When it comes to evangelism the aim of understanding the context (creation, rebellion, redemption, restoration) and content (1 Corinthians 15:1-5, etc.) of the Gospel is so that we can explain it to someone clearly, that they may see their need for Christ and be “drawn to the well.” People come to Christ when the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to see their need for Him. But once they see their need for Christ, they must do something, the must respond. Consider this observation about the nature of Jesus ministry among the people who followed him.
In the first part of Jesus’ ministry he is training people so that they would know exactly who he is. Jesus does this through his teaching and miracles, his actions, and his ministry. During this time Jesus is showing them who he is. Now, in the narrative there is a sharp transition point for the people whom are following Him. Notice that there is an ‘outer circle’ of followers, seekers, who are learning from and about Jesus. But at some point, Jesus calls for a response, he calls for belief. It is here that Jesus asks them the ultimate question, “who do you say that I am?” When someone professes faith, they are brought into the ‘inner circle’ of Jesus’ followers, the Church!
See, in explaining the context and content of the Gospel to someone – you are explaining to them who Jesus actually is. These biblical truths, these realities, these contexts for understanding our world should draw people to Jesus, the living water. At this point a response is required. Once that person is confronted with the person of Jesus Christ and his loving grace, if God wills, they will cry out ‘what are we to do to have this salvation?’
According to the Bible, our response to the gospel involves turning to Christ, which entails turning away from sin. If we repent of our sin and place out faith in Christ, we will be saved! So faith and repentance is the proper response to the gospel. Listen to Jesus’ first words as recorded in Mark’s Gospel:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Understand that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he proclaimed that the time of fulfillment had come. As you know, prior to Jesus, John the Baptist had been preaching to Israel that her Messiah was coming and that Israel was to repent of her failure to keep God’s covenant.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the “good news” was simply that the kingdom was at hand. It was still unclear as to how exactly it would be established. However, the good news that the kingdom was beginning in Jesus’ own ministry was a promise that the kingdom would be established. And it was. Jesus established His kingdom through His death for sin and His resurrection. As proclaimed in the Gospel – the proper response to the coming of the kingdom was repentance and faith in this good news. This response exemplifies God’s people: faith and repentance as we trust him and his word. But how are faith and repentance related?
Faith and Repentance are “Two Sides of One Coin”
“Protestants have long affirmed that it is only by faith in the Gospel that we are saved. The Protestant cry ‘Sola Fide’ (faith alone) summarizes our understanding of what the Bible teaches about how the benefits of the Gospel come to us personally. It stands in opposition to any doctrine, but particularly the Roman Catholic doctrine, that salvation comes through faith in the Gospel and our works of obedience. While Roman Catholics believe that faith plus works result in justification before God, we Protestants believe that faith results in justification and works.”
With that said, it is easy to misunderstand the passages discussed above which all call for faith and repentance. As we will see below, faith and repentance are distinct, but they are inseparable. A person cannot trust in Jesus apart from turning from their sin. There are two sides to the coin of conversion, two distinct yet inseparable aspects: faith and repentance. As the reformer John Calvin put it, “from the tree of faith comes the fruit of repentance, the two are interdependent responses, each incomplete without the other.” John Murray agrees, “it is impossible to disentangle faith from repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith.”
Faith is a word that has often been misused, even in Christian literature. For instance, if you were to ask someone on the street what they thought ‘faith’ was you might receive an answer similar to the one Greg Gilbert posits: “…while you might get some respectful sounding words, the heart of the matter will most likely be that faith is belief in the ridiculous against all evidence.” A false understanding of faith “believes that faith is holding to some ridiculous idea against all evidence.” Many Christians have subtly made this mistake and misunderstand the biblical idea faith altogether. This misunderstanding leads to two serious errors.
- First, they wrongly believe that trusting in Christ is some sort of irrational commitment against reason, historical evidence, and even common sense. Many Christian’s find false safety in this understanding of ‘faith’ because they feel justified in not deal with any objections to Christianity. But this undermines the very historical nature of the Gospel.
