Assurance of Heaven
Chapter 6 -The Front Loaded Gospel
Many well-meaning and maybe some not so well-meaning people communicate the gospel in a way that subtly adds work requirements to it. We cannot see a person’s heart motivation, so we can only judge according to what they say. Often people do not realize what they are expressing when sharing the gospel.
Several years ago, my youngest adult son began to grow in his relationship with the Lord. He became interested in evangelism and took a popular video course at his church designed to help believers communicate the gospel. He liked it so much he even bought the video package for me that Christmas. Around the same time, my pastor had asked me to help with outreaches to our community. I sensed God working in all this, even in me to be more evangelistic. There is joy in those moments when you see an adult son or daughter becoming more and more interested in the Lord, and so I wanted to grow with him in this area of my walk.
The ministry that created the evangelism video course is popular and motivated. They do a lot of street evangelism, and I admire them for their effort in trying to reach people. They publish a wealth of tracts and tools for people around the world. I began to use their materials in my evangelism efforts and church outreaches. I even wrote some tracts that followed their methodology.
What was their methodology? Well, you would ask someone if they thought they were a good person. Most people respond by saying yes. Then you run some of the Ten Commandments by them: “Have you ever lied or stolen anything?” This should convict them that they are not good and that a good judge would come to the same conclusion. So how would they fare on Judgment Day when they stood before God? Would they go to heaven or hell? People respond to this in a number of ways. But if they say they probably would go to hell, then you have the opportunity to go through the gospel with them. That sounds like a good way, with one exception. For them to get to heaven, you must tell them that they first must repent of all their sins, meaning they must stop doing those sins, and believe the gospel.
Well, you’re likely asking yourself right now, “What’s wrong with that?” And at first, I thought the same thing. But something began to bother me about the tracts I was using. Did “repent of your sins” mean to acknowledge that you are a sinner? Is that what it means? Is “repenting of sins” and acknowledging myself to be a condemned sinner equal in meaning and understanding? Had I repented of all my sins (turned from all my sins)? Obviously, I had not. Since I have been a believer for over fifty-five years, most of my sins came after I got saved. Does this mean I am not saved? Are you beginning to see the problem?
This issue of repentance can get a little voluminous and complex. People have written books on the subject of repentance. But I am going to try to keep it somewhat simple and understandable. In this chapter, I am only addressing unbelievers, not believers. How does an unbeliever respond in repentance to receive Christ as Savior?
Is the Phrase “Repent of Your Sins” in the Bible? First of all, the phrase “repent of your sins” is not in the Bible. (The New Living Translation wrongly translates “repent” to mean repent of your sins.) Another friend and I shared this with a pastor at an outreach event. He immediately pulled out his KJV Bible and began to look feverishly like a mother looking for a lost child. But after several minutes of searching and as he began to sweat profusely (it was warm in the building), he realized it was not in there. Most people, including myself in the past, think the phrase is in the Bible and most are surprised when they find out it is not. I know I was. So why do we use the phrase?
What Does the Word “Repentance” Mean? The word “repentance” or “repent” in English does not carry with it the same meaning in Greek, the language of the New Testament. What do English-speaking people understand when you tell them to repent? I would argue most would say it means to be sorry for something that one did, to stop doing some sort of bad behavior, or a combination of both. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, but is that what the Bible says is necessary to be saved from the penalty of sin? No. Dr. Renald Showers aptly states: John the Baptist (Luke 3:8) and Paul (Acts 26:20) indicate those who repent should do deeds appropriate to their repentance, but the change of conduct is the result and not the essence of repentance. In addition, Paul’s statement that sorrow can prompt repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-10) implies sorrow itself is not repentance. The essence of repentance is a genuine change of mind.
The Greek word metanoia means to change one’s mind. In conversion, it is a significant change of thinking that affects what a person believes about how to be made right with God.
A lost person must have a change of mind about what he or she believes about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Is Jesus and His work on the cross enough to save? Or must one first turn from their sins and feel sorry for them (repent)? Is Jesus necessary but not enough?
The first use of “repent” in the New Testament is in the book of Matthew. John the Baptist was preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). The purpose of John’s ministry was to prepare the way of the Lord (Matt. 3:2). The apostle Paul makes John’s message clear. He said John indeed “baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him; that is on Jesus Christ” (Acts 19:4). That was John’s repentance message. The Jewish people believed they were guaranteed to be in the kingdom because they were God’s chosen people; because they were Jews. But John the Baptist told the Jewish leadership, “Do not think to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matt. 3:9).
In other words, John told that generation of Jews the necessity to change their mind, their belief. He told them that they were not “okay” with God simply because they were Jewish. He was saying to them that they needed a change of mind. They needed to change their minds from believing they were children of God by ethnicity to believing in Jesus as their Messiah, their Savior from their sins.
