There is only one condition for man to meet to obtain salvation.
Over 160 times in the New Testament God gives the single condition of believing in Christ for obtaining salvation or eternal life. The few verses that appear to present other conditions for being saved do not really do so when they are considered in their respective contexts. It is safe and very biblical to declare that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The above statement being true, repentance is not, nor can it be, another step or condition for obtaining salvation. It is, however, something that happens in every nonbeliever who becomes a believer in Christ. You might ask, "How can repentance be a necessity and yet not be a step one must take to obtain God's salvation?" This question is best answered by observing the Bible's definition of repentance in contrast to man's view of it when speaking of salvation. The Greek word translated "repentance" is metanoia and always means a change of mind or attitude. For instance, the apostle Paul described the gospel message he preached as "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts20:21).
I believe it is safe to say that every nonbeliever has some misconception concerning God and how to be in right relationship with Him through Christ. It is impossible, therefore, for someone to move from a state of unbelief to faith in Christ without having a change of mind or attitude concerning God and His offer of salvation. That's biblical repentance.
Biblical repentance is not a work
For salvation, a person must change his mind about any misconceptions regarding God's way of salvation. And God's way of salvation is always by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, without the addition of any human merit or works of any kind. Therefore, if a person must repent to be saved, repentance cannot be something unsaved people can point to as having merit by which to commend themselves to God.
The way a person thinks about God is the real issue, not what sins he may or may not have committed. This is demonstrated so beautifully in 2 Corinthians 4:3–6.
In contrast to God's Word, many define repentance as turning from sin, being sorry for sin, or quitting certain more obvious sins or bad habits. By this definition, repentance, and therefore salvation, would be by someone's works or efforts instead of by God's matchless and undeserving grace. The issue is not turning from sin; it is changing one's mind toward Christ and trusting in Him for salvation. Turning from sin would involve service, which is only demanded of one who is already saved. Salvation, on the other hand, is always a gift, never the result of what we do concerning our sins. It is trusting in Christ and what He has already done about our sins.
The Unbeliever's Dilemma
An unsaved person cannot really please God even if he does "good works." Romans 8:8 is pretty clear on this point:
And Isaiah 64:6 removes any hope of man relying on his goodness when it declares that "all our righteousnesses [the best we can do] are as filthy rags." It is only after one has come to Christ by faith that he or she, as a member of God's family, is commanded to change. Such changes undoubtedly involve turning from or leaving certain sinful habits. In fact, the Bible makes that very clear. For instance, consider Titus 2:11–12. You might want to also look up: Romans 12:1–2, 13:14; Ephesians 2:10, 4:27–32.
An Urgent Reminder
If you are to be effective in making God's saving gospel clear to the unsaved world, you must become convinced that any teaching demanding a change of conduct before God will give salvation is adding works or human effort to faith. This contradicts all clear Scriptures on salvation, and it is an accursed message that cannot save. See Galatians 1:8–9 and Deuteronomy 27:18.
Rediscovering the Correct Emphasis
The wrong emphasis on this matter of repentance is due largely to the fact that so many unsaved people think they can't be saved until they give up their beer, cigarettes, cursing, or other so-called vices. The confusion has come from the Christian professionals who have themselves been wrongly taught in Bible school or seminary. But, thankfully, not all have followed the theological crowd. Here, for instance, are some of my favorite quotes from spiritual giants of the past.
A Personal Plea
This article is not an attempt to split some theological hair; it is a sincere effort to help God's people who desire to reach the unbelieving world with the gospel to share that gospel in a clear, understandable and biblical way.
For further study on the topic of repentance, check out Dr. Seymour's book, All About Repentance.