Understanding The Bible
"Commentary on Repentance"

Jim Deering - AncientPath.net
Major Portions From: Lewis Sperry Chafer [1]

A Call for Understanding

I sincerely hope the following will be thoughtfully and prayerfully considered before any conclusions are drawn about its validity.  The power of Our Lord Jesus Christ to save is at question.  Can he alone save or have we some part in determining that salvation?  While I'm sure we'd all agree on an answer to that question, it is at the root of our understanding of the doctrine of repentance.  This discussion will be broken down into seven areas.

Since repentance -- wrongfully conceived of as a separate act --- is almost universally added to believing as a requirement on the human side for salvation, a consideration of the Biblical meaning of repentance is essential.  This consideration may be traced as follows:

          (1) the meaning of the word,
          (2) the relation of repentance to
          (3) the relation of repentance to covenant people,
          (4) the relation of repentance to those who are without Christ,
          (5) the absence of the demand for repentance from salvation Scriptures, and
          (6) the significance of repentance in specific passages
          (7) the conclusion.


The word metanoia (Gr.) is in every instance translated repentance.  The word means "a change of mind."  The common practice of reading into this word the thought of sorrow and heart-anguish is responsible for much confusion in the field of Soteriology (Salvation).  There is no reason why sorrow should not accompany repentance or lead on to repentance, but the sorrow, whatever it may be, is not repentance.  In 2 Corinthians 7:10, it is said that "godly sorrow worketh repentance." that is, it leads on to repentance; but the sorrow is not to be mistaken for the change of mind which it may serve to produce.

The son cited by Christ, as reported in Matthew 21:28-29, who first said "I will not go," and afterward repented and went, is a true example of the precise meaning of the word. The New Testament call to repentance is not an urge to self-condemnation (which is properly the work of the Holy Spirit through His power of conviction), but is a call to a change of mind which promotes a change in the course being pursued.  This definition of this word as it is used in the New Testament is fundamental.  Little or no progress can be made in a right induction of the Word of God on this theme, unless the true and accurate meaning of the word is discovered and defended throughout.

At stake in the right understanding of "Repentance" is the proper understanding of man's role in Salvation.  we shall either side with Fundamentalism (holding to the fundamentals of the faith through the "Normal, Literal, Contextual" interpretation of the Scriptures) or with Arminenism (a  theological position that holds that man may only achieve salvation as he actively works to attain it, bettering himself until he is acceptable to God).  These two "ism's" are mutually exclusive, and cannot exist together in one "Truth."


A.  Before "The Abrahamic Covenant"
It should be noted that before Abraham's children through Isaac there was no nation of
Israel.  Abraham was a gentile, or perhaps better, a member of the "nations."  The finished work of Christ, foreknown by God, was the basis upon which God made relationships with men and women in the Old Testament.  Those relationships with the Almighty God were on an individual basis.  There were always some who enjoyed God's salvation and that salvation was based upon the finished work of Christ, even though there was no revelation on that subject for them to know at that time.

So, therefore there were three division of people in the Old Testament:  1.  Unsaved members of the Nations, 2.  Members of the Covenant Nation of Israel, and 3.  Those who enjoyed a personal covenant (based on the coming New Covenant) relationship with God (either members of the Nations or of Israel).

B.  "The Abrahamic Covenant"
Because of Abraham's act of faith, the offering up of his son Isaac to God, resulted in an outpouring of the love of God that resulted in the Abrahamic Covenant.  That covenant contained seven elements.

          1.  "I will make of thee a great nation,"
          2.  "And I will bless thee,"
          3.  "And make thy name great,"
          4.  "And thou shalt be a blessing,"
          5.  "And I will bless them that bless thee,"
          6.  "And curse him that curseth thee,"
          7.  "And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."  Genesis 12:1-3

These elements created an unbreakable relationship between the family of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and God.  This covenant created responsibilities that had to be met in order to maintain fellowship with God (but not relationship - relationship was based upon the un-conditional character of the covenant.

When an individual (a member of the covenant) found himself out of fellowship with the Lord, the return to fellowship required Confession, and repentance (a change of mind - showing oneness with the mind of the Lord) that brought back fellowship with the Lord.

