The Gospel and Repentance

By William Webster


Unless you repent, you will...perish (Luke 13:3)

Repentance is a major emphasis in the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus came ‘to call sinners to repentance’ (Mt. 9:13) and his gospel presentation included both repentance and faith: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’ (Mk. 1:15). He taught that repentance is necessary for salvation: ‘Unless you repent, you will...perish’ (Lk. 13:3), and he commanded that it be preached throughout the world as part of the Great Commission: ‘that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations’ (Lk.24:47). Repentance was also the hallmark of the preaching of John the Baptist (Mt. 3:1–8) and of the apostles Peter and Paul.
Peter taught that repentance and conversion are necessary for salvation: ‘Repent therefore and return, that your sins might be wiped away’ (Acts 3:19); that Christ’s purpose in ascending to heaven was to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins: ‘He is the one whon God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31); and that ‘God is not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul’s gospel consisted of ‘repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21). He preached to the Gentiles that ‘God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent’ (Acts 17:30) and therefore ‘they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance’ (Acts 26:20). Clearly, scripture teaches that repentance is part of the human response to the gospel of God and is necessary for salvation. As Jesus said: ‘Unless you repent you will...perish’ (Lk. 13:3). Apart from repentance one cannot exercise saving faith.

Repentance and faith are separate concepts. But while they are distinct and different, we cannot separate them in the application and appropriation of salvation. True faith always involves repentance and true repentance always involves faith. Both to be preached when calling men to Christ. John Calvin taught that there could be no separating them:

Even though we have taught in part how to possess Christ, and how through it we enjoy his benefits, this would still remain obscure if we did not add an explanation of the effects we feel. With good reason, the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31). Any discussion of faith, therefore, that omitted these two topics would be barren and mutilated and well–nigh useless...Surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance. Can true repentance stand apart from faith? Not at all. But even though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Chapters 1, 5, pp. 592-593, 597).

Zwingli further expresses the emphasis of the Reformation on repentance:

The second part of the gospel, then, is repentance: not that which takes place for a time, but that which makes a man who knows himself blush and be ashamed of his old life, for one reason because he sees it ought to be altogether foreign to a Christian to waste away in those sins from which he rejoiced to believe that he had been delivered...Therefore when Christ and John and the Apostles preach, saying, ‘Repent,’ they are simply calling us to a new life quite unlike our life before; and those who had undertaken to enter upon this were marked by an initiatory sacrament, baptism to wit, by which they give public testimony that they were going to enter upon a new life (Huldrych Zwingli, Commentary On True and False Religion (Durham: Labyrinth, 1981), pp. 131–132).

Martin Bucer likewise stresses the necessity for repentance:

It is a quality of the Kingdom of Christ that in it the repentance of sinners must always be preached. Hence where the kingdom of Christ has truly been received, there it is necessary that the sins of all be severely rebuked, that men may give themselves up completely to the kingship of Christ in order to be cleansed from their sins and endowed with the spirit of righteousness...Thus it is a hollow mockery that those who do not make a wholehearted effort to do the things that are pleasing to the heavenly Father should declare themselves citizens and members of the Kingdom of Christ (Martin Bucer, On the Kingdom of Christ. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Volume XIX, p. 219).

The seventeenth century puritan, Thomas Watson, says:

Repentance is of such importance that there is no being saved without it...It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn unto God...That religion which is not built upon this foundation must needs fall to the ground.
Repentance is a grace required under the gospel. Some think it legal; but the first sermon that Christ preached, indeed, the first word of his sermon, was ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4.17). And his farewell that he left when he was going to ascend was that ‘repentance should be preached in his name’ (Luke 22.47)...Repentance is not arbitrary. It is not left to our choice whether or not we will repent, but it is an indispensable command. God has enacted a law in the High Court of heaven that no sinner shall be saved except the repenting sinner, and he will not break his own law.
Some bless themselves that they have a stock of knowledge, but what is knowledge good for without repentance? It is better to mortify one sin than to understand all mysteries. Impure speculatists do but resemble Satan transformed into an angel of light. Learning and a bad heart is like a fair face with a cancer in the breast. Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell
(Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner, 1987), pp. 12–13, 59, 77).

In scripture, repentance is placed on an equal footing with faith in the proclamation of the gospel. The call of the gospel is a call to repentance and faith, not simply to faith. Repentance does not save but one cannot exercise saving faith, appropriate Christ or experience salvation, apart from biblical repentance. Some take exception to this, arguing that repentance is a fruit of faith. However, most Reformed theologians agree with this teaching. For example, Berkhof teaches that repentance and conviction of sin precede faith rather than being the fruit of it:

There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precedes the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 492).

