Repentance: What Does the Bible Say? – By Dr. Curtis Hutson
There is no doubt that all men from Adam on have had to repent in order to have a right relationship with God. The importance of repentance is demonstrated by the fact that men of every biblical age preached it.
John the Baptist preached it in Mark 1:15 when he said, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Paul preached it in Acts 20:21, “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Apostle John proclaimed its necessity in Revelation 2:5 when he exhorted the church at Ephesus, “Repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
And the Lord Jesus Christ Himself emphasized its importance when He said in Luke 13:3, “Except ye repent, ye shall all like-wise perish.”
The problem is not preaching repentance; it is giving a wrong definition to the word. Down through the centuries “repent” has come to mean a far different thing than when it was spoken by John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John, and Jesus Christ Himself. If you look up “repent or repentance” in a modern dictionary, you will find such definitions as “to feel sorry or self-reproachful,” “to be conscience- stricken,” “to turn from sin.”
Using these definitions, some have preached reformation instead of repentance. If you look up the Greek word translated “repent” in the King James Bible and used by Jesus, Paul, John and others in the New Testament, you will find that the word metanoeo means to think differently or afterwards, that is, to change the mind.
Faulty Ideas About Repentance
We suppose there are many faulty ideas about repentance, but we will deal here with the more popular ones. Perhaps the most popular false idea is that repentance is turning from sin.
We have heard some well-known preachers say, “If you want to be saved, repent of your sins, turn from your sins.” If turning from your sins means to stop sinning, then people can only be saved if they stop sinning. And it is unlikely that anyone has ever been saved, since we don’t know anyone who has ever stopped sinning.
I recently asked a large congregation if there was anyone present who had not sinned in the last week to raise his hand, and not a single hand was lifted. I don’t know of anyone who lives a single day without sinning. Now to be sure, you may not commit murder, adultery, or you may not rob a bank, but you sin nonetheless. Romans 14:23 says, “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” That simply means that if we do anything without a conviction of God’s approval, then it is sinful. And I suppose everyone is guilty of this
every day of his life.
James 4:17 says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
When I was a small boy, I recall hearing an old preacher pray, “Lord, forgive us of the sins of omission as well as the sins of commission.” There is such a thing as a sin of omission. The Bible says to leave undone something we know is good is a sin. And who hasn’t sinned in this respect?
The book of I John is written to believers. And I John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The pronoun “we” in this verse refers to Christians, believers. For any believer to claim that he has not sinned is to make God a liar.
Several years ago I read a book by a professor at a fundamental university. Under the chapter on salvation, he said, “Quit your sinning, and God will give you a new heart.” He presented repentance as turning from sin. I wrote this dear brother and expressed my concern, knowing that such teaching frustrates the unbeliever and makes him think that salvation is unattainable since he cannot live a sinless life. This professor wrote back that he had repented, that he had turned from his sins. When I wrote to ask if he had sinned after he was saved, he had to honestly answer the question and admit that he had. I explained that if he had sinned after he was saved, then he had not turned from his sins; he had only turned from part of them, that is, the ones he had not committed since he had been saved. He then agreed to change the statement in his book.
If repentance means turning from sin, and turning from sin means to stop sinning, then a person must live a sinless life in order to be saved. And if that is the case, then nobody could ever be saved, because there are no perfect people.
You don’t get better to get saved; you get saved to get better. You can’t get better until you do get saved. In reality, one can begin living better only after he is saved. When the individual trusts Christ as Saviour, he receives a new nature. Second Peter 1:4 says, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” With this new nature come new desires and new power to make the desires a reality.
We read in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is the presence of God in the believer that gives him both the desire and power to live a better life. And no man has the indwelling Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit until after he is saved.
The Christian life is not an imitation of the Christ life; it is Christ living His life over again in us as we yield ourselves to Him. That is what Paul meant in Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Several years ago, after I finished preaching a Sunday morning service, several people trusted Christ as Saviour, including a lady and her five children. I noticed a man sitting on the same pew who did not respond. After the service, I spoke to him, while many of the members of the church were shaking hands with the lady, her children, and others who had trusted Christ that morning.
“Sir,” I said, “is this your wife and children?”
“Yes,” he replied.
I said, “Isn’t it wonderful that they have trusted Christ as Saviour!” “Yes,” he replied.
