Conversion (Faith and Repentance)

The word conversion itself means "turning" - here it represents a spiritual turn, a turning from sin to Christ. The turning from sin is called repentance, and the turning to Christ is called faith. We can look at each of these elements of conversion and in one sense it does not matter which one we discuss first, for neither one can occur without the other, and they must occur together when true conversion takes place. For the purposes of this chapter, we shall examine saving faith first and then repentance.

  1. True Saving Faith Includes Knowledge, Approval and Personal Trust
    1. Knowledge alone is not enough.
    2. Personal saving faith, in the way Scripture understands it, involves more than mere knowledge. It is necessary that we have some knowledge of who Christ is and what he has done, for "how are they to believe in hime of whom they have never heard?" (Rom. 10:15). But knowledge about the facts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for us is not enough, for people can know facts but rebel against them or dislike them. For example, Paul tells that many people know God's laws but dislike them: "Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practive them" (Rom. 1:32). Even the demons know who God is and know the facts about Jesus' life and saving works, for James says, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder" (James 2:19). But that knowledge certainly does not mean that the demons are saved.

    3. Knowledge and approval are not enough.
    4. Moreover, merely knowing the facts and approving of them or agreeing that they are true is not enough. Nicodemus knew that Jesus had come from God, for he said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him" (John 3:2). Nicodemus had evaluated the facts of the situation, including Jesus' teaching and his remarkable miracles, and had drawn a correct conclusion from those facts: Jesus was a teacher come from God. But this alone did not mean that Nicodemus had saving faith, for he still had to put his trust in Christ for salvation; he still had to "believe in him." King Agrippa provides another example of knowledge and approval without saving faith. Paul realized that King Agrippa knew and apparently viewed with approval the Jewish Scriptures (what we now call the Old Testament). When Paul was on trial before Agrippa, he said, "King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe" (Acts 26:27). Yet Agrippa did not have saving faith, for he said to Paul, "In a short time you think to make me a Christian!" (Acts 26:28).

    5. I must decide to depend on Jesus to save me personnaly.
    6. In addition to knowledge of the facts of the gospel and approval of those facts, in order to be savied I must decide to depend on Jesus to save me. In doing this, I move from being an interested observer of the facts of salvation and the teachings of the Bible to being someone who enters into a new relationship with Jesus Christ as a living person. We may therefore adefine assaving faith in the following way: Saving faith is trust in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sines and eternal life with God.

      This definition emphasizes that saving faith is not just a belief in facts but personal trust in Jesus to save me. Much more is involved in salvation than simply forgiveness of sins and eternal life, but someone who initially comes to Christ seldom realizes the extent of the blessings of salvation that will come. The main thing that concerns an unbeliever who comes to Chirst is the fact that sin has separated him or her from the fellowship with God for which we were made. The unbeliever comes to Christ seeking to have sin and guilt removed and to enter into a genuine relationship with God that will last forever. We may rightly summarize the two major concerns of a person who trusts in Christ as "forgiveness of sins" and "eternal life with God."

      The definition emphasizes personal trust in Christ, not just belief in facts about Christ. Because saving faith in Scripture involves this personal trust, trust is often a better word to use in contemporary culture that the word faith or belief. The reason is that we can "believe" something to be true with no personal commitment or dependence involved in it. I can believe that Canberra is the capital of Australia or that 7 times 6 is 42 but have no personal commitment or dependence on anyone when I simply believe those facts. The work faith on the other hand is sometimes used today to refer to an almost irrational commitment to sometihing in spite of strong evidence to the contrary, a sort of irrational decision to believe something that we are quite sure is not true! (If your favorite football team continues to play games, someone might encourage you to "have faith" event though all the facts point the opposite direction.) In thse two popular senses, belief and faith have a meaning contrary to the biblical sense.

