The Relationship Between Repentance & Salvation

I am in a theology discussion group on Facebook, and an issue arose from one of my comments regarding repentance and its role in salvation.  Since Facebook comment threads aren’t equipped to handle the level of response I wanted to give to the number of comments that followed, I thought I’d post it here for everyone’s edification.  I’d love your thoughts in the comment section below.

Some background to begin.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important topic of all time. (Matt 28:19; Matt 24:14; Ps 96:3)   The Cross is the axis, not just of history, but of time itself.  Every human must decide what they are going to do with it. (John 12:48; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; John 3:36)  The Gospel is the very power of God. (Rom 1:16)  Almighty God, creator and sustainer of all things, saw fit in His infinite mercy and grace to make a way for the reconciliation of fallen man to Himself. (2 Cor 5:18-20; Rom 5:10; Col 1:20-22)  As Christians, the purpose of our lives is to make the Gospel known to a lost world.  We may play different roles in that aim, but if that is not our ultimate end, we are wasting our time. (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor 3:11-15; 1 Cor 9:24)

Therefore, I take the Gospel very seriously.  I believe that we must not play fast and loose with the Gospel and be prepared to accurately communicate the Gospel to those that come into our path.

The most important question that a person will ever ask is that of the Philippian Jailer: “What must I do to be saved?”  (Acts 16:30)  Christians must be able to answer that question above all others.  If we cannot tell someone how to receive the free gift of eternal life, we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  

A trend that has troubled me for some time has been the introduction of phrases and explanations into the Christian vernacular regarding how one is saved that have nothing to do with the Gospel and are not Biblical.  I want to be clear.  Most of these mistakes are made innocently.  The people who say these things are not, for the most part, consciously distorting the Gospel.  In fact, most are simply parroting what they’ve heard said from pulpits and evangelists and youth pastors and Bible study leaders.  And most of these phrases and clichés are well meaning.  But they are wrong, nonetheless.  What am I referring to?  When explaining how to be saved, here are just a few examples of things I hear spoken from pulpits that are flat out wrong.

• “Ask Jesus into your heart.”

• Pray to “receive” Jesus.   

• Come down the aisle so you can be prayed over.

No where does Scripture tell you that you should ask Jesus “into your heart,” “receive Jesus, “ or come forth publicly to be saved.  Jesus being in your heart (when speaking of the heart as the seat of emotion) is a good thing.  “Receiving” Jesus, as in letting Him into your life, is a good thing.  Acknowledging Christ before men is a good thing.  But none of them are the trigger for salvation.  

Which finally leads me to the controversy that started on Facebook.  A minor hobby of mine is reading the Statements of Faith posted on church and denominational websites.  One of the most common errors relates to the Gospel and salvation.  I am going to quote an unnamed Statement of Faith to demonstrate.

“Man receives pardon and forgiveness for his sins when he admits to God that he is a sinner, when in godly sorrow he turns from them and trusts in the work of Christ as redemption for his sin. This acceptance of God’s great salvation involves belief in Christ’s death on the cross as man’s substitute and the fact of God’s raising Him from the dead as predicted. It is a salvation by grace alone and not of works.”

This statement of faith creates a 3-step process for Salvation.  It says man “receives pardon and forgiveness when…”

1.  He admits to God that he is a sinner.

2.  He turns from his sins in godly sorrow.

3.  Trusts in the work of Christ as redemption.

After the 3-step process we’re told that salvation “involves belief” in Christ’s death and resurrection.  The last sentence says it is a salvation by grace alone and not of works.  

Let’s examine these elements in light of Scripture.  What does Scripture tell us is required to be saved?

Returning to the Philippian jailer that I mentioned above, the apostle Paul and Silas answered him very clearly: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”

The Gospel is clearly enunciated in 1 Cor 15:1-8. The Gospel is that Christ was crucified according to the Scriptures, was buried according to the Scriptures, and was raised according to the Scriptures. That is the Gospel.

