“Repentance” Word Study

Some Practical Considerations:

Many times the unsaved person is exhorted by well-meaning pastors and Bible teachers to “repent of their sins and believe in Jesus in order to receive eternal life. This message is so widespread that some tend to assume that it is in the Bible. As mentioned earlier, the terms “repent of sin” or “repentance of sin” are not even to be found in God's word.

When a person hears that he must “repent of sin” in order to be eternally saved, he usually thinks that he must give up his sin in some vague manner or at least be sorry enough to be willing to attempt to reduce his sinning to some degree. Even though there would be great practical benefit to anyone forsaking some sins, logically speaking, this message takes a person who is already blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:3,4) and thrusts him into an endless sea of subjectivity. How much sin must be eliminated and for how long? What if he succeeds today in some area of sin but fails tomorrow? Does he lose his salvation? Should he just be concerned about the “popular” sins; the ones that legalistic people judge others for but that God does not mention as sins (e.g. smoking, drinking, dancing, certain clothing, etc.) and ignore those which God does mention such as pride, gossip, etc.? Just how good does he have to be to enter Heaven? The answer to that is that he must be “perfect” (Rev. 21:27, 2 Cor. 5:21). That can only occur when we have Jesus' righteousness imputed to us by faith alone. (2 Cor. 5:21). Repentance is not presented in the Word of God as being a requirement for eternal life; belief in Jesus is. 

Many who proclaim the message of “repent of sin and believe in Jesus” as a requirement for eternal life legitimately lament the sad state of the average believer and even the general condition of the body of Christ today. With some, the rationale seems to be that since believers are living such a carnal lifestyle, that we need to make it “hard” to get saved; that they need to have some level of obedience to Jesus before they even receive the gift of eternal life. If we have to earn it, it no longer is a gift (cf. Rom. 6:23).

There are those who would require a believer to “turn from sin” in order to be saved. This is sometimes called “front-loading” the gospel. Others would require that a person must show a certain pattern of good works after they believe or they either would lose their eternal life or prove that they were never saved at all. This is sometimes called back-loading the gospel. If we could lose eternal life, then God has misnamed it.

In either case, the requirement is made that we must do something of ourselves to add to Christ's perfect payment that He made on the cross for us. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” If we require some level of Christian growth before a person is born again, we also negate the process of Christian growth that God commands in the believer's life. Though the intent of this spurious message might be admirable, we cannot properly correct error by teaching more error.[1]

Jesus said, speaking of His Holy Spirit which was to come, that He would “…reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me;…” (John 16:8, 9). He did not say that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of not repenting of their sins (plural), but that He would convict them of the sin of unbelief. (Italics added) Should not this make a vital impact upon our Gospel presentation? How often do we hear a false but well-intentioned faith-plus-works message proclaimed?

The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is that people would believe and have life through His name (John 20:31). John does not mention the word “repent” anywhere in the book of John. Therefore, I conclude that John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not think that repentance is necessary for someone to believe and have life.[2] If repentance or anything other than belief in Jesus was required in order to receive eternal life, then Jesus certainly mislead Nicodemus, the woman at the well, etc.

After checking all 112 occurrences of “repent” and “repentance, I also am unable to find any OT or NT verse which requires repentance for the receiving of eternal life. Repentance, sorrow for sin, gratefulness, or even a drastically changed lifestyle, etc. may or may not accompany the circumstances of someone believing in Jesus but only belief is stated as the requirement. Please see “Repentance” study at www.faithalone.org/bookstore/ten-sample.pdf for explanations for verses that are sometimes used to attempt to establish that we must repent in order to be justified and receive eternal life.

There are verses which refer both to repentance and “forgiveness” or “remission” of sins (frequently the same Greek word - ἄφεσις - af'-es-is). Forgiveness and justification are two different issues. It appears that the Jews of Palestine during the ministry of John the Baptist who nationally had a part in rejecting and crucifying Jesus had some different requirements for forgiveness and even receiving the Holy Spirit, (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; 3:19, compared with the Gentile, Cornelius, in Acts 10).[3] The Jew of that locale and time, just as anyone in any age was still justified by faith alone as was Abraham two millennia before (Gen. 15:6). Along with the above-mentioned fact that the book of John does not even mention the word “repent,” it is also noteworthy that he only mentions “forgiveness” of sins in one verse; John 20:23. (NKJV, KJV translates the word as “remit,” (ἀφίημι - af-ee'-ay-mee), the most common Greek word translated “forgive”). This occurrence is not in reference to the eternal salvation message.

It appears that most of today’s evangelical Bible teachers maintain that “repentance” is a necessary component required in order to receive eternal life. Usually most of these would include belief in Jesus also.

I categorize these into two distinct groups: 1, Those who add man’s works to salvation by requiring some sort of works or change of life for salvation, and 2. Those who maintain the truth of the grace message which is explained in Romans and defended in Galatians. Let me explain.

The numerically largest of these two groups are those who teach that one must repent, or repent of sin to be saved, and by that meaning (or clearly stating) that one must turn from either all or some vague amount of sin, promise to turn from some sin, or at least be sufficiently sorry for their sin that they will forsake it, etc. in order to receive eternal life.

