Matt. 3:1-3; Acts 3:19-20; 20:21; Rev. 2:5
Christians who are more experienced with the Scriptures might notice something missing yesterday in my little précis on how to get saved, namely repentance. It’s not a popular word, and most nonbelievers have no idea what it even is. The reason I didn’t mention it yesterday is not because I don’t consider it important (or even essential), but because I wanted to devote a day to it so we can make sure we understand what it really is.
When I say that it’s essential, I don’t mean it just in the sense of “really really important”; I mean it in the most literal sense. It’s part of the essence of the Good News--like Hydrogen is part of the essence of water--and any presentation of the Good News that doesn’t include it is incomplete at best and deceptive at worst.
So what’s the definition? It’s a change of heart that displays itself in changed behavior. It literally means "change of mind" or rethinking something, but it goes much further than that. Scripture makes it clear that true repentance will lead from a changed mind to a changed lifestyle.
The reason I bring this up is due to a controversy in Evangelical circles a few years ago. Some very prominent theologians started teaching that repentance is not part of the Good News, and that any mention of it in presenting Christ’s message to nonbelievers smacks of adding works to God’s grace. Since this is a PG-rated site, I’ll call that the nicest term I can use: Nonsense!
By the way, if you want the best biblical presentation on this issue, I can't recommend highly enough the modern Christian classic The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur.
As you can read from the Matthew passage, it was the message of John the Baptist and thus the earliest message found in the N.T. But when Jesus came upon the scene, though, he was all about grace and dropped that less-than-pleasant part, right? Wrong—our Lord just picked up where his cousin had left off. Lots of times, especially in the book of Acts (like this one), repentance is actually used as a sort of shorthand for what one needs to do to be saved, and the term for “belief” or “trust” is not even found in that particular verse.
So how does repentance fit in with faith? I think we need to distinguish them but never separate them. Paul didn’t. When he was summarizing his message, he linked the two: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Surrendering your life to him is part of the deal. If you have no intention of submitting to him as your boss, then you have a very incomplete view of who he is, and I'd actually question whether you’ve come to him at all. Repentance and faith—it seems to me—are two sides of the same coin.
Again, I desperately want to be crystal clear here. This is not talking about cleaning up your life before you come to Christ and place your faith in him. No, no, no!!!! But it is talking about officially handing the steering wheel of your life over to him. You acknowledge that he's your Boss from now on, and you commit yourself--by his strength--to do things his way from now on instead of your way.
But what about after we’ve come to faith in Christ? Does repentance have any part to play then? Yep. If you’ll recall, the Gospels and Acts are not the last words of Jesus to his church. There are seven letters in the second and third chapters of Revelation, and the word “repent” is repeatedly directed to both churches and individuals (like here). Repentance is both a once-in-a-lifetime commitment (like a wedding) and a moment-by-moment thing in which: 1) God through the Spirit points out some way in which I’ve disobeyed, and 2) I ask for forgiveness and for the resources to change, and 3) I take the necessary practical steps to change. We all have sin in our lives which he’s working on, and becoming more like Christ is an ongoing process which won’t be finished until we see him face-to-face. The good news (for Christians) is that there will come a day in which I can stop dealing with this mess. I’ll confess my last sin and can stop taking these course corrections for all time. That’ll be sweet, won’t it?
Father, what course correction do we need to make today? Where do I need to change? Or rather how do I need to let you change me?