When we set out to study the Bible in detail, is there some easy way to identify the basic and most important doctrines that should be studied first?
This is a reasonable question, and, like all such questions related to the study of the Bible, an answer to it may be found within the pages of the Bible itself. The Bible does clearly state that certain of its doctrines are more important than the rest and should therefore be studied first. In fact, the Bible gives a list of six such basic, or foundational, doctrines.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Jesus, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgement (Heb. 6:1-2).
In the margin of the 1611 edition of the King James Version, the alternative reading suggested for the elementary principles of Jesus is “the word of the beginning of Jesus.” This brings out the point that we are here dealing with the doctrines which should constitute the beginning – the starting-off point – in our study of Jesus and His teaching as a whole.
This point is further emphasized by the use, in the same verse, of the phrase “the foundation.” The writer of Hebrews is setting two thoughts side by side: 1) the laying of the right doctrinal foundation; 2) going on after this to perfection – that is, to a completed edifice of Christian’s doctrine and conduct. The purpose of his exhortation is that we should go on to perfection, to the completed edifice. But he makes it plain that we cannot hope to do this unless we have first laid a complete and stable foundation of the basic doctrines.
In speaking of this foundation, the writer lists in order the following six successive doctrines: 1) repentance from dead works, 2) faith toward God, 3) the doctrine of baptisms, 4) laying on of hands, 5) resurrection of the dead, 6) eternal judgement.
We need to note one particularly important feature of this inspired outline of basic doctrines. If we follow it through in the order given, it spans the entire gamut of Christian’s experience. It starts – in time – from the sinner’s initial response: repentance. It takes us on, by a logical succession, to the climax – in eternity – of all Christian’s experience: resurrection and final judgement.
While it is important to study carefully each of these individual doctrines, we must never lose the vision of the single divine and perfect plan that runs through them all. In particular, we must never become so occupied with the things of time that we lose the vision of eternity. Otherwise, we may suffer the tragedy described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19.
If in this life only we have hope in Jesus, we are of all men the most pitiable.
The studies that follow in this section focus on the first two of these doctrines: repentance and faith.
Repentance – Explained From Greek and Hebrew
First of all, we need a clear understanding of the meaning of the word repentance as used in the Scripture.
In the New Testament the English verb “to repent” is normally used to translate the Greek verb metanoein. This Greek verb metanoein has one definite meaning throughout the history of the Greek language, right through classical Greek down into New Testament Greek. Its basic meaning is always the same: “to change one’s mind.” Thus, “repentance” in the New Testament is not an emotion but a decision.
Knowing this fact serves to dispel many false impressions and ideas connected with repentance. Many people associate repentance with emotion – with the shedding of tears and so on. It is possible, however, for a person to feel great emotion and to shed many tears and yet never repent in the scriptural sense. Other people associate repentance with the carrying out of special religious rites or ordinances – with what is called “doing penance.” But here, too, the same applies: It is possible to go through many religious rites and ordinances and yet never repent in the scriptural sense.
True repentance is a firm, inward decision; a change of mind.
If we turn back to the Old Testament, we find that the word most commonly translated “to repent” means literally “to turn,” “to return,” “to turn back.” This harmonizes perfectly with the meaning of repentance in the New Testament. The New Testament word denotes the inner decision, the inner change of mind; the Old Testament word denotes the outward action which is the expression of the inward change of mind – the act of turning back, of turning around.
Thus, the New Testament emphasizes the inward nature of true repentance; the Old Testament emphasizes the outward expression in action of the inner change. Putting the two together, we form this complete definition of repentance: Repentance is an inner change of mind resulting in an outward turning back, or turning around; to face and to move in a completely new direction.
The Sinner’s First Response to God
The perfect example of true repentance, defined in this way, is found in the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). Here we read how the prodigal turned his back on father and home and went off into a distant land, there to waste all that he had in sin and dissipation. Eventually he came to himself, hungry, lonely and in rags, sitting among the swine, longing for something to fill his stomach. At this point he made a decision. He said, “I will arise and go to my father” (v. 18).
