Growing up, my parents had a clock with a pendulum that swung back and forth repeatedly every minute of every hour of every day. Until the clock broke. It hung silently on the wall until a few months ago when it was taken down for a remodeling job. To round out the remodel, my parents took the clock to a clock shop. The clock is now faithfully ticking away, and the pendulum is religiously swinging, every minute of every hour of every day.
I hear nothing but that clock—and my cats meowing and scratching at the back door—as i do my morning quiet time every weekday. And you know what is great about that clock? The pendulum remains perfectly balanced. The only way the pendulum can get unbalanced is if someone messes with it. In Mark 1:15b, Jesus preaches, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus’ words are perfectly balanced, but we—in our zeal—have the tendency to swing the pendulum too far one way or the other.
If we break this sentence down grammatically, we end up with the following diagram:
One thing is clear, even in just a quick glance at the diagram above. There are two calls of the gospel. There are two commands that Christ pitches to people. As such, they should both be given equal weight. At the very least, they should both be given equal weight. If we err one way, we must emphasize the aspect that the Bible emphasizes. Indeed, we are not preaching the true gospel if we do not command people to repent. But we are also not preaching the true gospel if we do not beg people to believe. The pitch must be biblically balanced.
The Lordship controversy has gone on since at least the 1980s. And i believe it was necessary. I also think we have come out on top. Most of the people i regularly read and listen to are quick to demand that life change must follow a profession of faith or that profession is a sham. And i wholeheartedly agree. A lack of life change proves that there was no heart change. To paraphrase something i first heard from Paul Washer: “If you told me you were crossing the highway one day and an eighteen-wheeler hit you, I would know you are lying, because when something that large strikes you, a change in your physical makeup is expected. In a greater way, if you say you’ve met God, you will come away from that meeting changed; to not is to have not truly met God.”
However, i fear that in our desire to call people to a life of repentance, belief is sometimes forgotten amidst our zeal to see repentant living. Allow me to explain. Mark 1:15 is the general content of Jesus’ preaching, the focal point of His ministry according to Mark 1:38-39. And Jesus called people to both repent and believe. If we are going to call for repentance in our preaching, we must also call for belief.
“But,” you insist, “in Matthew 4, Jesus doesn’t call people to believe.”
And i would tell you that you are correct. On the surface. The fact of the matter is that if we put Matthew 4:12-17 next to Mark 1:14-15, they are describing the same moment in Jesus’ ministry:
- Mark 1:14-15 (HCSB)
After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!”
- Matthew 4:12-17 (HCSB)
When He heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee. He left Nazareth behind and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned.”
From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
For whatever reason, Matthew did not think it necessary to include Jesus’ call for belief. But, if Matthew and Mark are describing the same event (which the text is pretty clear that they are), Mark couldn’t put words in Jesus’ mouth that He didn’t actually say, but Matthew could report less than everything that actually happened. Even John explains that his gospel doesn’t contain every word or deed of Jesus (John 21:25). It is worth noting: Even Matthew tells us Jesus called people to believe. While Jesus is hanging on the cross, the scribes and elders say, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! He is the King of Israel! Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27:42, emphasis added). If all Jesus preached was repentance, their mockery would have sounded like this: “Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will repent.”
Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. The word repent (or a form of the word) occurs in the HCSB translation of the New Testament fifty-six times, whereas the word believe is used two hundred and forty times. Thus, for every occurrence of the word repent, the word believe occurs more than four times more often. The Scripture places a very heavy emphasis on belief. The following list shows the New Testament books that fail to mention the word believe:
- 2 Peter
- 2 John
- 3 John
And this list is the New Testament books that fail to use the word repent:
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 Timothy
- 1 Peter
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John
To be fair, the Scripture uses other phrases that imply repentance, such as, “Run from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), “Don’t get drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18), and “Do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:9). So the numerical arguments are skewed based on the occurrences of two English translations in a specific English version of the Scriptures, but i still think the overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament is belief.
Interestingly enough, John’s gospel contains the most specific teaching from Jesus, but His gospel never uses the word repent, and the word believe is used eighty-three times—more than a third of all the occurrences in the New Testament. (I am in full agreement with John MacArthur on this point, as can be seen by comparing the linked article with the paragraph above.)
Also, in Acts 16:31, Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” He does not tell him to repent.
Now, i know you will come back with, “But there are times when people are commanded to repent apart from belief.” And you are right. The passages in question are the following: Acts 8:22; Revelation 2:5, 16; Revelation 3:3, 19. However, all of these passages have something in common. The Revelation references are written to churches [people who claim to have believed] that have already been confronted with the sin from which they need to repent; the Acts reference is to a person whose greed has proven that his professed belief is a sham. Every time someone is commanded to believe, they are an unbeliever at the time.
The reason why repentance need not go with belief, but belief always comes with repentance (unless written to people who already claim to believe) is because the very act of believing the gospel is an act of repentance. Before anything else, the thing that will separate us from God for eternity is the fact that we are already cut off from God. We don’t seek Him (Romans 3:11). We say He doesn’t exist (Psalm 14:1). We suppress the truth about Him to continue in our “pleasurable sin” (Romans 1:18-32). The moment we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ: that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose again, we have repented of our refusal to return to God. One commentator explains,
“Repent” . . . most likely carries the OT prophetic import of [the Hebrew word] meaning “to go back again,” “return” and connotes the prophetic call to “turn to Yahweh with all one’s being” (E. Würthwein, TDNT 4  985). Much more is at stake than the more literal “changing of one’s mind,” “regret,” or “sorrow” of [the Greek word for repent]. Thus Jesus called one to turn from one’s wayward ways in total surrender to God.
The very act of commanding someone to believe is commanding them to repent. But, if we only tell people to repent, we are in danger of creating legalistic Judaizers of the style Paul argues against in Galatians. It’s not for no reason that Paul never uses the word repent in that letter. If all we ask for is repentance, the question becomes, “What am I repenting toward?” In calling people to believe in Jesus—which i beg you to do today if you never have before—we are explicitly telling them both what they need to repent of and what they need to repent toward. Repent of unbelief by repenting toward Jesus by believing.
“The very act of believing in the gospel is an act of repentance.”
In conclusion, let’s be wary of swinging the pendulum of emphasis too far toward either repentance or belief. Jesus proclaimed both. The Bible contains both. Christianity requires both. Believing is easy, and it is the first step of repentance. If we preach both repentance and belief—as Jesus did—our lives and the lives of those under our care will run like a well-wound clock. The pendulum will swing evenly and steadily.
The following YouTube clip might help to clarify the content of this post further:
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
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Thanks for reading.
 Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1:1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 45.