Repentance: Relevant or Relic

For many people in the world today, the word “repentance” is a concept that has outlived its “shelf-life” and is merely a leftover relic from the “dark ages.” Any personal recognition of sin or honest admission of guilt is almost non-existent, and as long as one doesn’t hurt others, there is no need to change one’s mind or to alter one’s lifestyle. It’s a sad revelation of the descent into the spiritual darkness of this atheistic age.

However, it’s not only the world en masse, but also many churches and even evangelicals that have moved away from the awakening call for “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” The true gospel has been replaced by a new, albeit false gospel – a seeker-friendly message that makes people feel good about themselves. Basically, it declares that man is not lost, but needs to realize his absolute worth and potential in himself. The message exalts man, minimizes Christ, denies sin, and undermines the great work of Calvary. It tends to focus on the positive aspects of the Christian faith and avoids condemning people in their sin. Preaching sin and guilt is considered harmful to the person’s self worth. Christianity has become a “get-what-you-want” religion that demands no changes in lifestyle and no acknowledgment of need. This is not merely false – it is heresy. Sadly, some assemblies of believers have begun to wonder if repentance is really a vital and necessary part of the gospel presentation for salvation today. So is it necessary or is it obsolete?

What is Repentance?

This is no small issue, as repentance and faith in the Bible are closely linked in regard to salvation. The two Greek words used for repentance in the New Testament: (matanoia – Matt 3:8 and metanoeo – Matt 3:2) mean to “change the mind” and “to perceive afterwards.” Many times, we define repentance as merely a “change in mind,” but ultimately it is more than this, for it would be quite possible to change your mind regarding a wrong item and then accept something else which is equally wrong. True repentance does involve a change in mind, but it will always result in a change of action or a changed life. The person comprehends and recognizes his sin with its guilt and defilement. There is an emotional element or a change of feeling which expresses sorrow that we have sinned against a holy God. Ultimately, there is also a volitional element, or a change of purpose that turns from sin to seek God’s forgiveness and a cleansed life. Many are remorseful that their sin exposed them or that the results of their actions were disappointing, but refuse to admit guilt and turn from their sin. True repentance always involves a change in heart and purpose which inevitably produces a change of lifestyle and behavior.

Was Repentance Preached in the New Testament?

The answer is not long in coming. Matthew 3:1-2 introduces John the Baptist and his ministry of repentance. When Jesus came into Galilee, His message was “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15) and in Luke 13, He warned His hearers that “unless they repented, they would also perish.” His final commission to His disciples before He returned to heaven was that they should preach “repentance and remission of sins” in His Name among all nations (Luke 24:47). In Peter’s final letter, he emphatically writes that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance” (2Peter 3:9). Paul reminded the Ephesian elders what he had preached: “testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). As Paul challenged his readers in Romans 2:4, “do you presume on the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (ESV). The New Testament is filled with the clear teaching of repentance and the open declaration of its need in the preaching of both the Savior and the apostles.

Is Repentance Necessary for Salvation Today?

The need for repentance is a pressing, essential element of the gospel today, as it addresses the sinful condition of our hearts and exposes the rebellious, defiant nature of our wills. Repentance goes to the core of the problem and calls for a “turn in our minds and a turn on the road” because of who we are and what we have done. God’s assessment is vastly different than our evaluation of ourselves. In God’s sight we are spiritually “dead” and marked by disobedience and depravity (Eph 2:1-3). We are “enemies in our minds by wicked works” (Col 1:21), and refuse to surrender to the claims of God. And despite the massive evidence that condemns us, we almost demand that God accept us on our terms without any real change on our part. God wondrously sees eternal value in every one of us, but His grace can only be accepted and appreciated when we acknowledge our need of it and bow to the claims of God’s holiness and righteousness. Repentance opens up the line of communication with God and allows Him to heal broken sinners (and saints) and to restore and bless shattered lives. The prodigal son’s confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight …” didn’t reduce him to servanthood but immediately resulted in the best robe, the sign of sonship, and the rejoicing at the welcoming banquet (Luke 15). A gospel without the call to repentance results in a pseudo-salvation which suggests that a sinner can obtain forgiveness without the acknowledgement of his helplessness and hopelessness and without truly appreciating the Lamb of God who willingly died for our sins.

The call of Isaiah 55:7 is far-reaching. “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the Lord.” There’s not much of us left if we forsake our ways and our thoughts – and it’s only then that we open ourselves up to God’s Word and will. Cain refused to do that. Tragically, he refused to bow and “went out from the presence of the Lord.” Repentance and faith are really two sides of the same coin. It is only when we change our minds about the person and work of Christ that we will be able to appreciate Him personally.

Thus, repentance is both the vital foundation for saving faith for the sinner and the foundation for a life of fellowship and likeness with the Lord for believers. We are often reluctant to “rattle the bars” of our lives in view of our pet sins and our carnal habits and lifestyles. May repentance mark our lives, individually and collectively, so that the power and blessing of God may be seen in its fullness.