Repentance in Evangelism
Enlarged June 18, 2019 (first published September 11, 2012)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Repentance is often a missing element in evangelism today, but it is a prominent theme in the Bible. Following are the answers to some important questions about repentance. This study is expanded from the One Year Discipleship Course and Sowing and Reaping: A Course in Evangelism.

Is repentance necessary for salvation?

Many churches don’t preach repentance. They say that only faith is necessary for salvation. But repentance is commanded by God. It is mentioned 60 times in the New Testament.

Repentance was preached by John the Baptist. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. ... Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance ... And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:1-3, 8, 10).

John the Baptist was the man that God sent to announce the coming of Christ. When Jesus was 30 years old, John the Baptist announced him to the nation Israel. John the Baptist commanded the people to repent and receive Jesus as the Christ. He warned them that if they did not repent, they would suffer eternal judgment. He told them that true repentance would change their lives.

Repentance was preached by Christ. “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Repentance was preached by Jesus. He warned the people that they must repent or be judged. He taught the people that all men must repent. The people that Jesus was preaching to thought that only some men are sinners worthy of judgment. They thought they were more righteous than other men. They thought that they were better than the people in Galilee who had been killed by Pilate, the Roman governor, and that they were better than the people upon whom the tower of Siloam fell in Jerusalem. Many people believe like this. They think they are more righteous than others. But Jesus preached that all men are sinners before God and all men must repent or perish. He repeated this twice by way of emphasis.

Repentance was preached by Peter. “The Lord 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).

Peter was one of the 12 men that Jesus chose to be His apostles. Peter was a prophet who wrote two books of the New Testament. Peter said that Jesus has waiting to return to judge the world because He loves all men and wants to save them. Peter said that repentance is necessary for salvation. To be saved, the sinner must “come to repentance.”

Repentance was preached by Paul. “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:24-31).

Paul was chosen by Jesus to be an apostle and prophet. He wrote many of the books of the New Testament. He traveled all over Europe preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and starting churches. We read about his life in the book of Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament.

In Acts 17, Paul was preaching to the men of Athens in ancient Greece. Athens was the chief and most celebrated city of ancient Greece. It was the city of the famous philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Pericles, Demosthenes, Socrates, Zeno, and Epicurus. It was a major seat of learning and art in Paul’s day. It was named after the goddess Athena (also known as Minerva). The city was totally given over to idolatry in Paul’s day.

In Acts 17, Paul was preaching on Mars Hill near the famous Acropolis of Athens where the great temples were located. Here was the Parthenon, which was dedicated to Athena. Here was a 70-foot statue of Athena that could be seen by ships in the city’s harbor three miles away.

Paul preached that there is one Creator God who made all men and all nations. He preached against idols. He preached that men are made in God’s image, and they are made to seek God. He said that in this present time God is giving men an opportunity to be saved, but they must repent. God commands all men to repent. Those who do not repent and turn to the true God and receive His salvation will suffer eternal judgment. Christ came the first time to be man’s Saviour, but He will come the second time as man’s Judge.

As we have seen, the apostle Paul preached
both repentance and faith; therefore, it is obvious that both are required for salvation (Acts 20:21).

What are some false views of repentance?

Repentance is not reformation or changing one’s life. Salvation is not of works; works follow salvation as the effect or fruit or product. See Ephesians 2:8-10. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Here we see salvation and works. First, the sinner receives God’s free gift of salvation that was purchased by Christ. Salvation changes him. Christ comes into his life. The Spirit of God takes up residence in him. He receives a new heart that loves righteousness. Salvation changes the sinner, and good works follow this change. First there is salvation, then there is works. The works are the product of salvation; they are the fruit of salvation. The sinner cannot do good works that please God until he is saved by God’s grace and changed.

Reformation deals with one’s relationship his fellow man and with things in this life, whereas repentance deals with God and with eternal things. We must be careful not to give people the impression that they must change their lives and give up their sin in order to be saved. The life-changing part of salvation is God’s part, not man’s.

Repentance is not doing penance. Many Catholic Bibles translate “repentance” as “do penance.” This involves confession to a priest, contrition, absolution (forgiveness pronounced by the priest), and satisfaction. Catholic penance is a works salvation which the Bible condemns.

Repentance is not mere remorse for wrong actions. The Bible tells us that men can be remorseful about their actions without exercising genuine repentance unto salvation. This is described as “the sorrow of the world” in 2 Corinthians 7:10. There are examples of this in the Old and the New Testaments. King Saul is the prime Old Testament example. He was sorry that he got caught in various sinful acts, but he did not demonstrate true repentance because his actions didn’t change (1 Sam. 15:24; 24:17; 26:21). Judas is another example of a man who was remorseful of his actions but did not repent toward God (Mat. 27:3-4). A main difference between remorse and repentance is that repentance is directed toward God (“repentance toward God,” Acts 20:21).

