by Paul Benson
… I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. -Jesus the Christ
There are many folks, particularly from a Baptist or Calvinistic background, that raise quite a fuss over repentance preaching that portrays repentance as an action which must be undertaken to partake of the saving grace of God. They claim this is works based salvation; and therefor not the gift of unmerited grace promised in the Bible. They point to the proper definition of the word repent and claim: ‘Repentance is merely a change of thinking.’
And they are quite correct with their word definition. But the call to repentance we see expressed in the Scriptures involves more than a mere change in thinking. Please allow me to explain.
Defining Biblical Repentance
Let’s start by once again looking at the definition of the word repent as found in Strong’s Concordance:
Repent G3340 μετανοέω metanoeō
From G3326 and G3539; to think differently or afterwards, that is, reconsider (morally to feel compunction): – repent.
Yes, the word repent itself does convey a change of thinking; but is a mere change in thinking the full expression of biblical repentance? Not hardly! The problem presented by a Calvinistic or hyper-grace view of repentance is possibly best explained by looking at a related misconception that can only be resolved by embracing the full counsel of God. Long has the conflict been argued: ‘Are we saved by faith alone?’
And yes, the Scriptures plainly show saving grace to be a gift which cannot be earned or deserved. But is that the whole story?
Faith Plus Works?
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Ephesians 2:8
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. Romans 4:4
And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. Romans 11:6
As Christians we do need to understand that grace is something offered by God to an undeserving humanity. It is quite clear in the Scriptures that grace is not something we merit or could ever earn. It is a gift freely offered us by our Creator!
But the Bible also provides additional insight that teaches the mystery of salvation very much does include works involved in partaking of that freely offered gift! In fact you cannot be saved apart from works! This appears to a lot of people to be a conflict of theology, although it certainly is not.
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? James 2:14
Here the Apostle James clearly associated works with salvation. This seeming conundrum has caused many over the centuries to doubt that the book of James should even have been included in the cannon of Scripture! But the Spirit of God reveals, to those with ears to hear, that works are definitely a necessary part of true saving faith. Not in the sense of earning merit in God’s sight, but in the sense of those works being the fruit and evidence of genuine faith.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. James 2:18-24
So we see that the proper biblical view of works is that we are not deemed worthy of God’s grace by our works, but we cannot expect to be justified in God’s sight apart from them. Works are a fruit of true faith in action; and faith that has no corresponding works is not true faith, and will not save you!
And to partake of the saving faith presented in the Bible we must view repentance in that exact same light.
Repentance Plus Works?
I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Luke 13:3
And they went out, and preached that men should repent. Mark 6:12
Jesus preached repentance as a major part of his teachings to his followers. And those followers of his went out and preached that message of repentance to the world. But exactly what was their message concerning repentance? Did they tell folks they just needed to change their mind about whether their behavior was good or not? That they had the wrong opinion about sin?
Did Jesus tell the woman taken in adultery she should just go and begin feeling crappy about that sinful life she was living? I think the words he spoke carried a little deeper of a demand than she should merely change her thinking.
And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. John 8:11
Yes, the proper definition of repentance is a changing of one’s mind. But the problem comes when preachers present that truth apart from the biblical demand of corresponding actions that show proof of that repentance. To say that repentance is ‘merely a change of mind’ leaves folks with the impression the call to repentance is just feeling sorry for your sin; and that is all God requires.
In fact many will claim that if you present a demand that people turn from their sinful life, and change their ways, in order to receive salvation then you are preaching an unbiblical gospel of salvation by works. That you are telling people to earn their grace by their actions. And they will rebuke you for it!
But that mindset lacks accord with the Scriptures.
Though millions think they are doing great service to God with their *claim to be true to what they call a Sola Gratia message; their ‘don’t you be preaching works now!’ mentality has perverted the Gospel they are preaching in a horrendous manner. You can put whatever fancy religious sounding moniker you want upon it; it is not the Gospel that the Apostles of Christ preached! They firmly preached a ‘repent and‘ Gospel message!
