If one must repent prior to being saved “it becomes a work on his part.” Eph 2:8-9 - “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God; not as a result of works that no one should boast.” When one trusts Christ as Savior he has simultaneously “repented.” No one should need to tell a person “you need to repent first.” We are not saved by being a good person.
There is no question here, but there are comments that are erroneous according to scripture. While other resources on this website demonstrate that falsity of the assertions made, this answer addresses several matters more succinctly.
We receive many emails excoriating us for teaching that baptism for the remission of sins is essential to being saved. The reason given is always a variation of the contention that salvation by grace excludes any act on the part of man. This is the first time that one has contended that repentance cannot occur before salvation because it would then be a forbidden “work.” Even if it were only five seconds before salvation, it is asserted that that would be five seconds when the penitent would not be depending upon Jesus for his salvation. The writer is forced to this position by another false doctrine – Calvinism. Calvinism asserts that before a man is saved he can do nothing good in the sight of God because he is totally depraved having inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin. If he loves his wife and children, pays his bills, speaks the truth, and is a good neighbor and citizen, his acts are evil because he can do nothing good. He remains in this depraved state until the Holy Spirit “calls” him and gives him faith, at which time he is saved. Salvation, Calvinists contend, is wholly an act of God and man not only need not do anything to be saved, he cannot do anything to be saved. Since repentance is an act of man, Calvinists are forced to the position that repentance cannot precede salvation.
Calvinism is both unscriptural and anti-scriptural. It contradicts everything that God reveals about himself in His word. For example, Jesus invited ALL who labor and are heavy laden to come to him for rest. God is not willing that ANY should perish but that ALL should come to repentance (2 Pet. 2:39). Yet Calvinists believe and teach that the non-elect cannot come to Jesus under any circumstances and that God is not only willing for the non-elect to perish; He destined the from creation to spend eternity in a hell prepared for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). This doctrine leads to another doctrine that is surely blasphemous -- the doctrine of the limited atonement. This doctrine contends that Jesus did not die for all (But see 2 Cor. 5:14), but only for the elect. The non-elect can never benefit from the cross. Is this what the Scripture teaches? Read John 3:155-16; 4:14; 11:26; 12:46-47; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:11-17. "Whosoever" (not just the elect) is included in the call over and over. God is truly not willing that any should perish! Some Calvinists, seeking to avoid such an ungodly doctrine contend that the atonement was in fact for all, but the non-elect just cannot take advantage of it. This weak argument reminds of the old saying, There is more than one way to skin a cat." That may be true, but the end result is the same for the cat! In the same manner, the modification of the doctrine of limited atonement makes no difference to the non-elect. They are still condemned to a Devil's hell! The truth is that the doctrine makes God responsible for the lost non-elect. Could an omnipotent God not have predestined ALL to salvation? If God could have but did not, the only logical conclusion that God is responsible.
There is one more guise to avoid the many ways in which Calvinism contradicts scripture. In his three volumes on Great Doctrines of the Bible, Martyn Lloyd-Jones begins a section discussing the works of God by admitting that there are things that sound contradictory to that which he had written about what God had revealed of His nature in Scripture. His solution was to say that they were not contradictory because the word of God cannot contradict itself anymore than God can contradict His nature. He suggested that the problem was that we just did not and could not understand the whole nature of God. What man can understand is when two things are contradictory, such as A cannot exist and not exist at the same time in the same place. If, as he says, God cannot contradict himself, and if his Calvinistic conclusions are logically contradictory, he and his readers would be better served by reexamining his premises and giving up Calvinism. This would also be the better course for our writer.
Trying to evade a position that is illogical and unbiblical, the writer proclaimed that repentance and salvation occurred simultaneously. He cited Eph. 2:8-9 as authority for his position even though the passage does not mention repentance. Again citing no authority, he argues that since one is saved by grace, repentance becomes a “work” in the sense that Paul used the term in the passage.
What does “works” mean in relation to salvation as Paul uses the term here and elsewhere? For Paul such “works” were a means of self-righteousness. The “works” in view sprang from man’s arrogant striving after self-righteousness, that is, man’s believing that he can save himself. Anyone who believes that he can save himself is eternally doomed. Eph. 2:8-9 is clear on that fact. God is the One who saves. The salvation he provides is based on pure grace because, other than the God-man, not one person is perfect. Perfection is the only way to be saved by works because one who never sins does not need a Savior or a sacrifice. By grace motivated by love God through Jesus Christ provided both a Savior and a sacrifice for the sins of mankind (John 1:17).
If man must do something (obey a command of God) to receive that salvation is he saving himself? The Calvinist’s doctrine forces him to answer yes. Man is totally depraved until God calls him. (Incidentally, babies are born in the same condition, according to the Calvinist.) At the moment God calls him, a call he cannot refuse, he is then and there at that moment one who trusts in Jesus for his salvation. Salvation is forced upon him by an act of God. (The Calvinists may not like the use of the word “forced.” However, it fits with that which they say happens. According to their doctrine, God has predestined an individual to be saved. He is not and cannot be saved unless and until God calls him. Because it is the omnipotent God calling, man cannot refuse the call. He has no choice in the matter.) One of the logical conclusions from that doctrine is that prior to that saving moment man can’t repent because that would be obedience to a command of God which would be a good act. But for the Calvinist, a good act before God’s saving call is impossible. Recognizing that he has to work repentance in somewhere, our writer makes it simultaneous with God’s irresistible call. He doesn’t tell us if the repentance is forced upon the called one at the same time his salvation is forced upon him, even though their doctrine logically demands it.
The opinion that underlies the position that one is not required to repent before salvation is based on the assumption that such prior repentance would be a “work” and is thus prohibited. That conclusion further has to assume that it is the time of repentance that renders it a work and not the act of repentance. If that assumption is not true, and it is the act of repentance that renders it a forbidden work, then repentance is of necessity a work whether it is prior to, simultaneously with, or some time after salvation. The logical conclusion from that assumption is that man can never scripturally be asked, told, or commanded to repent because no man can ever scripturally be asked, told, or commanded to do a work that earns salvation. What does the Bible teach about repentance?
The Bible teaches that repentance precedes salvation. On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the hearers who had been pricked in their hearts cried out asking “What must we do?” They were obviously inquiring about what they had to do to be saved. Hear Peter’s answer. “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). Peter’s first word in response was “repent.” He continued, “. . .and be baptized. . .for the remission of sins.” Salvation is forgiveness of sins. Both repentance and baptism came before forgiveness of sins (See also, Acts 22:16). Therefore, repentance and baptism came before salvation. Inspired Peter apparently did not know that repentance and baptism prior to salvation were forbidden works. Jesus through Peter commanded repentance prior to salvation. If repentance is ever a forbidden work, why did God command it (Acts 17:30)? Why did Jesus, the basis of grace and the source of salvation, say, "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
For a further discussion of the relationship between grace, faith, and baptism, listen to the sermon on this website entitled CERTAINTY OF THE PROMISE.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)