“No, you won’t listen. So you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself because of your stubbornness in refusing to turn from your sin. For there is going to come a Day of Judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done.”–Romans 2:5-6, NLT
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”–Mark 1:15
The doctrine of Hell is perhaps the most important of all theological subjects to study. I used to think that “soteriology” was the most important; and, in a way, it is, because it is through that study that we get a handle on what the Gospel is. But the doctrine of Hell, which most theologians would put in the “eschatology” category:–I say is the most important of all theological subjects. If studied carefully from a Reformed or Puritan view, it will become clear that the doctrine of Hell should really be treated as a section of soteriology. When we understand the Biblical doctrine, or revelation of eternal punishment in Hell, only then do we see the great need for repentance from sin and faith in the bloodshed of Christ. Our view of Hell should guide our view of salvation. If the Gospel we preach does not “save from wrath” (Rom. 5:9), then we are preaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8). The deep spiritual concern of all mankind is the fear that you may end up in Hell after you die. If this concern is not sufficiently addressed by evangelists, then I say all their preaching is useless. Leonard Ravenhill said: “WE NEED SOME HELL-FIRE PREACHING ON REPENTANCE!” That is, preaching sermons on the subjects of Hell and Repentance; or, man’s deepest problem and solution. When you study books on the Puritan view of Hell, you see it in Bunyan, in Baxter, in Edwards, in Whitefield, in Wesley, in Spurgeon:–that the grand reason why Scripture condemns the great majority of mankind to the “lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8) … is impenitence—not just a lack of repentance, having not thought of it. But impenitence—or having an unrepentant heart towards known sin. Impenitence, or an unrepentant heart, is when someone is repeatedly confronted by Scripture about their sins, but they refuse to change their hearts, refuse to resist the sin, refuse to give it up. They don’t want to change their evil ways. They want to “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25); and ignore the reality that they’re on their way to “eternal fire” in Hell (Matt. 25:41). There is only one true Gospel:–that salvation from the eternal wrath of God in Hell is available only through REPENTANCE (actively striving to turn away from sin, and obeying God’s moral commandments) and FAITH (in the bloodshed of Christ on the cross, as a sin offering to the Father, a substitute for our eternal damnation). Without repentance and faith there is no salvation, no Gospel. So, it makes sense that when we examine the whole New Testament doctrine of Hell (for that is where most of it comes from), we see the two great causes of damnation to Hell are impenitence and unbelief; and the two great causes of salvation to Heaven are repentance and faith.
This is why John the Baptist erupts on the scene with a message of “REPENT! For the kingdom of Heaven has come near…His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with UNQUENCHABLE FIRE!” (Matt. 3:2, 12). Thus, the first sermon ever preached in the New Testament is a message of “Hell-fire preaching on repentance.” This repentance-or-Hell connection is immediately asserted:–TURN OR BURN! John the Baptist, of whom Christ said, “Among them that are born of women there is none greater” (Luke 7:28), clearly saw the reason why God has wicked men “thrown into Hell” (Luke 12:5):–it is because they refuse to repent from their sins, change their ways, amend their doings, etc. Thus the role of the evangelist, the missionary, the pastor, the street preacher is to urgently, and passionately, point men to REPENTANCE as the greatest EMERGENCY RESPONSE possible…it is the first and most immediate route away from Hell…it is “fleeing from the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). But that’s not all, after repenting, after running away from sin and wrath and Hell, you must CLING TO THE CROSS FOR DEAR LIFE, or else you will die the “second death” (Rev. 21:8). HANGING ON TO THE CROSS, is living by faith in the blood of Christ, as the only means of turning away the anger of God for your sins. If you only have repentance, then you will become religiously prideful, and consider yourself better than others, because of your good works. You need the atonement of Christ, so the anger of God is satisfied (Isa. 53), and your pride extinguished at the thought: that your sins are so bad, that the only means God could employ to allow you into Heaven, was to give His Holy One over to the torments of Pontius Pilate! That thought should humble you!
This sprouts the question: “If my sins are so bad, then why isn’t faith in the cross enough? Why is repentance from sin necessary for salvation from Hell?” Because the cross is “for the forgiveness of sins that are past” (Rom. 3:25). Scripture never says Jesus died for your “past, present, and future sins.” The Christian must maintain his state of forgiveness before God, by “serving Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all the days of his life” (Luke 1:75). After forgiving sinners, Christ says, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). He offers God’s grace to sinners, but after that, He lays moral responsibility on them as well. Temptations will come, and the Christian will have to fight and resist temptations to commit sin, most of which will occur in his thought life; he will be expected to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). So, “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:17); faith without repentance is not Biblical faith. The ONLY ANSWER TO HELL is FAITH-REPENTANCE or REPENTANCE-FAITH. It is a compound word for a compound concept and a compound spiritual experience. The man who tries to separate repentance from faith, and seeks to be saved from Hell by faith alone, without repentance, is truly deceived, and on his way to Hell! The only kind of faith that saves men from Hell is REPENTANT FAITH or PENITENT FAITH in the cross of Jesus. James said, “By works a man is justified and not by faith alone!” (Jas. 2:24) And John: “And each was judged according to his works, as recorded in the books” (Rev. 20:13).
