It never ceases to amaze me how the Gospel message finds itself under attack in the name of evangelism. While the message is simple it is not simplistic. Just what do I mean by that? Often the Gospel message is boiled down to “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”, or “Ask Jesus into your life and He will forgive your sins and give you eternal life.”. This is a reductive theological gospel message. It is missing a number of critical components and leaves the hearer with an “easy believism” gospel. This kind of gospel message ignores among a number of things, the critical doctrine of Biblical repentance and makes no demands of real fiduciary faith upon the hearer that brings about life transforming results ( 2 Corinthians 5:17; James 2:14,17). This is not a statement of infusion such as the Roman Catholic Church holds in sacramentalism but rather a declaration of the result of saving grace (imputed righteousness) that produces a new creation, new desires, and Christ honoring works (Ephesians 2:10) which are the natural fruit of the “New Man” ( Ephesians 2:15; 4:24; Colossians 3:10) birthed in the believer through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). So let’s take a look at the deficiencies of the reductive gospel so prevalent today. In this first article we will take a brief, critically targeted, certainly not comprehensive looks at the missing message of repentance.
Because of my high respect for the Gospel, when referring to the true Gospel I will always capitalize it and use the lower case for any reference to a false gospel message. So, for those English majors out there, this answers my grammatical inconsistency. I also have this same habit with the word “Biblical” , “Bible” and Scriptures”.
Luke 5:32 (ESV) 32I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Our Lord’s response here is to the Pharisees and Scribes at their incredulity that Jesus would eat with “tax collectors and sinners”. Our Lord responds that it is not the well who need a physician but the sick, not the righteous but sinners (vv.31-32). Repentance in our Lord’s mind is tied directly to the condition of man as a sinner. Again in Luke 13:1-5 Jesus reminds us that it is not our perceived gravity of sin, but sin itself that should call us to repentance unless we perish. You would think that that would be obvious to all, that sin evokes the subject of repentance in the Scriptures. Think again! All too often there are those who become hung up on the definition of the Greek word “metanoeō”, which means; “to change one’s mind” and fail to place context with equal weight. So, like Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, they see repentance as a “change of mind about Jesus”, while Jesus sees the forsaking of sin as the subject matter of repentance (Matthew 4:17; Luke 5:31; 13:3,5). Ryrie, in “Basic Theology” pg.390 states;
“This saving repentance has to involve a change of mind about Jesus Christ so that whatever a person thought about Him before, he changes his mind and trusts Him to be his Savior. That is the only kind or content of repentance that saves (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9).”
He then adds;
” However saving repentance may be preceded by a repentance concerning sin (which activates an individual’s sense of need for forgiveness) or a repentance toward God (which alerts him to the fact that he has offended a holy God and therefore needs a way to appease Him). This aspect of repentance is still not saving unless it is accompanied by faith in Christ (Acts 20:21).” (emphasis added)
The problem is that Ryrie’s view flies in the face of the very words of Christ on this subject as noted earlier. For our Lord and John the Baptist, sin was always the subject of repentance not a change of mind about who Jesus was!
“Godly grief produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted…” (2 Corinthians 7:10) “Not regretted” means that it was a sorrow that produced a turning away (repentance without regret) much like was expressed by Paul regarding the Thessalonians and their turning away from idolatry.
1 Thessalonians 1:9 (ESV) 9For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,
Ryrie’s comment that “repentance may be preceded by a repentance concerning sin”, sees repentance from sin as ancillary and not vital to the Gospel message and conversion (emphasis added). So for Ryrie, saving repentance is a change of mind about Jesus Christ that might include repentance from sin. This clearly is not the historical understanding of the application of the word nor was it used this way by Christ. John Stott in “Basic Christianity” pg.109-110 puts it well;
“…there must be a renunciation of sin. This in a word is repentance. It is the first part of Christian Conversion. It can in no circumstances be bypassed. Repentance and faith belong together. We cannot follow Christ without forsaking sin.
Repentance is a definite turn from every thought, word, deed and habit which is known to be wrong. It is not sufficient to feel pangs of remorse or to make some kind of apology to God. Fundamentally, repentance is a matter neither of emotion nor of speech. It is an inward change of mind and attitude towards sin which leads to a change of behavior.”
Dwight Pentecost in his book, “Things Which Become Sound Doctrine”, pg.62 echoes Stott;
“From the Word of God we discover that the word translated ‘repent’ means “a change of mind.” It means, literally, “a turning about”; not so much a physical turning about as a mental turning around, a change of course, a change of direction, a change of attitude. This is the concept in the word. Now, such a change of mind as the Scripture enjoins when it speaks of repentance may produce a sorrow for sin, but it will be the result after one has seen his sin in the light of the holiness of God and has changed his attitude toward it.”
To say that repentance is a change of mind about Jesus Christ or God is no more than a mere intellectual assent to the facts and ignores the moral reason for new birth, sin.
Repentance, intellectually, begins with a recognition of sin, understanding we are sinners, and that our sin is supremely offensive to a Holy God. It is also a recognition that we are personally responsible for our sin. Repentance, emotionally, is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of sorrow. Sorrow in of itself is not repentance but often leads to it. It is difficult though to imagine true repentance that does not include some element of sorrow. True repentance will always bring a person to a volitional response which will mean a change of direction and a transforming of the will.
This description of repentance is also an apt description of saving faith. Although faith alone is the condition for salvation (Ephesians 2:8-10; Acts 16:31), repentance is bound up with faith as a gift from God (Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25; II Peter 1:1; Ephesians 2:8-9) and inseparable from it, since without some measure of faith no one can truly repent, and repentance never attains to its deepest character till the sinner realizes through saving faith how great is the grace of God against whom he has sinned.
Some dispensationalists, the whole of the “seeker sensitive” and most of the emerging church movements avoid the doctrine of repentance unless it means a change of mind about Jesus Christ. A Gospel message that preaches a turn away from sin is seen as just too offensive and costly and therefore it is to be avoided. This is a clear movement from the “simple Gospel” to a “simplistic gospel” , a reductive gospel, that limits the gospel to “receive”, without “repent”. It is a gospel message that allows sinners to stay in their sin without agreeing with God about their sinful condition (Psalm 51:3-4; Romans 3:10-23; 10:9 – “confess” in Romans 10:9 means to agree with God).