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Why Saving Faith Is Impossible Without Repentance

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We are saved by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ—alone. Nothing can be added to Christ’s perfect work or to faith by which the salvation He accomplished becomes ours. Simple faith the size of a mustard seed unites to Christ, in whom the righteousness of His perfect obedience and payment of the penalty required by God’s justice is imputed (credited) to us, by which we are justified forever. God’s justice demands no less for the forgiveness of sin and eternal life.

The call to faith, however, also includes a call to repentance. Indeed, saving faith cannot exist without repentance. How can this be?

A Change of Heart

If you have you ever watch a loved one suffer from cancer or some other horrible disease you can easily understand how love to someone cannot abide with love for the disease that hurts them. In the same way, we cannot embrace both Christ and evil that is His enemy. Light and darkness are incompatible; love to one implies hate for the other. Thus, none can love a God of moral perfection and love moral darkness at the same time. And yes, our every sin chooses, for the moment, moral darkness over the light of God’s perfect will. (No one lives in perfect conformity with God’s holy standards this side of glory.) Yet, none can embrace the One whose beauty is holiness, while sin remains the supreme and enduring love of one’s heart. Never can these opposite principles share preeminence in the same soul.

Therefore, saving faith always includes turning from the love of darkness to the love of light, from the love of sin to the love of holiness. Indeed, one cannot love God without loving the holiness that renders His every attribute beautiful. This helps explain why faith that merely seeks to avoid hell cannot be a true and saving faith if the love of evil remains supreme in the heart. People do not like to suffer and may gladly accept a “get out of jail free” card if it does not require a change of heart and life. But faith without a new nature saves no one.

A Change of Faith

Second, while unbelief lacks saving faith, it does not lack faith, per se. All unbelief is faith in something or someone other than God. All people are people of faith, in this sense, but not all people have faith in the only true God. Thus, the call to saving faith in Christ always involves a call to repent of a misplaced faith. For instance, trusting Christ’s righteousness alone for salvation involves turning from trust in our own righteousness, or turning to God from idols.

A Change of Worldview

Third, the call to faith in Christ requires repentance from a false worldview to the true, biblical worldview. To trust Christ for salvation involves a changed view of God, His universe, and who we are with respect to God. True faith no longer views God as unreal, unimportant, unknowable, or made-up, but as the triune and self-existent creator of all things that He has revealed Himself to be in Scripture. Our view of our self, mankind, and reality changes from uncreated and independent of God to created, dependent, and sustained by God. We trust Christ as the redeemer of condemned sinners before a holy God.

Moreover, our change in worldview involves a new view of knowledge, truth, and authority. The unbelieving worldview sees knowledge as attainable without God and truth as determined by our own interpretation of reality, while the believing worldview accepts our dependence on God as the source of all knowledge and truth. In trusting Christ, our supreme authority shifts from personal opinion to God and Scripture as the ultimate explanation of Himself, His world, sin, judgment, Christ, the Gospel, etc. One cannot trust Christ without trusting God’s revelation of His person and works. We embrace a real and sufficient Savior as revealed to us in the Bible, not a fantasy or abstract idea of our own making.

Also, because saving faith accompanies a change of one’s heart toward God and evil, from a love of darkness to the love of holiness, so it involves a change of our source and standard of morality. Indeed, saving faith comes to Christ in obedience to the exhortations of Scripture, our new rule of life and godliness. And while our practice remains imperfect this side of glory, we repent of the idea that we determine right and wrong and can do what we please. Repentance turns from self to God as our supreme moral authority.

An Enduring Change

Thus, the simple saving faith that unites us to Christ cannot exist without repentance. The heart at war with God will not love and trust Christ until the enmity dissipates and Christ is embraced for the glorious Lord and Savior He is. At the same time, our knowledge remains imperfect and our best works tainted with sin. In fact, as Edwards paraphrased Shepard, “sometimes the change made in a saint, at first, is like a confused chaos; so that the saints know not what to make of it.”1 Nonetheless, the heart must change and the fruit of the transformation emerge, even while our love and gratitude for His grace have barely begun to grasp the height of His excellence. By the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, our new nature will display itself in new affections, a new direction, new priorities, and good works, even if they are not immediately and always visible to others at every moment. The change will be real and enduring. Thus, repentance always accompanies saving faith, even as it contributes nothing to justification according to God’s perfect standard of righteousness, the standard met by Christ—alone. And so, with faith and new hearts of love to Christ, we sing, “In my hand no price I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”2


1 Jonathan Edwards speaking of an observation by Thomas Shepard in Religious Affections, Banner of Truth, 89; Yale WJE, Vol. 2, 161.

2 From the hymn, Rock of Ages, by Augustus M. Toplady (1740-1778).

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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