A Clear Understanding of Gospel Repentance
Gospel repentance is a repentance which comes as the gift of God by the Holy Spirit as He enlightens our minds to the Gospel — God’s promise to save guilty, defiled, hell-deserving sinners, freely give them all of salvation (including the work of the Holy Spirit in them), and entitle them to all of heaven and final glory based solely upon the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ freely imputed and upon all who believe the gospel.
It is only in this light that sinners can come to a repentance that is pleasing to God. Before hearing and believing this Gospel, all repentance is no more than legal conviction that motivates a sinner in seeking to remove the guilt and defilement of sin and to recommend himself to God by his own self-efforts at remorse, reformation, obedience, and dedication. This is the repentance and sorrow of the world that “worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10) as it motivates sinners to bring forth “fruit unto death” (Romans 7:4) and “dead works” (Hebrews 6:1; Hebrews 9:14).
Such “fruit unto death” and “dead works” include any attempts of a sinner to attain or maintain any of the blessings or benefits of salvation along with any attempts to be entitled to any part of the inheritance of grace and glory based on anything other than the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ freely imputed and received by faith.
A person therefore may be acutely aware of his guilt and defilement. He may admit his total depravity and utter worthlessness. He may adamantly and continually confess that God would be just to damn him based on his sins, but true godly repentance can only be determined by this:
Where does he find relief from his guilt, defilement, and depravity?
If he finds relief anywhere but in the righteousness of Christ (His substitutionary obedience and death on the cross), he has not been “made sorry after a godly manner” (2 Corinthians 7:9) nor come to “godly sorrow” which “worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of” (2 Corinthians 7:10). His repentance is no more than legal, natural-conscience conviction of which he needs to repent.
We would all agree that the Bible teaches the necessity of repentance —
“except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
“God commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”
Christ said in Matthew 9:13,
“for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
He told His disciples that
“repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
Paul characterized his ministry in the preaching of the Gospel as…
“testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We learn in 2 Peter 3:9 concerning God’s elect that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
What exactly is this repentance?
When most people think of repentance they most always think of reformations of life involving a change from a life of immorality or lack of dedication in religion to a life of morality and dedication in religion. Most who go through such a change end up better in society as they conform to moral standards and begin to practice responsible behavior. Their families and their societies may be the better for it, and this is something that all of us should encourage in all without exception. We should always promote such reformations of life and character in people whose lives are characterized by immorality and irresponsible behavior.
But such reformations do not characterize the true nature and heart of godly repentance!
Such reformations may accompany godly repentance, but if this is as far as it goes, the person may have turned from immorality to morality, but they have not repented in God’s sight. In fact, if such a person reforms in character and conduct as motivated by the darkness of false religion, then they are “twofold more the child of hell” (Matthew 23:15). The fact is that most people repent of immorality and irresponsible behavior before they are ever saved and come to true godly repentance.
The Greek dictionary defines repentance as “a reversal of your thoughts; a radical change of mind.” In the New Testament, the word “repentance” means a change of mind that brings about a change of life, walk, and conduct. In the Old Testament, the word “repentance” meant a turning as in the case of a person going in one direction and turning around to go in the opposite direction. This godly change of mind and conduct which is called repentance can come only in light of the Gospel wherein Christ and His righteousness is revealed as the only ground of salvation and entitlement to heaven. This godly repentance is a change of mind concerning the character of God (Who He is) and the only ground upon which He can justify the ungodly. It is a change of mind concerning Christ (Who He is and what He accomplished) and the value of His obedience and death (His righteousness) as being the only ground of salvation and entitlement to heaven. It is a change of mind concerning ourselves (who we are) as being guilty, defiled sinners who owe a debt to God’s law and justice we cannot pay, who are in need of a righteousness we cannot produce. It is a change of mind concerning our best efforts to remove the guilt and defilement of sin, our best efforts to recommend ourselves to God, our best deeds aimed at attaining, maintaining, and entitling us to salvation.
