Is repentance a work?



It’s become a ridiculed word in society and, surprisingly, even among some Christians.

When I encourage readers to accept Jesus Christ in my posts, I’ll often write something like, “Repent of your sin and accept Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone.”

Some may ask, what exactly is meant by “repent”?

The Greek words for repent (verb) and repentance (noun) are metanoéō and metanoia and they appear a total of 55 times in the New Testament. The “Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance” defines metanoia as:

“Change of mind, repentance, the state of changing any or all of the elements composing one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviors concerning the demands of God for right living: note that this state can refer to the foundational salvation event in Christ, or to on-going repentance in the Christian life(my italics and boldface).

When a person is saved, they change their mind (repent) about their rebellion against God, agreeing with God that they are an absolute helpless sinner in need of the Savior, and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Repentance is part of the conversion to Christ. A person can’t accept Christ as Savior until they have understood through the ministry of the Holy Spirit their desperate need of the Savior and repented (changed their mind) about their rebellion against God. Every person who has accepted (some prefer to say “trusted in”) Christ as Savior has repented of their sinful rebellion. Many preachers of the Gospel even use “repentance” as shorthand for conversion to Christ.

Repentance, turning from sinful rebellion against God to trusting in Christ as Savior by faith alone, is Scriptural and is well understood as basic, elementary theology by most Christians.

Apostle Peter declared to unbelievers,Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Acts 3:19

Apostle Paul later declared to unbelievers, “How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. – Acts 20:20-21

Once a person is saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone, they will follow Christ imperfectly and must repent of (turn from) subsequent sins of disobedience, however that is not a matter of salvation, but of sanctification.

Pretty basic stuff, huh? Shouldn’t even be an issue, right? So why am I making a fuss about all of this?

A fellow WordPress blogger has repeatedly accused me of adding works to the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone by mentioning repentance as part of conversion. He claims that repentance is a work and cannot be added to simply accepting Christ as Savior.

I’ve been wrongly accused of a lot of things, but I don’t like being accused of distorting the Gospel. I’ve explained several times to this individual that repentance is turning from rebellion against God to agreeing with God about the need for Christ, so it is a vital component of accepting Christ. You can’t accept Christ until you have understood (changed your mind regarding) your need for Christ. But this blogger is having none of it and believes he is defending the pure Gospel against an imaginary work. While I applaud this person’s defense of the Gospel of grace, his misunderstanding of repentance causes him to tilt at windmills. It’s very clear that he understands “repentance” only in some type of Catholic penitential, self-reformational sense.

However, this blogger is not alone in this viewpoint as I have seen some others rankled over the same issue. So why do I continue to include admonitions to repent in my invitations to receive Christ if some are troubled by it? As I explained, repentance is a very necessary part of accepting Christ. At many churches, there are often ambiguous invitations to “follow Jesus” or “receive Jesus into your heart.” Church visitors often “respond” to invitations without truly understanding their depraved, sinful state and their need of Christ as Savior. They make a “decision” and then go home and live their lives like they always have. Their was no genuine conversion. Sinners MUST repent (change their minds) about their sinful rebellion against God and turn to Christ. You cannot genuinely trust in Christ UNLESS you have repented! Repentance is absolutely mandatory in Biblical salvation! Attempting to concoct some type of salvation in Christ without repentance would be like an imaginary scenario in which someone just showed up at a doctor’s office out of the blue with no symptoms. “I’m here, Doc, but I don’t know why I’m here!” Does not compute. Only people who admit they are sick seek a doctor’s help. That’s repentance.

I’ll admit I’m a little frustrated at having to repeatedly defend myself against accusations of adding works to the Gospel, but I hold no ill will against this blogger who has a limited understanding of theology and is sincerely attempting to defend the Gospel of grace. I have suggested to the person that he do a word study of repent/metanoéō and repentance/metanoia in the New Testament, but that would precipitate an uncomfortable paradigm shift.

