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Repentance

2 Peter 3:9
(9) The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

It is not my purpose to expound this verse or deal with it's context. I just want to point out that it clearly teaches it is God's will that all should come to repentance and that those who don't will perish. Obviously, repentance is a very important matter that we must understand! It is mentioned over 100 times throughout the Bible. We will not look at all the references, but just enough to establish what it is and answer the question of whether or not it is necessary to repent in order to receive salvation. 

Down through church history repentance has been a controversial subject because of the different views that teachers and preachers have taken concerning it. There is even disagreement concerning its basic definition. The catholic view is that repentance is penance (afflicting yourself to earn forgiveness). Among fundamentalists, some make it out to be a work that sinners must do in order to receive salvation (i.e. sinners must clean up before God will accept them) while others water it down to the place it sounds as if they don't think it has any part at all in receiving salvation.

If we believe the Bible and let it interpret itself we will have no problem understanding repentance. The problem is that many who are teachers and preachers of the Bible don't really believe it or know how to study it correctly. They use theological books written by men as their authority instead of the Bible. They do not let the Bible define it's own words, they do not diligently compare scripture with scripture, and they do not rightly divide the word of truth.
One of the most common definitions given for repentance is "to turn from sin". However, it does not take very long in reading the Bible to find a problem with that definition. One of the laws of Bible study is the law of first mention. Generally, the first mention of a word sets the tone for how that word is used throughout the Bible. The first mention of repentance is found in the sixth chapter of the Bible.
 
Genesis 6:5-8
(5) And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
(6) And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
(7) And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
(8) But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.

Obviously God was not turning from sin! What does the expression "it repented the LORD" mean in this context? When He made man on the earth He gave him dominion over it. However, man fell into sin and the wickedness of man became very great. The Lord decided that He was going to destroy man from the face of the earth and start over with Noah and his family. This was simply a change of mind.

When we say that the Lord changed His mind many have a problem with that in light of the fact that the scripture says God does not change (Mal. 3:6). The answer to this seeming contradiction is that the Lord does not change in His person, principles, or promises but He may change His mind toward man on the basis of what man does. Of course, God already knew what man would do so in reality God repents in our perspective. Understanding this will clarify the seeming contradiction between verses that say God does NOT repent and verses that say God does repent. There are some matters concerning which God will not repent (Rom. 11:29).

The same chapter in the Bible says that God repented, that He will not repent, and that He repented! 
 
1 Samuel 15:
(10) Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,
(11) It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
 
(24) And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.
(25) Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.
(26) And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.
(27) And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent.
(28) And Samuel said unto him, The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.
(29) And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
 
(34) Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house to Gibeah of Saul.
(35) And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.
 
God never repents in the sense that a man repents (Nu. 23:19). He does not repent because He did something wrong or because he failed to keep His word. God only repents in the sense that He changes His mind toward man as a result of what man has done (1 Sam. 15:11). In other words, He may change in His dealings with man.  

In another passage that speaks of the Lord repenting we learn that a word closely associated with repentance is the word "turn" (Jonah 3). God said through the prophet Jonah that He would overthrow the wicked city of Nineveh in 40 days but because they turned from their evil way God turned from the evil He was going to bring upon them. Genuine repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of direction. 

Another common definition for repentance is "sorrow for sin". One of the passages used to support this definition actually refutes it. 

2 Corinthians 7:9-10
(9) Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
(10) For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
 
The context is not salvation of lost sinners but repentance in the life of believers. The salvation mentioned in v.10 is salvation from the power of sin in the daily life of a believer. If godly sorrow "worketh repentance" then sorrow for sin precedes repentance and produces repentance but is not repentance. Godly sorrow is sorrow not just for what you did but for what you are (Rom. 7:24) and for the fact that sin is against God (Ps. 51:4). Godly sorrow is from the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and is not of the flesh. The sorrow of the world is sorrow because of the consequences of sin and is self centered. The lost people in the world may have sorrow for sin without repentance.