Repentance is not a change of life. Repentance a change of mind about God and sin that results in a change of life. Many who “believe” or “pray the sinner’s prayer” have no intention to change or to allow God to take control of their lives. They are not interested in being a disciple of Christ. They want a ticket to heaven that keeps them out of hell, but they want to continue to live as they please. They want to “believe in Jesus,” but they have no interest in obeying Him. That is not biblical salvation. The sinner must be ready to turn from his false gods, including self-worship, in order to worship and serve the true God (“ye turned to God from idols,” 1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Repentance is not merely believing in Christ. Some have defined repentance as a synonym for believing. One well-known Independent Baptist preacher defined it as “turning from unbelief to belief.” But if this is true, the Bible’s preachers would not have preached repentance in addition to faith. We have seen that Paul preached repentance toward God AND faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). The reason why verses such as John 3:16 and Acts 16:31 don’t mention repentance is that true saving faith includes repentance and true repentance includes faith. Repentance and faith are sometimes spoken of in Scripture as both being necessary for salvation (i.e., Acts 20:21; Hebrews 6:1), while at other times only one or the other is said to be necessary. For example, 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), we conclude that saving faith includes repentance. Saving faith is a repentant faith.

The true meaning of faith must be explained and emphasized. We will see this more clearly in the next study. 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 for sin and stopped claiming any 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 and before the Spirit of God has done the supernatural work of convicting and drawing.

What is biblical repentance?

Repentance is admitting that I have sinned against God and being sorry for that. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Repentance is “toward God” because it is God that I have offended by my sin. God made man for Himself, and He made man to obey His laws, but every man has turned his back on God and broken His laws. God requires that you repent of this. Repentance is to admit that I am not righteous and I am not good, just as the Bible says. “”There is none righteous, no, not one. ... There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:20, 12).

Repentance means to turn around, to change directions. “Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance”(Acts 26:20). Paul defined true repentance in his preaching before Agrippa, the Roman governor of Judea. Paul said that repentance is to turn to God. Repentance means the sinner stops running from God, stops fighting God, stops rebelling against God. He turns to God in humble surrender. Repentance is something that happens in the heart and mind. When there is true repentance, it then shows itself in a change of life. “and do works meet for repentance.” The new works are not repentance; the new works are “meet for repentance.”

Repentance means to surrender to the true and living God.Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:22-23). Through Isaiah the prophet, God calls upon all men in the whole earth to look to Him and receive Him as the true God. It means to bow one’s knees to the true God in humility and surrender.

Repentance is to receive Christ as Lord. “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:9-13). To believe on Christ is to receive Him as my only Saviour and to repent is to receive Him as my only Lord. The Bible says the sinner is at enmity against God because of his rebellion to God’s rule (Rom. 8:7). “Enmity” means “the quality of being an enemy.” To repent means that I reject this attitude and surrender to God’s rule over my life. We see this surrender throughout the New Testament in the lives of those who were saved. Those who received Jesus in a saving manner called upon Him as Lord (Luke 23:42).

Repentance is an assassin laying down his knife. Evangelist James Stewart in his book Evangelism illustrated repentance by an assassin who committed murder with a knife. He is offered a certificate of forgiveness and pardon as a gift. With one hand he reaches out and accepts the pardon, but with the other hand he drops the knife and determines never again to be a murderer. The hand that receives the pardon is the hand of faith, while the hand that drops the knife is the hand of repentance. If an assassin said, “I will receive the pardon, but I will not drop my knife,” that is faith without repentance, and it is not saving faith.

Repentance is a thief returning stolen property. The late Lester Roloff said: “I believe we ought to make right what we can make right. What if I was staying with a group of preachers and one of them stole my wallet while I was sleeping? The next day he comes up to me and tells me he is terribly sorry and asks me to forgive him. I would be glad to hear that he is sorry for stealing my wallet, but I would certainly want and expect more than that from a repentant thief. I would want my wallet back with all of its contents intact! I don’t believe he has really repented unless he brings my billfold back. I DON'T BELIEVE YOU HAVE REPENTED UNTIL YOU GET RIGHT AND SAY, ‘LORD, I’M GOING TO LIVE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON,’ and by the grace of God you will live different” (Roloff, Repent or Perish).
What are some Bible examples of repentance?

The best way to understand repentance is to examine examples of it in the Bible.