Paul says in Romans 1:16 that he is not ashamed of that Gospel, and I join him. Why? Because it, the Gospel, is the power of God for the salvation of all. Yet on the end of that sentence is the condition of that salvation. All who what?  All who believe.

What must a man do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 16:30-31)

Salvation is offered to man as a free gift.  There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve salvation.  There is, however, a condition.  The condition of salvation is faith.  What must I do to be saved?  Believe.  Place your faith in Christ. 

Belief, which is also called faith, is the condition. 

Now what does that mean exactly?  Even the devil “believes” that Jesus is God. (James 2:19)  This means that the “faith” in question must be more than an intellectual assent to the facts.  Saving faith also involves something known in Scripture as “repentance.”

And this is where the controversy started.  I criticized the first two steps in the 3-step process above as being unbiblical, which I am going to demonstrate below.  And when I did, I received a litany of verses citing “repentance” as a necessary condition of salvation.  This raises several questions.  Is repentance necessary for salvation?  Does this contradict the scriptures that list faith as the only condition?  Does one precede the other?  Let’s examine Biblical repentance and it’s role in salvation.  

Before we look at Biblical repentance I would point you back to the statement of faith I quote above.  Can you find the word “repent” or “repentance?”  No.  They are absent. In their place are the phrases “admit to God you’re a sinner,” and “in godly sorrow…turn.”  When I called these statements into question, I was quoted scripture regarding repentance.  In other words, where the Bible calls for repentance, my theologically minded brothers and sisters are interpreting “admit” and “sorrow” and “turn.”  So is this the right way to view Biblical repentance?  Let’s see.

First, it is undeniable that the Scripture teaches repentance as playing a role in salvation.  

Luke 13:3,5 says, “‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish… No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Acts 17:30 says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

There are also many passages that only list faith as the requirement for salvation.  Luke 8:12; John 1:12; John 3:16; John 5:24; John 6:47; John 20:31; Acts 16:31; Acts 10:43; Rom. 3:28; Rom. 4:5; Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:16; Gal. 3:26; and Eph. 2:8-9 just to name a few.  So which is it?  Is repentance an additional condition?  No.  Repentance and Faith are two sides of the same coin.  And the key to understanding this is an appreciation for what Biblical repentance means.  

In modern english, to repent means to feel sorrow for behavior and out of that emotion say that you’re sorry.

The word that we translate as “repent” in our english Bibles is the greek word transliterated metanoia.  It combines two greek words:

• Meta – Change

• Noia – Mind

In other words, metanoia means literally to change our minds.  

What are we changing our minds about?  Many things.  But here are the most central issues.

First, we are changing our minds about God.  To the pagan who has denied that there is a God, or who has had some radically incorrect notion of God such as the worship of many false gods or the concept that god is an impersonal “higher power” or other such notions, there is the need to change your mind and recognize that the God of Scripture is who He says He is.  

Second, we are changing our minds about the need for a savior.  Luke 5:29–32 (ESV) says, “And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.  And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

The Pharisees believed themselves to be righteous.  They believed that because they followed the Law and because they were descended from Abraham that they were assured of a place in God’s eternal kingdom.  Jesus is saying in this passage that if you don’t think you’re sick you will never look to a physician.  We are changing our minds about the need to be saved.

But last, and perhaps most importantly, we are changing our minds about the object of our trust.  You see, the reason that faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin is that, as I said above, believing that Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and rose again is not simply a matter of agreeing to the factuality of the events.  Rather it is a transition of trust.

We are all trusting in something for our eternal condition.  If you poll 1000 people on the street and ask them if they’re going to heaven 99% will say yes.  At funerals we hear, “they are in a better place,” and most people believe it.  Why?  They are trusting in something.

We’re trusting that we’re a “good person.”  We’re trusting that we did good things like serve in the children’s nursery at church or go to Africa to dig wells.  We’re trusting in our religiosity.  Muslims trust that because they follow the edicts of the Koran they will see paradise.  Buddhists believe they’ll reach nirvana if they follow the eight-fold path.  Hindus trust that they will eventually break free from the cycle of reincarnation if they can rid themselves of all bad karma.  Atheists are trusting that there’s no heaven at all so it doesn’t matter.  Everyone is trusting in something.  