      The word trust is closed to the biblical idea, since we are familiar with trusting persons in everyday life. The more we come to know a person, and the more we see in that person a pattern of life that warrants trust, the more we find ourselves able to place trust in him to do what he promises, or to act in ways on which we can rely. This fuller sense of personal trust is indicated in several passages of Scripture in which initial saving faith is spoken of in very personal terms, often using analogies drawn from personal relationships. John says, "To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to becomre children of God" (John 21:23). Much as we would receive a guest into our homes, John speaks of receiving Christ.

      John 3:16 tells us that "whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Here John uses a surprising phrase when he does not simply say, "whoever believes him" (that is, believes that what he says is true and able to be trusted), but rather, "whoever believes in him". The Greek phrase pisteuo eis auton could also be translated "believe into him" with the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person. Leon Morris cansay, "Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ." He undertakes men rought out of themselves and makes them one with Christ." He understands the Greek phrase pistueuo eis to be a significant indication that New Testament faith is not just intellectual assent but includes a "moral element of personal trust." Such an expression was rare or perhaps nonexistent in the secular Greek found outside the New Testament, but it was well suited to express the perosnal trust in Christ that is involved in saving faith.

      Jesus speaks of "coming to him" in several places. He says, "All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out" (John 6:37). In a similar way, he says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30). In these passages we have the idea of coming to Christ and asking for acceptance, for living water to drink, and for rest and isntruction. All of these give an intensely personal picutre of what is involved in saving faith.

      With this understanding of true New Testament faith, we may now appreciate that when a person comes to trust in Christ, all three elements must be present. There must be some basic knowledge or understanding of the facts of the gospel. There must also be approval of, or agreement with, these facts. Such agreement includes a conviction that the facts spoken of the gospel are true, especially the fact that I am a sinner in need of salvation and that Christ alone has paid the penalty for my sin and offers salvation to me. It also includes an awareness that I need to trust in Christ for salvation and that he is the only way to God and the only means provided for my salvation. This approval of the facts of the gospel will also involve a desire to be saved through Christ. But all this still does not add up to true saving taith. That comes only when I make a decision of my will to depend on, or put my turst in, Christ as my Savior. This personal decision to place my trust in Christ is something done with my heart, the central faculty of my entire being, which makes personal commitments for me as a whole person.

  2. Faith and Repentance Must Come Together
  3. We may define repentance as follows: Repentance is a heartfealt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in opbedience to Christ.

    This definitioin indicates that repentance is something that can occur at a specific point in time and is not equivalent to a demonstration of change in a person's pattern of life. Repentance, like faith, is an intellectual understanding (that sin is wrong), an emotional approval of the teaching of Scripture regarding sin (a sorrow for sin and a hatred of it), and a personal decision to turn from it (a renouncing of sin and a decision of the will to forsake it and lead a life of obedience to Christ instead). We cannot say that someon has to actually live that changed life over a period of time before repentance can be genuine, or else repentance would be turned into a kind of obedicence we could do to merit salvation for ourselves. Of course, genuine repentance will result in a changed life. In fact, a truly repentant person will begin at once to live a changed life, and we can call that changed life the fruit of repentance. But we should never attempt to require that there be a period of time in which a person actually lives a changed life before we give assurance of forgiveness. Repentance is something that occurs in the heart and involves the whole person in a decision to turn from sin.

    Scripture puts repentance and faith together as different aspects of the one act of coming to Chirst for salvation. It is not that a person first turns from sin and next trusts in Christ, or first trusts in Christ and then turns from sin, but rather that both occur at the same time. When we turn to Chirst for salvation from our sins, we are simultaneously turning away from the sins that we are asking Christ to save us from. If that were not true, our turning to Christ for salvation from sin could hardly be a genuine turning to him or trusting in him.

    Therefore, it is clearly contrary to the New Testament evidence to speakabout the possibility of having true saving faith without having any repentance for sin. It is also contrary to the New Testament to speak about the possibility of someone accpting Christ "as savior" but not "as Lord," if that means simply depending on him for salvation but not committing oneself to forsake sin and to be obedient to Christ from that point on.

