The Missing Response!
REPENTANCE AND LOVE
This introduces a closely related truth that we should consider at this point. Love is the very nature of God (1 John 4:8,16). Therefore, He requires that His children have love as a basic characteristic, the “fruit” of His Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). True love, defined by Scripture, must fill our hearts and be manifested in life.
We know that love for God and love for others are the two greatest commands, according to Jesus (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37). He said that the entire Law hangs or depends on these two commands (Matt. 22:40). Paul said likewise. Love for others is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:8,10; Gal. 5:14). Love for God also fulfills the Law. In other words, if we truly love God, we will obey His commands (John 14:21-24; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 6). We will worship Him (John 45:23-24), serve Him (Matt. 4:10), pray to Him (Matt. 6:6-9), and diligently study His written Word (Matt. 4:4). We would never want to neglect Him, take Him for granted, fail to communicate with Him, or refuse to read His Word.
The same thing can be said about love for others. We are commanded to love our brothers and sisters in Christ (John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:11-12, 20-21), people in general (Luke 10:27), and even our enemies (Luke 6:27). If we love others, we will speak truthfully with them, express kindness, give to them what they need, and treat them as we would want to be treated. We would not want to disregard them, abuse them, steal from them, lie to them, harm them, or covet what belongs to them.
Love for God and others, therefore, is the root—with many expressions being the fruit. Since love is such a fundamental principle in the way of Christ and God’s will for us, a violation of love must be seen as a basic sin against God’s character and will. Lovelessness definitely is the essence of sin and is worthy of God’s judgment (1 John 3:14-15; 2 Tim. 3:3-4; Rom. 1:31-32). If lack of love is foundational to other sins, we can understand that repentance must directly relate to love. We must “change our mind” regarding our failure to love both God and others. We must determine to turn from our unloving attitudes, our unloving speech, and our unloving behavior. We must purpose to grow in loving relationships, to speak in a loving way toward others, to act in a loving manner to both friends and enemies, and to show genuine concern for the welfare of other people. In short, we must repent of lack of love and must choose to be a loving person in the future, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Consider several ways that God says we are to manifest love to Him and others:
- Help a person who is in physical need (Luke 10:27-37).
- Rebuke or admonish one in sin (Prov. 27:5-6a).
- Provide for a brother or sister materially (1 John 3:16-18).
- Restore a brother caught in a trespass (Gal. 6:1-2).
- Serve other saints (Gal. 5:13; Heb. 6:10).
- Lay down your life for your brother (1 John 3:16).
- Express patience and kindness (1 Cor. 13:4ff).
- Never do wrong to another (Rom. 13:10).
- Write words of counsel and admonition (2 Cor. 2:4).
- Care for the poor among the saints (2 Cor. 8:1-8,24).
- Build up or edify your fellow-believers (Eph. 4:16).
- Greet your fellow-saints in love (1 Peter 5:14).
- Do good to, bless, and pray for enemies (Luke 6:27-28).
- Obey the commands of the Father (1 John 5:2-3).
- Obey the commands of Christ (John 14:15,21,23).
We should thoughtfully ponder these Scriptural directives on how love for God, Christ, brothers and sisters, and all people are to be demonstrated. Have we failed to love in this way? Have we neglected this dimension of genuine love–the agape love (self-giving good will and concern)–about which the Bible speaks? As we meditate upon this, we should consider whether we need to repent in some measure because of our failure to truly love.
As you go through the practical applications that are at the end of this discussion, remember what we have learned about the principle of love. Remember that many of the questions we ask may pertain to outward behavior, speech, possessions, activities, and habits. Yet, they often can be directly linked to the principle of love. It would be helpful to honestly ask yourself whether you have violated true love through these outward manifestations.
ONE ACT OR CONTINUAL ACTS?
Most of our discussion to this point has centered upon the repentance that must come at the beginning of one’s life in Christ. In fact, most of the Scriptural instruction deals with this beginning repentance at the point of conversion. For instance, Peter commanded the inquiring multitudes on Pentecost, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Obviously, this is a case of initial repentance. When one recognizes his sin and his need of forgiveness, he must repent of those sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of [his] sins” so that he will receive the Holy Spirit. This beginning repentance is mentioned again by Peter when he calls upon his hearers, “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). This also is the significance of other references to repentance (cf. Acts 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). Apart from genuine repentance, one cannot be saved.