[*FOOD4THOUGHT: Even most of those who raise a fuss over what they call a works based salvation are actually themselves preaching a salvation that requires works associated with it by admitting that repentance is required to be saved. Consider this Scripture:
And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Acts 17:30
No matter what your view of what repentance truly is, when we repent we are obeying a command to do so! And without that effort on our part to submit to that command and obey it we cannot be saved! Jesus clearly taught the people: except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish (Luke 13:3). We must do that act of repentance to be saved. That is a work required on our part.
In order to stay totally true to a theology that teaches salvation apart from any works you must embrace the errors of hyper-Calvinism which teaches you do not repent and believe the gospel to receive God’s saving grace; but that grace is something God imposes upon you apart from your own will or choice. And then now that God has placed that saving grace in you (whether you want it or not), belief in the Gospel then comes forth. But that is totally out of sync with how the Scriptures teach we must receive God’s grace. Salvation is not something God stuffs inside some but not others; it is the fruit of a Good Seed planted in a believing heart. We hear the gospel, choose to believe it, that belief brings forth the fruit of repentance unto salvation.
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise. Ephesians 1:13
Contrary to the grossly erroneous Calvinistic theology we receive the Spirit AFTER we believe. Their teaching that we begin to believe after we receive the Spirit of Grace that God imposes upon us is exactly backward from the truth! Calvin absolutely got it wrong, and brought great damage upon the Body of Christ with his false teachings.]
Let’s look at the Gospel message the Apostles of Christ preached.
Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; Acts 3:19
When Peter preached the Gospel to the people he told them that in order for their sins to be blotted out they must be converted. In case you may think this conversion he was speaking of was merely a change of thinking (and he was not speaking of a turning away from sinful behavior) his final words of that sermon show otherwise.
Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities. Acts 3:26
True repentance turns us away from our sins! It does not leave us lingering in those sins with a newfound opinion they are wrong. In case you may not know it there is a word that describes persisting in behavior that you now know to be wrong.
That word is hypocrisy!
Should we think that biblical repentance does little more than turn us into a bunch of hypocrites?
Embracing an unbiblical understanding of repentance and saving grace can do exactly that! Leave you wallowing in sin thinking you are justified in God’s sight. Millions are in bondage to a false understanding of grace that steals away from them the fear of God which causes us to depart from sin (Proverbs 16:6).
Paul also preached strong words on the Gospels demand for a change in lifestyle that must accompany salvation. He demanded works that were a proof of a repentant heart.
But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. Acts 26:20
Doesn’t sound like Paul was merely suggesting folks change their thought process with his preaching here. If we claim the biblical salvation message is not a ‘do works’ message we are speaking contrary to the Gospel Paul preached! Repentance without ‘works meet for repentance’ is just as dead as faith without works.
And neither will save a soul!
Paul taught that true repentance was evidenced by a converted lifestyle. This is clearly seen in his words: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God… (2Cor. 5:17-18).
And he also taught that those who confess Christ but continue in sin will also continue in the damnation their sin had upon them!
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21
Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? Romans 6:16
It’s important we understand that our righteousness before God is not our own, it is the righteousness of Christ we receive through faith, but if we think we can walk in that righteousness without turning away from that which defiles we are deluded! Many are the passages of Scripture that put forth the demand we turn from sin and embrace holiness and purity in order to abide in the saving grace of God. If you are going to accuse anyone of promoting works as a necessary element of salvation then you had better just accuse God himself; because it is his Word that makes that demand!
And the Apostles were not the only ones preaching a ‘repent and‘ salvation message. Let’s look at the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. Revelation 2:5
Here in the letters which Jesus dictated to John to send to the Churches (spoken some 60 years or so after the Cross) we see the ascended Christ still preaching this ‘repent and’ message. This exhortation to ‘do works’ in association with repentance carried with it the threat of being cut-off without those works.
It doesn’t get much more serious than that!