Another time, John was baptizing when a dispute arose between his disciples and the Jews about purification (John 3:25). The Jews wanted John to agree with them and not with Jesus. But John concluded his defense of Jesus, saying, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Again there is no mention of repentance, only believing.
Furthermore, according to the gospel of Mark, John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). His message as we have seen was for them to believe in Jesus as their Savior (see Acts 19:4). This was an offer to Israel through John for them to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, in order for God to restore the kingdom to them. How in the world would they receive forgiveness (remission) by repenting of their sins? No one receives judicial forgiveness for sins because they stop doing them. That would be like a judge pardoning a car thief for all his thefts because he promises he won’t steal any more cars or because he is sorry for all the cars he has stolen. In either case, would a good judge be just in finding that thief not guilty? No! That wouldn’t be just. Someone has to pay the penalty for the crime.
God is the ultimate perfect, righteous judge. He doesn’t overlook sin because we make a pledge to stop sinning or because we feel sorry for our sin. He has made the provision at great cost to Himself. Jesus has made the ultimate payment and provision for our crimes (sins). And He instructs us to believe in Him for forgiveness and everlasting life, because “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26).
Repenting of Sin is Works of Righteousness When one is told to repent of their sins, they understand they have to do something. They have to stop the bad things and do the good. This merely is works of righteousness. Doing works of righteousness is trusting in one’s personal effort. It’s trusting in yourself, at least in part, to save you. However, it is evident from the Bible that we are not saved, “by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5). We are saved by Jesus Christ and His sacrifice (John 14:6)!
Frankly, when a person is told to repent of their sins, he promises God something he cannot do—turn from all his sin. So if it can’t be done, then what good is it? Let’s say Ralph is confronted with his sin. He especially has a problem with telling the truth. He tells a lot of lies. So now Ralph must promise God that he’ll stop lying and believe in Jesus. Do you think Ralph will never tell another lie? He might have good intentions. He might be led to think he can do it. But Ralph will soon thereafter tell a lie, and if he is honest, question how he could do that as a saved person or even wonder if he really is saved, when he thought he had repented from all his sins.
Believing is the Opposite of Working Abraham believed apart from doing any works of righteousness. In other words, he didn’t repent of all his sins. He “believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). He did no works of righteousness to earn a right standing with God. He believed in the Lord and His provision. “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). The apostle Paul counted all things loss, including the righteousness from the law, that he “might gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:7- 9). He knew he needed perfect righteousness. Turning from sins (repenting) is self-righteousness when one thinks he must do this to be delivered from the penalty of sin.
Repenting of Sins vs. Admitting I am a Helpless Condemned Sinner Repenting of sins versus acknowledging that I am a condemned sinner helpless to fix my situation are two opposite actions. Repenting is something I must do. It’s works of righteousness as already explained. I am changing my behavior hoping to influence God to favor me. Admitting I am a condemned sinner helpless to fix my situation is something I believe God says about me. It is a faith response and not of works.
Believing vs. Doing Another example of trying to do things for God was the Jews of Jesus’ day. The Jewish people followed Him across the sea to Capernaum and asked Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). Man wants to do, but God says believe.
Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi singing hymns when an earthquake opened the cell doors and freed the prisoners. The jailer was about to kill himself supposing they had fled. Paul stopped him and let him know they were still there. Then the jailer said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). There again man wants to know what he must do. The apostle did not say “clean up your act” or “quit doing this or that.” He didn’t even say be willing to turn from your sins. He told him to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Obviously the others in his home would have to believe, and they did. It was that simple, other than it took an earthquake to get the jailer’s attention!
People repent all the time; believers and unbelievers alike. Most people feel sorry for things they do because everyone has a conscience. People change their behavior. They go to drug rehabs, or they quit smoking. This is simply reformation. It may be a good thing to do, but reformation cannot save anyone from the penalty of their sin, nor can it impart to them spiritual life. That’s not biblical repentance when it comes to being delivered from the penalty of sin.
Now I realize many new believers stop sinful behaviors the moment they get saved. I have a friend who had his desire for drugs removed almost immediately. That’s a good thing. But conversion doesn’t happen like that for everyone. My friend still had other sins that he didn’t know about at that time. And all of us, no matter how old we are, still deal with the principle of sin in our life that manifests itself in actions, whether in thoughts, words, deeds, or acts of omission. That’s because we still have an old nature.
Adding Works Makes the Gospel a Different Gospel That’s how one frontloads the gospel making it another gospel, a gospel that will not save if it is believed. Doing things for Jesus will never get you into heaven, even if you are cleaning up your life.
For example, the Galatian church was influenced by the false teaching that would require them to add to the gospel. He marveled that they were “turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). These false teachers perverted the gospel (Gal. 1:7). These people are called Judaizers. They tried to influence people that you had to follow the law to be saved from the penalty of sin.
