Just for Catholics

CONVERSION

The gospel calls sinners to repentance and faith in Christ for salvation. The invitation is given far and wide to all kinds of people, whoever they may be, and wherever they may be found. That is the message of the faithful minister of the gospel: ‘I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:20, 21).

The responsibility to respond to the gospel rests squarely on our shoulders. God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). The Lord does not repent for us nor does he believe on our behalf. The sinner must repent; the sinner must believe!

Yet we, being fallen and sinners by nature, cannot do what we ought to do. Jesus declared that ‘no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him’ (John 6:44). Our conversion does not spring from our natural ability but solely from the grace of God. He gives us the ability to repent and believe; indeed, he grants us repentance and faith! ‘It has been granted on behalf of Christ … to believe in Him’; God also grants ‘repentance to life’ (Phil 1:29; Acts 11:18).

Repentance

Saving faith cannot exist in an impenitent heart. The Bible consistently sets forth repentance as the way to forgiveness and life. Repentance was the constant message of the prophets (Jer 23:22). John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). Jesus emphasized the necessity of repentance from the very beginning of his ministry: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ He solemnly warned that we will perish unless we repent (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3); he included repentance in the gospel message that is to be preached in the entire world (Luke 24:47). Following Christ’s commission, the apostles preached repentance everywhere they went (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; 17:30; 26:20).

But what exactly is repentance? The words used in the Bible simply mean ‘to turn’ and ‘to change one’s mind’. The prodigal son repented: he came to his senses, admitted his sin, and returned to his father.

Repentance includes sorrow, but it is more than mere grief. ‘Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death’ (2 Cor 7:15). After betraying Jesus, Judas was remorseful, but his remorse produced despair rather than repentance, and he committed suicide.

True repentance leads to a radical moral and spiritual change – from idolatry to the worship of the true God (1 Thess 1:9); from sin to righteousness (Luke 3:11-14), from unbelief to trust in Christ. (In his sermon recorded in Acts 2, the apostle Peter convinced the Jews that the man whom they crucified as a blasphemer was declared by God to be the Lord, the Messiah. Their repentance meant a ‘change of mind’ regarding Jesus.)

The inner change in the heart does show itself outwardly in a transformed life and good works. These ‘fruits of repentance’ (Luke 3:7-14) are the result and proof of true conversion. We should be careful not to confuse biblical repentance with ‘penance’ – a form of punishment or religious works intended to make satisfaction for sin.

The fruits of repentance are not reckoned as a punishment or a payment of the legal debt owed to God's justice. God forgives gratuitously, freely; God forgives on account of Christ’s sacrifice. Remission is found in the name of Christ and not on account of anything we do. Our tears do not appease God’s wrath but only the blood of Jesus. The repentant does not live a good life to merit forgiveness; he lives a clean and godly life because he is forever grateful for God's forgiving grace.

Faith

Faith is the instrument, or means, of salvation. Faith is an empty hand that receives God’s gift of salvation. We are saved ‘through faith’; we are justified ‘by faith’ (Eph 2:8: Rom 3:28). Faith marks the beginning and characterizes the whole of the Christian life. ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal 2:20).

It is helpful to distinguish three aspects of saving faith: knowledge, agreement (or assent) and trust. It is impossible to believe in Christ unless you are acquainted with the truths of the gospel message. ‘How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?’ (Rom 10:14).

Knowledge is basic, but it is not sufficient. Many are familiar with the contents of the Christian creed and yet remain unconvinced that it is true. It is necessary to be convinced that the gospel message is true, and especially that the Scripture’s testimony about the Son of God is true.

The third and crucial element of saving faith is trust, resting on Christ and committing oneself to his care. ‘In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation’ (Eph 1:13). Like the woman with the bleeding disorder, by faith the sinner touches the Lord Jesus and is healed. The believer does not merely believe some facts about Jesus; the Christian believes in Christ, he has faith in him! (John 11:25; Rom 3:26).

Moreover saving faith looks to Jesus Christ alone for salvation. For our justification, we have no confidence in the flesh or the merits of our works (Phil 3:3; Rom 4:5); neither do we entrust our souls in the hands of any creature, for the apostle Peter warns us that ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

Finally, we must distinguish genuine faith in Christ from its satanic counterfeit. James (2:14-26) argues that good works are the proof of living faith. He puts forward this challenge: ‘Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ True faith is made manifest by good works; otherwise, if it is alone, it is exposed as a dead and useless imitation. Three times he repeats: ‘Faith without works is dead.’

Abraham believed God; his faith was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15). He was not justified because of his faith plus the merits of some works he had done or would do in the future (Rom 4). Yet the reality of his faith was not manifested until some 30 years later when God put him to the test. Abraham offered his son Isaac, proving without a shadow of a doubt that he really believed God’s promise. His faith was genuine (Gen 22; Heb 11:17-19). In this sense Abraham was justified by works, i.e. his faith was shown to be right because it was accompanied by obedience (James 2:21-24). The same is true for each one of us.

Conversion, the moment a sinner repents and believes in Christ, is a once for all act – it marks the dividing line between death and life. Yet, throughout our earthly pilgrimage we continue to believe in Christ. The Lord works in us to test, strengthen and preserve our faith. We also need to repent again and again from specific sins whenever we deviate from our course.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi. 2008. Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this article in any format provided that the wording is not altered and that no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on distributed copies: Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Website: www.justforcatholics.org. Used by permission.