Salvation comes, by repentance and faith, when we change our minds about what we were trusting in before, and shift that trust to the Gospel; the finished work of Christ on the cross.

The winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary was a film called, “Man on Wire.”  The film told the true story of a man named Philippe Petit who, with the help of friends, strung a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and performed a tight rope routine more than 450 meters above the ground.  In the film Philippe discusses the moment when he had to step off of the roof of the tower and onto the wire.  There is that moment when his security, his fate, his life shifts from relying on the tower to relying on the wire.  That is Biblical repentance and faith.  It is a transference of trust.

So let’s again return to the statement of faith I quote above and it’s 3 steps of salvation. 1. Admit to God that you are a sinner. 2. Turn from sin in something called, “godly sorrow.” 3. Trust in the work of Christ.

Does repentance involve “turning from sin” and does it involve sorrow?  No.  And this brings up another common confusion.  People confuse the fruit of repentance with repentance itself.  God’s prevenient grace enables the totally depraved sinner to accept the gift of salvation through faith/repentance.  At the point that the sinner by grace through faith is saved they are “born again,” (John 3:3; 1 Pet 1:3) and made a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).  This is known theologically as regeneration.  At that moment, the regenerate sinner is filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to begin living in a new way that they were incapable of before.  (Titus 3:5; 1 Cor 3:16; Eph 1:13-14; Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 12:11-13)  At this point it is almost universal that the Christian looks back at their life before Christ with great remorse.  By the power of the Holy Spirit and because of their new nature, the Christian now turns from sin and attempts to live a life “worthy of the calling” they’ve received. (Eph 4:1)  So the fruit of repentance is turning and sorrow, but it is not until after repentance/faith have fulfilled the condition of salvation.

Another way to think of it is this.  Salvation is turning to Jesus to be forgiven of one’s sins.  It is not turning from one’s sins in order to be forgiven by Jesus.  The Gospel is not dependent on your willingness to never sin again.  It is dependent on what Christ has already accomplished and you changing your mind and putting your trust in that finished work.

Lest I seem alone, here are some great quotes on this subject.

The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) has this to say.  “If by asking ‘Is repentance necessary for salvation?’ the person means that the sinner must first repent, have a change of mind, and stop sinning in order to get saved, then the answer would be no.”

The website,, says, “Many understand the term repentance to mean “turning from sin.” This is not the biblical definition of repentance.” says, “The word “repent” has to be understood within the context in which it is being used. In fact, very often, it should not even be translated “repent” because of the wrong preconditioned theological connotations this carries. It is a matter of what some would call, “illegitimate totality transfer.” This occurs when the meaning of a word in one passage is carried over to every other place the word occurs. The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia (noun) or metanoeo (verb). It basically means a change of mind and the context must determine what is involved in that change of mind. In passages where salvation is in view it is equivalent to believe or trust in and involves a change of mind about any form of self-trust in human works, good deeds, religious tradition, etc. followed by a trust in the finished work of Christ which alone has the power to save us. It means a turning from self-trust to trust in Christ.”

So let’s finally return to the statement of faith that I questioned at the beginning and examine it in light of what we know.

“Man receives pardon and forgiveness for his sins when he admits to God that he is a sinner, when in godly sorrow he turns from them and trusts in the work of Christ as redemption for his sin. This acceptance of God’s great salvation involves belief in Christ’s death on the cross as man’s substitute and the fact of God’s raising Him from the dead as predicted. It is a salvation by grace alone and not of works.”

If we were to re-write it and try to keep as many of the words in tact as possible we might say the following:

“Man receives pardon and forgiveness for his sins when he repents and places his faith in the finished work of Christ as redemption for his sin.  The acceptance of God’s great salvation is purely by faith in Christ’s death on the cross as man’s substitute and the fact of God’s raising Him from the dead as predicted.  It is a salvation by grace alone through faith alone and not of works.”

Let me know your thoughts and or questions.  

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