Inviting people to believe is relatively easy; calling them to repent is harder.
Preaching repentance can be more challenging because there’s a popular caricature of heartless Christian preachers preaching hellfire and using other scare tactics to influence people to join their church. “Turn or burn!” is what repentance means in the popular imagination. You ignore it the way you would ignore any crank.
To make matters worse, many preachers have wrongly made salvation depend on faith plus changing your behavior, thereby misusing repentance to teach a false gospel.
As a result of those abuses, Free Grace people might avoid repentance language, but we shouldn’t. There is more than one reason why someone must repent, calling for different pastoral approaches. Here are five examples:
1. Invite them to an abundant life. I heard the testimony of a former drag queen who had often been told to repent or burn in hell. That message did not touch him at all. But then, one day, a little old lady told him that God had so much more for him than the life he was living. That message hit home. Jesus said, “A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10). This man’s life was unfulfilling, and he wanted something better. That call to repentance set him on the road to faith in Jesus and freedom from the homosexual lifestyle.
2. Invite them to freedom from sin. Even if someone enjoys sin for a time, people become slaves to it, and they know it. Our culture is very comfortable discussing addictions—harmful behaviors we cannot shake. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Even sinners want to be freed from addictions, which is why we have addiction recovery centers, AA meetings, armies of therapists, and shelves of self-help books to help people overcome their worst “habits.” Even secular people want freedom; you can invite someone to repent to be free from sin.
3. Warn them against physical death. All sin is deadly, but some sins lead more directly to an early death, and it’s appropriate to warn people of that danger (cf. 1 John 5:16). I have a close friend who was numb to the gospel until his drinking problem landed him in the ER with alarming heart palpitations. The doctors told him that drinking had enlarged his heart and that he would probably die if he took another drop. Faced with death at a young age, he stopped drinking, became concerned with eternal matters, and later became a believer. I’ve heard testimonies from gang leaders who repented of their actions after seeing too many friends die. When people are committing sins that will likely lead to an early death, call them to repent before that happens.
4. Warn them against eternal death. This is the option we’re most used to hearing, and it is a legitimate warning. Unbelievers will die in their sins, unforgiven, and be cast into the lake of fire, called “the second death” (cf. John 8:24; Rev 1:5; 20:14). Frankly, the eternal consequences of sin are horrific. There’s a debate in Free Grace circles over the meaning of repentance, and we don’t need to get into that debate here. Suffice it to say that whether you understand it as a change of mind and a synonym for faith or as a change of behavior that can lead to faith, it is appropriate to warn people against the eternal consequences of sin.
5. Warn them against drifting away. “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away” (Heb 2:1). Believers can slowly lose their faith and eventually stop believing entirely. We all know Christians who apostatized, and more often than not, it begins with a seed of unrepentant sin that flowers into doubt and skepticism. When you see it happening to a fellow believer, it is entirely appropriate to warn them against drifting away.
When preaching repentance, remember there is more than one reason people want to abandon sin. If you’ve hesitated about calling people to repent, it may be time to change your mind.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.