Do believers have to repent from sin to stay saved?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I am struggling with the term "repent from sin." I acknowledge my sins, and I believe in the finished work of Jesus Christ, so does a believer turn from them again? Is "repenting from sin" even biblical then? When I read that for the first time, my heart sank because I did not know what to do. I came across a verse that seemed helpful to me and to ease my heart and mind: Ecclesiastes 7:20. Some ministries use this as part of their salvation message, but why?

Answer: Greetings friend. I will be happy to respond to your questions today — after all, repentance is a very important topic! And I understand your confusion. Since we who are saved have already dealt with our sins by acknowledging them, turning them over to Christ, and trusting in his atonement, what would repentance even do for us? Furthermore, since we know Christ’s work to be finished, doesn’t any continued repentance insult him? As such, I do not blame you for wondering if the term “repenting from sin” is even biblical. However, if Ecclesiastes 7:20 is comforting you, then you are aware that we believers sin, too — and what do we do about that? Wow! That’s a lot to sort out! So, let’s get started.

First, the Bible does indeed contain variations on the term “repenting from sin” (Acts 19:4; 20:21). Plus, it teaches that believers might legitimately repent from sin (Luke 17:3-4; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9; Revelation 2:5; 3:3). However, although the action is the same for both nonbelievers and believers, the target is different. Nonbelievers change their minds about the Christ (they repent unto salvation), but believers change their minds about themselves (they repent of ongoing sin). So, do not be confused. We believers still need to repent — but we do not repent “unto salvation,” since we are already saved.

This is illustrated in the following passage where Jesus uses an example of a believer who offends — and then repents — and then must be forgiven. Please note that this repentance is not about salvation since both the offender and the offended are “brothers.”

“Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4, ESV).

Okay — if this repentance is not about salvation… then what is it about? Spiritual hygiene! Even Christians get “dirty,” and here’s why. The world is a dirty place. We frequently fall. We are positionally clean, not practically clean. In effect, (and I date myself here) we are declared righteous by the Saturday-night-bath of our salvation — but then we are sent out to play. And what happens to us when we go out? We dirty our feet. Let us eavesdrop on Jesus again.

“Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” (John 13:10, ESV).

After Peter and Jesus had gone back and forth about the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, Peter finally acquiesced… except that he wanted a whole bath instead! But Jesus used this opportunity to teach that we are already clean as a whole; we just have to take care of the places that are naturally soiled — like the feet. This is the picture of a believer’s repentance.

This type of repentance is not about the whole person who has already repented unto salvation (as symbolized by being bathed). It is about the parts of a person, like his feet, that will certainly be soiled while he still walks this earth (as symbolized by the foot-washing). Therefore, just as the feet need a washing that is not an entire bath, so do our ongoing sins need a repentance that is not unto salvation. This type of repentance is about washing the new creature — not becoming one (2 Corinthians 5:17).

At this point, you may ask, since Jesus died for all our sins — past, present and future — doesn’t his sacrifice also cover these spiritual-hygiene types of sins? Doesn’t it eclipse the need for repentance? Not exactly. When we speak about the scope and efficacy of Jesus' atonement (its coverage), we are speaking judicially. And the court has ruled that since Jesus paid the price for our past, present and future sins, we are forever shielded from sin’s condemnation (Romans 8:1)… but not from its annoyance. Sin continues with us.

So, although we are judicially free from every sin, we are not practicably so… I mean, just look around; Christians continually sin! And how does one always deal with sin? One repents. Repentance will be necessary until Jesus returns. It is just of a different type because we are of a different type.

So far we have established two important things: first, the repentance of believers is indeed in the Bible. Second, this is not a problem, because it is a different type than repentance-unto-salvation. But, even if we get our definitions straight, the world-at-large still has varying ideas of what repentance means, and many religions have it plain old wrong! But we hold to the biblical standard. Repentance is necessary for salvation. But once a person is saved, repentance is necessary for the practical sanctification of life. That being said let us look at how the term might be used or misused.

Many ministries do emphasize repentance as part of their salvation message. As discussed, this is not necessarily a problem, because repentance is indeed necessary to salvation. But it becomes a problem when ministries feel compelled to use the word repentance without explaining it… and it’s kind of obvious that even Christians do not understand what it is and what it is not.

In spite of that, it is important to include the idea of repentance in salvation’s story because it is one of the early actions required of a person for conversion. But (and this is a huge but), one need not use the word repentance to accomplish the action of repentance. In fact, using the word itself might hurt the cause. If the object is to have a person change his mind about Christ, why add the burden of wrestling with an ambiguous word that teaches nothing about how to perform its essence?

When a person has changed his mind about the Christ, he has repented in the biblical sense — he is saved! So, the fact of repentance is important… but the word repentance is not; it can even harmful if people understand the wrong things by it. In my opinion, including the word repentance in a gospel presentation just because you think it should be included is gratuitous and confusing, and I find it unnecessary in accomplishing its action.

I frequently refer people to the article, Salvation / What it is—what it is not—and what you have to do about it because it contains a comprehensive salvation presentation. But it does not use the word repent. Why is this? If a person comes to Christ legitimately, he will have already repented (changed his mind about Jesus) whether or not he had ever read the word repent!

So, to be saved, a person does not need to read the word — he needs to do the deed! And forcing the use of a word to describe an action that will happen anyway will never add to clarity. But since I see the word repentance used this way so often, I must conclude that people are inserting it is a matter of form, for good luck…or they are just copying other documents. So, you will likely be stuck with the word, but it should no longer bother you.

The common understanding of the term repentance evokes the image of a man turning from his evil ways — like that drunkard on television who has “seen the light,” and has announced to the world his determination to change. But the word repentance in the Bible means “to change one’s mind.” This might seem tepid in comparison to the bold action of the drunkard, but truly changing one’s mind is far more powerful than a person’s less-informed actions; these often stammer and fail, because motion without an informed decision is folly… and all religion that does not result in salvation is folly — so, it is critical to get repentance right. How can we tell if we have gotten it right? True repentance will manifest itself in service, and service is why we are here.

“but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”
(Acts 26:20, ESV)

Although any repentance worthy of the name results in the good works of the believer, it is important to understand that repentance itself is not a work that earns salvation. This is why understanding the scope of “changing one’s mind about Christ” is so important. Those who have truly done so have come to salvation on his terms — and his terms are that we rely solely on his atoning work on the cross to pay for our sins.

This means that we add nothing to his sacrifice — no baptism, no good works, no sacraments — not even repentance! Wait a minute… I thought that true repentance was good! It is... but it is also important to know what true repentance is not. Any “repentance” that is offered as a quantifiable work is false because this turning-to-Christ is not measurable in pounds, inches or ergs of holiness. One has either turned to him or one has not. It is a yes/no proposition. 

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