Once we have identified this, we then begin to consider the various ways in which the word or concept is used Scripturally - since context ultimately determines meaning. It is clear that Scripture sometimes links repentance to a turning from sin. For example, the rough Hebrew equivalent of the Greek metanoeo is used to describe the Ninevites who "repented" at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3). There is no doubt that turning from sin can accompany repentance. The big question is whether or not "repentance" and "turning from sin" are in fact synonymous. This may sound like a technicality, but it is hugely significant in our understanding of the true Gospel of grace.
Much of the debate over "repentance" revolves around two theological "camps" within evangelicalism – The "Lordship Salvation" camp and the "Free Grace Salvation" camp. I once vigorously supported the former (which Greg Laurie also supports), and have since moved toward the latter as I’ve come to what I believe is greater clarity on these matters.
The Lordship Salvationists claim that "repentance" (defined as "turning from sin and surrendering to Christ as Master and Lord) is synonymous with what they call "saving faith." The most outspoken proponents of this view over the past 20 years include teachers like John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Kenneth Gentry and others.
Free Grace salvationists like myself point out that if "turning from sin" were a requirement or ingredient of authentic "saving faith" - this would combine works as part of the Gospel, making Christianity essentially no different from any other legalistic religion. The Lordship theologians (most of whom come from a hyper-Calvinist viewpoint that I once espoused) get around this by their conviction that since salvation includes nothing of the will of humans, then "turning from sin" cannot be considered works-based salvation. In other words, since God essentially "forces" the turning from sin and submission upon the elect individual as a work of his elective process, it’s not really the human "turning" of his own volition – and therefore cannot be considered a human "work."
The bottom line is that the New Testament word "repent" literally means "a change of mind." It is always desirable that a change of lifestyle would accompany biblical repentance. This is why in the very first occurrence of the word in the New Testament, John the Baptist challenges the religious Jews to "produce fruit in keeping with (their) repentance" (Matt. 3). If repentance were synonymous with a changed lifestyle as Lordship Salvationists claim, then John’s words would seem a rather redundant since he in essence would be saying "change your lifestyle in keeping with your changed lifestyle." Clearly, it seems more reasonable to define repentance for what the word actually means rather than reading a pre-conceived theological idea into it that was not originally there. A change of lifestyle can (and should) accompany a change of perspective about God and Jesus and life – but it is dangerous to imprecisely use these terms in relation to the Gospel. If there is anything we MUST get right as Christians – it’s the Gospel!
When someone exercises faith in Christ (which the Scriptures repeatedly teach is the sole condition for salvation) - in essence, that person has repented by the true definition. They have changed their perspective. They have gone from unbelief to belief – from not trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross to trusting in Him alone for their rescue. However, if repentance (defined as turning from sin) is part of the Gospel offer - then it is no Gospel at all and no different from the basic ideas of Islam, Mormonism or any other legalistic faith.
When Paul was asked "What must I do to be saved?" he thunderously responded "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!" (Acts 16:30-31). Jesus and the Apostles were united on this point - and we should be also. In his first edition of "The Gospel According to Jesus", John MacArthur makes the terribly inaccurate statement "True faith is humble, submissive obedience." (p. 140). I have benefitted from many of the works of Dr. MacArthur and those who espouse his views, and I choose to believe that he was not trying to be deliberately dishonest when he wrote this and other shocking statements like it throughout his book. But this is at best a gross misrepresentation of what biblical faith is. To be fair, MacArthur softened his words in subsequent revisions of this book.
The Bible repeatedly affirms that changing one’s perspective (repentance) often involves turning from sin. Often the very change of perspective itself is related to the emptiness of living in sin as opposed to living for God. It is also commanded and desirable that all people – including believers – exercise a lifestyle of repentance (which would include, but not be defined as "turning away from a sinful lifestyle wherever possible and living for God.") There are often horrible earthly consequences connected to living in rebellion against God.
I will conclude by stating that I am mindful of the fact that many sincere brothers and sisters in Christ disagree over this issue of the meaning of repentance. While I am presently convinced of my understanding as opposed to the "Lordship Salvation" camp, I respect much of what those theologians have articulated in other areas of theology.
Thanks for considering my lengthy (but hopefully helpful) thoughts... :) Keep the discussion going...!
Dave Geisler - Here is a simple illustration that I give on repentance.
If I am traveling South on I-75 to Naples from Tampa and I repent (change my mind) of going to Naples there becomes a point where I simply get off of the interstate and turn the other way. If this doesn't happen then did I really repent?
The fruit in keeping with repentance (change of mind) is now believing the gospel (not a partial gospel of forgiveness but the complete gospel of forgiveness and union with Him) and abiding in Him, allowing Him to bear fruit in and through you (Joh 15).