The Nature of Repentance and Faith
The Issues in This Discussion
Saved from What?
Since our evangelistic message calls sinners to repent and believe, it is essential that we understand the nature of repentance and faith. As a background for the subject matter I will cover here, I would suggest that you review the chapter on the nature and purpose of salvation. If we imagine that the purpose of God’s great work of redemption is simply to take people to heaven when they die, we are going to think of the gospel offer in a completely different way than we do when we understand that God’s purpose in saving sinners is to conform us to the image of his Son. God does not save us because we promise to get rid of our sins and follow Jesus. God saves us when we bring our sins to Jesus and confess that we are helpless to break the fetters that have bound us. If he does not break our chains, we are doomed to a life of bondage in sin. No one who rightly comes to Jesus for salvation would say, “I want to be forgiven, but I love my sins too much to leave them.” The issue in salvation is not heaven or hell; the issue in salvation is sin and righteousness. The purpose of Jesus’ death was not merely to take us to heaven when we die. His purpose was to restore God’s holy image in us. J.C. Ryle wrote,
He who supposes that Jesus Christ only lived and died and rose again in order to provide justification and forgiveness of sins for His people, has yet much to learn. Whether he knows it or not, he is dishonoring our blessed Lord, and making Him only a half Savior. The Lord Jesus has undertaken everything that His people’s souls require; not only to deliver them from the guilt of their sins by his atoning death, but from the dominion of their sins, by placing in their hearts the Holy Spirit; not only to justify them but also to sanctify them. He is, thus, not only their “righteousness but their “sanctification.” (I Cor. 1:30). (Ryle, 1952, 31).
If salvation involves no more than God’s pardon so that a person can go to heaven when he dies, then repentance is clearly unnecessary. The prodigal may remain in the pig pen and merely write a letter to the father asking his forgiveness. If we took that view of “salvation,” it would be necessary to define repentance and faith very differently than we do when we understand salvation to involve a radical transformation of God’s redeemed ones. The differences I am discussing in this chapter concern not only the nature of faith and repentance but the very nature of salvation itself. Salvation is not about being forgiven while in the pig pen; it is about returning to the Father’s house and being freely pardoned. William Bates wrote,
The most universal hinderance of men’s complying with the conditions of pardon by Christ, is, the predominant love of some lust. Although men would entertain him as a Saviour to redeem them from hell, yet they reject him as their Lord. Those in the parable, who said, “We will not have this man to reign over us,” expressed the inward sense and silent thoughts of all carnal men. Many would depend on his sacrifice, yet will not submit to his sceptre; they would have Christ to pacify their consciences and the world to please their affections. . .they would have Christ to die for them but not to live in them. . .they lean on his cross to support them from falling into hell, but crucify not one lust on it” (Bates, 1832, 217).
This is Not a Discussion about Justification
I want to make it clear that this is not a discussion about the nature of justification before God. Those on both sides of this debate state that justification before God is through faith alone and is based on the work of Christ alone. One of the chief proponents of “Lordship Salvation” has made the following statement about justification.
Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God. God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing He sees in them — not even because of His own sanctifying work in their lives — but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is reckoned to their account. ‘To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness’ (Romans 4:5). That is justification (John MacArthur on justification by faith).
I do not believe it would be possible to give a clearer statement on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and based on Christ’s righteousness alone. One may only conclude that anyone who argues that “Lordship preachers” are adding good works to the gospel is simply presenting a straw man argument.
The Relationship between Regeneration and Obedience
If we believe that sinners who have been granted “prevenient grace” determine, by their free will decision, whether they will be saved or not, it should be clear that we believe regeneration is unnecessary. If we have the ability to obey one of God’s commands, the command to believe the gospel, we should be able to obey any other command. Incredibly, many who would take the “autonomous will” position do not even think believers need to be obedient to Christ at all. Once they have come to a moment of clarity that enables them to give intellectual assent to the historical facts of the gospel, nothing that occurs subsequent to that “decision” is of any importance. According to the OSAS [once saved always saved] Arminians who like to call themselves “free grace” believers, though a person has made “a decision for Christ,” he may have no love for God or desire to follow Christ and may even stop believing the gospel. In their view, as long as a person has been “once saved,” he is eternally secure no matter what.
Those who hold this view must give a different definition to the biblical words “repent,” “repentance,” and “faith” than those who believe repentance and faith are the result of God’s sovereign, regenerating work in sinners’ hearts. In their view, faith is nothing more than a momentary decision and repentance is simply a change of mind about Christ. Although they are correct in their assertion that a sinner’s justification before God is received through faith alone and apart from the works of the law, their message goes astray because they misunderstand the nature of faith and repentance and, ultimately, they misunderstand salvation itself. The often discussed passage in James chapter two, had nothing to do with the basis of justification before God. The question James was addressing was not whether that basis was faith or works. Instead, the question concerned the nature of that faith that justifies. Paul’s message was identical to that of James. He wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). The NIV translates this verse as follows, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Genuine faith is working faith. Regeneration produces a faith that produces obedience. We should remember the words that characterized the Protestant Reformers’ thinking on this issue— “Justification before God is by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone.”
