What is Faith?

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One of the statements I have found myself repeating most frequently over the last fifteen years of ministry is J.I. Packer’s insightful comment that half-truths masquerading as whole truths are whole lies. Packer’s observation is a beautiful reminder that half-truths are just that: half-truths. When they are presented as though there is nothing more to say, the result is that the truth is compromised. To say that Jesus is one hundred percent human is true. But it is only half the story. Jesus is also one hundred percent divine. If we focus only on Jesus’ humanity and never say anything about His divinity, we are guilty of presenting a half-truth as though it were the whole truth, and we thus commit a whole lie.

My fear is that many of us in the church today may be dangerously close to violating this precept in our preaching of the gospel. There is no question that the call of the gospel is to believe in Jesus Christ, which is why our preaching must regularly call people to faith. But if our preaching stops there without ever calling people to repentance, it is dangerously close to presenting a half-truth as though it were the whole truth. Repentance and faith are inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin. Faith is the positive side of turning to Christ, and repentance is the negative side of turning away from sin. It is impossible to turn to Christ and to turn to sin, just as it is impossible to travel in two different directions at the same time. By definition, traveling east means not traveling west, and turning to Christ correspondingly means not turning to sin. Faith and repentance necessarily go together.

We can see this inseparable link between faith and repentance in several passages in Scripture. In Acts 2:38, for instance, Peter responds to those who have been “cut to the heart” and who have asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” by telling them to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins.” He does not tell them to “believe and be baptized,” as Paul does in virtually identical circumstances with the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30-34, but to “repent and be baptized.” The reason seems clear, especially when we take Peter and Paul together: faith and repentance are inseparable. It is impossible to repent and not believe, and it is impossible to believe and not repent.

We see this again in Luke 24:47, when Jesus tells His disciples that they are to proclaim a gospel of “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” and in Acts 3:19, when one of those disciples heeds His words and actually calls his listeners to “repent … that your sins may be blotted out.” In both cases, we are again told that the call of the gospel is not simply “believe, and you will be forgiven” but “repent, and you will be forgiven.” The reason is that faith and repentance go hand in hand.

Mark makes this connection even more explicit in his account of the life of Christ. In 1:14-15, Mark records Jesus as proclaiming a gospel that overtly calls people to “repent and believe.” For Jesus, faith and repentance obviously go together. The gospel calls us to both.

This is not to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Jesus is not adding anything to faith but, rather, defining what faith actually looks like. Justifying faith is not a bare or naked faith, so to speak, but a repentant faith—that is, a faith that is always accompanied by repentance. To be sure, it is possible for genuine faith to be impenitent for a season. The example of David remaining unrepentant for a time after his sin with Bathsheba demonstrates this (2 Sam. 11-12). But an impenitent spirit cannot last forever. Christians may not be repentant immediately, but they will be repentant eventually. God will see to that, just as He did with David, because faith and repentance necessarily go together. Where one is, there the other will be also.

The same gospel that calls us to faith also calls us to repentance. If we focus only on the call to faith, we are focusing only on one side of the coin and ignoring the fact that there is another side. To draw a parallel with one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, proclaiming faith but not repentance is like teaching people to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” without ever mentioning that they are also to render “to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). We are dangerously close to presenting a half-truth as though it were the whole truth and, thus, of committing a whole lie.

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