However, there is another aspect to repentance. Just as saving faith must come at the beginning of one’s relationship with Christ (Acts 8:12; 13:39,48; 14:1; 1 Tim. 1:16), so repentance must likewise come at the same point. In fact, repentance and faith are intimately related. Sometimes repentance may emphasize more of the turning from sin and faith may stress the turning to God in trust and commitment. Repentance is leaving unbelief and embracing belief or faith. But we do not leave faith at the point of salvation. We must continue to exercise faith throughout our life (cf. Col. 1:23; 1 Peter 1:5,9). It is through a continuing “faith and patience” that we “inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). We must go on in faith if we wish to enter the heavenly city (cf. Heb. 3:12-19; 4:1-11; 10:35-39; 11:1-40). In a similar way, we must continue to have a repentance attitude throughout our earthly journey if we wish to receive what was promised.
This continuing aspect of repentance may be suggested in the words of John the baptizer: “I baptize you in water for repentance” (Matt. 3:11a). We know that John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4), thus those coming to his baptism must have repented for the the baptism to have meaning. However in the text above John said that he baptized “for repentance” (Gk., eis metanoian). Although there is some question about the phrase, generally eis plus the accusative denotes purpose: “I baptize you in order that you will repent” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 104). Boadus suggests a telic sense: “I baptize you with a view to continual repentance” (Ibid.). Arndt and Gingrich agrees that the phrase denotes purpose (p. 131), and Thayer comments that John’s words mean that his baptism would serve “to bind one to repentance” (p. 94). Hendriksen adds that “by means of baptism, true conversion is powerfully stimulated and increased” and that the one who is baptized “will all the more heartily out of gratitude yield himself to God” (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, p. 207). If this is correct, we must see that those who were baptized by John not only repented to qualify themselves for baptism but actually were committing themselves to a life of continued repentance. They would live a repentant life!
Baptism into Christ is similar. Just as John’s baptism was one of repentance (Luke 3:3), so the “Great Commission” baptism likewise was a “baptism of repentance.” But after one comes to Christ through a repentant faith manifested in baptism, and initially receives the forgiveness his sins (Acts 2:38-41), he will continue to need the forgiveness of sins. The apostle John tells us of this gracious provision of God for our continued cleansing: “If we walk in the light as He [God] Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). How does the Christian receive this cleansing? Besides the condition of “walking in the light” of God (v. 7), John adds: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9; cf. 2:1-2). We can continue to be forgiven as we walk this pilgrim pathway if we are willing to humbly confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness through Christ’s shed blood!
This confession of sin, however, must come from a heart of repentance. It is the inner change of heart in the guilty child of God that must give rise to the confession with the lips. Apart from true repentance, the confession is a meaningless ritual void of meaning and results! This is why Peter didn’t tell Simon to simply confess his sin, but rather commanded, “Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). Christ’s words to the Christians in the assemblies of Asia also reveal how repentance is a continuing obligation and need in our lives (cf. Rev. 2:5,16,22; 3:3,19).
When the Christian leaves the baptismal waters, he generally knows little about all that is involved in the ways of Christ. Think of those on Pentecost who were baptized the very day they heard the gospel for the first time (Acts 2:37-41). Think of the Ethiopian who was immediately immersed after Philip preached to him (8:35-39). Cornelius also was immediately immersed (10:47-48). Think also of Lydia and her household who were baptized at once (16:14-15) and the jailer who was baptized in the middle of the night (16:25-34). Paul himself had only three days to change his thinking before baptism (Acts 9:8-9,18; 22:16). Although there must have been a deep and sincere repentance at the point of baptism in each of these cases, there was a limit to the understanding of all those who repented. This underlines the continuing need of repentance. As the Christian learns more in the days and years following his initial repentance and baptism, he will continue to need to “change his mind” regarding many things. Although his basic “change of mind and purpose” occurred when he went to the waters to be “buried in baptism” (Romans 6:3-4), he must “change his mind” about many specific aspects of his life as he learns more of God’s will and submits to Christ as Lord in that will.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO REPENT?
No doubt there are many different motives represented by people as they come to the point of initial repentance. One incentive may touch your heart, whereas something else may prompt me to repent. God, who created all of us, recognizes the differences in people and has offered various reasons why we should repent of our sins and turn to Him. Let us consider several of these.
First, we must gladly and gratefully acknowledge that God Himself stands behind repentance. He is the one who provides us with the opportunity and ability to repent. Surely this is why the Jerusalem Jewish Christian could “glorify God” and say, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). God grants us repentance! Of course, we personally must do the repenting (even as we do the believing), but God gives the opportunity and the motivation to repent through the gospel (cf. James D. Bales, The Case of Cornelius, pp. 54-55). We will never be able to boast about our achievement, our accomplishment, and our unaided repentance! Other passages likewise reveal that God grants both repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31) and grants repentance “leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). Thus, standing behind our change of mind and heart is a gracious God who brought the good news of Christ to bear upon our heart and conscience, thus motivating us to come to Him for salvation.