“Repentance means that you realize that you’re a guilty, vile sinner in the presence of God. That you deserve the wrath and punishment of God, that you are hell bound. It means that you begin to realize that this thing called sin is in you, that you long to get rid of it and that you turn your back on it in every shape and form. You renounce the world, whatever the cost. The world in its mind and outlook as well as its practice and you deny yourself and take up the cross and go after Christ. Your nearest and dearest and the whole world may call you a fool, or say you have religious mania, you may have to suffer financially, it makes no difference, that is repentance. It’s always been understood the same way. It is a complete change, life-changing and it begins at salvation and that just starts a permanent lifelong process of ongoing confession of sin.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones from “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount”

34 thoughts on “Is repentance a work?

  1. Excellent post Tom! Your quote at the end really hit home personally. Sin itself does stink and it does make us filthy-and, how I long to be free from it. Repentance for myself is knowing I cannot do this on my own (life) and accepting help from Jesus (His yoke being perfect). Accepting Christ will and has ruffled feathers in my life. However, Jesus’ love is the great inspiration (Matt. 19:29) Keep up the good work Tom!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks a lot for the encouragement in the Lord, Nathan! Yup, I was edified (and challenged) from that quote by MLJ myself. We stumble, get up, stumble, get up, etc., but our Shepherd is always beside us encouraging us – yes, with unfailing love – to press forward toward the mark!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. We want to repent of our sins towards The Lord when we realize how much He has and does loves us, right? I believe it is just something we do automatic?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. RE: automatic
      You’re on to something. Yes, repentance is automatic in the sense of that’s what a person does when they trust in Christ, they turn from sinful unbelief to Christ and His forgiveness, justification, and salvation. I think those who get nervous with the word “repentance” mistakenly interpret it as some sort of self-reformation. It’s interesting that the old Douay–Rheims Catholic Bible interpreted metanoéō/repent as “do penance” or “be penitent”

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Great post, the issue is foundational to our faith! Even in the Old Testament God said, “In repentance and rest is your salvation…” (Isaiah 30:15)
    Have a blessed weekend, Tom.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Lisa Beth! Yes, there’s no salvation without repentance. It is foundational. It’s a bit unnerving to have to debate about it. Thanks and have a blessed weekend, too!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I remember crying like a baby when I realized how much I had been against God-against Jesus-in my heart. Also thinking about how He had saved me from suicide and years later I went on to do things I know He wouldn’t want me to do-that were not glorifying Him. Does that make sense? See for “me” I saw *smoking and drinking* as something “I” didn’t need to be doing…it was not glorifying Him and certainly wasn’t edifying to those I had claimed Jesus, too… (*I am not judging any one else-this is ME I am talking about 🙂 )

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Praise the Lord that He brought you out of bondage! Yes, I remember when I accepted Jesus 35 years ago like it was yesterday. I resisted and resisted but the Holy Spirit increasingly convicted me of my great sinfulness. I trusted in Him and what a weight was lifted from me.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I remember falling to my knees…then on my face on the floor in my apartment the day He saved me and it finally hit me that I was indeed sinful. I mean, I knew I had sinned…we are all sinners…but when He actually revealed my true sinfulness in light of His holiness I was shocked! Shocked too that I had never even thought of some of these things as “sin”. Attitudes and judgements, things my deceitful heart had kept hidden from me until He showed me. I don’t pretend to think that we all fall under the same convictions, but one of the things that changed immediately for me personally, was the type of TV programs I used to watch…all dark, psychological thriller or criminal in nature. I had just purchased the final season of Dexter for me and my sister to watch on iTunes. I had to go to her house and tell her, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any desire to watch that anymore. I don’t believe it’s the kind of thoughts and images Jesus wants me to have in my mind.” It certainly didn’t match up with Philippians 4:6-8! (I’m sure she thought I was crazy). I also told her I wouldn’t be watching the final 2-3 episodes of Son’s of Anarchy with her and her husband…and speaking of repentance, I apologized to the two of them for being the one that introduced these programs to them. I just found this blog today and I’ve been reading posts and comments all day…look forward to checking out your blog as well. Be blessed!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Maria! Yes, we are all definitely works in progress. I know when the Lord takes me up that I’m going to learn that some of my views on particular secondaries weren’t exactly right. Have a blessed weekend, sister!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Great post Tom. I have been confronted with the same and quoted Jonah 3/10 as proof that “repentance” is works!!. When I quoted Jesus, I was told that was before the cross, when I quoted Peter, I was told Peter spoke only to the Jews, when I quoted Paul, I was told to rightly divide the Word.
    I like this quote from William Booth:”The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Crissy, thanks so much for the encouragement in the Lord and for sharing your own experiences with this. I understand and appreciate these people’s zeal in defending the Gospel of grace, but they have an erroneous understanding of repentance. Thanks for the Booth quote! Yes, we’re seeing less and less Bible taught at churches these days and more and more of “live your best life now.”

