There are several places in the Acts where St. Paul summarizes the message which God commissioned him to preaceh. It is interesting to note that in these places Paul mentions an aspect of his ministry that is sadly neglected in evangelism today. This aspect is the inclusion of repentance as a key factor in the gospel.
In Acts 20, Paul is summarizing his ministry in Ephesus to the Ephesian elders. He says, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
Paul is holding two things up for examination in this passage. One is his personal character and the second is the content of his message.
He summarizes the content of his message in one short sentence. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in the Lord Jesus.” He says that the declaration of this message was impartial. The pagan Greeks were to turn away from theire sins and turn to God. Nothing strange here. The astonishing thing is that the “chosen people” were to turn away from their sins and turn to God. Repentance was required without partiality. Paul says that if the doctrine would be helpful, he did not hesitate to preach it. The implication is that there may have been hindrances to preaching this message, which Paul ignored. Popular or unpopular, if it would be helpful, Paul would preach it.
Later on in verse 27, Paul seems to indicate that this doctrine of repentance, turning to God, and having faith in the Lord is part of the “whole will of God.” He also warns of false teachers to come who would not teach the truths of God. “. . . savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Almost certainly the whole area of repentance was affected by false teaching after Paul’s time. The Lord Jesus warned the Ephesian church through the apostle John that they needed to repent and return to their first love.
Later on in the book, in Acts 26, Paul is summing up his ministry and message before King Agrippa. One of the things he says here is almost identical with his wording in Acts 20. He says, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” We have here three coincedent points with his summary in Acts 20. The first has to do with impartiality.
In Acts 20 he tells us he preached to Jews and Greeks. In Acts 26 he itemizes some of the places where he preached to them. Secondly, in both places he preaches repentance. Thirdly, he preaches turning to God.
It is interesting to note that Paul claims that he preached this message out of obedience to the heavenly vision. In other words, if he had not preached repentance, he would have been disobedient. This may account for the fact that Paul did not hesitate to preach it to the Ephesians and for his confidence that it was part of the “whole will of God.” He got from the lips of the Lord Jesus himself on the Damascus road.
Paul relates this to King Agrippa. When Jesus spoke to him, he said, “I am sending you to open their eyes, and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
In this section, opening their eyes and turning them from darkness to light seem to correspond to the repentance of the previous two passages. Turning them from the power of Satan to God seems to be an amplification of the simpler turning to God. The consequence is forgiveness and a place with God’s saints.
In the three passages which we have looked at, Paul is defining his message in nutshell form. Thus, it is not at all difficult to pick up the word “repentance.” What is slightly more difficult perhaps would be to pick up the concept of repentance where the word is mentioned in passing or not mentioned at all. What are some examples of this?
In Acts 14, when the citizens of Lystra started to worship Paul and Barnabas, Paul includes repentance as an aspect of the good news. “Where are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God . . .” Indeed, in this section, it almost appears that the turning in itself was considered the good news. From other passages, we know that this was not the entire message but the emphasis is interesting.
Later on, in Acts 17, Paul addresses the Athenians. It is hard to pick out a single instance of the concept of repentance here simply because repentance is the thrust of the entire message. Everything that comprised the Athenian world view is challenged. Greek national pride is challenged. Idolatry is challenged and repentance is commanded. It is not urged; it is commanded. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Again, having established the need for repentance, he moves on to the good news.
While this is true, we must also recognize that a message of mere repentance is a deficient message. This is just what Apollos was preaching: the baptism of John which was the baptism of repentance. In Acts 18 Priscilla and Aquila found it necessary to round out his teaching. Simple repentance was not enough.
How do we relate all this to our situation? All too frequently repentance is either not taught at all or it is in the fine print. We somehow feel that if we get a person to “receive Christ as their personal Savior” it will automatically change their heart. We don’t bother to find out if the person wants a changed heart. The Greek word for repentance simply means to change your mind. Do the people we “lead to Christ” want HIm to change their minds? Sad to say, frequently they do not. Too many people today think that it is possible to believe in God and be a Christian without turning to God and away from their sin. This is not the gospel message of Paul.
Notice, too, that Paul requires repentance from the Jew as well as the Greek. The religious person (even within the “true” religion) is not exempted from repentance. Our message is not all the old ways and Jesus too. The message is Jesus instead of the old way of life.
But, we argue, won’t that turn off religious people if we preach repentance and then faith in the Lord Jesus? We would be quite unsuccessful evangelizing the churches with that approach.
The important thing to remember here is that we should not measure our message in terms of utility but in terms of truth. We are not to ensure the acceptance of the message, but are to be faithful to it. We are to think in terms of the faithful transmission of the message Paul preached. So when we think of how unsuccessful we would be evangelizing the churches, we should also think how unsuccessful Paul was in evangelizing the synagogues. Nevertheless, Paul did not desitate to teach the “whole will of God” and neither should we.
When repentance is not emphasized, “conversion” is seen as a mere experience. Much of the “born againism” in North America is of this existential variety. This experience is not seen as having any moral content grounded in absolute truth. It is seen as “try Jesus” as opposed to giving yourself to the Lord of the universe.
The gospel is seen at its most powerful when it changes lifestyles. Lifestyles can only be changed as people surrender themselves to be so changed. And they have to repent to be able to make this surrender. No wonder that Paul placed such an emphasis on it. And it is also no wonder that Paul’s message that the major impact that it did.
Something should be said at this point to the charge that requiring repentance is a form of works-righteousness. Is the repentance a good deed that we do to earn our salvation? As Paul would say, “May it never be!” Since God’s free salvation from sin excludes staying in our sins, repentance is the attitude that desires the former instead of the latter. In other words, to say that I want salvation by grace is to say that I have a repentance heart. Nevertheless, an emphasis on repentance is necessary so that we understand what our merciful salvation entails.
In conclusion, we have seen that Paul summarizes his message with a heavy emphasiss on repentance. We have seen that through the book of Acts Paul is consistent with his summaries. The concept of repentance is an integral part of his message all the way through the Acts. Finally, we have seen that modern evangelism falls short of the pattern established by Paul. When we begin to emulate Paul, we will see a radical change in the quality of individual conversions. We would do well to follow Paul’s example.
Originally published in The Hammer (Vol. 2, No. 4) in the fall of 1983. The Hammer was a publication of Community Christian Ministries.