Would any reasonable person think that steam coming from a tea kettle was either producing the heat under the kettle or was the direct product of the kettle itself? Of course not! Yet, some allege that if we tell people genuine faith, produced by the free grace of God, will generate evidence of itself in works of obedience to God, we are telling them they must produce good works that will cause God to save them. This is not the case. What we believe is that when the fire of God’s regenerating grace is applied to kettle of our souls in the production of genuine faith, the result will be the steam of heart-felt obedience.
Repentance and Faith—The Results of Free Will or Free Grace?
If the OSAS Arminians were correct in their view that faith and repentance are the result of the sinner’s “free will” decision, they would be correct in their assertion [read accusation] that those who believe and proclaim that repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of life are preaching a “works salvation.” But, as we have seen, there is no obedience, including the obedience of faith, that grows in the soil of corrupt nature. The performance of every act of obedience the gospel demands results from God’s work. When we preach that sinners must believe and repent, we are not calling on them to do something that will prompt God to act on their behalf. Instead, we are calling on them to perform acts they cannot perform unless those acts are effected by the sovereign grace of God. Apart from the implantation of a new governing principle of life in a person’s inner man, there will neither be faith nor obedience. This order becomes abundantly clear in God’s promise of regenerating grace in Ezekiel 36:25-27. God said,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit [disposition] in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
It seems clear that Paul was thinking of this passage when he wrote to Titus about “the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (See Titus 3:5-6). It should not escape our notice that these passages are not about pardon alone or even primarily, but about cleansing and renewing.
One issue we need to examine is the idea that the believer is constituted of two “men” or two natures, neither of which is capable of change. Florida Bible College has been one of the chief purveyors of the “free grace” teaching. The following is taken from its statement of faith:
We believe a true child of God has two births: one of the flesh and the other of the Spirit. The flesh nature is neither good nor righteous. The Spiritual nature does not commit sin. This results in warfare between the Spirit and the flesh, which continues until physical death, or the return of the Lord. (The new birth cannot change in any way the flesh nature of man, but the flesh nature can be controlled and kept subdued by the new man.) (https://www.floridabiblecollege.us/what-we-believe.html).
Such a view would make repentance not only unnecessary but also impossible. It would involve no removal of the “stony heart” at all. The stony heart remains along with the addition of a heart of flesh. Additionally, it would make growth in grace unnecessary and impossible. The “flesh nature” cannot and will not change, and the “Spiritual nature” does not need to change. One would think the “Spiritual nature” would not even need exhortation since that nature is perfect and cannot sin. Since it is perfect, could the “Spiritual nature” desire to subdue the “flesh nature” any more than it does? The “flesh nature” cannot repent or believe; the “Spiritual nature” has done nothing for which it needs to repent. Furthermore, those who espouse the “free grace” view believe that sanctification (becoming a disciple) is a separate and optional act of the believer. In their view, every believer should become an obedient disciple but not all will. One wonders what changes within the believer when he becomes a disciple. Does the “flesh nature” improve in some way? According to their doctrine, that nature “cannot change in any way.” In their view, it is incapable of improvement. The “spirit nature” certainly cannot improve because it is perfect and sinless already.
If we perceive of faith as being in any way pleasing to God, and the Bible seems clearly to state that it is, one has to question how a being that is “neither good nor righteous,” could produce faith. Paul stated, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” How can a being that is “neither good nor righteous” ever desire that which is both good and righteous? It would seem that faith would be impossible unless some previous change had occurred in that nature. Hear C.H Spurgeon’s words, “Do not sit down and try to pump up repentance from the dry well of corrupt nature. It is contrary to the laws of mind to suppose that you can force your soul into that gracious state.”
In contrast to this view, Paul described the work of conversion as nothing less than the crucifixion of the old man. He wrote, “We know that our old self [man] has been crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). When Paul wrote about the “old man,” he referred not to a part of what we are as believers, but to everything that we were prior to conversion in union with Adam. Our pre-conversion life has been crucified with Christ. This is true not only in terms of the divine reckoning in the believer’s forensic union with Christ. That is, this is not only true in the accomplishment of redemption but also in terms of the application of Christ’s death in the believer’s conversion. The purpose of this crucifixion is stated clearly. It was “. . .in order that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” For this reason, he has stated that we who have died to sin, can no longer go on living in it. We should not think that Paul was drawing a contrast between the body as evil and the spirit as good. Such a dualistic idea is nowhere to be found in his theology. Instead, he was speaking of the body [and its members] as the instrument that is often employed by sin as its weapon.