And John Murray says:

The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance...It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 113).

The Westminster Confession emphasizes the importance of preaching repentance as well as faith:

Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. By it a sinner, out of sight and sense, not only of danger, but also of filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV, Sections I and II. Cited in A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), p. 210).

R.L. Dabney comments:

The manner in which faith and repentance are coupled together in Scripture plainly shows that, as faith is implicitly present in repentance, so repentance is implicitly in faith (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), pp. 606-607).

The Westminster Confession and most Reformed theologians teach that repentance is not a fruit of faith but of regeneration. More importantly, the teaching that repentance is a fruit of faith is not the teaching of scripture. As with faith, it is described equally with faith as a gift of God and the fruit of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Repentance and faith define what it means to turn to God in Christ for salvation. It is imperative that we adequately emphasize both of these doctrines. One cannot come to Christ to receive imputed righteousness, forgiveness and eternal life apart from faith and repentance. We must maintain a balance in our teaching and preaching. We dare not minimize a doctrine that scripture emphasizes, especially when it relates to salvation. Unfortunately, this is happening in much of evangelicalism today. There is much teaching on faith to the diminishing of the importance of repentance. And this is not a new problem. As Dabney observed:

Repentance unto Life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ (Conf. xv.1). The brevity, and in some cases neglect, with which this prominent subject is treated by many systems, is surprising and reprehensible (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 651).

We need to stress repentance as much as faith because apart from repentance a man cannot exercise saving faith. What then is repentance? The Greek word for repentance is metanoia which literally means a change of mind; a change of mind toward sin whereby man comes to detest his sin and purposes to forsake it. John Calvin comments:

The Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is derived from conversion or return; the Greek word, from change of mind or of intention. And the thing itself corresponds closely to the etymology of both words. The meaning is that, departing from ourselves, we turn to God, and having taken off our former mind, we put on a new. On this account, in my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the turning of our life to God...When we call it a ‘turning of life to God,’ we require a transformation, not only in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal. The prophet, wishing to express this change, bids whom he calls to repentance to get themselves a new heart (Ezek. 18:31).
Outward uprightness of life is not the chief point of repentance, for God looks into men’s hearts. Whoever is moderately versed in Scripture will understand by himself...that when we have to deal with God nothing is achieved unless we begin from the inner disposition of the heart (emphasis mine)
(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III.3. 5-6, 16, pp. 597-598, 609-610).

John DeWitt says:

Repentance is the first conscious step in a person’s experience of the divine grace, the entrance for all believers into life, hope, and salvation...Repentance—the repentance of which the Scriptures speak as a godly sorrow, the repentance which is unto life—is not only a persuasion of sinfulness, but it is also, and very distinctly, a turning from sin...Everywhere the Word of God reminds us that repentance is not simply honesty with oneself, or even the open confession of one’s sins; it must also lead to a forsaking of them. If it does not do that, if it is only the fear of punishment and of hell, only a trembling before the just judgment of God, without at the same time the purposing to turn away from sin and to undertake a new obedience to God, then it is not repentance at all (John Richard deWitt, Amazing Love (Edinburgh: Banner, 1981), pp. 66, 74-76).

In his commentary on the Westminster Confession, A.A. Hodge makes these important observations on repentance:

The essence of repentance consists...in our actual turning from all sin unto God. This is that practical turning or ‘conversion’ from sin unto God, which is the instant and necessary consequence of regeneration. It is a voluntary forsaking of sin as evil and hateful, with sincere sorrow, humiliation, and confession; and a turning unto God as our reconciled Father, in the exercise of implicit faith in the merits and assisting grace of Christ...Repentance unto life can only be exercised by a soul after, and in consequence of, its regeneration by the Holy Spirit. God regenerates; and we, in the exercise of the new gracious ability thus given, repent...If genuine, it infallibly springs from regeneration and leads to eternal life (A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), pp. 212–213).

And Charles Hodge states:

Hence it is that repentance is the burden of evangelical preaching...Repentance...is the great, immediate, and pressing duty of all who hear the gospel. They are called upon to forsake their sins, and return unto God through Jesus Christ. The neglect of this duty is the rejection of salvation. For, as we have seen, unless we repent we must perish...Though repentance is a duty, it is no less the gift of God (Charles Hodge, The Way of Life (Edinburgh: Banner, 1959), pp. 153, 166-169.