When the Nation found itself out of fellowship with the Lord, the same pattern was to be adhered to (i.e., confession, repentance, and returned fellowship).

The call to this national repentance was the very essence of the Forerunner's message, and the same theme -- "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" -- was presented by Christ and His disciples.  Even though thousands of years had passed, the covenant made to Abraham was still in effect.  The requirements still had to be met for return to fellowship with God.  Confession, Repentance, followed by the return of Fellowship.

John's message re-affirmed the nation's need to return to the Lord.  He was telling them that God had plans for them and they better be ready.  He was telling them God is at hand ... for Jesus was only six months or less from beginning His public ministry (God in the flesh).

In their attitude of rejection, they neither repented nor did they receive their King.  And so their Kingdom was put off, held in abeyance, until His second coming.  Instead the Church was instituted because His own would not receive Him.  Again, remembering that there were those who had a personal covenant with the Lord (salvation)(based upon the future finished work of Christ, the New Covenant) whether they were Jew or Gentile.

Still today, nothing has changed.  The nation has not repented and returned to God.  However, individuals have found the Christ and believed upon Him.  The Abrahamic covenant has not been satisfied, as of this writing, but once a Jew has received Christ, (no repentance necessary as he is not yet under the new covenant before his conversion), and he now comes under the New Covenant of the Blood of Christ.  He has a new covenantial relationship through salvation, and once out of fellowship God expects the same from him as from Gentile members of the Church body, namely Confession, Repentance, and a return to fellowship.


Eschatology:  A Future Repentance of Israel

The final repentance of Israel is anticipated throughout the Bible.  This should be distinguished from their sufferings which are age long and which do not lead them to repentance.  Deuteronomy 28:63-68 foresees their sufferings while 30:1-3 foresees their repentance.  They are described as a mourning people, which experience will be theirs when they recognize their true Messiah at the time of His (second) return (Isaiah 61:2-3; Zechariah 12:10; Matthew 5:4; 24:30).  However, prediction anticipates a national turning to Messiah and a glad reception of Him, which prediction must yet be fulfilled.


"Covenants: Sin, Repentance, Confession, Restoration"


The term covenant people is broad in its application.  It includes Israel, who are under Jehovah's unalterable covenants and yet are to be objects of another, new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and the Church, composed of all believers of the present age, who are also now the objects of that new covenant made in Christ's blood (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

A covenant implies relationship because it secures a right relation to God in matters belonging within the bounds of the covenant.  A covenant that is unconditional, as the above-named covenants are, is not affected by any human elements, nor is it changeable even by God Himself.

However, the fact of a covenant and the experience of its blessings are two different things.  It is possible to be under the provisions of an unconditional covenant and to fail, for a period of time, to enjoy its blessings because of sin.  When sin has cast a limitation upon the enjoyment of a covenant and the covenant, being unchangeable, still abides, the issue becomes, not the remaking of the covenant, but the one issue of the sin which mars the relationship.  It therefore follows that, for covenant people (Israel and the Church), there is a need of a divine dealing with the specific sin and a separate and unrelated repentance (separate and unrelated to the covenant itself) respecting it.  This repentance is expressed by confession to God.  Having confessed his sin, David did not pray for his salvation to be restored; he rather prayed for the restoration of "the joy" of his salvation (Psalms 51:12).  In like manner, it is joy and fellowship which repentance and confession restores for the believer, not salvation (1 John 1:3-9).

When Christ came offering Himself to Israel as their Messiah and announcing their kingdom as at hand, He, with John and the apostles, called on that people to repent in preparation for the proffered kingdom.  There was no appeal concerning salvation or the formation of covenants. It was restoration of the people by a change of mind which would lead them to forsake their sins (Matthew 10:6 ff.).

The application of these appeals, made to covenant Jews concerning their adjustments within their covenants, to individual unregenerate Gentiles who are "strangers from the covenants" (Ephesians 2:12), is a serious error indeed.

