Is Repentance Necessary for Salvation?

by John Hendryx

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.


29 thoughts on “Is Repentance Necessary for Salvation?

  1. The word “repentance” means changing the mind. A person cannot repent as in “give up” sin before he can be saved. I was convicted of my lostness, but I continued in many sins after I was saved. Eventually I gave up what God showed me.

    I believe in Lordship salvation which means you believe and then follow the Lord. But if we require sinners to leave sins, than which sins can they continue in before they can be saved? They do not even know what sin is much less be able to identify sins in their lives.

    I smoked pot, I cursed, I went to questionable movies, and I had covetessness in my life and yet I was saved and was welcomed into the body of believers. And yet we require a homosexual to actually give up his sin before he can be saved. Of course my mind (faith) had been changed about Christ and my sanctification process accompanied my followship and maturing in Him, but I cannot see how we can “require” anything but faith alone to get saved.

    Works will substantiate the legitimacy of their conbversion, but when a sinner asks me what sins must he give up to believe on Christ I say none. And if he actually becomes born again, it will be borne out in his life. They must be willing to follow Christ with no strings attached and with that God will do the rest.

    Can a couple living together get saved before moving out? Yes. Can they remain together indefinitely after they become believers? No. So they must come to Christ with no hidden agendas and reservations which God will test in the coming days. Works will be the flower while faith is the seed.

  2. Rick,

    I think it is silly to assume lost people can repent in order to be saved. Only the regenerate can do this and it is only by grace and gift from God that enables us to do so. Repentance is the sign that we are saved, as you said.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  3. Pingback: Is Repentance Necessary for Salvation? : Reformed Brethren

  4. The only reason they will be willing to follow Christ with no strings attached is because the Holy Spirit has regenerated them and they don’t know it yet. They think they did something when it was the Holy Spirit doing something. Later on they will realize it was all monergistic. I was just reading in the Heidelberg Catechism the 4 different kinds of faith. Ursinus commentary is very helpful on explaining this. Like the ‘order’ of salvation. Good post Mike. Those of us who are saved will repent in the power of the Lord and not our own power, and thats why it ‘sticks’.

  5. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the article Mike, as always is encouraging and instructive!:)

    As a side note. This goes to Paul and Luan, can you please post the link (if it was an online source) to the Heidelberg Catechism for the 4 different kinds of faith that you mentioned? I was introduced to the doctrines of grace less than a year ago (more or less), so still am learning quite a deal of things, and the Heidelberg Catechism sounds a very good reading to check out.. Looking forward for your reply!

    Greetings from Uruguay

  6. A man believes that there is food in a certain cupboard in his kitchen. He walks over and as he opens the one that he believes has the food he sees no food. He closes that one and opens the adjacent cupboard and finds the food he is looking for.

    Although the man does not go through a formal and well thought out repentance of his belief in the empty cupboard, his finding of the food in another cupboard carries with it a rejection of his former belief. In that he has repented. His mind has been changed.

    A person believes on Christ and inherent in that act of saving faith comes a repentance/rejection of his former belief. Although the outward manifestations of that repentance are yet to be fully worked out, he has through faith been changed and is now walking in a different direction and does not yet realize the extent to which God will change him.

    His now has the mind of Christ which means God has granted him “metanoia” – a change of mind.

    Are we at least close, Mike?

  7. Rick, Can you explain for us Ezekiel 36: 26 & 27, Jonah 2:9, Isa. 59:16, and etc.? The whole Bible is full of other places where it basically says God is sovereign over everything including your salvation. You have the free will to choose your shirt to wear, your lunch you eat, which car to drive to work, but you are a walking dead man until the Holy Spirit regenerates you spiritually. Then and only then will you be remotely interested in God or want to have anything to do with him. You are spiritually dead, but physically alive until He regenerates you. You can not take any ‘credit’ or rob God of His glory in your salvation. In John 3:8 He gives you the answer of how you are born again.

  8. Joao, Ursinus has a commentary on the Heidleberg Catechism. His commentary is worth a million $!! The 4 different kinds of faith he mentions are: historical faith, temporary faith, the faith of miracles, and then the one that matters, justifying or saving faith. You can usually get his commentary on We have learned SO much from it. Zacharias Ursinus.

