Repent and Believe: Clarifying the Gospel Call
When we share the gospel, we need to be clear on what we’re asking sinners to do in response to what Christ has done. The Biblical response to the gospel is to repent and believe (Mr. 1:15; Acts 20:21). Sometimes, the Scriptures emphasize the need to repent (see Luke 24:46-47, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 11:18, 17:30, 36:20). Other times, only faith is mentioned (Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9; Ro. 3:28, 5:1; Gal. 2:16). In reality, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin, occurring simultaneously at the point of someone’s conversion to Christ.
Sadly, much of what is called evangelism today lacks gospel clarity. Repentance and faith are often missing or muddied in many of our evangelistic endeavors. Over the years, a number of popular phrases, terms, and shorthand expressions have either watered down or replaced the Biblical response to the gospel. When this happens,
“the gospel often remains untaught, and unbiblical words water down the poignant true meaning of sin, death, and hell, or confuse those who are genuinely seeking truth” (J. Mack Styles, Evangelism, pg. 28).
In this article, I would like to evaluate common phrases we use in our evangelism and then briefly look at the Biblical call to repent and believe the gospel.
Ask Jesus into Your Heart
The phrase “Ask Jesus into your heart” took off in the 70’s as a result of the revivalist preaching of Billy Graham. The justification for this phrase is taken from Christs’ words in Rev. 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, I will open the door and come in.” We’ve all probably heard gospel presentations where people were challenged to ask Christ into their hearts by repeating a version of the “sinner’s prayer.”
Despite its widespread acceptance, the concept of asking Jesus into your heart is simply not Biblical. Revelation 3:20 is not an evangelistic text, but an invitation for wayward believers to renew their fellowship with Christ. Commenting on this passage, John MacArthur notes, “Christ isn’t pleading on every sinner’s spiritual doorstep. Jesus doesn’t need to beg or badger anyone into the kingdom of heaven (John 10:27-28). Salvation isn’t merely a matter of the Lord getting a foot inside the door of your heart—it’s a work of total transformation (Ezekiel 36:26).
Pray This Prayer after Me…
Having someone repeat a prayer or ask Jesus into their heart muddies the nature of saving faith. Upon “praying the prayer,” many are given a false assurance that they are saved even though they may not truly understand the gospel. As a result, instead of looking upward to the person and work of Christ, far too many are looking backward at a religious experience or prayer they prayed years ago as the basis of their salvation.
One Bible teacher notes,
“Because of some childhood prayer, tens of thousands of people are absolutely certain of a salvation they do not possess… For many, the sinner’s prayer has become a Protestant ritual they go through without considering what the prayer is supposed to embody. God doesn’t give salvation in response to mere words; faith is the instrument that lays hold of salvation. You can express faith in a prayer, but it is possible to repent and believe without a formal prayer, and it is possible to pray a sinner’s prayer without repenting and believing.”
Much more could be said, but for those interested in finding out more about the history of the “sinner’s prayer,” I would encourage you to read Thomas Kidd’s insightful article (click here).
“Make Jesus the Lord of Your Life.”
Making Jesus Lord might sound Biblical, but hazy phrases like this one have the potential to distort the gospel call to repent and believe. For example, a person can choose to “make Christ Lord” as part of their ongoing self-righteous efforts to earn salvation. Making this decision becomes just another thing that they do in order to justify themselves or become a “good Christian.” Furthermore, biblically speaking, we can’t make Jesus the Lord of our lives because He already is. He is Lord of all. We will either submit to Him in repentance and faith or we will reject His righteous rule over our lives.
“Give Your Life to Jesus.”
Romans 6:23 states, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is the gracious Giver of the gospel. We are the needy recipients. We don’t give God anything in salvation. Rather, through repentant faith in Christ, we receive His gift of eternal life.
“Accept Jesus as Your Personal Lord and Savior.”
This common phrase is often used as a shorthand expression for repentance and faith. If the gospel is thoroughly explained and a person understands what this phrase stands for, fine. The problem, however, is that Christian cliches like this one have essentially lost their meaning in our Biblically illiterate society. I’ve talked with many, many people who have “accepted Jesus” but had no clue what that actually meant.
Repent and Believe the Gospel
The Biblical response to the gospel is repentance and faith. But what do these terms mean?
Repent / Turn
The Greek word translated “repent” literally means to change one’s mind, disposition, or worldview. Repentance occurs when a person decisively turns from sin to God through faith in Jesus. Greg Gilbert notes, “To repent of our sins means to turn away from our rebellion against God. Repentance doesn’t mean we’ll bring an immediate end to our sinning. It does mean, though, that we’ll never again live at peace with our sins.”
When people repent, the following things happen:
- They realize that they are sinners who deserve eternal death because of their sin.
- They hate their sin and have no desire to continue living in it.
- They acknowledge that they are spiritually bankrupt. They know that there is nothing that they can do on their own to take away sin’s punishment or earn God’s favor.
- They turn from pride, self-reliance, and sin to God, humbly trusting in God’s grace to be forgiven and reconciled to Him.
Believe / Trust
Believing in Jesus is not simply agreeing with the facts of the gospel. Faith is completely depending upon Jesus alone for salvation from sin.
When people place their faith in Jesus, the following things happen:
- They believe that Jesus is the Savior who died and rose again to pay sin’s penalty for them.
- They believe that Jesus is the Lord who is worthy of their worship, love, and obedience.
- They stop depending upon their own goodness and self-righteous efforts for a relationship with God. Instead, they place their entire trust and hope in Jesus for salvation.
If you would like to learn more about how to communicate the gospel in a Biblically faithful and culturally understandable manner, I would encourage you to sign up for our free online course, “The Disciple Making Life.” To gain access to this course, click here. Content will be uploaded weekly as we continue our study of disciple-making.
Also, I have written a gospel study specifically designed to lay out the central truths on the gospel for those with little or no Biblical background. You can find out more and purchase a copy of the book by clicking here.
Micah is the discipleship and outreach pastor at Community of Grace Church in Buffalo, NY. He is also the author of two outreach books: Good News for All Nations and Discovering Hope. Micah enjoys reading, coffee, hearty conversations, and time spent with his wife and four children.