What Is Biblical Repentance?

by David J. Stewart | January 2006 | Updated January 2016

Baptism And Repentance

There is a great misunderstanding about “repentance.” Such verses as Mark 1:4 confuse many people because they do not take into account the rest of the Bible. Mark 1:4 reads, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” By itself, this verse seems like It is teaching Baptismal Regeneration, but it certainly is NOT. 

Mark 1:4 is referenced in Acts 11:16, “Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.” And a few verses later in Acts 11:21 we read, “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. This is Biblical repentance... acknowledging one's guilt of sin and turning to the Lord for forgiveness.

Here's a doctrinally sound excellent book on baptism, A Biblical Examination Of Baptism (.pdf book by Dr. Max Younce).

The ONLY thing that you need to repent of to be saved is whatever it is that's been keeping you from coming to Christ to be saved.

Please note that NO mention of baptism is found in Acts 11 other than the one reference to John the Baptist in verse 16. Clearly, water baptism was not required for their salvation in Acts 16, just is it has never been required. John preached the same Gospel of Jesus Christ, as we preach today, that is, salvation by grace through faith in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, plus or minus nothing (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Dr. Jack Hyles 100% correctly and Biblically states concerning repentance...

“Repentance is not some little silly, 'I'm sorry.' Repentance is not simply a fear of God. Repentance is not a monk fasting and afflicting his body in a monastery. Repentance is not remorse because of sin's consequences. Repentance is not penance performed before the pope as you kiss his toe... Repentance is not being sorry for what I've done wrong. It is not confessing one's sins to a priest. It is not just conviction of sin. It is not the signing of a pledge of abstinence. Repentance is that thing when you come before God and see yourself as you are, and see Him as he is, and say with Isaiah 'Woe is me, for I am unclean!'” —Pastor Jack Hyles (1926-2001), a quote from the timeless MP3 sermon, THE GOODNESS OF GOD LEADETH TO REPENTANCE!

Baptism Of Repentance (or Repentance Unto Life)

Biblical repentance is simply TURNING UNTO THE LORD to be forgiven of one's sins. Acts 11:18 reads, “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”

Notice that the Bible does NOT call this a repentance from sins. The “baptism of repentance” in Mark 1:4 is clearly not referring to water baptism; but to the “baptism of repentance.” This is the repentance unto life which can only be found in Christ Jesus. The Word of God does NOT teach that we must give up our sins to be saved. 

If this were true, then no one could be saved because we are all sinners incapable of ceasing from sin. Even the best of Christians still commit sin! Believers shouldn't commit any sins; but the fact of the matter is that we all do. So how can you tell an unsaved person to give up their sins to be saved? 

As I mentioned, there is a woeful misunderstanding about repentance circulating in our churches today. Again, Acts 11:21 states, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” Biblical repentance is TURNING to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. It is a change of mind. Mark 1:15 proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Notice here that repentance led to believing the gospel—NO mention is made about making a commitment to God nor forsaking sinful bad habits. 

So do believers have a license to sin? I am saying that a believer's Christian walk has absolutely nothing to do with his salvation. Lordship Salvationists have a problem with this because they have added works to simple faith in Christ.

What Repentance Is Not

Repentance is NOT a change of lifestyle. I think Pastor Harry Ironside (1876-1951) of the Moody Memorial Church said it very well...

"Repentance is the very opposite of meritorious experience. It is the confession that one is utterly without merit, and if he is ever saved at all it can only be through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, 'who gave himself a ransom for all.' Here is firm footing for the soul who realizes that all self-effort is but sinking sand. Christ alone is the Rock of our salvation."

SOURCE: Harry A. Ironside; Except Ye Repent, pg. 36

Clearly, Ironside taught a Free Grace view of the Gospel. Consider further the following awesome quote by Dr. Ironside...

“The Gospel is not a call to repentance, or to amendment of our ways, to make restitution for past sins, or to promise to do better in the future. These things are proper in their place, but they do not constitute the Gospel; for the Gospel is not good advice to be obeyed, it is good news to be believed. Do not make the mistake then of thinking that the Gospel is a call to duty or a call to reformation, a call to better your condition, to behave yourself in a more perfect way than you have been doing in the past …

Nor is the Gospel a demand that you give up the world, that you give up your sins, that you break off bad habits, and try to cultivate good ones. You may do all these things, and yet never believe the Gospel and consequently never be saved at all.”

SOURCE: Harry A. Ironside, from the sermon: What Is The Gospel?

