Thirty years ago, the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen attended a meeting in Beverly Hills addressed by Billy Graham. He expressed some interest in the message, so several of us talked with him, including Dr. Graham, but he made no commitment until some time later when another friend urged him—with Revelation 3:20 as a warrant—to invite Jesus Christ into his life.
This he professed to do, but his life subsequently gave no evidence of repentance, “the mighty change of mind, heart, and life.” He rebuked our friend, telling him, “You did not tell me that I would have to give up my work!” He meant his rackets. “You did not tell me that I would have to give up my friends!” He meant his gangster associates. He had heard that so-and-so was a Christian cowboy, so-and-so was a Christian actress, so-and-so was a Christian senator, and he really thought that he could be a Christian gangster.
Recently, people were intrigued by the announcement that a notorious pornographer professed to be “born again.” But he has given no evidence of repentance, and it has been forgotten that the only evidence of the New Birth is the new life. His first editorial said he now followed the spirit of Jesus and Buddha.
The fact is, repentance is a missing note in much modern evangelism. The appeal is not for repentance, but for enlistment. Birth defects are not only medical, but spiritual. Many ills of the Christian life are due to handicapped beginnings. Too many people are preaching a warped or truncated gospel, and spiritual birth defects are the inevitable result.
This has become a national scandal. Evangelistic enterprises are claiming the response of multitudes. A national poll has announced that 50 million Americans state they are “born again,” but a national newspaper observes that this evangelical awakening (so-called) seems to have little effect upon the morals of the country, as murder, robbery, rape, pornography, and other social evils abound. The fault is in the message. Holy Scripture calls upon new recruits of the Christian church to repent.
Many earnest Christians have raised the question, “But doesn’t Scripture teach that only believing is all that is necessary? Didn’t the apostle Paul simply tell the Philippian jailer to ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’?” Quite so. But to whom were these words addressed? To a jailer who had cruelly beaten his prisoners, but was now so frightened that he had fallen on his knees to cry, “What must I do to be saved?” Had he repented? Of course; he had changed his attitude. So the apostle reassured him that all he needed to do now was to put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and he would be saved.
Some mistaken people have the strange notion that the apostle Peter preached a message of repentance to the Jews, while the apostle Paul preached “only believe” to the Gentiles. And it is said that when Peter first preached to the household of Cornelius, he did not use the word “repent.” A cursory reading of the story suggests that this was so. Cornelius, a captain of the Italian regiment, was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). He obviously was a God fearer rather than a proselyte to Judaism. The account of Peter’s ministry and the whole company’s conversion contains no reference to repentance in word or deed.
But in the next chapter, after Peter had explained to the church at Jerusalem his questionable conduct in disregarding the rules of segregation, they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Whatever Cornelius did, the Holy Spirit designated it repentance. But wherein did Cornelius change? Did he cease to be devout? Did he cease to fear God? Did he stop giving alms? Did he quit constant praying? No! However, up until he heard the message of Peter, he was struggling for salvation by his good works. After the message, he put his trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That was a change of thinking.
Likewise, when the apostle Peter reached the climax of his first great sermon at Pentecost, and his hearers cried out in conviction, “Brethren, what shall we do?” He recalled the parting instructions of his Lord and told them to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins”—exactly what he and his companions were told to declare (Acts 2:37–38). In his second great sermon, Peter said the same thing in slightly different words: “Repent, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). That Peter continued to preach repentance is clear from the dozen citations of the word in the Book of Acts.
Did the apostle Paul preach that same message? It is recorded that he was converted on the road to Damascus and began to preach, though the content of his message was not immediately recorded. But many years afterward, Paul himself declared what he had preached from the beginning, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance” (Acts 26:19–20). The clear implication of the context is that he received a commission to preach repentance just as much as did the disciples earlier. And in the other references in Acts, it is quite clear that he preached repentance to Jews and Gentiles alike.
The word “repentance” or “repent” is used in the writings of Paul to the Romans, the Corinthians, and to Timothy, and by the writer to the Hebrews as well as by Peter. It occurs 10 times in the Book of the Revelation of John. In all of the New Testament it appears more than 50 times. Hebrews lists it as an elementary doctrine of Christ, a foundation. How serious then is the condition of a professing church where repentance is missing from its elementary evangelism or church growth?
There are some who make a distinction between the Good News of the kingdom of heaven and the Good News of the kingdom of God. It is recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark that after John the Baptist was put into prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. But the message was the same, for after saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand,” the Lord stated emphatically, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Also in Mark’s Gospel, our Lord’s calling and coaching of the 12 disciples is reported, after which “they went out and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12).
Some may suggest that perhaps this first word of repentance gave way to some other exhortation as the ministry of the Lord and his disciples fully developed. Yet the Good News according to Luke, after reporting the initial use of the word “repentance,” records it 10 more times in verbal or substantive form, always in the preaching of the Lord Jesus, whether impassioned or compassionate.
