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What the start of true saving faith looks like

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Repentance from sin plus faith in Christ equals a new life. |

In January 1907, a great revival broke out at a Bible conference being held in Pyongyang Korea. An American missionary named William Blair who was present at the meeting describes the aftermath this way:

The Christians returned to their homes, taking the Pentecostal fire with them. It spread to practically every church. Schools canceled classes for days while students wept out their wrong doings together. We had our hearts torn again and again by the return of little articles and money that had been taken from us over the years. All through the city people were going from house to house, confessing wrongs, returning stolen property, not only to Christians but to non-believers. A Chinese merchant was astounded to have a Christian walk in and pay him a large sum of money he had obtained unjustly years before. The whole city was stirred. The cry went out over the city...

If you’re like a lot of Christians, there’s been a time in your life when you wondered if you were really saved or not. Maybe that time is right now.

Although true saving faith is multi-faceted, there’s one indisputable element present that’s foundational and it’s a word you don’t hear much these days: repentance. Keep reading and see if it’s happened to you.

Turn, turn, turn

Question 87 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism does a good job at succinctly defining real repentance. It says:   

"What is repentance unto life?

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience."

Nowhere in Scripture is there a better picture of this than in Luke 13 where the Gospel writer contrasts the prideful works-based spirit of a Pharisee with that of true repentance shown in an always-despised tax collector: “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” And what does Jesus say about the end result of that repentance? “I tell you, this man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:13-14).

The word “repent” is found 73 times in Scripture and “repentance” 25 times. The Hebrew term simply means to be genuinely sorry for a person’s actions while the Greek word conveys the idea of changing one’s mind.

The outcome is always action-based, which is why John the Baptist followed up his declarations of repentance with, “Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).

You see it chronicled in William Blair’s Korean revival account and the story of Zaccheus, which we all know: “Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’” As with the tax collector account, real salvation follows: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’” (Luke 19:8-9).

Inexplicably, repentance today is oftentimes detached from the Gospel message of salvation. This fact was noted back in a 1937 book by Dr. Harry Ironside entitled, Except Ye Repent. In it, Ironside states: “The doctrine of repentance is the missing note in many otherwise orthodox and fundamentally sound circles today. There are professed preachers of grace who, like the antinomians of old decry the necessity of repentance lest it seemed to invalidate the freedoms of grace.”

That’s too bad because the call to repentance is found everywhere in the New Testament and is at the starting line of saving faith. It was the hallmark of John the Baptist’s teaching as well as Jesus; for example, we see Christ telling the crowds: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3-5).

We read about Peter’s first Gospel address where he says to those listening, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In his second letter, Peter tells his readers that, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Why is repentance overlooked today? A good answer comes from J. I. Packer who wrote: “The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which He may make on their lives.”

Ouch. If you’re like me, maybe that stings just a little and causes you to reflect on the still sinful areas of your life you haven’t turned away from or perhaps drifted back into.

One thing’s for sure — there’s good biblical evidence that the start of real saving faith is repentance. Is it something you’ve experienced? 

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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