Turning to God – Part 1
(November 2000 – Volume 6, Issue 11)
Confusion! The understanding that salvation is the result of God’s grace alone, received through faith alone in Christ alone, was the cornerstone of the Reformation and is universally recognized by all true Fundamental/evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, all aspects of this trifold pronouncement of solas are under attack today within evangelical circles. For example, the Gospel is the good news that God provides the gift of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation, by grace alone. Yet, while all Christian branches would champion the idea of grace it is becoming increasingly popular to understand that grace can be dispensed through certain sacraments, or obtained as a result of certain efforts on our part. Correspondingly few would deny that salvation is based on Christ and His shed blood, but some are contending that even those who have never heard of Christ or His cross can find redemption. Fortunately, even as these heresies are gaining in popularity they are still hanging out on the fringes of the conservative church. As of yet they have not penetrated deeply into the heart of Bible believing Christianity.
Of a more divisive nature is the recent battle over the second of the “solas.” Again, all true evangelicals are in agreement that God’s grace is received through the channel of faith minus works of any kind. The flak is over the nature of saving faith. Just exactly what is faith? In the past, since the Reformation through the mid-twentieth century, there was little question among conservative believers that saving faith included a turning from sin and a turning to God. Some representative quotes from a wide range of theological perspectives might help to demonstrate this fact (we do not endorse the theology of every individual mentioned below, they merely serve to show the wide-range of agreement on the subject from important Christian leaders in the recent past):
Charles Spurgeon —
“There are some who seem willing to accept Christ as Saviour who will not receive Him as Lord. . . . How sad it is that some talk about their faith in Christ yet their faith is not proved by their works! I cannot conceive it possible for anyone truly to receive Christ as Saviour and yet not to receive Him as Lord” (“The Royal Saviour,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1910, p. 617).
“Christ Jesus did not come in order that you might continue in sin and escape the penalty of it; he did not come to prevent the disease being mortal, but to take the disease itself away. . . . Christ did not come to save thee in thy sins but to save thee from thy sins” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 11, p. 138).
William Booth —
“The chief danger of the twentieth century will be: Religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ; forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, and Heaven without Hell” (As quoted in The Day Drawing Near, Vol. Two #2, p. 4).
John Wesley —
“For whenever this doctrine of easy grace is received, it leaves no place for holiness. It forbids all such exhortations as might excite a desire for holiness. Nay, it makes men afraid of personal holiness, afraid of cherishing any thought of it. For they fear that any step toward holiness might be a denial of the faith, and a rejection of Christ and His righteousness” (ibid., p. 5).
Harry Ironside —
“We are saved entirely by grace, but we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, as we read in Ephesians, and no one has a right to confess himself a Christian who is not seeking to live for the glory of God. If there be not a nature that delights in the will of God, there is every reason to doubt whether one has ever been truly saved” (ibid.).
A. W. Tozer —
“Quasi Christians follow a quasi Christ. They want His help but not His interference. They will flatter Him but never obey Him” (Man: the Dwelling Place of God, by A. W. Tozer, p. 143).
“Plain horse sense ought to tell us that anything that makes no change in the man who professes it makes no difference to God either, and it is an easily observable fact that for countless numbers of persons the change from no-faith to faith makes no actual difference in the life” (The Root of the Righteous, by A. W. Tozer, p. 86).
A. W. Pink —
“Those preachers who tell sinners they may be saved without forsaking their idols, without repenting, without surrendering to the Lordship of Christ are as erroneous and dangerous as others who insist that salvation is by works and that Heaven must be earned by our own efforts” (Practical Christianity, by Author Pink, p. 25).
Benjamin Warfield —
“We cannot be said to believe that which we distrust too much to commit ourselves to it” (Biblical and Theological Studies, by Benjamin B. Warfield, p. 403).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer —
“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeff, pp. 46, 47).
J. I. Packer —
“The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limits to the claims which He may make on their lives. . . . He had no interest in gathering vast crowds of professing adherents who would melt away as soon as they found out what following Him actually demanded of them” (J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 72).
More recently, however, some have risen to challenge this understanding of our great salvation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1674 (which represented the theological understanding of conservative Christians of that era and is still representative of many today) declared, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sins, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God.” And, “Repentance unto life doth chiefly consist of two things — In turning from sin, and forsaking it” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism section LXXXVII).
Charles Ryrie, on the other hand, has declared that repentance is nothing more than a change of mind about Christ and has nothing whatsoever to do with changing our minds about sin (So Great Salvation, by Charles Ryrie, pp. 96-99). Zane Hodges goes further and says that preaching repentance to an unbeliever is adding works to the Gospel. While both men would agree that salvation is salvation not only to righteousness and eternal life, but salvation (deliverance, rescue) from sin, neither man believes that when by faith the unbeliever turns to God he must also turn from sin. Therefore, according to these men, an individual can turn to Christ, trust Him for salvation, and ask for forgiveness from sin, yet have absolutely no desire or intention to turn from sin and still be saved from sin and declared righteous.
Something is seriously wrong here. Is turning from sin as we turn to God part of the Gospel message or is it not? As we have seen, fine, godly men are lined up on both sides of the issue. But the pronouncements of men, while serving as a reference point, are not our final source of truth. For that we must turn to the Scriptures.
