For the better part of a decade, I have served in evangelistic ministries. My range of activity has spanned from knocking on doors, going to college campuses, speaking at events, and street-preaching. With that background, you’d guess that I would have no trouble with evangelism or thinking through the Gospel. Actually, that’s about as true as saying the sun is dark. A back-pack full of stones has weighed me down throughout these years as I struggled to connect what I was doing with what the Bible teaches.
One weight that I burdened me was the meaning of faith. I wondered about what essential concepts Christians need to believe in to be saved. At first, I considered that we believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus? While that’s central (1 Cor 15), how does faith and repentance fit in, and why does the Bible talk so much about the kingdom of God. Actually, Jesus preaches the Gospel about the kingdom according to the Gospels (Matt 4:17, 23). But I never for a minute preached about a kingdom—I told people to believe and repent in the Gospel. Yet that was the problem, for I couldn’t quite grasp just what the Gospel was.
Continuing down this line of thought, I heard many people claim that we also need to believe that Jesus death atones for sin to be saved; or better, that Jesus died in our place for our sins. These latter ideas, however, seem to imply we are saved by believing in a theory of atonement (penal substitution). But I thought God saved me because I believed in Jesus not some theory of how he died—important as that may be. Clearly, my view of belief in the Gospel became clouded by vague definitions of “faith” and the “Gospel.” This problem is not the half of it. I also became burdened by the heavy weight of repentance.
The line I heard about repentance sounded like this: “Repentance means a change of mind from the Greek work metanoia, but metanoia does not literally mean change of mind. Actually, repentance means that you change your life or turn from sin.” While this schizophrenic definition was common in the circles that I grew up in, it troubled me. Why tell me the Greek work means “change of mind” and then tell me that repentances means turning from sin? What gives?
Putting all of this together, I understood that faith and repentance compose two of the most important ideals of evangelical faith. Yet, faith, repentance, and the Gospel seemed to me to intertwine in confusing and often convoluted ways. For example, if someone asks, What is the Gospel? The reply I’ve often heard seems to equate the Gospel with faith and repentance: “The Gospel proclaims that you must believe in Jesus as savior, and repent of your sins.” Fair enough, but this seems to make faith and repentance tantamount to the Gospel.
As a new Christian, my head ached from thinking through how the faith, repentance and the Gospel related. And here I thought that these were the basic foundations of the Christian faith. How is that I could walk to any church in town and hear clearly the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism, yet everywhere the Gospel had a different definition, or perhaps emphasis.
As you might imagine, these three questions dragged me down over the past eight years or so. First, I wondered about what faith means, and what is essential to believe in order to be saved. Second, I could not connect how repentance means change of mind, yet it means also turning from sin (or a thousand other similar definitions). Lastly, the connection between the Gospel and faith/repentance struck me as awkward. How can the Gospel be that we believe and repent in the death and resurrection of Jesus; isn’t the death and resurrection of Jesus alone the good news, and not our belief and repentance of that good news? And where was the kingdom of God in all this?
I think, by studying the Scriptures over the past few years, I have come to some helpful conclusions that I would like to share with you. If I struggled through understanding how faith, repentance, and the Gospel worked, I am sure others have too. Hopefully as I write about this over the next few weeks, I can mollify some of your concerns. I can share my basic answer now though: we complicate the Gospel with our ideas, and these ideas often come from our theological constructs and not from the Bible.