Repent & .... Believe

(This is the first of a series posts on Repentance's connection to Belief, Fruit, Turning to God, and Baptism.

He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus begins his public ministry with this proclamation to repent and believe. Does He, in fact, mean to place repentance before belief? So which comes first, repentance or belief/faith? If repentance, then how can you turn toward God before you believe in Him? If faith, then how can your mindset shift from unbelief to belief before you’ve repented? More than a “chicken or the egg” exercise, this question challenges one’s understanding of both repentance (Gr: metanoia) and belief (Gr: pistis). 

Consider the other New Testament passages which mention both repentance and faith: 

"You know that I did not hold back from proclaiming to you anything that would be helpful, and from teaching you publicly and from house to house, testifying to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus." (Acts 20:20-21, NET emphasis added) 

"Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God," (Hebrews 6:1, NET emphasis added) 

Based on the scriptures above, repent and believe remain distinct, but linked. Many have explained the relationship between repentance and belief by placing them on opposite sides of the same coin. Perhaps it’s more accurate to see repentance as the journey and belief as the destination. However, here is where the dance between repent and believe becomes more intricate and more elegant:

  • Before one Repents, he seeks God and is exposed to Belief – through the Word (see Romans 10:14). However, Belief in God exists in competition with other systems of “belief” that he has held. At this point (“I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” Mark 9:24), he may have become well acquainted with Jesus, but not surrendered to Him. That won’t happen until he lets go of self in order to trust only in Him.
  • When one shifts his belief from self-trust to God-trust, that shift is his Repentance. During the shift he Repents; completing the shift he Believes. 
  • After this shift to Belief, we bear the Fruit of our Repentance (Luke 3:8, Acts 26:20). Many confuse the fruit of Repentance with Repentance itself; thus, they mistakenly see Repentance as coming after Belief.

Take caution here –certain segments of “just believe” Christianity have used this same argument to marginalize repentance. That’s not my intention. Rather, it’s my hope that this study deepens an appreciation for the radical and powerful nature of Belief.

Now let’s look at the relationship between Repent and Believe using the language of Paradigms. For some this will prove profitable. If we equate Repentance with the phenomenon known as a Paradigm Shift, then Belief is the ultimate Theological Paradigm. It is the paradigm to which we shift when we repent.

  •  We become aware of the Belief Paradigm before the Paradigm Shift of Metanoia. That’s because multiple and competing Paradigms develop as we Seek God. Belief is one of those Paradigms that the Word produces for us. So, we understand – but do not surrender to - the Belief Paradigm before we Shift to it. However, we are not truly of the Faith until we abandon all other Paradigms. 
  • When we abandon our old Paradigm of Self (or even old Paradigms of False Faith), we experience a Paradigm Shift or Metanoia. 
  • After shifting paradigms, we now hold only to the Paradigm of Belief. We have repented; we have come to faith. Amen! 

Thus, “coming to faith” is an accurate description of Repentance. It also explains why the Apostle John never speaks of repentance in his Gospel. He does, however, record Jesus’ command to believe. Based on the relationship between repentance and belief, His call to believe is likewise a call to repent. So, a “believer” who needs to repent is really a “believer” who needs to believe. THE Faith exists for him before Repentance, but until he repents it is not HIS Faith. 

Finally, both true repentance and true faith produce good fruit – that is, good works. Deeds that reflect the change of our lifestyle are attributed to repentance, and deeds that reflect our ongoing new lifestyle are often attributed to faith. But now we’ve begun to split hairs. At this point, I’ll heed the words of William Law rather than over-examine the relationship between repentant faith and its accompanying works:

Therefore all the learned volumes written about the fine distinctions between faith and works are as absurd as though they had been written about the difference between a thing and itself…So men imagine that to believe in Jesus Christ is something that can be done apart from obeying Him, because they do not know Him as the Lord who reigns and lives within. As well imagine that a command is only to be believed but not obeyed, or that a tree is not known by its fruit.

Remember that both Repentance and Faith are Spiritual phenomena. For the Holy Spirit, there can be no division between Repentance and its fruit and between Faith and its works. They are one in the Spirit (See James 2:26; 1st John 3:9).