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A Voice in the Wilderness:     "The Gospel and Repentance"     by William Webster

John the Baptist
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The Gospel and Repentance
by William Webster

"Unless you repent, you will...perish"
Luke 13:3

Repentance is a major emphasis in the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus came 'to call sinners to repentance' (Mt. 9:13) and his gospel presentation included both repentance and faith: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel' (Mk. 1:15). He taught that repentance is necessary for salvation: 'Unless you repent, you will...perish' (Lk. 13:3), and he commanded that it be preached throughout the world as part of the Great Commission: 'that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations' (Lk.24:47).

Repentance was also the hallmark of the preaching of John the Baptist (Mt. 3:1-8) and of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Peter taught that repentance and conversion are necessary for salvation: 'Repent therefore and return, that your sins might be wiped away' (Acts 3:19); that Christ's purpose in ascending to heaven was to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins: 'He is the one whon God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins' (Acts 5:31); and that 'God is not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance' (2 Pet. 3:9).

Paul's gospel consisted of 'repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21). He preached to the Gentiles that 'God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent' (Acts 17:30) and therefore 'they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance' (Acts 26:20). Clearly, scripture teaches that repentance is part of the human response to the gospel of God and is necessary for salvation. As Jesus said: 'Unless you repent you will...perish' (Lk. 13:3). Apart from repentance one cannot exercise saving faith.

Repentance and faith are separate concepts. But while they are distinct and different, we cannot separate them in the application and appropriation of salvation. True faith always involves repentance and true repentance always involves faith. Both to be preached when calling men to Christ. John Calvin taught that there could be no separating them:

Even though we have taught in part how to possess Christ, and how through it we enjoy his benefits, this would still remain obscure if we did not add an explanation of the effects we feel. With good reason, the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31). Any discussion of faith, therefore, that omitted these two topics would be barren and mutilated and well-nigh useless...Surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance. Can true repentance stand apart from faith? Not at all. But even though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Chapters 1, 5, pp. 592-593, 597).

Zwingli further expresses the emphasis of the Reformation on repentance:

The second part of the gospel, then, is repentance: not that which takes place for a time, but that which makes a man who knows himself blush and be ashamed of his old life, for one reason because he sees it ought to be altogether foreign to a Christian to waste away in those sins from which he rejoiced to believe that he had been delivered...Therefore when Christ and John and the Apostles preach, saying, 'Repent,' they are simply calling us to a new life quite unlike our life before; and those who had undertaken to enter upon this were marked by an initiatory sacrament, baptism to wit, by which they give public testimony that they were going to enter upon a new life (Huldrych Zwingli, Commentary On True and False Religion (Durham: Labyrinth, 1981), pp. 131-132).

Martin Bucer likewise stresses the necessity for repentance:

It is a quality of the Kingdom of Christ that in it the repentance of sinners must always be preached. Hence where the kingdom of Christ has truly been received, there it is necessary that the sins of all be severely rebuked, that men may give themselves up completely to the kingship of Christ in order to be cleansed from their sins and endowed with the spirit of righteousness...Thus it is a hollow mockery that those who do not make a wholehearted effort to do the things that are pleasing to the heavenly Father should declare themselves citizens and members of the Kingdom of Christ (Martin Bucer, On the Kingdom of Christ. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Volume XIX, p. 219). The seventeenth century puritan, Thomas Watson, says:

Repentance is of such importance that there is no being saved without it...It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn unto God...That religion which is not built upon this foundation must needs fall to the ground.

Repentance is a grace required under the gospel. Some think it legal; but the first sermon that Christ preached, indeed, the first word of his sermon, was 'Repent' (Matt. 4.17). And his farewell that he left when he was going to ascend was that 'repentance should be preached in his name' (Luke 22.47)...Repentance is not arbitrary. It is not left to our choice whether or not we will repent, but it is an indispensable command. God has enacted a law in the High Court of heaven that no sinner shall be saved except the repenting sinner, and he will not break his own law.

Some bless themselves that they have a stock of knowledge, but what is knowledge good for without repentance? It is better to mortify one sin than to understand all mysteries. Impure speculatists do but resemble Satan transformed into an angel of light. Learning and a bad heart is like a fair face with a cancer in the breast. Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell (Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner, 1987), pp. 12-13, 59, 77).

