Is repentance necessary for salvation? What is repentance?
Many misunderstand the biblical term "repentance." The New Testament term for repentance is from a Greek word that simply means to change one's mind. In that sense, repentance is necessary for salvation; we must believe we need saving (which is usually a change of the human mindset). After we are saved we continue to repent of our former lives, or to change our minds about our previous way of being. This changing of our minds will certainly lead to our living changed lives; however such resultant "works" are not necessary for salvation.
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The Bible is clear that salvation is something God provides because of His love. John 3:16 teaches, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Ephesians 2:8-9 also makes clear salvation is based on God's grace and that we respond by faith: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
While Scripture notes the importance of faith for salvation, repentance (or changing one's mind) is also part of the process God uses to save us. Acts 26:20 reveals, "[I preached] that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance." People must first change their minds about their way of being in order to turn to God. After we turn to God, our faith demonstrates our changed mind through works. Repentance, faith, and works are intimately connected. Faith shows a change of mind that leads to changed behaviors.
Confusion sometimes arises from how repentance is explained. Many teach repentance as the works that we do to show we are sorry for wrong. In other words, many see repentance as the changes we make as a result of our conviction of sin. In passages where repentance and salvation appear in the same context (i.e., Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18, and others), some begin to understand salvation as something that is in some way earned. Yet the intended meaning of "repentance" in these passages does not imply a works-based salvation.
Biblical repentance is the changing of one's mind. How does this change take place? Ultimately, God must convict by His Spirit. That conviction leads to a change of mind and faith in Jesus that we call salvation. The changed life we live as a result is not just repentance; it is the new life we have in Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist spoke very clearly about the true role of repentance when he said, "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8). A repentant person will live differently. A changed mind will lead to a changed life. In fact, it is God's kindness that leads us to repentance or a changed mind that we may live for Him (Romans 2:4).
Biblical repentance, to change one's mind, is part of salvation. Repentance, when defined as works we do to show we are sorry, is not part of salvation. This important distinction must be understood so that true salvation is clearly communicated. Salvation is not something we do, but something God does within us. We are saved by God's grace through faith, not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
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