Repentance is Man’s Choice

‘The first public message that Jesus heralded in public was “repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This was a command to men. Jesus didn’t say that God would repent and believe for them. Jesus didn’t say, wait for God to give you the ability to repent and believe. Jesus commanded them to simply repent and believe immediately. He preached in such a way that we can logically conclude that he assumed that they were capable of doing this.

Jesus said that he came to call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13). This implies that repentance is a sinner’s choice. If repentance was not their choice, calling them to repent would make no sense. Repentance is not merely feeling bad, since we do not have direct control over what feelings we have. But repentance is the choice of the will to stop sinning, since we do have direct control over our choices. Sin is man’s choice; and therefore, repentance from sin is man’s choice.

(…)

A. W. Tozer said, “…we must of our own free will repent toward God and believe in Jesus Christ. This the Bible plainly teaches; this experience abundantly supports. Repentance involves moral reformation. The wrong practices are on man’s part, and only man can correct them. Lying, for instance, is an act of man and one for which he must accept full responsibility. When he repents he will quit lying. God will not quit for him; he will quit for himself.” [1] He also said, “God cannot do our repenting for us. In our efforts to magnify grace we have so preached the truth as to convey the impression that repentance is a work of God. This is a grave mistake, and one which is taking a frightful toll among Christians everywhere. God has commanded all men to repent. It is a work which only they can do. It is morally impossible for one person to repent for another. Even Christ could not do this. He could die for us, but He cannot do our repenting for us.” [2]

God said, “Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die” (Eze. 18:30-31). And also, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7) God “commandeth all men everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17:30).

All throughout the Bible we see that God commands men to repent. This means that repentance is man’s own free choice. What does God command if He is not commanding our will or choices? A command is a declaration of what type of choice you should or shouldn’t make. It is the will which is the subject of a command. God’s command to repent implies that repentance is man’s choice.

God does not force us to repent through some irresistible means, as if we were machines. Rather, He calls and commands us to repent because we are free moral agents whose decisions of will are self-determined (Matt. 9:13; Acts 17:30-31). Jesus said that he came to “call” sinners to repent (Lk. 5:42). The Greek word used for call means to “invite” [3]  or to “bid.” [4]

God calls, but we must answer. He invites, but we must accept.

The Bible says that God “leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). God leads, but we must follow. We are “taught of God to love one another” (1 Thes. 4:9), but we are not forced by God to love one another because love cannot be forced. We are “called… unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7), but we are not forced to be holy because that would be an intrinsic contradiction. Calling, entreating, and beseeching sinners to repent and be holy takes for granted that repentance unto holiness is their choice that they can and must make.

(…)

It is also important to reemphasis here the distinction between the occasion of repentance and the cause of repentance. God is the occasion of our repentance because He gives us the opportunity, time, and influence to repent. The Bible says that God gives us the opportunity to repent when it says “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). The Bible says that God gives the time to repent when it says, “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not” (Rev. 2:21). And the Bible says that God gives sinners the influence to repent by instructing them in the truth through preachers when it says, “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).

But while God gives us the opportunity, time, and influence to repent, we ourselves must do the actual repenting (Eze. 18:30-32; Acts 17:30). We choose to repent out of our own free will, but we do so under the influence of God. The influence of God is the occasion of our repentance but our own will is the cause of our repentance. God influences us but we must respond. God calls us but we must answer. God commands us but we must obey. Both God and man have their role. God said, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well… Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord… ” (Isa. 1:16-18). God reasons with us but we must make the reasonable choice to repent.

(…)

Repentance, therefore, is not a choice that God can make for us. If man’s repentance was God’s choice, not man’s choice, God would be responsible for all of the impenitence of the world. The reason that men would be impenitent is because God has not caused them to repent. But the Bible teaches that repentance is man’s own choice, which is why Jesus rebuked men for not repenting. “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because thy repented not” (Matt. 11:20).

(…)

George Otis Jr. said that our “entire personality is involved in the act of repentance. Our minds, enlightened through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, are able to perceive sin stripped of all pretenses. Emotionally we respond to this understanding with considerable revulsion, pain and sorrow. But the final and crucial stage involves our will in the actual severance and forsaking of sin. This stage will always follow if repentance is genuine.” [5]

To command men, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8; Matt. 3:8), and to tell them to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20), both implies that it is man’s choice, man’s responsibility, and within man’s ability or control to repent and bring forth fruits from that repentance. If it were not, it would make no sense to command them to do so.

Catherine Booth said, “But then another difficulty comes in, and people say, ‘I have not the power to repent.’ Oh! yes you have. There is a grand mistake. You have the power, or God would not command it. You can repent. You can. This moment lift up your eyes to Heaven, and say, with the Prodigal, “Father, I have sinned, and I renounce my sin… God ‘now commandeth all men everywhere to repent,’ and to believe the gospel. What a tyrant He must be if He commands that and yet He knows you have not the power.” [6]

The disciples of the Lord “went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). This takes for granted that repentance is a choice, specifically man’s choice, and that man can make that choice. God’s invitation to come is for all men (Matt. 11:28). As the Bible says “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage” (Matt. 22:9). Jesus also said to the Church, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Why should we preach the gospel to all men, commanding them to repent and believe, unless all men are capable of this? It would be a waste of time and energy to call and command men to do that which they cannot do.