Paul was not describing an action a believer must perform, but an action that God has performed that will inevitably and invariably affect the believer’s actions. Conversion is God’s work. There is not a single command in the first ten verses of this chapter. Instead, Paul was describing the work God has accomplished in uniting the believer with Christ. There is no “ought to” in these verse. God has liberated the believer from the reign of sin and death, transferred him into a new realm and placed him under a new reign. He does not say, “We who have died to sin ought not to continue in sin.” Instead, he asks quite emphatically, “How shall we who have died to sin, go on living any longer in it” (v. 2)? If believers commit sin, it is not because we are being held captive to it. We will only commit acts of sin if we willingly yield our members to the temptation to do so. In verses eleven through thirteen, Paul did not exhort believers to stop being slaves. Instead, his exhortation is clear. We should stop acting like slaves since we have been emancipated from sin’s bondage. There is a tendency for those who have been set free from slavery to continue to act like slaves. Paul’s exhortation “Therefore, do not allow sin to reign in your mortal bodies,” was simply the exhortation necessary for the implementation of their freedom from sin’s bondage. He followed this exhortation with the assurance that if we are true believers “Sin will not have dominion over us, because we are not under law but under grace” (v.14).
What is Repentance?
It might be helpful at the outset to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer to this question. In answer to the question, “What is repentance unto life?” the Catechism answers, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” A thorough understanding of the component parts of this definition will go a long way in enabling us to understand what the biblical writers meant when they used the word “repentance.” Consider the following four aspects of this definition. It teaches that repentance is 1. a saving grace which results from an understanding that we have strayed from God’s way (“out of a true sense of his sin. . ., with grief and hatred of his sin”). 2. It is encouraged by an understanding of God’s promise to pardon those who return (“an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ”). 3. It involves a return to God (“turn from it to God”). 4. It involves a heart-felt desire and purpose of heart to obey God’s commandments in the future (“with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience”).
It is important to understand that nothing in this definition speaks of the sinner doing anything to merit God’s favor. Like the lost son in the pig-pen, he feels no sense of worthiness. His only hope is his “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.”
It is impossible to say whether faith is prior to repentance or visa versa. John Murray has suggested that not only is this question impossible to answer but it is unnecessary that we answer it since “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance” (Murray, 1955, 113). The interplay between faith and repentance is intriguing. Embedded in this definition is a clear statement about the mercy of God in Christ. The sinner does not turn back to God’s way primarily because he fears God will damn him if he does not, but because he becomes convinced that God’s promise of pardon is reliable. Consider the words of C. H. Spurgeon,
While I regarded God as a tyrant, I thought sin a trifle. But when I knew Him to be my Father, then I mourned that I could ever have kicked against Him. When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good (C. H. Spurgeon, # 2419).
Misconceptions about Repentance
There are many misconceptions about the nature of repentance. There are also many faulty ideas about what “Lordship preachers” teach about it. For this reason, I would like to consider a few of the ideas we must exclude when we teach the biblical command to repent.
- Repentance is not, in itself, sorrow for sin. When people hear the term “repentance” they often think about feeling sorrow for some sin they have committed, but repentance is not, in itself, sorrow for sin. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul mentioned two different kinds of sorrow. He wrote, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” There is little doubt that Judas regretted his decision to betray Jesus into the hands of sinners, but there is no evidence of true repentance. There is no doubt a connection between the sorrow for sin that God effects in the sinner’s heart and his resolve to return to the Father’s house, but repentance goes beyond sorrow.
- Repentance is not a promise to stop sinning in exchange for which God will grant a person eternal life. Repentance does not involve striking a bargain or contract with God in which the sinner promises to stop sinning if God will grant him eternal life. God would never enter such a contract since he knows full well that a sinner does not exist who could fulfill the terms of such a contact. Additionally, sinners who have been taught by God’s Spirit the depths of their own guilt and sinful corruption understand that they are unable to “rid their souls of one dark blot.”
- Repentance is not penance. The gospel summons to repentance is not a call to self-flagellation or a call to make reparations for our misdeeds. We must never give sinners the idea that they must clean up their lives before they can return to the Father’s house. The is no reason to believe the prodigal bathed and changed his clothes before he returned home. There was no thought of making himself worthy of the father’s acceptance. Repentance is not leaving our sins behind so God will accept us; it is bringing our sin to him so that he might break its chains and set us free. William Bates wrote, “The saints who now reign in glory, were not men who lived in the perfection of holiness here below; but repenting, believing sinners, who are washed white in the blood of the Lamb” (Bates, 1832, 216).
- Repentance is not a work that merits God’s favor. Repentance is no more meritorious than is faith. Just as the Bible never tells us that sinners are justified before God on account of our faith, so it never tells us we will be forgiven because we have produced enough evidence of leaving our sins that we merit pardon. In answer to the question raised by the title of his book, How Shall I Go to God? Horatius Bonar wrote, “It is with our sins that we go to God—for we have nothing else to go with that we can call our own” (Bonar, 1977, 1). There is no merit the sinner can plead apart from the merit of Jesus Christ.
- Repentance is not a work a sinner must perform before he can return to God; it is a change of mind that produces a return to God. Isaiah wrote, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the Lord. . . (Isaiah 55:7).” As Paul stood before King Agrippa, he made it clear the commission Jesus had given him involved more than the proffer of pardon. Consider his words— “[I] declared . . . that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). I want to consider the entire context of this verse later in the chapter, but for now it should be clear that repentance produces a change in one’s behavior.
