Emotions run high and opinions vary widely on this issue, but I’ll share my convictions on this issue.
The word “repent” has to be understood within the context in which it is being used. In fact, very often, it should not even be translated “repent” because of the wrong preconditioned theological connotations this carries. It is a matter of what some would call, “illegitimate totality transfer.” This occurs when the meaning of a word in one passage is carried over to every other place the word occurs. The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia (noun) or metanoeo (verb). It basically means a change of mind and the context must determine what is involved in that change of mind. In passages where salvation is in view it is equivalent to believe or trust in and involves a change of mind about any form of self-trust in human works, good deeds, religious tradition, etc. followed by a trust in the finished work of Christ which alone has the power to save us. It means a turning from self-trust to trust in Christ.
Believe and repent are never used together as if teaching two different requirements for salvation. When salvation from eternal condemnation is in view, repent (a change of mind) and believe are in essence used as synonyms. Lewis Chafer wrote:
Too often, when it is asserted—as it is here—that repentance is not to be added to belief as a separated requirement for salvation, it is assumed that repentance is not necessary to salvation. Therefore it is as dogmatically stated as language can declare, that repentance is essential to salvation and that none could be saved apart from repentance, but it is included in believing and cannot be separated from it (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Vital Theological Issues, Roy B. Zuck, General Editor, Kregel, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 119).
Roy B. Zuck writes:
Repentance is included in believing. Faith and repentance are like two sides of a coin. Genuine faith includes repentance, and genuine repentance includes faith. The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) means to change one’s mind. But to change one’s mind about what? About sin, about one’s adequacy to save himself, about Christ as the only way of salvation, the only One who can make a person righteous (“Kindred Spirit,” a quarterly publication of Dallas Seminary, Summer 1989, p. 5).
In Luke’s rendering of the Great Commission he uses repentance as a single requirement in the same sense as believing in Christ (Luke 24:46-47). As Dr. Ryrie says of this verse, “Clearly, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is connected to the death and resurrection of Christ.” The repentance comes out of the recognition of one’s sin, but the object of repentance is the person and work of Christ, or faith in Christ. Interestingly, in Luke 8:12 he uses believe alone, “Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”
A comparison of other passages clearly supports the fact that repentance often stands for faith in the person and work of Christ. Compare Acts 10:43 with 11:17-18; 13:38-39 with 2:38. Also, note Acts 16:31 which uses “believe” alone.
The stated purpose of the Gospel of John is to bring men to faith in Christ (20:31), yet John never once uses the word repent, not once. If repentance, when used in connection with eternal salvation, is a separate or distinct requirement from faith in Christ, then John does not give the whole gospel. And if you can believe that, you can believe anything. Speaking of the absence of John’s use of repent in His gospel, Ryrie writes:
And yet John surely had many opportunities to use it in the events of our Lord’s life which he recorded. It would have been most appropriate to use repent or repentance in the account of the Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. But believe is the word used (John 3:12, 15). So, If Nicodemus needed to repent, believe must be a synonym; else how could the Lord have failed to use the word repent when talking to him? To the Samaritan harlot, Christ did not say repent. He told her to ask (John 4:10), and when her testimony and the Lord’s spread to other Samaritans, John recorded not that they repented but that they believed (vss. 39, 41-42). There are about fifty more occurrences of “believe” or “faith” in the Gospel of John, but not one use of “repent.” The climax is John 20:31: “These have been written that you may believe . . . and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation, Victor Books, p. 98).
What about Acts 20:21? “… solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some would say, “Doesn’t this passage teach that faith and repentance are not synonymous and that repentance is a separate requirement?” No! Paul is summarizing his ministry in Ephesus and what he solemnly proclaimed to both Jews and Greeks, specifically, repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The two words, repentance and faith, are joined by one article in the Greek text which indicates that the two are inseparable, though each focuses on a different aspect of the one requirement of salvation, namely, faith in Christ. We can legitimately translate it like this. “Solemnly testifying … a change of mind about God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Repentance, metanoia, focuses on changing one’s mind about his previous conception of God and disbelief in God or false beliefs (polytheism and idolatry) about God (see 1 Thess. 1:9). On the other hand, belief in Christ, as an expression of a change of mind, focuses on the new direction that change about God must take, namely, trusting in Christ, God’s Son, as personal Savior.
It has also been suggested that in this summary Paul is emphasizing the distinction between the particular needs of Gentiles and Jews. Gentiles who were polytheistic needed to change their minds about their polytheism and realize that only one true God exists. Jews needed to change their minds about Jesus and realize that He is their true Messiah (Ryrie, p. 98).
For an extended study of “repent” read Ryrie’s chapter on this issue in his book, So Great Salvation. Also, Bob Wilkin has done a huge study on “repent” in Grace Evangelical Journal. You can actually find them on the web. Go to our web site, click on “Other Sites” and scroll down till you come to “Grace Evangelical Society.”
For more on this issue see, ABCs for Christian Growth, Part 3, Lesson 7 “Assaults on the Gospel” on this web site.
I would also recommend Joseph Dillow’s book, The Reign of the Servant Kings, Schoettle Publishing Co., Hayesville, NC. This is a tremendous book that can help give a foundation for looking at many problem texts from a truly exegetical, contextual viewpoint. It stresses salvation by faith alone, the security of the believer, the basis of assurance, but also the need of faithfulness, not to keep from losing salvation or to persevere to prove salvation, but to receive rewards and reign with the Savior. I have been impressed with this book, not just because I happen to agree with his basic position, but because of the excellent and honest approach to the text, his thorough documentation, and many resources used.