I think it may be a truism to say that the more unpopular a particular biblical teaching is, the more important and necessary it is. That certainly would be the case with the vital biblical doctrine of repentance which is so routinely dismissed, ignored, or rejected by so many believers today.
Indeed, there are entire trendy movements and mega ministries promoting what is known as a hyper-grace message in which confession and repentance of sin is said to be not necessary for the believer. It is all grace, so no need to confess or repent of anything they claim.
Of course all this flies in the face of the New Testament where repentance is everywhere taught. It in fact is the hallmark of the gospel message. Most believers are quite familiar with the Great Commission given by Jesus as found in Matthew 28:16-20. But the version as offered by Luke gives us a bit more detail of the same commission. As we read in Luke 24:45-49
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
And repentance is not just for nonbelievers as is often claimed by the hyper-grace teachers. The life of the believer is to be characterised by repentance as well. As but one example, consider the words of Paul to the believers in Corinth. In both his epistles he speaks of the need for them to repent:
2 Corinthians 7:8-11 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
2 Corinthians 12:21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
These texts alone should make it quite clear that when a believer sins, repentance is required. Indeed, a continuous sanctification and growth in holiness would presuppose a continuous sorrow over sin and a continuous work of repentance.
Sure, as I have stated so often, the initial act of salvation – what we call justification – is solely based on grace through faith. But the Christian life is not a one-off act but a continuous growth in grace – what we call sanctification. The two go together and can never be separated.
But too often many Christians –especially the hyper-grace folks – emphasise only the justification aspect of salvation while downplaying or ignoring the sanctification aspect. In his important 2013 volume One with Christ, Marcus Peter Johnson said this:
In evangelical theology, the doctrine of sanctification has enjoyed little of the status or attention afforded the doctrine of justification. Whereas justification is often equated with salvation itself, sanctification is sometimes pushed to the periphery of our understanding of soteriology, as if it were an afterthought in God’s redemptive plan. We tend to rejoice in the fact that God declares us righteous in Christ, forgiving our sin and imputing Christ’s righteousness to us, assuming that this wonderfully good news constitutes the whole of our salvation. But in this rejoicing, it is easy to neglect or overlook the fact that God is also making us holy in Christ, that the gospel of our salvation is incomplete without God’s glorious work of sanctification….
To experience all that Christ is to us means that we are not only forgiven and accounted righteous in him, but that we are made holy in him; in our union with Christ, he sanctifies us. Thus, sanctification is not merely a byproduct of salvation, it is part of what it means to be saved. In other words, there is no such thing as being saved without being sanctified, precisely because Jesus Christ cannot be other than who he is to us, namely our righteousness and our holiness.
And a vital component of sanctification and increasing holiness is of course a growing awareness of sin and a growing lifestyle of repentance. This is the normal Christian life. So many of the great Christians of past and present have known these truths. A few quotes are representative here:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Martin Luther
“Evangelical repentance is that which carries the believing soul through all his failures, infirmities, and sins. He is not able to live one day without the constant exercise of it. It is as necessary unto the continuance of spiritual life as faith is. It is that continual, habitual, self-abasement which arises from a sense of the majesty and holiness of God, and the consciousness of our miserable failures.” John Owen
“I trust that sorrowful penitence does still exist, though I have not heard much about it lately. People seem to jump into faith very quickly nowadays. . . . I hope my old friend repentance is not dead. I am desperately in love with repentance; it seems to be the twin sister of faith. I do not myself understand much about dry-eyed faith; I know that I came to Christ by the way of weeping-cross. . . . When I came to Calvary by faith, it was with great weeping and supplication, confessing my transgressions, and desiring to find salvation in Jesus, and in Jesus only.” C. H. Spurgeon
“The Christian who has stopped repenting has stopped growing.” A.W. Pink
“One thing wrong with us today is that we do not repent enough. The reason we do not have more repentance is that we repent for what we do instead of for what we are. The repentance for what you do may go deep, but the repentance for what you are goes deeper.” A. W. Tozer
“The evidence … the raw-bone, biblical evidence that there was one time in your life that you repented unto salvation, is that you continue repenting until today and continue growing in repentance.” Paul Washer
Plenty more such quotes could be produced here. All the great saints who walked so close to the Lord knew of the great value of repentance. We must reject the false teaching of the hyper-grace crowd and get back to the Bible. The Christian life is of necessity a life of repentance.
Of course such repentance leads to great joy as fellowship with God is deepened and more fully entered into. But without repentance there is no joy, no fruit, no victory, and no growth. Indeed, without repentance, there is no Christian walk.
Further reading and quotes
I just pulled off six volumes from my shelves on this topic: three older ones and three newer ones. While they come from different theological perspectives, they all offer great insights and biblical instruction on this vital biblical doctrine.
The three older volumes are The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson, first published in 1668; John Colquhoun’s, Repentance (1826); and the sermons by Charles Finney (1792-1875), True and False Repentance (Kregel, 1975).
The three more recent volumes are these:
Ferguson, Sinclair, The Grace of Repentance. Crossway, 2010.
Miller, C. John, Repentance. CLC, 2009.
Roberts, Richard Owen, Repentance. Crossway Books, 2002.
Let me close with a few quotes from some of these works:
“The two great graces essential to a saint in this life, are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven. Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life—as heat and water preserve the physical life.” Thomas Watson
“True repentance is not a transient act, as if a sigh or a pang of sorrow for sin amounted to it. No, these may indeed be acts of true repentance, while they issue from a heart sincerely penitent: but repentance itself, instead of being a passing act, is an abiding principle, a lasting disposition of soul, a gracious principle lying deep in the heart, disposing a man at all times to mourn for and turn from sin (Zech. 12:10). The waters of godly sorrow for sin in the renewed heart will continue to spring up there while sin is there…” John Colquhoun
“Salvation is salvation from sin. That means more than forgiveness; it includes sanctification, a transformed life. It involves those who are saved in a turning away from sin. That turning away is repentance. There can be no salvation if we continue in sin (Rom. 6:1-4; 1 John 3:9)….
Repentance is a characteristic of the whole life, not the action of a single moment. Salvation is a gift, received only in Christ, only by grace, only in faith. But it is salvation, and salvation means we are actually being saved. Otherwise we cannot have come to know Christ as Savior.” Sinclair Ferguson
“The first word of the gospel is not ‘love.’ It is not even ‘grace.’ The first word of the gospel is ‘repent.’ From Matthew through the Revelation, repentance is an urgent and indisputable theme that is kept at the very forefront of the gospel message.” Richard Owen Roberts