by Mark Horne
Years ago, as a layman, I had the privilege of attending a Bible study led by a gifted teacher. His story was interesting: back when he was a student he had been severely sanctioned for affirming that one must repent in order to be saved, that one must trust Jesus as Lord as well as Savior. As far as his teachers were concerned, he had denied the Gospel of free grace.
Years ago, as a layman, I also had the privilege of meeting a sincere Christian that was tormented by doubts as to whether or not he was elect–whether or not God had chosen him for salvation and would welcome him into resurrection glory. He had these doubts even though he thought he properly understood the Gospel of free grace.
Now, it is often assumed that the beliefs of my Bible teacher are the cause of the personal introspective torments suffered by those who wonder if they are “really saved.” By making repentance necessary to salvation one raises all sorts of unnecessary doubts.
But this, in my experience, misdiagnoses the problem. People have doubts when their view of faith is so isolated from all describable human behaviors that they cannot possibly distinguish between faith and wishing they had faith or between faith and imagining they have faith. As a result, pastors are confronted by professing Christians who wonder if they are “really” Christians.
Typically, Christians handle these difficulties by pointing out that they do certain good works, or show certain attitudes, or have developed certain habits that prove that they have really been changed by God–which, while it proves that they are believers, has nothing to do with faith itself. Faith is defined as a trust in God or belief in the Gospel that is divorced from what people actually do.
But, this raises a couple of problems. In the first place, how many works are necessary to distinguish a believer from an unbeliever? Defining faith apart from behavior leaves people not with faith or trust as we normally use those words, but some sort of esoteric spiritual phenomenon that becomes impossible to explain or do. Far from giving Christians assurance, it robs them of it.
In the second, what is the value of saving faith if, in fact, one has to look at one’s moral attainments to have any assurance that God has actually forgiven your sins and promises to receive you into his kingdom? God’s work through Christ’s faithfulness should be the object of your faith and hope, not your personal level of obedience.
Paradoxically, it is only by making faith and repentance conditions for eternal life that one can be objectively assured that one is headed for immortal glory at the resurrection. When the Reformers were battling against the idea propagated in the Western Medieval Church that one must earn or merit eternal bliss in heaven by doing enough good works, they declared that the Roman Catholic theologians were wrong because faith and repentance were sufficient. One major doctrinal statement, for example, was The Heidelberg Catechism. The document asks, “Can they, then, be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?” It answers, “By no means, for, as Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the kingdom of God,” and refers to First Corinthians 6.9, 10, Ephesians 5.5, 6, and First John 3.14, 15.
The author of the Heidelberg Catechism had a commentary on it published, in which he taught: “The law promises life upon the condition of perfect obedience; the gospel, on the condition of faith in Christ and the commencement of new obedience.” He also claimed that, “God promises to those that repent and believe, the remission of sins; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins.”
Faith and repentance can be distinguished, but they are actually two sides of the same coin: discipleship. The late theologian, John Murray wrote: “The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”
We can see how repentance is related to discipleship by comparing the ending of Luke’s Gospel with that of Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24.46-48). In Matthew we read, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, by teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20).
When the disciples preached repentance they were preaching the demand that all become Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, the word “Christian” is simply a nickname designating a disciple of Christ (Acts 11.26). If you ever think that you might not “really be a Christian” ask yourself, “Am I a disciple of Jesus?” No one submits to Christ’s discipleship without trusting him and no one entrusts himself to Jesus without becoming his disciple. The call to repent is a call to reject one’s own autonomy and submit to Christ’s care and control in the certainty that he will lead you to future glory–it is, in other words, a call to be and remain Christ’s disciple.
Sadly, just as many today make faith intangible, they also make discipleship a ghostly and nebulous affair. In the New Testament (and the whole Bible!) however, discipleship is a matter of public knowledge. It is seen in who continues with other believers in the Church, which is “the household of God” (First Timothy 3.14). Some of the most frightening warnings in the New Testament (Hebrews 10.26-30) are reserved for those who “neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10.25). Discipleship takes place in a public institution, the Church, where disciples provoke one another to walk further in faith and repentance.
It is pretty common in America to see the case of the repentant thief on the cross used as an example of how one doesn’t need anyone else to be a Christian. Ironically, by making it possible to be saved from the wrath to come without any tangible sign or concrete faith, instead of making people assured, more people begin to wonder if they are really justified in God’s sight.
The fact of the matter is that the thief on the cross proves that, unless you are nailed to wood to die, you have no excuse to not be a disciple of Christ. On the other hand, the thief entered into the Kingdom by approaching Christ. We don’t have Christ bodily next to us to talk to anymore. But we do have “households of God” available to us where we can be discipled by a repentant faith and a believing repentance.