Apart from an understanding of free will, evangelism would seem like a vain activity. Evangelism, or calling all men to repentance, is only rational if all men can repent. To offer them hope through the gospel, when they cannot obey the gospel, is an offer that is nothing but a mockery! God would be insincere in commanding all to repent and believe unless they all could do it. God would be insincere in offering eternal life to all or in inviting all men to Heaven unless they could receive His offer and accept His invitation.

Why would God want all of the unsaved to hear the gospel unless once they hear it, they are capable of obeying it and being saved through it? If the call to obey the gospel does not imply that man can obey the gospel, then what in the entire Bible could ever imply that men could obey it? If the command does not presuppose ability, what text ever could presuppose ability? Nothing could imply the ability to repent and believe more than the commands to do so.

(…)

Irenaeus said, “If then, it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason did the Apostle have, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will (in whom likeness man was created), advice is always given to him…” [7]

The gospel requires that men give up their sins in order to be pardoned by God through Jesus Christ. Sin is the choice to violate God’s law. Since we have already established that the moral law is not impossible but that sin is avoidable, then we can logically conclude that men are capable of obeying the gospel since they are able to give up their sins or capable of repenting as the gospel demands. Since sin is not unavoidable, repentance is not impossible; and therefore, man is able to obey the command to repent.

We can also conclude that since God wants all men to be saved, and men can only be saved by obeying the gospel, that God gives men the ability necessary in order for them to do that. Since God wants all to be saved through the atonement by repenting of their sins, why wouldn’t God give all the ability to repent of their sins so that they could be saved through the atonement? If God truly wants all men to be saved, He would make it possible for all men to be saved.

That is why the atonement has been made for all, why God is calling all men to repent, and why God sent the Church to take the gospel to everyone. God’s command for the Church to preach the gospel to all people would be a useless command unless the hearers of the gospel were able to obey it. Preaching the gospel is pointless unless the hearers of the Word are able to be doers of the Word. The command to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22), presupposes that those who hear the Word are able to obey it. That men are commanded to be doers and not hearers only implies that it is their choice to make or that it is up to them. Since men cannot do what they are not capable of doing, the evidence that the gospel can be obeyed from the heart is the mere fact that men have obeyed it from the heart (Rom. 6:17). Therefore, the repentance which the gospel requires is not impossible at all for men.

(…)

Jesus commanded men not only to repent, but to “repent and believe” (Mk. 1:15). This means that believing is a person’s choice just as repenting is a person’s choice. A command is a declaration of what you should or shouldn’t choose. Telling men to “repent and believe” is nonsense unless repenting and believing is their choice. “Jesus answering saith unto them, have faith in God” (Mk. 11:22). Unless faith in God was man’s choice, telling men to have faith in God is nonsense because it would be pointless and useless if it is not even up to them. Jesus charged his audience to “believe the works” that he performed so that they might believe in his relationship with the Father (Jn. 10:38; 14:11). Jesus told his hearers to “believe on the light” or the illumination which he had given them (Jn. 12:36). Paul told the jailer in Philippi to “believe on the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31).

Irenaeus said, “all such expressions shew that man is in his own power with respect to faith” [8] All of these examples show that believing is man’s choice and that it is within man’s ability to believe. To speak to men in this way or manner takes for granted that faith is a choice. If faith was not their choice, or if they were not capable of believing, commanding them to believe would be nonsense. To tell a man to believe presupposes that faith is a choice which they can make.

The fact that Paul “reasoned” with men and “persuaded” them to believe in Jesus (Acts 13:43; 17:2; 18:4; 18:19; 19:26; 24:25) further testifies to the fact that it is man’s own personal choice to make. If man had no role or choice in the matter, reasoning with him or seeking to persuade him in evangelism would make no sense at all. If the whole matter was “all of God,” it is not man that needs to be reasoned with or persuaded, but it is God Himself.’

Source: Jesse Morrell, “Repentance, Impenitence, Faith & Unbelief Are Free Will Choices of Men” (biblicaltruthresources).

Footnotes:

[1] A. W. Tozer (Paths To Power, Christian Publications, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thayer’s Definitions.

[4] Strong’s Definitions.

[5] George Otis Jr. (The God They Never Knew, Published by LuLu, chapter 6).

[6] Catherine Booth (Papers on Godliness by Catherine Booth, Published in 1881, p. 96-97).

[7] Irenaeus (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, Published by Hendrickson Publishers).

[8] Irenaeus (The Christian Examiner, Volume One, Published by James Miller, 1824 Edition, p. 64).

The Story of Nineveh – When God and Man Repented

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