What is Repentance?

What is Repentance?

By Stan Cox

I recently had a discussion with a young man with a Baptist background, who was advocating the position that a man is saved at the point of faith. He used typical arguments that I have heard many times before. As we talked I asked him if he thought repentance was necessary for salvation.

In his absolute opposition to the idea God requires any acts of obedience (works), how did he deal with the Bible call to repent? His answer was interesting. He said, "I believe something different than you about repentance. Nowhere are we called to repent of our sins to be saved. We are to repent of unbelief!" His view is that we have to change our mind (repent) from unbelief to belief, to be saved.

I did a bit of research to document this view, and came across a book "Enemies of Soul-Winning" written by Dr. Jack Hyles (deceased). Hyles was an influential figure in the Independent Baptist movement, and in the fourth chapter of his book, titled "Misunderstood Repentance — An Enemy of Soul Winning" he defended this position.

As I understand it, the position is based upon two fundamental concepts. First, what makes a person lost (condemned) is not believing in Jesus Christ. Consider Hyles' words here:

First, we need to find what makes one lost. Please notice John 3:18, "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." It is very plain in this verse what makes a person lost. Notice the words, "he that believeth not is condemned already." A person who does not believe is condemned, so not believing is what makes a person lost. (emphasis mine, SC).

Second, the repentance that is called for to be saved is not repentance from sin, but from unbelief. Again, note this view in Hyles' own words.

If a person were saved by good works, then he would have to repent of bad works, or of not doing good works, in order to be saved. If a person were saved by quitting his sinning, then he would have to repent of his sinning in order to be saved. A person is saved by believing, so he repents of his unbelief or turns from his unbelief in order to be saved. There are those who say we have to repent of our sins in order to be saved. No, we have to repent only of the thing that makes us unsaved, and that is unbelief.

This concept conflates belief with repentance. What a person does when he believes is a change of mind. Before he was not a believer, now he is. By becoming a believer, he repented of his unbelief. This, again is clear from Hyles' pen.

In Acts 16:30 the very simple question is asked, 'What must I do to be saved?' This is the one time in the Bible where this question is asked. Now the answer to this question must be what saves a person. Acts 16:31, 'And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.' There's the answer-belief. There is nothing about repentance here, except, yes, there is something about repentance, because you can't believe without repenting from unbelief. (emphasis mine, SC).

It is not a surprise that this view comes in part from a Calvinistic view of salvation. This view denies the concept of obedience as necessary to salvation. All that is required is faith (a trust in the finished work of Christ). To say that one must repent of his sins is to say that man has to do something. That equates to salvation by works, (in their view), and so is invalid.

Answering the Error

This view of repentance is novel, superficial, and unsubstantiated by the word of God. Consider a few simple points that will defeat the concept.

First, what makes one lost is sin! This was true in the beginning. Adam and Eve enjoyed fellowship with God until sin entered the picture. In Genesis 2:16-17, God commanded Adam and Eve, "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Their disobedience (sin) led them to die spiritually when they ate the forbidden fruit.

This was true during the Old Testament. Isaiah told sinful Israel, "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear." (Isaiah 59:1-2).

This is true today. Consider the words of our Lord, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell" (Matthew 5:29-30). It is simple cause and effect. Sin separates us from God, and brings eternal condemnation. Paul explained this to the Roman Christians when he wrote, "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death" (Romans 6:20-21).

So, what is the meaning of John 3:18, used as a proof text by Hyles and those who hold his view of repentance? Jesus said, "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Since faith in Jesus is the sole means of obtaining salvation, one who does not believe is condemned. He is not condemned because of unbelief, but because of sin! However, he will remain in that sin until such time that he believes in Jesus Christ. This truth is simple and undeniable.

Second, the concept of repentance, as is required for salvation under the new covenant, is repentance from sin. Consider first the definition of the term repent.

Thayer defines the term (metanoeo) as: 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent. 2) to change one's mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one's past sins.