(1) A Sorrow for Sin. What gives rise to our change of mind about sin and God? When the gospel of Christ is brought to the sinner, he should be able to see his dreadful condition of guilt and condemnation. He should be able to see that he has violated the will and transgressed the Word of God his Creator. He should be able to see that his sins will take him to everlasting punishment if he is not forgiven. He should be touched by the message of the cross that reveals the indescribable love of a Savior. All of this should bring sincere grief to his heart–a sorrow that will motivate him to repent. Paul says, “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). Although his reference is to the repentance of Christian, it also has a place in the repentance of the unbeliever. The sinner must be “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37) or “smitten in conscience” (margin) as the full weight of his sins comes to bear upon his heart and conscience. This should lead the humble and contrite sinner to the place of repentance.
(2) The Kindness of God. We must never think that God always calls upon people to respond in repentance by threatening them with judgment. No, He also is a gracious and merciful God who would have people come to Him and forsake their sins because they see how wonderful He is to them. Paul makes this appeal by writing, “Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Think of the way God has provided for you physically and materially. Think of the beauties of His creation that give delight to life–the colorful flowers, the trees, the birds that sing in the morning, the radiant sunset at night, and so much more beyond. All of this displays that God is a loving God. More than this, remember that God has not cut you off while you were in sin. He patiently waited for your repentance. He withheld His hand of judgment that your rightfully deserved. He provided His written Word to teach you, His wonderful good news of salvation through Christ to touch your heart, and the opportunity to hear or read His message of salvation and repentance. God has been kind and gracious and patient beyond measure. In all of this, God is calling you and others to repent and turn to Him for forgiveness.
(3) The Judgment of God. We know that God is not only loving and kind, but He also is a righteous God who will pour out His wrath upon the unrepentant (Rom. 2:5). This is the appeal that Paul made to the intellectuals of Athens: “God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Repent–for God will righteously judge the world! In view of the awesome coming day of judgment, they were to turn from their sins and turn to the living God. In a similar way, Paul spoke to Felix about “faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). But the apostle went beyond this: “As he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened” (v. 25a). He knew that Felix needed to be convicted of his sins and become aware of the coming judgment–and in light of this repent of his sins. Perhaps some do not repent because they do not fully realize the dreadful consequences of unrepentance!
REPENTANCE AND BAPTISM
When God requires something of people in general and His children in particular, He wants them to carry out His will for the right reasons. The way of Christ is rational in the sense that God reveals the motivations, meanings, and understandings He wants us to have as we make specific outward responses. This is seen in numerous ways. Consider these New Testament teachings with respect to the external act or practice and the internal meaning:
- Breaking of bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:23-29).
- Marriage (Eph. 5:22-23).
- Foot washing (John 13:3-17; 1 Tim. 5:9-10; Luke 7:36-50).
- Women’s veiling (1 Cor. 11:2-16).
- Giving to the needy (2 Cor. 8:1-15,24; 9:6-15).
- Kiss of greeting (1 Peter 5:14).
- Singing (Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16-17).
- Fasting (Matt. 6:16-18; Dan. 9:3; Jonah 3:5-10).
- Prayer (Matt. 6:5-15).
- Meeting with Christians (Heb. 10:23-25; 3:13).
This same principle is true regarding baptism. In one respect, baptism is an outward action. As one scholar defines it, baptism (Gk., b a p t i s m a , baptisma) consists of the “process of immersion, submersion and emergence” (Vine, p. 88; see also Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 305; NAS Exhaustive Concordance, p. 1638; Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 66; Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pp. 94-95; The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 144-145; Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pp. 131-132). But baptism is more than an outward action. It has an inner motivation and meaning.
We will not discuss the full purpose of baptism here (we have done this in other places). But consider one of the meanings of baptism here. When John the baptizer was sent by God, he “preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; cf. Acts 13:24; 19:4). What does the phrase “baptism of repentance” mean? It shows that the baptism that John proclaimed was characterized by repentance. It may be called a “repentance baptism” (Arndt and Gingrich, p. 131). Walter Wessel points out that “of repentance” is a “genitive of quality” that denoted “a repentance-baptism . . . the baptism indicated that repentance had already occurred or was being accompanied by it” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 620). John’s baptism expressed a repentant spirit. It manifested a mind and heart that had made a decision to turn from sin to God and His will. G.R. Beasley-Murray even calls it a “baptism of conversion”–“it marked the individual’s turning from sin to God that he might henceforth live in obedience to Him. Thus, even though ‘religious’ in its basic meaning, conversion had radical consequences in the moral life” (Baptism in the New Testament, p. 34).