He immediately carried out his decision: “And he arose and came to his father” (v. 20). This is true repentance: first, the inward decision; then the outward act of that decision – the act of turning back to father and home.
In his own unregenerate, sinful condition, every man that was ever born has turned his back on God, his Father, and on heaven, his home. Each step he takes is a step away from God and from heaven. As he walks this way, the light is behind him, and the shadows are before him. The farther he goes, the longer and darker the shadows become. Each step he takes is one step nearer the end – one step nearer the grave, nearer hell, nearer the endless darkness of a lost eternity.
For every man who takes this course, there is one essential act he must make. He must stop, change his mind, change his direction, face the opposite way, turn his back to the shadows and face toward the light.
This first, essential act is called repentance in the Scriptures. It is the first move any sinner must make who desires to be reconciled with God.
Distinguished From Remorse
Of course, there are some passages in some translations where the verb “to repent” is used in a different sense, but when we examine these passages carefully, we find that the English word “to repent” is used to translate some other word in the original language. For example, in the 1611 King James Version we read in Matthew 27:3-4 that when Judas Iscariot saw that Jesus had been condemned to death, afterward he “repented” of betraying Jesus for money.
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? See thou to that.
Here we read that Judas “repented himself.” But the Greek word used in the original is not the word metanoein defined earlier. The Greek word used of Judas, metamelein, denotes that which people often wrongly interpret as repentance: remorse, anguish. There is no doubt that at this moment Judas experienced intense anguish and remorse. Nevertheless, he did not experience true, scriptural repentance; he did not change his mind, his course, his direction.
On the contrary, the very next verse says he went and hanged himself; in Acts 1:25 this is expressed by the words:
Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.
Certainly Judas experienced emotion – strong emotion, bitter anguish and remorse. But he did not experience true repentance; he did not change his mind or his course. The truth is that he could not change his course; he had already gone too far. In spite of the Savior’s warning, he had deliberately committed himself to a course from which there could be no return. He had passed “the place of repentance.”
What a terrible and solemn lesson this is! It is possible for a man, by stubborn and willful continuance in his own way, to come to a place of no turning back – a place where the door of repentance has, by his own willfulness, been forever slammed shut behind him.
Another man who made this same tragic error was Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright.
For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears (Heb. 12:17).
In a foolish, careless moment Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for a bowl of soup. Genesis records: “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). We must remember that in despising his birthright, he despised all the blessings and the promises of God that were associated with the birthright. Later, Esau regretted what he had done. He sought to regain the birthright and the blessing, but he was rejected. Why? Because he found no place of repentance. (In the margin of the 1611 King James Version the alternative translation is: “He found no way to change his mind” Heb. 12:17).
Here is further evidence that strong emotion is not necessarily proof of repentance. Esau cried aloud and shed bitter tears. But in spite of all this, he found no place of repentance. By a trivial, impetuous act he had decided the whole course of his life and his destiny both for time and for eternity. He had committed himself to a course from which afterward he could find no way of return.
How many men today do just the same as Esau! For a few moments of sensual pleasure or carnal indulgence, they despise all the blessings and promises of almighty God. Later, when they feel their mistake, when they cry out for those spiritual and eternal blessings which they had despised, to their dismay they find themselves rejected. Why? Because they find no place of repentance, no way to change their minds.
The Only Way to True Faith
The New Testament is unanimous on this one point: True repentance must always go before true faith. Without true repentance there can never be true faith.
The call to repentance begins at the very introduction to the New Testament with the ministry of John the Baptist.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.”
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:3-4).
John the Baptist’s call to repentance was a necessary preparation for the revelation of the Messiah to Israel. Until Israel had been called back to God in repentance, their long-awaited Messiah could not be revealed among them.
A little further on we read the first message that Jesus Himself preached after John had prepared the way before Him.
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel . . . and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
The first commandment that ever fell from the lips of Jesus was not to believe but to repent. First repent, then believe.
After His death and resurrection, when Jesus commissioned His apostles to go out to all nations with the gospel, once again the first word in His message was “repentance.”
Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Jesus to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
Here again it is repentance first, and after that, remission of sins.
