The Order of Faith and Repentance

By Cecil Willis

In our last lesson we promised that we would devote this lesson to a study of the order of faith and repentance. We want to determine whether faith precedes repentance, or whether repentance precedes faith. The importance of this lesson is magnified to us if we consider the extremes to which members of the denominational world will go in order to prove their point. Denominationalism is vitally interested in proving that repentance precedes faith.

They say that one must repent before he believes, and the reason for their efforts is this: Members of several large denominations believe that one is saved either by faith only, or at the point of faith. They virtually all used to say that one is saved by faith only, and affirmed this in debate many times, but here of late, they have almost universally quit affirming the doctrine of faith only. Now they affirm a modified form of the doctrine, still calling it the doctrine of faith only. They now say that one is saved at the point of faith, before and without water baptism. The reason for their saying that repentance comes before faith is because if they say that one is saved at the point of faith, and if repentance came after faith, then they would be saying that one was saved before he repented, which they refuse to admit. The seed of the whole doctrine was an effort to get as far removed as possible from the doctrine of baptism’s having anything at all to do with one’s salvation.

Actually, if salvation is by faith only as some denominations still affirm, it matters not whether repentance comes before or after faith, for salvation by faith only means that one is saved without anything else. Regardless of the order of faith and repentance; the doctrine of faith only excludes repentance. ‘Whether it comes before or after does not alter the case. Salvation by faith only still excludes repentance.

Many preachers, still believing the doctrine of faith alone, but realizing themselves to be caught in a verbal dilemma, have tried to solve the dilemma by putting repentance before faith. In view of their belabored efforts, one can see certain admissions that these denominationalists make. When they become so concerned about “getting” repentance before faith, they already have repudiated their doctrine of salvation by faith only. They are saying that repentance is also essential. Most of them will deny that they ever said that it was unessential, but nevertheless, they still have the doctrine taught in their official creeds, manuals, and disciplines. They say one is saved by faith only, and the word “only” excludes everything else, repentance included. They deny this doctrine when they admit that one must repent, but since they now teach that one is saved at the point of faith, they say repentance must precede faith. Repentance must precede faith or their doctrinal position collapses.

Psychological Impossibility

First of all, let us note that for repentance to precede faith would be a psychological impossibility. One cannot possibly repent before he believes. There are so many foolish, absurd, and impossible tenets connected with this doctrine, that it seems almost vain to have to refer to it. Let us notice some of these absurdities.

Suppose you were trying to convert an atheist, one who does not believe that God exists. What would you do first? Would you try to persuade him to believe or to repent? It would be impossible to get the man to repent in the Biblical sense of the term. We saw last week that repentance is produced by godly sorrow, for one thing. How could this man have godly sorrow before he believed in God? Further, it was seen that repentance should be produced by the goodness of God, but this man does not believe that God lives, and therefore he would be wholly ignorant of the goodness of God. He might know something about the things that the Bible says are given us by God’s goodness, but he certainly would not attribute these things to God, but to insensate matter. The fear of judgment and punishment could not prompt him to repentance, because he does not believe that the Lord exists who could judge him. The desire to be saved could not be that which motivates him to repent, for as an atheist, he does not believe that man has a soul to be saved, nor that there is a God to save it. None of these forces which the Bible says produces repentance could operate on an atheist or an infidel, for they are unbelievers, and all these forces can have effect only upon believers. In the true sense of the word, only a believer can repent as God commands, and so repentance could not precede faith.

In Luke 15:7, we read that there is joy in the presence of the angels of heaven over one sinner that repents. One could repent without believing if repentance precedes faith. If he could not, then to repent and to believe must be one synonymous act, and if it is, then all the lengthy discussions by denominational preachers have been foolishness, for there could be no order of faith and repentance if they are the same. If they are not the same, it is possible for one to do one of them, and not do the other. The Bible says that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of heaven over one sinner that repents, but the writer of Hebrews says in the eleventh chapter and sixth verse, “that without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh to God must believe that fle is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” We have this dilemma, if the doctrine be true. We have angels rejoicing over a man because he has repented, but God not pleased with him because he has not believed. One should repudiate any doctrine that makes such folly of God’s Holy Word.

Further we read in Jas. 2:19 that the devils believed. Now, if repentance precedes faith, then it must be admitted that these same demons had repented. According to denominational dogma, repentance and faith is all that could possibly be required of anyone. According to this doctrine, the demons had believed and repented, and so they should have been saved, but we know they were not.