In like manner, a Christian repents as a separate act, preceding confession and restoration (2 Corinthians 7:8-10).  The conclusion of the matter is that, while covenant people are appointed to national or personal adjustment to God by repentance as a separate act, there is no basis either in reason or revelation for the demand to be made that an unregenerate person in this age must add a covenant person's repentance to faith in order to be saved (you can not be restored to a position you never had!).

Again, confusion over the doctrine of repentance arises when it is not made clear that covenant people such as Israel or members of the Church (Christians) may repent as a separate act from their relationship in the covenant.  Throughout the time when the gospel of the kingdom was preached by John the Baptist, Christ, and the Lord's disciples, there was issued a call to repentance which was for none other than the anticipated repentance of that Jewish nation, as Matthew 3:2 has indicated:  "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  This is not a gospel call, but one leading to restoration of a covenant people into its right and original relationship to God (Matthew 4:12-17).

In like manner a Christian (member of the New Covenant), once having sinned, may repent as a separate act, which is something far removed from being saved over again (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

The problem presented by this word is much misunderstood in today's church society.  Much of that problem comes from the teachings, passed down generation upon generation, that when you do something wrong you need first to be sorry, and show that you are sorry, before you can be forgiven.  The word of God is very clear as to our relationship to Salvation.

Quite Contrary to the impression which the usual theology has spread abroad is the correct definition of repentance, the usual idea being that it means sorrow or agony of heart respecting sin and wrongdoing.  The true meaning of the word shows that it is a change of mind and although there may be nothing to preclude that change being accompanied by grief, the sorrow itself is not repentance.

A serious Arminian error respecting this doctrine occurs when repentance is added to faith or believing as a condition of salvation. (It is true that repentance can very well be required as a condition of salvation, but then only because the change of mind which it is has been involved when turning from every other confidence to the one needful trust in Christ.  Such turning about, of course, cannot be achieved without a change of mind).

This vital newness of mind is a part of believing, after all, and therefore it may be and is used as a synonym for believing at times (Acts 17:30; 10:21; 26:20; Romans 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Peter 3:9).

Repentance nevertheless cannot be "added" (as a separate act) to believing as a condition of salvation.  Upwards of 150 passages of Scripture condition salvation upon believing only (John 3:16; Acts 16:31).  Similarly, the Gospel by John, which was written that men might believe and believing have life through Christ's name (John 20:31), does not once use the word repentance.  In like manner, the Epistle to the Romans, written to formulate the complete statement of salvation by grace alone, does not use the term repentance in relation to salvation.

                     "Repentance is Essential to Salvation"
                     The Relation of Repentance to Believing.

Too often, when it is asserted -- as it is here -- that repentance is not to be added to belief as a separate requirement for salvation, it is assumed that by so much the claim has been set up that repentance is not necessary to salvation.  Therefore, it is as dogmatically stated as language can declare, that repentance is essential to salvation and that none could be saved apart from repentance, but it is included in believing and can not be separated from it.

The discussion is restricted at this point to the problem which the salvation of unregenerate persons develops; and it is safe to say that few errors have caused so much hindrance to the salvation of the lost than the practice of demanding of them an anguish of soul (or self abuse, self mutilation, self agony, etc.) before faith in Christ can be exercised.  Since such emotions cannot be produced at will, the way of salvation has thus been made impossible for all who do not experience the required anguish.  This error results in another serious misdirection of the unsaved, namely, one in which they are encouraged to look inward at themselves and not away to Christ as Savior.  Therefore, salvation is made to be conditioned on feelings and not on faith.

Likewise, people are led by this error to measure the validity of their salvation by the intensity of anguish which preceded or accompanied it.  It is in this manner that sorrow of heart becomes a most subtle form of meritorious work and to that extent a contradiction of grace.  Underlying all this supposition (that tears and anguish are necessary) is the most serious notion that God is not propitious (already satisfied in the finished work of Christ), but that He must be softened to pity by penitent grief.  The Bible declares that God is propitious (Fully satisfied with Christ's finished work at the cross and ready to receive the one of faith) because of Christ's death for the very sin which causes human sorrow.  There is no occasion to melt or temper the heart of God.  His attitude toward sin and the sinner is a matter of revelation.  To imply, as many have done so generally, that God must be mollified and lenified by human agony is a desperate form of unbelief.  The unsaved have a good news to believe, which certainly is not the mere notion that God must be coaxed into a saving attitude of mind; it is that Christ has died and grace is extended from One who is propitious (already satisfied) to the point of infinity.  The saving work of Christ was finished with the Cross and the Resurrection.  The power to save is infinite and requires no human merit, act, or work to empower it.  Christ's power is sufficient, complete and effective.

