REPENTANCE – FIRST AND FOREMOST A CHANGE OF MIND CONCERNING RIGHTEOUSNESS
“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all OUR RIGHTEOUSNESSES ARE AS FILTHY RAGS!” [Isaiah 64:6]
Few will dispute that the Bible teaches the necessity of repentance. Scripture also portrays the teaching of repentance toward God as the goal and objective of a true Gospel ministry brought about by and concurrent with faith toward Christ. I had always been taught that repentance was a “turning.” That is, whereas I was heading in a certain direction, in repentance, I now turn to head in the opposite direction. I was also taught that repentance was a radical change of mind. To this day, I believe these descriptions to be apt; however, I’ve discovered that I was seriously mistaken about just WHAT I was to turn from and WHAT I was to turn to in repentance.
Most people associate repentance with a reformation of sorts. To some, repentance means a change from a life of immorality to one of morality. To others, it involves a change from an indifferent attitude toward religion or spiritual things to a life characterized by greater religious dedication or zeal. Certainly such reformations in character and conduct are beneficial to society and should be encouraged; however, this is NOT the true nature of godly repentance that would give evidence of salvation. Although such reformations may, in fact, accompany godly repentance, they do not insure that repentance unto salvation has occurred.
If repentance involves a “turning,” or radical change of mind, then by definition this turning must be FROM something or some way that was erroneous TO something true. Here we can see how faith and repentance, though distinct evidences, are inseparable and always accompany one another in true conversion. Just as saving faith must believe the true gospel wherein Christ’s righteousness is revealed, true repentance must involve a turning away from any other way of salvation to God’s pre-scribed way.
One may come to understand and agree that God’s way of salvation is by virtue of Christ’s righteousness imputed, yet fail to repent—to turn from and reject any other way. In this case, failure to repent is evidence that the faith is not genuine, not truly saving. This reveals that we aren’t truly convinced that God’s way of salvation is the only way, continuing to consider it possible that somehow we, or others, might have been saved while ignorant of (or not submitted to) the imputed righteousness of Christ as the only valid ground for salvation.
The repentance that gives evidence of salvation is a change of mind concerning the character of God and how He can justly save sinners. It is a change of mind concerning Christ and the value of His righteousness as the only means of entitlement to heaven. It is also a change of mind concerning ourselves as we become aware of the sin that naturally deceives us, of thinking that anything other than the righteousness of Christ imputed could remove our guilt and defilement before a holy God.
Only the true Gospel can expose this sin that causes us to seek to establish a righteousness of our own before God. As I explained earlier, the Bible clearly states that to be ignorant of the righteousness revealed in the Gospel means that, by default, we automatically are trying to establish a righteousness of our own. Such attempts are the by-product of the view that salvation is conditioned (at least to some degree) on something that proceeds from the sinner. This is self-righteousness whether we recognize it or not. In salvation, the light of the Gospel exposes this sin to us so that we do recognize it and repent from it—from ever thinking that anything other than Christ’s righteousness imputed could remove God’s wrath or gain His favor.
The Bible also teaches of an ongoing sorrow over sin that causes true believers to repent constantly over the presence and influence of remaining sin. However, in the context of this chapter, considering repentance as an evidence of one’s state, it is critical that we make a distinction between this continual repentance and the initial repentance that accompanies true spiritual conversion. The absence of this initial repentance gives evidence that one’s faith is not truly of a saving variety and, in turn, exposes that any accompanying sorrow over sins is nothing more than legal, natural-conscience conviction.