When we engage in evangelism, it is essential to remember that we are not approaching people who are inclined toward God or even neutral toward him. Instead, we are presenting his terms of peace to obdurate and recalcitrant rebels who are hostile toward him and prefer to continue in their own sinful life-styles. The Scripture describes such rebels as “those who are out of the way [misled, deceived, astray]” (Heb. 5:2), “. . .turned to his own way. . .” (Isa. 53:6), “sheep going astray” (1 Pet. 2:25). In describing the salvation of such rebels, Peter wrote, “But [he used a strong adversative] you have been returned to the shepherd. . .” Any message that proclaims a supposed “salvation” that pardons rebels and straying sheep without returning them to the Shepherd is a counterfeit gospel.
New Testament Words for Repentance
New Testament writers used two words that are translated “repent” or “repentance” in our English versions. The first is μετανοέω (verb) repent μετἀνοια (noun) repentance. It simply means a change of mind or heart.
The second is μεταμέλομαι. It is used for a feeling of regret that one feels after and act has been performed. It can mean to be sorry for a deed or attitude. Judas regretted his betrayal of Jesus after the deed had been done.
The issue between so-called Free Grace teachers and so-called Lordship teachers relative to the meaning of repentance does not revolve around the lexical meaning of the word. Both agree that the word μετἀνοια (metanoia) means a change of mind or heart. The issue concerns the arbitrary limitation of its meaning to a change of mind about Christ. Such a limitation would make repentance synonymous with faith. Yet, there seems to be no effort on the part of those who hold to the “free grace” position to justify that arbitrary limitation. They simply assume it to be valid. Even if the word metanoia had never occurred in the Scripture, it would be clear that God’s gospel purpose is to turn sinners from their own ungodly way back into his way.
A Universal Change of Mind
God’s work of regeneration causes a universal change of mind or heart. When a person repents, there are at least six matters about which he changes him mind. Repentance is a change of mind about God, about oneself, about sin, about merit, about Christ and about obedience to God. “Conversion turns the balance of the judgment, so that God and His glory outweigh all carnal and worldly interests” (Alleine, 1989, 13).
A Change of Mind about God
Sinful rebels will never trust God’s promise of pardon and restoration as long as they continue to have wrong thoughts about him. It is for this reason the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. . .” (Isa. 55:7). Sinners may harbor any number of wrong thoughts about God that will keep them from returning to his way. Perhaps they think that he is a tottering old grandfather in the sky who wishes them well no matter what they do. Maybe they think he is a wicked tyrant whose design is to spoil all their fun. It could be they think he can be no more merciful and compassionate in forgiving them than they are in forgiving their enemies. As long as sinners harbor wrong thoughts about God, they will, like Adam and Eve, seek to hide their sinful nakedness with the fig leaves of human ingenuity.
No wonder Paul described the purpose of his ministry as he did. Consider his description of the life long process that begins with initial repentance. His aim was to cast down imaginations and every high thing [pretension] that exalts itself against the knowledge of God and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (see-2 Cor. 10:5).
A Change of Mind about Oneself
When God makes himself known as he does in the gospel and when he causes the light of his glory to shine into the hearts of dead sinners, they will inevitably begin to think differently about themselves. Consider Job’s words. He said to the Lord, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen of you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5). When Isaiah beheld the beatific vision of Jehovah in his glory, his response was “Woe to me! I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).
Consider this matter specifically as it relates to God’s work of regeneration. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, Jehovah makes the well-known promise to cleanse and renew his elect people by removing hearts of stone, replacing them with hearts of flesh, putting a new spirit [disposition] in them, and putting his Spirit in them. One of the results of that divine work is self loathing because of sin. “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations” (Ezek.36:31).
If the message we have heard causes us to feel good about ourselves and what we can do instead of making us feel good about the Savior and what he has done and is doing, it is a substitute product that will have no saving effect. “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” will be the cry of every repentant sinner.
A Change of Mind about Sin
Peter told the Jews to whom he was preaching “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each one of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). God’s salvation is salvation from sin. There can be no turning to light without turning from darkness. There can be no turning to God without turning from the power of Satan. Consider Paul’s words as he stood before King Agrippa.
And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles-to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26: 15-20).
There can be no turning to God without turning from idols (see-1 Thess. 1:9), and there can be no outward turning from sin without a radical change of mind and purpose. Joseph Alleine wrote the following about the change in the sinner’s mind that occurs in conversion.
