Repentance was at the very heart of the Reformation. It could be argued that disagreement over repentance birthed the most significant difference in ‘ministerial practice’ the church has ever known. The very first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses was this:
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.1
Here is a revolution. Once Luther recovered the true meaning of repentance, (i.e. not penance but metanoia) an entire religious paradigm was undermined.
1517 hardly represents Luther’s mature thinking, yet even here he identified the doctrine of poenitentiae as foundational to the reform of the church. In rejecting a ‘do penance’ understanding of repentance (dominant since Jerome’s mistranslation of Matt. 4:17) Luther obviated two errors. On the one hand he opposed the notion of penance as a meritorious human work. On the other, by calling all of life ‘repentance’ he prevented its domestication into a ritual or single aspect of Christian discipleship. Luther’s doctrine of repentance was both humbler and grander than the penitential schemes of Rome. For him, and then for the reformation he spawned, repentance came to mark the entirety of Christian experience (“the whole life of believers”). Yet it did so, not as the pre-condition of this life but as its inevitable consequence (“the whole life of believers”). A recovery of the biblical meaning of repentance meant a twin emphasis on the rejection of human merit and the embrace of total, life-long transformation. For Luther and the reformers, the true grace of God is both free and effective in its generation of real repentance.
Yet even for a church that desires to be reformed and reforming, an errant doctrine of repentance can easily slip in. Take, for instance, the evangelical settings with which I am most familiar. How often will an evangelist demand total life re orientation before conversion? Yet, surely this is to demand the impossible, for, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Heb 11:6). The irony is that, just as a Roman view of poenitentia contained the two-fold error of asking too much of the unbeliever and not enough of the believer, this repeats itself in the evangelical experience. Here perhaps even the same evangelist will later re-assure the ‘convert’ that their assurance lies safe in their private work of ‘coming to Christ’. ‘Walking to the front’, ‘signing a card’ or ‘praying a prayer’ has become the ritualized work of repentance – an evangelical penance located in past experience. And so repentance becomes the thing unbelievers do, but believers don’t (for they already have). This is of course the very opposite of the truth: No unbeliever repents, but every believer does – constantly.
We will seek to uphold these two points biblically before applying them specifically to the practice of evangelism. It is hoped that the lessons learnt there will be suggestive of applications in many other areas of ministerial practice, not least preaching and pastoral care.
Nom. I conceive that repentance consists in a man's humbling himself before God, and sorrowing and grieving for offending him by his sins, and in turning from them all to the Lord.
Evan. And would you have a man to do all this truly before he come to Christ by believing?
Nom. Yea, indeed, I think it is very meet he should.
Evan. Why, then, I tell you truly, you would have him to do that which is impossible.2
According to the Apostle Paul, the unbeliever is dead in transgressions and sins and bound to Satan (Eph 2:1-3). No exercise of moral or religious effort can deliver such a person (Phil 3:1-9). The law, even the law of God, is powerless to save (Rom 3:20; 8:3). And so the unbeliever is sunk in sin and flesh, bound to Satan, under the law’s condemnation, without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12). There is nothing within the unbeliever that will help them…
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9 not by works, so that no-one can boast. (Ephesians 2:4-9)
The Christian is one plucked from the deepest pit and raised to the highest height in Christ. All this is by grace, appropriated ‘through faith’ and ‘not by works, so that no-one can boast.’ Before this grace-through-faith salvation has apprehended us we can do nothing but sin: “For everything that is not from faith is sin.” (Rom 14:23).
It should now be abundantly clear why true repentance is impossible before our conversion. Our flesh is not even inclined let alone capable of turning itself – thoughts, desires, attitudes, speech, acts, habits – to the Father. Instead it is God who turns to us in Jesus Christ. Before this we cannot turn. He raises us, we do not climb, not even an inch. No unbeliever repents. Yet…
Ephesians 2 continues:
10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.
A Christian is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) and out of that new identity flows a new life lived to God (Rom 6:10-11). “God’s kindness leads you to repentance.” (Rom 2:4) Yet this is not simply a one-off turning, but an all of life revolution. In view of God’s mercy we offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’ (Rom 12:1). The paradox ought to be keenly felt – alive yet always given over to death for others. (2 Cor 4:11). Paul tells us that our ongoing transformation will happen first in our thinking (Rom 12:2; cf Rom 6:11) as we allow the gospel to shape our understanding. Then our lives will be transformed in line with the metanoia (literally ‘change of mind’) which the gospel brings. (Rom 12:3ff; cf Rom 6:12-14). Therefore “the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
Here we are using a working definition of repentance as ‘change of mind.’ Perhaps we can flesh this out a little.