We offer two basic reasons for rejecting this message that we have to turn from sin or promise to turn from sin to be eternally saved: 1. The Bible does not tell us to either repent or to turn from sin to be eternally saved, and 2. The Bible repeatedly does tell us the one and only way that we can be saved is to believe in Jesus to save us. In reality, when we believe in Jesus as our Savior, we then have the Holy Spirit’s power in our life to overcome sin.

There is no need for an in-depth study of repentance in order to refute this doctrine. There are over 150 verses[4] which tell us that the means for us to obtain eternal life is by belief/faith. If we pollute this grace gospel in any way by adding man’s imperfect work to God’s finished work for our salvation, we are bringing God’s judgment upon us (Gal. 1:6-10). It would be difficult to make the eternal salvation message any more clear than that of John 3:16; 6:47; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8, 9, et al.

The numerically smaller of these two groups are those who state that we must repent to be saved and do so while still maintaining the “grace” message. They do not define repentance as turning from sin, but as a change of mind about Jesus and then believing in Him as Savior.

The logic is that since “repent” means to change the mind, that if you were trusting in your good works, church membership, water baptism, or whatever, in order to be eternally saved, then if you “changed your mind” and believed in Jesus that you would be saved; i.e. you already repented. Therefore, they say that either repentance is synonymous with belief[5] or that if you changed your mind from believing a false message to the true belief (in Jesus) then you have already repented and it is not necessary to even mention it. One Bible teacher puts it as, “Repentance for salvation refers to  a change of mind from man’s way of salvation to acceptance of God’s way of salvation.”

There are Bible teachers who are smarter and more knowledgeable than me who endorse that teaching[6] but I do not think that this logic is sufficient when compared with Scripture. A basic Scriptural argument is that of all the 112 references to repent and its cognates in the Bible that I can find no statement made to the effect that we must repent in order to be justified, i.e. eternally saved. If this is so, then we are on “very thin ice” claiming that repentance is also required when the Bible never states that it is required and is extremely clear that we simply need to believe in Jesus to save us. Jesus is not just necessary for our salvation, He is sufficient for our salvation.

One respected Bible teacher who is a proponent of this teaching agreed with me that there is no verse which tells us that we must repent to be saved[7] but was still adamant that we must repent (i.e. change our mind about Jesus or about how we are saved) in order to believe and be eternally saved. He was apparently basing his belief largely on the logic that if we believe in Jesus then we have already “changed our mind” from whatever we were believing in; therefore we need to have “repented,” i.e. had a change of mind.

I countered with the logic that even though that was likely to be true in many instances, it still is not necessarily a requirement because the Bible does not say so and logically, it is feasible that some may have never even believed in anything to be saved,  but then through the Holy Spirit’s conviction they came to a realization of the truth and believed.

Let me illustrate. (An illustration does not prove doctrine; it seeks to illustrate and clarify doctrine). Suppose that you and I were in a room in a large building and I told you that the next room was fully engulfed in flames. Would you believe me? Your answer would likely depend upon several factors; Do you have any other related input? Do I have a sufficient pattern of trustworthiness with you? Are you having a bad day? etc. Now suppose that you open the door and immediately were almost overcome with the heat and the flames, it would matter little whether or not you believed me before as it would be almost impossible for you to doubt the truth of my warning then.

Now, more directly related to this matter, suppose you were in the same room in the same situation except that I was not there to warn you. You might not have been thinking about anything, especially about the condition of the next room or what I might have told you if I had been there; You open the door and immediately are almost overcome with heat and flames; Now what?

Did you change your mind about the condition of the next room? Of course not. You were not even thinking about it. You encountered a very convincing realization. You had not believed anything either way about the condition of the next room until you opened the door.

Could a similar circumstance manifest itself in the spiritual realm? I know of someone whose personal salvation testimony is claimed to match this scenario. Neither this hypothetical logic nor this person’s testimony is proof. The proof needs to come from the God’s Word. To me, the proof is that God’s Word nowhere tells us to repent or to turn from our sin in order to be justified/receive eternal life, but He does tell us repeatedly to just believe/have faith in Jesus to be eternally saved.

[1] It has been said that, “Two wrongs don’t make a right, but that three rights do make a left.”

[2] John was familiar with both the word and the doctrine of repentance as he used it 12 times in the Revelation. It was used only where it was needed.

[3] These verses are ably covered in the book recommended at the end of footnote 4.

[4] For a list of these please see http://www.freegraceresources.org/galindex.html, footnote 36 of the Galatians study.

[5] Repentance and faith are not synonymous and they are only found together in 4 verses. None of these verses are in an evangelistic context. Please see “Repentance and Faith in the New Testament” By Bill Fiess, at http://www.faithalone.org/magazine/y2014/BillFiess_RepentanceFaithNT.pdf

[6] Even though we propose that this teaching is in error (i.e. that we must repent to be saved, repent in the Bible means to change your mind and believe in Jesus for eternal life) we can certainly fellowship with those of that persuasion. This teaching does not pollute the grace message as mentioned in Gal. 1:6-10. I cannot be too critical of those who teach this as I did so for many years.

[7] Another respected Bible teacher, though he was a proponent of “repent/change of mind and believe in Jesus” view, honestly admits that there is no Biblical support that repentance is required for receiving eternal life. See  L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), III: 373-78. “From this overwhelming mass of irrefutable evidence [the absence of repentance in John, only one occurrence in Romans, its absence in Paul's reply of Acts 16:31], it is clear that the New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation” (p. 376).