Before conversion he had light thoughts of sin. He cherished it in his bosom, as Uriah his lamb; he nourished it up, and it grew up together with him; it did eat, as it were, of his own plate, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was to him as a sweet daughter. But when God opens his eyes by conversion, he throws it away with abhorrence, as a man would a loathsome toad, which in the dark he had hugged fast in his bosom, and thought it had been some pretty and harmless bird. When a man is savingly changed, he is deeply convinced not only of the danger but the defilement of sin; and O, how earnest is he with God to be purified! He loathes himself for his sins. He runs to Christ, and casts himself into the fountain set open for him and for uncleanness. If he falls into sin, what a stir is there to get all clean again! He has no rest until he flees to the Word, and washes and rubs and rinses in the infinite fountain, laboring to cleanse himself from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit. The sound convert is heartily engaged against sin. He struggles with it, he wars against it; he is too often foiled—but he will never yield the cause, nor lay down the weapons, while he has breath in his body. He will make no peace; he will give no quarter. He can forgive his other enemies, he can pity them and pray for them; but here he is implacable, here he is set upon their extermination. He hunts as it were for the precious life; his eye shall not pity, his hand shall not spare, though it be a right hand or a right eye. Be it a gainful sin, most delightful to his nature or the support of his esteem with worldly friends—yet he will rather throw his gain down into the gutter, see his credit fail, or the flower of his pleasure wither in his hand—than he will allow himself in any known way of sin. He will grant no indulgence, he will give no toleration. He draws upon sin wherever he meets it, and frowns upon it with this unwelcome salute, ’Have I found you, O my enemy!’ (Alleine, 1989, 18-19)
A Change of Mind about Merit
Perhaps the classic New Testament passage that deals with merit before God is Philippians, chapter three. In the first few verses of that chapter, Paul warns his readers of a group know as Judaizers. These folks claimed to have recognized Jesus as the Messiah but insisted that circumcision and adherence to Mosaic Law were necessary to justify sinners [in this case, especially Gentiles] before God. Paul refers to these people as dogs of the street and as members of the mutilation party. He basically challenged them to a boasting contest and states that if anyone had a reason to boast about what sinful humanity is able to accomplish, he had more reason than they. He then followed that assertion with a list of virtues in which he had trusted to merit God’s smile. John Blanchard, in his book Right with God, suggested that Paul had trusted in four factors to make him right with God. He had received the right ritual— “Circumcised the eighth day.” He was a member of the right race— “Of the people of Israel, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He was respectable— “Of the tribe of Benjamin.” He was religious— “regarding the law, a Pharisee.” To these four, I would add that he was rigorous— “concerning zeal, persecuting the church, and he was righteous as far as external obedience to the law was concerned— “As for legalistic righteousness, blameless.”
Prior to his conversion, Paul had trusted in these qualities to merit God’s favor. He had regarded them as a “gain” in that regard. “But those things I considered to be a gain. . .” After God’s grace became operative in his heart, his attitude toward these assets was completely and continuously different. Not only did he come to consider these matters as a complete loss in terms of his standing before God, but went on counting them as loss, even to the extent that he considered them as refuse. He wrote, “. . . I have considered [those assets] to be one big loss and I go on considering them as a loss. . .and I consider them as rubbish. . .”
A Change of Mind about Christ
Before God produces repentance in a sinner’s heart, there is, for him, no form nor comeliness, no beauty in Christ that he should desire him. He despises and rejects him as an imposter. To him, the gospel is foolishness and he does not wish to come to him that he might have life (see Isa. 53:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:18; John 5:39-40). But, when God moves on his heart by the power of renewing grace his entire view of Christ is altered. Christ to him is now altogether lovely, the most handsome of the sons of men; he stands head and should among ten thousand others (see Song of Solomon 5: 10,16; Psa. 45:2). There is sufficient beauty in him to render him the desire of every nation (see Haggai 2:7). The believer wishes to say to everyone he meets, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psa. 34:8).
A Change of Mind about Obedience to God
Prior to conversion, the sinner’s hostility toward God was manifested in his obstinate refusal to subject himself to God’s law (see Rom. 8:7). He was led captive by the cruel prince to whom he had willingly yielded himself and all his members. He lived consistently according to the course of this dark world (see Eph. 2:2). He delighted in the darkness of his dungeon, and embraced sin’s shackles that held him captive as if they were diamond studded jewelry. His voice could be heard among the servants that cried out “We will not have this man to reign over us” (see Luke 19:14).
Once converted, there is one goal to which he presses. It is now his all-consuming desire to lay hold of that for which God has laid hold of him. He presses toward to mark and will not be satisfied until the victor’s laurel crowns his brow (see Phil. 3:12-14). I quote again from Joseph Alleine’s classic work on conversion. He wrote concerning the genuine convert,
He takes not holiness as the stomach does the loathed medicine, which a man will take rather than die—but as the hungry man does his beloved food. No time passes so sweetly with him, when he is himself, as that which he spends in the exercises of holiness. These are both his nutriment and element, the desire of his eyes and the joy of his heart (Alleine, 1989, 14).
This is not to suggest that any believer walks in perfect obedience to Christ, or that his halting obedience forms any part of the foundation of his righteous standing before God. It simply means that the object of his delight has changed. Whereas prior to conversion sin was his primary pursuit, now God’s glory is his chief pursuit and obedience to his revealed will is the jewel that he highly treasures. He can say with John Newton,
In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.
