This blog is a continuation of my study on biblical repentance. If you haven’t read the previous post “A Brief Look at Biblical Repentance,” I encourage you to do that first. I plan to narrow our focus here on one of the Greek words for “repentance” used in the New Testament: metanoio μετανοέωas. That previous blog will help you see this word within its larger canonical context.
But here’s the question at hand: is repentance necessary for salvation?
This question has been at the heart of many theological debates throughout the centuries, and it’s fueled by varying interpretations on key New Testament passages. Are we saved by faith alone through grace alone, as the Reformers put it? Are we saved by our faith and works, as other Christian traditions might explain it? And, more pointedly, should the act of repentance be lumped into the faith-category or works-category?
If you were raised Catholic, odds are that you’d answer the question posed above with a resounding “yes!” Repentance, or penance, is a vital sacrament that every good Catholic must walk through to find salvation and healing. Doesn’t scripture, and Jesus himself, say this explicitly in Matthew 3:2, Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38, and Acts 17:30? Aren’t we to repent because the Kingdom of God is near?
On the other hand, someone raised within a Calvinist tradition like myself might be much more hesitant in their answer. Isn’t repentance a “work?” And doesn’t Mark 16:16, Luke 7:50, John 3:16, John 3:36, Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9, and Ephesians 2:8-9 explain that we’re saved by belief and not actions?
What exactly is going on here?
Faith and Repentance
When many of us think of repentance today, we first think of the act of confession. Repentance is often synonymous with heart-felt apology toward God or others. And that is true. The public confession of sins is a big part of embodying repentance, a subject that we will return to in an upcoming blog.
However, and specifically when it comes to the New Testament’s use of the word metanoio, biblical repentance should be understood in a slightly different way. As mentioned in my previous post, metanoio means something like “to change your mind/thoughts/purposes.” And in that sense, it really is not that much different than pistis πίστις (faith/belief) when used in this context. We might say that repentance is one’s inward conscious change, and faith is the change of one’s determinative center. Repentance is changing your mind about your old way of living and faith is redirecting your thoughts toward a new way of living. And they both require one another to function properly. You can’t repent of something without a turning toward something else. Likewise, you can’t have faith in something new without rejecting something old. Faith and repentance go hand-in-hand.
In fact, Mark 1:15 might point us to this exact conclusion:
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15 NIV
In Mark’s account of Jesus’ announcement in Galilee, the words metanoio (repent)and pistis (belief/faith) are used together. They are both requirements in receiving the good news of the kingdom. And it’s likely that Mark meant them to be understood as one multifaceted aspect within the conversion process. You can’t do one without the other.
Is Repentance a One-Time Action?
So, if faith and belief are both requirements for entrance into God’s kingdom, does that mean we only need to repent once? That is, if believing in Christ is sufficient for salvation, and repentance is a part of believing, why do we need to keep on repenting for sin (1 John 1:8-10)?
There’re a few reasons why.
First, we are forgetful. We as humans are so easily distracted. That’s why I think Jesus intentionally built repentance into things like the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12) and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). Repentance reminds us of the sacrifice Christ made on our behalf as well as the decision we once made to repent and believe in the good news.
Second, repentance is one of the ways we embody God’s kingdom here on earth. Again, we will return to this idea in a later blog post; but, when we repent of sin, we continue to confess Christ’s saving act in our midst. It’s a public declaration, a sign post of the type of people we are: redeemed.
Is repentance nessecary for salvation? Yes, because faith is nessecary for salvation. These things go hand-in-hand. And in this sense, repentance is not a “work” that earns us forgiveness but merely the turning away of one’s former life to embrace this new life made possible in Christ through the Spirit.
Do we need to repent more than once? Yes, because while salvation is a one-time deal, the continued act of repentance is also meant to be a reminder to us of the mercy that Christ showed us on the cross.
 “Repentance” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Theological Dictionary of Theology 2nd Ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1012.
 I am intentionally avoiding a conversation about the order of salvation (ordo salutis) here. There is some merit in discussing it, but this blog is not the place to do so. However, if pressed, I do side with a more Calvinist perspective on this: election, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and so on. That’s because it is hard for me to understand how one might come to faith in Christ, and subsequently repent of their sins, without the aid of the Spirit. If we are completely corrupt in sin, we could never do so without God’s help at every step.