Isn’t Repentance A Decision?

By Dr. Rick Flanders, Evangelist
As a segment of the Christian fundamentalist movement veers farther and farther away from the movement’s historical roots, more and more often they are complaining about the “revivalism” and “decisionism” they see in fundamentalist ministries and churches.  While gravitating to the theology and ministry-style of those they call “conservative evangelicals,” they are offended by revivalistic fundamentalists whose work, they say, is marred by what they call “decisionism.”  Despite the fact that these traits have characterized most of the fundamentalists that there ever were, these spokesmen insinuate that they represent a perversion of fundamentalism.  An official statement issued by the Central Baptist Seminary on “Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism” says that one “version of Fundamentalism that we repudiate is revivalistic and decisionistic.”  The statement then stereotypes this kind of fundamentalist as rejecting expository preaching “in favor of manipulative exhortation,” as basing spirituality “upon crisis decisions rather than steady, incremental growth,” as embracing worship that “is shallow or non-existent,” as espousing a leadership philosophy that is “highly authoritarian,” and as holding a theology that “is vitriolic it its opposition to Calvinism” (although the seminary denies being Calvinistic).  The statement admits that “this version of Fundamentalism has always been a significant aspect of the movement,” but the seminary, it says, regards it “as a threat to biblical Christianity.”  These are strong words to use against what has been characteristic of most of the people in one’s own religious movement.  And it raises some important questions for all fundamentalists.
Can you practice “revivalism” and “decisionism” and still be a good fundamentalist?  Is revivalism a bad thing?  What is decisionism anyway, and how is it unscriptural and harmful?  The truth is that there has always been a legitimate revivalism which has been a good quality in the fundamentalists, and that “decisionism” is just a bad word for a good thing!
At its core, fundamentalism is the concept that Christianity is to be defined by certain fundamental doctrines.  Christianity, the fundamentalist asserts, is not just a spirit, or a way of life, or appreciation for the life and words of Jesus.  Christianity is defined by its Gospel, which involves and includes several essential teachings.  The Gospel of Christ (according to First Corinthians 15:1-4) affirms the authority of the scriptures, the deity of Christ, His atoning sacrifice for our sins, His bodily resurrection from the dead, and salvation by faith in Him alone.  These are the fundamental (essential) Gospel truths.  The fundamentalist will say that churchmen who deny any of the fundamentals (as religious liberals, by definition, do) are not Christians, because something that is fundamental to a thing is essential to it.  And without all of the fundamentals that thing is not what it is said to be.  Without all of its fundamentals (such as pitching, hitting, running, catching, bases, etc.), baseball is not baseball.  It may be some kind of game, but the fundamentals of baseball make it baseball.  The fundamentalists recognize that without all of its fundamental doctrines, Christianity would not be real Christianity.  This makes the fundamentalist a separatist.  He is an evangelical (which means he believes in the doctrines of the Gospel) but he is the kind who insists that the fundamentals are fundamental to the Gospel.  Some of the “new” evangelicals will allow that a liberal, who denies some of the fundamental doctrines, can be considered a Christian.  They are evangelicals, but not fundamentalists.   The fundamentalists are taking the scriptural approach to dealing with false prophets in the church (Titus 3:10, Jude 3-4).
Fundamentalism is not revivalism, but the historic fact is that most of those who made up the original fundamentalist movement of a hundred years ago believed in revivalism.  They were influenced profoundly by the revivals and revivalists of the nineteenth century.  Revivalism is the concept that there is something Christian people can do to promote spiritual revival among them.  Revival by definition is a work of God, but revivalists understand that He has promised to revive Christians who humble themselves and seek His face (James 4:1-10).  They believe that repentance and prayer carry the promise of revival.  This is revivalism, and most of the early fundamentalists believed in it.  And revivalism includes what critics call “decisionism.”
Most of what has been written critically of the issue called “decisionism” amounts to arguments against the use of the “public invitation” after preaching.  Some say that it is wrong to put too much emphasis on the importance of making a decision for Christ or for God’s side of an issue.  Harsher critics will claim that decisionism is a form of sacramentalism, the idea that you must do some physical act to gain the forgiveness of sins.  Minimizing the importance of making a decision for salvation fits well with the way Calvinists explain the salvation of a sinner, as a choice and an act of God and not of the sinner.  Regeneration happens, they insist, based on no decision of the sinner, but rather as a sovereign act of God Who has decided to save that particular sinner.
Not all detractors of decisionism are Calvinists, however.  Much of the current complaining about the public invitation centers on how it is done.  Evangelists are accused of using psychological methods to manipulate people to come forward at the prescribed time.  But the emphasis of the criticism is still on the wrong in calling for decisions.  Influential voices are making it sound as if the altar calls of revivalists over the years have been not only misused but also essentially wrong.
Yet it is clearly scriptural to call sinners to repentance, isn’t it?  And repentance is a decision, isn’t it?
Both the Old Testament Hebrew word for repentance and the New Testament Greek word give the idea of changing the mind.  To repent in the Biblical sense is to change one’s mind, which, of course is a decision!  It is a decision which can make a big difference.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
(Mark 1:15)
“They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
