Is Repentance a Work?

Over the last couple of weeks in my Sunday School class has been going over 1 Corinthians. The class has returned time and again to the question, “How (or if) can we know someone is actually a Christian?”

This past Sunday was no exception as we covered chapter five where Paul commands the church to remove a sexually immoral man from the church. Why did he do this? There are many reasons, one of which was that the man’s life displayed a lack of repentance which demonstrated he may not be saved. This is a shocking statement.

It amazes me that we are very quick to assert someone is a Christian (even if there is no fruit) and yet we are very slow to consider that someone may not be a Christian (even if there is very clear bad fruit). I am not sure what drives this tendency. Perhaps it is a desire to always assume the best? Perhaps it is a genuine desire to see people saved? I am not sure.

Yet in 1 Corinthians 5 it is clear the guilty man is not repentant, rather he is arrogant in his sin, and this leads Paul to demand his removal. This prompted a question from the class, “Isn’t requiring repentance in order for someone to be considered a Christian akin to works-based salvation?” 

This is a good question which deserves a better response than the one gave on the spot Sunday morning. I do not believe requiring repentance makes salvation works-based (for Jesus required repentance) but rather that true repentance is a grace from God. 

It is probably best to address this issue by answering the following questions: What is the relationship between faith and repentance? How do we get both faith and repentance? And what do works have to do with all of this? 

As we answer these three questions it will become clear repentance is not a work, but works are vitally important and we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Let’s look at these questions. 

What is the Relationship Between Faith and Repentance?

Theologians have long recognized that true repentance and true faith always come together. You cannot have the one without the other. For some reason American Christianity tends to almost exclusively talks about faith to the neglect of repentance. We will call people to believe, to have faith, and yet we do not call for them to repent with near the same consistency. Biblically speaking, you cannot have true, saving faith without also having repentance. 

Why? Because these are two sides of the same coin. Wayne Grudem describes this well in his Systematic Theology, “Conversions itself means ‘turning’—here it represents a spiritual turn a turning from sin to Christ. The turning from sin is called repentance, and the turning to Christ is called faith.” In order to be saved, to be converted, one must turn from his current path of sin (repent) and turn to believe in Jesus Christ (faith). The two acts must come together. You cannot turn from sin without turning to Christ and you cannot turn to Christ without turning from sin! In other words, you cannot turn to Jesus in faith without necessarily turning away from your sin (repentance). 

Perhaps a diagram will help. This is everyone before Christ:

 

Before Christ, we love our sin and hate God. Before Christ we were walking away from God and toward sin and death. There is no middle ground in this equation for all have sinned and all sinners are slaves to sin. In order for this to change, we must both repent (turn from sin) by believing and turning to God as illustrated in this chart:

 

This is you after you meet Christ. You have repented, that is you have turned from you old way of life, your old direction, and now you have faith as you walk in a new direction—toward God. But you cannot go toward God in faith without going away from your old way of life (repentance). 

Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. You cannot just have head or tails; otherwise you have a fake coin. The coin has both sides, both are necessary. Therefore if someone does not possess repentance, they do not possess faith. Conversely, if they do not have faith, then they do not have true repentance. 

The gospels display this for us perfectly. The first words of Jesus’ ministry in Mark are, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1.15). How does Jesus summarize his ministry and the gospel? He commands everyone to both repent and believe. In no way is Jesus commanding a works-based righteousness. No, he is calling us to turn from our sin (repent) by turning to him (faith). 

In Matthew, this same message is condensed to, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4.17). Is Jesus then only calling for repentance and not faith? No. This is just shorthand for “repent and believe.” You can’t turn from one thing without turning to something else. Faith is implied whenever repentance is mentioned.  This also means when Scripture calls us to believe or have faith, it is also implicitly calling us to repent. Why? Because the two come together. Jesus felt comfortable commanding repentance and he did so without promoting a works-based salvation. We should follow his example of calling for repentance and faith knowing this is not a works-based message. 

How Do We Get Both Faith and Repentance?

Since faith and repentance come together, how do we get them? How is faith and repentance not a work? Ephesians 2.1-9 is helpful:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world… But God, being rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… 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.

Paul starts out with  everyone being dead in our sin. Why? Because we once walked the course of this world toward sin, this requires that we change our course (repent). But dead men cannot change themselves (think Lazarus). So God in his mercy has made us alive together with Christ setting us in a new direction (repentance and faith). This making us alive is a gracious gift from God, not based on works. It is by grace that we are saved, through faith. 

In other words, the fact we have faith (and repentance) is a direct result of God making us alive in Christ. Why do we have faith? Because we have been born again by the Spirit (John 3). Why do we repent? Because we have been made alive in Christ. All of this is done by grace, not of works so that no one can boast. 

This being “born again” is the same thing Grudem referenced as “conversion” or is sometimes called “regeneration.” This is what the prophet Ezekiel foretells in Ezekiel 36:26-27:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

It is God who not only gives us a new heart, a heart of flesh, but he also gives us his Spirit so that we may obey. This is how we receive repentance and faith. God graciously gives us a new heart and his Spirit and all of sudden we change! We are born again! We turn from sin and death toward Jesus Christ and eternal life. This is repentance and faith and it is not based on works so that no one may boast. It is all of grace. Both are necessary and both come from God. 

What Do Works Have to Do With All of This?

Since neither faith nor repentance is a work, what role if any do works have in evaluating the confession of believer? Evangelicals tend to be very scared of works, so much so that if by works are even mentioned  some think we have crossed over into works-based salvation. But Scripture holds a much more balanced view of works. No you cannot be saved by your works, but works are nonetheless necessary.

In Philippians 2.12 we are commanded to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This was written by Paul and none would accuse Paul of preaching a gospel of works. Yet it is clear that Paul, Jesus, and the other writers of Scripture were very comfortable calling people to work without saying that works saved people. How can this be?

We looked briefly at Ephesians 2.1-9, but verse 10 continues the train of thought by focusing on works:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We often neglect this verse, but it is clear that one reason God has saved us by grace is in order that we may do the good works he has prepared for his people. Indeed, we are called to “walk in them.” Notice, in Ephesians 2.1-10, we are saved by grace and this salvation leads us to do good works. These two realities do not work against each other, rather they complement each other. 

In this way, our works testify as to whether or not we have received the grace of God through repentance and faith. Or as James puts it, faith without works is “dead” (James 2.26). In other words, faith without works  is not faith at all. Or as James puts it another way: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2.18b). Our works display whether or not we have experienced the gracious gift of repentance and faith through the work of Jesus Christ. 

God has prepared good works for those he has saved by grace. In this way  our works reveal our allegiance. They reveal whether we are walking toward God or away from him. Whether we have repentance and faith or not. 

Works are necessary in that they reveal the truth about our hearts. They are our fruits. Good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit, this is why Jesus said we will know them by their fruit—because works are important despite the fact that your works can never save you. Your works tell the others about who you really are. 

So we can say that Scripture directly commands all people to repent and believe and this is not accomplished by works. It is all of grace. But once you have been saved, once you have received grace, once you have encountered the Lord of the universe you will not be unchanged. Your works testify to this reality that God has saved you by grace and has prepared good works for you to walk in.