Before embarking on a discussion on the relationship between any two things, it is important to define the meaning of the two things we are discussing. In this particular case, our question deals particularly with the terms “faith” and “repentance,” and how the two relate to one another specifically in the process of salvation.
What is Faith?
There are a number of passages where the term “faith,” or the Greek word “pistos,” is used in relationship to salvation. It is also true that the word is used many times to refer to types of faith and belief that are altogether separated from our justification. It is not within the scope of this paper to analyze those other than to note that they exist. It is also not within the purview of this paper to analyze every occurrence where the word is used in conjunction with justification or salvation. It is sufficient to note just a few to demonstrate the important relationship between faith and salvation. Ephesians 2:8 says “For by grace you have been saved through faith….” John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Galatians 3:11 says, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Finally, Romans 4:5 says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” It is clear from just these few verses that faith is directly connected to the justification of the Christian and, therefore, it is extremely significant how we define the word “faith” or “belief.”
A number of theologians over the centuries have taken on the task of defining faith. John Calvin in his Institutes writes concerning faith, “Faith consists not in ignorance, but in knowledge…when we recognize God as a propitious Father through the reconciliation made by Christ, and Christ as given to us for righteousness, sanctification, and life. By this knowledge, I say, not by the submission of our understanding, we obtain an entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” James M. Pendleton points out the importance of the object of faith when he writes, “What is faith of the gospel, the faith which secures the salvation of the believer? There is but one answer: It is faith in Jesus Christ… Christ is emphatically the object of faith.” That is well and good to know, but it is one thing to know the object of faith and quite another to know what faith, itself, is. Pendleton goes on to explain faith like this “Everybody knows the meaning of commit, and those who believe in Christ commit themselves to him to be saved by him—commit all the interests of their salvation into his hands.” Floyd H. Barackman identifies four “parts of salvational faith… 1. Assent to the facts of the Gospel, 2. Repentance, 3. Trust in the Lord Jesus and His atoning work.”
It is important note, for our discussion, that Barackman places repentance amidst his “parts” of faith. We will discuss this in detail later, but for now we just note that Barackman identifies knowledge of the facts of the Gospel, repentance, and trust in the Lord’s atoning work as the proper definition, or parts, of faith. Millard Erickson identifies faith as the “positive aspect [of conversion], laying hold upon the promises and the work of Christ.”
Faith is at the very heart of the Gospel, for it is the vehicle by which we are enabled to receive the grace of God.” Erickson identifies in the NT two important senses in which faith is to be understood. First, it is to be understood “…that faith involves believing that something is true.” Second, it “…signif[ies] ‘personal trust as distinct from mere credence.‘” Again, we see in Erickson both an affirmation of knowledge of the Gospel, and trust in the object of the Gospel itself. Both of these aspects of faith are essential for it to be saving.
Finally, Hixson writes, “Indeed, the meaning of the word faith is not at all complex. When one believes in the truthfulness or reliability of someone or something, he has faith. To believe, have faith, and trust are all ways of expressing the same thing: assurance or confidence in a stated or implied truth.” Hixson, then, goes on to define saving faith as faith that is in the proper object, namely, Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Sproul seems to capture the essence of the meaning of saving faith when he writes, “…the only way we can have the righteousness and the merit of Christ transferred to our account is by faith. We cannot earn it. We cannot deserve it. We cannot merit it. We can only trust in it and cling to it.” Faith, then, is both a knowledge of, and an assent to, the facts of the Gospel, as well as a trusting, committing, or laying hold of those facts as applicable to one’s own life. It is only when there is both an assent of knowledge and an embracing of that knowledge for oneself that saving faith occurs.
What is Repentance?
If saving faith is an apprehension of the facts of the Gospel and a placing of one’s trust upon person and work of that Gospel, then what is repentance? If we can say, as R.C. Sproul does, that salvation is by faith alone, sola fide, what role, if any, does repentance play in the process of salvation? We must begin by showing that there are times in the Scriptures when repentance is used exclusively in the appeal of the Gospel. Peter is preaching the Gospel in Acts 3:19 when he says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.” Again in Acts 8:22, “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” Paul in Acts 22:20 says, “but declared…that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” Jesus himself says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” It appears from these statements that repentance, apart from faith, is necessary for salvation.
