Essentials and Distinctives
Part 4: Regeneration
When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18, NKJV).
When you go to buy a new car, you are faced with many different options. Some of them are not really that important:
- Electric windows or those which are crank driven
- White walls or black walls on your tires
- Cassette tape deck or CD player
Other matters are important, but they are not crucial; not essential:
- 8 cylinder or 6 cylinder
- 2 doors or 4
- Passenger side airbag
- Even air conditioning
But some things are absolutely necessary:
- 4 wheels
- steering wheel
These are part of the standard equipment. If you don’t have these, then you do not have transportation. Things like the motor, transmission, steering wheel–these are the essentials of any automobile.
In this series of articles we have been studying the essentials of the Christian faith. That is, we have started looking at those things which the Bible says must be present if there is real Christianity. The person who does not possess them all, no matter how religious he may be, no matter how moral, how well-intentioned, that person is not a Christian.
We have already looked the essentials of regeneration and faith. A real Christian is a person who has been born of God’s Spirit and who is trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. We now come to consider a third essential element of biblical Christianity, namely, repentance.
In Acts 11:1-18 we read the account of the gospel going out to the Gentiles:
Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!”
But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
The Jewish Christians were not sure that Gentiles could become Christians. When they heard Peter’s report, their conclusion was stated in terms of repentance. Cornelius and his friends had received Peter’s message and God had changed their lives. Therefore, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem concluded, “God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
Is repentance necessary for salvation? Some have answered this question no. Zane Hodges, for example, has described repentance as “an unwarranted addition to the Gospel.” Jesus, however, says yes: “Unless you repent, you will…perish” (Luke 13:3). John the Baptist also answered yes. He came preaching repentance, calling for his hearers to bring forth fruit that gives evidence of repentance. Apostolic preaching says yes. In Acts 3:19 Peter proclaims: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Paul declared in Acts 17:30 that “God now commands all men everywhere to repent.”
Is repentance in any way a detraction from justification by faith alone? The answer to this question is no. Faith and repentance are twin graces. They are always found together. In Mark 1:15, Jesus said, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” In Acts 20:21, Paul told the elders of Ephesus that he preached “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If your faith is not a repenting faith, throw it out, it is not the real thing. If your repentance is not a believing repentance, throw it away also, for it is not a saving repentance.
Make no mistake. True repentance is absolutely essential to biblical Christianity. Only those who repent receive eternal life.
1. What is the Nature of Repentance?
Literally the New Testament word for repentance, metanoia, means to “think after” or to have a change of mind. This change, however, is far more than a merely intellectual exercise or a change of one’s opinion: “I used to think Chicago Bulls were going to win the NBA championship, but now I think the Utah Jazz will.” It is also more than merely feeling sorry or remorseful over sin. There is a difference between godly sorrow that leads to repentance and the sorrow of the world that produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10). When Judas betrayed Jesus, he was sorry and he tried to give the silver back. He had sorrow, but his sorrow did not lead to repentance.
Repentance is also more than “turning over a new leaf” or trying to get your life straightened out. It is not simply a determination of will to try to do better. Real repentance must include all three dimensions: understanding, emotions and will. When you repent, you understand that you are a sinner, guilty of breaking God’s law and in need of mercy. You feel something of the burden of that guilt. And you choose to turn away from disobedience to God and determine to follow Christ.
These three dimensions are brought out in the definition of repentance found in Question 91 of The Shorter Catechism, a Baptist Version. Repentance is “a saving grace whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” It involves the mind apprehending “the mercy of God in Christ.” It involves the emotions feeling “grief” and “a true sense of his sin.” And it involves the will turning “from it unto God.” Judas had a sense of his sin, but lacked an understanding of God’s mercy and a determination to turn away from his sin.
What about you? Do you have a true sense of your sin and an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ? Do you grieve over your sin? Are you turning from it to God? Are you trying to live in obedience to Christ?
Occasionally I meet people who say to me, “Oh, yea, I did that years ago,” as if repentance were a one time thing. But real repentance, like faith, is an ongoing exercise in the Christian’s life. A Christian is a lifelong repenter.
Do you have any personal acquaintance with true repentance? If not, then you must become acquainted with it. Because you cannot be a Christian without it.
2. What is the Source of Repentance?
Our passage gives us the answer. “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). God must give us repentance. We cannot work it up in ourselves (2 Timothy 2:25). In Acts 5:31 Peter said of Jesus: “Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Jesus came that He might give repentance and the forgiveness of sin.
God gives repentance unto life, but He uses means to call us to repentance.
Sometimes He uses good providence and blessing (Romans 2:1-4). But he can also use difficult providence as He did with Israel in the Old Testament:
“Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. And lack of bread in all your places; Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD. “I also withheld rain from you, when there were still three months to the harvest. I made it rain on one city, I withheld rain from another city. One part was rained upon, and where it did not rain the part withered. So two or three cities wandered to another city to drink water, but they were not satisfied; Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD. “I blasted you with blight and mildew. When your gardens increased, your vineyards, your fig trees, and your olive trees, The locust devoured them; Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD. “I sent among you a plague after the manner of Egypt; your young men I killed with a sword, along with your captive horses; I made the stench of your camps come up into your nostrils; Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD. “I overthrew some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a firebrand plucked from the burning; Yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD (Amos 4:6-11).
In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus used the occasion of some tragedies of his day to call men to repentance: “Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish.” Difficult providence can be God’s warning shots across our bow to wake us up and get our attention. This does NOT mean that every time something bad happens to you that God is by that calling to repent over some specific sin (you can go crazy trying to live that way). But, it does mean that with every difficulty that comes into your life, you ought to be willing to ask yourself if God is indeed calling you to turn to Him.
Do you ever stop and wonder about your life? Why things happen to you as they have? Are you prospering? Are you suffering? Do you ever wonder why tornados, hurricanes, fires and other disasters hit the people that they do? What about shootings? murder? Is it because they are somehow worse people than you? No. Unless you repent, you will also likewise perish.
God speaks through providence, calling us to repent of sin, but He speaks even more clearly through His Word. In Luke 24:47 Jesus commanded that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” On the Day of Pentecost, many were cut to the heart by Peter’s message and asked, “What should we do?” Peter replied, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ…” (Acts 2:38). When Paul addressed the men of Athens on Mars Hill, the message was the same: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17:30).
Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil (Jeremiah 13:23).
So too, God must grant repentance. He does it through His Spirit’s work, convicting people about providential occurrences in life, and especially, through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. My friend, you are entirely dependent on God for your salvation. You must repent. But He must grant you repentance. Do not be duped into thinking that you can put this off for some more convenient time. Have you ever been stirred up in your heart and mind while involved in the study of God’s Word? Have you ever felt convicted or sensed God calling you to repent? Don’t be like Felix before Paul (Acts 24), who trembled at Paul’s preaching, but would not repent. Don’t be like Agrippa, who “almost was persuaded.” Hear God calling you by His Word. Turn away from your sin and come to Christ. In Him alone is eternal life and salvation.