah chapter 3 uses this language for what the men of Nineveh did – they turned from their evil way, in Jonah 3, verse 10.
It’s interesting that some of the last words Christ spoke before He ascended were to charge the apostles with preaching a message – but what message? Luke 24:47 says that they were to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name to all the nations. Why not faith and the forgiveness of sins? Because faith and repentance go hand-in-hand. They’re distinct, but inseparable, biblically. Let’s be clear – they are not synonymous. They don’t mean the same thing. Let’s also be clear on this, though – the language of Scripture does not describe repentance as a work and it is not something which contradicts the extended teachings in Romans and Galatians on a person’s salvation being by faith alone in Christ alone.
Ephesians 2 begins by telling us the Ephesians, when they were lost, were following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air. They were walking THAT way. Every lost person is doing that. Jesus told people, “Follow Me.” “Follow Me” instead of the course of this world. Jesus says, “Stop going that way – go the other way and follow Me.” “Follow Me” instead of following the devil – because there are only TWO directions a person’s life takes – you either follow Christ or you follow the devil. Change your mind and have that change be tied in with a change in the direction of your life.
Please recall that Jesus Himself commanded men to repent and believe – and the command to repent does NOT take away from the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from works. Why not? Because Scripture says it doesn’t. When you read your bible, you’ll see just how often the words “repent” or “repentance” appear in your New Testament, and the concept of repentance is all over the Old Testament as the prophets repeatedly commanded people to turn from their wicked ways and come to the God of Israel in faith.
One more thing: repentance is not just something for the lost to do. Jesus told every one of those five churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 which were not in good shape spiritually that they needed to repent. Every time that we as Christians sin, we need to turn from our sin in humble confession before the Lord, having changed our mind about our behavior.