The Greek word metanoia (repentance) can helpfully be seen as short-hand for Romans 12:2 – 'Be transformed by the renewing of your minds'. Metanoia is the change of mind or heart that is born of the gospel and intrinsic to saving faith. It is necessarily transformative wherever it is exercised.
Thus a simple equation of repentance with ‘turning your life around’ is inadequate and quite unhelpful. Repentance begins in the mind or heart. It is an epistemological term first. It is about transformed thinking before we ever consider transformed living.
In the LXX the verb metanoew is most often used to describe the LORD’s relenting (naham – to have compassion). That is to say, repentance is the LORD’s change of heart with regards to His people.3 Thus it certainly does not mean the LORD putting away sins and turning to righteousness! In all other instances the verb occurs in the context of a change of mind.4 When we come into the New Testament5 we see no reason to see any change in meaning. Both etymologically and in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, repentance ought to be first thought of as a renewal of thinking. The ‘fruits in keeping with repentance’ (Matt 3:8; Luke 3:8) will involve all manner of moral action yet all this is the organic development of a transformed understanding.
None of this is meant to diminish the miracle that occurs wherever such repentance is seen. To say that ‘repentance is transformed thinking’ is not to say it is ‘only’ a change of mind for two reasons. First, it always issues forth in tranformed living wherever it is genuine. It is the inevitable counterpart of true faith. There is simply no such thing as an impenitent believer or a repenting unbeliever. Faith and repentance are, in this sense, inseparable. Second, our enmity with God was centred precisely in the mind (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:21; Rom 8:6-8). We are ‘blinded’, ‘enemies in our minds’, and ‘hostile to God.’ The understanding is not our least tainted faculty but the most. Therefore repentance is always miraculous. In fact a renewal of our understanding is the greatest revolution imaginable. Paul describes it in Romans 12:2 as metamorphosis!
The one other Pauline usage of this word gives us a clue as to how such metamorphosis occurs:
And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
‘Metamorphosis’ is here a present, passive indicative. That is, it is wrought upon us as an ongoing reality and Paul tells us how. Through the Spirit and as we reflect on the glory of Christ, we are transformed. Again the understanding is central. But from the understanding comes ‘ever-increasing’ Christ-likeness. This is the repentance the unbeliever knows nothing of, yet it is the repentance that the believer constantly exercises.
Now we will apply these things to our practice of evangelism.
Our gospel proclamation to unbelievers is an excellent test of our grasp of repentance. As we bring the Word of grace to the unbeliever there is a tremendous danger that the covenant love of God will be presented as a conditional contract: “If you turn your life around, God will forgive you.” Think of a typical gospel tract in which the final page calls for a response. This is of course absolutely right since evangelism is irreducibly a summons to Christ the Lord. Yet, in all this, the impression can be readily given (and sometimes even intended) that change of life is a pre-condition for salvation. This would be a kind of "repent, then believe" ordo salutis. Such practice inverts the Gospel in which Christ meets us exactly in our sin and does so unconditionally and with no respect to our capacity for Him or His new life. (Romans 4:5).
Spurgeon here speaks of those who preach in order to awaken ‘frames and feelings as a preparation for Christ’:
They do in effect say, "Unless you have felt so much depression of spirit, or experienced a certain quantity of brokenness of heart, you must not come to Christ," instead of declaring, that whosoever will is permitted to come, and that the true way of coming to Christ is not with a qualification of frames and feeling and mental depressions, but just as you are. Oh! it is my soul's delight to preach a gospel which has an open door to it, to preach a mercy-seat which has no veil before it; the veil is rent in twain, and now the biggest sinner out of hell who desires to come, is welcome. You who are eighty years of age, and have hated Christ all the time, if now the Spirit of God makes you willing to come, Christ seems to say, "Suffer the grey- headed to come unto me, and forbid them not:" while to you little children, he stretches out his arms in the same manner…6
Some may object and say ‘such preaching will engender the impenitent ‘faith’ which was ruled out earlier.’ To respond: this danger is only present where salvation is spoken of in mechanical or impersonal terms. If salvation is conceived and presented as an abstract ‘forgiveness of sins’ or ‘eternal life’ then impenitent ‘faith’ is a great danger. But then this is not actually faith in the biblical sense. “Faith in the Son of God” is a fellowship with Christ so deep that we live and die with Him. (Gal 2:20) Salvation is being ‘in Christ’. The gospel call is a call to a Person – a Lord. When Christ is the One we summon the world to, then impenitent faith is inconceivable. Yet when we call people to Him, we call them as they are – helpless, hopeless, unprepared sinners.
