Is Repentance the Same as Faith?
“Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, AND faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
“The crying need of our degenerate times is for a revival of true old-fashioned, Christ-centered Bible preaching that will call upon men everywhere to repent in view of that coming day when God will judge the world in righteousness by His Risen Son” (Harry Ironside).
Some men say that it is not necessary to preach repentance or to make an issue of it in soul winning since we don’t see it in John 3:16 and Acts 16:31. These basically define repentance as a synonym for faith.
I suggest that this is a strange way to use the Bible, since it is so obvious from other passages that repentance is necessary for salvation and since Paul preached both repentance and faith. Jesus said repentance is necessary (Luke 13:1-5); Paul said it is necessary (Acts 17:30, etc.); Peter said it is necessary (2 Pet. 3:9).
The reason why verses such as John 3:16 and Acts 16:31 don’t mention repentance is that proper biblical faith includes repentance and biblical repentance includes faith. Further, not every verse says everything about any one doctrine. We are to compare Scripture with Scripture.
The true meaning of faith must be explained and emphasized. The common way that “faith” or “belief” is defined by people today involves a mere mental consent to something, such as “I believe that George Washington was America’s first president” or “I believe that Jesus was the Son of God and came to die on the cross.” That is not what the Bible means by saving faith. Saving faith is a faith that issues from a heart that is convinced of its own fallen condition and has stopped making excuses and hiding in self-righteousness. Saving faith issues from a heart that is convinced that Christ is the only Lord and Saviour and that reaches out to Christ in personal trust. Saving faith issues from a surrendered heart, which is the very essence of repentance.
That, and that alone, is saving “faith.” And when we are dealing with people’s souls we must be careful to explain the meaning of the terms of the gospel, as opposed to hastily running through some little “Roman’s Road” plan and then trying to get the person to pray a sinner’s prayer before he knows what he is doing.
Repentance and faith are sometimes spoken of in Scripture as both being necessary for salvation (i.e., Acts 20:21; Heb. 6:1), while at other times only one or the other is said to be necessary.
Salvation is referred to as coming to repentance with no mention of faith in the following passages: Matthew 9:13; 11:20-21; 21:32; Mark 1:4; 2:17; 6:12; Luke 15:7; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 26:20; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 2 Timothy 2:25; and 2 Peter 3:9.
Then in other passages, such as John 3:16 and Acts 16:31, salvation is referred to as believing, and repentance is not mentioned.
By comparing Scripture with Scripture (rather than isolating Scripture, which is the method used by false teachers), we conclude that saving faith includes repentance.
The fact that the Bible sometimes mentions repentance and sometimes doesn’t in the context of evangelism teaches us the important lesson that each situation is different. Preaching repentance depends on the context.
The Philippian jailer was obviously already under conviction when he cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” Doubtless Paul and Barnabas had been witnessing to him. We know that they had been singing and praising God. Now, through the Spirit’s working, he was ready to do whatever God told him to do. In such a case there is no need to go into a lengthy study about repentance. He was already repenting! I, too, have met men in jails and other places that were ready to be saved. They had heard the gospel and God was working in their hearts; they knew that they were sinners and were sorry for their sin against God were ready to surrender to Him. In that context, all that is needed is to explain to the individual how to put his or her faith in Christ in a saving manner (e.g., Romans 10:8-13).
On the other hand, when Paul preached to the idolaters at Athens who were treating the gospel as merely another philosophical debate, he told them that God “now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). He didn’t say, “Just believe in Jesus.” They needed to repent of their false gods, and particularly of their chief god, which was Self!
Pastor Dave Sorenson says:
“Saving faith includes repentance. Repentance is not doing anything. It is not a deed, act, work, or rite. Rather, it is a change of the direction of one’s heart. It basically means an attitude of the heart in turning from sin and self and turning to God. That’s what Paul was referring to in Acts 20:21 when he referred to ‘repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Saving faith is the human heart turning to God and then trusting in Jesus Christ. ... Even as there is the part of trusting Christ, there is also the part of turning to Him. That may seem inconsequential, but I believe that here is a spiritual reason they some go through the motions of believing in Christ but are not really born again. They seemingly want the fire escape but there is no interest in turning to God. There is no interest in repentance. They have the attitude, ‘God, gimme salvation, but I’m gonna keep on doing my own thing.’ ... However, if there is no real turning to God from the heart, they have missed the prerequisite for actually trusting Christ” (Sorenson, Training Your Children to Turn out Right, 1995).
Repentance and faith are two separate things that come together for salvation, but they act together as one thing.
“Repentance is included in believing. Howbeit, repentance is not faith, nor faith repentance. ‘He that believeth,’ implies repentance. ‘Repent and be converted,’ involves faith. ‘The hand that clutches the assassin’s knife must open ‘ere it can grasp the gift its intended victim proffers; and opening that hand, though a single act, has a double aspect and purpose. Accepting the gift implies a turning from the crime the heart was bent on, and it was the gift itself that worked the change. Faith is the open hand, relatively to the gift; repentance is the same hand, relatively, not only to the gift but more especially to the dagger that is flung from it.’ ... Repentance is one threefold action: in the understanding--knowledge of sin; in the feelings--pain and grief; in the will--a change of mind and a turning around” (James Stewart, Evangelism, pp. 48, 49).
“While it is true that upwards of one hundred and fifteen N.T. passages condition salvation on believing, and fully thirty passages condition salvation on faith ... nevertheless, repentance is an essential condition in God’s glorious Gospel. It is also true that in the last analysis repentance and faith are one and the same act. ‘Ye turned to God from idols’ (1 Th. 1:9). Repentance is included in believing. ‘Howbeit, repentance is not faith, nor faith repentance. ‘He that believeth,’ implies repentance. ‘Repent and be converted,’ involves faith. ... Repentance and faith can never be separated. ‘Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Ac. 20:21). ‘Ye repented NOT ... that ye might believe Him’ (Mt. 21:32). ... Repentance is denying (negative), faith is affirming (positive). Repentance looks within, faith looks above. Repentance sees our misery, faith our Deliverer. Repentance is hunger, faith is the open mouth, and Christ is the living food” (James Stewart, Evangelism, p. 49).
“Repentance never saved a soul by its merits; it lays the needful foundation for the temple of faith in the heart. But all the penitential sorrows of Adam’s family would not remove one faint stain of sin. If a man borrowed five thousand dollars, for which he gave security, and squandered it most foolishly, and afterwards, filled with true repentance, he solicited and expected the forgiveness of the debt because he was sorry for it, the spendthrift would only meet with contempt in his application; his sureties would have to pay the money. Faith alone in the Crucified cleanses from all sin, and repentance is God’s instrumentality for leading the sinner to the Lamb of God, the Great Remover of sin” (William Cathcart).
For more on this subject see the book Repentance and Soul Winning, which is available from Way of Life Literature in both eBook and print editions.
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