Someone once wrote me, questioning my way of presenting the gospel to the lost, specifically taking issue with the fact that I am careful to make no demands of the lost person for change of behavior in order to be saved by faith in Christ. I believe we are eternally saved apart from works by grace alone, received by faith alone in Christ alone–nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.
In the last line of his letter, he wrote something I told him I very much agreed with. He said, “the new birth leads a believer to want to turn from sin.” Note how what he was saying relates to how to preach the gospel to unbelievers:
We agreed that the desire to turn from sin (and the ability to do so) are rooted in the new birth. No turning from sin can be done by someone who hasn’t been born again, who hasn’t been made spiritually alive, who is dead in his trespasses and sins, who is at enmity with God, who is not in the kingdom of God, who is under the power of the evil one, walking in darkness. (All of these terms in the Bible describe our state before we knew Christ, and at no time in the Bible is anyone in that state commanded to turn from sin and promised justification in return.) Repentance is necessary for salvation, but the good news is, a change of behavior isn’t involved in repentance. If it were, all of us would still be sinners, falling short of the glory of God. But we have been justified (declared righteous because the righteousness of Christ was credited to our account) by faith alone. We repented by changing our minds and believing that message of the gospel “that Christ died for our sins…. and He rose from the dead.” The gospel is defined in passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 1-4, and the entire gospel of John, and the word repent does not even appear in those passages, because repenting unto salvation means believing the gospel. The gospel of John, which is the only book of the Bible written specifically for the lost to read and have eternal life (it says so in its clear purpose statement in chapter 20 verses 30-31), tells people to “believe” 96 times, to “receive” once, and never even uses the word repent or repentance in any context. So if repentance were a word that meant something other than a change of mind to believe, would God have left it out completely from this book that promises it has everything someone needs to believe and receive eternal life? Would it quote Jesus in chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, 11, and 12 specifically saying that everyone who believes receives eternal life, even though He each time passed on the opportunity to use the word “repent” as He preached these things? This is true even of chapter 4, when He was speaking to the woman at the well, who was sinful. All He told her was that if she knew Who He was and asked Him, He would give her living water. No other conditions were laid down for her. She believed and was saved.
For my personal testimony, when I realized I was a sinner who was on the way to hell, but that Jesus had died on the cross for my sins after living a perfect life in my place, and had risen from the grave with the promise to save me if only I believed, that’s what I did. I believed, and was saved. I did not turn from my sins. I did not commit to turn from my sins. I did not say, “Jesus, now you are Lord of my life.” I just believed Him and His promise, and He kept it and I was saved. I went on to live a life of (so far) serving Him, but my salvation didn’t come from that–just from what He did, when all I did was believe. And my failures and shortcomings along the way have been plentiful, even uncountable. And that’s how everyone is saved, who is saved. I am aware, as the Bible teaches that not everyone who is saved begins living for Christ in a visible manner. And as a preacher who has seen people believe and not grow like I want them to, I sympathize with what Ray Comfort felt as he tells it in his autobiography, when he used to preach that same message I preach, and many would profess belief but not show change. So he changed his message to the lost, placing upon them a demand not only to believe, but to turn from sins if they want to be saved from God’s wrath.
I, too, know how much that hurts to have converts not grow like they should. So did the apostle Paul. Read 1 Corinthians and see his anguish and tears over his converts doing terrible things like fight over who’s the best pastor, get drunk in communion while selfishly letting the poor Christians go hungry, sue each other over petty offenses in front of the world, and celebrate the sinfulness of a church member who was involved in incest and adultery. Yet even so, he never questioned those people’s relationship with the Lord. He called them brothers (even the incest one who needed church discipline to learn a lesson), and said they had been saved by believing the gospel. Paul knew how frustrating that is.
