By Larry Ray Hafley
Question: From Oklahoma: “Des Paul in Acts 20:21 teach the whole plan: of salvation, and do we err in teaching faith must come before repentance?”
Reply: Acts 20:21 is part of Paul’s farewell address to “the elders of the church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38). “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed, you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20,21).
“Does Acts 20:21 teach the whole plan of: salvation?”
Acts 20:21 says nothing about the divine work which effected the system of salvation. It mentions man’s part, repentance and faith, but it does not allude to God’s love and grace nor to Christ’s selfless sacrifice. Generally speaking, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world , . .”) comes; nearer to containing “the whole plan of salvation.” It refers to the motivation of God (His love), to the effecting cause of salvation (the gift –death – of Christ), to man’s appropriating response (belief), and to the ultimate reward (everlasting life). It is a spiritual microcosm of the, entire scheme of redemption. Acts 20:21 fails of general consideration in that it does not reckon with the work of God in procuring remission of sins.
No single text lists in detail all the provisions of God or every term of acceptance required of man. This is too obvious to argue. Surely, only a fool would contend that any one passage specifically contains “the whole plan of salvation.” One verse wherein all of God’s acts and the sinner’s requirements are enumerated is not to be found.
Even the Baptists who prompted our inquirer will not say Acts 20:21 specifically includes, “the whole plan of salvation.” What is said of the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart? It is not, in Acts 20:21, but Baptists believe it is as essential to salvation as repentance and faith. So, according to them Acts 20:21 does not incorporate all that is involved in salvation, either generally or specifically. “But,” comes the objection, “repentance and faith assume that the Holy Spirit has done His work in the heart.” True enough, and saving faith assumes obedience (Jas. 2:14-26). Thus, if one can “read” the work of the Holy Spirit into Acts 20:21, he can also “read in” other acts of faith that are necessary to receive remission of sins. See Acts 2:38; 16:30-34; 22:16.
Does Faith Precede Repentance?
From Debate Notes On Baptist Doctrine, by James R. Cope, p. 41, we extract the following comments on Acts 20:21: “If my opponent were preaching to heathen like Paul did in Athens (Acts 17) – heathen who knew not the true God, he would first . . . try to make his listeners believe that there is one true and living God before he began persuading them to repent; so when God alone is mentioned and people who know not God are under consideration they are called upon to believe in God before repenting. On the other hand, where people have known God and sinned against Him they are told to repent toward God for it is literally impossible … for any man who does not believe in God to repent toward God. Likewise when people believe in Jesus Christ as did the Jews on Pentecost as indicated by their question, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ the only sensible reply was the one Peter made when he gave the next step in the gospel order; Repent, and be baptized.’ There is not a passage in the Bible indicating anybody-ever repented or was told to repent toward Jesus Christ before believing in Jesus Christ. In the passages mentioning God and Christ and also repentance and faith, the repentance is always toward one while the faith is toward the other.”
Both Jews and Greeks believed in God, but they had kicked Him out of their lives (Rom. 1:18-32). Paul, therefore, urged repentance toward the God they had disavowed. Then he pressed upon them “faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is logical. Observe the order: (1) Belief in God, but denial of Him; (2) “Repentance toward God” whom they have rejected; (3) “Faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Further, the order of appearance does not necessarily indicate the sequence of occurrences. In Romans 10:9, Paul lists confession of Christ before faith in Him. Shall we argue that confession of Jesus precedes faith in Him? In the next verse, Paul reverses the order, placing faith before confession (Rom. 10:10). In Ezekiel 3:10 we find, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears.” Is this the order of events? How could he receive words into his heart before he heard them with his ears? Our topic sentence is sustained.
The Order of Baptism And Salvation
Baptists allege that repentance precedes faith because wherever the two are named, repentance is listed first. Take that principle and apply it to baptism and salvation. Wherever baptism and forgiveness of sins or its equivalent are mentioned, baptism always comes before salvation. (1) Mk. 16:16-baptism and salvation. (2) Acts 2:38-baptism and remission of sins. (3) Acts 22:16-Baptism and forgiveness. (4) Rom. 6:3, 4-baptized into Christ, raised to walk in newness of life. (5) Gal. 3:27-baptized into Christ. (6) 1 Pet. 3:21-baptism saves us. Will the Baptists accept their own law, of order? If the reference to repentance before faith proves that’ repentance “comes before” faith, does the mention of baptism before salvation prove that baptism comes before salvation? Why not? It is a poor rule that will not work both ways.
Truth Magazine, XX:8, p. 2
February 19, 1976