Sadly, Moody Ministries today (65 years after Dr. Ironside's pastorate) has become doctrinally corrupted by false prophets such as John MacArthur (they publish all of MacArthur's new books and have honored him at their Founder's Week for many years). MacArthur plainly teaches a false plan of salvation in his book HARD TO BELIEVE...

“There's no room for passive spectators: words without actions are empty and futile... The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny" (Hard to Believe, p. 93).”

First, it is not hard to believe. The reason why most people aren't saved is NOT because it is hard; but rather, because they love their sins and won't come to Jesus to be saved (John 3:20; 5:40).

Second, the upright life that we try to live as believers is the FRUIT of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and not a part of the ROOT of saving faith. We live right because WE ARE saved, not TO BE saved. The Holy Bible teaches that Jesus Christ lives the Christian life through us. Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” The life we live cannot get us to Heaven, because God does NOT accept works of self-righteousness. Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

We are saved by HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS (that is, Christ's robe of righteousness), and not our own. I try to live upright because I love my Lord and don't want to grieve Him. I fail horribly sometimes, and it makes me mad at myself, and I get up and ask God to help me to do much better. That's how the Christian life is lived, For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Even the best Christians are still sinners who battle daily with the flesh.

The word “repent” (metanoeo, such as in Mark 1:15, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel”), simply means “a change of mind.” Evangelist David Cloud errantly defines the meaning as “a change of mind that results in a change of life.” That's not what the Bible teaches. Biblically, a changed life is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit, which is not required for salvation.

I think Michael P. Bowen, in his excellent defense of the Christian faith titled, I NEVER KNEW YOU, says it best. ...

I am at eternal odds with the false, counterfeit messages of salvation-by-works that are taught from virtually every pulpit today, on every television channel, and on every Christian radio station; however, I am not at eternal odds with the individuals who preach these counterfeit messages. My heart literally goes out to all of them because they simply do not understand Christ’s plan of salvation. They have been lied to by a crafty enemy named Satan, whose sole aim is to take as many people with him to the lake of fire as he can possibly manage to steal away from God using a counterfeit plan of salvation that appears so real, so genuine, and so holy that few ever realize they have been deceived by it. Oh reader, so many of today’s professing Christians who think they are going to heaven when they die are not going to make it to heaven as they had assumed because they’ve been lied to by today’s error-filled gospel messages.

SOURCE: Michael Patrick Bowen, I NEVER KNEW YOU, pg. 17; © 2009, Xulonpress.com. Hard Copies Available.

A tree without fruit is still a tree with roots. This is evidenced by the parable of the sower and the seed in Luke 8:12-15. Of the four groups, only the first are unsaved, because the Devil removed the seed from their heart before it could sprout into new life. The second and third group represent believers who never mature to bear fruit (leading others to Christ). They never mature into fruit-bearing Christians because of shallow roots, or because they are choked by the cares, riches and pleasures of this life. Ah, but the fourth group mature, having an honest heart, keeping the Lord's Word, bearing much fruit unto Christ (John 15:1-7). Just because the second and third groups don't bear fruit doesn't mean that they are not saved, as Ray Comfort and David Cloud errantly teach.

Repentance From Sins

There are only a few references in the Bible where the word “repentance” is used with sin. The Bible usually speaks of “the remission of sins”; but never commands anyone to repent from sins to be saved. Search the Bible and you will find that “repentance" is almost always mentioned with salvation; but it never tells us that forsaking sinful bad habits is the way to be saved. Ceasing from sin is self-righteousness. The truth is that God changes us when we get saved. That's how it's supposed to work.

In sharp contrast, false prophets mandate change as a requirement to be saved. They're trying to do God's job instead of letting the Holy Spirit work. God changes lives. Our part is simply to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). God makes the changes. To demand that a person change (forsake the world and sinful living) to be saved is a false gospel of self-righteousness. Eternal life is a free gift (Romans 5:15; 6:23), paid for by Jesus' precious blood (1st Peter 1:18-19).

Listen to what Pastor Harry Ironside correctly states about repentance in chapter 16 of his book, EXCEPT YE REPENT . . .

“In all that I have written I have failed completely to express what was surging up in my soul if I have given anyone the impression that I think of repentance as something meritorious which must be produced in man by self-effort ere he is fit to come to God for salvation.”

SOURCE: Dr. Harry Ironside, a quote from chapter 16, THE PREACHING THAT PRODUCES REPENTANCE, from his timeless classic book, EXCEPT YE REPENT.