How do we model this in our evangelism?
First, the dominant emphasis of our speaking must be the divine initiative more than the human response. The call to ‘repent and believe in Christ’ is undoubtedly of the essence of evangelism since the Lord, by word and Spirit, summons the world to faith. Yet if human response is made the emphasis we are in danger of throwing the unbeliever back on themselves. The task of the evangelist is not predominantly to tell their audience to believe in Jesus. Rather they are so to speak of Jesus that their audience do believe in Him. In this way we preach for transformed minds – as Christ is placarded before the world.
Second, as we summon people to faith in the Lord Jesus, His Lordship will stand in stark contrast to the circumstances of their lives. At Corinth the gospel encountered “the sexually immoral… idolaters… adulterers… male prostitutes… homosexual offenders… thieves… the greedy… drunkards… slanderers [and] swindlers.” (1 Cor 6:9-10). In practice, few of us (to our shame) know of this kind of evangelism – mission that reaches far beyond the comfort-zones we enjoy in our protected churches. Yet the gospel is precisely for sinners. And at the same time the gospel transforms. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11) Church should be the place where notorious sinners can be welcomed and hear the name of the Lord Jesus. It should also be the place where, by that same name, transformation occurs.
As to the nature of the gospel call. Spurgeon said it best:
Do not attempt to touch yourself up and make yourself something other than you really are, but come as you are to Him who justifies the ungodly. …The Gospel will receive you into its halls if you come as a sinner, not otherwise. Wait not for reformation, but come at once for salvation. God justifieth the ungodly, and that takes you up where you now are; it meets you in your worst estate. Come in your disorder. I mean, come to your heavenly Father in all your sin and sinfulness. Come to Jesus just as you are: filthy, naked, neither fit to live nor fit to die. Come, you that are the very sweepings of creation; come, though you hardly dare to hope for anything but death. Come, though despair is brooding over you, pressing upon your bosom like a horrible nightmare. Come and ask the Lord to justify another ungodly one.7
Perhaps the example of Zacchaeus will helpfully summarize this discussion (Luke 19:1-10). Here the Lord freely offers fellowship to a despised white collar criminal and out of this free grace is birthed a stunning change (v8). In our church experience such change might be a long time in coming and be a complicated matter indeed. The couple sleeping together, the addict, the transexual, the mason, the estranged spouse, the muslim, will all bring with them difficulties and attachments that will take a long time to work through. Yet if we are committed to an understanding of repentance as has been outlined here, sinners will be embraced as sinners and called into fellowship with Christ. Then, in the context of their on-going discipleship, they along with the whole congregation will be called to work out their salvation more and more. But the immoral are not called to chastity. The drunkard is not called to sobriety. They are called to Christ, just as they are. In time – in Christ – they will be lead to freedom.
There is one stumbling block which we must put in people’s way – Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 1:23). May He be the sum and substance of our gospel preaching. And let us determine to clear away every other stumbling block to faith in Him. (Rom 14:13; 1 Cor 8:9).
3 1 Sam. 15:29; Amos 7:3, 6; Joel 2:13f; Jon. 3:9f; 4:2; Zech. 8:14; Jer. 4:28; 18:8, 10
4 Prov. 20:25; 24:32; 30:1; Isa. 46:8; Jer. 8:6;31:19
5 Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 11:20f; 12:41; Mk. 1:15; 6:12; Lk. 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3f; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Co. 12:21; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21f; 3:3, 19; 9:20f; 16:9, 11
7 From “Justification of the Ungodly” by C.H. Spurgeon. A sermon on Romans 4:5 http://www.the-highway.com/justify-ungodly_Spurgeon.html
Glen Scrivener is the Director and Evangelist at Speak Life. He's teaches at Union School of Theology and has written a number of books including 321:The Story of God, the World and You and Reading Between the Lines.