Repentance Without Legalism


The question is asked, “How do we preach repentance without sounding like we’re preaching law [or legalism]?”

A really good question.

1. The answer lies partly in the core meaning of “repentance”.

Contrary to popular but incorrect teaching, “repent” does not mean “180-degree turnaround” or “putting away sin” or any other ACTION.

It simply means “change your mind”. This comes from both the literal Greek word metanoia (meta…, “change”, and …noia, “mind”), as well as biblical context.

True, when we change our MIND it logically will result in changing our ACTIONS as well, but the repentance is in the mind and prior to the action.

2. Although “repentance” is usually used in regard to one’s sins, it actually applies to any change from a false belief to a true one.

For example, one can “repent” from unitarianism to trinitarianism, or from legalism to grace. (So ironically, in regards to our original question, we can see that “legalism” itself is something to be “repented of”, that is, to change one’s mind about.)

3. As far as “repenting of one’s sins”, contrary to popular but incorrect teaching, “repentance” is not “turning from one’s sins”, as most gospel tracts admonish. It’s actually “changing one’s mind” about their sins.

In what way?

Well, the sinner is not really *against* his sins. He either defends them as “not that bad”, or even goes so far as to glory in them, as in, “I’m evil, I know I’m evil, and I intend to stay evil, and I want to go to Hell because that’s where my friends will all be.”

When one “changes his mind” about his sins, he comes to see the truth that his sins are not only bad and wrong, but are sins against the Holy God Who created him. He now is *against* his sins, and coincidentally has “changed his mind” about Jesus Christ in Whom he now believes, as Lord and Savior and Forgiver of his sins.

This profound “change of mind” will certainly result in a profound “change of actions” (contrary to the Ryrie/Hodges folks who teach that one can “believe” with no change in their lives), but such change in actions may be drastic, somewhat gradual, or up and down like an EKG chart — depending on how well the newer believer is taught to walk by the Spirit.

4. All repentance is ultimately a gift from God, “granted” by God initially through being born again, aka “regeneration” or “a new heart”.

Although preaching, “Repent!” (“Change your mind!”) is certainly legitimate, the idea that one can change their own mind as an act of their will apart from the Holy Spirit is unbiblical. Thus our preaching/witnessing should always be accompanied by prayer.

5. All repentance is in regards to TRUTH. Biblical repentance is nothing more than “changing our mind” about what is true.

Examples for born-again believers:

If we think God “condemns” believers on the basis of their newest sins, we need to repent and believe the Scripture which says there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, and that all our sins have already been forgiven.

If we think we are “just like the lost person except we’re saved”, we need to repent and recognize that we have been given a new heart, a new spirit that hates sin and loves righteousness because we love Jesus.

If we think that God loves and favors us on the basis of our performance (that we are “under law”), we need to repent and believe that God loves and favors us because He chose to, sovereignly, and on the basis of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (we are “under grace”, Rom. 6:14).

If we believe that He might leave us and forsake us if we ACT bad enough, we need to repent and believe that He will never leave us nor forsake us, having bought us by the blood of Jesus.

6. Finally, believers are often temporarily deceived by the world, the flesh and the devil. When this happens, we sin, blinded for a moment (or hour or day, etc.) to the truth we have already learned about our sins.

When this happens, we are called upon to once again “repent”, “change our mind”, about such sins, and return to the truth and to walking by the Spirit.

We thus should be “quick repenters”, not running FROM the Lord to hide our foolish sins, but running TO Him, confessing our sins and thanking Him for His already-done forgiveness.

Thankfully, if we remain in our deceived state, and continue in these sins, the Lord will lovingly chastise us, with the purpose of bringing us back into the truth and in communion with Him.

His chastisement is never punitive, that is, it is not designed as tit-for-tat punishment, but is loving correction, no matter how “rough”, and is part of working all things together for our good.

10 thoughts on “Repentance Without Legalism

  1. Great post Terry. Ryrie teaches a change of mind that will change the life. I have his study Bible. He is different from Hogdes but of course he does not fall under the Lordship community as he teaches there can be carnal Christians.

    I love your posts brother. Keep at it. You are always an encouragement and a reconciling hand in the body of Christ.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Great to hear from you.

    You’re right that Ryrie teaches that a change of mind changes the life, even so far as to say that all believers will have at least some fruit.

    But he confuses the issue in two ways:

    1. First he teaches that “repentance” is strictly regarding Jesus Christ, and not related to one’s sin.

    Biblically, when one is born again, he “changes his mind” about both sins and Christ. So his life will be affected by the new truth of both.

    2. Second, he teaches that a Christian has two natures, and can choose to live entirely by his “old” nature, leaving God out of his life.

    The Scriptures don’t teach that we have two natures. The Bible teaches that we have one corrupt nature before we are born again, which is replaced with a new nature (a “new heart”, a new “spirit” made one with His Spirit as He indwells us).

    If a Christian continually lived by an “old nature” which is sinful, then 1 John would not be true when it says that a Christian cannot continue in sin (Greek present tense indicating continual unrepentant sin).

    3. Nevertheless there is the possibility of a Christian walking “by the flesh” instead of “by the Spirit” for a time.

    When he does so he is actually violating his own nature (his “new nature”, which is the only nature he now has).

    And so Paul addresses the one who is walking by the flesh as “fleshly” or “carnal”.

    But when a Christian is walking by the flesh, the Holy Spirit will reveal his sins to him, and typically he will “change his mind” or “repent”. Or if not, then loving chastisement will follow.

    4. I appreciate your distinguishing Ryrie and Hodges. They do differ in some degree and I probably shouldn’t have lumped them together, since my subject is not Lordship salvation anyway.

    5. By the way, you’ve reminded me to do a post I’ve been meaning to do for some time on the confusion of the Lordship salvation controversy.

    I really think both camps are missing the real issue, and end up arguing apples and oranges.

    Thanks as always, Brian, for your input and encouragement.

  3. Thank you for this blog post. I think I’ll need to refer back to it often. I get this in email and appreciate the time you take blogging about our freedom in Christ.

    My history is all about legalism, from Word of Faith, JW theology, Seventh Day Adventism, and the whole mess about “carnal” Christianity. The Lord saved me 3 yrs. ago and is tearing down all those yrs. of false doctrine. Difficult road.

    God bless!

    Tamara Slack

  4. Terry,

    I appreciate you bringing up this topic as it is often misunderstood on both sides (Free-Grace -vs- Lordship Salvation). I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between grace & law as well as repentance and legalism. If we look closely at the big picture of scripture (and not simply cherry-pick verses) I think the definitions are quite clear.

    Anytime we try to discern scripture according to human wisdom, we’re bound to distort God’s intention. Quite often these days, many people are quick to label things as legalism when in fact, they are not. Attaching any human effort to God’s grace as a way to salvation is clearly works (legalism). However, when we understand the biblical process of the Gospel rightly, the gray areas become more black & white.

    The most important thing to remember is that God calls the sinner; we are not the ones who initiate the process of salvation. Through the Gospel, He draws us. Through the Gospel, we are made aware of our sins. The Holy Spirit convicts us which leads to repentance and faith. Those who claim repentance from sin is a work might as well include belief in the same context. On our own, we can do neither. Repentance (from our sins) is the right response to the Gospel. Everything that leads us to the Cross and everything that is involved in the life-long sanctification process is from God. Belief, faith, trust, obedience and repentance are all the work of the Holy Spirit resulting from God drawing us to Him. Free-will is that part which allows us to receive His grace or reject it.

    ~ktf~
    John

  5. With regard to your definition of repentance, I mostly agree however, I’m a little confused on the part about “turning”. In one part, you state that it’s not a “180-degree turn around” however, I think scripture is quite clear when it talks about turning from our sinful ways.

    I would agree that repentance is a heart decision and not simply action; No true believer is instantly cured from ever sinning again at the moment they are saved. Christians do sin. The key is in our response to the Gospel. We respond rightly by recognizing that we must repent (turn) from our sinful ways and turn towards the Cross. From the darkness to the light. From self to Christ. We come to the Cross as a sinner and we leave our old self behind when the Spirit creates within us a new nature. This certainly seems like 180 degrees.

    In another section, you state that the sinner is “not really against his sins and then, further down you state that when a sinner sees the truth about his sin, he is “against his sin”. That is the active ingredient in the response to the Gospel message. We are made aware of our sins (against God) and our response is to hate our sin; to recognize that we must turn (and be against) our sinful desires.

    No, this doesn’t imply that we’ll never sin again nor does it imply that at that exact moment of conversion we’re made aware of every single sin we’ve ever committed. It’s a general awareness; an awakening from the heart. Nor does it mean we stop sinning. This where the Holy Spirit begins the process of sanctification. We grow to hate our sins even more and we grow in our desire to live a righteous life with a hunger for more of Him; less of us.

    No doubt, this topic is a lead-in to the whole Lordship debate which I’ve been doing a lot of reading about lately. After reviewing the positions of both sides, I find myself leaning more towards the MacArthur position than the Ryrie/Hodges position. Not because JM has a better perspective but because I believe what he says aligns with scripture. His revised & updated “Gospel According To Jesus” clearly presents the Biblical process that leads up to salvation. No where do I see his position as being works righteousness or legalism. He continually reminds the reader that salvation is through grace alone and not by anything we can do. I think the problem is, all of us tend to go into controversial issues like this with a presupposition or, we fail to really dig into scripture and simply take the words of man as truth.

    JM makes it clear that salvation must not be treated lightly. He rightly defines the requirements for true salvation w/o adding works to it. Ryrie/Hodges on the other hand present an easy-believism message that contradicts what Jesus Himself said about the Way being narrow and few entering.
    According to the Ryrie/Hodges position, one must simply believe. That would explain why most Americans claim to be Christian and yet, their lifestyle says otherwise. I understand that their intent was to ensure that works were not added to grace however, I believe they’ve went too far and ended up distorting scripture by making the narrow way much wider and easier to enter.

    FWIW… John MacArthur has a clear message on repentance in this article…
    http://www.gty.org/Resources/Articles/A317

    His other book, “Hard To Believe” is also a great read that has helped me to better understand things like repentance and what it really means to be a Christian.

    Again, thank you for your articles that inspire us to dig further into scripture boldy proclaim the Gospel!

    ~ktf~
    John

  6. Terry,
    You and your wife write excellent articles—I would recommend that you post links to them on Facebook, as I have a lot of “grace-minded” friends who would be greatly encouraged by them, as I always am.

    Blessings,
    Mark Vilen
    Spokane, WA

  7. Concerning the earlier post of “easy believism” Are there not bible verses that say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”? Of course I am referring to Paul and the Jailor. As to the narrow path I think that it can easily be tied to “I am the way, the truth and the life no man come to the father but through me”. We find the gospel in I COR 15. As far as the Corinthians in general they (and i think most would agree) were the most carnal church. As Paul dealt with this issue he was dealing with saved people and he explained to them who were continuing on in sin, particularly sexual immorality that they “were” those people or the old man and “now” they were the new man but in all that he never said a word about their condemnation.I believe it was stated earlier but i would like to emphasize that our salvation and repentance as stated above is all the work of the Holy Spirit in us as the new man and cannot be attributed to ones own person as a work of their own including the works one may do after their salvation occurs.

  8. Anonymous,

    I agree with you completely, and so does the Scripture.

    Frankly, I’ve been meaning to address John’s comments, but time keeps slipping away from me 🙂

    Before my next comment, let me express my great respect for John MacArthur. I’ve appreciated and learned from him since the 1970’s, and went last year to a Conference just to hear this fine man teach.

    Having said that, I think there is a fundamental problem with teaching “The Gospel According To Jesus”, because the New Covenant gospel was not even in effect (we might say “ratified”) until after the death of Jesus.

    Although Jesus predicted His death, there was no understanding of its purpose. Likewise for his burial and resurrection.

    Jesus announced the good news that the Messiah had arrived, and thus the Kingdom of God.

    He even said that one must be born again to see the Kingdom (and thus to believe in the King).

    But the simple pristine Good News that if we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we would be saved…

    …the simple Good News that Jesus has already died for our sins, been buried and risen again…

    …could not have even been articulated before the Cross!

    Jesus lived on Earth during the Mosaic Covenant, and He followed the Covenant perfectly.

    He made transitional statements whetting the appetite for the New Covenant, but the New Covenant didn’t arrive until His death, burial and resurrection.

    And so you have MacArthur’s famous (and unbiblical) statement, “Give all that you are for all that He is” as the Gospel according to Jesus.

    Sorry, but that’s “works” salvation.

    Typical Lordship salvation teaches things like, “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” as a presentation of the Gospel, confusing salvation with discipleship.

    In fact Lordship salvation folks almost always confuse salvation with discipleship.

    This is horrible teaching! It denies the simple fact from Romans that “the FREE GIFT of God is salvation”.

    It denies the core doctrine of salvation which we call Justification by Faith, because it adds works to faith (even though they SAY it doesn’t).

    Hopefully having clarified that, I would emphasize that the so-called “free grace” folks also are in error when they say that a person can be saved and then live the rest of their ungodly lives with no regard to Jesus Christ.

    Those who are born again are given a new heart, and they will have “works” and “fruit” in their lives.

    But that comes after the wonderful salvation, which is a free gift.

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