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son to illustrate repentance. This young man demanded his inheritance from his father and went out and squandered it on wicked living. Eventually he was left with nothing and was feeding hogs to earn bread. In that condition, he came to true repentance. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19). Note that he was not merely remorseful of how he had lived and of the consequences he had suffered. He came to the place where he acknowledged first of all that he had “sinned against heaven” (Lk. 15:18). That means that he acknowledged that he had sinned against God by his actions. Further, he changed his attitude toward his father. No longer was he the proud, foolish son demanding things of his father. He was now a humble young man who was willing to be a mere servant in his father’s house. This is true repentance. It is turning from one’s pride and self-righteousness and self-willed way of living. It is to humble oneself before God and man. It is to surrender to God’s authority over my life.

This refers to conviction and spiritual enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. He humbled himself, acknowledged his sin against God and against his father, and turned around so that he was facing in a different direction. This is repentance. The evidence of his repentance is that he returned home and made things right with his father; he humbled himself and was willing to be a mere servant.

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)

Zacchaeus was a tax collector in Israel. They were hated by the people because they collected taxes for a foreign government and also because they often abused their position to steal from the people.

Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming through his hometown of Jericho, and he climbed up a tree to see over the crowd. Jesus called to him and told him to come down and take Him to his home. There, Zacchaeus repented and believed in Jesus as the Christ. Jesus said, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

Zacchaeus’s repentance is seen in his change of life. He became an honest man who paid back those he had cheated. “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore
him fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

The Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

“For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead,
even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.”

The members of the church in the Roman city of Thessalonica were formerly idolaters. They lived as they pleased. They loved the filthy idolatrous festivals. They loved drinking and fornication. They cared nothing about the true God or His holy laws. But Paul came to their city and they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. They repented and believed and were saved.

Repentance is clear defined in their lives. They “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Notice that they didn’t turn from idols to God; they turned to God from idols. The order is important. If a man turns to God, he has his back to his old gods and old life. This is true repentance. It is “repentance toward God” (Acts 20:21). Unless a person rejects his false gods and false religions and self-righteousness and surrenders to Christ’s Lordship, he cannot be saved.

How do we use repentance in soul winning?

First, we must not skip over it; we must tell the people that God requires it and we must explain what it is.

One afternoon I accompanied a pastor to knock doors in a part of a city that was populated with university students. A few times in one afternoon he shared a five-minute Romans Road plan (i.e., all have sinned against God, the wages of sin is death, Jesus died for our sin, and those who believe can be saved) and then immediately asked three questions: “Does that make sense to you?” (All of them said it made sense.) “Do you have any questions?” (None of them did, because they didn’t appear the least bit interested, not interested enough even to invite us into the home.) And, “Would you pray to receive Christ right now?” (None of them did.) Not only was the program “quick,” to say the least, the pastor didn’t even hint to the people that there would need to be a change in the direction of their lives, a turning, a surrender.

An independent Baptist church in Maine conducted a door-to-door campaign some years ago in which the people were taught to say, “If I were to tell you today that you can be saved and go to heaven and you won’t have to change anything, would you be interested?” Salvation is indeed a free gift and it is not of works, but salvation always changes the life. It is never
of works, but it is always unto works (Eph. 2:8-10). There is not one New Testament example of a person who was saved and did not change.

Many gospel tracts don’t contain a hint of repentance.

This is not scriptural soul winning. If Christ and the apostles preached repentance, then we must preach repentance! We need to explain that the individual must be ready to surrender to God, and not give him the false impression that it is possible to be saved without this.

Of course, we also explain that God will do the changing; repentance is not reformation or turning over a new leaf; but the sinner must be ready to accept God’s work in his life. He must surrender.

If the individual is not ready to surrender, he is not ready to be saved. We have dealt with hundreds of people who came to the place of understanding and believing that Christ died for their sins, but they simply were not ready to surrender to God. They refused to repent, and they turned away.

Repentance was the thing that was missing in my life as I grew up in a Baptist church. I don’t recall a time when I did not believe in Christ. I had no doubt that He died on the cross for my sin. (What child growing up in a Bible-believing church does
not “believe”?) I made a public profession of faith at about age 12, but it was empty because I had no intention of surrendering my life to Christ. I was already entranced by rock & roll and its lifestyle and bowing before Jesus as Lord was the farthest thing from my mind. Not surprisingly, the course of my life did not change one iota after I “believed.”

