First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Acts 26:20
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” Acts 20:21
There is a divergence of viewpoints on this topic that, recently, has led to quite a bit of contention among evangelicals. This has also been known as the Lordship, no-Lordship debate. After we strip away the bark what is left is the difference between the Reformed and a dispensational view of salvation. After doing some serious personal contemplation over this I have personally come to the conclusion that the difference lies in each camps’ understanding of the doctrine of regeneration.
The dispensationalists will argue that to require repentance, as part of salvation, is to actually add another requirement to ‘faith alone’. In other words, to require belief in Christ’s Lordship in addition to the belief in Christ as Savior is tantamount to adding a work and confusing the simple gospel of faith alone with some action on the believers’ part. Any addition to simple faith is seen as another gospel and dangerously close to salvation by works. Such critics would thus define repentance to only mean a change of mind towards one’s previous view of Christ.
On the other hand, the Reformed understanding salvation is that God commands all persons to repent and believe the gospel. Repentance here means to turn away from all known sin and from trusting in one’s good works. A Reformed understanding sees faith and repentance as two sides of the same coin that really cannot be separated. To believe in Jesus means to recognize that one is a sinner in rebellion against God. It is not simply adding Jesus to one’s life among other interests but to consciously forsake other loves and idols. Prior to salvation one’s love for sin was more than one’s love for God. The result of grace working in one’s soul caused the repentant sinner to have a new affection for God that now desires God more than he desires sin.
I will argue here that the difference between these two positions is no mere argument about semantics. Rather, this is an argument about hermeneutics, about how one understands God’s work of salvation in one’s soul. I commend the dispensational position for attempting to protect the simple doctrine of faith alone but it fails to take into account the doctrine of regeneration. Understandably, the dispensationalists see the additional requirement of repentance as unbiblical from their viewpoint since they have embraced a synergistic scheme of salvation. What do I mean by this? I mean that most dispensationalists teach that the atonement and grace are God’s part in salvation, while faith is our part. But the atonement and the grace they speak of is not effectual in and of itself and cannot effect the completion of salvation without the cooperation and consent of the sinner. Somehow the sinner, in his unregenerate, fallen state has the ability to turn to Christ in faith with some help from God’s grace. But in the final analysis, it is the sinner that contributes his faith as part of the requirement of salvation. Such a belief sees regeneration as the result of, rather than the cause of faith.
The Reformed understanding of repentance and faith is that both of these are not something that the sinner contributes to the price of his or her salvation. They are, rather, the supernatural result of God working new affections in their soul. Therefore, repentance is not something that the sinner is adding in addition to faith as a work, but both repentance and faith are seen as the infallible result of the new birth that is applied to sinners by the Holy Spirit. A biblical understanding sees faith and repentance not as something we create or perform or supply, apart from regenerative grace. The unregenerate are truly incapable of creating a right thought, generating a right affection, or originating a right volition, so God, in His mercy, gives to His people freely, that which He demands from us. God disarms the opposition of the human heart, subduing the hostility of the carnal mind, and with irresistible power (John 6:37) draws His chosen ones to repentance and faith in Christ. The gospel confesses, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
When admonishing us to teach the gospel to unbelievers the Scripture says do so, “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” (emphasis mine). It couldn’t be more clear that the apostles viewed repentance as something God enables us to do, since the unsaved are being held captive by the devil to do his will and unable and unwilling to loose their chains on their own.
What I would argue, therefore, is that it is the dispensational view that actually adds to the simplicity of the gospel of grace. That is because I believe the Scriptures teach that the very desire for faith itself is a gift of God’s mercy. The idea that it is something that we ourselves generate in our fallen nature is the cause of great confusion in our day. All evangelicals will agree that faith is our responsibility but a deficient view of man’s depravity has led to erroneous doctrines that make faith itself something we have to contribute to our salvation and therefore it is perilously close to trusting in something we do in order to win God’s approval for salvation. If you don’t see this, ask yourself how a fallen sinner who hates God suddenly was able to generate affections for God. If I share the gospel to two men sitting in the same room and one believes the gospel, why is it that he believed and not the other? Was one more spiritual, have more love, have a better knowledge, originate a better thought? From where in his soul did he get the power to believe? Any answer other than God’s pure grace is saying that God choose us because of something right or good within us. Even if you believe that God initiates with grace (as a synergist), we still have to respond by drawing from something within our unregenerate nature. The Scriptures testify that the:
“… natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 1 Cor 2:14
“…the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” Rom 8:7
So in the end, I would argue, it is actually the synergistic dispensational view that is erroneously making additions to the pure gospel that says, “salvation is of the Lord.” They very beginning and desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to us through regeneration: does this belong to us by nature or is it a gift of grace itself, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness? If not then you have missed the point of the Scripture which declares, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, ” For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; (Eph. 2:8). Grace does not depend on the humility or obedience of man but it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, for the Scriptures testify “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
So the requirement for repentance and to believe that Christ is Lord is plainly taught in the Scripture. The dispensational view would have one reject Christ’s Lordship when coming to faith. No, the correct understanding is that God works new affections in us. When spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God has the power to graciously open people’s eyes, change the disposition of their hearts, and bring them to faith and repentance (James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, 25). Anything less is to misapprehend what God does when he raises us from spiritual death. Faith and repentance are not something we get the glory for: God gets all the glory.
Does God have mercy upon us, apart from His regenerative grace, so that we believe, will, desire, strive and labor? Shouldn’t we all confess that it is by the efficacious working and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we even have the faith, the will, or the desire to do all these things as we ought to? Repentance or yielding to the Lordship of Christ at the time of salvation is just a simple product of our new nature in Christ, not something we do to earn a new nature. I would argue that many dispensationalists who uphold no-Lordship are actually teaching that salvation is by grace plus faith rather than this historic Christian teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. That even faith itself is not of ourselves but a divine gift to the soul, for what do we have that we did not receive?. (2 Tim 2:25, Phil 1:29, Hebrews 12:2, 1 John 5:1, Rom 3:24, Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Eph 2:8, John 1:13) Do you see the difference? One makes faith something we contribute to complete the work of salvation while the other views salvation as a work of God alone.
To conclude, this issue is so critical that the church in America must reclaim a right understanding this doctrine if it has any hope of continuing usefulness to God in the world. God deals with us personally, not as abstractions, as those who have transgressed His law, who are hostile and engaged in obstinate rebellion against His legitimate authority in our lives. The seriousness of man’s fallen condition has often been put aside in modern churches due to, what I believe, are erroneous views of repentance. The casualness of our message to merely “accept Jesus” without helping people to understand our wretched condition, allows many to remain stubbornly unyielding in their pride and sin. This large-scale “user-friendly” message in today’s evangelical churches have given rise to a Christianity that gives hollow worship to Christ but creates a heart that remains unrenewed and still delights in sin. Many are unwilling to give the Lord their allegiance because they have not been born again. They are told, however, that because they “accepted Jesus into their heart” at some moment in the past that it doesn’t matter that they now live in rebellion against God. The continuing spirit of defiant, willful rebellion to Christ’s authority as an unbroken pattern of our churches are a direct result of a lack of understanding among church leaders of the doctrine of regeneration.