“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” ~ Jesus, Mark 1:15
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” ~ Peter, Acts 2:38
“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” ~ Paul, Acts 26:19-20
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? ~ Paul, Romans 2:4
In Acts 2, after Peter preached the gospel and highlighted both the Lordship of Jesus and the sinfulness of a humanity that rejects Jesus, several who listened were moved by the message (something we might refer to as conviction). They asked Peter and the other apostles a simple question:
“Brothers, what shall we do?” (2:37)
Realizing the greatness of Jesus and their hopelessness in what Peter would later call “this crooked generation” (2:40), the message they heard demanded a response. It is the same question today: what must I do to be saved?
Peter answered with a concise and to-the-heart reply: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38). Peter’s answer was not unique. As the Bible verses above show, Jesus told people to repent and believe; Paul told Jew and gentile alike: repent, turn to God receiving his kindness, and live in a way that shows such repentance.
Throughout history and even today, you will come across the occasional “Bible teacher” who will say that repentance is not necessary for salvation. What they present is a cheap grace that ultimately changes nothing and an incomplete gospel that will lead no one to salvation. After all, a gospel without the call to repentance is no gospel at all.
But, then, what is repentance? We know, in part, that it is one of those churchy words that is used a lot, but sometimes we are left scratching our heads wondering what exactly it means.
At its core, repentance is about change. It is a decision to change one’s mind about life direction. In sin and apart from Christ, we walk a path (run a path?) that leads headlong into hell. When we hear the good news of Jesus, receive it, and decide to follow him, we turn the other way and follow the path of our Savior-King. Repentance, then, is a change of mind and heart that leads to a change in how we live.
In the verses above, only the quote of Jesus mentions believe. Now, isn’t salvation by grace through faith? Paul elsewhere made that very statement and Peter certainly would agree. The lack of an explicit statement of “believe” should not take us aback, however. For, repentance and faith go hand in hand; indeed they are essentially two sides of the same coin.
I like to explain Peter’s response with a simple ABC statement: abandon, believe, commit. Abandon is that negative side of repentance—that turn from something. It is realizing the desperate lostness in a life of sin and the justice of God’s wrath against the rebellion of his enemies. It is saying: “I no longer want this life, enslaved to sin and death. I will abandon it and leave it in the past.” Believe is the positive side of repentance—that turning to something. It is trusting that Jesus alone can provide salvation and that he is King over all. It is taking him at his word and deciding to follow. We see this in Peter’s response when he says to be baptized “in the name of Jesus.” There is a new focus in life and that focus is Jesus.
With both abandon and believe, we find faith. Faith is trusting in Jesus and his promises. Faith is taking God at his word. Faith means we believe we are who God says we are, we believe we are in need of a savior as God says we are, we believe Jesus is that only Savior as God says he is, and that in Jesus God will provide forgiveness and much, much more by his grace as he promises to do.
Commit is the fruit of repentance and faith (of abandon and believe). Peter said, “Be baptized in Jesus’ name.” Baptism is that first act of obedience, that visible declaration of faith and repentance, that mark that one has decided to be Jesus’ disciple. In Acts 2:42-47, Luke went on to write that the 3000 or so who responded to Peter’s message and were baptized that day then committed themselves to learn and follow the apostle’s teachings, to fellowship, to communion, to prayer, to serving others, to praising God together, and to seeing the gospel spread. Their lives radically changed.
Paul told Agrippa that people needed to turn to God (repent) and then do deeds in accordance with that repentance. This is that same sense of commit. Or as Paul explained in Titus 2:11-14: God’s grace saves us, changes us, and makes us zealous for good works.
None of this means that works save or that one has to have his or her life in order before they can be saved or baptized. The works come after repentance—they come after a heart has been captured and changed by the grace of God. But also, none of this means that we can preach a gospel without repentance or call ourselves Christians (followers of Jesus) without repentance.
The call of the gospel is always about more than mere belief. It is not about accepting Jesus as Savior to deaden the threat of hell and then getting on with life. Faith is more than simply believing truths about self and Jesus. Faith is being so captivated by the truths of Jesus that it compels confidence in him and compels us to commit our steps to follow him wherever he leads. A “gospel” of mere belief rejects the warning of James 2. The demons believe, they have good theology, and yet they shudder in their condemnation.
Practically, then, what does repentance look like? In Luke 3:7, John the baptizer echoed Paul’s words: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The crowd asked, “What then shall we do?” (3:10). John replied, “‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’” (3:10-14).
In other words if you’re greedy or stingy and don’t like helping those in need, quit being greedy or stingy and help. If you rip people off, stop. Treat people with fairness and justice. If you abuse your authority, quit it. Don’t use your position for gain.
This is very similar to what Paul said in Ephesians 4:17-5:21. He did not mention the word repent, but he described it. He said, “If you’re in Christ, put off the old self and put on the new self. Stop lying and speak the truth. Don’t let sin rule in your anger, don’t be bitter; but be kind, forgiving, and tenderhearted. Don’t steal, but work hard and share. Don’t let unwholesomeness punctuate your speech, but only speak that which edifies and is wholesome. Don’t live in sexual immorality, but seek purity.”
We do have to be careful. No list will ever be adequate. Some of the meanest and most racist people have worked hard, helped the poor, and been sexually faithful to their spouse. Repentance entails anything we do that dishonors God and shows a lack of love for others.
We also need to be careful lest we think repentance is just a onetime act. Yes, there is a time of decision—a time where we hear the gospel and move from standing against Christ to standing under his grace. But repentance is also a process of growth and change as we become more and more like Christ. We repent, and then we keep on repenting. That is also part of commit. We follow Jesus, yield our lives to him, and he keeps working in us and keeps transforming us.