Such is the nature of true repentance. God’s basic terms of reconciliation and peace have not changed since Isaiah wrote, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:6-7). I have provided a fuller list of verses dealing with repentance in chapter four of this work.
What is Faith?
In addition to the words translated “faith,” “believe,” “trust,” and “confidence,” Jesus used several different terms to express the idea of faith in him. The following are some of them: 1. Come to me, 2. Eat my flesh and drink my blood, 3. Come to me and drink, 4. Hear my voice, 5. Follow me, 6. Know me. Paul also speaks of “calling on the Lord’s name” as an act of faith.
The New Testament writers also used the following words to express faith, confidence or persuasion. Πίστις–pistis (noun) faith, confidence, πιστέυω pisteuo (verb) believe, trust, have confidence, πείθω peitho to pursuade, obey–Paul used the word in the perfect tense in the sense of pursuaded or confident. John used the word in the negative form (ἀπειθέω—disobeying, not confiding in) in John 3:36 in contrast to believing.
When we think of the biblical command to believe the gospel, whatever terms may be used for that faith, we must never think in terms of a decision we make that is our contribution to the work of salvation or that in any way completes God’s saving work. The Bible does not teach that sinners are justified before God “by faith” or “on account of faith.” It teaches that we are justified through faith. In truth, it is not accurate to say sinners are justified by faith or even by faith in Christ. It is not faith that justifies but Christ who justifies through faith.
The Nature of Faith
Faith is more than a decision. It is more than a knowledge of and an assent to certain biblical propositions. I am not suggesting that such propositions are not essential to faith but that intellectual assent is not, in itself, what the biblical writers meant when they wrote about faith. All genuine faith involves three elements. There must be comprehension of truth, conviction that it is true and that its provisions correspond to our deepest needs, and there must be confidence in the one whose truth it is.
Though faith involves more than comprehension of biblical truth, it cannot exist where there is no biblical understanding. How can I trust someone of whom I know nothing? Why would I trust a person to deliver me from a predicament of which I am unaware? The gospel apprises us of such information before it calls on us to believe. I must first believe that certain matters are true before I can believe in or into Christ. Though it is not necessary to know everything the Bible teaches in order to become a believer, a person must comprehend certain basic facts about the nature of God, the nature of sin, the nature of salvation, and the nature of Christ’s person, work, and his session at the Father’s right hand as the embodiment of the saving merit he has accomplished once and for all.
Not only must one understand certain biblical truth proposition, but he must be convicted and convinced that they are true. Additionally, having been convinced of their truthfulness he must embrace them as truth. The more an unregenerate man knows of biblical truth, the more intensely he will hate it. The more sinners understand of God’s sovereign reign, the more they will gnash their teeth in defiance of him. An unconverted man may give mental assent to the idea that God’s Word declares him to be a sinner and that he can be forgiven by grace, but such is not the faith required by the gospel.
Faith also requires a conviction that God’s grand work of redeeming sinners directly corresponds to our deep needs as mendicant rebels against God. John states in his Gospel that his purpose in writing is that his readers might believe [or go on believing] that Jesus is God’s Anointed One. Throughout that Gospel he has recorded several of Jesus’ statements about who he is and what he is in his capacity as the Messianic redeemer. Faith’s proper response should be clear and in clear correspondence to that revelation and others like it. In terms of his spiritual needs the awakened sinner says the following:
- I am a spiritually thirsty vagabond wandering in an arid and parched desert, but Jesus gives abundant and ever-flowing water (see John 4:10-14; 7:37-39).
- I am a starving man surrounded by beggars, but Jesus is the bread of life, the true bread that came down God out of heaven (see John 6:31-32).
- I am groping in spiritual darkness, but Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12).
- I am a blind beggar sitting in the shadow of death, but Jesus can give me sight (John 9:6-8).
- I am a wandering sheep, but Jesus is the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-14).
- I am alienated from God, but Jesus is the door (John 10:7).
- I am dead in trespasses and sins, but Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25; 14:6).
- I am lost, but Jesus is the way (John 14:6).
- I am ignorant, but Jesus is the truth (14:6).
- I am a barren and withered branch that cannot bring forth fruit to the glory of God, but Jesus is the true vine; united to him I can produce abundant fruit to God’s glory (John 15:1).
In short, faith sees in Jesus God’s abundant provision to meet the sinner’s deepest needs.
Finally, faith is confidence in Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Savior and confidence in God that he will be faithful to pardon us for Jesus’ sake. Faith is clearly the belief that all the gospel’s pronouncements are true, but it is more than that. It is faith in, on and into Christ. It is through faith that sinners are united to Christ in whom they are blessed with every spiritual blessing. In this way, all the virtue of his saving work becomes ours.
It is in union with him that God pours his unsearchable riches into the empty hand of faith. John Murray wrote,
. . .the essence of saving faith is to bring the sinner lost and dead in trespasses and sins into direct personal contact with the Saviour himself, contact which is nothing less than that of self-commitment to him in all the glory of his person and perfection of his work as he is freely and fully offered in the gospel (Murray, 1955, 112).
