Repentance: the Lost Doctrine of the Twenty-First Century


Grant Castleberry:

When I came to Capital Community Church in Raleigh, North Carolina in August of last year as its senior pastor, the elders and I thought it would be best to begin my ministry in the church with a series of eight evangelistic messages. The evangelistic sermons I preached focused on the “new life” in Christ that is offered to us in the gospel. Sermon topics specifically covered the essence of lostness, the gravity of our sin, Christ’s work on the cross, the necessity of the new birth, and justification by faith alone.

After these messages were preached last fall, I came across a William Booth quote that shook me. He said, “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.” The phrase “forgiveness without repentance” particularly convicted me. I immediately thought to myself, ‘Why had I not emphasized repentance in my series of evangelistic messages?’ Such an important biblical truth—you would think would have been front-and-center in my evangelistic messages. It was conspicuously absent.

Shortly after reading this quote, I came across a sermon by the nineteenth century evangelistic preacher, Asahel Nettleton, whom some say was the most effective preacher of the Second Great Awakening. I was again struck by the same fact. The heart of his message was that of repentance towards God. It was this message of Nettleton’s that God used to convert and awaken thousands all over New England.

The Lost Doctrine of Repentance

Upon reflection, I regrettably sensed both an absence of repentance in my personal ministry and in most of what I had heard in today’s evangelism. The word itself, like an antiquated phrase from a bygone era, seems to have completely vanished from our vocabulary—and as a result, from the collective evangelical conscience.

Like a lost, ancient city in the jungle, the doctrine of repentance has been shrouded by a new Christian message that promises hope, without a transformed life and Heaven without holiness. I do not think it is an understatement to say that the doctrine of repentance is the lost doctrine of the twenty-first century.

The consequences of this absence are devastating. Jesus warned that tares would be sown amongst the wheat—meaning that there would be ‘believing unbelievers’ in the Church until He returned (Matt 13). These are people who profess faith in Christ, even in some sense resemble believers outwardly, but in the end, it is shown that they were never truly converted. They will not inherit the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the absence of repentance from our message exacerbates the problem. Jesus calls us to repentance, not merely to believe intellectually in the bare facts of the gospel. This is why Jesus emphasized the new birth with Nicodemus. Entrance into the kingdom of God requires much more than knowing basic, facts about Jesus. We must be born again (John 3:3). We must repent of our sins and turn to Christ. Without the message of repentance, it is easy for the devil to fill our churches with ‘believing unbelievers.’ Satan loves nothing more than to delude ‘believing unbelievers’ with false assurance.

The Meaning of Repentance

This leads us to the core issue. What is the meaning of repentance? Repentance (metanoia) literally means to “change your mind” regarding both ourselves and God. But the mind controls the will, so this ‘turning’ of the mind has massive implications for the human soul. Repentance is forsaking one’s sin and turning completely to Christ with the whole heart. Louis Berkhof even went as far to say that “metanoia includes a conscious opposition to the former condition.”[1] Repentance is the direct and immediate result of God’s work of regeneration in the heart (John 3:3; 3:5; Ezek 36). In repentance, the sinner comes to a deep, godly sorrow over their sin and turns instead to God with a heart of loving devotion. David Wells defines it this way: “Evangelical repentance is turning from sin, now recognized as ruinous, to a new life of following Christ in righteousness, now embraced as the only hope of life.”[2] Repentance is at the heart of true conversion.

Conversion is believing in Christ for all that He is with all of who we are. Conversion is embracing Christ as both Savior and Lord. Conversion is a 180-degree turn from our ‘old man’ to embrace a perfect Savior. Conversion is the death of our old life and the beginning of Christ’s life in us. Conversion is, in a word, repentance.

The Biblical Preaching of Repentance

The Old Testament prophets preached this message of repentance. The Hebrew word for ‘conversion’ means to ‘turn or return again to God.’ After Jonah preached at Nineveh, their king said, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:8, 9). Hosea’s message to Judah and Israel was the same: “Come let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us” (Hos 6:1; also see Hos 14:1). Of course, the prophets also knew that God must do this work. Jeremiah prophesied, “Bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God. For after I had turned away, I relented” (Jer 31:18, 19a).

John the Baptist’s message to the Jews of his day was also a message of repentance. Luke records that he was in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Matthew records John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:1).

Jesus also relentlessly preached the message of repentance. His first public message in Matthew’s gospel is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:18). Jesus’s last words to his disciples before he ascended into Heaven were that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

The apostles followed the example of their Master. On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the need for repentance, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Peter to the Jews at Solomon’s Portico declared, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, 20). The apostle Paul followed this pattern of preaching repentance as Luke records in Acts 20:21. Luke says that Paul was “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Repenting from Lack of Repentance

Clearly the Old Testament prophets, Christ, and His apostles all proclaimed a message of repentance. It is a startling message—a message that wakes us from our spiritual slumber. A message that calls us not just to bare belief but to a new life. And that is the key point Christ was making throughout the gospels. Christ’s call to salvation was never just intellectual. Christ called His disciples to enter the kingdom by force (Matt 11:12). He called them to take up their cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we become “new creatures” in Christ through the new birth. So logically we would not expect anything less than repentance to begin this new life in Christ!

I am convinced that we will not experience an awakening again in this country until we recover the doctrine of repentance. We must repent from the lack of repentance. And I say this as much for myself as anyone else. I sincerely do not believe the Holy Spirit will move again in power until we go back to repentance.

Awakening to Repentance

But where do we begin? One place to begin is our own lives. Martin Luther once said that “the entire Christian life is one of repentance.” If that is the case, and I believe it is, then repentance must begin with the nitty-gritty details of our every-day lives. As followers of Christ, we must continually strive to be turning from every evil, every impurity, and every sin to our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a hill about two miles from my house that I have recently enjoyed running to and then trying to run up as fast as I can. It is one of those hills—like the kind that we used to dread on a Marine Corps hike—that requires all of one’s energy and focus to make it to the top. Its steepness and length exhaust both legs and lungs, so by the time I make it to the top, I must stop and catch my breath. The past couple of times, as I’ve been walking slowly at the top, catching my breath, my conscience has been pricked with this question, ‘What do I need to repent of?’ It is a haunting question. A question that, unless one claims to be perfect, you cannot hide from. A question that has brought me Coram Deo—“before the face of God.” It is only here, face-to-face before a holy God, that I see my own unholiness and unworthiness. It is in asking this question that I begin to truly know both God and myself in light of who God is.

This is where we must begin to live continual lives of repentance. When was the last time you asked yourself, ‘What do I need to repent of?’ It is this act of continual repentance—turning from sin to Christ—which will prepare us to share the message of repentance.

The message of repentance naturally flows from a life of repentance. Perhaps this is why the message of repentance was lost in the first place. How can we speak of what we do not know ourselves? An unrepentant church is simply unable to speak the message of repentance because we do not understand it ourselves. But that is why repentance must begin with the household of God (1 Pet 4:17).

In this sense repentance is the awakening. When God awakens us to repentance, we will then be prepared to proclaim this message to the world. When we proclaim the message of repentance with repentant hearts, God will honor that. Christ’s Church will be truly awakened, sinners will be truly converted, and God will be glorified. But are we willing to repent for our lack of repentance?


[1]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, MI, 1996, 481.

[2]David F. Wells, Turning to God. Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012, 72.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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