But does this contradict the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith alone”? No. I’m not really speaking about justification (the first time an ungodly sinner experiences God’s forgiveness, Romans 4:5). I’m referring to a man’s final and absolute salvation from Hell, which occurs at the end of his life (Luke 16:22). It’s important that we don’t confuse the concepts. Justification is not the same thing as salvation from Hell. (I used to think it was.) Justification by faith is an experience of God’s forgiveness that leads up to final salvation, continues throughout the Christian life, and finds its finalization, and culmination at death, when a godly man finally experiences salvation from Hell, and is perfected in holiness after entrance into Heaven. This is called “final justification” or “final salvation.” It is the “for sure”, irreversible, salvation from Hell after death, without the possibility of losing that conditional salvation the Christian has been living with all his life. The possibility of losing repentance, faith, and the grace of God lingered as a haunting reality all the Christian’s life:–but after the death of the saint, there is an “eternal life” bestowed by Christ that no man can take away! (John 3:16; 10:29). I think there are many evangelical Christians who are confused about this whole subject. And it is a tragic thing that so many take their salvation for granted, as if Heaven were already theirs, because they were one-time-forgiven, and that God does not expect them to “be holy, as He is holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). These Christians are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit; nor are they on their way to Heaven. A true experience of God’s forgiveness will lead men by the Spirit to “pursue peace with all men, and HOLINESS, WITHOUT WHICH NO ONE WILL SEE THE LORD!” (Heb. 12:14).
It’s not about what’s “judgmental” and “non-judgmental” that matters; it’s about the Scripture way of salvation from eternal Hell-fire! REPENTANCE AND FAITH:–or, PENITENT FAITH. And this is the judgment: They are “condemned already” who do “not believe” in Christ. Why? “Because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). It’s not just that those doomed to Hell haven’t believed in Jesus that’s the issue; what the real problem is, is that in not believing in Him, they die without Christ’s atonement for the sins of their lives, which is something that only “God’s one and only Son” could accomplish. If you “die in your sins” (John 8:24), then “the wrath of God abides on you” forever in Hell (John 3:36). Thus, repentance from sin is a necessary prerequisite for faith in the cross; and it is faith in the cross that secures atonement for sin, forgiveness of sin, and ultimately, salvation from Hell (if persisted in until death): “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13, HCSB).
But if Christ did not command Christians to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11) after they receive their cross-based atonement, it would be ludicrous for Christ to have died on the cross at all! It would be just as ludicrous as a stranger bailing out a thief in court, and knowing he had an orientation for compulsive stealing (kleptomania), telling him that it would be okay if he stole again, as many times as he liked, and he could trust him to post bail every time he got caught! But Scripture calls Jesus the “Holy One” (Acts 2:27); and it is against His nature to be some “enabler” for wicked hypocrites, who are not committed to repentance. On the contrary, on Judgment Day, Jesus will tell the hypocrites, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:23, NKJV). So, you can see that in the end, repentance and faith must go together, or you go to Hell. If there is no faith, there is no Heaven—true. But the nature of that faith brings forth repentance and “fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8) (good works). I don’t mean a real Christian will never slip and fall and sometimes give into temptation and commit a sin. I just mean, the general orientation of a repentant Christian’s life is one of “going,” and of “sinning no more” (John 8:11). That’s the orientation of a saved Christian. There is a definite moral changing process going on, and less sinning (this is called regeneration and sanctification). That’s what repentance is. It’s not the total stopping of sin; its turning away from sin. In the Greek and Hebrew, the word “repent” means to turn away from or to put behind you. Repentance is not a “Stop” Sign, it’s a “U-Turn” Sign. Those who see repentance as the stopping of sin are perfectionists, and are deceived. Scripture says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And “all liars…shall be cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 21:8).
So, TURN away from sin, and turn to Christ! Receive God’s forgiveness, and spiritual peace, and joy! But don’t have unrealistic notions about the nature of that turning. The turning is imperfect. You will still experience some amount sin, no matter how hard you turn from it. But what matters to God, is that you make a strong effort to turn, that you do “REPENT, for the kingdom of God is near” (Matt. 3:2). And mark my words, if you don’t turn at all, then “you are condemned already!” (John 3:18). I have warned you in love.