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FAITH WITHOUT REPENTANCE
Many who live in the United States are familiar with the caricature of the frontier preacher coming from the days of the Kentucky Revivals in the mid-19th century. The backwoods preacher is standing on a stump, waving his Bible and exclaiming, “REPENT!” while perspiration streams down his face. This portrait, interestingly, is not far from that of John the Baptist, whose voice also reverberated, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus spoke these same words, as did all the New Testament leaders. Why the emphasis? Because they knew that unless a person’s faith came by way of repentance it would only be wasted faith.
For a person to be saved (the word means “rescued”), would it not be necessary for him to realize that there is something from which he must be delivered? Christ did not come to bless good people, but rather to save sinners. He did not come to give people the added benefit of heaven attached to their already fulfilled lives. He came to snatch sinners out of the hellishness of their souls and deliver them from the hell of their destiny! Any other understanding makes too little of Christ’s sacrifice.
Has your faith come out of repentance? I would never say that a person must be able to define repentance or even use the word at his conversion. Yet no one is saved without being repentant. Paul said that God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). It would take a deft theologian to exclude anyone from that command!
Compare your faith with that of the Passover celebrants in John 2:23-25.
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.
The startling significance of this passage is that the words “believed” on the part of the many, and “commit” on the part of Christ are actually the same word in the original language. They believed or trusted in Christ, but He did not entrust Himself to them! Why? Why this wasted faith? Because these were unrepentant “believers.” They wanted to have Christ added to their lives—a wonderful and needed benefit. Who would not appreciate such miracles and excitement? Andeveryone was coming to Him. So they believed . . . but Christ knew their hearts. They were full of themselves, their religious pride, lust, anger, etc.
Is it not true that Christians can commit sins such as the above even after believing in Christ? Yes, but there is a significant difference in how a true believer comes to Christ. The repentant person comes because he is a sinner, desperate for deliverance from hell and from the sin that is dragging him there. The false believer also comes to avoid hell, but with essentially no desire for a thorough change from his life of sin. He may hate the consequences of sin, both earthly and eternal, but he has no true hatred of the sin itself.
Like the genuine Christian, the false believer may also experience a sense of comfort. The two may initially look alike to those around them. But they can usually be distinguished by what happens in the months and years after they believe.
Following his initial faith in Christ, the genuine Christian will display the fruit of repentance in his increasing rejection of sin and love of holiness. Many false believers, on the other hand, will eventually drop out of Christian pursuits altogether and return to their life of sin. Those who continue will often experience a measure of outward moral reform due to their association with Christians or other factors. They learn to repress their sinful behavior because it is unacceptable among the company they keep. But in their hearts, their affection for sin is unchanged. Their continuing love for sin may be cleverly concealed most of the time, even from themselves. But God sees the heart.
What is repentance? We find our best help in the exact lexical meaning of the word itself: “to change the mind.” It is a profound change of mind (or heart) so closely associated with faith that we could call it the “prefix” of genuine faith.
“I see,” you reply. “Repentance is turning from sin.” Yes, it is in a way, as will be seen, but not if you are implying that a person has the ability to behave acceptably before God prior to being indwelt by Christ. Repentance could never be a “work” required for salvation, for salvation is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). Repentance proceeds from a change of nature that takes place in the heart. The same change of nature that causes a person to move from unbelief to faith also causes him to hate sin and love holiness. Repentance will inevitably produce a visible change, but it is ultimately a matter of the heart.
“Isn’t repentance sorrow for sins?” you ask. No, not sorrow alone. There are many weeping over their sins this very hour, even in churches, who are no closer to conversion than was Esau sobbing over his lost blessing. However, having the right kind of sorrow does give us some clue as to the legitimacy of our repentance. Examine what Paul says about this matter in 2 Corinthians 7:10.
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Read the passage again: Godly sorrow . . . salvation; sorrow of the world . . . death. What is the difference between these sorrows? Four words turn on the light of understanding—”not to be regretted.” Let me illustrate. A rich young man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (see Mark 10:17-22). We would have immediately welcomed this man into the faith. He seemed so sincere and ready. We might have eventually chosen him for one of the boards or committees of the church. After all, he knew so much about how to handle money! But Jesus had a different view entirely. And therefore, He sent the young man away. Why?
Jesus knew what was in the man. There is no doubt that this respected citizen wanted eternal life. He did, but only to a point. What did Jesus know that others could not see? He knew the man had an idol in his life which he wanted more than life forever, more than fellowship with God, more than kinship with all the saints of history, even more than the riches of Christ Himself.
As in all that Christ said and did, He intended to impact this man in a way that would echo all the way down to our generation. So He intentionally asked for that one thing—the idol of his heart. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” He told the inquirer. “And come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
While many today would have led this sincere fellow in a “sinner’s prayer” and affirmed him as a believer, Jesus demanded far more—a complete reversal of affections. This man could not live with such severity. He wanted eternal life, but not at the expense of what was life to him. He plainly could not come to Christ without the regret of losing all he loved. Barring a subsequent change not divulged in Scripture, his sorrow led him to hell. So you see, the litmus test of this “change of mind” is the heart issue of regret.
What if the story had ended differently? What would the young man have told us about his inner motivations? I believe he would have said something like this: “Give up my possessions? At first I was shocked and angry, but I knew Jesus was right. Give them up? Gladly! They had become the biggest idol of my life. I had sold out my soul to them. It was not painful to be set free. I was relieved to give them up and follow Him!”
No one will come to Christ without sin. You come to Christ precisely because you do have sin. But you cannot come with the attitude of holding on to your sin. You may not say or secretly believe, as the young ruler found out, “I will come to Christ but will not relinquish that which is most important to me—my habit, my private life, my standing in society, my money, my independence, my own control.” You come with your sin, but also with a deep desire to find deliverance from it.
It will be no surprise that the Spirit presses hard on your particular idol, the first love of your heart, for all you touch must become His. This is your “change of mind” and the true inward “turning from sin.” Christ saves those who come that way, and no one else. So what about you?
Copyright © 2005 Jim Elliff
201 Main, Parkville, MO 64152 USA
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