Faith is the transference of the sinner’s confidence in himself and in his best efforts to Christ in all his fullness as the all-sufficient Savior. It would be difficult to find a clearer expression of this truth than we find in A. Toplady’s well known hymn, “Rock of Ages.” He wrote,
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Characteristics of Faith
I would like to mention and briefly comment on the characteristics of genuine faith as the biblical writers present them to us. Jesus clearly distinguished between a mere historical faith that was prompted by what people saw and the faith of God’s elect (see–John 2:23-25). Though we do not know what is in people’s hearts as he did, we can examine our own hearts to discern whether our faith matches the biblical criteria. If, for example, our faith does not resemble the faith of Abraham, the father of the faithful, and that of those believers about whom we read in the Scriptures, we have no reason to believe it is the sort of faith that unites sinners to Christ.
- Faith rests on the naked promises of God in the face of circumstances that appear impossible and hopeless. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope [confident assurance] believed, and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him. . . (Rom. 4:18; see also v. 17 “as it is written,” v. 20,”the promise of God,” v. 21 “what he had promised” as well as similar expressions throughout Hebrews, chapter eleven). To expect faith to be begotten in the stony hearts of sinful rebels is as “contrary to hope” as the conception of an heir in the barren womb of Sarah. Jesus said, “with men, it [salvation] is impossible” (Matt. 19:26).
- Faith faces head on the reality of the impossible. “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was a good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead” (Rom. 4:19).
- Faith is strengthened in giving glory to God. “He was strengthened in his faith as he gave glory to God” Rom. 4:20). To give glory to God is not to in any way augment his glorious character; it is to ascribe to him the glorious attributes he has revealed to us in his Word. As we worship him in this way, our faith in him and in his promises is strengthened.
- Faith is the persuasion that God is faithful and able to do what he has promised. “. . . being fully persuades that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21).
- Faith looks away from itself; it has no merit of its own. Abraham’s faith did not rest on any ability he possessed or on his faith in God’s ability. Instead, it rested on God’s faithfulness and ability to accomplish what he had promised. Faith is never faith in faith. Any “faith” that rejoices in itself is not the faith that unites sinners to Christ.
- Faith excludes boastingin ourselves, in our obedience, or in our “decision.” “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded [it has been shut out once and for all]. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith” (Rom. 3:27).
- Faith promotes glorying/boasting in the Lord. “He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; see also Rom. 5:2, 11; 15:17; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 6:14).
- Faith is always empty handed, but looks to the fullness of Christ. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. . . (Phil. 3:9). Donald Macleod has written, “Our faith needs a solid rock. It cannot itself be that rock. . .Faith cannot look to faith or to repentance, or love or obedience. Scarcely conscious of itself, it can look only to the Lord our Righteousness, and to his one great all-accomplishing and all-securing sacrifice (Gibson, 2013, 433).
- Faith perseveres. It is striking to read in Hebrews chapter eleven, “These all died in faith” (Heb. 11:13). That is to say, “All of these were still living by faith when they died.” When we consider that the writer’s purpose in this chapter was to illustrate and explicate the nature of faith, this statement becomes very significant. He had ended the previous chapter by stating that we [true believers] are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed but of those who go on believing to the saving of the soul (10:39). This has been his emphasis throughout this book. Consider his words in chapter three, verse fourteen where he wrote, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had a first.” There is no suggestion here that those who have been truly justified in union with Christ are able to lose their right standing before God and be lost. This is simply a warning that we should never imagine that we have been united to Christ by faith if the confidence we had at the beginning does not continue. This does not mean that believers must struggle to maintain their initial level of faith. We did not struggle to obtain this confidence and we do not need to struggle to maintain it. Though the responsibility is ours to continue believing, it is the indwelling Spirit who maintains genuine faith.
It should not escape our attention that when Jesus described faith as “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” (see John 6:54), not only did he use the present tense [signifying continuing action] as was his custom in describing genuine faith, but he used a word [τρώγω] that was used of munching, nibbling, grazing and in the present tense indicates a continuing appropriation. The idea of a faith that was a mere temporary assent to propositional truth was foreign to the apostolic mind.
- Faith provokes the believer to action. As one reads the so called faith chapter (Hebrews 11) it becomes clear that the writer has a much to say about works/obedience as he does about faith. For example, “By faith Noah . . .built an ark” (v. 7). “By faith Abraham. . .obeyed” (v. 8). Such is always the case with genuine faith. A faith that does not act is not biblical faith.
The apostle Paul made it very clear that “Faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Since, in this life, our faith will never be perfect, the obedience that is prompted by it will never be perfect, but any “faith” that leaves a person indifferent to the commandments of Christ, is not the faith that flows from having been born again.