Because John’s baptism meant repentance, if one came to be baptized of him without repentance, the baptism would have been meaningless–and hypocritical. If one had mixed motives, if he still clung to some of his sins, if he was indecisive in his commitment–then the baptism would not have been a true “baptism of repentance.” It would merely have been an external act of immersion in the Jordan River but would not have been more than that.
Baptism into Christ (the baptism of the Great Commission) would be similar to John’s baptism in this respect. Peter plainly told his inquirers on the day of Pentecost: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). These convicted people who wished to be forgiven of their sins (particularly the sin of rejecting the Messiah) were told to repent of their sins. They must then be “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Why? “For the forgiveness of [their] sins.” What would they receive as a gift? They would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In what ways was it similar and in what ways was it dissimilar to John’s baptism? It was similar in several ways:
- It involved the same element: Water
- It was the same action: Immersion
- It demonstrated the same heart attitude: Repentance
- It had the same purpose: The forgiveness of sins
But there were aspects that were not similar:
- It was given under a different authority: Jesus Christ
- It expressed an additional element: Faith in Christ (cf. Acts 19:4)
- It resulted in the fulfillment of a blessed promise: The gift of the Holy Spirit
Of course, there were other differences than these but this is sufficient to show us that indeed were some parallels between the two baptisms.
Baptism into Christ–the baptism of the Great Commission (cf. Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16)—was the outward embodiment of one’s inward repentance. In like manner, baptism was to be the expression of one’s inner faith in Christ Jesus. Frequently in Scripture we read that baptism is to follow and express this saving faith in the Lord. For example, Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a). Later we read that “many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized” (Acts 18:8b; cf. 8:12-13; 16:14-15,31-34). Paul explains this further: “Having been buried with Him [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:12; cf. Gal. 3:26-27). We can see that true faith leads one to baptism and is actually within Scriptural baptism. Since faith and repentance are always found together in the conversion of a sinner (and his salvation), we have additional evidence that baptism must contain genuine repentance—if it is Scriptural baptism.
Romans 6 further explains this aspect of baptism. This chapter should be read with the understanding that some things pertain to the pre-baptismal state, other things pertain to the post-baptismal state, and much pertains to the experience of baptism itself. Read through this section of Scripture with these thoughts in mind. Slavery to sin is before baptism, while slavery to God and righteousness is after the act. Being alive to sin is before baptism, and being alive to God is after baptism. Since baptism, per se, cannot accomplish anything of itself (we must reject any magical view of the act), we must see repentance standing behind the act and motivating the act–as well as God’s powerful working in the entire event. We read of one’s “death to sin” (cf. vv. 2,4,7,11), the “crucifixion” of the old self (v. 6), being “freed from sin” (vv. 18,22), being “alive from the dead” (v. 13), rising to live a new life (v. 4), living to God in Christ Jesus (v. 11), and having eternal life in Christ (v. 23). All of this points back to the climactic happenings in baptism–and to the heartfelt, genuine repentance that brings one to the act and is expressed in the act.
If baptism does not have this meaning of repentance (and does not express true faith in Christ), then it simply is an empty ceremony or form. The person simply gets wet–but he has not truly been baptized in the name of Christ! We must understand this and understand it well. Baptism is invalid and void of meaning. . .
if one refuses to repent of his sins
if one does not have genuine faith and trust in Christ and in His sacrificial death on the cross
if one does not understand what is involved in repentance
if one is incapable of repenting (because of young age)
if one has mental reservations and chooses to exercise a partial repentance
if one simply wants to change his “religious” life and does not intend to change his moral, social, and family life
Defects in repentance such as the ones above would serve to nullify repentance and thus invalidate one’s baptism. This is why thousands of people across the country have chosen to be baptized again when they come to realize that they did not actually repent at the time of their former “baptism.” Actually, of course, any act with water that does not embody repentance, does not express faith, and does not have the meaning and purpose given to it by Scripture, is not truly “baptism” in the sight of God! Numerous people I have know personally have chosen to be baptized again or “rebaptized”–i.e., actually baptized for the first time. They had previously been sprinkled, poured, or even immersed, but could see that they had not truly and fully repented at the time of their first “baptism.” (Of course, most could also see their need to be genuinely baptized for other reasons as well. See our book, Were You Baptized for the Wrong Reasons?)
