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1. Genuine Conversion (Various Scriptures)

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November 18, 2018

In the early 1950’s the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen attended a meeting where Billy Graham spoke. He expressed some interest, so several, including Graham and J. Edwin Orr, spoke personally with him about Christ, but he made no commitment. But later another Christian man shared the gospel with Cohen and urged him, based on Revelation 3:20, to invite Jesus into his heart. Cohen prayed with this man to receive Christ.

Cohen later attended a Billy Graham crusade, but his life after this showed no signs of change. He distanced himself from the man who had shared the gospel with him and began to hang around with his underworld cronies again. When the Christian tried to help him, Cohen complained, “You didn’t tell me that I would have to give up my work [being a gangster]! You didn’t tell me that I would have to give up my friends [other criminals]!” He had heard that there were Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, and Christian businessmen. He assumed that he could be a Christian gangster! When he realized that he could not, he turned away from the faith (told by J. Edwin Orr, Christianity Today [1/1/82], pp. 24-25; and in more detail by Charles Colson, Loving God [Zondervan], pp. 81-92).

We may chuckle at the idea of being a Christian gangster. Yet millions of professing Christians, while not gangsters, live no differently than those in the world. They have never turned from the sin that characterized their lives before they prayed to receive Christ. They’re angry and abusive toward their mates and their children, they often look at porn, they don’t manage their money God’s way, and they waste hours every week watching the filth in the media. The only difference between them and our pagan culture is that sometimes they go to church on Sunday mornings. And yet they claim to be born again Christians!

Are people who claim to be born again, but whose lives are no different than before they “received Christ,” truly converted? The Bible answers that question with a loud, “No!” Those who are truly saved by faith in Jesus Christ are marked by what the Bible calls, “repentance.” This does not mean that they are sinless, but it does mean that they are sinning less. They hate their sin. They fight against it. When they realize that they have sinned, they turn from it and turn back to following Jesus as Lord. A study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…

A life of turning to God from sin is evidence that you are genuinely converted.

Salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, not on good works. But if God has saved you, He changed your heart. Saving faith is inseparable from repentance. But sadly, because of popular false teaching, many in evangelical churches think that because they prayed the sinner’s prayer or invited Jesus into their hearts, they are saved and going to heaven. But if their lives are not marked by initial and ongoing repentance, they’re in for a rude awakening on judgment day! Don’t be deceived: the evidence of genuine conversion is a life marked by turning to God from sin. A study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…

1. Those who are lost must turn to God from sin to be saved.

Many argue that to preach repentance as necessary for salvation is to add works to faith alone. Since there are many verses that connect repentance with salvation, they have to define repentance to mean a change of mind regarding Christ, not a change of behavior. But is repentance just a change of mind? No!

A. Repentance means to turn to God from sin.

The main Old Testament word translated “repent” means to turn or return. It is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the OT (1,050 times; sometimes it refers only to turning around physically, but often it means turning to the Lord). Victor Hamilton writes of the Hebrew verb (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. by R. Laird Harris, Glean Archer, & Bruce Waltke [Moody Press], 2:909), “… it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good.” He concludes (ibid.) that “this conscious decision of turning to God” includes “repudiation of all sin and affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life.”

The New Testament uses three words for repentance. They occur (in noun or verb form) over 60 times, beginning with a summary of both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching (Matt. 3:2; 4:17): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 260) describes repentance as “that mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.” While the main Greek word is a compound word taken from two words meaning to change one’s mind, this meaning (according to J. Goetzmann, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan, 1:358), “plays very little part in the NT. Rather the decision by the whole man to turn around is stressed. It is clear that we are concerned neither with a purely outward turning nor with a merely intellectual change of ideas.” Wayne Grudem defines it (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 713, italics his): “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.”

Thus repentance involves a change of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Like saving faith, repentance is a gift that God grants by His sovereign grace (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). Although sinners are responsible to repent, when anyone does repent, it’s because God graciously granted it.

While sorrow for sin is a normal part of repentance, it is possible to feel sorry for your sins and yet not be repentant unto salvation. Judas Iscariot felt remorse for betraying Jesus, yet he was not converted (Matt. 27:3). Esau “found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Paul told the Corinthians that sorrow according to the will of God can lead to repentance, and thus be valuable (2 Cor. 7:8-11). But sorrow for sins alone is not enough. Biblical repentance is a turning of the whole person from sin to God. The repentant person accepts responsibility for his sin, he calls out in faith to God for salvation, and he proves his repentance and faith by his subsequent changed life.

The connection between faith and repentance is clear in Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians. He writes (1 Thess. 1:8), “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” The Thessalonians had believed the gospel that Paul had preached. But clearly their faith was inseparable from repentance, because verse 9 reads, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” Paul did not preach, “Just believe in Jesus now and later you should consider turning from your sins.” Rather, he had included repentance in his gospel. The Thessalonians’ whole way of life had changed from idolatry to serving the living and true God. (See, also, Jonah 3.)