The human heart is prone to imagine that there is some form of atonement for sin through being sorry for it.  Whatever may be the place of sorrow for sin in the restoration of a Christian who has transgressed, it cannot be determined with too much emphasis that for the unsaved -- Jew or Gentile -- there is no occasion to propitiate (satisfy) God or to provide any form of satisfaction by misery or distress of soul.  With glaring inconsistency, those who have preached that the unsaved must experience mental suffering before they can be saved, have completely failed to inform their hearers about how Christ has already done all that God demands in payment for the unbeliever except believing itself.

It should be restated that, since genuine grief cannot be produced at will and since many natures are void of depression of spirit, to demand that a self-produced affliction of mind shall precede salvation by faith becomes a form of fatalism and is responsible for having driven uncounted multitudes to despair.  It should be strongly stated that the supposed merit of human suffering because of personal sins, should be excluded from the terms on which a soul may be saved.

As before stated, repentance, which is a change of mind, is included in believing.  No individual can turn to Christ from some other confidence without a change of mind, and that, it should be noted, is all the repentance a spiritually dead individual can ever effect.  That change of mind is the work of the Spirit (Ephesians 2:8).  It will be considered, too, by those who are amenable to the Word of God, that the essential preparation of heart which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the unsaved to prepare them for an intelligent and voluntary acceptance of Christ as Savior -- as defined in John 167:8-11 -- is not a sorrow for sin.  The unsaved who come under this divine influence are illuminated -- given a clear understanding -- concerning the one sin, namely, that "they believe not on Me."

"Turned to God from idols"
To believe on Christ is one act, regardless of the manifold results which it secures.  It is not turning from something to something; but rather turning to something from something.  If this terminology seems a mere play on words, it will be discovered, by more careful investigation, that this is a vital distinction.  To turn from evil may easily be a complete act in itself, since the action can be terminated at that point.  To turn to Christ is a solitary act, also, and the joining of these two separate acts corresponds to the notion that two acts -- repentance and faith -- may be required for salvation.  On the other hand, turning to Christ from all other confidences is one act, and in that one act repentance, which is a change of mind, is included.  The Apostle stresses this distinction in accurate terms when he says to the Thessalonians, "Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9).  This text provides no comfort for those who contend that people must first, in real contrition, turn from idols -- which might terminate at that point -- and afterwards, as a second and separate act, turn to god.  The text recognizes but one act -- "Ye turned to God from idols" -- and that is an act of faith alone.

"The Problem of Personal Sin"
Those who stress repentance as a second requirement along with believing, inadvertently disclose that, in their conception, the problem of personal sin is all that enters into salvation.  The sin nature must also be dealt with; yet that is not a legitimate subject of repentance.  Salvation contemplates many vast issues and the adjustments of the issue of personal sin, though included, is but a small portion of the whole (Acts 26:18, sometimes drafted as proof of the idea that the unsaved must do various things in order to be saved, rather enumerates various things which are wrought for him in the saving power of God).

Upwards of 115 New Testament passages condition salvation on believing, and fully 35 passages condition salvation on faith, which latter word in this use of it is an exact synonym of the former.  These portions of Scripture, totaling about 150 in all, include practically all that the New Testament declares on the matter of the human responsibility in salvation; yet each one of these texts omits any reference to repentance as a separate act.  This fact, easily verified, cannot but bear enormous weight with any candid mind.

In like manner, the Gospel by John, which is written to present christ as the object of faith unto eternal life, does not once employ the word repentance.

