(By Josh Owens, Lead Pastor at FCBC)
The call to repent and believe was at the heart of Jesus’ gospel. Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repentance and belief, or faith, or reliance, are really two sides of the same coin. It is not like you can go on for the basic model (belief) and add repentance at a later point when you want to get really holy. No! The repentance that Jesus demands is connected with believing this news, because if it’s really “news,” it’s no surprise that you change your mind when you hear it. Jesus illustrates the radical change of mind by the twin parables of the treasure and the pearl (Matt. 13:44-46). The gospel message of repentance (turning from sin) and faith (turning to Christ) is not just the gospel message of Jesus. In Jesus’ name, the disciples are to take this message to world. Jesus said, ““Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49 emphasis added). This gospel message is a universal message open to anyone from any nation because Jesus is Lord of all humanity, Jew and Greek (Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:12-13). And the early disciples took that message to the world (Acts 2:38; 3:19-20; 11:18-specifically notes how repentance was granted to the Gentiles).
Repentance was always at the heart of Paul’s evangelistic preaching. He confronted the pagan philosophers of Athens and proclaimed, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30 emphasis added). In his farewell message to the elders of Ephesus, Paul reminded them, “how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:20-21 emphasis added). Later, when he was hauled before King Agrippa, Paul defended his ministry with these words: ““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 26:19-20 emphasis added).
It is true that Paul seldom uses the word “repent” (metanoia) in his letters. The word itself is only used in Rom. 2:4, 2 Cor. 7:9-10, 2 Tim. 2:24-25. Does this mean that Paul preaches a different gospel message than Jesus? Paul did not think so. Rebuking the Galatians for turning to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6), Paul say, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). Paul understood his message to be Christ’s message. Thus the gospel must be preached and salvation is available and applicable “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; 10:12).
Therefore, believing that Paul preached a different gospel than Jesus because he seldom uses the word “repent” is a striking example of how misleading the study of a single word can be! Consider how misleading the study of a single word can be on a theological position all Christians agree—the Trinity. The Bible never uses the term “Trinity.” Should we conclude that the Bible does not teach the deity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit because the word “Trinity” is missing? Certainly not. The New Testament writers teach the equally divine relationship of each person of the Trinity without ever using the word “Trinity.” In the same way, Paul can preach the same gospel of Jesus, namely, repent and believe (Mark 1:15) without having to consistently use those exact words. “Repentance” can be expressed in terms of being resurrected with Christ into a new life (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 3:1-4), putting off old clothes and putting on the new (Gal. 3:27; Col. 3:9-10), a change of ownership (Rom. 6:17-18), turning from serving idols to serving the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9; Acts 14:15-17–Paul preaching here sounds similar to Rom. 2:4), moving from darkness to light (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:6), and from death to life (Eph. 2:1-6).
In Philippians 3:4-14, Paul even describes his conversion experience in terms of a radical change (repentance). Paul, the former persecutor, counted all that he had once deemed gainful “as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). Though never using the term “repent,” the account in Philippians of Paul’s conversion depicts Paul turning from dependence on “righteousness under the law” (Phil. 3:6) to “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).
These passages highlight two distinct elements in conversion: conversion is from an old way of life to a new and opposite allegiance. Both of these elements have their own New Testament vocabulary. They key word-groups are repent (metanoeo) and believe (pisteuo). These words go hand in hand in the gospel presentation of both Jesus (Mark 1:15) and Paul (Acts 20:21). The point is clear: repentance and belief are two sides of the same coin. We cannot believe without repenting, and we repent in order to believe.
According to Jesus and Paul, the content of the gospel remains the same. It is the same Christ who has to be believed, for the same reason (the judgment of God upon sinners), in the same way (confessing our sinfulness and accepting God’s provision in Christ), with the same result (hungering for his truth and righteousness, serving him in the world). Therefore, to become a believer, everyone must see Christ as their sin-bearer, must repent of their sin, and must in faith entrust themselves for time and eternity to him by means of the Holy Spirit’s work.