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.