In scripture, repentance is placed on an equal footing with faith in the proclamation of the gospel. The call of the gospel is a call to repentance and faith, not simply to faith. Repentance does not save but one cannot exercise saving faith, appropriate Christ or experience salvation, apart from biblical repentance. Some take exception to this, arguing that repentance is a fruit of faith. However, most Reformed theologians agree with this teaching. For example, Berkhof teaches that repentance and conviction of sin precede faith rather than being the fruit of it: There is no doubt that, logically, repentance and the knowledge of sin precedes the faith that yields to Christ in trusting love (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 492).

And John Murray says:

The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance...It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 113).

The Westminster Confession emphasizes the importance of preaching repentance as well as faith:

Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ. By it a sinner, out of sight and sense, not only of danger, but also of filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV, Sections I and II. Cited in A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), p. 210).

R. L. Dabney comments:

The manner in which faith and repentance are coupled together in Scripture plainly shows that, as faith is implicitly present in repentance, so repentance is implicitly in faith (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), pp. 606-607).

The Westminster Confession and most Reformed theologians teach that repentance is not a fruit of faith but of regeneration. More importantly, the teaching that repentance is a fruit of faith is not the teaching of scripture. As with faith, it is described equally with faith as a gift of God and the fruit of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Repentance and faith define what it means to turn to God in Christ for salvation. It is imperative that we adequately emphasize both of these doctrines. One cannot come to Christ to receive imputed righteousness, forgiveness and eternal life apart from faith and repentance. We must maintain a balance in our teaching and preaching. We dare not minimize a doctrine that scripture emphasizes, especially when it relates to salvation. Unfortunately, this is happening in much of evangelicalism today. There is much teaching on faith to the diminishing of the importance of repentance. And this is not a new problem. As Dabney observed:

Repentance unto Life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ (Conf. xv.1). The brevity, and in some cases neglect, with which this prominent subject is treated by many systems, is surprising and reprehensible (R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 651).

We need to stress repentance as much as faith because apart from repentance a man cannot exercise saving faith. What then is repentance? The Greek word for repentance is metanoia which literally means a change of mind; a change of mind toward sin whereby man comes to detest his sin and purposes to forsake it. John Calvin comments:

The Hebrew word for 'repentance' is derived from conversion or return; the Greek word, from change of mind or of intention. And the thing itself corresponds closely to the etymology of both words. The meaning is that, departing from ourselves, we turn to God, and having taken off our former mind, we put on a new. On this account, in my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the turning of our life to God...When we call it a 'turning of life to God,' we require a transformation, not only in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal. The prophet, wishing to express this change, bids whom he calls to repentance to get themselves a new heart (Ezek. 18:31).

Outward uprightness of life is not the chief point of repentance, for God looks into men's hearts. Whoever is moderately versed in Scripture will understand by himself...that when we have to deal with God nothing is achieved unless we begin from the inner disposition of the heart (emphasis mine) (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III.3. 5-6, 16, pp. 597-598, 609-610).

John DeWitt says:

Repentance is the first conscious step in a person's experience of the divine grace, the entrance for all believers into life, hope, and salvation...Repentance-the repentance of which the Scriptures speak as a godly sorrow, the repentance which is unto life-is not only a persuasion of sinfulness, but it is also, and very distinctly, a turning from sin...Everywhere the Word of God reminds us that repentance is not simply honesty with oneself, or even the open confession of one's sins; it must also lead to a forsaking of them. If it does not do that, if it is only the fear of punishment and of hell, only a trembling before the just judgment of God, without at the same time the purposing to turn away from sin and to undertake a new obedience to God, then it is not repentance at all (John Richard deWitt, Amazing Love (Edinburgh: Banner, 1981), pp. 66, 74-76). In his commentary on the Westminster Confession, A.A. Hodge makes these important observations on repentance:

The essence of repentance our actual turning from all sin unto God. This is that practical turning or 'conversion' from sin unto God, which is the instant and necessary consequence of regeneration. It is a voluntary forsaking of sin as evil and hateful, with sincere sorrow, humiliation, and confession; and a turning unto God as our reconciled Father, in the exercise of implicit faith in the merits and assisting grace of Christ...Repentance unto life can only be exercised by a soul after, and in consequence of, its regeneration by the Holy Spirit. God regenerates; and we, in the exercise of the new gracious ability thus given, repent...If genuine, it infallibly springs from regeneration and leads to eternal life (A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), pp. 212-213).


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