Paul recounted to King Agrippa that on the Damascus Road, Jesus told Paul that He was sending him to the Gentiles (Acts 26:18), “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” That is the message Paul was to proclaim to lost people. It was a message about repentance: turning from sin (darkness, Satan’s dominion) to God. That message is bound up with, not distinct from, “forgiveness of sins” and “faith in” the Lord Jesus.

Paul adds (Acts 26:20) that in obedience to Christ he preached, “even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Paul’s gospel to lost people was not just, “change your mind about Jesus and believe in Him, but don’t worry about your sins.” Rather, Paul’s gospel—which he got straight from Jesus—included repentance, which meant a change of behavior. Lost people must turn to God from sin to be saved. This means that…

B. Our gospel message is incomplete if we do not talk about turning to God from sin.

John the Baptist preached repentance to lost people and made it clear that he wasn’t talking about a change of mind only, apart from a change of behavior. Luke 3:3 summarizes John’s message as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John told his hearers that they needed to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Then he gave them specific behavioral changes that they needed to make (Luke 3:8, 11-14).

Jesus also preached a message of repentance to lost people (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). He told the Jews (Luke 13:3, 5): “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” When Jesus sent out His disciples to preach, their message was “that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). They didn’t make up that message. Like the apostle Paul later, they got it straight from Jesus!

John MacArthur sums up a chapter on repentance (The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan], p. 167):

Repentance has always been the foundation of the biblical call to salvation…. No evangelism that omits the message of repentance can properly be called the gospel, for sinners cannot come to Jesus Christ apart from a radical change of heart, mind, and will. That demands a spiritual crisis leading to a complete turnaround and ultimately a wholesale transformation. It is the only kind of conversion Scripture recognizes.

You may be wondering: What is the relationship between repentance and saving faith? Repentance and faith are inextricably bound together, like two sides of the same coin. But the two words have different nuances or emphases (see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3:3:5). Genuine saving faith, which is trusting in Christ alone and His shed blood to deliver us from God’s wrath, includes repentance. You can’t truly lay hold of Christ for salvation with one hand, while at the same time knowingly hold onto your sin with the other hand. To genuinely trust Christ, you must turn from your sin. Some may verbally profess to believe in Christ while holding onto their sin. But such empty profession without repentance is not true saving faith.

For example, if you’re driving to Phoenix and you repent, you don’t just say, “I changed my mind. I don’t want to go to Phoenix. I believe that Flagstaff is where I should be.” If you keep driving toward Phoenix, saying that you believe you should go to Flagstaff won’t get you there. True repentance means that based on your change of mind, you will actually turn around and drive back to Flagstaff. If your belief is genuine your behavior will reflect it. If you truly believe in Christ as your Savior, you’ll turn from your sin. That’s repentance. J. Edwin Orr wrote (Christianity Today [1/1/82], p. 27), “The difference between true faith and what the Scripture calls false faith is simple: it is the lack of repentance.”

This is illustrated in the story of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24). Acts 8:13 says that Simon believed, was baptized, and continued on with Philip. But when Peter and John came to town and people received the Holy Spirit through their prayers, Simon offered to pay them so that he could have the same power. Peter responded (Acts 8:20-23):

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

So although Luke says Simon had “believed,” he was not saved, because his faith did not include repentance. We aren’t faithfully presenting the gospel to lost people if we imply that they can get to heaven by faith without turning from their sin.

Becky Pippert, in her book Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World ([IVP], pp. 45-47), tells of inviting Lois, a Stanford student who was skeptical about the existence of God, to a Bible study. Lois agreed to come but said, “The Bible won’t have anything relevant to say to me.”

The next day Becky discovered that Lois was living off campus with her boyfriend, Phil. To Becky’s great surprise, Phil came with Lois to the Bible study. Before she knew Lois’s background, Becky had already decided to study Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4.

She started the study and suddenly realized that the passage dealt with a woman living in sexual sin. Not wanting Lois to feel ambushed, Becky tried to arrange it so that Lois wouldn’t have to read any of the text as they went around the room. But it turned out that Lois had to read the portion where Jesus said to the woman, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ ... for the man you’re living with now is not your husband.” It was Lois’ first time ever to read the Bible. She said, “I must say, this is a bit more relevant than I had expected!”

Becky later met with Lois and talked with her about Christ. “Is there any reason why you couldn’t become a Christian?” Becky asked. “No,” Lois said. “Well, I can think of one,” Becky said. “What will you do about Phil?” Then she talked directly about how becoming a Christian is a relationship with God that affects every aspect of our lives, including our morals. As they talked, it became clear that God had been pursuing Lois for a long time. There were tears and struggles followed by a sincere prayer asking Christ to be her Savior and Lord.

