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Sola fide (Latin for "by faith alone") is a defining doctrine of Protestantism. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

The doctrine of sola fide asserts God's pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith alone, excluding all "works". All mankind, it is asserted, is fallen and sinful, under the curse of God, and incapable of saving itself from God's wrath and curse. But God, on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), grants sinners judicial pardon, or justification, which is received solely through faith.

How does repentance fit into this doctrine? Is it possible to be unrepentant of sin (whether for some sins or all sins that one has committed) and yet still receive pardon for those sins? Is repentance considered a "work" in that it is ultimately unnecessary for justification?

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There are two primary ways that sola fide theologians deal with this issue, and there is ongoing debate between them over it (cf. Lordship salvation controversy). I'll first address the historical view (sometimes called "Lordship salvation") and the more recent view, called "free grace theology."

Lordship salvation

The name commonly applied to this view emphasizes that following Christ is not merely a matter of intellectual belief, but also accepting him as Lord and therefore turning away from the sin nature. Thus its adherents see repentance and faith as inherently connected; as Wayne Grudem says, they are "two different sides of the same coin" (ST, 714) Louis Berkhof writes:

True repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning, — a turning away from sin in the direction of God. (ST, 4.7.D.3)

Thus the two cannot be separated. Where they are distinguished (as in Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.1; see curiousdannii's answer), the one necessarily follows the other, and thus in all cases faith is the only basis for the justification of the sinner.

Berkhof and Grudem are both Reformed theologians, as is John MacArthur, the author of the book The Gospel According to Jesus, which extensively defends this view. But their analysis is shared by other Protestant traditions. For example, Arminian John Miley writes:

While faith is the one and only condition of justification, yet a true repentance is always presupposed, because only in such a mental state can the proper faith be exercised. An impenitent soul cannot properly trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sin. (Systematic Theology, II, 323)

Lutheran John Mueller, summarizing Francis Pieper's work, uses the word contrition instead, but sees the two as synonyms in this sense:

The two essential elements in conversion are contrition and faith [...] Contrition belongs to conversion only for the reason that faith cannot find entrance into the proud and secure heart; it is "the indispensable preparation for conversion." (Christian Dogmatics, 338)

Repentance here is not assumed to be perfect or complete repentance, but rather a general turning away from sin. Continued growth in faith and repentance is an important aspect of the Christian's sanctification, but a failure to perfectly repent of every sin does not lead to a loss of salvation.

Free grace theology

This view's name reflects its adherents' belief that repentance is a "work" that is not required for salvation – thus grace is more "free" than in a scheme were repentance and faith are aspects of conversion. According to this view, intellectual faith alone, without any turning from sin, is sufficient for salvation.

In recent times the view is most commonly associated with evangelicals influenced by dispensationalism; Wayne Grudem identifies Lewis Sperry Chafer as its originator. In Major Bible Themes, Chafer writes:

The Scriptures are violated and the whole doctrine of grace confused when salvation is made to depend on anything other than believing. The divine message is not "believe and pray," "believe and confess sin," "believe and confess Christ," "believe and be baptized," "believe and repent," or "believe and make restitution." (Chapter 28)

Bob Wilkin, founder of the Grace Evangelical Society, expounds:

There is no commitment, no decision of the will, no turning from sins, and no works that are part of faith in Christ. If you are convinced or persuaded that what He promised is true, then you believe in Him. Faith is passive. It is simply taking Jesus at His word.

Thus turning from sins, commitment, obedience, and perseverance are not faith and thus aren’t conditions of eternal life. Those are all types of works. Works have their proper place in the Christian life, but only after you have believed in Jesus. (source; emphasis in original)

Thus for the free grace theologian, repentance is distinct from faith and therefore comes after (and not necessarily immediately after) conversion and justification.

Summary

Thus we see two views in the sola fide camp with respect to this question. Both agree that perfect repentance is not a requirement for salvation, but the majority view holds that in conversion faith and repentance are inseparable, though only faith is the basis of justification. The "free grace" view holds that faith and repentance are distinct, with the latter being a work that is done after justification is accomplished.

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Faith works together with repentance

You cannot separate repentance from salvation-faith. Put simply, faith that leads to salvation works with repentance.

The Bible clearly teaches that repentance is necessary for salvation and it works by faith (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 6:12; Luke 5:32; 13:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 11:18; 17:30).