Similarly, the Epistle to the Romans, which is the complete analysis of all that enters into the whole plan of salvation by grace, does not use the word repentance in connection with the saving of a soul, except in 2:4 where repentance is equivalent to salvation itself.  When the Apostle Paul and his companion, Silas, made reply to the jailer concerning what he should do to be saved, they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31).  This reply, it is evident, does not recognize the necessity of repentance in addition to believing.  From this overwhelming mass of evidence, it should be clear that the New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation.

The Gospel by John with its direct words from the lips of christ, the Epistle to the Romans with its exhaustive treatment of the theme in question, the Apostle Paul, and the whole array of 150 New Testament passages which are the total of the divine instruction, are incomplete and misleading if repentance must be accorded a place separate from, and independent of, believing.  No thoughtful person would attempt to defend such a notion against such odds, and those who have thus undertaken doubtless have done so without weighing the evidence or considering the untenable position which they assume.

When entering upon this phase of this study, it is first necessary to eliminate from consideration all portions of the New Testament which introduce the word repentance in its relation to A:  covenant people.  B:  passages which employ the word repentance as a synonym of believing (Acts
17:30; romans 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Peter 3:9).  C:  passages which refer to a change of mind (Acts 8:22; 11:18; Hebrews 6:1,6; 12:17; Revelation 9:20, etc.).  D:  three passages related to Israel which are often misapplied (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31).  And E:  references to John's baptism, which was unto repentance, that are outside the Synoptics (Acts 13:24; 19:4).

Four passages deserve more extended consideration, Namely:

Luke 24:47
.  "And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem."

It will be seen that repentance is not in itself equivalent to believing or faith, though, being included in believing, is used here as a synonym of the word believe.  Likewise, it is to be recognized that "remission of sins" is not all that is proffered in salvation, though the phrase may serve that purpose in this instance.  Above all, the passage does not require human obligations with respect to salvation.  Repentance, which here represents believing, leads to remission of sin.

11:18.  "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life."

Again repentance, which is included in believing, serves as a synonym for the word belief.  The Gentiles, as always, attain to spiritual life by faith, the all-important and essential change of mind.  It is also true that the passage does not prescribe two things which are necessary to salvation (compare vs. 17).

20:21.  "Testifying both to the Jews, and to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."

First, though unrelated to the course of this argument, it is important to note that the Apostle here places Jews on the same level with Gentiles, and both are objects of divine grace.  The Jew with his incomparable background or the Gentile with his heathen ignorance, each, must undergo a change of mind respecting God.  Until they are aware of God's gracious purpose. There can be no reception of the idea of saving faith.  It is quite possible to recognize God's purpose, as many do, and not receive Christ as Savior.  In other words, repentance toward God could not itself constitute, in this case, the equivalent of "faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ," though it may prepare for that faith.  The introduction of the two Persons of the Godhead is significant, and that christ is the sole object of faith is also most vital.  Those who would insist that there are two human obligations unto salvation are reminded again of the 150 portions in which such a twofold requirement is omitted.

Acts 26:20
. "But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance."

Again, both Jews and Gentiles are addressed as on the same footing before God.  Two obligations are named here, in order that spiritual results may be secured -- those to "repent and turn to God."  The passage would sustain the Arminian view if repentance were, as they assert, a sorrow for sin; but if the word is given its correct meaning, namely, a change of mind, there is no difficulty.  The call is for a change of mind which turns to God.  This passage, also, has its equivalent in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, "Ye turned to God from idols."

In the foregoing, an attempt has been made to demonstrate that the Biblical doctrine of repentance offers no objection to the truth that salvation is by grace through faith apart from every suggestion of human works or merit.  It is asserted that repentance, which is a change of mind, enters of necessity into the very act of believing on Christ, since one cannot turn to Christ from other objects of confidence without that change of mind.  Upwards of 150 texts -- including all of the greatest gospel invitations -- limit the human responsibility in salvation to believing or to faith.  To this simple requirement nothing could be added if the glories of grace are to be preserved

[1]  Lewis Sperry Chafer, Late President and Professor of Systematic Theology, "Systematic Theology - Baptism," Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas Seminary Press, Dallas, Texas.