In the New Testament, which provides the greatest precision on the doctrine of salvation, the emphasis of the wording is not on turning from sin. Rather, emphasis is properly placed on turning to Christ (for salvation from sin). The Christ child was named Jesus because “he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and individuals therefore must trust in Him to save them from their sins. This clarifies why the emphasis of the wording of the New Testament is turning to Christ for deliverance from sin and not turning from sin. The precision of emphasis maintains focus on the object of faith, Jesus the Savior, and steers clear of the subject of faith (you) somehow turning from your sin in your own power.
The New Testament says neither “turn from sin” nor “turn from sins.” It does not command one to “turn from your sin” or “turn from your sins.” A commentator likely authored phrases like these some years ago, and the lines have been commonly repeated ever since. The problem with such phraseology is that the aim, being foreign to the New Testament, obscures the otherwise sharp focus on turning to Christ.
Turning to Christ is primary and turning from sin is its corollary—but only when understood in the sense of turning to Christ for deliverance from sin. This focus involves recognizing sin as the awful problem and hell as the sobering consequence but keeps the solution Christ-centered, unmixed with man’s self-effort. This does not imply that sin need not be confronted, but that sin must be confronted so that the law as a tutor might point people to Christ. Sin must be presented as an unsolvable problem so that one can recognize the need for a miraculous salvation through Christ.
Acts 26:20 says, “Repent and turn to God.” Here, the Greek verb epistrepho (turn) combines with the prepositional phrase “to God” to provide an explanation of the first word, repent. “Turn to God” also supports the understanding of repentance being, in essence, the same as faith. And, the use of epistrepho (turn) is a key to understanding the scriptural emphasis of repentance.
Twice, epistrepho is used explicitly with the concept of “from” in dealing with turning from the wrong object of dependence: “turn from these vanities [idols] unto the living God” (Acts 14:15), and “turned to God from idols” (1 Thess. 1:9). In addition, epistrepho is used once with “from” in conveying the idea of turning from the realm of darkness: “turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18). The word darkness reveals the deception (wrong way of thinking) that results from the influence of the father of lies. The three times where the word turn is used in salvific contexts with the word from, the wording is not turning from sin(s). To turn from a wrong object of dependence/wrong way of thinking is quite different than to turn from sin(s). The difference highlights the difference between the object of faith versus the subject of faith (you).
However, the verb epistrepho is repeatedly used in salvific contexts explicitly with the concept of “to” in focusing on Christ as the Savior: “turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35), “turned unto the Lord” (Acts 11:21), “turn . . . unto the living God” (Acts 14:15), “turned to God” (Acts 15:19), “turn . . . to light . . . unto God” (Acts 26:18), “turn to God” (Acts 26:20), “turn to the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:16), “turned to God” (1 Thess. 1:9), “returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).
The explicit repeated emphasis of the scriptural usage of epistrepho is turning to the Lord. This observation is an overwhelming, objective fact. Of these nine occurrences, seven use epistrepho with the preposition epi (Acts 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20; 1 Pet. 2:25) and two with the preposition pros (2 Cor. 3:16; 1 Thess. 1:9). The predominant usage of epi, which often means “upon,” emphasizes that the turn of epistrepho in salvific contexts is a “turn of trust upon the Lord.”
The focus of repentance is turning to Christ, which is essentially faith. Using turn, the descriptive word for repent, demonstrates again that faith and repentance are two sides to one coin. In fact, the narrative in Acts 11:21 uses epistrepho to define the word believe: “a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” (The word for and (kai) is not in the Greek; therefore, the phrase “turned unto the Lord” explains the word believe.)
When the Holy Spirit convicts a man of sin, he recognizes that sin (the root of his own sins) is an offense to a holy God. When the Holy Spirit convicts a man of judgment, he recognizes that hell is the just consequence for his sin(s). When the Holy Spirit convicts a man of righteousness, he realizes his inability to meet God’s standard of absolute perfection and his desperate need for the righteousness of Christ. At that point, man clearly sees that he cannot turn (cease) from his sin(s) or do anything of merit that is acceptable to a holy God, and, therefore, must turn to Christ to deliver him from sin and hell. This is biblical repentance. We must keep the message crystal clear by keeping the focus on Christ.
Sin must be dealt with as the problem. Hell must be addressed as the consequence. But Christ alone must be presented as the solution. Wording matters.
Next week we will discuss the nature of the turn.
John Van Gelderen