Yet he didn’t change the gospel message to accommodate the situation. If I, because of fear of that pain, preach to the lost person, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and turn from your sins, and you will be saved,” then I will have confused the gospel message, and closed the door to salvation for those people. Because they cannot turn from their sins. And because it would be me, not God, telling them to. (God tells them He wants reconciliation, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Cor. 5:19)
They need the true, unadulterated message that Christ has done all of the work, and that the only thing He accepts in exchange for justification is belief in Him alone. If I fail in giving them the true, pure, unedited and un-added-to-it gospel, instead telling them, turn from sin and trust Jesus, they might still believe and be saved, but they will be saved in spite of what I told them. If I just give them the real biblical gospel of grace alone received through faith alone, they can be saved because of what I told them. That’s much better.
Paul’s concern was intensified much more when he wrote the Galatians, in his only epistle with no kind words of greeting. They weren’t incestuous or drunkards or immature lawsuit filers. His only problem is that when other teachers came through with a message that to be saved, they needed to not only believe, but to turn from their sins with a circumcision commitment to obey God’s law, the Galatians were believing those teachers. Paul said that was departing from the truth to another gospel which really wasn’t another one. He said that no matter who gives them that message, a friend, an apostle, Paul himself, or an angel from heaven, then that speaker was disqualified. And Paul proved that was true by showing how he even had to publicly rebuke the apostle Peter just for allowing the implication that the gentile believers might not actually be saved until they committed to follow God’s law.
You might now be thinking, “but don’t we have to repent to be saved, and doesn’t repent mean turn from sins?” Well, the simple answer is, no, it doesn’t mean that in the context of being justified before God. Repent means change your mind/thinking. You could repent about anything by changing your mind about it. No change of behavior is part of repenting to believe the gospel, although behavior change might follow a change of mind about something. As it relates to salvation, then, repenting means changing your mind about the rightness of yourself and your need for Christ, and believing instead the truth. That’s why the Bible says, for example, “Repent and believe the gospel.” (In good translations of the Bible, the preacher-favorite phrases “repent of sins” or “turn from sins and believe the gospel” don’t ever appear. It is only interpreters that change the word repent to “turn from sins,” or add in the words “of sins” after the word repent. No Bible passage in the original text ever says that.) They didn’t already believe in Jesus, and they needed to change their minds. But behavior and doing wasn’t part of it. In fact even when the Philippian jailer only wanted to know what to DO for salvation, God’s answer through Paul wasn’t to do something, but “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Jesus had already been asked the same question by those wanting to do works of God, and He told them, “This is the work of God: that you believe on the One He has sent.”
So to define “repent” as “turn from sins” instead of “change your mind by believing” may be a very common and popular mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless–completely wrong and unbiblical. Those who wrongly believe repent means turn or change need to humbly repent and believe the truth about that.
(If you’d like to study this more in depth, an excellent book is available for that by Mike Cocoris. It’s called “Repentance, the most misunderstood word in the Bible” and it is a study of every use of the word in the entire scriptures to examine deeply its meaning. You can find that book here: https://www.amazon.com/Repentance-Most-Misunderstood-Word-Bible-ebook/dp/B00I10FDOE/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1545569048&sr=1-1&keywords=repentance+cocoris )
The next question this might raise for you could be, “Then where do good works come in?” To the question of salvation and eternal life, they don’t. Christ’s work for our salvation was finished on the cross. Not just mostly done, not just partly accomplished, but fully finished. But do our works matter as Christians? Yes, they matter infinitely, because in this life we will experience the blessings of God if we live for Him and the chastening, punishing hand of God if we turn from His way and live in sin. And even more than that reason, our works as Christians matter in eternity because all who go to heaven will be judged on what they as Christians did in the body, “whether it is good or bad,” 2 Corinthians 5 tells us, in a passage about the judgment seat of Christ. You’ll find in that passage and in 1 Cor. 3 about the same issue, that everyone at that judgment is saved, but some there will lose rewards they would have had in heaven because they lived a life of no worth to the kingdom of God. (There is another judgment, we’re told about in Revelation, called the Great White Throne judgment, and you’ll note that everyone at that judgment is not saved, but condemned forever, because their names are not in the book of life, which is the book of those who have believed on Christ to be saved.) Our judgment as Christians at the judgment seat of Christ will determine for all those going to heaven whether, and how much, we will be rewarded for all eternity. So it will matter a great deal hundreds of years from now how you live your life today as a Christian. And part of being rewarded then, will be getting the gospel message right when you proclaim it now, so that your hearers can be saved and you can be rewarded.