Some preachers try to gauge the reality of someone's repentance on the visibility of their sorrow. However, godly sorrow that works repentance takes place in the heart and it may or may not show up visibly in tears based upon the personality of the person. Sorrow for sin does not automatically mean that a person sincerely repented because it may be a worldly sorrow (I have seen some profess Christ with tears and never give any evidence of conversion and others not shed a tear but serve the Lord). Many doubt their salvation because they wonder if they "repented enough".

Some teach that repentance equals salvation. However, there is an example in the Bible of a man that repented and went to hell (Matt. 27:3-5). Judas repented in the sense that he changed his mind about betraying innocent blood for 30 pieces of silver but he did not turn to the Lord! He is an example of the sorrow of the world that works death.

Based on what we have seen so far it should be obvious that the basic meaning of repentance is "a change of mind". We must not take all the references to repentance in the Bible and apply it to the issue of individual salvation in this present age. God has repented. Christians should repent. Judas repented and went to hell. We must look at the context of how the word is being used.

Some teach that in order to be saved sinners must do certain works to prove their repentance (Matt. 3:1-12; Lk. 3:8-14). The context of this is God's dealings with the nation of Israel who were in a covenant relationship with Him. The covenant of the law basically said, "Obey and be blessed or disobey and be cursed". The gospel that was preached in those days was the "gospel of the kingdom" and NOT the "gospel of the grace of God" that was later revealed through the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:11-12).

Some teach that sinners can't be saved without the baptism of repentance (Mk. 1:4-5; Acts 2:38). However, this was preached to Israel and had to do with the gospel of the kingdom. Water baptism has nothing to do with salvation through the gospel of grace (I Cor. 1:17). 

So, must sinners repent in order to be saved in this present age? The gospel we preach today was revealed thru Paul and he preached that God has commanded all men everywhere to repent.
 
Acts 17:30-31
(30) And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
(31) Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
 
A sinner must repent in that he changes his mind about sin and decides he wants to be saved from it. A sinner must repent in that he changes his mind about trusting in idols or working for salvation and decides he will trust only in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Faith must accompany repentance (Acts 20:21). They are connected and yet distinct. We are not saved by repentance or even by our faith but by the finished work of Christ. We do not have to prove our repentance or faith by works but surely good works will result from genuine salvation (Eph. 2:10). Repentance is NOT a work for it is just a change of mind and we would not repent without God granting it (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). We would not repent without the work of the Holy Spirit convicting and drawing us to Christ.

Should we emphasize repentance in gospel preaching? The gospel is not repentance! The gospel is about what Christ did for us and not about anything that we do. The apostle Paul only mentions repentance in relation to salvation ONE time in his epistles! The one condition he emphasizes for salvation is FAITH. Those who are saved by faith in Christ have repented. 

Those who make repentance their theme today do so because they have failed to learn the lesson which God has demonstrated historically. They cry to men to change their minds and hearts, forgetting that the goodness of God leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God has demonstrated, historically, the fact that when men are given holy laws to keep they only break them, and when they are called upon to repent of their transgressions they only become angry. What man therefore needs is the grace of God, not only to accomplish his salvation for him, but also to touch his heart and make him willing to receive it. 

After calls to Israel for repentance failed, the ascended Lord stooped down to save Saul, the chief of sinners, on the road to Damascus, in anything but a repentant mood. Not by threatening or dealing with him in judgment, but by speaking to him in the tenderest tones He showed him the glory of His grace. This "trophy of grace" was then sent forth to proclaim "the gospel of grace", and the merits of his crucified, glorified Lord.

As we faithfully preach the gospel of the grace of God, sinners will repent; they will change their minds, not because we demanded it of them or even exhorted them to do it, but because, as we preached the glory of Christ's finished work and the wonder of God's love and grace, the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to see it, and their hearts to receive it.
 

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