What is Biblical Repentance?

by David J. Stewart

Baptism and Repentance

There is a great misunderstanding about "repentance."  Such verses as Mark 1:4 confuse many people because they do not take into account the rest of the Bible.  Mark 1:4 reads, "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins."  By itself, this verse seems like It is teaching Baptismal Regeneration, but it certainly is NOT. 

This verse is referenced in Acts 11:16, "Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost."  And a few verses later in Acts 11:21 we read, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord."  This is Biblical repentance... turning to the Lord.  Please note that NO mention of baptism is found in Acts 11 other than the one reference to John the Baptist in verse 16. 

Clearly, baptism was not required for their salvation in Acts 16, just is it has never been required.  John preached the same Gospel of Jesus Christ as we preach today — salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).
 

Repentance Unto Life

Again, Biblical repentance is simply TURNING UNTO THE LORD.  Acts 11:18 reads, "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life."   Notice that the Bible does NOT call this a repentance from sins.  The "baptism of repentance" in Mark 1:4 is clearly not referring to water baptism; but to the "baptism of repentance."  This is the repentance unto life which can only be found in Christ Jesus.  The Word of God does NOT teach that we must give up our sins to be saved.  If this were true, then no one could be saved because we are all sinners incapable of ceasing from sin.  Even the best of Christians still commit sin!  Believers shouldn't commit any sins; but the fact of the matter is that we all do.  So how can you tell an unsaved person to give up their sins to be saved? 

As I mentioned, there is a woeful misunderstanding about repentance circulating in our churches today.  Again, Acts 11:21 states, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord."  Biblical repentance is TURNING to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins.  It is a change of mind.  Mark 1:15 proclaims, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel."  Notice here that repentance led to believing the gospel — NO mention is made about making a commitment to God or forsaking sins. 

So do believers have a license to sin?  I am saying that a believer's Christian walk has absolutely nothing to do with his salvation.  Lordship Salvationists have a problem with this because they have added works to simple faith in Christ.


Repentance from Sins

There are only a few references in the Bible where the word "repentance" is used with sin.  The Bible usually speaks of "the remission of sins"; but never commands anyone to repent from sins to be saved.  Search the Bible and you will find that "repentance" is almost always mentioned with salvation; but it never tells us that forsaking sins is the way to be saved. 

In Acts 8:22, Simon (a new believer) had said something wrong and Peter sharply rebuked him... "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee."  Simon ignorantly thought he could buy the power of the Holy Spirit.  Witches are used to buying all sorts of demonic paraphernalia in order to practice their works of darkness.  No doubt, Simon sincerely thought God's power was for sale.  He was a new convert and needed to be taught the Truth of God's Word.  My point here is that Simon was already a believer.  So the word "repent" in this Scripture is used in an entirely different context than in other Scriptures which speak of salvation.  There is a repentance unto salvation; and then there is another repentance of one's sins AFTER salvation (as we saw with Simon). 

The only thing that we need to repent of to be saved is our unbelief.  Do we have to realize our sinful condition to be saved?  Of course, yes!  But there is not one verse in the entire Bible which requires a person to forsake sin to be saved.  Nor does the Bible give anyone a license to sin.  Every time Jesus forgave someone and healed them, it was AFTERWARDS that He said... go and sin no more.  John 5:14, "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee."  Thus, we don't give up our sins to become a Christian; no, rather, we forsake our sins because we are a Christian.  There are no prerequisites or conditions for salvation.  God will save any guilty sinner who trusts upon Jesus Christ for salvation.

I do NOT believe it is inappropriate to apply the parable of the prodigal son to the unsaved who need to come back to their Creator, but technically the Parable is about a believer, a "son."  The parable about the prodigal son applies to the wayward believer who is in need of repentance from sins.  The repentance unto salvation is a ONE-TIME repentance, but the repentance from sins has no limit.  Christians are people, and people are sinners.  Just as a man cannot be UNBORN physically, neither can he be unborn spiritually.  If saved, always saved!  For anyone to teach otherwise is to add works to faith alone and corrupt "the simplicity that is in Christ" (2nd Corinthians 11:3,4). 

Once a person is saved, they begin to grow in grace by feeding on the Truth of God's Word (1st Peter 2:2).  As a believer grows in the Truth, he or she realizes that there are changes in their life that need to be made.  God's Holy Spirit works in that person's heart.  Thus, we begin to see the FRUIT of genuine repentance.  A changed life is the FRUIT of genuine repentance; and NOT a prerequisite to salvation or a part of the ROOT of saving-faith.  Proponents of Lordship Salvation place the cart before the horse and have it all backwards.  The change comes as a result of true repentance; not as a means to it.

In Mark 1:4, John the Baptist speaks of "...repentance for the remission of sins"; NOT "repentance of sins."  Acts 20:21 reads... "Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."  Notice that Biblical repentance is TOWARD God In Acts 11:21 we read, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord."  This is Biblical repentance... turning to the Lord. To turn towards Jesus Christ in faith for salvation is to turn one's back against sin, even though the person may not be willing to forsake sin at the time of salvation.  It is ludicrous for anyone to teach that a lost sinner must give up their sins to be saved.  As we saw with Lot and Samson in the Old Testament, not all believers live for God.

In the Gospel of John, the word "believe" is mentioned 85-times; but the word "repent" is never mentioned even once.  This clearly evidences that the sinner who believes on the Lord for salvation has also repented.  Repentance and faith are inseparable.  You can't turn to the Savior for forgiveness of sins without turning your back against sin (not the literal forsaking of the act of sin; but a realization of one's having violated God's holy Law and deserved punishment in Hellfire).

Consider the following quote by the mighty man of God, Dr. Harry Ironside (1876-1951)...

"Repentance is the recognition of my sinnership — the owning before God that I am as vile as He has declared me to be in His holy Word."

SOURCE: Except Ye Repent, by Dr. Harry Ironside, chapter 3

This is vastly different than actually ceasing from one's sin to be saved, which is a false gospel.  Pastor Ironside is correct — repentance is simply realizing that one is a guilty, dirty, rotten, hopeless sinner in God's eyes.  This is why we need a Savior.  Thankfully, Jesus paid the price with His own literal precious blood (1st Peter 1:18,19; Hebrews 9:12).
 

The Change Comes AFTER a Person is Saved, NOT before

The internet is plagued with heretics who are teaching that a person must forsake their sinful lifestyle to be saved.  2nd Corinthians 5:17 reads, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."  Please notice that a man does NOT become a "new creature" until AFTER he is in Christ (saved).  The change comes after a person is saved; NOT before, but AFTER.  If a person claims to be a Christian but is living a wicked life, then I would sincerely doubt that person's salvation as well.  However, I am not going to start teaching damnable heresy by saying that sinners must forsake their sins to be saved.  Salvation comes through childlike faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing may be added.  Once a man becomes a new creature in Christ, then he begins to change.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." —John 3:16


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