Alleged Proofs

When one has the gospel preached to him, and learns that he must repent, why does he repent? It is because he believes the message that is brought him. Were it not for this, he would not repent.

One replies, “Well, surely these people must have something by which they prove their doctrine, or they would not teach it. What do they use to substantiate their contention that repentance precedes faith?” To those who view their arguments only lightly and casually, they seem very plausible, but when they are examined -more closely, one can see that they do not teach, at all, what these men say that they do. They have perverted the passages. But let us now notice some of the passages offered in favor of this contention.

First of all, “Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:14, 15). In this passage the word repentance comes before the word believe, and therefore men infer from this that it means that in obedience to the gospel repentance precedes faith. On this occasion “Jesus was preaching to persons who already believed in the true God, and in the revelation which God had already made, and his object, at this stage of his ministry, like that of John, was to bring them to repentance as a preparation for faith in himself and his kingdom. This accounts for the order in which repentance and faith are here mentioned. To repent toward the God in whom they already believed, but whose revealed will they were violating, naturally and properly took precedence over believing in him whom God was about to reveal” (McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark, pp. 267, 268). This passage, then, does not teach that repentance precedes faith in obedience to the gospel.

Another passage used is Acts 20:21, which reads: “testifying both to Jews and Greeks repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us think just a little bit about what this passage really teaches. Paul was talking to a group of people who had saith in God. They were familiar with a part of the law of God at one time, but they had become disobedient to the laws of God, and indifferent to their responsibilities to Him. Paul was telling them that before they believed in Christ they needed to repent toward God of the way that they had acted toward Him. They needed not to repent of following the laws that they had been given, before they were to be taught anything else. These men needed to repent toward God, and then they would be in better position to believe in Christ. The order here was: faith in God; and then repentance toward God. The gospel order differs from that in that we are commanded to have faith in God, and also in Christ as the Son of God, then repent toward Christ, and then to be baptized into Christ.

What someone needs to find in order to prove this doctrine is an instance in which one was told to repent toward Christ before he believed in Christ, or an instance in which one is told to repent toward God before he believed in God. Acts 20:21 is an instance of where one, who is a believer in God, is told to repent toward God, and then to believe in Christ. These are not the passages that these people need. There are some other passages that teach the same thing, and that they often use, but they do not add anything else to the argument and so we will omit them. Both of these passages tell one, believing in God to repent toward God, and have faith in Jesus Christ, but no passage tells one to repent toward Christ before he believes in Christ, or to repent toward God before he believes in God. They must look elsewhere if their doctrine is to find support.

Scriptural Order

The New Testament has examples of the order of faith and repentance. Study the events that occurred and are recorded in Acts the second chapter, On this occasion Peter, the key speaker was addressing a group of Jews that he accused of having slain the Lord of Glory. He used several arguments convicting these people of their crime. They believed the charges that he made against them. By Peter’s arguments they became persuaded that they had crucified the Son of God. The Scripture says that they were cut to the heart by these things, “and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles. Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37, 38). Why did they ask the question? It was because they believed what Peter has said unto them, and that they were persuaded that the one that they had crucified was God’s own Son. They were believers. Had they not been believers, surely they would have rushed upon Peter and the other apostles and would have killed them for bringing this charge against them. They knew that what Peter said was the truth. We know that they were believers. But what did Peter tell them to do when they asked him “what shall we do?” Peter told them to “repent ye and be baptized, everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Where did repentance come in this case? Did it come before or after faith? Certainly we all know that it came after their faith, and even after they asked what they must do to get forgiveness for killing this one who was God’s only Son. If there were not another case in all the Bible, this would be enough to silence the gainsayers, and to prove conclusively that repentance comes after faith.

Another illustration though: “The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold a greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41). All of us know that they would not have repented under the threat of punishment by God, if they did not believe that there was a God that could punish them. They repented because they had faith that God would keep his promise, and that he would punish them if they did not obey. Their faith preceded their repentance, rather than repentance preceding their faith.


We can well see the extremes to which men will often go to avoid the teachings of God’s Word. They strive to put repentance before faith in order that they might not have to obey the commandment of the Lord to be baptized for the remission of sins. It would be much better, more pleasing to the Lord and easier for man, if one would humbly submit to the commandments of Christ, rather than try to figure out some way to get out of having to do them.

Truth Magazine XX: 32, pp. 499-501
August 12, 1976