Sometimes repentance and faith are combined together in the call of the Gospel. Jesus says in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Paul says in Acts 20:21, “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” It appears from these accounts that there is indeed a correlation between faith and repentance but here we want to answer the question: “What is repentance?”.
Pendleton writes that the word repentance in the “…New Testament has as its primary meaning after-thought, and as its secondary meaning a change of mind.”He goes on to five things that are involved in Biblical repentance: “1. A consciousness of personal sin… 2. That sin is a great evil committed against God, for which there is no excuse… 3. Hatred of Sin… 4. Sorrow for sin… [and] 5. A purpose to forsake sin.” Calvin in his Institutes citing “certain learned men” notes that they “held repentance consists of two parts, mortification and quickening.” He goes on to describe mortification as “…grief of the soul and terror produced by a conviction of sin and a sense of divine judgment.” He adds to this the idea of hatred toward sin, a dissatisfaction with who the sinner is, and a sense of “divine justice” that leaves the sinner “…terror-struck and amazed, humbled and dejected, despond[ant] and despair[ing].” He takes issue with the term quickening to refer to the joy of salvation that follows the mortification but acknowledges that the other side of repentance is “…the comfort which is produced by faith…”. It is interesting to note that Calvin is here describing a second aspect of repentance. However, before getting into the meat of his explanation he is already affirming that this aspect of repentance is a comfort which is produced by faith. Such is the close relationship between repentance and faith.
So close, in fact, is this relationship between repentance and faith that Millard Erickson and Floyd Barackman deal with them within the context of a singular category. For Erickson, faith is the positive aspect of conversion and repentance is the negative aspect of conversion. He writes “The negative aspects of conversion is the abandonment or repudiation of sin… it is based upon a godly sorrow for the evil that we have done.” Erickson, at this point, prefers to note that repentance and faith “…cannot be be separated from one another.” Affirming this point Barackman actually places repentance underneath the category of faith itself and describes it as one of the parts of saving faith. Barackman describes faith as “…a change of mind and attitude toward God and the things of which the gospel speaks… A repentant sinner is not smiling when he is believing the Gospel. Joy comes as a result of his salvation.”
Note, in passing, that Barackman distinctly draws an emotional difference between faith and repentance. Specifically, joy is not a characteristic of repentance. Sorrow, then, would be. J.I. Packer agrees with Erickson at least at this point, “…repentance is inseparable from faith, being the negative aspect.” However, Packer’s definition of repentance seems to be much broader than any of the other theologians we have noted thus far. He writes,
“The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and life-style, motive and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life.”
Packer here, in the view of Pendleton, would be taking the definition too far. “Repentance belongs to the sphere of the mind, and reformation to the sphere of the life…Let no one therefore suppose that the command to ‘repent’ is obeyed by a reformation of life.”
The consensus, then, seems to be that repentance is both a change of mind and an emotionally negative attitude toward that from which one is turning. In this case, the believer is turning from his sin and turning to Christ. That turning from sin involves a despising of it in light of what the sinner is turning towards, namely, Jesus Christ. The turning away from sin is repentance, and the turning toward Christ is at least one aspect of faith. We will see next that the relationship between these two is an interesting one.
What is the relationship between Repentance and Faith?
We have seen that both faith and repentance, according to the Scriptures, are directly connected to the salvation of the believer. Sometimes the Gospel is presented in such a way where one or the other of these two elements is presented as essential for justification. Further, we have seen that in some cases both are presented together as a means of salvation. What are we to make of these Biblical examples? Should we contend that in some situations faith is what saves, and in other situations it is repentance? Are they both one and the same and this is why they are used interchangeably? If so, why then are they, at times, both used together as if they are distinct? If they are distinct, which comes first, faith in Christ or repentance from sins? Each of these questions have a wide range of answers.