    When Jesus invites sinners, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," he immediately adds, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (Matt. 11:28-29). To come to him includes taking his yoke upon us, being subject to his direction and guidance, learning from him and being obedient to him. If we are unwilling to make such a commitment, then we have not truly placed our trust in him.

    Sometimes faith alone is named as the thing necessary for coming to Christ for salvation (see John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10-9; Eph. 2:8-9; et al.). These are familiar passages, and we emphasize them often when explaining the gospel to others. But what we do not often realize is that there are many other passages where only repentance is named, for it is simpy assumed that true repentance will also involve faith in Christ for forgiveness of sings. The New Testament authors understood so well that genuine repentance and genuine faith had to go together that they often simply mentioned repentance alone with the understanding that faith would also be included, because turning from sins in a genuine way is impossible apart from a genuine turning to God. Therefore, just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:46-47). Saving faiht is implied in the phrase "forgiveness of sins," but it is not explicitly named.

    When we realize that genuine saving faith must be accompanied by genuine repentance for sin, it helps us to understand why some preaching of the gospel has such inadequate results today. If there is no mention of the need for repentance, sometings the gospel messages becomes only, "Believe in Jesus Christ and be saved" without any mention of repentance at all. But this watered-down version fo the gospel does not ask for a wholehearted commitment to Chirst - commitment to Christ, if genuine, must include a commitment to turn from sin. Preaching the need for faith without repentance is preaching onl half of the gospel. It will result in many peope being deceived, thinking that they have heard the Christian gospel and tried it, but nothing has happened. They might even say something like, "I accepted Christ as Savior over and over again and it never worked." Yet they never really did recieve Chirst as their Savior, for he comes to us in his majesty and invites us to receive him as he is - the one who deserves to be, and demands to be, absolute Lord of our lives as well.

    Finally, what shall we say about the common practice of asking people to pray to receive Christ as their personsl Savior and Lord? Since personal faith in Christ must involve an actual decision of the will, it is often very helpful to express that decision in spoken words, and this could very naturally take the form of a prayer to Christ in which we tell him of our sorrow for sin, our commitment to forsake it, and our decision actually to put our trust in him. Such a spoken prayer does not in itself save us, but the attitude of heart that it represents does constitute true conversion, and the decision to speak that prayer can often be the point at which a person truly comes to faith in Christ.

  4. Both Faith and Repentance Continue Throughout Life
  5. Although we have been considering initial faith and repentance as the two aspects of copnversion at the beginning of the Christian life, it is imporattant to realize that faith and repentance are not confined to the beginning of the Christian life. They are rather attitudes of heart that continue throughout our lives as Christians. Jesus tells his disciples to pray daily, "Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven those who sin against us" (Matt. 6:12), a prayer that , if genuine, will certainly involve daily sorrow for sin and genuine repentance. And the risen Christ says to the church in Laodicea, "Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten so be zealous and repent" (Rev. 3:19; cf.2 Cor.7:10).

    With regard to faith, Paul tells us, "So faith, hope, alove abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor.13:13). he certainly means that these three abide throughout the course of this life, but he probably also means that they abide for all eternity: If faith is trusting God to provide all our needs, then this attitude will never cease, not even in the age to come. But in any case, the point is clearly made that faith continues throughout this life. Paul also says, "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

    Therefore, although it is true that initial saving faith and initial repentance occur only once in our lives, and when they occur they constitute true conversion, nonetheless, the heard attitudes of repentance and faith only begin at conversion. These same attitudes should continue throughout the course of our Christian lives. Each day there should be heartfelt repentance for sins that we have committed, and faith in Christ to provide for our needs and to empower us to live the Christian life.

Note: Much of this work has been taken from Wayne Grudem's fine book, BIBLE doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Bible excerpts have been changed to the New Living Translation by Tyndale in disfavor to Zondervan.