The Warrant of Faith
One issue that has direct bearing on our presentation of the gospel concerns the warrant of faith. What must sinners know before they rest on Christ for salvation? How can they be assured that God is willing to pardon them and that if they embrace God’s good news, he will receive them? Perhaps it is best to consider this issue negatively before we answer it positively. There are points of truth with which sinners do not need to concern themselves in order to be assured that God will receive them. Though we have considered this issue in chapter five of this work in regard to the free offer of the gospel, I would like to make a few additional comments in reference to the warrant of faith.
We do not proclaim the gospel to sinners as elect sinners, or effectually called sinners or to sinners for whom Christ died. None of this information is necessary as the warrant of faith. As we have seen, there is no evidence in the inspired record of early evangelism that any preacher assured unrepentant sinners indiscriminately that Jesus died for them. That is information that rebels do not need to be concerned about. No New Testament evangelist ever suggested that if sinners could show evidence of their divine call to salvation they would be warranted to embrace Christ in faith. We do not limit the gospel invitation to those who can give evidence that God has chosen them for salvation. Our message is directed to guilty rebels who have persisted in pursuing their own sinful delights contrary to the revealed will of their Creator.
In Peter’s second Epistle, he exhorted his readers to make sure for themselves of their calling and election (See 2 Pet. 1:10). His use of the middle voice indicates that he was not instructing them to make these acts of God any more certain than they are. Instead, he was telling them to make sure for themselves that they are among those whom God has called and chosen. It was not without reason that he phrased this exhortation to his readers as he did. One might have expected “election and calling” since election is logically and chronologically prior to calling, but he had something else in mind. He was concerned with the order in which a person can discover and make sure for himself whether he is among those God has chosen. Such knowledge is not directly available to sinners. I cannot know that God has chosen me and that Jesus has redeemed me in accordance with that divine plan (See John 6:38) without first knowing that he has called me according to his electing purpose. I cannot know that he has effectually called me unless I have a credible faith in Christ. To rest on Christ as he is offered in the gospel, sinners do not need to know anything about these secret things that belong to the Lord.
There are two important and clearly revealed truths that should give believing sinners confidence that God will pardon and receive them. The first is God’s universal proffer of mercy; the second is the fitness and fullness of Christ the exalted Savior.
God’s universal proffer of mercy
Sinners need nothing other than God’s universal proffer of mercy in Christ to assure them that he will receive them if they return and receive his offer. Paul wrote, “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. . .” (1 Tim. 1:15). The invitation is to everyone who wishes to come (See Rev. 22:17). The offer is to people of every nation. It is to people of every condition. It is to the immoral as well as to the moral. It is to the poor as well as to the rich. It is to the uninfluential as well as to the powerful. There is but one stipulation. One must come as an empty handed sinner.
The fitness and fullness of Christ
Sinners should never think of faith in Christ as a decision that enables Jesus to be our Savior. He is no pandering politician who must stand in helpless silence while the electorate “decides for [or against] him.” He sits in sovereign majesty on an unshakable throne as the quintessence of saving virtue and power. Not only is he a willing Savior, he is also an able Savior. The gospel presents him in all his regal majesty and in the fullness of his saving power. He is the one who is enthroned as both Lord and Christ. Sinners will either bow before his holy throne and “kiss the Son,” or they will perish in their sinful way (see Psalm 2:12).
The gospel authorizes sinners to approach him in our emptiness, helplessness, and brokenness to receive of his fullness and fitness as our all-sufficient Savior. Additionally, it promises that all who come to him in this way will receive of his fullness. John wrote, “. . .out of his fullness we have all received and grace on top of grace” (John 1:16). Emptiness is the only requirement for coming to him. All the fitness and fullness is his. John Murray wrote,
The sufficiency of his saviorhood restupon the work he accomplished once for all when he died upon the cross and rose again in triumphant power. But it resides in the efficacy and perfection of his continued activity at the right hand of God (italics mine). . .When Christ is presented to lost men in the proclamation of the gospel, it is as Saviour he is presented, as one who ever continues to be the embodiment of the salvation he has once for all accomplished. It is not the possibility of salvation that is presented to lost men but the Saviour himself and therefore salvation full and perfect (Murray, 1955, 109).
Repentance and faith are more than a change of mind about Christ and a temporary, mental assent to a list of biblical propositions. If we believe our “faith” grows out of a corrupt nature that is hostile toward God and aided by some sort of prevenient but ineffectual grace, it may be consistent to entertain such a superficial view of faith and repentance, but we cannot do so if we understand that both faith and repentance result from God’s renewing work. This is true not only of the initial acts of faith and repentance but also of their ongoing activity. Our continued obedient responses to God’s commands result from God’s ongoing work in our hearts.
Faith and repentance are like cojoined twins; They are different, but they are always found together. It is impossible to turn to God in sincere faith without turning from our idols in heart-felt repentance. Repentance is a purpose of heart to leave behind both our course of sinful rebellion against God and the very best acts of obedience we might have offered him as the ground of our acceptance. Faith is an empty handed reception of Christ as the personification of all the goodness, righteousness and merit that poor sinners need.