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Repentance: Necessary for Salvation?

Is repentance necessary for salvation? That depends on how we define “repentance,” and what we mean by “necessary.”

If repentance means getting rid of every sin in our life, none of us can say we have done so. Yet how can we say we have repented, if we have only gotten rid of half of our sin, or even most of it? The old saying has a lot of truth: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.” What merit is there in a partial repentance job?

However, the Biblical term for repentance is a much broader term. The verb metanoeō (used 34 times in the New Testament), and its companion noun metanoia (used 22 times in the New Testament), both mean literally a “change of mind,” a 180-degree turn that includes turning away from evil, and turning away from previous thinking, either good or bad. How do we know? Let’s look at some Biblical examples.

Going back to the Greek translation of the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 15:29 says, “Also the Strength of Israel will not lie or repent (metanoeō), for he is not a human that he should repent (same verb).” Here “repent” translates the Hebrew verb niḥam, meaning to change either one’s mind or behavior, including even simply to be sorry or sad about an event. (I discuss this elsewhere in my post “Can God Change?” and in chapter 9 of my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.)

Biblical faith teaches that God does not sin. God is “holy” in the absolute sense. So the best way to translate the word niḥam where God is involved is “to change one’s mind or course of action.” Here, the Greek Old Testament uses metanoeō. Examples include:

  • Jonah 3:10, where God “repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them [Nineveh].”
  • Amos 7:3 and 7:6, where God shows Amos a vision of judgment, but then it says “The Lord repented.”
  • Joel 2:13: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repents of evil.”
  • Joel 2:14 and Jonah 3:9, where people wonder whether God will “repent” of disaster that God has decreed.

Not only is the word metanoeō used to speak of divine changes of mind about “evil” (meaning disaster – see my post “Does God Do Bad?”), but in Jeremiah 18:10, God even says that if a nation does evil, “I will repent of the good wherewith I said that I would benefit them.” Likewise, in a verse similar to God’s decree in 1 Samuel 15:28-29 that he will remove Saul from the throne and will not change his mind, God says in Jeremiah 4:28, “I have spoken…and I will not repent.”

In Proverbs 24:32, when the speaker sees what happens to a field managed by a lazy person, we read, “Then I saw; I repented.” Here the speaker has no sin to repent of, but merely undergoes a “change of mind.” Likewise, in Hebrews 12:17, Esau “found no place for repentance,” even though the issue is not sin, but a foolhardy decision to sell his birthright.

The New Testament meaning of repentance contains monumental changes of both mind and of behavior. The first word out of the mouth of Jesus and of John the Baptist in their preaching is the command, “Repent!” This word in its noun and verb forms is found chiefly in Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Revelation (zero times in James or John!). It is found in landmark passages such as Acts 2:38, where Peter commands the crowd at Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized!” Paul says in Romans 2:4 that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. And in 2 Peter 3:9, we are told that God desires that none should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Repentance is not a pre-requisite for salvation, but it is indispensible evidence that one has been saved. When we place our faith in Christ alone to take away all of our sin and put us right with God, that act of faith is guaranteed to be accompanied by a monumental change of heart, mind, and behavior. We will love God in a way we did not and could not love God before, and we will hate sin more than we ever did before. And by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, that change of heart cannot help but produce a change of behavior, albeit over a lifetime. If that change doesn’t happen, we have reason to question whether the person has truly been saved.

Sin is like weeds. We’ll never finish pulling them all out of our life. But we are crazy if we ignore them or try to plan more of them. What we want to avoid is “unrepentant” sin, an attitude that shows no sorrow for sin and no desire or effort to rise above sin. We do not ordain sinless leaders; we ordain only repentant sinners. What matters is not so much what you’ve done in the past, but whether or not you are determined to leave that sin in the past.

Let it never be said that the historic Christian Church blows off repentance. We simply put repentance in its proper place, as indispensible evidence that we have been saved by the mercy of Christ that can never be earned or deserved. Placing our faith in Christ to take away all of our sin and put us right with God is packaged together with a huge change of mind, heart, and behavior.