- Second, what many Christians don’t realize it that thinking of faith as “believing against all the evidence” places the focus on themselves rather than the object of their faith. Therefore one begins to focus on the degree of confidence and commitment they have to the faith rather than focusing on the object of that faith, namely, Christ himself. “This is what leads so many Christians to constantly struggle with doubting their salvation. When we constantly examine the strength of ‘our faith’ we will only end up despairing as we see how small our trust really is.”
These two mistakes are incompatible with true gospel faith. Undermining these two mistakes are the same premises that all other religions are built on. When one examines all other religions, and the teachings of their founders, it becomes apparent that they teach a way to salvation. This is the major distinction between ‘religion’ and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Religion is “salvation through human effort” while the Gospel is salvation through grace. When compared to religion, Jesus is the only one who actually claimed to be “the way of salvation himself.” This is what the Apostle Paul is referring to when he proclaims that we are justified by faith.
Other religions set up some type of law or ‘way’ that must be upheld as the means of salvation. The Christian realizes that they cannot fulfill the perfect law of God, and must understand that Christ did. Christ did what we could not do, and graciously offers us pardon. Faith is the means by which we receive salvation. Think about it, salvation by grace removes all boasting in ourselves. Allow me to re-word what British Theologian Richard Hooker penned in 1593:
“God saves the believing man, not for the worthiness of his faith, but because of the worthiness of Christ, who he believes in.”
The Christian life is meant to be a life of constant examination of God’s goodness revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This good news compels us to trust God more and more because we see the sufficiency of Christ in comparison to our own sinfulness. So, foundational to saving faith is knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It also includes acknowledgement of the truths contained in the gospel.
But faith remains incomplete without trust; we need to entrust ourselves to Jesus. Having faith in Christ, which seals our union with him through the Holy Spirit, is the means by which God accounts Christ’s righteousness as our own, this is “salvation through faith in Christ.” To demonstrate this truth the writers of Scripture often use two things to explain what faith is by way of contrast.
- Faith is consistently contrasted with works. The Scriptures say that “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We also read that “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Notice that Paul contrasts faith and works in both of these passages. We are saved by faith because of God’s grace and not our works. We are saved, not as a result of our works, but through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, we are justified apart from works of the law.
- Faith is consistently contrasted with sight. Again, we read in the Bible that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” We also know that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Paul explains that the Christian life is a walk of faith not sight. He does not mean, as we discussed above, that being a Christian means believing without evidence that God is real and Christ really did die and rise from the dead. He means that we trust God to do what he has promised to do. Throughout history, trust in the promises of God has always been how people have been saved.
Faith is total reliance on/in Jesus Christ – a real person. Faith as reliance should be understood as “a rock-solid, truth-grounded-promise-founded trust in the risen Jesus to save you from your sin.” Notice who the faith is in, Jesus and not oneself.
But remember, there are two sides to the coin of ‘gospel response’ – the two distinct yet inseparable aspects of faith and repentance. Throughout the Bible God calls people to turn/return to him in order to be saved from their own destruction and his own wrath. In the pages of the New Testament we see Christ preach so that people would turn to God in repentance, we also see Paul summarize the objective of preaching as follows:
“That they [all peoples] should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance… testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”
In Biblical language ‘to repent” involves a total turn, a radical alteration within the core of ones being. And the turning that we are called to do in order to be saved is fundamentally a turning to Christ as our only hope. Turning to Christ requires real recognition of sin and a need for salvation, it’s a heart issue. To use the words of Anthony Hoekema:
“Repentance not only means a change of conduct but deals primarily with the springs of our action, and with the source of our motives.”
Turning to God necessarily implies our turning away from sin. The whole Bible clearly teaches that to repent is to “acknowledge [God’s] name and turn from [our] sins.” It is vitally important to note that repentance is a work of God in us. God enables humans to see their sin and repent. When we are saved by grace we are no longer enslaved to sin. Though we still struggle with it, God has given us the gift of repentance, and we have been freed from sin’s dominating power.
Repentance really has two levels. On the surface, repentance involves agreeing with God that we sin. This is the most obvious and common type of repentance. But, on another level, true repentance involves agreeing with God that even our good deeds are sinful because we attempt to save ourselves, or earn favor with God through them. True repentance agrees with God that our motives, actions, thoughts, and desires are sinful to their very core.
