The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace, through faith alone. (Ephesians 2:9) The Bible is also clear that a person’s works no part in bringing salvation. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.” (Titus 3:5) But many preachers talk about repentance when they preach the message of salvation. If salvation is only through faith what does repentance have to do with it?
The Bible preaches repentance as part of the gospel message. The end of Luke’s gospel records Jesus’ command to His disciples to take the gospel to all the world. In that commission Jesus connected repentance to forgiveness. “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations.” (Luke 24:47) In Acts 2 when the Jews asked Peter what they must do to be saved, he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” (Acts 2:38) The gospel Paul preached was a gospel of repentance. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:21) Repentance is necessary for salvation.
How is repentance a part of salvation but not a work? Repentance is a change of mind or heart that results in a change in behavior. Repentance is not an action, or inaction. Repentance is a changed mind that recognizes sin and guilt. Repentance is a changed heart. A person can change behavior without true repentance. Many motives exist for a change in behavior. Fear of consequences or desire for a benefit may cause someone to change without ever recognizing he has sinned. A drunk may give up drinking because it affects his ability to get a promotion but never repent of the sin of drunkenness. On the other hand, a profession of sorrow or an acknowledgment of guilt is not necessarily repentance. Sorrow that does not transform the person is not repentance. Repentance produces a change in behavior. Changed behavior is not repentance, but it will be the fruit of repentance.
How does this relate to salvation? Repentance to salvation is not turning over a new leaf or becoming a better person. Repentance to salvation is a change of heart that turns away from false beliefs about God and salvation. Paul’s gospel message was a message of repentance towards God and faith towards Jesus. He preached to the Jews repentance of their rejection of Jesus. (Acts 13:39-41) Peter’s message to the Jews was the same as Paul’s- repentance from their rejection of Jesus. (Acts 2:36-38) Paul preached to the Greeks repentance from idolatry. (Acts 17:29-30) Repentance to salvation is a turning away from false gods and false methods of salvation and a turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
Repentance is necessary for salvation. No one can be saved unless he turns away from all false beliefs, all attempts at saving himself, all self-righteousness, all false saviors and all rejection of Jesus to trust in Him alone for forgiveness of sin. Repentance is the other side of faith. Repentance turns from false worship to faith that trusts Jesus alone.