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Lesson 3: The Mark of True Conversion (Various Scriptures)

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Usually the only time that Marla and I watch TV (other than the news or the Olympics) is when we stay in a motel. It’s always an eye-opening experience for me, to learn where the culture is at.

Several years ago, we saw a feature on an up and coming actress that obviously focused on her sex appeal. Since then, from reading the tabloid headlines while waiting in line at the market, I know that she has gone through a divorce from the man she was engaged to when we saw this program. She is frequently pictured on those tabloids in revealing attire, with stories about her latest sexual escapade. But in the program we watched, the young woman’s father talked about her faith in Jesus Christ, assuring the viewers that she was a good Christian girl!

It’s not at all uncommon to hear about or meet people that make a profession of being born again, but their lives are no different from those in the world. They have never turned from the sin that characterized their lives before they professed to be born again. In their morals, in their marriages, in the way they raise their children, in their materialistic lifestyles, and in the way they spend hours every week watching the filth on TV or in movies, they are no different than the rest of our pagan culture. And yet they claim to be born again Christians!

Are people who have “prayed to receive Christ,” or who claim to be born again, but whose lives are no different than they were before, truly converted? I believe that the Bible answers that question with a loud, “No!” Those who are truly converted to 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 sin less. They mourn over their sin. They fight against it. When they do sin, they turn from it and turn back to following Christ as Lord. A study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…

A life of turning to God from sin is the mark of true conversion.

This relates to the message of evangelism. If we do not make it clear to lost people that repentance is necessary for salvation, we will produce false converts, who think that they are saved when the truth is, they are on the broad way to hell.

This is crucial to understand because there is an entire organization, made up in large part of graduates of the seminary that I attended, which promotes the view that repentance (in the sense of turning from sin) has no part in evangelism. They argue that to bring up repentance when you present the gospel is to undermine the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Of course, there are many verses in the Bible that connect repentance with salvation. So these men have to define the word rather narrowly. They say that it only means changing your mind about Jesus Christ, where you acknowledge that He is the Savior or that He is God. But, they argue, it does not mean turning from sin or changing one’s conduct. They argue that submitting to Christ as Lord is desirable for the Christian, but not necessary for salvation (see Thomas Constable, in Walvoord: A Tribute [Moody Press], pp. 207, 209). But, a study of “repentance” in the Bible shows that…

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

Is repentance, as many purport, just a change of mind? No!

A. Repentance is 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; some usages refer only to someone physically turning around, but many refer to turning to the Lord). Scholar Victor Hamilton writes of this word (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.”

There are three New Testament words used for repentance and they occur (in noun or verb form) over 60 times, beginning with a summary of both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). 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 another scholar, “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.” (J. Goetzmann, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan, 1:358.) Theologian Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 713, italics his) offers this definition: “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 3:16; 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). In that sense, it is not something that sinful man can produce, although sinners are responsible to repent. But when any sinner repents, it is because God graciously granted repentance.

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 a valuable thing (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 good works.

Let’s look at some biblical examples of repentance. In Jonah 3, the prophet reluctantly went to Ninevah and proclaimed God’s message, that in 40 days, the city would be overthrown for its sin. To Jonah’s displeasure, the people of Ninevah believed in God (Jon. 3:5). Their genuine faith was evident in that they fasted and turned from their sins (Jon. 3:5-8). Then it says (Jon. 3:10), “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” What was the evidence that their faith was genuine? Their repentance: they turned from their wicked way. Repentance is turning to God from sin.

We see the same connection with faith and repentance 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 in 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 and maybe later you ought to turn 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.

Paul summarized his message to King Agrippa (Acts 26:18) by saying that the Lord had sent him to the Gentiles “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.” Those are Jesus’ direct words to Paul regarding the message he 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 goes on to say that in obedience to Christ, he preached (Acts 26:20), “even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Paul’s gospel to pagan people was not just, “change your mind about Jesus and believe in Him, but don’t be concerned about your sins.” Rather, Paul’s gospel—which he got straight from Jesus—included turning to God from sin. Lost people must turn from sin to be saved. This means that…

B. Our presentation of the gospel 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 his message as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He told his hearers that they needed to bear fruits in keeping with repentance (3:8). Then he gave them specific behavioral changes that they needed to make (3:11-14).

Jesus also preached a message of repentance to lost people (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). He clearly 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. They got it straight from Jesus! As we’ve seen, the apostle Paul got the same message directly 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 (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3:3:5). True 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 don’t like going to Phoenix. I wish I weren’t going to Phoenix. I really believe that Flagstaff is the place where I should be.” Those are nice, but meaningless thoughts. True repentance means that you won’t just think or talk about it. You will actually turn around and drive back towards Flagstaff. Your behavior reflects your beliefs. If you truly believe in Christ as your Savior, you’ll turn from your sin. That’s repentance. J. Edwin Orr wrote (in Christianity Today, Jan. 1, 1982, 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). In verse 13, we read 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. Note Peter’s response (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.”

Clearly, 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. She 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 her first time ever to read the Bible. Lois said, “I must say, this is a bit more relevant than I had expected!”

Becky met with her later 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 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 noise 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 a 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 for 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 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” (Luke 24:47). How can anyone dodge the fact that repentance is at the heart of the gospel?

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 saved will be marked by repentance as an ongoing way of life.

True Christians grow increasingly sensitive to sin. 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 will 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 from that sin when God confronts it. A life of turning to God from sin is the mark of true conversion.

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, “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 did it!

And did the father say, “You no good excuse for a son! You’re going to pay for your sin”? No! 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 with great joy (Luke 15:11-24). That’s God’s response to any sinner who turns to Him from his sin. If you will turn to God from your sin and trust in Christ, He will welcome you with great joy!

Conclusion

Did your profession of faith in Christ include repentance? Jesus said, “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.’” (Matt. 7:21-23). Frightening words! Don’t be deceived: The mark of true conversion 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 drinking or drugs) necessarily unrepentant? 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, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Confession, Evangelism, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)