First, it seems appropriate to discuss whether or not repentance and faith are nothing more than the same thing being spoken of two different ways. Calvin rejects this notion citing Acts 20:21 when he writes, “Here he mentions faith and repentance as two different things.” However, Calvin is quick to note, “What then? Can true repentance exist without faith? By no means. But although they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished.” So for Calvin repentance and faith are distinguishable but inseparable. Erickson indicates the same relationship when, although treating them separately, he writes, “As we examine repentance and faith, it is should be remembered that they cannot really be separated from one another.” Barackman, too, seems to see them as substantially the same though he categorizes repentance as a subcategory of the parts of faith.
So, whether intending to or not, Barackman seems to communicate that repentance is a subset of saving faith. This presents an interesting dynamic when we come to the issue of their relationship in a moment. For now, we can safely say that Barackman also sees faith and repentance as distinguishable but inseparable. Packer, too, states that “…in actual life, repentance is inseparable from faith, being the negative aspect (faith is the positive aspect) of turning to Christ.” We will talk about faith and repentance in relationship to conversion in a minute. However, it’s clear hear that Packer, too, sees faith and repentance as distinct, yet inseparable. Hixson, however, seems to separate repentance from saving faith. He writes “…many evangelicals insist that real saving faith requires repentance of sins. That is, eternal salvation is imparted only to those who are willing to forsake all their sins and pledge to avoid them in the future.” This may be overstating the case on Hixson’s part, but it is clear that he distinguishes saving faith from repentance where the others we have examined see the two as inseparably connected.
Hixson goes on to say “to require sinners to make the purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pledge to follow Christ as a condition for receiving eternal life is a bit like asking a child to get cleaned up so that he can take a bath.” What’s important here about Hixson’s statement is that he is suggesting that all those who require repentance do so as a pre-requisite to faith. He does not at all give any statement regarding those who see it as an inseparable, yet distinguishable, part of saving faith. We’ll talk about order in a moment, but we do need to point out that we have already noted instances where Christ himself said repentance was required for salvation, and He said that, at times, without making any reference to faith. By Hixson’s standard, Jesus Christ himself has betrayed the faith along with the Apostles Peter and Paul.
So, aside from Hixson, among the theologians we are examining, there seems to be a general agreement that faith and repentance are both required for salvation, that both are distinguishable, and that both are inseparable. To put this another way, they are two sides of the same coin. As we have already noted above, from Erickson and Packer, faith is the positive side, and repentance is the negative side of that coin. We must ask two important questions in light of this suggestions.
First, what is the coin that faith and repentance are two sides of, and which comes first as it relates to that “coin.” Erickson puts repentance and faith under the category of “conversion.” Pendleton puts them both in the category of regeneration. Calvin doesn’t exactly give us two categories but does say that “…repentance may be not inappropriately defined thus: A real conversion of our life unto God, proceeding from sincere and serious fear of God.” Calvin here places repentance under the category of conversion as Erickson does. What is interesting is that Erickson and Calvin are at odds as to which comes first.
Does faith precede repentance, and lead to conversion, or does repentance precede faith, and lead to conversion? Erickson asserts, “We will deal with repentance first because where one has been logically precedes where one is going.” Calvin, on the other hand, says, “Those who think that repentance precedes faith instead of flowing from, or being produced by it, as the fruit by the tree, have never understood its nature, and are moved to adopt that view on very insufficient grounds.” What is fascinating about this statement is that, when describing repentance, Calvin slips up a little in this author’s opinion. In describing the two aspects of repentance, mortification and quickening, Calvin says mortification comes first, and second comes quickening. Note, again, how he describes the quickening “By quickening they mean, the comfort which is produced by faith…” So, even though Calvin categorically denies that repentance precedes faith, he explicitly describes an aspect of repentance as comfort produced by faith. That comfort, produced by the faith, cannot come prior to the discomfort created by the mortification as Erickson points out.