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks a lot, Wally! Yesterday, I noticed a You Tube video had been created after the exchange that you saw – more claims of repentance being a work – so felt I needed to write on this some more. That’s it. I’m done.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I think repentance is the other side of the coin of trusting/having faith in Jesus. If you trust in Jesus you are changing direction in terms of what you are trusting; no longer in yourself, others, your idols, etc., but in God. Repentance is not self-works righteousness but true repentance means a change of direction away from that and unto trusting in Him!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Jimmy! My thoughts exactly. I think there’s a lot of confusion out there on repentance. I’m guessing a lot of people misinterpret repentance as self-reformation. From your knowledge and experience, do some pastors avoid the word because of this general misunderstanding?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thanks for your perspective and for the link to your excellent post on Osteen. That’s right, you’ll never hear “sin” or “repentance” in one of Osteen’s “sermons.” I imagine most of the seeker mega-church pastors also shy away from using “repentance” but that’s just a guess.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yeah I don’t think the big churches would get into substance of God’s Word. Lord willing I want to write a short post on my blog concerning repentance and works.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Ahhhhm, just do a word search of “repent” in the NT and read through each verse, it will show the reader that repentance goes hand in hand with salvation! We too encounter this “teaching” from time to time. To me, it is such a necessary step in one’s salvation (by grace through faith). 1 Corinthians 7:10.
    Good topic, thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cassey! Trying to remove repentance from salvation in Christ is……so absurd. I was struggling to come up with another analogy, but it’s not worth the effort. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Amen Tom, well said! I have dealt with this same issue and it is disturbing. I even wrote a post about it back in June when I confronted someone who was saying repentance is adding works to salvation. I titled it “A Further Explanation of Repentance.” I don’t know where people are getting that misunderstanding and false teaching about repentance being a work. It’s crazy! Of course we need to confront the issue of sin with people, so they understand that they are sinful and need a Savior! Just like Paul preached, we all need to know that we have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. I appreciate you explaining the Greek root of the word too. I too have shared that with people. There is a major misunderstanding of what repentance is. It’s crazy someone would say that telling people to repent is wrong when Jesus Himself said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus wasn’t adding works to salvation and he wasn’t preaching a “false gospel.” He is the Gospel and He was telling people to change their minds and hearts (inner man) about living in sin and turn to Him to be saved! As 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, repentance leads to salvation! Great post, God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ryan, thanks so much for your good comments! It’s a bit frustrating to have to debate a basic theological doctrine. The advocates of repentance-is-a-work are generally not open to the Biblical view, but I’m grateful that Bonnie reblogged my post so that readers can see another viewpoint.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tom, I appreciate your referring back to this post in your recent answer to Bonnie. I think that some who struggle with sin not having been given victory over it because they don’t really understand that true repentance is not a work, but a change in who over what they desire. To desire God over sin is not a work at all. And to change one’s own life, which by many is seen as repentance is not even possible. The fruit of righteousness that is produced in us is not ours but His, and it comes from abiding in Him. Thanks for the good post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jerry, thank you for your gracious comments. It’s really sad we have to debate the truth of Biblical repentance unto salvation. Sigh. However, I can understand how some people sadly get wrapped around the axle on this. I come from a Catholic background and in that religion, repentance was understood as a work. Catholic Bible translators regularly translated “repentance” as “penance.” Evidently this thinking has infected the minds of some Protestants who read or hear “repentance” but think “doing penance” or “being penitential.” I’m wearying of having to keep defending the Biblical view, but I’m hoping the post blesses a soul.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s