Of most significance is the fact that in the last discourse of Jesus with the disciples as recorded in the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel, he stated plainly that the whole purpose of his death and resurrection was “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” This was as certainly the Great Commission as was the divine commission in Matthew 28.
The three parables of our Lord recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel are often called the “Gospel Parables,” the parables of evangelism. They are the well-known stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The ending of each has a peculiar significance. The shepherd called together his friends, inviting them to rejoice with him that he had found his sheep that was lost: that is the end of the story. But the Lord quickly added, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Why such an explanation? If he had not done so, someone would have insisted that, as the sheep did not repent, there was no need of repentance for salvation.
The woman who lost a coin likewise called her friends together, that they might rejoice with her that she had found her lost coin. That is the end of the story. But the Lord quickly added, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Why the explanation? Some theologians might have insisted that since a coin is incapable of repenting, repentance is not needed for salvation. But the story of the lost son has no such explanation attached to its ending. Why? Repentance is clearly stated in the narrative when the Prodigal Son declared, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”
After all, there is no question that it was the Lord Jesus Christ himself who said, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Some immediately react by supposing that this contradicts the “only believe” of the Christian message. Does “repent and believe the gospel” imply that the sinner must do two things to be saved, and not one only? The exhortation is really only one requirement. The instruction, “Leave London and go to Los Angeles,” sounds like a two-fold request, but it really is only one: it is impossible to go to Los Angeles without leaving London.
Likewise, it is impossible to believe truly without repenting. The difference between true faith and what the Scripture calls false faith is simple: it is the lack of repentance. Without a doubt, many who seek to win sinners to the Savior without specifying repentance in their presentation nevertheless hope that true repentance, a mighty change of mind, heart, and life, will ensue, and rejoice when it happens. But their disappointment when it does not happen should compel them to reword their message so that there can be no misunderstanding whatever.
Not only does the average Christian seem unaware of the first word of the Good News, but he apparently does not know what the word means. To the average man, the word “repent” means “to feel sorry.” Show him an item from the press about a murderer who has shown no repentance whatsoever for his evil deed, and he explains that, “The man is not a bit sorry for what he has done.” The Greek scholar, Richard Trench, archbishop of Dublin, defined repentance as “That mighty change in mind, heart, and life, wrought by the Spirit of God, which we call repentance.” Trench’s last phrase would not be accurate today. The word “repentance” as used by modern Christians simply does not signify a mighty change in mind, heart, and life.
The Greek word metanoia is composed of two parts—“meta,” meaning change, and “noia,” meaning mind: therefore “a revolution of thought.” But the meaning does not stop there. It has a moral as well as an intellectual impact. This is best summed up by the declaration of the apostle Paul that he was commissioned to urge both Jews and Gentiles to revolutionize their thinking, turn to God, and perform deeds worthy of their change of heart. True repentance affects thinking, behaving, and feeling—as it was then applied to Nicodemus, the woman dragged by Pharisees before our Lord, or the rich young ruler. It clearly denotes a revolution in a person’s entire “state of mind,” including intellect, will, and emotion.
How, then, did the meaning of repentance shift from “a mighty change of heart” to a lesser sense of regret? Repentance is a Latinism, derived from penitentia, or a sense of pain or suffering, hence grief for an act that might demand satisfaction. It might mean sorrow looking back upon something amiss. Unfortunately, the word “repent” is also used in the English Bible to render a Greek verb property translated “regret.” In the Prayer Book, the words repentance and penitence are used interchangeably, causing endless confusion. The confusion is multiplied to this day.
Strange to relate, many Christians do not realize that the word “repent” is also a word for the continuing Christian life. Not only is “repent” the first word of the gospel, but it is an exhortation of Christ himself to the believer. The Lord committed the success or failure of his gospel to the faithfulness of “The Young Churches,” little groups of believers meeting in homes. Before the demise of the last surviving disciple, the apostle John, Jesus appeared to him on the Island of Patmos. His first concern was for the young churches, in his letters to the churches (Rev. 2 and 3). It is significant that the word “repent” occurs seven times in the seven letters (not once in each letter, but a total of seven times).
Of what were the churches to repent? A cursory glance at the first and seventh letter gives the answer—anything not according to the will of God. The church at Ephesus had a reputation for orthodoxy, but had lost its first love for God. The Laodicean church, on the other hand, suffered from lukewarmness. Both were told to repent. If this is understood to mean to change their mind, heart, and life, the message is simple. It is significant that in the apostle Paul’s plea for total commitment as given in Romans 12:1–2, commitment is maintained by a continued transformation, “by the renewing of your mind”—here a cognate for repentance, the renewing of your mind rather than the changing of your mind as in conversion.
In other words, whenever a believer realizes that his life falls short of the standards of the gospel, he must return to his change of mind, heart, and life, as at the beginning. A renewed believer thus becomes equipped to preach a message of repentance to his friends and neighbors, and to share in the repentance for national sins.
J. Edwin Orr, author of some 35 books, retined at the end of 1981 as professor in Fuller Theological Seminatry’s School of world Mission, Pasadena, California.
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