Repentance involves a complete change in the mind and will of the believer. It is more than mere sorrow for sin; it is a complete turning from sin to God in faith. This is how Wikipedia captures it:

"Repentance is a theological term that describes a stage in Christian salvation where the believer turns away from sin. As a distinct stage in the ordo salutis its position is disputed, with some theological traditions arguing it occurs prior to faith and the Reformed theological tradition arguing it occurs after faith.[1] In Roman Catholic theology repentance is part of the larger theological concept of penance.[2] Generally in the Old Testament the term repentance comes from the Hebrew word group that means "turn away from."[3]:1007 Sometimes this word group is employed to request a turning from sinful activity (Jeremiah 8:6). In the New Testament theμετανοέω/metanoeo word group can mean remorse but is generally translated as a turning away from sin (Matthew 3:2).[3]:1007 Theologically 'repentance', the turning away from sin is linked to a corresponding turn to faith in God.[3]:1008" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repentance_(Christianity)?_e_pi_=7%2CPAGE_ID10%2C7837090973

Faith takes place when there's a change from taking an action based on reason to just assenting the mind to the truth of what is declared by another, it's a change from unbelief to belief. That change is what is called repentance.

"to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me" ( Acts 26:18).

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    Welcome! We're glad you are here, but this answer would be much stronger if you showed, with sources, that it reflects the views of sola fide theologians, not just your own analysis. I hope you'll take a minute to review how this site is different from others, and better understand how your answer can be supported. – Nathaniel Jan 24 '17 at 14:24
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    Thanks. Certainly my answer is supported by scriptures and it is in line with the views of many sola fide theologians. In fact, Wikipedia rightly points out; "Repentance is a theological term that describes a stage in Christian salvation where the believer turns away from sin. As a distinct stage in the ordo salutis its position is disputed, with some theological traditions arguing it occurs prior to faith and the Reformed theological tradition arguing it occurs after faith.[1]... Theologically 'repentance', the turning away from sin is linked to a corresponding turn to faith in God.[3]" – user33104 Jan 27 '17 at 11:19
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This is a summary of a lecture from my college lecturer Mark Baddeley. Sentences in quotes (but not block quotes) are from his lecture notes.

The relationship of faith and repentance

There are several views of the relationship of faith and repentance. By considering their implications we will see which coalesces with our understanding of the gospel best.

Faith is an aspect of repentance

This can seem like a good position, because we do after all repent from our unbelief as we come to faith. We turn our backs on our life of independence and rebellion against God and lean on him in faith.

But if we think of repentance as we usually do, the changing of our lives from acts of sin to acts of righteousness, and if we think of repentance as the dominant category in salvation, then not only is this a denial of sole fide, but we simply will never be able to do it. None of us in this life fully repent.

Alternatively we can limit our category of repentance to an attitudinal and relational return to God. This doesn't deny sola fide, but neither does it give any basis for the specific acts of repentance. The good works we do in "repentance" are in fact disconnected from the relational repentance that is foundational.

Both options are majorly flawed in that they separate repentance from the gospel and the word of God. We can know the law from nature (Romans 1), so that is the prerequisite for repentance. "If repentance is the big category, and faith is the small one, if repentance is the big story and faith is one chapter within it (part of turning from sin to God is that we turn form unbelief to faith) then repentance must begin and be sustained without any reference to the word of God, let alone the gospel--for that is the office of faith." Which means repentance is moralism and legalism.

Faith and repentance arise together

If we consider repentance to be necessary for justification, then all the problems of the first option still apply.

Or we might say that repentance is not necessary. Perhaps faith is related to justification and repentance to sanctification. But this even further disconnects the gospel from sanctification. Preaching the gospel no longer makes people holy, instead reminding them of the law does. This leads to the kind of view that says that Jesus Christ is our saviour but not our lord. Faith is necessary for salvation, but repentance is only necessary for discipleship.

Faith produces righteousness

Calvin's Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 3:

The sum of the Gospel is, not without good reason, made to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins; ... Now, since Christ confers upon us, and we obtain by faith, both free reconciliation and newness of life, reason and order require that I should here begin to treat of both. ... That repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered by the preaching of the Gospel, in order that the sinner, delivered from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of iniquity, may pass into the kingdom of God, it is certain that no man can embrace the grace of the Gospel without retaking himself from the errors of his former life into the right path, and making it his whole study to practice repentance. Those who think that repentance precedes faith instead of flowing from, or being produced by it, as the fruit by the tree, have never understood its nature, and are moved to adopt that view on very insufficient grounds.

The key to Calvin's view is that repentance is a blessing of the gospel, not a precondition to receiving the blessings. God gives us both forgiveness of sins and repentance; newness of life is both repentance and sanctification.

"The problem with both 'repentance produces faith' and 'repentance and faith arise together and independently from each' is that this means that liberation from our bondage to sin is no longer a gift of the gospel, no longer an effect of the word of Christ for us. ... The only way that repentance and the gospel can be linked, such that repentance is actually produced by the gospel, is if repentance is (like everything else in salvation) something given by the gospel itself. This is because the only thing that links us to the gospel is faith."