Derek Radney rightly notes that “many Christians have been taught that true repentance is turning from a sin and never going back. Therefore, many Christians end up concluding that they have never really repented sincerely since they continue to struggle in certain areas. Others conclude, and this is much more dangerous, that they were sincere and have not since sinned in any serious way. This notion of repentance is flawed because it makes the same mistake self-centered mistake that many people make concerning sin.” Again, this flawed understanding places the focus on the self and on our sincerity. We must remember that true repentance does not result in perfection in this life. True repentance is agreeing with God that we are sinful and utterly helpless, in need of and dependant on a savior. For the Christian this should result in a hatred for sin and also prevent us from living at peace with our sin.
Faith and Repentance throughout Life
When Paul asked his readers not to be conformed to the pattern of the world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds, he is holding before them a lifelong challenge. There is indeed an initial faith and repentance that begins a Christian’s pilgrimage, but these elements should also characterize their entire journey. We never get beyond believing in and responding to the gospel. The gospel is not only for conversion. Sanctification is the continual application of the gospel to every area of our lives.
It is important that Christians make a practice of ‘faith and repentance’ as to keep from falling into the empty traps of religion and irreligion. See, religion stresses truth without grace; it says that we must obey to be saved. On the other hand, irreligion stresses grace without truth, it says that we are all accepted by God and we must decide what’s true for us. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is totally different. As Tim Keller has so aptly put it:
In the gospel we are free to see that we are more sinful than we ever dared to believe, while at the same time we are more accepted than we ever dared to hope.
When Christ is seen as our only hope, and his free grace enables our forgiveness, we are propelled into a life of faith and repentance. When we sin, and all of us will – we don’t loose hope like the religious because our hope is in Christ. In contrast to the irreligious we don’t ignore our sin but are able to openly face it because Christ defeated it on the cross. This kind of ‘gospel mentality’ should draw people “to the well”, to Christ, because it resonates with the reality of the human heart.
1. I have often heard people say “I would share the gospel more if I could get my own life in order first.” What is the assumption behind that statement? How does the idea of a ‘life of faith and repentance’ defeat that claim?
2. What do most people around you place their faith in? Come up with a related scenario and walk us through how you might share the gospel with that person (who has placed their faith in something other than Christ)?
3. Do you think most people understand their need for repentance? If not, why? How can one be clearer when talking about sin and showing people their need for repentance and salvation?
-  Matthew 16; Mark 8; Luke 9.
-  This observation is pointed out in Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church on pages 98-102. I have abbreviated the contents and edited the wording.
-  Mark 1:15.
-  Josh. 22:16; Acts 27:25.
-  Derek Radney
-  John Calvin, Institutes, III.3.1.
-  John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, pg. 113.
-  Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 74.
-  This is how Hebrews 11:1 is often wrongly understood.
-  Derek Radney.
-  To see a full description of the importance of the distinction between ‘Religion and the Gospel’ see chapter eleven of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God.
-  Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 174.
-  Romans 3:23, 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 3:9.
-  This is quoted in John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, page 188.
-  Since as early as the Reformation, theologians have viewed saving faith as having three components – notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). For a brief exposition of these distinctives see Bruce Demarest’s The Cross and Salvation, pages 258 -262.
-  Rom. 3:21–26; 5:17–21; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9.
-  2 Tim. 3:15.
-  Ephesians 2:8-9 .
-  Romans 3:28.
-  2 Corinthians 5:7.
-  Hebrews 11:1.
-  Gilbert, 74.
-  Isa. 6:10; Jer. 18:8.
-  Matthew 3:2; 4:17.
-  Acts 26:20; Acts 20:21.
-  Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 125.
-  1 Kings 8:35; cf. 2 Chron. 7:14; Jer. 36:3; Ezek. 14:6; 18:30; Acts 3:19; 8:22; 26:18; Rev. 2:21–22; 9:20–21; 16:11.
-  Gal. 5:17.
-  Acts 11:18.
-  Romans 12:2.
-  This concept can be found in Tim Keller’s article The Centrality of the Gospel.