Immediately she said, “Becky, I’ve got problems. I’ll have to tell Phil and move out; I have no place to go; it’s impossible to get a dorm room this late, and now I’ll have to pay this month’s rent in two places.” So they prayed again, and as Lois left, Becky agonized over how such a young believer could handle so much.

Later Becky was chatting in the hall with some other students when she heard a commotion and turned to see Lois, slowly walking down the corridor, carrying several suitcases and smiling with tears streaming down her cheeks. Everyone began asking her why she had left home. “Oh, no. I haven’t left home. I’ve finally found my home,” she said. “You see, today I became a Christian.”

That decision had far-reaching effects. That same night three girls decided to get right with Christ. Another girl who had assumed she was a Christian realized she wanted no part of it if it demanded total commitment. The next day Lois was told she could move into the dorm (unheard of at such a late date), and she discovered her new roommate was a mature Christian.

Three months later her boyfriend Phil became a Christian, and he too grew rapidly. He had been angry over her conversion and her moving out. But after he was converted he told her, “Thanks, Lois, for loving God enough to put him first instead of me. Your obedience affected my eternal destiny.”

Luke 24:47 reports the risen Lord’s great commission to the disciples was “that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations.” Repentance is at the heart of the gospel. God forgives the repentant sinner.

But repentance isn’t just something a person does at the moment of salvation and then says, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over!”

2. Those who are truly saved will be marked by heartfelt repentance as an ongoing way of life.

Apostates are described (2 Pet. 2:21-22) as those who turn away from God’s holy commandment and return to sin as a dog returns to its own vomit. But true Christians grow increasingly sensitive to sin and obedient to the Lord, beginning on the heart level (Mark 7:6-23). Repentance has to begin on the heart (or thought) level (Matt. 5:28; Acts 8:21). To grow in Christ means to walk more closely with Him in the light of His Word. The Word exposes things in our lives that are not pleasing to Him. If we truly know Christ, we’ll be quick to confess these things as sin and to turn from them. As I said, we will never be sinless, but as we walk with Christ, we will sin less and will turn quickly from that sin when God confronts it. A life of turning to God from sin is evidence that you are truly saved (1 John 2:3): “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

The story is told of a girl who trusted Christ and applied for membership in a church. A deacon asked her, “Were you a sinner before you received the Lord Jesus into your life?” “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Well, are you still a sinner?” “To tell you the truth, I feel that I’m a greater sinner than ever.” “Then what real change have you experienced?” “I don’t quite know how to explain it,” she said, “except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but now that I’m saved, I’m a sinner running from sin!” They accepted her into the fellowship of that church, and her life there proved her conversion.

The final thing to consider about repentance is:

3. When sinners repent, God welcomes them with great joy.

Some see repentance as negative. But the fact that God grants repentance gives us great hope. It means that when we turn to God from our sin, He will be gracious to us because of Christ’s death on our behalf. Both the Old and New Testaments picture God entreating sinners to turn back to Him. Isaiah 55:6-7 implores,

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

When Jesus told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, in the first two He emphasized the joy in heaven when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10). In the third story, He illustrated repentance on the part of the prodigal son, who said (Luke 15:18-19), “I will get up and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’” But he didn’t just think that; he actually did it!

When the prodigal returned, the father didn’t say, “You no good excuse for a son! You’re going to pay for your sin!” Rather, the father saw the son a long way off, ran to him and didn’t even let him get the whole confession out of his mouth before he threw his arms around him, kissed him, and welcomed him home with great joy (Luke 15:11-24). That’s God’s response to every sinner who turns to Him from his sin. If you will turn to God from your sin and trust in Christ’s death on your behalf, He will welcome you with great joy!


In Romania, many nominally belong to the Orthodox Church. When a person gets saved, the Orthodox scornfully call him, “a repenter.” That’s not a bad label! May we all be “repenters”! Does your faith in Christ include lifelong, heartfelt repentance? Jesus said (Matt. 7:21-23),

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Those are some of the scariest words in the Bible! Don’t be deceived: The evidence that you are truly saved is a life of turning to God from sin. Anything else is a counterfeit.

Application Questions

  1. Is repentance different from a pre-salvation effort to clean up one’s life? How so?
  2. Some charge that preaching repentance to lost people is adding works to faith alone. How would you answer this?
  3. Is a person who makes a profession of faith but then is defeated by some habitual sin (like lust, drinking, or drugs) not truly saved? How can he know whether he’s truly saved?
  4. Some say that because faith alone saves, we should never confront an unbeliever’s sin. Is this biblical? Discuss Matt. 14:4; 19:16-22; 23:1-33.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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