"Once again, faith has no inherent virtue, it is just the conviction of the truth of God’s mercy to us in Christ, it is knowing something. It can’t produce anything by its own power. What faith does is relate us to God and connect us to Christ, in whom everything we need is stored, and so we receive the gift of repentance. It is actually union with Christ that produces repentance, faith is the instrument by which we receive it (and everything else we need for life and salvation)."

Coming back to the OP's questions

Here's how I would answer the questions posed to us by the OP.

  1. How does repentance fit into this doctrine?

    If you accept this argument, then repentance cannot be a prerequisite of either faith or salvation. It is a gift we receive alongside the forgiveness of our sins.

  2. Is it possible to be unrepentant of sin (whether for some sins or all sins that one has committed) and yet still receive pardon for those sins?

    This is not only possible, it is unavoidable in this life. As long as we live we sin and we are incompletely and insufficiently repentant.

  3. Is repentance considered a "work" in that it is ultimately unnecessary for justification?

    Repentance is not so much a work, as the fruit of salvation which then grows more good works. It is not necessary for salvation, but neither is it optional. In the gospel God makes dead people alive, he makes ignorant and disbelieving people into people who know God and trust him. In just the same way he turns unrepentant people into repentant people. It would not make sense for God to leave any living person in a state of unrepentance, and we can ultimately suppress our new repentant nature no more than we could make ourselves alive while we were dead.

  • Your Calvin quote indicates that he sees repentance as a necessary consequence of faith ("always follows"). Your #2 however sounds more like the "free grace" view I outlined. Does Baddeley see it that way? – Nathaniel Feb 7 '17 at 14:26
  • @Nathaniel He didn't specifically address that view, but I think there would be a lot of overlap. But it may also overlap with faith producing repentance, depending on how much faith is seen as producing it compared to merely enabling it. I think it's really missing the point. To say merely that "works have their proper place in the Christian life" sounds like a view that leads either to moralism or works-as-gratitude, rather than a life that is united to Christ and his life. – curiousdannii Feb 7 '17 at 14:34
  • Sorry, I meant your "#2" in your summary, not the second view you outlined. The way I'm reading this is that his three categories are all variations of the traditional "lordship" view, and that he is most comfortable with Calvin's, which is logically closest to the "free grace" view. If he's willing to accept that repentance does not necessarily follow faith, or that the two can be separated such that some Christians simply aren't repentant for some time after conversion, then to me that's going beyond Calvin and into free grace theology. – Nathaniel Feb 7 '17 at 14:49
  • @Nathaniel Oh. No, repentance of course must follow faith. But my answer to question #2 wasn't that that there is a time following conversion without repentance, but that in every moment of this life our repentance will always be tainted by sin. – curiousdannii Feb 7 '17 at 14:54
  • Okay, excellent – that's a great point to mention in this context; thanks. – Nathaniel Feb 7 '17 at 14:58
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Antinomianism states that your actions cannot matter as long as you believe rightly.

2 Timothy 2:25 in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth,

Repentance is no more of a work than is believing. To ignore repentance is to ignore the very reason we believe rightly. Without repentance you do not believe rightly. You only believe in a license to sin and have purchased fire insurance.

Are we saved by grace alone? Undoubtedly.
Acts 11:18

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

2 Corinthians 7:10

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.

James 2:19

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.

Those that believe repentance is a state of sinless perfection are those that do not believe rightly and look for justification of their sins.

Romans 6:1-2

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”

Summary of my belief: You cannot be saved without God's grace through God granted faith in Jesus Christ alone; but you cannot have true faith without God granted repentance.

-Repent and believe and you will be damned to hell for eternity
-Believe without repentance and you will be damned to hell

  • Your last two sentences seem to contradict each other. Can you explain, in the first one, how one who believes and repents is damned. What additional (something) moves one from that state of damnation to salvation? Also, please elaborate on what you mean by "God granted repentance" since a common meaning of repentance (based on the original terms in both Hebrew and Greek) is a turning to God, and in its nuanced sense, a conversion of the heart to God. – KorvinStarmast Apr 19 '17 at 15:18
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help to get an idea of how a Q&A site works. Is your answer based on the teaching/belief/theology of the general denomination called for in the question? If so, some supporting points/citations from that would improve your answer, rather than simply offering your opinion on the matter (though the scriptural citations are good ones). Please have a look at how we are different from other sites. I hope you'll continue to participate here. – KorvinStarmast Apr 19 '17 at 15:22

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