I think of Samuel who came to see his “baptism” in a conservative group had been a mere traditional ceremony and close to be baptized one summer day. There was Deborah who came to see that her previous “baptism” was merely the result of youthful zeal rather than real repentance; she too chose to be immersed at two o’clock one morning. Michael came from a rather rough background in a large city and came to see his need to repent and express this in baptism at two o’clock one December night. Connie had gone through a couple of marriages and could see her need of a baptism of repentance one summer. Steve had only experienced a water ceremony as an infant in a Protestant denomination but then concluded that he truly needed to repent as an adult and express this in immersion late one night.. Barb could see that her former “baptism” was entirely meaningless and unscriptural, and her church association was unscriptural, so she chose to be reimmersed one summer afternoon. Jean came to see that she had entirely misconceived conversion and baptism, and chose to be immersed into Christ one winter night. Bob and Sue could see that they had never truly repented when they were young people in a conservative church, thus they humbled themselves to truly come to Christ in a repentance baptism some years later. Bill and Cheryl could also see that they needed to make a decisive change in their lives in repentance, and they expressed this by being immersed into the Lord. Lori came to see that her former “baptism” was void of repentance, thus she requested baptism as an expression of repentance. (All names have been changed.)
It is sad that there needs to be such a phenomenon as being baptized a second time, but such is the case in a world where true faith and genuine repentance is missing and the meaning and purpose of baptism is denied. You might remember that the twelve men at Ephesus needed to be baptized again “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-6), and many come to see that God requires them to be baptized again for a variety of reasons.
To conclude this point, it may be helpful to restate what we are saying since many have difficulty understanding this point. If one thinks he has faith, then is “baptized,” but later comes to true faith, he must be aware that his baptism was not a “believer’s baptism” or a “faith baptism.” Likewise, if one believes that he has repented and is then baptized, but later discovers that he really didn’t repent (as discussed in Scripture), he must conclude that he really did not experience a baptism of repentance or a baptism into Christ (the baptism of Romans 6 and the “Great Commission”). In order to truly be baptized into Christ, one must genuinely repent of his sins (determining to turn from every one of them), and turn to Christ in faith–and express this by being immersed into Him.
It is clear enough that only the one who is willing to humble himself and have a change of heart regarding sin and the Savior can be saved from the wrath of God. Only he can respond in faith and baptism to the grace of God and thereby enter the body of believers–those who have repented. This much should be obvious to anyone who has read our previous discussion of the Scriptures.
Since this is true, we should be able to see that the unrepentant are outside the body of Christ or the fellowship of repentance. Those who refuse to repent, compromise in repentance, or are deceived about repentance, cannot be forgiven of sins or saved from God’s wrath. Further, those who were baptized as infants–far before repentance was either needed or possible–have not experienced a baptism of repentance (nor a baptism of faith), thus they too are not part of the fellowship of repentance. Let us stress and remember this: Only those who repent at the point of initial salvation and who continue to live repentant lives are in fellowship with the Father and with the Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:9). Only they are in fellowship with others who know God through Christ Jesus (1 John 1:7).
Those good-hearted souls who have sought to repent (and believe) to the extent of their knowledge are ripe for receiving further light from God that will bring them to the fuller knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). We may think of various examples of this in Scripture.
The Ethiopian manifested considerable spiritual interest in traveling to Jerusalem to worship God (Acts 8:27). He studied Scripture and was open to learning its meaning (vv. 28-31). We must assume that he was in some measure living a repentant life. Yet he did not know God through Christ Jesus and was still unforgiven until he met Philip (vv. 35-39). Cornelius surely must have had a humble and repentant heart: He was devout and feared God (vv. 2,22,35); he prayed to God continually and gave alms to the poor (vv. 2,4,30,31); he was righteous (vv. 22,35); and he eagerly desired the further light of the truth of God (vv. 7-8,24-27,33). Yet he too was unsaved and still in his sins until Peter came (11:14). The twelve Ephesian “disciples” and Apollos may have been honest people in similar circumstances (18:24-26; 19:1-6). They must have had repentant hearts–but they still needed to learn more and come to Christ in baptism (cf. 19:3-5). Paul himself lived a devoted life as a zealous Pharisee and must have repented numerous times, but he too needed further repentance and a relationship with Christ Jesus (Gal. 1:13-16; Phil. 3:4-8; 1 Tim. 1:12-16).
