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The Gospel of Repentance

On the Day of Pentecost, the 120 were gathered in a house, presumably in the same upper room in which the apostles had shared their last supper with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit suddenly descended on them like a rushing mighty wind and they could all speak in different languages. The noise attracted a crowd of curious people who wondered how these 120 could speak in their native tongues. Peter then stood up and delivered his first great sermon. When he was done, the people said to him and the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

The answer modern Protestant preachers most likely would give is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” or, “Ask Jesus into your heart,” or, “Confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” But Peter’s answer was, “Repent.”

Mark tells us that as soon as Jesus returned from being tempted in the wilderness, he began “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” And what was that gospel? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). The gospel Jesus preached was not just believe. It was repent and believe.

Perhaps Peter’s answer and Jesus’ gospel surprise us because this is not the gospel we are used to hearing today. We are used to hearing the gospel of belief. We are used to hearing that faith and not works saves us. We are used to hearing emphasis being placed on verses like Romans 10:9-10 (“if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”) and Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”). But we rarely hear the next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” And we are troubled by James when he says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?… Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:14-18). In fact, we are so troubled by him that Martin Luther wanted his book thrown out of the Scriptures because James seems to be saying that we are saved by works after all.

But Jesus, Peter, Paul, and James are saying something that we seem to have forgotten a long time ago. The faith that saves us is not a free ticket into heaven. The faith that saves us does not merely save us from hell. The faith that saves us saves us from the one thing that was sending us to hell in the first place: sin.

True faith delivers us from the old man who was sinful and brings us to the new man who is righteous. True faith delivers us from the sinful lifestyle and brings us to the righteous lifestyle. True faith delivers us from doing sinful works and brings us to doing righteous works. In other words, true faith makes us want to repent.

The Greek word for “repent” is metanoeō, which literally means “think afterward” or “think again,” hence, “to change your mind.” To repent means to look back over your life and decide that it is time to make a change. It starts with a decision but it is a decision that results in action. A sinner repents when he looks back over his sinful life and decides that continuing that lifestyle is just not worth it and that it is time to make a change. That change comes when he puts his faith in Jesus Christ and lets Jesus transform him so that he can now begin to live a righteous lifestyle.

The Old Testament word for “repent” is return. The Hebrews saw the sinful lifestyle as walking down a path that led you away from God. Repentance was simply turning around and walking back to God. Again, repentance involved a decision (continuing this way was just not worth it) that resulted in an action (turning around and heading in the other direction).

What the Gospel says is that you cannot make that change yourself. You cannot by yourself transform yourself from that old man who lived that sinful lifestyle to that new man who lives that righteous lifestyle. Only Jesus Christ can do that. That is why you must place your faith in him. That is why only his grace through faith can save you. But your repentance means that you have decided that you really want him to make that change in you. And when people see that change in you, when they see that you have gone from doing the sinful works to doing the righteous works, then they can see that you really have placed your faith in Jesus Christ.

But so many churches are trying to get so many more people into their pews, thinking that they are getting so many more people saved, that they have lopped off the repentance part of the gospel message and are preaching only the faith part. They say that Jesus is our Lord and our Savior, but they have watered down sin so much (if they talk about it at all) that Jesus is really neither to them. If a person is caught in a rushing river that is pulling him or her towards a waterfall and certain death, we save that person by pulling him or her out of the river and placing that person on solid ground. What is the point of saying that we have saved that person if that person is still in the river? So too, what is the point of saying that we have saved a person if that person is still living a sinful lifestyle and is on his or her way to spending eternity in the lake of fire?

If James were to walk into some of our churches today, he would take one look around and say, “Nope, you aren’t saved.” Then the people would rise up and say, “Who are you to be so judgmental? You don’t know what’s in their hearts!” And he would say, “I am not being judgmental. And I don’t have to see what’s in their hearts. I’m just looking at their works. And their works are no different than before they supposedly got ‘saved.’”

And what’s going to happen to these people on Judgment Day? They are going to stand before our Lord who is going to say to them, “Why should I let you in?” And they are going to say, “Because we said the sinners’ prayer!” And he is going to say to them, “Depart from me! I never knew you.” Then they are going to turn to us and say, “What? We trusted you! You said that all we had to do was say the sinners’ prayer and we were in. Now we have to spend eternity in the lake of fire! YOU LIED TO US!” Then Jesus will turn to us and instead of saying, “Well done, good and faithful servants,” he will say to us, “Their blood is on your hands.” Do we really want to hear that?

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