Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark are "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, ESV) Paul summarizes the ministry of John the Baptizer: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." (Acts 19:4, ESV) The nouns for repentance and faith/belief appear together again in Acts 20:21. I'm wondering if there's a connection between the two concepts and that they're not just two indepedent commands, as I think this sort of statement is often taken, but one command put two ways.
Paul's statement about John in Acts 19 seems to be saying that John's message was to repent, i.e. to believe in the one who was to come after him, Jesus. In the next chapter, Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address to them that the message he preached was of "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (the same Greek word is used for faith here and belief in the other two passages). One further passage makes the connection. The author of Hebrews says his recipients don't need to keep laying the basic foundation but need to move on to deeper things. That basic foundation is " of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God". The same one foundation is those two things. So maybe they're not really two things at all. We might read the statement in Mark a little differently in light of all this.
Jesus says "Repent and believe in the gospel." In context, this is because the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is here, fully realized in the person of Jesusm the implications of which will be developed throughout the rest of this gospel and the rest of the New Testament. The importance of repenting and believing comes to the fore, then, because a new time is upon us. The events on which the history of the entire world hand are beginning.
So what is Jesus telling people to do? The word for repenting is metanoeo. It has connotations of changing and returning and links with prophetic calls to return to the Lord from a lifestyle of not seeking him, which could range anywhere from idolatry to what many nowadays call practical atheism or what the Bible calls the fool in his heart saying there's no God, i.e. simply living your life as if God's existence and God's words shouldn't affect what you do. The prophets over and over again call God's people to return to him, to stop doing what they were doing, to trust in him and not in horses, chariots, Egypt, or whatever else they may be trusting in. This was ultimately a call to be faithful to the covenant between God and Israel, a covenant Israel did not honor much of the time, to the point of being compared to a prostitute with respect to her marriage to her God. Jesus clearly identifies himself throughout all four gospels as standing in this tradition of prophecy. Thus 'repent and believe' must be heard in light of what the prophets called God's people to do.
Once that's clear, I think it's easy to see how repenting and believing are really the same thing. Since the same word is used not just for believing and having faith but also for being faithful to the covenant, belief here is not just trusting in God in an intellectual or emotional way, though that's part of it. It's not belief in the biblical sense unless it involves being faithful to the covenant, which was clearly the old covenant in the prophetic tradition and is clearly the new covenant in the apostolic tradition. Jesus stands here at the crossroads, calling those in the old covenant to be faithful to the covenant God graciously made with them. As the book of Mark develops, we begin to see that a new covenant is appearing on the scene, and the rest of the New Testament fleshes this out as a continuation of the old covenant while acknowledging that not all in the old covenant really counted as being in it, while some not in it were brought in by the good news of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. So at this crossroads, Jesus is calling them to faithfulness to the covenant they have known but also moving them toward faithfulness to the new covenant foreseen in Jeremiah 31 and other places and now about to be revealed in its fullness in Jesus.
We see throughout the book of Mark, and the other gospels, that enough of God's people at the time were not faithful to the covenant God had made with them that it makes sense to call for a turning back to God, just as it made sense for the prophets to call for this. But it's clear also that even those who were generally faithful through repenting when they sinned, who availed themselves of the sacrificial system, needed that repentance. The covenant itself entailed as much. So it's not as if the faithful didn't need repentance. Being faithful required repentance, as it does now in the new covenant. So faith/belief and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin (or the same word in this case). Faith is faithfulness to the covenant, since trusting in God for his promises made in the covenant is part of being faithful to it, though obeying his commands is equally part of it. Repenting is a turning back to God from being unfaithful to the covenant, from trusting in other things besides God.
When Jesus called people to repent and believe, he was telling them that returning to God requires being faithful. It requires trust. At the same time, faithfulness to God and trust in God require returning to him when we don't seek him and changing our whole stance. The good news Jesus was preaching was a whole life change involving repentance from one's own independent ways and trust in God as revealed in the old covenant and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. When he said to repent and believe, he was telling them in two different ways to do one thing. I don't think I'd ever noticed that before.
This has a few consequences. One is that you can't repent and then later believe. You haven't really repented unless you have trusted in God, unless you have committed yourself to faithfulness. Another is that you can't believe without truly repenting. If your life hasn't changed, that's reason to wonder what kind of belief you have. It may not be faith in Jesus Christ but simply an intellectual assent or emotional appreciation. Christian faith is much more than that. It's a lifestyle, a commitment. It's a changing from old ways and a covenant with God, one that requires being faithful to that covenant. Third, this has serious consequences for how Christians should preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Calling people simply to an emotional experience or intellectual conversion is not preaching the gospel. Expecting people to live a Christian lifestyle when they're not in a covenant relationship with God is also a partial gospel (and thus a false gospel and not really a gospel at all, as Paul explains in Galatians).
This isn't restricted to the political sphere, but it's common there, more visibly when it comes to homosexuality but more fundamentally when it comes to how Christians' views on sex and marriage differ from those of others, and I don't mean whether marriage is between a man and a woman. I mean all the other places society around us differs so strongly with the biblical understanding of marriage. As important as those issues are, I don't elevate any of them to anywhere near the message of good news of Jesus Christ, and I insist on living my life in such a way that when I have an opportunity to speak that message it will be received in a way that the message itself will be heard and not some political or social message at odds with the basic values of those in my life who do not believe. Those are important distinctives, and I will maintain the distinctives as someone in a covenant relationship with God has already made a commitment to do, but I won't equate those details of the later outworking of repenting and believing with the initial commitment to repenting and believing that's required for even understanding why those details are important.
[To see the comments on the original posting of this, see the Wayback Machine archive of that post.]
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.