No, quitting sins is not part of the gospel. But why do many well-meaning Christian teachers, preachers, or those who witness, often attach it to the Gospel as though it were? Paul defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
And then, Paul wrote (verse 11), “This is what we preached and this is what you believed.” They believed the gospel. That’s what it’s all about. They changed their mind about who Jesus is, and they turned to Him, believing in what He did.
They repented! I hesitate to use the word because, so often, as it applies to salvation, repentance is thought to mean to turn from sin (quit sins). To repent means to change one’s mind. Many places in scripture we see where even God repented, but it means that He changed His mind. He surely wasn’t turning from sins. Quitting sins is not a requirement in order to be saved. We hear the gospel and realize that we are sinners and that Jesus died and rose again to save us. Changing the mind about Jesus is the requirement. That’s the repentance that’s necessary for salvation.
Yes, repentance can mean turning from sins, but we do that after we’re saved, by the Spirit’s conviction, not in order to get saved. That’s why “repent” is not mentioned anywhere in the gospel of John. There’s a repentance that is not concerned with salvation, and there’s a repentance that is concerned with salvation. When the definitions of the two are reversed, all sorts of confusion results.
When you got saved, did you quit sins? You may have been told that you needed to, or that you needed to be willing to quit them. After you believed or called on Jesus to save you, did you still sin? Of course you did and so did I, and that may have caused you confusion. It’s also confusing to a lost person to be told he needs to repent of his sins, but yet he sees Christians still sinning. After salvation, a person is changed, for sure, but God changes us and then continues working on us.
That’s why Paul spends a lot of time exhorting Christians to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” The Holy Spirit works with us after we’re saved to conform us to Christ. We don’t get better to get saved; we get saved first to get better. That’s why “repent” is not mentioned in John; it’s a synonym of believe. It’s included in believing, and has nothing to do with quitting sins. We change our mind about Jesus Christ and we turn to Him for salvation. That’s salvation repentance.
Let’s look at some examples of where “believe” is used as a synonym for repent. In John 3:12, 15 and 16, Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. Jesus didn’t mess up by telling Nicodemus that all he needed to do was believe, and yet He said nothing of repenting. In John 4:10, Jesus told the Samaritan woman to “ask” Him for living water. He said nothing to her of leaving her live-in boyfriend in order to receive the gift. In John 20:31 it states, “But these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Many other examples are found in John where “believe” or “faith” is used, but not “repent.” Is Acts 20:21 an exception to this? Paul says he testified to them of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” No, because repentance and faith are joined by the article “and,” making them inseparable.
When Peter preached the sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, “the people were pierced to the heart” (v. 37). They asked what they needed to do, and Peter said repent. His sermon was all about Jesus being both God (Lord) and Savior (The Messiah), a difficult concept for Jews to accept. He was telling them to change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth, to believe in Him.
We should also look at examples of our being told as Christians to repent, which would definitely mean to turn from sins. Jesus told the Christians in His letter to the Ephesians in The Revelation, to repent of leaving their first love. He told the other churches to repent of other sins in their midst. They were already saved. The repentance they were commanded to do didn’t save them or keep them saved.
So, is repentance a condition for receiving eternal life? Yes, if it means changing the mind about Jesus Christ. No, if we make it mean to quit sinning, turn from sins, be sorry for sins, or even resolve to turn from sins, because these things cannot save. These would be adding a condition to the gospel, though the Spirit may use a sense of sin and the desire to turn from it to direct the lost to Jesus and His salvation. We should use the right definition of repentance when we witness.
An example of this type of adding to the gospel is in Acts 15. Notice that it says these men who added to the gospel had believed they were saved people (imagine that). They were telling Gentile believers that they were not saved unless they did certain Jewish things. Notice verses 5–11:
- 5) “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
- 6) The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
- 7) After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.”
- 8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;”
- 9) “and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”
- 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
- 11) “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Did you catch that? Peter told those saved Pharisees not to go telling the Gentile converts that they needed to do something which the Jews had not even been able to do.
We should have the same attitude about placing the matter of quitting sins into the gospel that Peter expressed in verse 10: Since we didn’t quit sins in order to get saved (and we still sin as Christians), how can we tell the lost that it is a requirement for them?
Acts 16:31 “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’”
Romans 3:10 “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”