Repent and/or Believe? Two Steps or Two Sides?


This article is part of the series Good Soil Basic Seminar - Overview Series.

I Stock 173149051 Faith Repentance

Is repentance a separate step to salvation that precedes genuine belief in Christ? Or, are repentance and faith simultaneous responses to God—flip sides of the same heart-action?

Entire books have been written on the subject of “repentance and faith.” So, I won’t attempt an exhaustive study of those concepts here. The key, however, is to understand the meaning of the Biblical terms translated “repentance.”

The meaning of repentance. Because of some common, traditional religious practices, “repentance” and “penance” are often confused. The basic meaning of penance is to express sorrow for sin—in some cases even to the extent of self-castigation and deeds of attempted self-justifying righteousness. Even some evangelicals demand that overt expressions of sorrow for sins and renouncement of those sins must precede saving faith.

But the main word for repentance (metanoia) in the New Testament has a very different meaning—“to change one’s mind.”* It’s a mind-change that is so deep-seated that the person’s total being—values, choices, and lifestyle behaviors—will be impacted. Often, this change will be accompanied by visible expressions of sorrow, but those emotions are not essential to true repentance.

Instead of ignoring repentance or just giving “lip service” to it, genuine Biblical repentance is a major focus of Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship theology, training, and resources (particularly The Story of Hope and The Roots of Faith). The Good Soil E&D scale and the “worldview onion” model are designed to help us assess the status of a person’s mind, in relation to the truths of God’s Word. The “worldview noise” communication model is designed to help us come to grips with the challenges we face in presenting the gospel to people whose minds need to be deeply changed by God’s Word—people who need to repent.

*The verb metanoein means to take subsequent note of something, to adopt another view, and therefore to regret the prior viewpoint. (from page 49 of Conversion in the New Testament by Richard V. Peace)

The relationship between repentance and faith. As stated above, some believers see repentance and faith as two separate, successive steps: (1) I repent (“express deep regret” for my sins and a willingness to forsake them) and then I can (2) believe in Christ so that He will save me from these sins that I regret and have forsaken.

But another (and we believe, correct) way of viewing repentance and faith is that they are two simultaneous facets (flip sides) of the same action: (1) At the same time that I initially trust (believe) in Christ to be my Savior (2) I am abandoning (repenting of) the trust that I formerly placed in other things—my thinking is totally flipped.

This view explains why the terms seem to be used interchangeably in some New Testament passages.

Paul clearly connects the two concepts in Acts 20:20-21:

20 how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fact that the original words for repentance and faith are joined by one article would indicate that they are inseparable here.

Acts 2:22-38: When asked, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent.”

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. 36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent…”

In Acts 2:22-38, Peter confronted the most important worldview beliefs that needed to be changed in the minds of the Jews. These beliefs centered around their views of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no indication in this text that Peter told the Jews to “believe” (per se). But as these Jews changed their old way of thinking toward Jesus of Nazareth (repented), they simultaneously believed in Him as the Lord (God) and Christ (Messiah) that Peter had declared Him to be.

Acts 16:29-34: When asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul said, “Believe.”

29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

We can’t say for sure why Paul gave a different response to the question of this Gentile* Philippian jailer, as compared to the response that Peter gave to the Jews on the day of Pentecost. But as an ordinary Gentile, the jailer probably knew very little or nothing at all about Jesus of Nazareth. He didn’t need to change his mind (repent) about Jesus as much as he needed to believe in Him. And in order to give him a basis for that belief (trust), Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him” (perhaps for several hours).

Did Peter (in Acts 2) and Paul (in Acts 16) each present only half of the way to salvation? If repentance and faith are the “flip sides” of the same heart-action, the answer is “No.” They both gave essentially the same response but emphasized what their hearers most needed.

*According to Acts 16:13 there probably was no Jewish synagogue in Philippi. Thus, it is very likely that the Philippian jailer was not a Jew.

The Gospel of John: The word “repentance” does not appear in John’s gospel.

Some evangelicals evaluate a sermon or book about salvation based upon how frequently the word “repentance” is used. The assumption seems to be that, if the word is not used frequently, then the speaker or writer advocates easy-believism and doesn’t believe in or value the concept of repentance. Is it not possible that a person can believe and value the Biblical doctrine of repentance without making frequent references to it?

For example, the words “faith” and “believe” appear nearly 100 times in John’s Gospel, but the word repentance does not appear there (nor does it appear in any of his three epistles). Did this mean that the beloved disciple of Jesus espoused a shallow view regarding how men and women become members of God’s family?

As a disciple of Jesus, John certainly knew about repentance and used the word “repent” several times in the book of Revelation*. We suggest that John probably saw true faith (belief) in Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, to be the flip side of repentance. Thus, every time John exhorted his readers to believe in Jesus, he was also exhorting them to change their minds with regard to what they previously believed and trusted.

John 20:31

31 But these are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name.

*Note: It is interesting that the first two times John used the word “repent” in his New Testament writings it was directed toward people who professed to be Christians (Revelation 2:5, 16).

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