The Apostle Paul illustrates this clearly in Philippians 3:3-10. In true Gospel faith and repentance a sinner comes to see and trust that Christ’s righteousness alone entitles him to all of salvation, including the subjective work of the Spirit, before he makes any efforts to obey God and persevere. In this specific light, he comes to see that before faith, his best efforts at obedience, all that he highly esteemed and thought was profitable in recommending him unto God, is now “loss,” no more than “dung” (Philippians 3:7-8) in light of Christ’s obedience and death. What he before thought was pleasing unto God and works of the Spirit, he now sees as “flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4). What he once highly esteemed, he is now ashamed of it (Romans 6:21) and now, in light of the Gospel, counts it as fruit unto death, dead works, and evil deeds. He now sees that before faith, before believing that Christ’s righteousness alone entitled him to all of salvation, his thoughts of God were all wrong and that the god he worshipped and served then is an idol. Therefore, in repentance, he turns from that idol to serve the true and living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
This kind of true godly repentance can only come in light of the Gospel as it takes this specific truth, this light, to expose the sin that deceives us all by nature (John 3:19-20). Before we hear and believe the Gospel we are all deceived by sin (Romans 7:11). The sin that deceives us all by nature is not immorality. All of us by nature, by natural conscience know that immorality is sinful (Romans 2:14-15). This knowledge may not keep sinners from indulging in and even excusing or justifying such immorality, but this is the result of not retaining the knowledge God has given in the conscience. The sin that deceives us all by nature is the sinfulness of seeking to establish a righteousness of our own before God. It is the sin of thinking that our reformations, our faithfulness, our tears of repentance and remorse, our attempts at obedience, our prayers, or anything that proceeds from us could attain, maintain, and/or entitle us to any part of salvation. This reveals the true nature and heart of godly repentance. This is the radical change of mind that Gospel repentance brings. This is when a sinner repents of dead works and idolatry. He turns from the god of his imagination, the god who saved him and blessed him based on his best efforts, and he turns to the true and living God who justifies the ungodly based on solely on the righteousness of Christ.
Consider John 16:8-11.
And when He is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
Of sin, because they believe not on Me;
Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see Me no more;
Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.
This refers to the work of God the Holy Spirit (the Comforter) in the conversion of God’s elect. It describes the conviction (convincing) that goes on when the Holy Spirit brings sinners to repentance. He convinces God’s elect “Of sin, because they believe not on Me.” Many claim that this means that the Holy Spirit convinces sinners merely of the sin of unbelief. This is certainly included, but it goes further. The Holy Spirit convinces sinners that everything before faith, before hearing and believing the Gospel, was sinful (dead works, fruit unto death). Again, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Hebrews 11:6).
Sinners then repent of ever thinking that anything but Christ’s righteousness could recommend them unto God or entitle them to salvation. God the Holy Spirit convinces God’s elect “Of righteousness, because I go to my Father.” This means He convinces sinners that Christ’s righteousness alone entitles them to all of salvation. He convinces God’s elect “Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.” This is a large part of Gospel repentance in that the Holy Spirit imparts within every believer a new standard of judgment. The believer no longer judges saved and lost based on Satan’s lie (outward appearance, reputation, etc.) (Genesis 3:4), but he now judges saved and lost based on God’s truth (Gospel) (Mark 16:15-16; John 3:18; 2 John 9-11).
Many claim that repentance is a continual matter in the life of a believer, that believers have to repent constantly and continually. It is true that there is a continual aspect to repentance. It is true that believers must repent constantly over the presence and influence of remaining sin. We see examples of this in the Bible. The Corinthians were called on to repent over their sinful conduct. They were called on to be ashamed enough to change their behavior. The Galatians were called on to repent of following false religious teachers who corrupted the Gospel with legalism. All this is true, but Gospel repentance begins with repentance of dead works and former idolatry. If this does not take place as the first evidence of true saving faith, then all continual repentance is no more than legal, natural-conscience conviction.
Now, in light of this we must judge from God’s testimony as to whether or not we have truly repented. For example, there are many who have changed doctrines but who have never truly repented. Many have come from believing in the false god of Arminianism, semi-Pelagianism, free-willism, and have come to believe in a sovereign God. Many have come from believing a universal atonement to believing in a particular atonement. Many have come to claim to believe in the doctrines of total depravity, election, irresistible calling, and perseverance of the saints, but they have never truly repented.
How can this be?
They have never admitted that while they believed God would save them based on something other than the righteousness of Christ which entitles sinners to all of salvation, that while they imagined that God would save them, keep them, and entitle them to heaven based on something that proceeded from them, they worshipped and served an idol, they were lost, and all their efforts were fruit unto death. They have never been made ashamed and sorry that in such religious pride and self-righteousness, they exalted themselves and had confidence in the flesh.
They have never repented of believing and promoting a universal atonement which reduced the blood of Christ to a worthless pedestal upon which sinners could stand and boast of their own faith, repentance, and perseverance. They have not yet seen how such doctrine dishonored every attribute of God’s redemptive character, casts shame and reproach upon the Person and the work of Christ, and gave them room to boast. They will not admit that believing and promoting such God-dishonoring doctrines proved that they were not submitted to Christ and His righteousness as the only ground of salvation and entitlement to heaven.
Some may argue, “But these are only implications that can be discovered only by a mature and skilled believer.” For those of you who believe this is a valid argument, you need to refer to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Such doctrines that dishonor God, deny Christ, and leave sinner’s room to boast are deadly and damning to men’s souls (Galatians 2:21; Galatians 5:1-4; Galatians 6:14-16).
Think about this — How can we honor God, exalt Christ, and leave ourselves no room to boast?
This can be accomplished only in believing that Christ’s righteousness alone entitles us to all of salvation, including the Holy Spirit’s work in us, before we take the first step in seeking to serve the Lord and persevere in the faith. One cannot believe this Gospel savingly without having repented of everything else. If you have not believed this up to this point, then you need to repent and believe the Gospel!