Then I asked, “Have you trusted Christ as your Saviour?”
He dropped his head and said, “I’m afraid I haven’t.”
“May I ask why you haven’t trusted Christ as Saviour?”
“Well,” he said, “to be honest with you, I’m afraid I can’t live it.”
I suspected that this man had an idea that in order to be saved, he must promise God that he would never sin again, or he thought that repenting was turning from sin. So I pressed the issue. “What do you mean, you can’t live it?”
“Well,” he said, “I know that I will probably sin again.”
I said, “Sir if getting saved is promising Jesus you will never sin again, then I would never get saved, because I know I cannot live a sinless life.” I explained that to be saved one simply had to trust Jesus as Saviour. I opened the Bible to John 3:36 and read, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” Then pointing to the verse, I asked, “Does the verse say ‘He that believeth on the Son and lives it has everlasting life’?”
“Oh, no,” he replied.
“Then what does the verse say?”
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.”
“Then must one believe on the Son and live it in order to be saved? Or must one simply believe on the Son, as the Bible says, to have everlasting life?”
“Well,” he said, “I suppose that one must do what the Bible says – believe on the Son.” “Then will you trust Jesus Christ right now as your Saviour?”
With a smile on his face, he answered, “I certainly will.” In a moment he joined his wife and children as the church members came by and shook hands, rejoicing with them in their decision to trust Christ as Saviour.
I think there are many who would like to be saved but have been presented the faulty idea that repentance is turning from sin and therefore they are convinced that they cannot be saved. Oh, if we would only make salvation plain and explain to men that we are not saved by doing anything; rather we are saved by trusting in what Jesus has already done. He died two thousand years ago for our sins. He fully paid the sin debt, and the Bible says, “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Now don’t misunderstand me. We do not want to treat sin lightly, but then, we must not demand of an unbeliever that which is impossible for him to perform, and we must not make unbelievers feel that salvation is a hopeless, unattainable thing.
A second faulty idea is that repentance is sorrow for sin. The Bible says in II Corinthians 7:10, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of….” Though godly sorrow may bring about repentance, it is not the same as repentance.
I’m afraid we have been guilty of building doctrines off our experience rather than the Bible. We must remember that the Bible is the principle, not man’s experience.
We have heard well-meaning preachers tell of their experience of salvation and describe their weeping and sorrow and how miserable and low-down they felt before they were saved. In doing so, they suggest to the unbeliever that he must feel a certain amount of sorrow before he can be saved. If that is the case, then how much sorrow must a man feel and exactly how much must he weep and moan before God will save him? This kind of teaching suggests to us the false idea that God is basically unwilling to save sinners, and unless one softens the heart of God by his tears, then God will never accept him and grant forgiveness for sin.
The truth is, God is more willing and ready to save than we unbelievers are to simply trust Him to do it. As a matter of fact, God has done and is doing all He can to save men. Two thousand years ago He placed all our sins on His Son Jesus Christ and then punished Jesus in our place to pay the sin debt we owe so that when we die, we won’t have to pay it. That is exactly what the Bible means in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In the matter of salvation, no amount of weeping or sorrow will coax God into doing something that He has not already done.
Remember when Jesus was on the cross, He cried, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), which means that the price for our salvation was paid in full. Nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken from it. We don’t need to weep, beg, or plead for God to do something He has already done. What we do is accept Him, trust Him.
The problem is not that God is adamant and unapproachable but that man will not respond.
The great evangelist D. L. Moody insisted that the inquirer was not to seek sorrow but the Saviour. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His shed blood is sufficient for the forgiveness of sins. Ephesians 1:7 says, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.”
Notice that forgiveness of sins is through His blood. It is not the death of Christ-plus sorrow; the death of Christ-plus tears; the death of Christ-plus mourning; or even the death of Christ-plus pleading. No, no, no! It is the death of Christ-period. The Word of God makes it clear that salvation is based entirely upon the death of Christ and the believer’s faith or trust in Him. Acts 16:31 plainly says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Believe. Not believe and weep, not believe and pray, not believe and mourn, not believe and feel sorrow for your sins, but believe, only believe.
I am glad when I see someone troubled over his sins, but we must be very careful in presenting the plan of salvation not to insist that a person have a certain degree of sorrow before he can be saved. That is not repentance, and such a requirement for salvation is not found in the Bible.