When my wife and I first began our missionary work in South Asia in 1979, our landlord came to our house for Bible studies. He was a wealthy, middle-aged Hindu and had a concubine with whom he spent most of his time, though he was married and had grown children. After we went through the gospel a few times, he told me he understood what I was teaching and he “believed that Jesus died for his sins” and that he was interested in receiving Christ, but he wanted to know what he would have to do about two specific things in his life: his shady business practices and his illicit relationship with the concubine. He is the one who brought these things to my attention. I could have said, “Don’t worry about that. Just pray to receive Christ and those things will work themselves out later.” That’s the method I was taught in Bible School, but I don’t believe that would have been scriptural counsel. I don’t believe he could receive Christ and be saved unless he repented of his immorality and his dishonesty. Salvation requires surrendering. I explained to him that if he would turn to Christ, God would change his life and he would have different desires, but he didn’t want that. He was entirely unwilling to surrender to God as God. The power to change one’s life is from God, but the sinner must surrender to God’s working. After I told him this, he never returned for another Bible study.

Consider Christ’s dealings with the woman at the well in John 4. He faced her squarely with the immorality that had dominated her life.

Consider Christ’s dealing with the rich young ruler. He faced the young man with his sin of self-righteousness and covetousness (Luke 18:18-23).

This is the way God deals with people. He reproves men for their sin in order to bring them to repentance (John 16:8). And this is the way
we must deal with men, too, if we want to follow the Bible in our gospel work. To preach repentance means to deal with glaring sins that people are holding onto and to tell them plainly that they must repent of sinning against God; they must yield their lives to Him; they must change directions; they must surrender. God will do a glorious work in their lives but they must be ready for that to happen. They must have a change of mind about God and sin that will result in a change of life.

It appears that many soul-winning programs try to “slip the gospel by the sinner” and get him saved before he really knows what is happening! That is not possible. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). There is no salvation without repentance, and it is a Holy Spirit-wrought change of mind that results in a change of life.

To tell sinners that God demands that they repent might cut down on the “decision” statistics, but it is the only honest and scriptural path. God has commanded that all men everywhere repent and Jesus said they can’t be saved without it, so how can we fail to tell them this?

Second, it is not necessarily the word “repentance” that always has to be used; it is the concept that the soul winner must get across.

We must make the individual understand that God requires surrender.

Third, we need to deal with each case individually.

Preaching repentance depends on the context. We see this from the fact that the Bible sometimes mentions repentance and sometimes doesn’t in the context of evangelism.

The example of the Philippian jailor. He was already under conviction when he cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” Doubtless Paul and Silas had been witnessing to him. We know that they had been singing and praising God. Further, the power of God displayed in the earthquake had shaken the jailor deeply. 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 tired of the old life and 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).

The example of the idolaters at Athens. 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! They needed to be confronted with Almighty God and His claim on their lives.

For more help for soul winners see
Sowing and Reaping: A Course in Evangelism, available from This course deals with the message of evangelism, repentance in evangelism, God’s law and evangelism, the reason for evangelism, the authority for evangelism, the power for evangelism, the attitude in evangelism, the technique of evangelism, using tracts in evangelism, dealing with Roman Catholics, dealing with skeptics, lessons from the gospels and acts, and resources for evangelism.

Review Questions on Repentance

1. In what verse does Paul say that he preached both repentance and faith?
2. How many times is repentance mentioned in the New Testament?
3. What preachers in the New Testament preached repentance?
4. In what verse did Jesus say except you repent you will perish?
5. In what verse did Paul say that God now commands all men to repent?
6. In what verse did Peter say that God wants all men to come to repentance?
7. What are four false views of repentance?
8. What is the "sorrow of the world"?
9. How do we know that King Saul did not repent?
10. How do we know that repentance is not a synonym for believing?
11. Why doesn’t John 3:16 mention repentance?
12. Why is repentance directed toward God?
13. In what verse did Paul demand that believers “do works meet for repentance”?
14. Repentance is a ____________________ about God and sin that _____________________.
15. Repentance means to _______ around.
16. Repentance means to change _______________.
17. Repentance means to __________________ to God's rule.
18. Repentance is not a change of ___________; it is a change of __________.
19. What are three Bible examples of repentance?
20. How do we see biblical repentance in the life of the Prodigal Son?
21. How do we see biblical repentance in the life of Zacchaeus?
22. The Thessalonians ___________ to God __________ idols.
23. Why is it necessary to preach repentance when we are soul winning?
24. If the individual is not ready to __________, he is not ready to be saved.
25. What kept my landlord in Nepal from coming to Christ?
26. How did Christ deal with the woman at the well in regard to her sin?
27. What sins did Christ point out in the life of the rich young ruler?
28. Why did Paul tell the philosophers at Athens to repent but he didn’t say that to the Philippian jailer?

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