Is Repentance Necessary to be a Christian?

I used to know someone, we’ll call him Fred, who boasted about his Christian faith while talking about his party lifestyle. He would do whatever he wanted all week long and party hard on the weekends. But he always made time to go to confession on Saturday to make sure he was “all set” before God. But my question is this: does that work?

Is it enough to believe in your mind certain truths about the gospel and lay hold of the promise, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1)?

Here’s the short answer: Saving faith in the gospel moves us past confession into repentance.

The Difference Between Confession & Repentance
The heart of confession is telling the truth. Telling the truth about God, and telling the truth about yourself. There are two kinds of “confessions” necessary:

  • Confessing the truth about God. If we don’t know the truth about who God is and what he’s done, then we cannot place our faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. At minimum, we need to understand who Jesus is, what happened on the cross, why it was necessary, and what God expects of those who confess faith in him.
  • Confessing the truth about yourself. We need to admit to God and to others that we realize our complete inability to save ourselves. When we come to recognize the severity of our sin, and the wrath that is rightfully ours, then we confess our great need and God’s greater provision.

Meanwhile, repentance is a change in behavior. Where confession has to do with the mouth, repentance addresses the hands and feet.

  • Repentance is a change in direction. It’s an about-face: whereas before you were walking in one direction you have stopped, confessed “I’m going in the wrong direction!,” turned around, and begun walking in the correct direction.

Turn Around

Jesus and the Apostles Preached a Gospel of Repentance
American Christians have been consistent in calling for confession over the last few decades, but we’ve been weak on faithful repentance. My hunch tells me that many faithful Christians have been concerned about equating repentance with “salvation by works.”

See to how Jesus preached the gospel:

From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)

Unless you repent, you will all perish as well. (Luke 13:3, 5)

Repentance was also the primary message of the Apostles in the book of Acts:

“Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

“Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, your heart’s intent may be forgiven.” (Acts 8:22)

“I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance.” (Acts 26:20)

Where some try to argue Paul minimizes the necessity of repentance, we only need to look at examples like Romans 6.

“What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:1-3)

He’s responding to this line of reasoning: “I’ll just ask God to forgive me later… besides, that shows people was a loving and gracious God he is!” Paul is clearly expressing disgust that a Christian could think this way. Instead, he points to their baptism as a reminder of their salvation – “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Those who want permission to continue in sin while receiving the promise of forgiveness are deluded and have completely misunderstood the gospel.

Perfect Repentance?
Martin Luther famously declared, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” This means we don’t repent once and then simply move on. It also doesn’t mean that my repentance was false or illegitimate if I have committed that same sin again and need to repent… again.

Christian repentance is an ongoing thing. It takes the sinful condition of the heart seriously, because we know that our heart will continue to draw us away from godliness and into our selfish, sinful desires. Because of our sinful nature, we need to expect repentance to be a common experience in our relationship with God.

We should grow concerned when guilt over sin begins to subside. When this happens, we excuse our sin and have begun to accept it. In these moments, let your sin-guilt remind you of God’s promise to those who repent. We should not live in guilt, because Christ has set us free; but let your guilt and conviction of sin drive you daily to the cross where true freedom is found.

Summary
The invitation to believe the gospel is an invitation to a new life… and that means your old life will need to die. If you don’t want to change, then you don’t want to become a Christian, you merely want a “Get out of Hell free” card (think: Monopoly). True confession exalts God and admits the truth about ourselves while clinging to the promise of God, that he will make us new in Christ. If that doesn’t include repentance (turning away from sin and turning towards godliness), then the first part of confession (telling the truth about God) is incomplete because there’s a lack of understanding about what it means to become a child of God.

Where Fred thought he could simply go through a ritual of confession and receive all of heaven’s promises, there was never any sense of repentance. Let us have courage and wisdom as we have opportunity to lovingly but firmly warn these friends who think they understand the gospel, but clearly do not.

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