Is Repentance a Work One Must Do to Be Saved? 

In a recent Questions@CreationToday video titled, “Is Repentance Necessary for Salvation?”, Eric Hovind interviewed Ray Comfort. The comments from viewers show that there is a great divide of opinions on this topic. Some people shouted, “Amen!” to the video’s message that repentance is a necessary part of salvation. Others lit torches, grabbed pitchforks and shouted, “Heretic! You only need to believe!” How are we so divided? Is Ray Comfort preaching a works based salvation as some people are accusing him? What does the Bible say? 

If you have not seen the video yet, check it out here:

Ray Comfort begins his answer quoting Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV), 

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” 

He explains that our salvation no more depends on our works than Lazarus’ rising from the dead depended on his own work (John 11:38-44). 

Ray goes on to distinguish faith or belief from a works salvation. He clearly spells out that our belief is not something we DO in order to merit our salvation, but rather, as Ray puts it, “is the medium by which we receive the grace of God.” 

“You aren’t saved until you repent.” —Ray Comfort

Ray answers his critics clearly and immediately. So where is the confusion coming in? It’s probably from his discussion of the need for repentance. He states that salvation comes “from repentance and faith, in that order… You aren’t saved until you repent.” 

If you understand repentance as something we DO—as in a collection of works we must accomplish—then it does sound like Ray teaches that we have works to accomplish before we can be saved. Using this definition, Christianity sounds just like any other religion. And “repent and believe” found in Mark 1:15 sounds much like Islam’s, “Uphold the five pillars” or Buddhism’s “walk the eight-fold path.” However, I suggest that this response comes from having a distorted definition of repentance. 

“Repentance is an old fashioned word…”
Ray Comfort defines repentance in the interview with Eric by saying, “Repentance is an old-fashioned word which means to confess and forsake your sins.” This is where some of the conflict begins. After all, if repentance is confessing and forsaking, aren’t these things we do? If Ray says we aren’t saved until we repent, and then he defines repenting as things we must do; isn’t he saying our salvation depends on things WE must DO? 

Some viewers come from a background which leads them to think that Ray is claiming that salvation depends on their ability to stop sinning. These individuals interpret Ray’s definition of repentance to mean that first, they have to confess all of their sins to someone, maybe a priest, then they must stop sinning, and THEN they can believe. They feel Ray is teaching that salvation is the combination of their effort to confess all their sins, their successful effort to stop sinning, and their effort to believe. According to this view, all this self-effort combined with their belief is what saves them. This may be what some cults or other organizations teach, but it is very much a misunderstanding of Ray’s message.

Some of our friends on social media insist that we do not need to repent at all for salvation, but rather merely need to believe in order to be saved. However, this too, is a misunderstanding of, not only Ray Comfort’s message, but also of the Biblical concept of what it means to “believe.” 

Let’s compare two of the ways in which Paul describes this in the New Testament. First, in Ephesians 2:8 (NIV) Paul writes: 

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.” 

In Romans 10:9-10 (ESV) Paul penned this: 

“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” 

In Romans 10, Paul describes what Ray Comfort calls “repentance” as confessing and forsaking your sins. But doesn’t this contradict the teaching in Ephesians 2 where Paul says, “it is the gift of God and not of works”? How can it be “NOT of works,” and yet require the work of confessing and turning away from our sins? 

Some critics of Christianity claim that Paul invented his own brand of Christianity, different from that of Jesus. So what does Jesus say about salvation? What was His message? When you study Jesus’ teaching, and you understand Paul’s writings,  you will see that they are in complete harmony. Consider what we learn in the Gospels about Jesus’ teaching on repentance.

Jesus Preached Repentance

Matthew 4:17 (ESV) tells us: 

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ”

Mark 1:14-15 (ESV) says: 

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ ”

In Luke 5:31-33 (ESV) we read: 

“And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ ”

It ought to be obvious that Paul did not invent the connection between repentance and belief, as we find it being taught by Jesus Himself all through the Gospels. But what exactly did Jesus mean by “repent”? Let’s look into the Greek for some clarity. 

In these passages, the word for “repentance” is metanoia (noun form) or metanoeó (verb form). The noun metánoia literally means “a change of mind.” The verb metanoeó means “to change one’s mind,” or literally, “to think differently afterwards.” Jesus is not merely saying, “Believe in me.” He is teaching repentance. Jesus is teaching people that they need to change their mindsNow to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) and search the scriptures for the truth, we need to ask more questions: Change their minds about what? Belief in what?

What Belief Does (and Doesn’t) Mean

Jesus did teach that we must believe in Him. In John 11:24-26 (ESV) Jesus said to Martha,

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” 

So what then does it mean to believe, to have faith

Atheist skeptics have defined faith or belief as being somehow in opposition to knowledge. Popular skeptic Richard Dawkins (Author of ‘The God Delusion’) states faith is “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” This concept has even found its way into the church, as Old Earth Creationists (AKA, Theistic Evolutionists) state, “We should not try to force science and scripture to agree, but rather we should embrace the mystery because knowledge destroys the opportunity for faith.” However,  Jesus teaches something very different from these Theistic Evolutionists’ and Dawkins’ definition of faith as blind acceptance. 