I agree 100%! The entire concept of Lordship Salvation is based in human effort. Most of our evangelical churches today have bought into the lie that it's not enough to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be saved. The Gospel is that Jesus Christ DIED, was BURIED and RESURRECTED from the dead three days later (1st Corinthians 15:1-4). If you receive Christ's sacrifice on the cross as full payment for your sins, then you are saved. But don't I have to repent? Yes, of course! Biblical repentance is “a change of mind” that causes a person to believe the Gospel. Repentance is NOT a desire to stop sinning. Repentance is realizing that you are a SINNER and need the Savior, and so you believe the Gospel and are saved. Repentance is changing your mind about whatever was previously hindering you from completely resting in Christ for salvation.

In Acts 8:22, Simon (a new believer) had said something wrong and Peter sharply rebuked him... “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” Simon ignorantly thought he could buy the power of the Holy Spirit. Witches are used to buying all sorts of demonic paraphernalia in order to practice their works of darkness. No doubt, Simon sincerely thought God's power was for sale. 

He was a new convert and needed to be taught the Truth of God's Word. My point here is that Simon was already a believer; yet he was commanded to repent. The word “repent” in this Scripture is used in an entirely different context than in other Scriptures which speak of salvation. There is a repentance unto salvation; and then there is another repentance of one's sins AFTER salvation (as we saw with Simon). 

The only thing that we need to repent of to be saved is our unbelief. Do we have to realize our sinful condition to be saved? Of course, yes! But there is not one verse in the entire Bible which requires a person to forsake sin to be saved.  Nor does the Bible give anyone a license to sin. Every time Jesus forgave someone and healed them, it was AFTERWARDS that He said... go and sin no more. John 5:14, "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee." 

Thus, we don't give up our sins to become a Christian; no, rather, we forsake our sins because we are a Christian. There are no prerequisites or conditions for salvation. God will save any guilty sinner who trusts upon Jesus Christ for salvation.

I do NOT believe it is inappropriate to apply the parable of the prodigal son to the unsaved who need to come back to their Creator, but technically the Parable is about a believer, a "son." The parable about the prodigal son applies to the wayward believer who is in need of repentance from sins. The repentance unto salvation is a ONE-TIME repentance, but the repentance from sins has no limit. Christians are people, and people are sinners. 

Just as a man cannot be UNBORN physically, neither can he be unborn spiritually. Once saved, always saved! For anyone to teach otherwise is to add works to faith alone and corrupt "the simplicity that is in Christ" (2nd Corinthians 11:3,4). 

Once a person is saved, they begin to grow in grace by feeding on the Truth of God's Word (1st Peter 2:2). As a believer grows in the Truth, he or she realizes that there are changes in their life that need to be made. God's Holy Spirit works in that person's heart. Thus, we begin to see the FRUIT of genuine repentance. A changed life is the FRUIT of genuine repentance; and NOT a prerequisite to salvation or a part of saving-faith. Proponents of Lordship Salvation place the cart before the horse and have it all backwards. The change comes as a result of true repentance; not as a means to it.

In Mark 1:4, John the Baptist speaks of "...repentance for the remission of sins"; NOT "repentance of sins." Acts 20:21 reads... "Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." Notice that Biblical repentance is TOWARD GodIn Acts 11:21 we read, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

This is Biblical repentance... turning to the Lord. To turn towards Jesus Christ in faith for salvation is to turn one's back against sin, even though the person may not be willing to forsake sin at the time of salvation. It is ludicrous for anyone to teach that a lost sinner must give up their sins to be saved. As we saw with Lot and Samson in the Old Testament, not all believers live for God.

Consider the following quote by the mighty man of God, Dr. Harry Ironside (1876-1951)...

"Repentance is the recognition of my sinnership — the owning before God that I am as vile as He has declared me to be in His holy Word."

SOURCE: Except Ye Repent, by Dr. Harry Ironside, chapter 3

This is vastly different than actually ceasing from one's sin to be saved, which is a false gospel. Pastor Ironside is correct — repentance is simply realizing that one is a guilty, dirty, rotten, hopeless sinner in God's eyes. This is why we need a Savior. Thankfully, Jesus paid the price with His own literal precious blood (1st Peter 1:18,19; Hebrews 9:12).

Christian author Michael Patrick Bowen states in his excellent book titled, I NEVER KNEW YOU,” on page 114...

“Repent, as Christ meant it to be in terms of salvation, means to change your mind from trusting in what you can do for God to trusting only in what He can do for you.”

SOURCE: Michael Patrick Bowen, a quote from the awesome book, “I NEVER NEW YOU” (Page 114)

The beloved Pastor Bob Gray Sr. of the Longview Baptist Temple church in Texas correctly preaches . . .

“Repentance means to change your mind—change your mind—change your mind about how you want to get to Heaven to what God says you've got to do to get to Heaven. If you've got to repent of all your sins, you're still headed for Hell tonight.”

SOURCE: Pastor Bob Gray Sr., a quote from the awesome MP3 sermon, Why You Should Be A Part Of A Growing Church

Dr. Mark G. Cambron Has it 100% Correct On Repentance

Here is an excellent and needful writing by Dr. Mark G. Cambron (1911-2000) on the subject of REPENTANCE. Please read the following quote carefully, because Dr. Cambron is one of few theologian who gets it, that is, he understands the simplicity of the Gospel and that repentance does not mean turning from sin as proponents of Lordship Salvation foolishly teach...

Repentance is necessary for salvation.

The Greek word for repent is metanoeo, which, translated into English is: to change ones mind. It does not mean to turn from sin. That would add works to salvation.

Repentance for salvation means a change of mind from men's ideas of salvation and religion, to an acceptance of Gods only way of salvation.

This results in a completely new creation, not a reformation of the old. The old nature remains as evil as ever after salvation and has not been reformed . . . The old nature can now be controlled by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

God guarantees salvation. This is His gift to us.
God guarantees reward and fruit to the obedient son.
God guarantees chastening and loss of rewards to the disobedient son.

God does not cast out disobedient children, but in some cases, does take them home. He does not permit His children to live as they please without His discipline and guidance.

Many teach repentance for salvation incorrectly, by including some form of human effort or righteousness, such as willingness to turn from sin, or turning from sin. This is heresy and has confused many people. It adds works to salvation and causes many to not understand Gods great gift. It is probation, not salvation. It is completely unscriptural. It is Galatianism and a counterfeit of the gospel.

It is a tragedy that many Christians live shallow Christian lives. The Cambron Institute is dedicated to the task of training Christian men and women in the importance of total dedication and making Jesus the Lord of their lives not to be saved but because they are saved.

Shallow Christianity cannot be cured by adding works to salvation.

Salvation is not the result of what we do, but is by receiving what God has done for us. Acts 13:38, 39; Acts 20:20: Gal. 1:8,9; Gal. 2:4; Gal. 2:21; Gal. 3:1.3; Gal. 5:1-4; Eph. 2:8-10; II Cor. 5:21;John 3:16-18; Phil. 3:9; Titus 3:5-8:11 Cor. 11:13-1 5.

SOURCE: The Cambron Institute

Repentance And Faith

Salvation is not a process as some teach. You don't repent and then have faith in the Lord. There are not two steps to salvation; but rather, two parts to just one step. Repentance and faith are inseparable. In the Gospel of John, the word “believe” is mentioned 85-times; but the word “repent” is never mentioned even once. This clearly evidences that the sinner who believes on the Lord for salvation has also repented. 

You can't turn to the Savior for forgiveness of sins without turning your back against sin (not the literal forsaking of the act of sin, but a realization of one's having violated God's holy Law and deserves punishment in Hellfire).

As mentioned, the Bible never mentions turning from sin to be saved. All Biblical references mention turning to the Lord to be forgiven from our sins.

The Change Comes AFTER A Person Is Saved, NOT before

The internet is plagued with heretics who are teaching that a person must forsake their sinful life to be saved. 2nd Corinthians 5:17 reads, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Please notice that the man is already “IN CHRIST.” The “new creature” is not a reformed man; but rather, it is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). The “new creature” is Christ in us (Galatians 2:20).

Furthermore, there is nothing in this Scripture about forsaking or turning from sin. What is does mean is that the Holy Spirit comes to indwell the new believer at the moment they receive Jesus as their personal Savior. Salvation comes through childlike faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing may be added or taken away. A changed life is the FRUIT of genuine repentance, and not part of the ROOT of saving-faith; but this does not mean that a changed life is required for salvation. There are many fruitless believers in the world, who have never grown in the Lord (Luke 8:13); or have been choked by the cares, riches and pleasures of this earthly life, but they are still saved (Luke 8:14). END

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