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Repentance in Its Proper Balance

The church is no stranger to doctrinal controversy. During the first century, several churches established by Paul later became recipients of inspired letters aimed at exposing erroneous teachings that had infiltrated the fellowship. In almost every instance, the proponents of error sought to obfuscate gospel truth on one or more of the following three fronts: (1) The person of Christ—he was less than God, or less than man, or both; (2) The work of Christ—his death was anything but substitutionary, or his resurrection was anything but bodily, or both; and (3) The basis upon which God saves sinners—anything but faith apart from works. The good news is there is nothing new under the sun with regard to doctrinal error. The scriptures are sufficient to expose and correct error in any shape, size, or form. The bad news is the gospel is still under rigorous attack, and susceptibility to error is as real as ever.

Within evangelical Christianity, there rages a third-front controversy regarding the role of repentance in personal salvation. At issue is whether repentance is a requirement for salvation. The “free grace” camp argues that making repentance requisite to salvation adds something to faith as the basis for justification, and therefore distorts the gospel. In their thinking, repentance is an evidence of salvation that can manifest itself before or after regeneration, but should never be confused with faith as a requirement for eternal life. Many within this group contend that the Gospel of John alone sets forth the way of salvation.

On the other extreme is the “sovereign grace” camp. Most within this group are advocates of “Lordship” salvation. They view faith and repentance as virtual equivalents, and insist that no salvation exists apart from total surrender to the Lordship of Christ. This view is typical of Calvinists who believe that God regenerates his elect prior to faith, thus producing “Lordship” faith without fail in all whom he saves. In their thinking, a lack of submission in every (or any) area of life is evidence that God never regenerated them.

So, who is correct? The Lord Jesus illustrated the essence of repentance in a parable delivered to the chief priests about a farmer and his two sons, whom he instructed, “Go work to day in my vineyard” (Matthew 21:28). The first replied, “I will not”, but afterward repented, and went to work (21:29). The second said, “I go, sir”, but did not go to work (21:30). Jesus then asked, “Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” (21:31). They answered correctly, and Jesus added, “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (21:31). The publicans and harlots had believed the message of John while the chief priests had rejected it. Jesus further stated, “And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him” (21:32).

The parable took less than thirty seconds to deliver, but provided the basis for drawing several undeniable conclusions about repentance. Repentance implies accountability to a higher authority. Repentance always produces actions that comply with the directives issued by that authority. Lip service and subsequent non-compliance are typical of the unrepentant. The bottom line in repentance is doing the will of the Father. Entrance into the kingdom of God is contingent upon repentance. Repentance is the forerunner of faith. Although it is not part of John’s Gospel, our Lord’s parable soundly refutes the free grace position!

What exactly is repentance? By strict definition, it is a change of mind! But the change is dynamic rather than static, meaning that sinners who change their minds about the Lord Jesus and his ultimate authority respond by obeying him. And what do they obey? The gospel—the truth that he died for their sins, that he rose again the third day, and that he ever lives as the one and only way to the Father!

Repentance means it is no longer my will, but the will of the Father! It is abandoning any and every hope I have outside of Jesus for my soul’s salvation, and trusting him alone to do what he alone can do—forgive my sins and impart eternal life! It paves the way for me to embrace God’s grace-through-faith terms, resulting in my justification. It is the initial act of capitulation that establishes within my soul a working platform for all of the Lordship issues that will arise beyond justification within the realm of discipleship! The sovereign grace position of Lordship salvation distorts the gospel by putting the cart before the horse, implying that sinners must become disciples before they can be saved. It is essentially a gospel of salvation by works.

Brethren, the free grace and sovereign grace positions both contain elements of truth, but are flawed in the extremities they have adopted. Free grace tends to produce unregenerate church members while sovereign grace tends to produce Pharisees. Which is worse? The scripture represents faith as the sole condition upon which God justifies sinners, yet teaches us that no sinner can arrive at the city of faith without walking the pathway of repentance. Anything less is lip service! This is the true gospel in its proper balance!


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