In cases like this, we see repentant people who were unforgiven and unsaved. they needed to come to further repentance. They must repent of their unbelief. They must also repent of any sin in their lives. But the point here is that we see people who have repented in a measure who were not in full fellowship and unity with those who had fully repented and exercised saving faith in Christ, demonstrating this faith in baptism.
Such people also exist today. They have repented in a measure. They have believed to some extent. They have some awakened spiritual interest. They have a sensitive conscience. They may read and even write edifying books and sing uplifting songs. They may even have submitted to an actual immersion (baptism) in water, even if it lacked baptism’s full significance.
It may be that some of these devoted persons are open to truth, receptive to further spiritual light, and eager to go “all the way” with God. They may be willing to lay aside their churchly traditions, their unscriptural religious practices, their human authorities, their misunderstandings of Scripture, and their compromises in daily life. They may be willing to surrender themselves to further truth they discover. If they truly have “honest and good” hearts (Luke 8:15), the will be willing to repent of these deviations from truth and compromises with holiness, and come to the baptismal waters with faith in the Lord Jesus. Repentance is just as essential for these honest people who want to follow Christ as it is for the “sinners” who come from wicked and perverse backgrounds. Each person must be willing to see the sin in his own life and turn to God in repentance, seeking His mercy. Jesus said, “I have not come to call righteous men but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
REPENTANCE AND THE BODY OF CHRIST
If those who have not repented are outside the body of Christ and those who enter the body are ones who repent (Acts 2:38-41), what does Scripture say about those who have entered the body through initial repentance, but later fail to lead a repentant life?
We noticed earlier that repentant believers must continue in faith and repentance subsequent to their baptism into Christ (cf. Matt. 3:11; 1 John 1:7-9; Romans 6:1-23; Heb. 4:1-11; 10:34-39; James 4:7-10). Believers are to live repentant lives. Their burning desire must be the will of God. Notice how this is expressed in a variety of ways in Scripture:
Believers must do the will of God (Matt. 7:21).
They must endure to the end (Matt. 24:13).
They must deny themselves and carry the cross (Mark 8:34).
They must be faithful until death (Rev. 2:10).
They must seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33).
They must radically deal with occasions of sin (Matt. 5:29-30).
They must put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).
They must obey the Lord Jesus (Heb. 5:9).
They must walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).
They must produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22-23).
They must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
Much more could be noticed here, but this sample shows us that we are not to live careless lives of ease, indifference, lukewarm-ness, and compromise. There is no room for unholiness of heart, filthiness of speech, or disobedience of life.
A Christian has, in repentant faith, entered Christ and His body by the Spirit in baptism (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 12:13). The body is composed of those baptized (Acts 2:37-41,47), but this implies that the members are repentant since all of those who repent are baptized and only those who repent are qualified to be baptized (Acts 2:38).
Since each member of the body has repented, the body itself is a repentant body. As each member continues to repent, it continues to be a repentant body. The very life of the body testifies to the interest that the members should have in maintaining a holy relationship with the Lord and with each other. The members are to encourage each other (1 Thess. 4:18), build up each other (1 Thess. 5:11), seek the good of each other (1 Thess. 5:15). We are to speak truth to each other (Eph. 4:25), teach and admonish each other (Col. 3:16), love each other (1 Thess. 3:12), confess to and pray for each other (James 5:16). We must serve each other (1 Peter 4:10) and be humble toward each other (5:5). In the life of the body, there will be ample opportunity to repent and express this repentance toward each other.
However, if the believer fails to yield his heart to the Lord, ceases to be controlled by the Spirit, begins to compromise his commitment, and begins to tolerate sin, he no longer is living a repentant life. As he participates in both inner and outer sin and gives room for the devil, he begins to dwell in unrepentance. Although the cleansing of Christ’s blood is freely available to one who walks in the light and confesses his sins in repentance (1 John 1:7,9), such a person may refuse to repent of his sins or confess them. He allows sin to deceive him (Heb. 3:13) and entangle him (Heb. 12:1) and overcome him (2 Pet. 2:20). His last state becomes worse than the state he was in before coming to Christ (2 Pet. 2:20-22).
What should be the response of true believers who compose the body of Christ and who observe one of their number fall into sin? Surely they should reach out in love and gentleness and seek to restore him to full fellowship with the Lord and with the saints (Gal. 6:1-2; James 5:19-20; Matt. 18:15-20; Luke 17:2-3; Jude 22-23; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). But what if earnest prayers and diligent efforts to reach the sinning brother are unavailing? What if the brother remains in his sin, justifying his sin and carnality and worldliness? What if he refuses to repent and seek the forgiveness of God and the community of Christ? Scripture is clear that those who come to such a place of indifference and rebellion must be removed from the holy body of Christ. Fellowship with them must be removed and they must be “delivered over to Satan” (1 Tim. 1:20). Notice these instructions on how to respond to those who refuse to repent of sin, immorality, or false teaching:
- Seek reconciliation, then withdraw fellowship from them (Matt. 18:15-17).
