Uncovering Jesus' Free Grace message.


Have you ever heard a gospel presentation that includes repentance? Maybe you’ve been the recipient of a velvety hair preacher who says, “repent to be saved!” I certainly have. In fact, I remember a particular situation at a youth camp years ago. I had been a believer for a few years already but I wasn’t exactly clear on the gospel.

The preacher was so savvy that he convinced me that I needed to repent since I didn’t do that when I believed at age six. I remember kneeling on the floor trying my best to think of something to repent of. Tears were streaming down my face, but I couldn’t think of anything. I begged the Lord to show me what I needed to repent of. Nothing came. Because I couldn’t think of anything, the evangelist convinced me that I might not be saved. He made the strong claim that salvation came by repentance.

After the emotion of the event died down I realized, that I had been duped. A big voice preacher with an eye patch, that’s no joke he really did have an eye patch, had convinced me that I needed to repent to be saved. After my best efforts to comply I realized that he was only tugging at my emotions and manipulating me.

We’re going to challenge that bad understanding of the gospel in this chapter as we look at the difference between the phrases, “believe in Christ,” and “repent.”

Our first stop on this journey will be John 20:30-31.

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.[1]

These verses give us a powerful reminder of the single requirement for gaining everlasting life. Those that believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God may have life in His name. As we’ve seen already in previous chapters, believing in Jesus for the free gift of everlasting life bestows that gift upon the believer. Since we’ve covered this subject over thirty times in previous chapters we will let this abbreviated description stand.

Now let’s cross over from salvation to discipleship. If we are going to talk about repentance, we need an understanding of what repentance is. The best thing to do is let the Bible define the word for us. For that, let’s look at what Jesus said about repentance in the book of Matthew 12:41.

The men of Nineveh … repented at the preaching of Jonah.[2]

Jesus says that what the Ninevites did is repentance. Now all we have to do is go back to Jonah and see what the Ninevites did. Let’s take a look at Jonah 3:10 to see the definition of repentance.

Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.[3]

They turned from their evil way and it defines that as work. So repentance, is work. That means that repentance falls squarely in the category of discipleship. That can be clearly seen by investigating the entire third chapter of Jonah. If you look in the section right above this deceptio it gives a number of things that the Ninevites did. It talks about the work that they enacted which Jesus defines as repentance. Here’s a list of what their repentance consisted of.

The King arose from his throne.

He Removed robes.

He put on sack cloth.

He sat in ashes.

He Issued a decree

The nation fasted.

They refrained from drinking water.

Everything was covered with sack cloth.

They prayed to God.

They turned from their evil way.

They stopped committing violence.

There is no doubt when you look at that list that repentance is action. Repentance is work. Yet, there are those who say that repentance is just a change of mind. There's a reason why people say that. The definition has leaked into the public consciousness because some try to hold on to the idea that salvation comes by faith alone in Jesus but also that salvation requires repentance.

Those two things can't go together. Repentance is clearly defined by the Old Testament, the New Testament, and by Jesus himself as work. If repentance equals work and salvation comes by faith alone then we must draw a dividing line. Paul said that we are save, not of works. Repentance is work.

Let's once more at the verse we discussed earlier in John 20:30-31 again.

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.[4]

This is the purpose statement of the Gospel of John. When he says, “this book” he is not talking about the whole Bible, of course. He's talking about the book that he wrote; The Gospel of John. It’s right at the end of his book. He’s basically saying, ”there's a lot of things I didn't write down, but I wrote down enough for a specific purpose.” Then he tells us what that specific purpose is. In the next verse he says, “but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

This is significant for a very particular reason. What he's saying here, in effect, is that if you are on a desert island and all you have is the Gospel of John you can read it and have everlasting life. Looking at his statement, there’s really no other way to see it. He wrote enough in his gospel that you can read it and have everlasting life. Therefore, the gospel of John is primarily evangelistic. It tells us how to have salvation.

Here is a dilemma that we face. He never once in all of the Gospel of John uses the word “repent” or “repentance.” Think about that for a second. He’s basically saying, “This is how you have everlasting life.” He then leaves out repentance. What is the obvious implication? The implication is that the Apostle John does not think that repentance is a condition for gaining everlasting life. Wow!

Maybe you've been lied to or maybe the preacher that told you that was confused or maybe the preacher that told you that was trying to manipulate you. I don't know. All I know is that the Gospel of John does not talk about repentance. It does say that you can have everlasting life by believing in Jesus. Does that mean that repentance is not something that we're expected to do? Are we not expected to repent?

Before we go that far, there's another book that John wrote and the word repentance is found in it a number of times. The book we're going to look at next is Revelation. The gospel of John is written to unbelievers with the offer of salvation. The book of Revelation is written to believers, people who had already believed in Jesus. They have everlasting life and are trying to live out their discipleship. That is the context in which we find the word “repentance” from John. Let’s look at Revelation 2:1-5.