Paul was so against that message that he told them, “if we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). In Galatians 1:8-9, the apostle declares most strongly that the gospel he preached was the one and only way of salvation, and to preach another was to nullify the death of Christ.
So if a person thinks they must repent of their sins, meaning to feel sorry for and to quit doing them to be saved, then he is adding to the gospel, making it a different gospel. If however, all one means by the phrase “repent of your sins” is to acknowledge one is a sinner in need of a savior, then it would be a good thing to change one’s language to make it biblically clear and accurate.
The Power of the Gospel is in Understanding the Gospel The power of the gospel is in the understanding of the gospel; “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek [Gentile]” (Rom. 1:16). The word here for “power” is dunamis in the Greek. It’s the same word translated as “‘meaning” in 1 Corinthians 14:11: “Therefore if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me”. It is interesting that the same word translated “power” is also translated as “meaning” in reference to language. There is power in understanding the meaning of the language.
Since the gospel is communicated with language, it is essential that we communicate accurately. For example, in today’s world, many new things have to be assembled. Usually, there are directions that are often written in several different languages. How could you follow any directions if all you had were German instructions, not knowing that language? There would be no power in those directions for you. However, directions in your language give you all the power you need to follow the instructions.
Similarly, the wrong language causes a confusing gospel presentation and lacks power in its saving message, because it may not be adequately understood. It also emphasizes the wrong object to save. Frontloading the gospel places emphasis on you cleaning up your act rather than on the person and work of Christ.
Repentance is Not Found in the Gospel of John It’s also curious that repentance is not found in the entire gospel of John. This is significant because one of the purposes of the gospel of John was evangelistic, to lead people to salvation through Christ. “But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). John used the word “believe” many times throughout his gospel, but he never used the word “repent” even one time (John 3:15-16; 18; 36; 4:48, 53; 5:24; 6:29, 35, 40, 47; etc.). It is odd that if repenting of sins was even part of the issue in salvation (deliverance from the penalty of sin), that he would have used it along with believing and faith. This is probably due to the fact that he saw a person who had believed in Jesus as one who had repented—one who had a change of mind about the person and work of the Lord Jesus.
Other Terminology for “Repenting of Your Sins” Repenting of sins is often couched in other terminology as well. Some will say “you need to turn from all your sin or to be willing to turn from your sins, or you need to feel sorry for your sins.” What if you didn’t feel sorry? What if you still sin? Have you turned from all of them? And if you haven’t turned from all your sin, did you honestly repent of them? Telling an unbeliever that he must “repent of his sins” is simply making an agreement with God that he or she cannot keep. A sinner is promising God to stop sinning to receive God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life. If the sinner is honest, he realizes not long after that his promise to stop sinning is a promise that he cannot keep. In essence, they are telling people to stop sinning, which is impossible. Have you stopped sinning? It’s a dilemma that no one can live up to.
All are Helpless and Condemned Sinners Indeed, an unbeliever must understand that he is a sinner. Almost everyone I have ever talked to knows this. They don’t necessarily use the word “sin” or “sinner.” But they do say things like, “No one is perfect” or “Everyone makes mistakes.” What the unbeliever needs to understand is that they are not just a sinner, but they are a condemned sinner and helpless to fix their situation.
No one can receive forgiveness or restore their fellowship with God by self-effort. That’s what most people do not realize and fail to believe about themselves. Most believe God will accept them because they tried to do their best. But that won’t get you anywhere with Him on Judgment Day, because in comparison to Him, there is none good, not even one (Rom. 3:12).
Summary Repentance means “a change of mind.” If the context is used about eternal life, sin is not the issue. A change in belief is. When sin is the object of repentance, eternal life is not the issue. Believers need to repent to maintain fellowship with God, to glorify God, and to avoid the consequences of sin.
Everyone at some point is bent on doing good works to get to heaven. That’s our brokenness and makeup as humans. Evangelists feed that need of the unbeliever when they tell them that they need to turn (repent) from their sins to get saved. In doing so, they are adding requirements to the gospel, thereby making it another gospel. Can’t we trust the Spirit of God to begin to work in the person to show him the areas of life that need to be changed after one is saved?
When one tells an unbeliever to repent of their sins, they are telling them to stop the bad things they are doing and to do good. It’s the thing they usually have tried to convince them that they are not—good! It’s telling them they have to be good so they can receive forgiveness from the Lord. Frontloading the gospel is putting the cart before the horse. It’s telling an unbeliever they need to be sanctified to be justified.
Maybe you lack assurance because you have heard such a message. This frontloaded message focuses you on yourself and not on Christ. Fix your attention instead on the Lord Jesus Christ. He paid for all of your sins on the cross and has imputed His perfect righteousness to you the moment you trusted in Him alone (2 Cor. 5:21). Take God at His word. Only then will you have assurance.