You will note that the first definition is the literal meaning of the Greek word. It means to change one's mind. However, the second definition is an indication of how the term is used in scripture. Context is the most important consideration here. Take as an example the call for the Jews to repent in Acts 2. Consider Peter's words in verse 36, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." This accusation "whom you crucified" resonated with his hearers. It convicted them. In response, we are told "they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?'" (37). They believed Peter's words. They believed that they were guilty of the sin of crucifying the Anointed of God. They desired to escape the consequence of their sin.

Consider that if the novel position we are reviewing was true it could be said of them that they had repented of their unbelief. They had been convinced by Peter's words. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God.

What would our Baptist friend now tell them to do? We don't have to speculate, because he actually gave me a small postcard with the instructions written on it.

Let us help you word a prayer to tell God that you believe in Jesus Christ and want to be saved and go to Heaven when you die:

Dear Lord, I know that I am a sinner, and I deserve to go to Hell, but I believe that you died for me and rose from the dead. Please save me and give me eternal life. I'm only trusting you to save me. In Jesus name, Amen.

That's what the Independent Stedfast Baptist Church of Fort Worth, TX says, but what did Peter say? "Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (38). If repentance was from unbelief, Peter would not have told believers to repent. Their faith would be evidence that they had already done so. Further, if repentance is from unbelief, to salvation, then it stands to reason that such repentance is unto "the remission of sins." Since repentance is unto the remission of sins, then baptism is as well. So, their own argument would require baptism for salvation! They, of course, do not believe this. So it demonstrates just how deep a hole is dug when one departs from what the Bible actually teaches.

One final point on this matter. We have already quoted Hyles as saying that it is unbelief that causes one to be lost. However, in the material presented by this young man, there is the following paragraph:

The Bible says that if we will completely trust in Jesus to save us, not ourselves, that he will give us eternal life. Once you are saved you can not lose your salvation, it is everlasting. (emphasis mine, SC).

In Hebrews 3:12, saved men were warned, "Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God." If unbelief causes one to be lost, then to claim we can't lose our salvation is to claim that we can't stop believing. Hence, the Hebrew writer's warning has no relevance! This is yet another example of the foolishness of this error.

The Bible Concept of Repentance

The singular problem of man is sin. Sin separates man from God. The first sin a man commits separates him from God. Even after a man becomes a Christian, sin can bring alienation from God (as seen by Hebrews 3:12). The idea that a man can be saved without repenting of his sins against God is absurd, and decidedly unscriptural.

The concept of repentance is described by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. After severely rebuking that congregation in his first letter, he was thankful to hear that his admonitions had the desired effect. They brought the Corinthians to a state of repentance. Paul wrote:

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11)

The components of true repentance are found in this text. They sorrowed in a godly manner because of their sins. Their sorrow could be rightly described as godly because it "led to repentance." The repentance was seen in a diligent effort to cease the sin and replace it with obedience. Their change in behavior was sufficient to vindicate them in the eyes of God and man. "In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter."


It is a peculiar world we live in today. In July 2015 Donald Trump told the Family Leadership Summit that he had never asked God for forgiveness. In January of 2016 he said on CNN, that he does not "like to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don't do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad." In expressing these sentiments, he apparently has a theological framework he can embrace.

Too many are ignoring what God demands as a response to sin! In Luke 13 Jesus talked with some about a group of Galileans who had been executed by the Roman prelate in Judea. He asked the group whether they thought this punishment was because those Galileans were "worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?" The answer was supplied by the Lord Himself, "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:1-3).

The gospel is God's power to save (cf. Romans 1:16). Do you believe, as did the Jews on Pentecost, that God made Jesus "both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36)? If so, to be saved you must do the same thing that they did. "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (2:38). Don't listen to the purveyors of this novel and false redefinition of repentance. Turn away from your sin. Embrace God. Be buried in the waters of baptism, and rise to walk as a new creature in Christ. "Be saved from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40). ~