Faith or Repentance—Which Comes First?

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance. — John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 119.

Repentance is a critical teaching of the Word of God. We are called to proclaim it in the name of Christ Jesus everywhere (Luke 24:47). Yet a question arises: must people repent of their sins and show a changed behavior, that is a changed life, before God grants justifying faith—faith that is the instrument by which God reconciles a sinful person to himself? Or does repentance follow faith? Which comes first—faith or repentance? And how do we know?

How should we define repentance and faith?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has a helpful, biblically-based definition of repentance:

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?

A. 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.

The Heidelberg Catechism gives a good biblical definition of true faith:

Question 21. What is true faith?

Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits. 

Repentance is turning from sin to obedience. Internally, it is a hatred of sin and a motivation to live in gratitude and love by obeying God’s commands. Externally it is changed conduct. Saving faith is a gift of God in our hearts leading us to trust him alone for our forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation, only because of what Christ has done for us. 

So, which comes first—faith or repentance? The answer is faith precedes repentance; it is a fruit of saving faith—not the other way around. A person is reconciled to God (justified) by faith alone, not by faith plus works. Yet, faith without repentance is not saving faith. Let me explain by considering what the Bible teaches.

The Bible contains various passages regarding the need for repentance.

The book of Acts records examples of the apostolic call to repent, believe, and be baptized; the call goes out in various combinations and order. In Acts 2:38,

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Here Peter implies that repentance comes first, while in Acts 11:21 belief precedes repentance:

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. (See also Acts 8:13, 10:43, 11:17, 13:39, 16:31.)

Yet, in Acts 8:12 belief (faith) comes first with no mention of repentance:

But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

The Bible teaches that repentance flows from faith.

In Romans and other Pauline epistles, repentance is a fruit of God’s grace rather than its cause. For example, we find in Romans 2:4:

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Paul also makes clear at 2 Timothy 2:24 that it is God who grants repentance:

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. (See also Acts 11:18.)

We are justified by faith alone.

Scripture clearly addresses repentance, but not in Romans 3-8, Ephesians 1-2, and Galatians 2-5, where Paul writes about saving faith and justification. Our justification—an act of God where he declares us righteous—is all about faith (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:8-14, for example).

Justification is an act of God who counts (declares) a person righteous, only because of what Christ Jesus has done (Rom. 4:21-5:1). Our works, or even our repentance, do not cause God to justify us; God justifies a person by grace alone because of Christ alone through faith alone—our faith is God’s gift (Eph. 2:8-9).

Now, what about James 2:24? Some object to justification by faith alone. For help on understanding this passage, please consider reading: “Works in the Book of James—‘Fruits and Evidences of a True and Lively Faith.’

True faith is grounded in Christ’s work alone, not in anything we do. Yet, let me be clear: there is no pardon of sins without repentance (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30). Repentance proceeds from faith; it does not precede faith. The cause of our pardon is Christ through faith. If repentance preceded faith, then our work of repentance would seem to be part of the ground for God to pardon us, which Scripture doesn’t teach.

Repentance is a fruit of faith.

Finally, consider the following Bible passages:

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:23)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal. 5:6)

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb. 11:6)

Turning from sin to obedience proceeds from faith. All said, both faith and repentance are critically necessary in salvation. As theologian Louis Berkhof aptly summarizes,

Moreover, true repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning,—a turning away from sin in the direction of God. (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1996 ed., p. 487)

Repentance is not the cause of our pardon, but it is a necessary fruit which flows from faith. There is no pardon without it. Therefore, trusting God for your salvation, repent of your sins and with gratitude love your Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and others as yourself. Rest assured that you will bear fruit in Christ as God’s dear child (John 15:8).

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Daniel Rowlands is content editor for Beautiful Christian Life.

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Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray

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