What the Bible says about repentance is quite controversial.
Repent and Believe to Receive Eternal Life?
In some circles, repentance is a necessary first step to conversion, usually preceding faith. Those who hold this view often say things like “Repent and believe.” The idea, of course, is that in order to receive eternal life, people must first repent of their sin, and then secondly, believe in Jesus. Passages such as Mark 1:15 where John the Baptist calls on people to “repent and believe the gospel” seem to support such a view.
Is Repentance a Synonym for Believing?
However, since turning from sin as a precondition for faith is a form of good works, many Christians are uncomfortable with defining repentance this way, and so think of it instead as a synonym for faith. They note that the Greek word for repentance (metanoia) literally means “to change the mind” and so those who hold this view argue that repentance is simply the process of changing the mind about the source of one’s eternal life.
While previously we might have thought that we could gain or earn eternal life through our own merit and good works, once we recognize that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, we change our mind about how to receive eternal life (that is, we repent), and believe in Jesus for eternal life instead. In this way, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin.
What Repentance is and Is Not
I am convinced that both views are partially right and partially wrong. While it is true that repentance literally means “to change the mind,” the term is almost always used in reference to sin and so it is accurate to think about repentance as a turning away from sin and back toward God.
When we repent, we change our mind about our behavior, and in so doing, actually change our behavior as well. Yet despite the fact that repentance refers to a turning from sin and turning toward obedience, this does not in any way mean that repentance helps us earn or merit eternal life.
Eternal life is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Turning from sin is not required.
It is probably best to think of repentance as an aspect of discipleship. Both believers and unbelievers can understand God’s instructions in Scripture, see the devastating consequences of sin in their own lives, and as a result, repent of their sin and seek to follow God instead.
If unbelievers do this, such repentance may help bring them to the place where they believe in Jesus for eternal life, but if this happens, such repentance does not in any way contribute to their eternal life.
Of course, once a person believes in Jesus for eternal life, they can still (and should) repent of sin that they commit so that their lives can be transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.
So what is repentance?
Repentance is a turning from sin and returning to the life God wants for us.
This turning from sin does not help us earn or keep eternal life, but does help us follow Jesus on the path of discipleship. Repentance helps us gain freedom from the damaging and addicting power of sin in our lives.
Remembering this will help clarify the scores of passages in the New Testament which talk about repentance. These passages on repentance are not calling people to make changes to their behavior so that they can receive eternal life. No, passages on repentance are calling all people to change their lives so that they can avoid the negative and physical consequences of sin and live the life of joy and freedom that God wants.
Repentance is vitally important for living life with God and with each other the way life was meant to be lived, but repentance is not one of the conditions for receiving eternal life from God. Thankfully, eternal life is a free gift of God to anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus for it.