Is repentance necessary for salvation?

by Matt Slick

The answer to the question "Is repentance necessary for salvation?" is both yes and no.  It depends on what is meant by the question.  If by asking "Is repentance necessary for salvation?" the person means that the sinner must first repent, have a change of mind, and stop sinning in order to get saved, then the answer would be no.  The reason would be that we are not saved from the righteous judgment of God by stopping sin and doing good--that would be salvation by works.  We are saved from our sins by trusting in Christ, who bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Pet 2:24)--not by ceasing sin and doing what is right.  When we receive Christ (John 1:12), we are then justified by faith (Rom. 3:28; 4:5; 5:1); and it is the work of God to regenerate us which then enables us to turn from our sins.  Therefore, repentance is the result of regeneration (salvation)--not the cause of it.

  • “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 “And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
  • John 1:12-13, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
  • “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8).
  • “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow. 18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” (James 1:17-18).

On the other hand, repentance is necessary for salvation in the sense that we cannot be saved from God's righteous judgment without changing our minds about sin--without turning from it and seeking to honor God.

  • Luke 13:3, "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
  • Acts 2:38, "And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
  • Acts 17:30, "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent."

Repentance is most definitely part of the gospel message, but we have to make sure that we do not make the mistake of saying that our salvation is because of our repentance.  Again, we do not want to say that our salvation is a result of our stopping the doing of what is wrong and turning to do what is right.  This would be salvation by works.  This is a tricky issue among Christians as to whether or not the unbeliever who is a slave of sin (Romans 6:14-20), who cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14) and can do no good (Romans 3:10-12), is able to make a choice to stop sinning based on his sinful nature.  It would seem that the ability to repent must be granted by God (Phil. 1:29; Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25).

So we have to be careful when we ask if repentance is necessary for salvation.  The real question is: "Is repentance the result of salvation?" And the answer to that is yes.  But repentance is also part of the message of salvation that commands people to repent because turning from sin is what is right to do.  Sin is against the nature of God, and that is why God always commands everyone everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).  Just as he also commands that you will be holy (1 Peter 1:16) even though we cannot be holy.  God is the standard of perfection, and that standard is not lessened because of our inability.  Therefore, repentance is commanded, as is holiness; and we have to depend on God for both.

 

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