There are three Greek words, epistrepho, metameiomai, and metanoeo, found in the New Testament that deal with the concept of turning from sin and turning to God. The first of these words is epistrepho often translated “to turn, return or be converted.” About half of its uses involve physical or secular turning. For example, the demon exorcised from a man says, I will return (epistrepho) into my house from whence I came out (Matthew 12:44). The rest of the uses of epistrepho have theological or spiritual implication — it is these we wish to examine.
“The basic meaning of epistrepho is turning around either in the physical or the mental or the spiritual sense of the term; and that thus when the word moves in the world of thought and religion it means a change of outlook and a new direction given to life and to action” (Turning to God, by William Barclay, p. 20). A turn of any kind involves two things: a turning from something and a turning toward something. In the sphere of salvation, conversion (epistrepho) means, on the one hand, a turning towards God. All who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned (epistrepho) to the Lord (Acts 9:35). And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned (epistrepho) to the Lord (Acts 11:21). Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning (epistrepho) to God from among the Gentiles (Acts 15:19). For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned (epistrepho) to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (I Peter 2:25). Even in the gospel of John, where we often find the concept of repentance, if not the word, we run into epistrepho. He has blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted (epistrepho), and I heal them (John 12:40). To my knowledge very few would have a problem with the concept that saving faith involves a turning to God.
On the other hand a person cannot turn to someone or something without turning from something else. It is at this point that much controversy erupts. As a person turns to God for saving grace what is it that he turns from? An examination of the pertinent Scriptures clearly reveals that as one turns to God that simultaneously he turns from sin. Let’s look at the Scriptures: In I Thessalonians 1:9 Paul writes, For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned (epistrepho) to God from idols to serve a living and true God. In turning to God the Thessalonians turned from their idols. Can one turn to God and yet continue to grasp their idols? Paul didn’t think so. Turning to God and turning from idols was a packaged deal — inseparably linked together.
When Paul was preaching the gospel at Iconium he was clear, Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn (epistrepho) from these vain things to the living God (Acts 14:15). It is obvious that Paul did not envision someone turning to God without turning from “vain things.” And remember, this was in the context of preaching the gospel, not instructions dealing with sanctification.
When the Lord saved Paul, he was commissioned to the Gentiles in order to open their eyes so that they may turn (epistrepho) from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sin and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me (Acts 26:18). The gospel preached, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would enable people to see truth in order that they might turn from something to something. They would turn from darkness (sin, evil) to light (righteousness); from the dominion or mastery of Satan to the dominion or mastery of God. And just so we don’t misunderstand Paul’s commission, note how he applied it to his own ministry: He went to the Gentiles preaching, That they should repent (metanoeo — see next page for this word) and turn (epistrepho) to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance (metanoeo) (Acts 26:20). Paul was not hesitant to call for repentance and conversion. He saw no incongruence between faith and repentance from sin. They were not separate steps, they were part and parcel of the same thing — the gospel.
The Dictionary of New Testament Theology (a standard and valuable source for word study) has this to say, “When men are called in the NT to conversion, it means a fundamentally new turning of the human will to God, a return home from blindness and error to the Saviour of all (Acts 26:18; I Peter 2:25). . . . Conversion involves a change of Lords. The one who until then has been under the Lordship of Satan (Ephesians 2:1-2) comes under the Lordship of God, and surrender of the life to God is done in faith, and includes the whole of life (Acts 26:20, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 355).
The next Greek word that we should consider is metameiomai, a word that is often confused with true repentance. It does carry the idea of a changed mind or repentance, but more on a felt level than on a cognitive level. The basic idea of metameiomai seems to be that of regret, a regret that may or may not lead one to turn to God. For example, Judas “felt remorse” (metameiomai) for his betrayal of Jesus but he did not repent (Matthew 27:3). It is important to point out that many use Judas’ account to prove that repentance is not part of saving faith. They say, “Look at Judas, he ‘repented‘ (KJV), but he obviously did not become a Christian.” However the word is not metanoeo (repent), but metameiomai (regret). Judas was sorrowful over his actions — things did not turn out as he had hoped. But he was not repentant — he did not turn from his sin to God for forgiveness. Neither was he converted (epistrepho) in the sense of turning to God. He simply felt remorse.
In II Corinthians the distinction is clear. There Paul wrote, For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it (metameiomai); though I did regret it (metameiomai) — for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while — I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance (metanoeo).
True repentance may include the elements of regret and remorse, and most likely will, but strictly speaking, repentance, is a change of mind about something.
The most important verb in our study is the Greek word metanoeo. This is the word most often translated “repent” in the New Testament. In secular use it meant to change one’s mind about something — what that something was depended on the context. In the New Testament use, as we will see in our next paper, metanoeo always has a reference to changing one’s mind about sin in such a manner that the individual turns from sin.
Old Testament Repentance
A number of words in the Old Testament records are either translated or carry the meaning of repent (repentance). Walt Kaiser writes that “the earliest prophetic use of the term to ‘repent,’ to ‘return’ to the Lord, appears in I Samuel 7:3” (Toward an Old Testament Theology, by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., p. 137). Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the Lord with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the Lord and serve Him alone; and he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” Notice Samuel calls for the people not only to turn to God but to also turn from their idols. This is the typical Old Testament understanding of the concept of repentance and the constant message of the prophets, The Lord warned Israel and Judah, through all his prophets and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep My commandment. . . ” (II Kings 17:13). Old Testament repentance involved a turning from sin and a turning to God. We will find in our next paper that this theme is carried over to the New Testament and is the constant and consistent message there as well.