The question of what Gospel repentance truly entails is a vital one. How one understands it makes a powerful difference as to how one lives, and unto whom one lives, whether unto Christ…. or unto self. The point of this article is to answer that question, affirming the principle that (contrary to the teaching of some) there is no true Gospel repentance without turning from sin.
Mark 2:15-17 “And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and SINNERS sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. 16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and SINNERS, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and SINNERS? 17 When Jesus heard [it], he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but SINNERS to REPENTANCE.“
When we look at Scripture, and seek to understand what it is that God has to say to us, we cannot go in with novel, modern presuppositions and conceptualizations. We must understand it as (1) God intends it to be understood, and (2) to a real degree, how the native hearers would have understood it. The latter is important because we cannot operate with the mindset that the early New Testament church, compromised of Jew and Gentile, were mostly oblivious to the “real meaning” of things. We mustn’t think that only we, in our more “enlightened” times, and with our more “enlightened” understanding, “really get” what is meant by the words that God has sovereignly chosen to use. We must realise that, for the most part, the Bible was written in a way that those true Christians receiving the word, would have understood it. Yes there are exceptions, especially at it relates to parts of the book of Revelation, Daniel, etc., wherein some prophetic eschatological aspects have yet to unfold. However, I am speaking overall — overall, the message for us today (especially as it pertains to Gospel matters and our way of life in light of the Gospel) would be the same as that given to Christians amongst the early church.
The fact is, the faithful within the early church would have understood New Testament terms and concepts better than us in some senses, given that their understanding (though God-wrought) would have been based more heavily upon their Old Testament foundation. Since the Gospel accounts, and Acts, pertained heavily to the Jews, and then the Gentiles, it is reasonable to see that key doctrine, key instruction (and the key terms associated with them), would have been familiar to the Old Testament Gospel believers. Since the Gospel permeates the Old and New Testament, surely the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers would have a similar understanding of core aspects of Gospel truth, again — especially as it relates to how one should live, and conduct themselves, in light of (True Gospel) salvation. This has nothing to do with the Mosaic law, or the law of ordinances, but everything to do with the spiritual law (which both pre-dates and post-dates Moses), and the common realities of our sojourn in light thereof, as it pertains to all of God’s children in this New Testament era.
In light of this shared experience/reality, consider:
2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God [lit. is God-breathed], and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
2 Timothy was most likely written somewhere between A.D. 63 and 67. This means that there were still several books of the New Testament yet to be written. The “All Scripture” therefore, would have pertained to, and still does heavily pertain to, the Old Testament text — seeing that when 2 Timothy was written, other NT books were not yet in writing, and all those that were, were not yet widely circulated amongst all believers. So the understanding of many key terms found in the New, would require a proper understanding of their use (within a True Gospel context), in the Old. This is especially true when it comes to the word “Repentance.”
There are many who teach and believe that repentance (especially in the Gospel accounts and/or as it relates to true Gospel preaching), has little to nothing to do with turning from sin… but rather, relates to repentance being strictly a change of mind, or a turning of the mind, away from self-righteousness, and towards the seeking of righteousness in/by/through Christ alone… ‘Initial’ Gospel Repentance, for them, can be summed up as being strictly a ‘turning from self, to Christ, for salvation.’ They will often (a) frame their commentary on repentance in this manner, and (b) falsely accuse those who do not see it in such a limited fashion, as ‘promoting works,’ or ‘preaching law, or legalism, or self-righteousness.’
They argue that since no one by nature can ‘stop sinning,’ not even the Christian, then repentance doesn’t really pertain to turning from sin… instead, it pertains to turning to Christ for righteousness and salvation — period. My take of course, is that this is a grossly inaccurate view… because it is a grossly incomplete view. It is not the view that the Old Testament believers would have had, nor is it the view of those in the time of Christ, or the early (Acts) church. It is true that no one can naturally turn from sin… but it is also true that no one can naturally turn to Christ. Both require a supernatural working of the Holy Spirit and both are supernaturally worked by the Holy Spirit, in the new heart/mind/spirit of each quickened soul.
So what is true repentance, if not simply a changing of the mind from self/self-righteousness, to Christ for Righteousness? True repentance pertains to a HOLISTIC change of mind, even a renewing of the mind, that pertains to true spiritual life. It isn’t just about turning from sin (wickedness); nor is it just about turning to Christ for righteousness (as absolutely vital and germane as that is). True repentance is a whole repentance; it is basically a God-given change of mind that puts one into a Kingdom mindset. That is why we read:
Matthew 3:1-2 “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mark 1:14-15 “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
So what is a kingdom mindset? First we must determine where the Kingdom of God/Heaven is. Consider:
Luke 17:20-21 “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: 21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.“
Colossians 1:27 “To whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory…”
Romans 14:1-18 “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. 18 For he that in these things serveth Christ [is] acceptable to God, and approved of men.”
