You can listen to the audio lesson here.
You can also find the “Working Definition of Evangelism” here.
PART V – The Gospel Commands
Lesson Eleven: Repentance unto Life
“From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” (Mt. 4:17; NASB).
The gospel in its essence is not a command, as though it were comprised of a list of dos and don’ts. The gospel is a set of historical and theological facts painting the picture of God’s great redemption of His people from the beginning of creation to final glory. Yet, wherever we find the gospel being preached in the Greek Scriptures, we find along with it the commands to repent and believe. As such, when we refer to repentance and faith as gospel commands, we do not mean the gospel to be taken as a set of imperatives. We simply mean that these are the commands that, by necessity, accompany the gospel.
Order of consideration. The first of these commands we will consider is the command to repent. We’re not considering repentance first because it is in any way prior to faith, but rather the opposite. Faith and repentance, as they are found in the pages of Holy Writ, are chronologically simultaneous events. That is to say that they occur at one and the same time at whatever point they are found in the lives of Christ’s disciples. Repentance is impossible apart from faith, and genuine faith in Christ necessarily breeds repentance.
There are numerous instances in the Bible in which hearers are told explicitly to believe, but not to repent. There are similar instances in which they are told explicitly to repent, but not to believe. In all of these instances, the command not mentioned is not therefore to be seen as excluded. Rather, where one is commanded, the other is implied. It has rightly been asserted that faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin.
One of the most difficult struggles I’ve personally watched a child endure is the struggle of the child raised in the Reformed tradition who desperately wants to know if he or she is among the elect. The reason we start with repentance is not because we believe it to chronologically precede faith, but because it is the evidence of genuine faith. A child raised in the Reformed tradition should not be made to rest his or her assurance upon the genuineness or strength of a faith considered apart from a biblical understanding of repentance. Rather, it is a faith that will manifest itself in the fruit of repentance. The root of faith, then, will be known by the fruit of repentance.
Defining repentance. Before venturing further, it is imperative that we pause to define our terms. When we speak of repentance, what do we mean? For some, this can be a rather archaic term. The term in the Hebrew Scriptures basically meant a change of mind (Num. 23:19). In the Greek Scriptures, the term took on more of the idea of turning from sin toward God (Acts 20:21; Heb. 6:1). Thomas Watson defined repentance in this way:
“Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed,” (Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, pg. 10).
As such, even as we consider the fact that repentance and faith are gospel commands, we must simultaneously recognize that they are graces of God worked upon the soul of man, not mere works of man conjured up in man’s own strength. As such, in our consideration of repentance, let us first consider it as a command, and one that is impossible to be fulfilled in the mere strength of the hearer. Then, we will consider repentance as a grace, and one that is worked upon the soul by the good pleasure of God by His word and Spirit.
The command to repent. The very first message we find John the Baptist preaching in the Greek Scriptures is a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mt. 3:2; NASB). Strikingly, the Christ began His own public ministry with the exact same message of repentance: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” (Mt. 4:17; NASB). From the beginning of the New Covenant era, it was clear that repentance was not merely a requirement for Israel, but for all who would hope to be found in Christ (Lk. 24:46-47; Acts 11:18).
John the Baptist commanded his hearers to repent. So did Christ. We also see in the preaching of the apostles that repentance was a requirement of all believers. Repentance was a staple of Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22) and teaching (2Pt. 3:9). Paul also emphasized the universal obligation of all men to repent in his preaching (Acts 17:30; 26:19-20) and teaching (Acts 20:21; Rom. 2:4; 2Cor. 7:9-10).
Some may think it strange to refer to repentance and faith as commands. After all, in 21st century Western Evangelicalism, haven’t we all deemed ‘gospel invitations’ to be the more appropriate term? Nowhere in Scripture do we see God inviting every man everywhere to repent and believe in Christ. Instead, we read: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30; NKJV). Thus, we see that repentance is both a universal requirement and a command.
The grace to repent. Some would interject here that we are adding to the gospel a new law. We are in a sense, according to these detractors, making the gospel conditional upon a work. First of all, we must admit that the salvation afforded us in the pages of Scripture is a salvation by works. It simply is not a salvation by our works. We are saved instead by the works of Christ alone.
As Thomas Watson asserted in the aforementioned quote, even the repentance we exercise is a grace worked upon our souls by the sovereign God of our salvation. Repentance, then, is not a condition for our justification and regeneration, but the fruit of it. When the sinner, by grace through faith, receives with joy the good news of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, God works upon his soul the grace of repentance. Repentance, in this sense, is not a work but a gift from God (Acts 11:18)!
When we think about repentance, it is necessary also that we consider it as part of our overall sanctification. In Philippians 2:12-13, we’re commanded to work out our own salvation. At the same time we’re informed that, as we work out our own salvation, it is God who is at work in us to accomplish it. As we consider this great grace of sanctification afforded us by the indwelling, preserving work of the Holy Spirit, we must recognize that repentance and faith are vital parts of it.
Repentance and faith are not one-time requirements in the lives of disciples; they are regular expectations throughout the Christian life. Thus, just as every other element or our sanctification is wrought by God who is at work in us, so it is true also of repentance. The same grace that comes bringing the saving grace of conversion also comes bringing the saving grace of sanctification. The apostle Paul is very clear on this matter when He writes:
“11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds,” (Titus 2:11-14; NASB).
The same grace of God that converts us also instructs us to deny the ungodliness and worldy desires in which we formerly walked when we were dead in our trespasses and sins. It calls us instead to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age, having been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. Rather than dreading the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, the grace of God causes us to look upon it with blessed hope and joyful expectation. The grace of God in Christ redeems us from every lawless deed and purifies us for Him who purchased us, sowing in us a godly zeal for the good deeds God predestined from the foundation of the world, that we should walk in them.
The grace of God, then, is not a mere forgiving grace. It completely renovates us throughout our sojourn in this foreign land. It grants us new hearts with new desires. It renews our minds. It causes us to hate sin, such that we gladly turn from it, and to love God, such that we turn to Him finding in Him our all-in-all. Let us pray, then, that all with whom we have the joy of sharing the glorious news of redemption in Jesus Christ will be granted the grace of repentance unto life and salvation.