What Is Biblical Repentance (Part 2)? Answered by Justin Perdue
Hi, this is Justin. Today on ask Theocast, I am doing a follow-up to another ask Theocast that I recently recorded. That question in the previous episode was “what is biblical repentance?” and in the aftermath of that we had some really good follow-up questions submitted by several different people that I want to try to address today.
First, let me briefly recap what I said last time in the previous question on “what is biblical repentance?” We considered how the word used for repentance in the New Testament, metanoia, literally means a change of mind. We thought about how repentance is a change of mind about several things, including a change of mind about God, who he is, and what he requires of us. It’s a change of mind about ourselves as we have come to agree with God in what he has said about us and what he has said about our sin and about how wrong our sin is. We have also experienced a change of mind about Christ and about the way of salvation, realizing that we are not okay and we could never save ourselves but we must look to Jesus and Jesus alone for our salvation. We also considered how repentance is something that God produces in and through us. God in his love and grace repents us. It’s not something that we decisively do or produce.
So some of the follow-up questions that we have received in the aftermath of that previous ask Theocast – there were a number of people who were encouraged by it and we praise God for that – but some of the follow-up questions include this: “Why then, if repentance is something that God does to us, if he does it through us, why are we then commanded to repent in scripture?” In addition, “How do we reconcile the definition of repentance that you gave with the way that repentance is often talked about, being a turning from sin to God?” Then finally, “What do we make of your definition of repentance, Justin, and the charges of antinomianism that are often levied against people who talk the way that you do?” I’m going to try to take those one at a time and speak briefly to each one, and hopefully this won’t be a 10 minute ask Theocast. We’ll see.
So first, what do we make of the fact that we are commanded to repent in scripture? Well, we shouldn’t be thrown off by this. There are a number of things that we are commanded or exhorted to do in the Bible that we in and of ourselves cannot do. For example, the entirety of salvation is a gift from God. The scripture is clear about that. Think about Ephesians 2:8-10. In addition, we are exhorted in a number of places in scripture to believe in Jesus or to believe the gospel. Well, we would believe, according to our reformed, biblical definition of sin, that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, that we naturally are incapable, unable, and unwilling to believe or to have faith in Christ. It’s something that God must do, that God must grant to us and be the one to produce in us. So, just like we’re commanded to believe and can’t do that, and God must do that in and through us, the same is true of repentance. We’re commanded to repent, and God must be the one, by his Spirit, by his grace, he must produce that in us and must grant us repentance, to use the language of Acts chapter 11. So don’t let that throw you off. We are commanded to do a bunch of things that we can’t do by ourselves, but God in his grace does those things in and through us. He grants those things to us.
Secondly, how do we reconcile the definition of repentance that I offered last time with the way that repentance is often talked about in terms of being a turning from sin or a turning even from sin to God? Again, I don’t think this is problematic in any way. As we experience that change of mind that we considered, the change of mind about God and about us and our sin and how wrong our sin is, as we experienced the change of mind about Christ in the way of salvation, that change of mind is certainly going to represent a change in thinking, obviously, and also a change in course and posture, and so we will be living a life of continual, ongoing repentance, where we are regularly turning from our sin, turning from our own natural ways of thinking and acting and living, and turning to God in faith. We’re turning to Christ in faith, more particularly, and we are turning from our old ways and the ways of our flesh. We are turning to the ways of God as he outlines them in scripture, which brings us to the final piece, where a lot of times people that speak the way that I did in the previous episode of ask Theocast and define repentance the way that I did, we are charged with being antinomian.
The thinking here is, well, brother, if you tell people that repentance is something that God does to them, that God does through them, then people are not going to have enough skin in the game. There’s not going to be enough pressure on them to think seriously about their lives and about repentance and the like, and they will just kind of do whatever they want, and that’s an old objection. Frankly, it’s a worn-out objection, but in thinking about this, there’s a couple of things that we can say. Having been born again by the Spirit of God, we now delight in the law of God in our inner man, and so Christians, because of God’s Spirit dwelling in us, we want now to obey God. We have become obedient from the heart, to use the language of Romans 6:17. So when we sin, we’re going to be grieved by that. When our flesh is raging and waging war against our spirit and we end up doing things that we don’t want to do, Galatians 5:17, we’re bothered by that, and we are continually turning to God. We are praying to God, “God, I am sorry for my sin. I don’t want to sin. Please give me grace that I might not sin. Give me grace that I might live unto you.” This is what Christians do in an ongoing way, and we turn to God in faith, casting ourselves upon the mercy of God in Christ. So Christians, because of the presence of God’s Spirit and because of the grace of God at work in us, will be living a life of continual, ongoing repentance, as I’ve already said, and so the charge of lawlessness demonstrates a misunderstanding of the gospel, a short-selling of the work of God in the life of the Christian, and it assumes wrong motivations in the Christian life. It assumes that we must be motivated, in some sense, by fear or dread or merit or something, rather than understanding that we are motivated by ultimately something supernatural, the presence of God in us, but we’re also motivated at a human level by love, and gratitude, and joy, and peace because of what God has done for us.
I think that this definition of repentance that we have offered here at Theocast a number of times is entirely in step with scripture. We should not be thrown off by the fact that we’re commanded to repent. We’re commanded to do a lot of things that God must do in and through us. Repentance is no different, and Christians, far from living a life of lawlessness, we will be living a life of continual ongoing repentance, where we’re regularly turning from our sin to God, from our own ways to Christ, and we are crying out to the Lord for his mercy and grace and for his Spirit to work in us, that we might live lives that please and honor him. This is what the redeemed do. It is far from a lawless or apathetic life, but again, this is not something that you are going to produce in and of yourself. You’re not going to white knuckle this thing. God is going to work in and through you.
Continue to trust Christ. Continue to cast yourself upon the mercy of God in Christ. Continue to pray for God’s grace, that you might love him, that you might love your neighbor, and that you might not sin. This is the ongoing, repentant life of the Christian. I hope some of this is helpful to you. I apologize for the length of this. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.