The importance of turning from sin and its relationship to forgiveness and conversion is seen in the following scriptures:

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Is. 55:6–7).

And a Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those who turn from transgression in Jacob, declares the Lord (Is. 59:20).

Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ez. 33:11).

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you (Ez. 18:30).

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God, ‘Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations’ (Ez.14:6).

For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways (Acts 3:26).

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21).

We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, Who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them (Acts 14:15).

To open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me’ (Acts 26:18).

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 26:20).

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God (1 Thes. 1:9).

Repentance means turning from sin. It does not mean a mere acknowledgment of sin or remorse, but a turning from it with a purpose to forsake it altogether. Sin is defined by the law. As we have seen, the law relates to God as a person and to his will. And repentance therefore relates to God as well as to issues of behavior. Paul preached ‘repentance towards God’(Acts 20:21), and that men must ‘bring forth fruits meet for repentance’ (Acts 26:20). If man is to enter into salvation he must also turn from self–will and self–rule and submit his life to Christ as Lord and First Love, in addition to turning from behavioral sins. A.W. Pink sums it up in these words:

In repentance sin is the thing to be repented of and sin is a transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). And the first and chief thing required by the law is supreme love to God. Therefore, the lack of supreme love to God, the heart’s disaffection for His character and rebellion against Him (Rom. 8:7) is our great wickedness, of which we have to repent.
What is sin? Sin is saying...I disallow His (God’s) right to govern me...I am going to be lord of myself. Sin is rebellion against the Majesty of heaven...The language of every sinner’s heart is, I care not what God requires, I am going to have my own way. I care not what be God’s claims upon me, I refuse to submit to His authority...The Lord Jesus taught and constantly pressed the same truth. His call was ‘Repent ye and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). The gospel cannot be savingly believed until there is genuine repentance.
When the gospel first comes to the sinner it finds him in a state of apostasy from God, both as sovereign Ruler and as our supreme good, neither obeying and glorifying Him, nor enjoying and finding satisfaction in Him. Hence the demand for ‘repentance toward God’ before ‘faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21). True repentance toward God removes this dissatisfaction of our minds and hearts toward Him, under both these characters. In saving repentance the whole soul turns to Him and says: I have been a disloyal and rebellious creature. I have scorned Thy high authority and most rightful law. I will live no longer thus. I desire and determine with all my might to serve and obey Thee as my only Lord. I subject myself unto Thee, to submit to Thy will...Repentance...is the perception that God has the right to rule and govern me, and of my refusal to submit unto Him...As the Holy Spirit sets before me the loveliness of the divine character, as I am enabled to discern the exalted excellency of God, then I begin to perceive that to which He is justly entitled, namely, the homage of my heart, the unrestricted love of my soul, the complete surrender of my whole being unto Him.
Many are the scriptures which set forth this truth, that there must be a forsaking of sin before God will pardon offenders...He must be crowned Lord of all or He will not be Lord at all. There must be the complete heart renunciation of all that stands in competition with Him. He will brook no rival...Thus repentance is the negative side of conversion. Conversion is a whole–hearted turning unto God, but there cannot be a turning unto, without a turning from. Sin must be forsaken ere we draw nigh unto the Holy One. As it is written, ‘Ye turned to God from idols to serve (live for) the living and true God’ (1 Thes. 1:9)
(A.W. Pink, The Doctrine of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), pp.45, 49-53, 56, 58, 60, 79).

This emphasis on repentance has important implications in understanding the Reformation teaching of faith alone. When we say we are saved and justified by faith alone we understand that term faith to mean a repentant–faith. The quotations cited from the various Reformers and Reformed theologians affirm this. Repentance is an essential element of biblical faith. In order to turn to Christ one must turn from sin. Repentance is a gift of God and not a work. It does not save, and is not the basis of one’s acceptance with God, but an individual cannot be saved without it. The reason being that one cannot appropriate the person of Christ, who is our justification before God, apart from repentance. This truth bears repeating: Salvation is more than deliverance from the guilt and condemnation of sin in justification and therefore of hell. It includes deliverance from sin as a ruling power in one’s life. In the preaching of the gospel this fact must be emphasized: Coming to Christ for salvation will mean a turning from sin and idols or Christ cannot be received. As Jonathan Edwards observes:

The apostasy of man summarily consists in departing from the true God, to idols; forsaking his Creator and setting up other things in his room...The gods which a natural man worships, instead of the God that made him, are himself and the world...When we say that natural man are not willing to come to Christ, it is not meant that they are not willing to be delivered from hell; for without doubt, no natural man is willing to go to hell. Nor is it meant, that they are not willing that Christ should keep them from going to hell. Without doubt, natural men under awakenings often greatly desire this. But this does not argue that they are willing to come to Christ: for, not withstanding their desire to be delivered from hell, their hearts do not close with Christ, but are averse to him...They are not willing to take Christ as he is; they would fain divide him. There are some things in him that they like, and others that they greatly dislike; but consider him as he is, and he is offered to them in the gospel, and they are not willing to accept Christ; for in doing so, they must of necessity part with all their sins; they must sell the world, and part with their own righteousness. But they had rather, for the present, run the venture of going to hell, than do that...He is a Savior appointed of God; he anointed him, and sent him into the world. And in performing the work of redemption, he wrought the works of God; always did those things that pleased him; and all that he does as a Savior, is to his glory. And one great thing he aimed at in redemption, was to deliver them from their idols, and bring them to God (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), Volume 2, Discourse: Men Naturally are God’s Enemies, pp. 132, 138-139).

John Owen says:

The repentance which, in any case, God requireth absolutely, is that which is internal and real, in sincere conversion unto himself, accompanied with the fruits meet for such repentance...A new heart and a new spirit, or real internal conversion unto God, by the grace of the covenant, is required in this repentance, as the renunciation and relinquishment of all iniquities must be the fruit of it (John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner, 1967), Volume 8, pp. 635–636).

Repentance is commanded by God. It is a turning from all that is opposed to God as expressed in his law. We were created to love God, to live in submission to him, to worship, serve and obey him. Sin is rebellion against this purpose, loving self and the world instead. We must repent. But repentance will mean more than turning from individual sins in our lives. We must also deal with the root cause of sins—self. Living a life of independence from God in self–will and self–rule is sin. We must not only repent of what we do, but of what we are—self centered, self directed, independent creatures. If a person has not surrendered his heart and life to Jesus Christ as Lord he has not fully repented of sin. Charles Spurgeon makes this point in these remarks:

Evangelical repentance is repentance of sin as sin: not of this sin nor of that, but of the whole mass. We repent of the sin of our nature as well as the sin of our practice. We bemoan sin within us and without us. We repent of sin itself as being an insult to God. Anything short of this is a mere surface repentance, and not a repentance which reaches to the bottom of the mischief. Repentance of the evil act, and not of the evil heart, is like men pumping water out of a leaky vessel, but forgetting to stop the leak. Some would dam up the stream, but leave the fountain still flowing; they would remove the eruption from the skin, but leave the disease in the flesh (C.H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Edinburgh: Banner, 1970), Volume 35, p. 127).

B.B. Warfield makes this observation:

By repentance we are to mean, not merely sorrow for and hatred of sin, but also the inward turning away from it to God, with full purpose of new obedience. By original sin we are to mean not merely adherent but also inherent sin, not merely the sinful act of Adam imputed to us, but also the sinful state of our own souls conveyed to us by the just judgment of God. When so understood, it would seem sufficiently clear that we must ‘repent of original sin.’ The corruption that is derived by us from our first parents comes to us, indeed, as penalty; but it abides in us as sin, and must be looked upon as sin both by God and by enlightened conscience itself...And thus it appears, that so far from its being impossible to repent of original sin, repentance, considered in its normative sense—not as an act of turning away from this sin or that sin, but of turning from sin as such to God—is fundamentally just repentance of ‘original sin.’ Until we repent of original sin, we have not, properly speaking, repented in the Christian sense at all. For it is characteristic of heathen thought to look upon sin atomistically as only so many acts of sin, and at repentance also, therefore, atomistically as only so many acts of turning away from sinning; the Christian conception probes deeper and finds behind the acts of sin the sinful nature and behind the specific acts of repentance for sins the great normative act of repentance for this sinful nature. He only, then, has really repented who has perceived and felt the filthiness and odiousness of his depraved nature and has turned from it to God with a full purpose of being hereafter more conformed to his image as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ (B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings - 1 (Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), pp. 279-280).

Repentance is a turning from sin, self and the world to God in Christ. In order to turn to Christ, one must first turn from sin. This is the consistent teaching of scripture, the Reformers and Reformed theologians who have remained true to the heritage of the Reformation. To deny or diminish the necessity for repentance is a repudiation of the gospel of scripture and of the Reformation. This brings us to a consideration of faith in the application of redemption.