  9. Intial repentance PRECEDES saving faith, and it is simply a giving up of being right with God in your own strength. Nobody will ever put there complete trust in Jesus alone until they first give up on themselve. Nobody can repent on their own stregnth or will power. Repentance and faith are gifts of God’s grace, it is all of grace, you must be born again in order to place your trust in Jesus. Read John 3:8, “The wind blows were it wishes…” that means the Holy Spirit is sovereign as to who and when he regenerates a person. Initially in regeneration the Holy Spirit convicts of sin and causes a person to see that they must give up all hope in themselve. This enables them to put their complete trust/faith is Jesus alone for their salvation.
    Unfortunately most professing Christians in America only have a “head” faith in Christ (or mental assent) and not a “heart” faith in Christ – they are on their way to hell and do not even know it. I know because that described me until God in His mercy a few years ago granted me repentance and faith in His Son. Being saved radically changes a person, they are permanently changed. They have a desire to follow Christ, to read the Bible, to pray, to discern truth, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit who indwells them to obey God – they are new creatures in Christ. After being saved a person will repent when they sin

  10. Paul and Luann – in respect to Mike I will not engage in that debate which would not only hijack this thread, but would probably make your view of me take a decidedly downward turn.

    Salvation is all of God. I agree.

  11. Mike, Is it just me or is this the order of salvation.
    Gospel call (general)
    Inward call (Holy Spirit)
    Regeneration (new birth)
    Conversion (faith and repentance)

  12. “Joao, Ursinus has a commentary on the Heidleberg Catechism. His commentary is worth a million $!! The 4 different kinds of faith he mentions are….”

    Thanks Paul and Luann for the input, will check it out then. God bless you.


  13. *Foreknowledge*
    Gospel call (general)
    Inward call (Holy Spirit)
    Regeneration (new birth)
    Conversion (faith and repentance)

  14. Rick, I guess I am confused a bit. I thought from before the foundation of the world, God elected us, and the only reason we want to repent is because He causes you to want to come to Him because He took the ‘veil’ off your eyes. Otherwise, we would never come to Him, ever, even though we know who He is. I thought we could hear the gospel call, but only the ones that have the inward call that the Holy Spirit provides in the elect, will actually come to Him. In other words, the reason we responded to Him is because He did it, not me. When He took the veil off of my eyes, I ran to Him because He caused me to see the ‘real deal’. Before the veil came off I knew who He was, but I didn’t want Him. I just figured He was up there and I was down here but I was a good person so hopefully He would let me in Heaven. I was a good person……why wouldn’t He? I didn’t realize there was a veil that had to be removed and only He could do that. So if I chose to repent, it was only because He took the first step and removed the veil. He doesn’t do that for everyone from what I understand. I don’t want a debate, I just didn’t understand your comments.

  15. If He takes the veil off of anyones eyes and regenerates them, they will come to Him everytime. Not all come to Him because He does not take that veil off, He only gives the general gospel call, not the inward one to them. He determined that before the world was created. Otherwise everyone in the whole world would come to Him because of the general gospel call, and that is universalism, and I know that is not right otherwise no one would be going to hell and the Bible says that more are going to hell than to heaven. I couldn’t come to Him until He regenerated me. So I don’t understand the forknowledge. You mean He forknew He was going to regenerate me? Not for-saw that I would choose Him, (that doesn’t make scence seeing how He has to do the work, not me, and I am dead spiritually until He does it,and I can do nothing until then). Am I understanding you right?

  16. I know that I didn’t choose Him. No good dwells in my carnal nature. I heard the Word, despised it, rebelled, and went the opposite direction. Yet somehow, His Word was like a seed which someone planted in my heart. He watered it even though I refused it. As time went on, He continued to water that tiny seed. During the time that He watered, I was handed over to my rebellion, in order that I fall flat on my face and die to the world. That which seed which He planted in my heart did not take root until I was dead to the world. That is when I repented because He drew me to Him by His Word. I get no credit or glory for Him drawing me unto Him. I only get credit for kicking against the goads.

  17. If God is drawing you unto Him, He will water whatever seed He has placed in your heart. It may be that you listened to a sermon, read a gospel tract, or read a page out of a Bible. It may “stick” with you for several years…. convicting you……. even though you try to resist. That conviction is very hard to resist. When and if God is drawing you, you will hate your sin.

  18. “Pervasive, all-of-life repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply and rapidly into the character of Jesus” (Tim Keller).

    How does the gospel affect and transform the act of repentance? What is the difference between gospel repentance and religious repentance?

    To learn more,

    The harder question for might be is continuous repentance important for our sanctification. I think the answer is a resounding YES YES YES!

  19. A couple of weeks ago someone took out a half page ad in one of those free newspapers claiming all you need is faith. It said nothing of repentance. The person running the add must have been one of those described in your article. The person did not leave their name.
    I honestly didn’t understand regeneration until two years ago and God does change your heart. As for myself it took Him about 5 minutes and those chains that bind just dropped. I haven’t been the same since then as I lost my desire to sin. I haven’t stopped sinning but have lost the desire.

  20. What would be the difference between Regeneration ( new birth ) and Conversion (faith and repentance)? I thought they were the same thing. Just reading those lists by Paul and Rick.:)

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