Most readers are probably too young to remember the “mourner’s bench.” I did not grow up in a church that had one, but I knew friends who did. The mourners’ bench was simply a place to kneel at the front of the church where the sinner could weep over and confess his sins. Then, with a resolve to turn from those sins, he would receive Christ as his Savior. Mourning, turning, and believing met at the mourners’ bench.
No criticism of this practice is implied. Indeed, it would be a healthy thing to see more sorrow for sin today. But what does sorrow for sin or a resolve to turn from sin have to do with salvation? What is the place of repentance in relation to salvation? Must repentance precede faith? Is it a part of faith or a synonym for it? Can one be saved without repenting?
What Is Repentance?
A number of scriptural terms have a basic, almost generic meaning that requires one to ask some questions in order to understand the exact meaning in a particular situation. For example, the word salvation means “to rescue or save.” But in some contexts salvation means a rescue from an earthly predicament, and in others it refers to being rescued from eternal damnation.
The same principle applies to the word repentance. In both the Old and New Testaments repentance means “a change of mind.” But the question must be asked, About what do you change your mind? A biblical call to repentance usually demands a new mindset toward God, ourselves, and our ways.
Repentance is not merely a superficial intellectual assent to something; it is a genuine shift which includes a resultant change, usually in actions. However, while people who reform have repented—changed their minds about their past lives—that kind of repentance, albeit genuine, does not of itself save them.
Many people connect repentance with sorrow so much that, for all practical purposes, sorrow becomes the definition of repentance. Sorrow may accompany a repentance, and the sense of sin may stir up a person’s mind or conscience so that he or she realizes the need for a Savior, but if there is no change of mind about Jesus Christ there will be no salvation.
The clearest use of the word repent in the saving sense is found in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). Some in the crowd, hearing Peter’s plea to repent, may have wondered, Repent about what? If they listened closely—and if we recall what Peter’s sermon was all about—the answer to that question is clear.
The apostle first had spoken about Jesus of Nazareth: His life, His death, and His resurrection (Acts 2:22-24). Next, quoting from Psalm 16:8-11, Peter reminded his audience that Messiah would be raised from the dead (Acts 2:25-31).
Then the apostle made it extremely clear that Jesus of Nazareth, who had risen from the dead less than two months before in that very city, was Messiah. Furthermore, since David also predicted (in Psalm 110) that Messiah would ascend to the right hand of God as Jesus of Nazareth did, then Jesus must be the Messiah.
In other words, Peter painted two pictures—one of Messiah from the Old Testament, and the other of Jesus of Nazareth. Now the inescapable conclusion: Jesus is “both Lord [God], and Christ [Messiah]” (Acts 2:36).
Upon hearing and realizing this, conviction overwhelmed the people. They asked what they should do, and Peter replied “Repent.” Repent about what? Change your minds about Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever you thought about Him before or whoever you thought He was, change your minds and now believe that He is God and your Messiah who died and who rose from the dead. That repentance saves.
Indeed, before any of us came to Christ we had some conception of Him. Perhaps it was fuzzy, perhaps it was reasonably clear, perhaps it was wrong. But we turned from whatever conception we had and turned to Him as our Savior from sin. And that repentance brought eternal salvation.
—Adapted from So Great Salvation by Charles C. Ryrie.