More on the meaning of repentance (and evidence that scholarly sources agree on it, while disagreeing with the common perception that it involves change of attitude or behavior) can be found here: Link:
Some closing related thoughts: Spurgeon in his highly recommendable book “All of Grace” tells the story of a young pastor going to visit a very poor widow to give her a gift of money. He knocked at her door and there was no answer. Seeing her in church the next Sunday, the pastor told her he had come to give her the gift, but she wasn’t home. Realizing when he had come, she answered, “No. Actually I was there. But I thought you were the landlord coming to collect rent, and I had no money, so I hid.” When we preach “Turn from your sins and be saved,” honest hearts who would be saved if they heard the true gospel say to themselves, “I cannot turn from my sins. I am bogged down in sins. I even love some of my sins. God is apparently requiring of me a debt I cannot pay.” And so they turn off the preacher’s voice and continue in sin and shame, hiding from a God who wants to be found and to save them. Spurgeon rightly then tells the listener that yes, you have sinned, and God has come not to make you pay for it, but to announce to you His free gift that your debt has already been paid.
As I have preached the gospel in various parts of America and Romania, as well as Colombia, Brazil, and Nicaragua, I have always found the people of various cultures and religious backgrounds would be very receptive to a message of “turn from your sins and do good, and you will be good before God.” They would be receptive of that, because they already believe it before the lovely feet of the preacher of good news start coming over the mountains toward them. That message is the belief of every false way on the broad road that leads to destruction. It’s what the mormons teach. It’s what Jehovah’s witnesses teach. It’s what scientology teaches. It’s what secular psychology says. It’s what the Roman Catholics teach. It’s what the eastern orthodox here in Romania teach. It’s what the current Christless Judaism teaches. It’s also what buddhists, hindus, and muslims ultimately believe, even though they don’t worship the God of the Bible. And that teaching is accepted everywhere you might go, because it is the message that our hearts want to believe–our wicked deceitful hearts want to hear “This is how you can act to be perfect as you are. In your own strength, in your own effort, you can perfect yourself.” If that message of “have faith AND do good works and you’ll be saved” were true, missionaries would be unnecessary, because we’d have to leave this earth to find any culture or tongue that doesn’t already endorse that message.
But God preaches a very different message–one that offends and turns off most hearts in every country and culture, including America–a message that you cannot save yourselves and that there is no salvation for you to be found in any but Christ, the only way, the only truth, the only life.
As an appendix, here are some scriptures I compiled that show us salvation by grace (gift), and I like to remind myself that when I encounter scriptures that are possibly unclear, but that could be interpreted to include works with faith as part of the requirement of salvation, then I should seek to interpret those passages in light of these clearer definitions of saving faith:
“Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6)
“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
“But to the one who does not work, but believes on Him who declares righteous the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness. Likewise, David also speaks of the blessing of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: How happy those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered! How happy the man whom the Lord will never charge with sin!” (Rom. 4:5-8)
“But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets —that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” (Rom. 3:21-28)
“But when the goodness and love for man appeared from God our Savior, He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This [Spirit] He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
“In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Rom. 11:5-6)
“‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’
Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’
Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.’” (John 6:27-29)
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
“yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified by Christ, we ourselves are also found to be sinners, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild those things that I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. For through the law I have died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (Gal. 2:16-21)
“More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Phil. 3:8-9)
“For God loved so loved the world that He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not judged, but anyone who does not believe is already judged, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God…. The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:16-18, 36)
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5;11-13)
For those still with me, here’s one more link worth looking at: