Sinners are often erroneously told they must “repent and believe in order to be saved.” With a presupposition that salvation comes at the point of faith, before and without further acts of obedience, repentance is placed before belief. Please study.
Jesus said, “I tell you nay, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). The sinner repent or perish. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). One who repents will not perish, but without faith cannot please God. If the order of repentance preceding faith is right, one who will not perish after true repentance, cannot please God until he has faith. This presents a predicament. How is it a penitent sinner will not perish, but cannot please God?
“Godly sorrow worketh repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10). The sinner who becomes aware that sin is an affront to God is moved to great remorse, but has not repented. A person who is caught in wrong may become deeply sorry–about getting caught–but not repent. Repentance is the fruit of godly sorrow. But if repentance precedes faith, a person moved by godly sorrow to truly repent is still not pleasing to God until faith comes.
There are passages in the New Testament which mention repentance before faith.
1. Mark 1:15 — “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent ye, and believe the gospel.” This was said to Jews who were already believers in God but not in Christ and His claims. So, believers in God had to repent (change their minds and lives) and accept the good news about Jesus Christ. The arrival of the kingdom of God among men was impending and they had to accept the king before being ready to enter it. That is why many were rejected.
2. Matthew 21:32 — “And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterwards, that ye might believe him.” Jesus directed this to the chief priests and elders among the Jews, the most respectable and honorable men in Jewish society. Their attitude was entirely wrong. They rejected John the Baptist, whom they ridiculed as a mad man. In order to correct a despicable attitude, the Master called on them to repent. Had they repented, they would afterwards indeed have come to believe, but they were already believers in God.
3. Acts 21:32 — “Testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ.” This passage mentions nothing about the order of repentance and faith. One can see that repentance is directed one way and faith the other. Repentance is directed toward God and faith toward Christ Jesus, the Lord. Believers in God must repent before they can direct faith toward Christ. Faith toward Christ requires one repent.
4. Hebrews 6:1 — “Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and faith toward God.”
Faith toward God is mentioned after repentance from dead works. Nothing in the verse mentions the gospel, Jesus Christ, salvation, or any items involved in the order of repentance and faith. Repentance away from dead works means that even before coming to accept God for what He is, one rejects anything other than God. Faith toward God comes after one rejects evil. This has nothing to do with the saving repentance and faith of the gospel of Christ.
The order of mention is not always the order of occurrence in Scripture. “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God has raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:10). The order of mention is confession by mouth and belief in the heart. It is impossible for confession from the mouth to precede faith in the heart. Jesus said it is the mouth that speaks what is already in the heart (Matt. 12:34).
When faith only is preached, faith is elevated far above anything the Lord or His apostles intended. Faith is essential to salvation. It is the foundation for salvation. In the most comprehensive sense faith includes every act of submission to Christ. The initial belief of facts regarding Christ prompts repentance and a confession of that faith. Baptism is the culmination of faith that obeys the Lord. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). If you believe, then repent–not the other way around. Then obey from the heart that form of doctrine and be saved. Do it now.