Matthew 6:33 “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Colossians 1:27 “To whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory…”
The Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) can be summed up as (amongst other things):
- The Godhead of whom Christ is the fulness bodily.
- Christ Himself and God-wrought faith in Him and love for Him.
- His Kingdom [which includes (1) His people (His Body of believers); (2) His rule over their hearts/minds/lives as His willing subjects/servants/slaves; and (3) His rule over all of the Heavens, and all of the Earth, and over all things found therein].
- His spiritual law [the obedience due it; the serving of it as it pertains to Christians (seeing that we have the yoke of Christ upon us); and the judgment/condemnation/wrath associated with it, as it pertains to the reprobate, i.e., all who eternally know not God].
- The work of the Holy Spirit, through our vital union with Christ, as it pertains to living out the will of the Father for us, and the ability to do of His good pleasure — which is our manifest/experimental sanctification.
Thus, a true kingdom mindset is a God-given change of mind wherein you turn from all that pertains to the fallen (carnal, demonic, ungodly) kingdom of this world, and turn towards that which pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven (as described above).
After the inward man, this is a perfect turning. However, from the holistic vantage point (quickened spirit within a body of death), it’s not a perfect turning, but it is a mightily substantive one, one that should forever alter the course of our lives, and the nature of our walk. It is a transformative turning; we should not be the same person we were before God quickened and converted us. The old man, if we are in Christ, has died. The old man is who, and what, we were before being born from above. That person was crucified with Christ, nailed to the cross with Him, and by Him, in light of His finished salvific work (and the resulting perfect righteousness He wrought for His people). Though the Christian will stumble, will fall, will indeed sin… the Christian will be nothing like the old man. Why? Because he/she is now a partaker of the new nature, the divine nature, and has a divine principle working in them now (even God the Holy Spirit), causing them to do what they once never could. Thus, if the “Christian’s” walk (or course of life) is indistinguishable from his/her life before their supposed salvation, they know nothing of true salvation, because they lack this Spirit-wrought working. They have never been given that divine repentance that accompanies (makes manifest) newness of spiritual life.
So what is true repentance in real, day to day, terms? How is it manifested? True repentance is essentially bowing to the King, turning to Him as our perfect wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption… seeing as (of God) He is made all such to us, if we are His. It is looking to Him for grace concerning every aspect of our salvation. It is doing all of these things, indeed; and yet, there’s more. True repentance entails a turning away from fleshly lusts, even from the works of the flesh (adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, etc.). And yet, true repentance also entails a turning from the religious traditions of men, commandments of men, and from dead works of the law (in the sense of going about to establish a righteousness of one’s own or ‘working to maintain that which was given,’ so as not to fall away and ‘lose one’s salvation’).
Again, not unto perfection in this life, but to the degree that God enables, and causes us to grow and prosper in, true repentance is that changing of the mind that causes us to seek to be the King’s faithful subjects, the Master’s willing bondservants/slaves. We are turned, so that our desire is to have His yoke upon us in all that we say and do (as to the complete desire of our heart after the inward man, though our experimental reality never reaches that level).
Thus, when God commands “…Repent, and turn [yourselves] from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations…” [Ezekiel 14:6], it isn’t just about turning from sin/transgression/wickedness… nor is it just about turning from self-righteousness, and turning from going about trying to establish a righteousness of one’s own. True repentance is not piecemeal supposings or babblings… it isn’t about cutting up true repentance into pieces, and hobby-horsing one’s preferred chunk. True repentance is that changing of the mind, associated with the transforming and the renewing of the mind, and a desire to have our eye singularly focused upon Christ, His Kingdom, His (spiritual law), and His glory (more, and more, and more). It is a mind (after the inner man) that perfectly hates immorality, hates law-breaking, hates wickedness on the one hand… but also hates self-righteousness, legalism, and the deceptive (religious) commandments/traditions of men, on the other. Thus, the true Christian ought never try to split up the two, or pit them against each other. We recognise that the sin of self-righteousness is just that, sin… and all sin needs to be repented of, as we turn from it, and turn to Christ for all things, through God’s grace and mercy.
If we were to be like Job, having spiritual eyes focused upon Christ and His perfection, we would likewise say “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. 6 Wherefore I abhor [myself], and repent in dust and ashes…” [Job 42:5-6]. We would repent over our sin, over our distractions, our slothfulness, our pride, our lack of faith, our very much (manifestly) imperfect repentance, and so much more.
Moreover, upon salvation (i.e., quickening… and the conversion that follows), though there is an initial repentance, an initial turning or changing of the mind, the Christian never ceases to repent experimentally. Christian repentance is not a one time event, even though there is an initial manifestation of it. Every hour gives us plenty of cause to repent, for sin is ever present with us, even when we are not walking in manifest immorality/disobedience. Therefore, every believer should have that mind of Ephraim (some times to a greater degree than at other times) that states:
Jeremiah 31:18-19 “…Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed [to the yoke]: TURN THOUGH ME, AND I SHALL BE TURNED; for thou [art] the LORD my God. 19 Surely AFTER THAT I WAS TURNED, I REPENTED; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon [my] thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded…”
One key synonym related to the holistic view of repentance, is found in this small but significant word… even the word “all.” True repentance is an all repentance… hence why true Christians lament their repentance (i.e., because it is never as experimentally “all” as they would like it to be). Nonetheless, repentance is an all or nothing thing… meaning true repentance must encompass all that God intends it to encompass, or else, it is a counterfeit repentance, an idol repentance, and thus no real repentance at all. True repentance comes from an understanding of what God would have us repent of in it’s entirety (sin of all forms, including indifference, debauchery, anomianism/antinomianism, legalism/self-righteousness, and so on), followed by the grace to live out that repentance in manifest sanctification. As a key proof-text, consider:
Ezekiel 18:30-32 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. REPENT, AND TURN [yourselves] FROM ALL YOUR TRANSGRESSIONS; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. 31 CAST AWAY FROM YOU ALL YOUR TRANSGRESSIONS, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a NEW HEART and a NEW SPIRIT: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore TURN [yourselves], AND LIVE ye.”
Some will argue… NO ONE CAN DO THAT! My response would be both “of course no one can do that!” -and- “of course they can!” After the natural man, clearly no one can do that. However, after “…the new [man], which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him” [Colossians 3:10], we most certainly can, seeing that God Himself declares in:
Ezekiel 36:25-27 “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26 A NEW HEART also will I give you, and a NEW SPIRIT will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and CAUSE YOU to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do [them]…”
God wants us to REPENT AND TURN FROM ALL TRANSGRESSIONS. God wants us to CAST AWAY ALL TRANSGRESSIONS. He knows we are worms; He knows we are but dust; He knows that without Him we can do nothing; He knows that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak; He knows that the good that we would… we do not (but the evil which we would not… that we do); He knows we cannot do any of this perfectly; He knows the extent to which we can do all these things (seeing that He has afore-ordained it, and works it out in us); He knows all! And yet, a truly repentant heart/mind/spirit is one that desires to do all, would do all, strives (to one degree or another) to do all, all as God wills and enables. It is our failure to experimentally do all that causes us sorrow (due to the felt inadequacy of it all), and that causes us to lament our situation… or should at least. Such failure to repent as we ought causes us to both see and feel our total inadequacy, and thus, our need for (and total dependence upon) God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves — knowing however, that all of this is in light of the perfect repentance, justification, and sanctification we already have, objectively speaking, in Christ Jesus.
In conclusion, true repentance can be summed up by that mind that, but for natural/fleshly inability, would be perfectly yoked to Christ, perfectly a servant of Him and His spiritual law, perfectly obedient to all that He commands, and perfectly dependent upon Him for all things (spiritual and otherwise). True repentance is a complete, immersive, all-encompassing, translation (turning) from this wicked world, and all that pertains to it, to the world of Christ’s Kingdom, and all that it entails, all of it… albeit with the realisation that said turning neither equates to, nor manifests anywhere close to being a perfectly sinless way of life… Our constant prayer, as a result, should be to ever be turned, conformed, renewed and transformed, so that we may be more and more like the Master. We should confess our need to be continuously chastened, pruned, hedged in, instructed, and guided, so that we may be more and more separated from sin (within and without), and more and more set apart (sanctified manifestly) for God’s holy use, as lights in this world.
Knowing that eternal damnation, even eternal hellfire, awaits countless millions (if not billions)… may God give us grace to redeem the time, and to warn others of wrath to come. May we be turned from caring more about ourselves and our own, towards caring more about Christ, His people, His glory, and those who are on the very brink of everlasting torment. May God indeed make greater and greater use of us as fellow-labourers, even as fishers of men, unto the bringing in of the fold, and the edification of His holy and redeemed people.
In all things… to God be the glory!