Repentance and Faith are One and the Same
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)
"Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16)
"Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out," (Acts 3:19a)
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
"Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 20:21)
One of the most important things we can learn about interpreting words is that they often gain their full meaning only in relation to other words. To quote the dictionary is not enough; language is a perpetual dance of definitions and connotations.
This is true of many of the words we use to explain our faith, none more so than "repentance" and "faith." The fundamental call of Christianity is summed up in these two callings, to turn from sin and believe in Jesus. That is true of conversion, and it continues to be true of those of us who are in Christ. Yet because we pry these words apart and tend to consider them in isolation of each other, at times we fail to appreciate their proper meaning.
The above verses are illustrative of the problem. Notice how at times the call is just repentance, at others faith/belief, and at still others, the two are offered together. Each word functions as a metonym for the other; to speak of repentance seems to assume faith, and to speak of belief requires a grieving of sin.
This matters because, when we fail to keep the two in their proper relation, we can end up with a wrong idea about what each means.
Repentance, when we don't recognize that it includes faith, easily becomes a means of smuggling legalism into the gospel of grace. "Jesus will forgive your sins," we say, "as long as you make a 180-degree turn, flee the sin and resolve never to do it again." While meant as a corrective for another error about repentance (that it amounts to nothing more than a politician's half-apology laced with crocodile tears), this definition easily makes Christianity a religion of works righteousness, the mercy of the cross only available to those who have recovered from their need for such propitiating mercy.
Faith, when we detach it from repentance, becomes easy-belief-ism, the chanting of a mental mantra that "God is love; God saves" that amounts to a get-into-heaven-free card without any demands placed on us as believers. It is a prayer at an altar or a decision made at church camp that drops like a stone into the middle of our life but which, a few hours after the splash, has left the surface undisturbed.
Biblically, neither of these approaches is correct because both repentance and faith must include the other.
Repentance in Scripture is always believing repentance. We cannot truly name or grieve the enormity of our sins without already having a taste of the gospel, just as people often cannot admit their sickness without knowing some sense of the cure. God's grace actually enables repentance, as the context of mercy provides the security we need to weep for our sins.
Faith in Scripture is likewise penitent belief. It recognizes in naming God as loving that we are creatures undeserving of love and that naming Jesus as merciful demands us to recognize that we need mercy. More than that, it acknowledges that to believe in such a God will force us to re-evaluate the way we have been living; we cannot know God to be true without admitting that sin is a liar.
Put another way, if we understand them biblically, faith and repentance are one and the same. Not that we can't speak of them separately; Scripture uses two words because we need both together to arrive at the truth. However, to consider one without seeing how it contains the other is like describing one face of a coin while refusing to consider what is on the other side.
All of which is another way to say that faith and repentance are both movements toward Jesus. The error in separating them is that we think they are two arrows thrust off on completely divergent vectors; the truth is that they both point toward Christ. In Jesus, we find both a standard of righteousness that shows us our sin and a promise of mercy that offers to cover them. In Jesus, we find both a promise of God's love and a demand that, as we are loved, so we must live out the love of God.
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