The Greek word used in John 11:25 for “believe” is pisteuó, which is derived from peíthō, “persuade, to be persuaded.” It means to affirm, to have confidence in something or someone. There is nothing about biblical belief which encourages a willing blindness, or a leap into the dark. It certainly does not caution us against knowledge. The biblical concept of faith or belief which Jesus taught was a mature confidence in the truth. It is allowing ourselves to be persuaded, not by nothing, but by the truth and evidence God provides. Jesus doesn’t demand that people believe in Him without evidence. He actually points people to the evidence which supports his claims. In John 10:25 (ESV) Jesus says, 

“I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me…”   

In John 14:11 (ESV) Jesus says, 

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” 

Here again, Jesus points to the evidence to persuade His listeners. John even ends his Gospel by telling the reader that the purpose of his book was to provide evidence and proof that Jesus was who He claimed to be. John 20:30-31 says,

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

After the Resurrection, Jesus doesn’t respond to His disciples’ doubt with a demand that they stop thinking and just accept. Rather, He gives them evidence and reasons to believe. In Luke 24:38-40 (ESV) we read, 

“He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.”

The faith or belief to which the Bible calls us is not some blind acceptance of what we don’t know. Faith is putting our trust in what we are persuaded is true. John essentially echoes Jesus as he closes his Gospel (John 21:24-25, NIV) saying,

“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

In effect, John is saying, “I have shown you evidence that it is true; Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the perfect lamb who takes away the sins of the world. And there is much more evidence I have not shown you!”

Repentance and Faith

So how does this biblical understanding of faith and belief relate to the idea of repentance? I think this is best illustrated by James 2:18-20 (ESV).

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?”

This verse has caused much debate in the church, but I think it clearly illustrates the difference between a Dawkins-defined, blind faith; and the kind of Jesus-defined, trusting-in-truth faith God reveals in His Word. Very simply, this verse is not telling us that our works save us, but that our works show we have been saved. Just as the fruit on a tree is the result of the tree being alive, the fruit of good works shows new life in the believer. To illustrate this difference, James points to the demons and reminds us that they know who Jesus is. Satan and his minions are not agnostics. They know who Jesus is and what he has done. But instead of falling down in worship, they shudder in fear because they remain His enemies. 

In Matthew 8, Jesus comes upon two demon possessed men, and the demons not only acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God, but they acknowledge that they have an understanding of their future destruction at His hand. They “believe” that Jesus is the Son of God, but they do not repent. The demons know who Jesus is, probably better than anyone standing with Jesus at that moment could know. But they do not worship Him. They do not turn away from evil and follow Him. The demons “believe” in Jesus in the sense that they accept who He is. But they do not change their mind and fall at his feet calling him “Lord.” 

They do not repent. 

Turning to the Light IS Turning Away from Darkness

The Bible paints us a picture of repentance and belief which, when properly understood, show us that they are one and the same. The repentance and saving belief preached by Jesus and Paul are not two different things. It is two sides of the same coin. This is not a belief and a work, but rather repentance is the turning away from sin BECAUSE you believe. 

If you accept in some intellectual sense that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for your sin, but you do not turn away from your sin, then you have not repented and you have not truly believed, as in putting your complete trust in Him alone. If you want Jesus as your Savior but reject Him as your Lord, then your faith is no different than that of the demons. You “believe,” but you ought to shudder, as you are still in your sins. 

When a man marries a woman, he is also turning away from all other women. When a woman marries a man, she is also turning away from all other men. These are not two separate decisions. It is the definition of biblical marriage. In turning to Holy God, we are turning away from what He says is unholy. This is not two separate decisions. This is not an act of faith AND an act of works. The biblical commitment in marriage is the covenant between one man and one woman, and at the same time that commitment includes turning away from all others, or “forsaking all others.” So, too, when we have saving faith in Jesus, we change our minds about our sin. When we believe in Jesus, we forsake all others to trust Him alone—we repent.

In John 3:16 (NKJV) we are told, 

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” 

To believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is to make the choice to bow down at His feet and accept that He is your Lord and Savior. Whatever lies you used to believe about your sin or about God, you change your mind and are persuaded to accept the truth. You accept that your sin is an evil rebellion against the Holy God. When you believe in Jesus, you put your trust in HIM accepting that He alone can save you, and that He will cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Turning into the light is turning away from the darkness—one motion, a 180° turn.

Ray Is Right on Repentance

What Ray Comfort teaches is in agreement with the teachings of Jesus. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Trusting in Christ alone for salvation is also turning away from any hope in any other gods or saviors; a metánoia–a change of mind—a repentance. Choosing to worship Jesus and to stop worshiping anyone or anything else is one motion. 

The Gospel message is clear; Change your mind, turn away from sin and to Jesus, for he alone is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Repentance is not a work we do to earn or merit our salvation. But, is repentance necessary for salvation? Yes. Repent means “to change our mind.” If we change our minds about sin, confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, God promises that we will be saved. 

Mark 1:15 (ESV). 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel!