Whatever Happened to Repentance?

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

There is a trend in modern evangelism to replace the language of “repentance” with “opening your heart”, “receiving Christ”, and making a “decision for Christ”. I hear it when people share the Gospel with non-Christians and I read it in a lot of evangelistic literature that it being published. Far from an isolated phenomenon, I have noticed this in both the United States and in Thailand where I serve as a missionary. I am sure that the same is true in much of the rest of the world as well since the trends in Western evangelicalism, whether for good or for ill, have a way of making the rounds. In this case, the de-emphases upon the need to repent is a serious compromise of the Gospel and can create a wrong understanding of what it means to become a Christian.

Let me give an example of what I mean and why it is so serious. Sitting in front me right now is an evangelistic tract called “The Gift of Love”. It is put out by one of the largest (if not THE largest) publisher of evangelistic Christian tracts in Thailand. They have a number of good tracts and I don’t want to detract from the quality thinking and writing that they have produced in a number of cases. However, the way that this little tract, “The Gift of Love”, ends rather troubles me when I compare it to evangelism in the Bible. Near the end of the tract, it says (in Thai), “The opportunity to be saved from sin is right before you... hurry and open your heart to receive this gift of love right now. Don’t miss this opportunity to receive this gift that God wants to give you. If you want to receive this gift of love, all you have to do is confess your sins and and ask for help from God like this...” and a sample prayer as to how to receive Christ follows.

There are two things that I want to point out about the excerpt from this tract. The first is that the tract instructs the reader to “open your heart” in order to receive the gift of salvation. No where in the Bible are people interested in the Gospel told to “open their heart” to “receive Christ”. Although this is the language most often used by modern evangelists,it is not the language of Scripture. What does the Bible say? Let’s look at a couple example from the New Testament to see how the apostles instructed those who were interested in the Gospel.

After the apostle Peter preached at Pentecost, his listeners “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:37-38) Peter instructs the people not to “open their heart” but to “repent”. Elsewhere, we find the Apostle Paul explaining to King Agrippa the content of the Gospel message that he has preached, namely that the Gentiles “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with repentance.” (Acts 26:20). Paul, like Peter, tells people not to “open their hearts” but to “repent”.

Perhaps some of you are thinking that I am just splitting hairs here because “open your heart” and “repent” are basically the same thing, aren’t they? Let’s look briefly at the meaning of each. In Paul’s defense before Agrippa, Paul clarifies that repent means to turn to God. This implies turning away from sin. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines repent as follows: “feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one's wrongdoing or sin”. If one feels great remorse about sin, then should not one want to stop doing it, and flee in the other direction. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in response to question #87, “What is repentance unto life?”, says this: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” (Acts 11:18, Acts 2:37, Joel 2:13, Jeremiah 31:18-19, Psalm 119:59) In sum, to repent means to hate your sin, to turn away from it, and turn to God.

“Open your heart” on the other hand, eludes definition. The phrase in itself is somewhat vague. It is not a Biblical term and I can find no where in Scripture where non-Christians are told to open their heart to Jesus. I would hope that the Christians who use this phrase in evangelism would understand it to mean repent and believe. However, the phrase itself is unclear. If the term is left undefined (as it often in evangelistic messages and literature), and the nature of repentance and the cost of discipleship are not explained to a prospective believer, then it could be understood in a variety of ways. Is it not likely that that many understand it as merely warm feelings toward Jesus or an attitude which is open to listening to more of what Jesus has to say. To the person who “opens their heart” to Jesus, could this not be easily understood to mean, “I like what I’ve heard about Jesus and I feel good about that. I want Jesus to help me in my life.” To say that “I like Jesus” or “I want Jesus to help me” or even “I want Jesus to save me from sin so I can go to heaven”, is not the same as saying “I hate my sin and I make a choice to turn away from it, and to change my allegiance from self to God.” Of course, it is possible that someone could present the Gospel very clearly, talking about God, sin, wrath, repentance, grace, and forgiveness, yet still use the phrase “open your heart” to indicate a decision to repent and believe in Christ. However, I have yet to observe that happen. Most often, “open your heart” and “receive Christ” take the place of “repentance.” As it is currently used, the phrase “open your heart” is too vague and meaningless to be useful. The Bible uses the clear language of repentance so that no one is confused about what God requires of them if they are become a follower of Christ. In order for Christians to be as faithful to Scripture as possible, it is best to emphasize what the Bible emphasizes and to use the language that the Bible uses. Granted, in today’s world some Bible words are not understood very well, like “repentance”. But that doesn’t mean that we jettison repentance altogether but rather that we are careful to take the time to define it and use more familiar words to explain the concept of repentance, i.e. turning from sin and turning to God, doing a 180, making a U-turn, and so forth.

The second observation I want to make about the language used in this tract has to do with the phrase, “all you have to do is confess your sins and and ask for help from God like this”. Really? Is confession and praying a simple prayer ALL that one needs to do to become a Christian and receive eternal life? I find that there are many more people who are willing to confess their sins (especially if they don’t have to name them specifically) than to repent from their sins. Confessing sin is not hard at all. Everybody acknowledges that they are less than perfect. Sure, I have some sin and you have some sin. Who doesn’t? But are you willing to turn from your sin? Do you hate your sin? Do you want to stop sinning? Are you aware of how much your sin grieves God and the greatness of God’s wrath against sinners? None of this is very much fun to talk about and very few want to hear about it. You don’t win many friends by talking about sin (unless you keep it so vague that it doesn’t touch the heart, and you pass over it as quickly as possible on your way to talk about grace, mercy, and eternal life). To say, “all you have to do is confess your sins” entirely skips over the important point that you need to repent from your sins as well.

Discussing this point with a fellow missionary, he pointed out that some people might understand repentance to be included in confessing your sins so that it is not necessary to specifically use the word “repentance”. Perhaps some people would understand it that way, but when it comes to helping people clearly understand the Gospel, we can not afford to be vague. We can not afford to assume that people know that they have to repent from their sins in addition to just confessing them. With something as important as the Gospel, can we really assume that people understand what we mean without us saying it? I have seen too many people make professions of faith in Christ yet nothing changes in their life. They are temporarily excited about whatever they think it is that they have done, yet there is no hunger for God, no desire to fellowship with other Christians, no hunger to learn God’s Word, and no repentance. When sharing the Gospel, I want people to know exactly what they are getting themselves in for and exactly what the Gospel means. This is a matter of life and death and it is irresponsible for Christians to lower the bar as far as possible to make it as easy as possible for people to “become Christians”. Sure, it may feel good for a time to think that so-and-so has “received Christ” but if they never understood the Gospel to begin with, and never understood that repentance was required, and if they have yet to experience that heart change wrought by the Holy Spirit (John 3:8, Titus 3:5), then they have not become a Christian. Praying a certain prayer or merely admitting to having sin does not make one a Christian, but rather spiritual regeneration by the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8, Titus 3:5) that results in repentance from sin and wholly depending on Christ for salvation makes one a Christian.

It is time to abandon the language of “opening your heart” and it is time to return to the language of “repentance”. To do anything less is to preach another Gospel and to dishonor God by filling the world with people who profess to know God but do not love or obey the One whose name they bear.


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