This question was posed to me this week by a dear brother:
“In Mark 1:15 it says “repent and believe the gospel.” My question is, after the heart is converted by the grace of God, does a man repent and then believe, believe which leads to repentance, repent and believe simultaneously, or it doesn’t matter? I know both aspects of repentance and believing are irreducible minimums in true salvation, but can we conclude from scripture if one comes before the other?”
It is a great question really to make us think more deeply about such an important matter.
It seems that the New Testament would say that, while the call of the gospel sets the order as repentance and then faith (‘repent and believe’), it seems that the two are not necessarily always seen in that order in the New Testament, the reason being that they are joined graces which happen in a sinner’s heart as Christ is drawing and saving them.
Someone said (I forget who) that repentance and faith are like Siamese twins- they are joined together, but are distinct and different graces; I think it was Calvin who said that repentance is believing repentance and faith is repentant faith.
Any time a sinner is being drawn by the Holy Spirit to the Saviour, when he or she comes to Christ, they are obviously turning away from sin at the exact time that they are trusting the Lord; so repentance and faith in conversion really happen at the same time; a person is having a repentant heart and attitude as he is coming to trust Christ.
The Holy Spirit regenerates, then and only then, will repentance and faith result; no repentance happens that does not contained saving faith and no saving faith is occurring unless there is repentance is involved.
These two aspects of salvation (repentance and faith) are primarily viewed by the term ‘conversion’; they are both saving graces given by God to the sinner simultaneously. But either one can evidence itself outwardly in the sinner’s response first– what I mean is that one person evidences deep repentance and yet faith may not outwardly seem to be present very much; then another person may be greatly rejoicing in and embracing Christ in a way that is strong, yet repentance is not the main reality being outwardly shown; but its there none the less.
I think the question of their order (which comes first?) has more to do with the call of the gospel (the preached message); the apostles and Jesus put repentance first; Jesus did, John Baptist did, Paul did and Peter did. New Testament preaching consistently said, “Repent and believe.” Paul said to the jailer in Acts 16, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But he was seeing in the jailer a man who was already evidencing repentance, thus his primary directive was faith, pointing him to Christ.
The essence of what I am saying is that a sinner cannot truly repent without at the same time experiencing saving faith, and likewise, any true faith in Christ has within it a repentant attitude and heart. That is a simple answer but I hope it helps.
John Murray’s book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, is excellent on this subject, as is Sinclair Ferguson’s The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction; both books are well worth the read.
Let me know if you desire to talk more about the above subject.