“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write… I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.[5]

He says, to the church in Ephesus, “repent and do the first work.” He didn’t use the word at all with unbelievers, but suddenly when he's talking to believers, John says that they need to repent. He does have the word “repent” in his vocabulary. It’s just not a word he uses when he’s telling unbelievers how to get saved.

What’s more, he shows that there will be consequences if they don’t repent. He lays out those consequences. Nowhere in here does he say that the consequence for not repenting would be a loss of everlasting life. Things can be lost but not salvation. Fellowship with Christ can be lost. Rewards in heaven can be lost. Yet, everlasting life is secure.

Here's another really famous set of verses from Revelation 3:15, 19.

“I know your works that you are neither hot nor cold…[6] As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.[7]

Once more, what is repentance? It's work. These are believers he’s talking to, so they have everlasting life by faith alone in Christ. Their salvation was not by works but then Jesus expects them as believers to do good work. If they get too far off the path he wants them to return by repenting. He says, “be zealous and repent.” The following section tells us what the benefit for repenting as believers is in verse 20.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.[8]

Fellowship with Christ is the benefit of repentance for the believer. For the saved person, falling into sin means falling out of fellowship with Christ. To get back into fellowship, one must repent. If you want the kind of relationship with Jesus where you can sit and talk over a meal, it may include repentance to get there. He goes on to say,

To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.[9]

The second benefit of repenting has to do with fellowship but adds to it. For those who seek fellowship, he offers a place of honor shared with Him. What could be more intimate than sharing a throne? Jesus offers that to those who can live out a life of committed discipleship. That will sometimes include repentance.

It’s important to know that a person who repents is not getting re-saved. If they have believed in Jesus, they can never again be unsaved. Repentance, for the believer, is fully a discipleship issue. It’s all about works.

Let’s take a look at Luke 24:47.

"and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."[10]

You probably recognize this famous saying. It is the version of the great commission recorded by Luke. It is, however, not the only version of this teaching by Jesus. When we look at the other instances of this event[11], we find that the great commission is clearly a call to make disciples. Therefore, we find once more that repentance is the work of a disciple.

What’s more, we see from this verse that everlasting life is not what is received when someone repents, but remission of sins. This fits well with what we’ve already learned about 1 John 1:9, where we learned that the disciple needs ongoing daily forgiveness to maintain fellowship with God. For more information on that see chapter 20. Thus, it’s clear that this is part of a discipleship message, not an evangelistic one.

Let’s look at Acts 2:36-38.

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.[12]

A little context is needed to understand what is going on in these verses. Peter is giving a speech to a large group of Jews. These are the same Jews that, only weeks earlier crucified Jesus. Peter shows them that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and that they were guilty of the crime.

Toward the end of the speech, Peter quotes Joel chapter 3 to them, claiming that there is destruction awaiting Israel because of this Crime. During Peter’s talk, the people became believers. We know that because it says, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,”

Peter convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah. He won them over. After years of being with Christ, and after all the things they had seen the apostles were finally coming into their own ministry. Peter’s first sermon was a huge success. These people became believers in the Messiah right there on the spot. They then wanted to know what they should do next. They said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

Notice what they didn’t say. They didn’t say, “what shall we do to have everlasting life.” They were not asking how to get saved. They were asking about what they should do now that they had salvation. Even though they had just gained everlasting life, the destruction of Israel and the guilt of killing the Messiah still hung over their heads. They wanted to know how to make things right.

Peter’s response fits with what we know of repentance. “Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Once again we see that repentance is something that is required of believers. These Christ-killing Jews were eternal saved, but they also wanted to be disciples. They sought to take the right steps of discipleship, and so Peter points them to repentance and baptism.

All of this leads us to a new understanding. Evangelistic messages that call people to repent are misguided because a person cannot repent before they believe. If someone turns from their sin, they are only able to do so after they’ve believed in Christ. This is because, before someone believes in Christ, their entire life is marked by enmity with God. Only after the person is persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, can they make the discipleship decision to repent.

The thing that might be confusing is that a decision to repent often comes soon after a person believes, maybe as little as a second later. However, be assured that it is not the decision to repent or even the act of repentance that saves the person. It is their belief in Christ alone. The evangelist who mixes repentance into the salvation message is either confused or manipulating his listeners. Anyone who teaches repentance as a means to eternal salvation is teaching a false gospel.

In this chapter, we have seen that believing in Christ is the way to salvation. Repentance, on the other hand, is the act of a wayward believer. Sometimes when sin has overtaken the life of the Christian, it is required that they repent to have fellowship with God.

[1] John 20:30–31.

[2] Matthew 12:41.

[3] John 3:10.

[4] John 20:30–31.

[5] Revelation 2:1–5.

[6] Revelation 3:15.

[7] Revelation 3:19.

[8] Revelation 3:20.

[9] Revelation 3:21.

[10] Luke 24:47.

[11] Matthew 28:18-20

[12] Acts 2:36–38.


Free Grace content right in your inbox!
question-circle linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram