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By Dr. Matt Ayars
President Wesley Biblical Seminary

Repentance is an about-face turn away from sin and the rebellious heart-posture towards the presence of God. Repentance is ceasing to resist the truth. [1] Repentance, by definition, is a zealous, resolute change, that is required for salvation, and it underscores that salvation is ultimately about being restored to fellowship with God. The Holy Spirit not only administers grace to convict hearts, but He also empowers the cooperation of the believer to abandon the way of sin to live a life of abandon to God through repentance.

Repentance is a Zealous, Resolute Change

Repentance is distinct from conviction. Conviction is regret and remorse that confronts the conscience by the grace-enabled awareness of sin. One can be convicted yet not turn from their ways. One can regret their sin but fail to cease striving against truth. Repentance is a turning from sin. Repentance is ceasing from sin that begins with the inner resolve to yield to God. Repentance is not merely a turning from sinful behavior. Repentance begins with the resolve of the heart. Repentance begins with submission. That submission leads to the abandonment of the spirit of rebellion against God. The fruit of repentance is both ceasing to sin and committing to love (Matthew 3:8).

Such a thing must be purposeful, determined, and unwavering. Repentance in the Old Testament means turning one’s face away in the opposite direction (Ezekiel 14:6). The resolute nature of repentance is pervasive in the Scriptures (with emphasis added):

– 1 Kings 8:48 — “If they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies…”

– Psalm 78:32 — “When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly.

– Ezekiel 14:6 — “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.”

– Ezekiel 18:30 — “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, les iniquity be your ruin.”

As Jesus puts it, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Repentance is abandoning one master for another. Anything less than complete abandonment of sin is not repentance.

Repentance is Required for Salvation

As David simply puts it, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow” (Psalm 7:12). If rebellion against God is the root of sin and at the heart of the sin nature, then repentance is necessary for redemption. Restoration and reconciliation must be self-affirmed through an intentional turning back, which is why Jesus says, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5; cf. Matthew 11:20; Revelation 2:22; 9:20; 16:9, 11). The prophet Isaiah says, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those in her who repent by righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27). Even the chosen people of God must repent to be redeemed.

The Ministry of John the Baptist

Repentance as a requirement for salvation is affirmed in John’s ministry of repentance as the preparation for Jesus’s ministry of redemption. John prepares the way of the Lord through a call to repentance. Jesus’s own ministry begins with a call to repentance (Mark 1:15). Mark’s Gospel beings this way: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it was written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:1–2). The text goes on to tell us that the preparation of the way of the Lord comes in the form of John the baptism calling for a baptism of repentance. If the beginning of the good news of Jesus is repentance, then without it, there is no good news. Repentance is required for salvation.

John notes the distinction between those who receive Jesus and those who reject Jesus. John 1:11–13 says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (emphasis added).

Receiving Jesus means turning away from sin and turning to Him. Those who receive Jesus are those who repent from their rebellion against Him as the one through whom the world was made. Not receiving Jesus as the way, the truth, and the light, is a failure to cease striving against the truth. Repentance is the embrace of truth in Jesus Christ. This means that those who refuse to repent are condemned.

That grace-enabled, Spirit-empowered repentance is required for salvation means that God is just in condemning the unrepentant. While Christ was put forth as a propitiation for sin (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 4:10), the gift of salvation still must be actively received. In Jesus’s own words, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32; cf. Luke 15:7).

The Holy Spirit Enables Repentance

Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). He also says, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65). Turning back to God is not a human work that earns salvation. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit by grace through faith. Grace enables the believer to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s empowering of repentance. Individuals on their own and in their fallenness are unable to repent. John Barclay points out that, “Paul has diagnosed the human heart as senseless (1:21), hardened, and completely incapable of repentance” (Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 463-464). In commenting on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Oden writes, “This sin instantly places the self beyond the range of forgiveness, because every step toward repentance and faith is enabled by the Holy Spirit” (Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit, 22).

Repentance is dying to self, which is diametrically opposed to the inward, self-centered bent of humanity. Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Paul’s command for the Philippians to imitate Christ in His self-lessness as demonstrated in His perfect obedience (Philippians 2) is impossible to obey without the supernatural empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 11:18 says, “When they heard these things, they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Also see 2 Timothy 2:25). God gives repentance to sinners. Sinners do not (because they cannot) muster up the strength on their own to repent. Sinners repent only by the supernatural enabling of the Holy Spirit. Repentance, like faith, is a gift.

All are Called to Repent

All people, as the bearers of the image of God, are called to repent. God wills that all be saved. God so loved the world — not some — that He gave His only Son. 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” (Lk. 24:46–47; emphasis added). Like Christ’s atoning work, the call to repentance is not limited to the elect, for “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, emphasis added).

Repentance and the Restoration of the Divine Presence

The necessity of repentance underscores that salvation and redemption of humanity is the restoration of the divine presence. Rebellion is an intentional moving away from God’s personal presence. Repentance, then, is the deliberate move back to God’s presence. The Holy Spirit empowers repentance for the sake of restoring the presence of God.

The call to repentance is synonymous with Jesus’ invitation for people to come to him. He says:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28; Cf. Luke 6:47).

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

“All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37b).

Repentance is an intentional going to Jesus’s presence by the enablement of the Holy Spirit (John 5:37–43). Jesus tells the Pharisees that they do not recognize His voice because the word does not abide in them. They cannot repent on their own in their fallenness and deception. Furthermore, in not recognizing Jesus’s voice, they “refuse to come” to Him and do not receive Him. Here in this passage, we find yet again that repentance is required for salvation (“that you may have life”) and is Spirit-enabled.

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