(Luke 5:32)
“Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
(Luke 13:3)
“Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.”
(Luke 15:7)
From the words of Jesus Himself we learn that repentance is a decision that can turn an unbeliever into a believer, heal the sinner of his spiritual sickness, rescue a person from perishing, and cause rejoicing in Heaven!
Revivalists in the Bible (and there were many of them) would often call publicly for a decision of repentance from sin, and often with some outward indication that individuals had repented.  After destroying the golden calf, Moses called the congregation of Israel to repentance, who had all been involved in worshipping the idol, using these famous words: “Who is on the LORD’s side? let him come unto me” (Exodus 32:26).  This was certainly a public invitation for men to indicate their immediate repentance with an outward act.  Elijah on Mount Carmel said to the Israelites, “How long halt ye between two opinions?,” calling for them to make an immediate decision to forsake Baal and follow the Lord only (First Kings 18:21).  After experiencing proof that Jehovah is the one true God, the people made their decision and “fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God” (First Kings 18:39).  Simon Peter called on crowds in Jerusalem to repent and believe in Jesus (Acts 2:38-41 and also Acts 3:19).  On one of those occasions, the Bible records that, in response to Peter’s call to repentance, five thousand Jewish men “believed” (Acts 4:4).  Repentance and saving faith are not two distinct steps to eternal life.  They are two facets of one step.  Sinners change their minds (repentance) and decide to believe on Christ for salvation from sin (faith). Saving faith is a decision!  In Acts 3 and 4, they decided (the repentance enjoined in 3:19) to believe (the faith that saved them in 4:4).   They must have made their decision public, since others knew how many of them had made it!  Perhaps they were baptized like the many at Pentecost (in chapter 2) who repented.  The first practitioner of baptism (John) administered the rite as “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4).  The word translated “for” in the phrase “for the remission of sins” means “unto” and has the idea of “referring to.”  Mark 1:5 says that by being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, they were “confessing their sins.”  Their baptism was a public confession that they had repented of their sins!  Originally, this is just what baptism was: a public response to a preacher’s call to repentance, indicating that an individual was repenting.  Public responses to calls to repent were not rare in Bible days.  Do you think that in response to our Lord’s tender invitation at the end of His hell-fire sermon in Matthew 11 (“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—verse 28) some, perhaps many, actually and physically came to Him?  It is certainly likely that they did.  What about His many calls to discipleship, with the words, “Follow me”?  Did men, like Matthew (in Matthew 9:9), actually get up and follow him in response to this call?  It looks as if many moved in response to the invitation, “Come,” in His parable of the great supper in Luke 14:16-24, according to the response of Jesus to those who responded (recorded in verses 25 to the end of the chapter).  Decisions made a difference in the lives of people in the Bible, and the decision of repentance was often the proper response to preaching.  And it was not uncommon for an outward indication to be made of the inward decision to repent.
Critics of fundamentalist revivalism say incorrectly that the public invitation was invented by Finney.  Both Baptist and Methodist preachers were giving altar calls for some time before Finney’s famous “anxious seat” in Rochester, New York.  The concept of calling for immediate repentance after a Gospel sermon dates from the apostles!  There certainly is nothing wrong with it.  Any reasonable and spiritual Christian would object to the use of manipulative methods in the giving of an invitation, but the idea of giving a public invitation is not unbiblical.  There are certainly ways to do it in a straightforward and honest manner.  Not all preachers who end a service by extending an invitation are charlatans and crooks!
It is scriptural to say that making a decision (repenting) is often an appropriate response to the presentation of the truth.  It is taught in the Bible that repentance can be not only appropriate but also life-changing.  Sinners must repent to be saved (Luke 13:3).  Believers must repent sometimes in order to avoid suffering divine judgment (Acts 8:22).  Churches must repent in order to be revived and restored to the place of favor with Christ (Revelation 2:5; 3:19).  And repentance is a decision.
It is true that there have always been fundamentalists who are offended by the invitation, but it is also true that they have never been the majority.  Revivalism with its emphasis on making decisions has always been part of ministry for most fundamentalists, and to combat it by implying that it is an illegitimate perversion of fundamentalism is to distort the facts.  The kind of fundamentalism that some are now in the process of creating by merging it with the right wing of neo-evangelicalism and extracting from it any remnant of soul-saving zeal is not the kind of fundamentalism that has held up the torch of revival over the years.   It is an indication of the nature of the trends among certain younger pastors that they are rallying around a banner that is openly anti-revival and critical of earnest evangelism.  Wise men will keep their noses in the Bible and not be misled or distracted by those who say that revivalistic fundamentalists have always been wrong.  They have been right, and their focus on fulfilling the great commission here and around the world is vital for the fundamentalist movement of the future.

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Comments (1)

James Maple October 8th, 2011 at 6:32 am    

Thank you for this great article on repetance being a decision. You have been a great help to me as a young Christian to not give up my convictions and to still believe that God can do great soul saving work in the day and age in which we live.

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