Shortly after the resurrection, the apostles, through their spokesman Peter, began to fulfil this commission of Jesus. After the Holy Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost, the convicted (but still unconverted) multitude asked: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). To this inquiry there came an immediate and definite answer.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Jesus for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Here again it is repentance first; after that, baptism and remission of sins.
When Paul spoke to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he outlined the gospel message which he had preached to them.
I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Jesus (Acts 20:20-21).
The order of Paul’s message is the same: first repentance, then faith.
Finally, as we have already seen in Hebrews 6:1-2, the order of the basic foundation doctrines of the Christian’s faith is first repentance from dead works, then faith, baptisms and so on.
Without exception, throughout the entire New Testament, repentance is the first response to the gospel that God demands. Nothing else can come before it, and nothing else can take its place.
True repentance must always precede true faith. Without such repentance, faith alone is an empty profession. This is one reason why the experience of so many professing Christian’s today is so unstable and insecure. They are seeking to build without the first of the great foundation doctrines. They are professing faith but they have never practiced true repentance. As a result, the faith which they profess procures for them neither the favor of God nor the respect of the world.
In many places today the simplification of the gospel message has been taken one step too far. The message often preached today is “Only believe.” But that is not the message of Jesus. Jesus and His apostles preached “Repent and believe.” Any preacher who leaves out the call to repentance is misleading sinners and misrepresenting God. For Paul tells us that it is God Himself who “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). That is the general edict of God to the entire human race: “All men everywhere must repent.”
In Hebrews 6:1 repentance is defined as “repentance from dead works”; in Acts 20:21 it is defined as “repentance toward God.” This means that, in the act of repentance, we turn away from our dead works and face toward God, ready to hear and obey His next command.
The phrase “dead works” includes all acts and activities that are not based upon repentance and faith. It includes even the acts and activities of religion – even of professing Christianity – if they are not built on this basis. It is in this sense that Isaiah cries out:
And all our righteousness’s are like filthy rags (Is. 64:6).
There is no reference here to acts of open sin and wickedness. Even those acts which are done in the name of religion and morality, if they are not based on repentance and faith, are not acceptable to God. Charity, prayers, church attendance, every kind of religious rite and ordinance – if they are not based on repentance and faith – are merely “dead works” and “filthy rags”!
There is one other fact about scriptural repentance which must be emphasized. True repentance begins with God and not with man. It originates not in the will of man but in the free and sovereign grace of God. Apart from the working of God’s grace and the moving of God’s Spirit, man left to himself is incapable of repentance. For this reason the psalmist cries out for restoration.
Restore us, O God . . . and we shall be saved! (Ps. 80:3,7).
The word translated “restore us” means literally “cause us to turn back.” Jeremiah uses the same word in Lamentations 5:21.
Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored.
Unless God first moves man toward Himself, man cannot of his own unaided will turn to God and be saved. The first move is always made by God.
In the New Testament Jesus expressed the same truth.
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him (John 6:44).
The supreme crisis of every human life comes at the moment of the Spirit’s drawing to repentance. Accepted, this drawing leads us to saving faith and eternal life; rejected, it leaves the sinner to continue on his way to the grave and the unending darkness of an eternity apart from God. The Scripture makes it plain that even in this life it is possible for a man to pass “the place of repentance” – to come to a point where the Spirit of God will never again draw him to repentance, and where all hope is lost even before he enters the portals of eternity.
It is fitting to close this study with the words of Jesus in Luke 13:3 (which are also repeated in verse 5).
Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
Jesus was speaking of men who died in the very act of performing a religious rite; that is, a company of Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their own sacrifices. While carrying out their sacrifices in the temple, these men had been executed by order of the Roman governor, and their blood had been mingled on the temple floor with that of their sacrifices.
Yet Jesus tells us that these men perished; they went to a lost eternity. Even their religious act of sacrifice in the temple could not save their souls, because it was not based on true repentance.
The same is true of the religious ceremonies of many professing professing Christian’s today. None of these religious activities is any substitute for true repentance. Without such repentance, Jesus Himself said, “ . . . you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).