The First Word of the Gospel


As I show in Conversion and Discipleship, the gospel is the proclamation of God’s good news. The first word of the gospel, which is often overlooked, is repentance. In the New Testament Gospels, the proclamation begins with John the Baptist “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). While Jesus had his own nuances, the Gospels indicate that he continued the preaching tradition that John started. “Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. ‘The time promised by God has come at last!’ he announced. ‘The kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14–15 NLT). The first word of response to the good news that came from Jesus’ mouth was repent.

However, the gospel begins as the story of God’s relationship to his people Israel and relates the fulfillment of his promises to them to send a Messiah, a savior who would deliver them and through them bring his blessing to the nations. In Acts, we see this historical background in the preaching of the apostles and hear the prominence of the call to repentance in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (See Acts 2:38; 3:19; 7:2–53; 8:22). Paul summarizes his message in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, “I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21 NLT). The gospel begins with a call to repent from sin and turn to God.

More on Repentance

Though we discussed repentance in the last chapter, more on the topic here will be helpful. Wayne Grudem defines it as “heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ” (Systematic Theology, 713). In other words, feeling sorry about an action does not qualify as repentance. Genuine repentance includes both an emotional component and a corresponding decision of the will to make an about-face turn in the right direction and to change behavior. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians speaks of the need for more than sadness over wrong doing. He says that he was not sorry for his first harsh letter because it created a productive sorrow in them: “Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death” (2 Cor. 7:9–10 NLT, emphasis added).

As Paul clearly indicates here, repentance involves sorrow that leads us away from sin, and the process of leaving sin results in our salvation. So a necessary aspect of our salvation is real repentance from sin. While this repentance is an ongoing process, we can safely say there is no salvation when sin has not been forsaken.

The Vital Importance of Repentance

This is what I mean when I say that the first word of the gospel is repentance. No one can decide to follow Jesus without repenting. Assent to a doctrinal truth is one thing; it is another to forsake sin. Grudem writes, “It is clearly contrary to the New Testament evidence to speak about the possibility of having true saving faith without having any repentance for sin. It is also contrary to the New Testament to speak about the possibility of someone accepting Christ “as Savior” but not “as Lord,” if that means simply depending on him for salvation but not committing oneself to forsake sin and to be obedient to Christ from that point on” (714).

Yet some have argued that repentance is not required for salvation. Their objection is that repentance in conversion is a form of salvation by works.[1] If the work of actual behavioral change is required for salvation, then by this human effort we somehow contribute to our salvation. In addition is a genuine pastoral concern that we are adding a stumbling block or an unnecessary requirement to the gospel. While we may need to address some of this concern, we need to be wary of the alternative—a diluted gospel that promises forgiveness yet demands nothing from us. This diluted gospel preaches grace without calling us out of our willful slavery to sin. It speaks to one issue, not being punished for our sin, yet leaves out God’s work with Israel, his law for living on earth, and his greater purposes in redemptive history. It also leaves out the call to discipleship.

I am convinced that the time has come for theologians, pastors, and church leaders to turn this ship around and preach a gospel that calls people to repent.

[1] The Lordship Salvation controversy in the 1980s was between John MacArthur in his book by the same name and some prominent faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary including Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. Ryrie and Hodges claimed that requiring repentance added a work to faith, while MacArthur claimed saving faith required repentance, commitment to a new life, and fruit to prove that new life was a reality. Some also teach that the gift of believing faith inherently includes the desire to repent. However if this is the case, why did John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul include repentance as a requirement for salvation?

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

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