That leaves us with Barackman’s view, which, in this author’s opinion, best explains and illustrates the relationship between faith and repentance, and also seems to explain, if it is accurate, why the others class the two the way that they do. As has been noted above, Barackman’s theology places repentance underneath the broader category of “The Parts of Salvational Faith.” He then lists those three parts thus, “This salvation belief consists of several ingredients—assent, repentance, and trust.” What is critical about these three is that they are placed underneath the broad category of salvational faith, and repentance is actually sandwiched between two parts of our definition of saving faith: assent and trust.
Barackman’s order actually accounts for Calvin’s apparent mis-step and explains the confusion. Calvin is right when he says that repentance cannot precede faith if by “faith” he means assent to the facts of the Gospel. We cannot turn from our sins if we do not have any reason to turn from them. Certainly we can not be obedient to a God that we do not believe in! So intellectual assent to the truths of the Gospel must precede repentance. Still, as we have already demonstrated, a person cannot turn to Christ without first, or at the same time, turning from their sin. We’ll talk about the importance of the term “turning” in our conclusion, but for now, as Erickson indicated, and Calvin affirmed in his two-fold description of repentance, we must first repent from, or mortify, our sins as we at the same time (though prior logically) embrace the comfort that comes from embracing the truth of the Gospel.
Faith and repentance are both completely necessary for the salvation of the sinner. Faith involves both a mental assent to the truths of the Gospel and an embracing of those truths personally by the person who assents to them. Repentance is a change of mind, whereby the sinner agrees with God regarding sin, turns from sin, despises sin, hates sin, and rejects sin. The relationship between faith and repentance as it pertains to salvation is that repentance is an integral part of saving faith. We agree with Barackman here when we say saving faith consists of “assent, repentance, and trust.” One cannot properly repent unless they first believe the facts of the Gospel, or have mental assent regarding those truths. Further, one cannot logically turn to God without first, logically speaking, turning from sin.
The act of “turning” is very appropriate in illustrating why the Biblical authors can speak of either faith, or repentance, as being singularly essential for salvation. They can do this because in order to “turn” one must by necessity turn away from something, and toward another thing. I cannot “turn” north, without turning away from the south, east, and west. So when the Biblical authors use these terms, individually, or together, they carry the same meaning for whether one repents, or believes, they cannot do either, without doing the other. I can say to a man heading south on a particular street “Stop heading south, you must go north.” I can also say “you need to go north” or “south is the altogether wrong direction.” Each of these statements carry the same exact meaning.
So too, whether the Scriptures say “…repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31), or “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19), they are saying precisely the same thing for repentance and faith are, as we have seen, inseparable pieces of a faith that saves.
Barackman, Floyd H. 2001. “Practical Christian Theology: Examining the Great Doctrines of the Faith. Fourth Edition.” Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications.
Calvin, John. 2008. “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Erickson, Millard J. 2001. “Introducing Christian Doctrine: 2nd Ed.” Edited by L. Arnold Hustad. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Hixson, J.B. 2008. “Getting the Gospel Wrong: The Evangelical Crisis No One Is Talking About.” Xulon Press.
Packer, J.I. 1993. “Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.” Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
Pendleton, James M. 1906. “Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology.” Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.
Sproul, R.C. 2002. “Saved from What?” Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
_______. 2003. “Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together.” Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Erickson, Millard J. “Introducing Christian Doctrine: 2nd Ed.” 307-310.
 Pendleton, James M. “Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology.” 264-265. Pendleton writes “ This change in theological writings is, usually called Regeneration, and is inseparable from ‘repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
 Calvin, John. “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” 388.
 Erickson, Millard J. “Introducing Christian Doctrine: 2nd Ed.” 308.
 Calvin, John. “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” 386.
Jeremy Lundmark is a former pastor and former host of the podcast "After The Sermon." Jeremy has earned his Masters of Ministry from Summit University in Clark's Summit, PA. He is the author of the book, The Fury of God. Jeremy is a husband of thirteen years to Alison G. Lundmark and is the proud father of three children: Alexander, Brionna, and Scarlett. To connect, leave a comment on one of his posts at TheologyMix.com.