Is Preaching Repentance from Sin Another Gospel?
Over the years, I have heard the charge that those who define repentance as “turning from sin” or those who call for evidence of a changed life after a salvation decision, are adding works to salvation. I have heard some even say that anyone who preaches repentance from sin in salvation should be “accursed” and shunned because they have tampered with the gospel of grace.
It is my personal conviction that repentance does involve a person’s attitude and position to their sin, that repentance from sin will accompany faith in genuine salvation, and that there will be discernible evidence of repentance as a new believer grows in the grace of God.
The Biblical Definition of Repentance
First, repentance goes beyond the mere definition of the Greek word metanoia as simply a “change of mind.” It is true that the phrase “repent of your sin” is not used in the Bible. However, when comparing passages and references, it can be proven biblically that repentance does indeed involve turning the heart from sin.
Jesus first sermon recorded in the New Testament started out with the phrase, “Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17).
When Jesus commissioned the seventy to go out and preach the kingdom of God, the description given was “And they went out and preached that men should repent.” (Mark 6:12).
Three times, Jesus himself said that he came not to “call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matthew 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:32). The reason he was calling sinners to repentance was not because they had not yet received God’s forgiveness, but because of their sin.
Jesus stated in Matthew 12:41, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”
The people evidently would have been familiar with the book of Jonah where the repentance of Nineveh is described in Jonah 3:8-10. Now the word repent is used twice in these verses in reference to God “repenting” of the evil he had determined against them, but Jesus was not referring to the response of God in Matthew 12:41, but the response of the people of Nineveh. The verses say…
“But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”
The response of the people was sorrow evidenced by humbling themselves with sackcloth and ashes, turning from their evil ways, and turning from violence. So it is clear that when Jesus referred to their repentance, there was a change of heart involving their response and attitude concerning their sin.
Why Repentance from Sin Is in Harmony with Salvation by Grace through Faith
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace and ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.” From this verse, I believe that scripture is telling us that salvation is the work of God and that even the faith we have to believe does not originate within us, but is graciously given to us as part of the gift of salvation.
Additionally, there are at least three other references in the New Testament that state that repentance is also a gift from God, and is not something that originates within us from our own effort. Thus, it is also a factor of God’s grace in salvation. For example…
“Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31).
“When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18).
“In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25). The context of this verse is speaking of the preacher’s relationship to “all men”, not just the household of faith. (2 Timothy 2:24). Therefore, it would include the preaching of the gospel to the unsaved.
To summarize repentance, when a sinner responds in faith to Holy Spirit conviction of sin, it simultaneously stirs up within them repentance towards their sin, giving them the desire to change, or in the context of grace, the desire to be changed by God. Although they are still trapped within an imperfect body of flesh that will still at times give in to temptation, they will have the desire to be changed, and that desire will evidence in their life to some degree and will increase according to their maturity in Christ, which may wax and wane at different times in their lives.
Repentance Reveals Itself in True Faith, and Faith Can be Judged By Repentance
When John the Baptist preached repentance, he made the statement “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” Conversely, when Jesus was warning of false prophets, he proclaimed, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16a) and “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:20). Verse 21 then follows up with the Lord saying, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
In the book of Galatians, after listing the works of the flesh, the following conclusion was given, “of which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” The word do in this verse is the Greek word prasso which means “to exercise, practice, be busy with, carry on”. It is not saying that a Christian cannot commit the sins categorized as the works of the flesh, but that it will not be the continual practice and character of a true believer’s life.
If a person is living a life that is in continual, habitual practice of the works of the flesh, it is not they they lost their salvation, but likely that they were never truly saved in the first place. It may be that the gifts of faith and repentance are missing from their lives because they never truly existed in their lives at any point in time.
From these passages, it is clear that God does indeed call Christians to examine themselves and the lives of other professing Christians. It does not matter how many prayers people pray or how many decisions they have made, if their life is continuously characterized by the works of the flesh, chances are they are not children of God.
Those Who Refer to Repentance from Sin in Salvation Are Not Adding Works
The most concise verse that best characterizes the preaching of the gospel in regards to repentance and faith is Acts 20:21, “Testifying both the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our repentance is directed toward God the Father because it is his law which we have broken, and our faith is directed toward Jesus Christ to save us from the penalty, power and eventually the presence of sin.
Mark 1:15 says, “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel.” As described earlier, the ability to repent is graciously given to us by God, as well as the faith to believe.
In light of these verses, I have no issue with those who present the gospel as “repent of your sins and believe in Christ.” Neither do I have an issue with those who simply say “believe” as long as they emphasize the depth of sin and the change that will inevitably take place when a sinner believes. That is sufficient. A person who has no desire for God to change them will not truly want to receive Christ.
We must emphasize the wrath of God towards sin (Romans 1:18), and we must also emphasize that receiving Christ will result in forgiveness of sins, a new life, and victory over sin. A person may not understand every facet of repentance and faith when they trust Christ, but the seed of both will be present from the moment of salvation.
Painting with a Broad Brush
To say that those who refer to repentance as turning from sin are adding works to salvation is painting with a broad brush. The same is true with labeling in the same manner those who believe that a change will absolutely follow a true profession of faith in Christ. To say that such should be considered “accursed” is creating unnecessary strife among the brethren and is in danger of setting up a Pharisaical, exclusivist attitude towards other Christians and churches.
If this is true, then we would have to accept that Charles Spurgeon, Billy Sunday, Lester Roloff and other preachers of ages past were also accursed because all of them, at some point in the ministries, preached repentance in the context of turning from sin.