- Remove the person from the community of saints (1 Cor. 5:2,13).
- Deliver him to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).
- Clean out the old leaven (1 Cor. 5:7).
- Do not associate with him (1 Cor. 5:9,11; 2 Thess. 3:14).
- Do not eat with him (1 Cor. 5:11).
- Judge him (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
- Turn away from him (Rom 16:17-18).
- Exercise spiritual “punishment” on him (2 Cor. 2:6).
- Keep away from him (2 Thess. 3:6).
- Bring shame to him (2 Thess. 3:14).
- Admonish him (2 Thess. 3:15).
- Reject him (Titus 3:10-11).
- Avoid him (2 Tim. 3:5; cf. vv. 1-5).
- Do not receive him or greet him (2 John 9-11).
This kind of decisive treatment of those brothers or sisters who fall into sin and refuse to repent–even after loving and earnest pleadings–shows that God wants His community to be pure and holy, free from obvious sin and false teaching. Christ died that He might make His body, His bride, “holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,” that He might have a “radiant” community of believers, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25-27; NIV). This is God’s plan for the body of Christ and this is the desire that Christ, the groom, wants for His spiritual bride!
The repentant belief that brings one into the body of Christ must continue. Believers must continue to be repentant people who seek the light of truth so that they may walk in it. They must walk humbly with a Holy God, ever seeking to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:23-24). We have been called in holiness (1 Thess. 4:3,7) and we must continue in it in order to please the One who called us. If one should manifest an unrepentant spirit and be content with sin after entering the body of Christ, he must be removed and delivered to the world of Satan from which he had been delivered. This is God’s directives for His holy people.
WORLDLY SORROW VS. GODLY SORROW
Many people in the world regret that they have sinned. They may even cry and lament their misdeeds. Think of the thief who is caught and must spend years in prison in spite of his plaintive pleas. Think of the girl who commits fornication and has an unwanted child. think of the drug dealer who is turned in and must pay for his crimes regardless of his remorse. They grieve their sins, but they do not truly repent. They only regret that they have been caught or must pay for their sins–but their heart remains unchanged.
Paul says that “the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10b). Mere worldly sorrow or grief that issues in regret will not avail for one’s salvation. It will leave one unforgiven, unredeemed, and unholy. It will bring only frustration and bitterness.
Some who have a mere regret for their sins may go so far as to confess them to God and others. Scripture itself testifies to this kind of admission that is empty of heartfelt sorrow and true repentance. Pharaoh said, “I have sinned” (Exod. 9:27), but he hardened his heart and refused to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Balaam said, “I have sinned” (Num. 22:34), but his heart was still greedy for gold. Achan said, “I have sinned against the LORD” (Josh. 7:20), but his confession seems to have been forced upon him. King Saul said, “I have sinned” (1 Sam. 15:30), but he still sought the honor of the people. Even Judas admitted, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4), but in despair he went out and hanged himself. Mere regret or remorse is not repentance that brings salvation.
There is another kind of sorrow described in Scripture. Paul writes of a “godly sorrow” that “brings salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10, NIV). He said, “Your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended” (v. 9a, NIV). This is a genuine sorrow that not only regrets the consequences of sin or the shame and embarrassment that accompanies sin, but regrets the sin itself. One with this godly sorrow will have a brokenness of heart because of the grief he has brought to God. He will have a weight of guilt over his wrongdoings, his selfishness, and his waywardness. But this sorrow will go beyond this.
Godly sorrow will lead to repentance. It isn’t repentance itself, but it is a necessary preliminary to it. If one truly grieves because of his sins, his inner selfishness and rebellion, and his offense against a loving and holy god, he will determine to renounce his former life and henceforth live for holiness and righteousness. Paul describes what godly sorrow produced in the case of the Corinthians: earnestness, vindication of themselves, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and an avenging of wrong (2 Cor. 7:11). Their sorrow had a desired effect. It produced repentance–a repentance that proved its genuineness by its fruit.
We too must guard against a mere regret over the earthly consequences of sin. We must guard against a counterfeit repentance that brings no eternal results. Instead, let us receive our understanding of genuine repentance from Scripture. Let us seek to have a broken and contrite heart, humble before the Lord, and open to the changes that He wants to see in our life. Let godly sorrow work real repentance in our heart.
