No Repentance, No Gospel
We have no biblical gospel if repentance is not part of it:
Christians have a message to proclaim – a gospel. It is imperative that we get the gospel message right, as there are many false gospels making the rounds. From the earliest days of Christianity we have been warned about this. We are to be on the alert for a fake Jesus and a fake gospel. As the Apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 11:2-4:
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
And all of God’s choice servants have echoed these concerns. Salvation Army founder William Booth warned about where we were heading as a different gospel crowds out the real gospel: “The chief danger of the twentieth century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, and heaven without hell.”
And Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Notice that a key theme found here is that of repentance. There is no Christian gospel without repentance. Everywhere in the New Testament this is clearly stated. John the Baptist preached repentance, Jesus preached repentance, and the disciples preached repentance. There is no getting around this.
Often we hear about those wishing to get back to New Testament Christianity. They want to fully align themselves with the early church and how it operated. That is a fair enough desire, but if we are serious about it, then that means we must proclaim the message that the early church proclaimed.
And obviously if you want to know about how the early church functioned and the sort of message it proclaimed, you simply need to read through the book of Acts. There we find the early church in action. And there we find the gospel of repentance preached constantly and routinely. Consider for example the following passages from Acts:
Acts 2:37-38 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “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.”
Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,
Acts 3:26 When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.
Acts 5:31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.
Acts 8:22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.
Acts 11:18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Acts 13:24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel.
Acts 17:30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Acts 19:4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
Acts 20:21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
Acts 26:20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.
As can be seen, repentance is a core topic of teaching and preaching for the early church. It was a non-negotiable necessity. Yet so much of the church today shies away from preaching repentance. Too many believers do not like the topic, or think that others will find it to be “offensive”.
But repentance is exactly what our non-Christian neighbours need to hear. We all need to hear about it. For without repentance there is no salvation. Without repentance we have no Christian gospel, but just sentimental and humanistic mush. We dare not refrain from believing it, preaching it, and teaching it.
Let me close with some of my favourite quotes on the issue of repentance. There would be many hundreds to choose from, but here are some that are especially good:
“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
“The business of evangelism is not just to solve people’s problems; psychology does that, the cults do that, many things do that. The thing that separates the gospel from every other teaching is that it is primarily a proclamation of God and our relationship to God. Not our particular problems, but the same problem that has come to all of us, that we are condemned sinners before a holy God and a holy law. That is evangelism. It must, therefore, always put repentance first.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
“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
“Repentance is almost a lost note in our preaching and experience and the lack of it is filling churches with baptized sinners who have never felt the guilt of sin or the need of a Saviour. . . . We are trying to get young people to say, ‘Here am I’ before they have ever said, ‘Woe is me!’” Vance Havner
“There are no impenitent people in heaven. All who enter have felt, mourned over, forsaken and sought pardon for sin in Christ.” J. C. Ryle
“It needs to be said that faith is not a mere optimistic feeling, any more than repentance is a mere regretful or remorseful feeling. Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man. Faith is more than just credence; faith is essentially the casting and resting oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy which Christ has given to sinners, and on the Christ who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past: repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Saviour as King in self’s place. Mere credence without trusting, and mere remorse without turning do not save. ‘The devils also believe, and tremble.’ ‘The sorrow of the world worketh death’.” (James 2:19; 2 Cor. 7:10).” J. I. Packer
“Some people do not like to hear much of repentance; but I think it is so necessary that if I should die in the pulpit, I would desire to die preaching repentance, and if out of the pulpit I would desire to die practicing it.” Matthew Henry
For further reading
Here are a dozen volumes well worth checking out on this vital subject – 4 older classics (Boston, Colquhoun, Finney, and Watson) and 8 newer volumes:
Boda, Mark, ‘Return To Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance. IVP, 2015.
Boda, Mark and Gordon Smith, eds., Repentance in Christian Theology. Michael Glazier, 2006.
Boston, Thomas, Repentance: Turning from Sin to God. Christian Focus, 2012.
Colquhoun, John, Repentance. Banner of Truth, 1826, 2010.
