The Difference Between True Saving Faith and Repentance
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Ephesians 2:8
When a person comes to Christ, they have faith that Jesus is the Messiah. They believe Jesus is who He says He is. The problem is, too often, many believe but then slowly walk away from their faith. The unexpected rejection of or rebellion against Christ leads one to assume they were never saved, or they did not fully repent. However, the issue may be more than simply believing, for there is a difference between true saving faith and repentance.
Faith and Intellectual Acknowledgment
In Acts 16, a Roman magistrate beats and throws the apostle Paul and his missionary partner, Silas, into jail for preaching heresy in Philippi. Though bruised and tired, they began singing to God. Suddenly, an earthquake shook the prison so hard all the doors opened.
The guard, who had been sleeping, woke up and assumed all the prisoners had run away. Knowing the punishment is death for such an error, the guard drew his sword, ready to kill himself. But Paul quickly called for him to stop, saying everyone was still there. Right away, the guard fell on his knees before Paul and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household (16:31).”
Here in Acts 16, the Greek word Paul uses for “believe” is pisteuo, which means “to have faith,” “to trust,” or “to believe.” He tells the guard “to have faith” in Jesus if he wants salvation. But one wonders, did the guard then have true saving faith? What did he believe? Did he repent at all?
James 2 addresses the difference between true saving faith and simple intellectual acknowledgment of God.
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” James 2:14
James speaks boldly about true faith resulting in good works, but works alone cannot save someone’s soul. He argues if their salvation does not transform someone’s life, they do not have true saving faith. They only have intellectual acknowledgment of who God is. After all, even demons know who God is (James 2:19).
How then does one have true saving faith?
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
True saving faith means we understand the gospel: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, died on a cross as a sin offering in our place, and He rose again three days later. It also means we recognize our sin and our need for a Savior, so we put our complete trust in the Lord. It should be a life-changing experience.
One might argue that intellectual knowledge of God precedes saving faith, that we first must have simple faith and trust that Jesus is the Savior. There is some truth to it, but it should not stop there. Intellectual knowledge of God alone will not get anyone to heaven. Just knowing what the Bible says or going to church is not enough.
One must fully accept that sin separates us from God, that we need a Savior, and that Jesus the Messiah paid the price we owe. If we do, we go beyond intellectual knowledge and choose to live our lives in the pursuit of conforming to His character and likeness. We give Him our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to follow Him alone.
A Change of Mind
So how does repentance fit with saving faith?
The dictionary says the definition for repentance is sincere regret or remorse, but this is not correct in the biblical sense.
In the Bible, the Greek New Testament word for repentance is metanoia, which means simply “a change of mind.” Some people even define it as epistrepho, a related turn which means “to turn away” from one thing and toward something else. It does not necessarily mean turning away from sin.
However, anytime we see the word “repent” in the Bible, it is an invitation to salvation. But first, one must change their mind (metanoia) about who God is. They must decide and recognize the old way of doing things is not the right way. They must turn away from doing the sinful things and decide that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).”
Acts 3 gives us one example of a call to repentance. The apostles Peter and John had just healed a lame man, causing a crowd of people to rush toward them to see the miracle. That is when Peter decided to address them, admonishing them for demanding Jesus’ crucifixion. But he admits they did it in ignorance (under coercion from the Pharisees), which is why he called for them to repent.
“Repent, therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19
Peter invites them to repent, to change their minds about Jesus. He calls for them to turn away from all the Pharisees who tried to convince them to believe about Jesus and, instead, believe He is the true Messiah. Not only that but also to “be converted,” to turn away from sin and follow Jesus “so that times of refreshing may come.”
By repenting from sin and following Jesus, by undergoing a true transformation with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we experience true saving faith.
Peter’s Pentecost Sermon
We see another example of repentance in Acts 2 when Peter gives his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. He reminds the crowd how they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, which led to His crucifixion. But God in His mercy resurrected His Son.
“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore, being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.” Acts 2:32–33
After hearing Peter’s words, the people were “cut to the heart,” and they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter again said to them, “Repent (v38).”
Peter tells the crowd they need to change their minds about Jesus (metanoia) and accept He is the risen Messiah, just as the prophecy said. But Peter does not stop there. Next, he says, “Let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The invitation to accept Jesus’ gift of grace is an example of epistrepho.
Here again, we see we first must recognize our sins, change our minds (metanoia), and turn away from our sins and toward Jesus (epistrepho). We cannot experience God’s gift of grace any other way.
Notice in the above verses Peter is not necessarily trying to make anyone feel bad about what they did, and neither should we. It is not our place to make anyone feel regretful about their sin. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. The Bible only tells us to encourage people to change their minds and trust Jesus.
Regret and remorse are not essential to repentance. The apostle Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians.
“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10
Godly sorrow should lead to repentance and salvation without any regret. Conversely, ungodly sorrow — the kind the world produces — only leads to unrighteous guilt, shame, remorse, and, sometimes, death.
Judas Iscariot is a good example of ungodly sorrow. Though he regretted his betrayal of Jesus the night of the Lord’s arrest, he never sought Jesus’ forgiveness. Instead, he attempted to make things right by giving back the money he took from the Pharisees and then committing suicide (Matthew 27:3–5).
Godly sorrow provokes us to repentance and salvation. All other types of sorrow only lead to destruction.
Testing Your Faith
So, is true saving faith and repentance two different things? Biblically speaking, yes, but they are two sides of the same coin. Though they are different, one precedes the other, producing a lifetime of freedom and joy in Christ for the believer as well as eternal life.
Going back to the guard in Paul and Silas’ jail in Acts 16:31, the Bible does not say if he experienced true saving faith. We do know he repented (or at least he wanted to). It appears he did believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but we do not know if he went beyond this intellectual knowledge and transformed his life to follow the Lord.
We often see people today do the same thing. They seem to have a “coming to Christ” moment, and then we do not see them again. Paul addressed the same issue in the Corinthian church, and his words of invitation still ring true.
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you are disqualified.” 2 Corinthians 13:5
To be disqualified means you do not have genuine saving faith. So, let us test ourselves to see if we truly have it. If we do not, then it is time to repent and rededicate ourselves to the Lord, knowing the price He paid for us so that we might encounter His grace.
Let us go from metanoia and pisteuo (changing our minds and believing) to fully experiencing all that God has for us as we daily serve Him with our entire heart, soul, mind, and strength.