THE PROBLEM OF UNSAVED REPENTERS?
How do we account for the fact that people can worship God (Acts 8:27; 2:5), pray to Him (10:2,4,30), speak and teach accurately the things concerning Jesus (18:25), be convicted by the Law of God (Rom. 7:7-13), try to carefully follow even minor commands (Matt. 23:23), enthusiastically seek to reach pagan peoples for God (Matt. 23:15), and even profess to do many miracles (Matt. 7:22)—and still be unsaved?
In our own day, how do we view the many who sing praise to God, profess to speak in tongues, preach about Christ crucified, demand self-denial and cross-bearing, write and read comforting devotional books, study and teach the Bible, and even suffer physically for Christ–and yet, evidently, are unsaved?
We may not know all of the reasons for this, but several may be suggested. First, Satan is the great deceiver who is entirely capable of deluding people into thinking they are saved when actually they are not (Rev. 12:9; 1 John 5:19; Col. 2:4). Second, many take a careless and compromising view of obedience, wrongly assuming that God will not mind as long as they obey some of their favorite commands. True love, however, is manifested in obedience to all of Christ’s will (John 14:15,21-24).
Third, the human personality, apart from God’s indwelling presence, is capable of extensive change and breaking of external sinful practices (smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, speech, immodesty, crime, etc.) (cf. Phil. 3:5-6). Fourth, we must not underestimate the power of God’s Spirit to effect change through His convicting influence, even when the Spirit does not indwell the person (cf. John 16:8-11). Fifth, the Word of god has great effectiveness in one’s heart even when that person has not as yet been born again (Heb. 4:12-13).
Another point, in the context of our present study, is that some of these devoted people may indeed be sincere (as the Ethiopian, Cornelius, Paul, Lydia, Apollos, and the Ephesian disciples apparently were). They may actually be changing their life, with the help of God, through means of repentance. While repentance is rightly culminated by and expressed in baptism at the point of turning (conversion) (Romans 6:3-22; Col. 2:11-13), repentance may begin days, weeks, months, and even years earlier. This may be a partial repentance, a limited repentance, or a repentance lacking in extensive knowledge, but it still may be a true repentance that definitely results in limited but real change. This reasonably could account for evidently sincere expressions of faith, love, and righteousness in the lives of devoted people who profess to be Christians.
Like others, I myself was living a repentant life–in a measure. My life had changed–to an extent. I prayed regularly, constantly studied my Bible, memorized Scripture verses, wrote religious literature, met with professing “Christians,” and delighted to sing praises to God. I was sincere, religious, committed, and devoted to what I thought was right. But I was lost in sin! It was not until I was willing to repent of trusting in my righteousness, repent of religious wrong and misconceptions, and repent of a wide array of sin, that a new life opened up to me. I had to humbly confess that my best efforts were ineffectual and deceiving. I cam to count as loss what had been gain to me and everything else “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8). Repentance was a key in my response that I could not overlook, explain away, or compromise.
It is God’s will that all limited repentance continue and grow to the point of full surrender, full saving faith, and actual baptism (immersion) into Christ. Sadly, many are content with their limited experience and partial repentance, refusing to go further with the Lord. They may be like a Cornelius who would be devout to a point, but would then show little interest in calling for Peter to learn more of God’s will. They may be like an Ethiopian who would be devoted enough to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, but would refuse to allow Philip to show him the meaning of the Scripture he read. They may be like an Apollos who would be content with his instruction in “the way of the Lord,” and yet be unconcerned about having Priscilla and Aquilla “explain to him the way of God more accurately.”
Yes, many of these professing “Christians” who manifest what appears to be a changed lie and godly “fruit,” are unwilling to admit their lack, afraid to seek further knowledge, and opposed to going further in their quest of saving truth. They assume that they have already “arrived” and cannot conceive that they are missing a key element in their spiritual experience!
It is God’s will that these people happily acknowledge that God has brought them this far and then be willing to go all the way for Christ. They must humble themselves to fully repent of their sin, their compromise, their false beliefs, their flawed theology, and their mistaken loyalty to a defective religious system. In short, they must turn from all sin, place all of their faith in God through Christ, submit to the deeply meaningful act of baptism–and fully cast themselves on the mercy of God for their salvation. Only those who are willing to “follow the Lord fully” (Num. 32:11-12), enter the narrow gate in repentance (Matt. 7:13-14), and walk the narrow way of discipleship (Luke 14:25-27,33), will receive the life that never ends. Unsaved “repenters” need to fully repent and find full salvation!