True faith is grounded in Christ’s work alone, not in anything we do. Yet, let me be clear: there is no pardon of sins without repentance (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30). Repentance proceeds from faith; it does not precede faith. The cause of our pardon is Christ through faith. If repentance preceded faith, then our work of repentance would seem to be part of the ground for God to pardon us, which Scripture doesn’t teach.
The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance. — John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 119.
Repentance is a critical teaching of the Word of God. We are called to proclaim it in the name of Christ Jesus everywhere (Luke 24:47). Yet a question arises: must people repent of their sins and show a changed behavior, that is a changed life, before God grants justifying faith—faith that is the instrument by which God reconciles a sinful person to himself? Or does repentance follow faith? Which comes first—faith or repentance? And how do we know?
How should we define repentance and faith?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism has a helpful, biblically-based definition of repentance:
Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
The Heidelberg Catechism gives a good biblical definition of true faith:
Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Repentance is turning from sin to obedience. Internally, it is a hatred of sin and a motivation to live in gratitude and love by obeying God’s commands. Externally it is changed conduct. Saving faith is a gift of God in our hearts leading us to trust him alone for our forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation, only because of what Christ has done for us.
So, which comes first—faith or repentance? The answer is faith precedes repentance; it is a fruit of saving faith—not the other way around. A person is reconciled to God (justified) by faith alone, not by faith plus works. Yet, faith without repentance is not saving faith. Let me explain by considering what the Bible teaches.
The Bible contains various passages regarding the need for repentance.
The book of Acts records examples of the apostolic call to repent, believe, and be baptized; the call goes out in various combinations and order.