So we plainly see the message Jesus, as well as his Apostles, preached carried an absolute demand that people must turn from a sinful lifestyle, and embrace a walk of obedience to God, or they will NOT be partakers of his salvation! Ought we be preaching differently?
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: 1Peter 2:21
Doesn’t following in the footsteps of our Lord mean we ought to do things the way he did, including our preaching? Let’s get it right! We can fiddle, fuss, and argue our lives away about word meanings and doctrinal theories (and yes doctrine is quite important); but if we are not presenting the message in the same manner Christ and his Apostles did, in the end what good will come of it all? Shouldn’t the goal here be to conform to the faith once delivered to the Saints (Jude 1:3); and to preach it the way Jesus and the early Church did?
O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? -John the Baptist
When I consider the preaching of the modern pulpit I can not help but notice the absence of the stern warning we see expressed in the Scriptures in the preaching and teaching of the followers of Christ. Although they most certainly preached a message of the love and mercy of God, and an invitation for the world to come and partake of that marvelous grace, they also conveyed a fierce admonitory concerning the coming wrath of God upon the unrepentant.
Their preaching contained an urgent plea to the rebellious and disobedient to turn from their sins and flee from that coming wrath. The damnation of the wicked was such a reality to them that it drove them to great lengths to make that truth also a reality to their hearers.
Recently I listened to a sermon by the late Leonard Ravenhill where he could not contain the heartbreak he felt over the condition of modern Christianity. Though it was an audio message it was quite evident that tears were freely flowing as he admonished those listening to turn from sin and self and serve Jesus in holiness and righteousness. Few preachers stir me to rise up and seek to serve the Lord in a spirit of excellence the way the preaching of Brother Ravenhill does.
Why do we hear so little warning coming from our pulpits (or our own mouths) in this day and age?
Those who mock repentance preaching as works, or portray biblical repentance as merely a change in thought or attitude, have grossly departed from the true Gospel of the Bible. Worse yet, the ‘come as you are – stay as you are’ gospel most pulpits are broadcasting today carries no warning of the coming wrath of God whatsoever! And thus people are not properly impacted by a warning of God’s coming wrath; nor do they comprehend what fleeing from that wrath truly entails.
When Paul was leaving Asia after a lengthy stay he one last time reminded the disciples how: …by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:31). As I write these words I am wondering when was the last time you saw tears in the pulpit? When was the last time you saw someone so burdened with the condition of the Church, and of the damnation of the lost, that they tearfully pleaded with their listeners to turn from crooked paths unto the straight and narrow way that leads to life?
I truly hope you have the privilege of sitting under that kind of eldership that preaches the true Gospel the way the Apostles did. It is becoming harder and harder to find a preacher who expounds upon both the goodness and the severity of God. Why is this? I think we could sum it up in two words:
Fear and Finance!
Most preachers today give more concern for their paycheck and for the opinion of others than their responsibility to preach the uncompromised Word of God. They are people-pleasing hirelings who have traded in their spine for a paycheck and job security.
And if we are sitting under that type of ministry without raising a ruckus that the true Gospel is not being preached, then we are aiding and abetting in the commission of that crime. We, as willing accomplices, will likewise share in the condemnation they are stockpiling against themselves! If you wonder why I raise such a stink over all the falsehood running amok in the Body of Christ today there you have it.
I don’t want to stand before God with the blood of others on my hands because I was too timid or people fearing to lift a cry against the gross deception that has permeated the American Church.
I exhort you to earnestly seek the Lord as to what is the part he would have you play in standing against the great flood of falsehood in our midst. Not all are preachers or teachers. Not all are exhorters. But we ALL have a role in the ministry of Christ to this generation and to the Church. We ALL have a calling!
And a calling in Christ without works is just as dead as faith or repentance without works!
Please give that some thought.
Yours in Christ Jesus;
ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: Many who have set under the teachings of a Calvinist (or Baptist) do not realize they have been fed an unbiblical theology, nor how those teachings have skewed their beliefs and hindered them from receiving the fullness of the Christian walk God intends for them. For those who would like a better understanding of the errors of Calvinism here is a good overview:
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