Real Faith Includes Repentance
The hard truth of the gospel is that we must turn from our sins.
This contradicts the easy Christianity peddled by many American churches. They gloss over the hard implications of the Gospel in the hopes of bringing more people into the Kingdom (or, more cynically, to have larger congregations). They bifurcate salvation from sanctification, saying that salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus and his work on the cross—a desire to turn from sin will come naturally later on, but it is not necessary for salvation.
So they talk about the free gift of salvation without any mention of the total surrender that is part and parcel of accepting the gift. These Christian leaders rightly believe that the Gospel, which literally means “good news” in Greek, may not sound like such good news at first hearing. It actually sounds like a death sentence, which it is, but only en route to the incomparably excellent news of our eternal salvation.
When I was a Youth for Christ (YFC) leader, a high school student asked me whether he had to stop taking illicit drugs to be saved. He told me that he loved his sinful habit and, though he wanted to be saved, he was not willing to “pray the sinner’s prayer” if it meant he had to give up his habit.
I told him that he had to have the will to give it up, even if he failed along the way. But he could not intend to continue taking drugs and have any confidence that he would be saved, because that would indicate he wanted to follow Christ on his own terms.
The Bible is clear that to be a disciple requires laying down our lives. It is not just for the “super holy” but for every Christian. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). No wonder T.S. Eliot would write that the birth of Jesus was “hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
A fellow YFC leader contested my interpretation of the Gospel. She said that Christ accepts us as we are, and that to require that we intend to turn from all of our sins is to require that we work for our salvation. Salvation, she said, is about believing in Christ and accepting his forgiveness, and nothing more. Repentance of sin is part of the sanctification process that can come later. The first step is simply to embrace his unconditional forgiveness “just as I am,” in the words of the old hymn. She said that I was adding to the gospel, much as some false teachers were doing in Galatia when they said Gentile men must be circumcised if they wanted to be saved.
It sounds persuasive at first, especially since it is often presented from church pulpits as such, but it contradicts the sweep of Scripture. It is true that Jesus said in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yet he also said that following him costs everything:
Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:28-33).
In the Jewish mind, there was no contradiction between knowing and doing, precisely because knowing implied doing. In the post-modern era, “belief” is untethered from action, based on our faulty assumption that truth is relative. Today one can claim to believe in the gospel without acting as if it were true. Thus, we tend to read John 3:16 with twenty-first-century eyes instead of the way Jesus’ hearers would have received the admonition to believe.
Saving faith includes repentance. Without repentance, you can’t call it faith.
 He decided, at least at the time, that he was not willing to give up smoking pot and did not pray “the sinner’s prayer” with me. I did not keep in touch with him and do not know whether he is now a Christian.