Since the Gospel transforms lives, at the heart of the process is change that is happening in the life of the one who is hearing? While the witness shares the good news of Jesus and His all-sufficient love and sacrifice, the Holy Spirit is the One who is producing the heart change. The witness cannot make this happen – in fact, I emphatically teach people NOT to try to talk someone into a decision for Christ. It’s not our job, it’s HIS job to convince, convict and change. We can learn, however, to recognize when repentance is present, and when it is occurring, we can lead the person to place their trust and faith in Christ.
The clearest way to understand and explain repentance and faith is to see them as one action with two results. While there will always be debate about “which comes first?” and “who does what?” the real story is that it’s all supernatural and all God’s work. Who can turn to God without His enlightenment, and who can turn away from sin without His power?
The one action that best characterizes repentance is “to turn.” When one turns away FROM sin and self and TOWARD God, he/she is illustrating the life-changing work of the Holy Spirit we call repentance. While there are many passages that use the word “repent,” and many other texts that stress the word “believe,” there is a text that gives us an amazingly clear and complete picture of both.
“For they themselves report about us what kind of reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.”
1 Thessalonians 1:9
The background of this verse is inspiring. The church at Thessalonica thoroughly embraced the gospel during Paul’s brief stay there. He writes back to them commending them for their genuine and contagious faith. In his letter of commendation, this verse explains WHY. It is because of the thoroughness of the work of repentance in their lives. In fact, this entire letter commends them and in no place are they reprimanded (which Paul is never hesitant to do). Their lives were a phenomenal and standing testimony of the power of the gospel.
So what does this brief line teach us? It tells us there was one primary action. They turned. This turning had two undeniable results. They turned to God and away from idols. Real repentance gives evidence that a person is willing to, and in the process of turning away from a life of sin and self-dependence to face and follow God who calls them to Himself. It is this changed thinking and changed direction that allows us to have confidence that God is working in them, and allows us to lead them in a decision of faith.
Imagine a person walking in one direction – the direction of his heart desire, human ambition and affection. He/She hears the message of the gospel and the love of God that brought it about. Suddenly, he/she recognizes the former direction is empty and futile. He/she turns to the God who sent His Son for them, and away from all that once was important. But there’s more! As he/she turns to God, the willingness to follow and serve is evident. They are effectively new by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We can’t always see this taking place in a life while we’re sharing the gospel, but we can see indicators – the attention the give us, the realization that the old way of life is not adequate, the strong desire to receive this new life and the willingness and hunger to know “what’s next” if they follow Christ. Those are irrefutable signs that repentance is beginning to happen and God is beginning to draw them.
Peter and the apostles recognized this at Pentecost and baptized 3000 in one day. It should also be enough for us.
Repentance has an important place in the gospel conversation. It is at the decision moment. From the resurrection onward, the apostles message included God’s character, the offense of sin and the sufficiency of Jesus – and then repentance and faith were explained as the step of action (away from sin and toward God).