Ferguson, Sinclair, The Grace of Repentance. Crossway, 2010.
Finney, Charles, True and False Repentance. Kregel, 1851, 1975.
Miller, C. John, Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender. CLC, 2009.
Ovey, Michael, The Feasts of Repentance. Apollos, 2019.
Renner, Rick, Repentance: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Do It. Harrison House, 2017.
Roberts, Richard Owen, Repentance. Crossway Books, 2002.
Sproul, R. C., What is Repentance? Reformation Trust, 2014.
Watson, Thomas, The Doctrine of Repentance. Banner of Truth, 1668, 1999.
8 Replies to “No Repentance, No Gospel”
The evangelistic gospel of John does not once use the word repent. Why ?
Because it is synonymous with the word believe.
Repent means ‘a change of mind, when we believe it shows that we have changed our mind….
Repent does not mean sorrow, for Godly sorrow leads to repentance.
Sorrow surely, is one reason leading to changing one’s mind about Jesus and His Cross Work….
Yes Henri, repentance is mentioned often in the Synoptic Gospels, but is certainly implied in various places in John’s Gospel, eg., John 5:14 – “Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you’.”
Agree Bill, if one understands the gospel, and they believe it, it would be the work of the Holy Spirit that convicts, confirms and convinces them of their sin.
As they then continue in the sanctification process, the Holy Spirit also continues To comfort, console and counsel the will of God in their life.
Well written Bill. I agree with all your comments about the need for repentance in the Gospel preaching. It must be part of the Gospel as your heading reminds us. However, that is the human response to the fact that God loves us with an everlasting love and that’s why He sent Jesus to die for our sins. Here are a few scriptures: (John 3:16,15:13,14; Romans 5:8;1 John 4:9,10) God loves us too much to leave us as we are.
I believe that John 3:16 was Billy Graham’s favourite verse.
After hearing Peter proclaim what God had done through Jesus, who Jesus was and where Jesus now was, the people were so cut to the heart that they cried out, “Brothers what shall we do?”(Acts 2:37) They then had to repent as Peter told them.
Certainly people need to repent but it’s the love of God the Father, seen in the earthly ministry of Jesus and supremely in His sacrifice on the cross, that convicts the heart to repent.
Someone once said that if you only had one message to give people, tell them that God loves them.
Thanks Graham. Of course it is not a matter of asking which one we prefer, or which one is ‘better’: God’s love for us, or our need to repent. They are the two sides of the same coin, so we affirm both. As you said, “God loves us too much to leave us as we are.” That brings it all together. Got can NOT accept us into his holy heaven as we are. So his work on the cross, and our response of faith and repentance, brings that about: transformation. He does not leave us where we were, but makes us into who we are meant to be.
Being involved in The Boys’ Brigade for many years, I always found the command ‘About Turn!’ a precise and accurate definition of repentance.
Repentance seems to be the forgotten word of Christianity.
Yet, repentance was the first thing preached by John the Baptist and by Jesus and by Peter at Pentecost and by Paul.
John the Baptist
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matt 3:2
Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14
Peter at Pentecost
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38
Paul, when recounting his conversion to King Agrippa
“So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”- Acts 26:20
Can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon on repentance. Well, yes I can, J. Edwin Orr speaking at Belgrave Heights 1976 would be the only time.
Thanks Bill, I don’t know if repentance is needed in all cases of accepting the gospel to be saved or healed.
Also, not everyone that Jesus healed was told to ‘go and sin no more’ or ‘your sins are forgiven you.’ It was faith in Jesus that made them whole or just Jesus’ power going about doing good wherever he went as in the case of the man born blind from birth in John 9 but as Henri says above, the word ‘Believe’ is synonymous with ‘repent’.
Also I’ve heard of Muslims and others becoming Christians just by an encounter with Jesus or God talking to them. Maybe there was repentance there also, I don’t know. When I was born again I cannot remember repenting, this newness just came over me and I was so joyful that I wanted to tell everyone what had happened but I guess I must have repented/changed my mind about things to be changed.
Certainly I agree that repentance should be proclaimed like John the Baptist did, especially in this generation.