Because our encounters with unbelievers are often in moral contexts, it is easy for us to talk to them as if the difference between them and us is only a matter of moral improvement. That is, we are on our way to heaven because we are morally superior and if they will join the boat, they must improve morally.
Even when we don’t emphasise our moral superiority, it is still easy for us to talk as if the unbeliever only needs to make moral improvement – which is often couched in negative terms (stop drinking, gambling, fornicating, etc.).
One result of this is that we reduce morality to a matter of “going to heaven.” Therefore, the unbeliever is only called to drop those sins that will “prevent them from missing heaven.” And anything that is not immediately relevant to that goal is left out of the framework. You often perceive this in the popular question: “does it mean I won’t go to heaven if I do X, Y, or Z.” Again, everything is described in negative terms – what must not be done.
But the Scriptures often talk about conversion in more significant and impressive terms. In Ephesians 2, we see that it is nothing less than a resurrection – life from death. We see the same thing in Romans 6, where to be a Christian is to have gone through a spiritual death and resurrection experience. Or as Jesus puts it to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
In what follows, we will consider how the apostles approached unbelievers in Acts, how that approach is different from ours, and why it should inform us in our dealing with unbelievers.
When Peter concluded his sermon in Acts 2, his audience asked a pertinent question: “Brothers, what shall we do” (verse 37)? Peter responded that they were to “repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (verse 38).
First, we see here that our encounter with unbelievers, irrespective of the context where such occur, must be anchored around the proclamation of the gospel. Verse 37 and 38 describes the follow-up from a sermon that extended (in the form Luke reported it) from verse 14 to 36. That sermon emphasised the Messianic calling of Christ, his death, resurrection, and ascension (and the subsequent sending of the Spirit), and how all of these were rooted in God’s purposes, as declared in the Old Testament scriptures.
Second, Peter highlighted two things that every unbeliever needs: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. God must cleanse us from our sins and give us the Holy Spirit through whom we are able to fellowship with God (Ephesians 2:18), experience his love (Romans 5:5), and live transformed lives (Romans 8).
To enter into this new experience, Peter called his audience to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.
We see something similar in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3. After preaching the same gospel he preached a chapter earlier, he called on the onlookers at the temple precinct to “repent, then, and turn to God” (verse 19) This is so that their “sins may be wiped out” and that “times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”
Again, we see the important place accorded to forgiveness of sins and to repentance as a prelude to experiencing it. In addition, Peter also mentioned that those who have their sins forgiven will partake of the consummation of the eschatological age when Jesus returns. As F.F. Bruce puts it, “Not only would their sins be wiped out but the new age would come with the return of Christ.”
In Acts 10:43, Peter offered forgiveness of sins to the household of Cornelius. But here it is faith that preludes that forgiveness. “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” In verse 45, we see how the audience also received the Holy Spirit, reflecting Acts 2 where forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit were the offers made to the Jews.
Moving on from Peter, we find similar emphases in Paul. When the Jailer asked the all-pertinent question, “what must I do to be saved?” Paul responded thus: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).
What Peter described as forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit, Paul delineated with an all-encompassing term: salvation. How do we partake of this salvation? According to him, we need to believe in the Lord Jesus.
A chapter later, Paul offered to the Athenians justification in the judgment to come. But if they will be thus justified, they needed to repent (Acts 17:30-31).
When Paul would later describe his own ministry to the Ephesian elders, he did it in these words: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). In another context, he described himself as having “preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
This emphasis on repentance and faith goes back to Jesus himself. Mark summarised the message of Jesus as a call to repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15). But what Peter described as forgiveness and reception of the Spirit and Paul as salvation, Jesus explained as participation in the kingdom of God.
In sending out the twelve, Jesus gave them this same message – “they went out and preached that people should repent (Mark 6:12)” — and when he was preparing to ascend into glory, he explained to them that his suffering, death, and resurrection were such that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” could be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:45-48), a task he commissioned them to perform.
To summarise, there are three things we can learn from the preaching of Peter, Paul, and Jesus.
First, we are to proclaim the objective facts of the gospel – Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign, and how all of these fit into God’s purposes.
Second, we are to proclaim and offer what was accomplished by Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign – forgiveness of sins, justification, reception of the Holy Spirit (and everything that follows from it, including reconciliation and adoption), membership in God’s kingdom, or salvation, broadly defined.
Third, we are to invite sinners to be united with Christ by repenting from their sins (and turning to God) and believing in Jesus Christ (and his gospel).
In what follows, we will focus on this third point.
The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which means “a change of mind, as it appears to the one who repents, of a purpose he has formed or of something he has done,” according to Thayer Defintion. Strong Lexicon defines it as “compunction (for guilt, including reformation); by implication reversal (of[another’s] decision).
According to J.C Ryle, “repentance is a thorough change of a person’s natural heart regarding the subject of sin.” It occurs when “this heart of ours is changed by the Holy Spirit, when this natural love of sin is cast out.”
Ryle also identifies several elements that must be present in our conception of repentance:
- Knowledge of sin
- Sorrow for sin
- Confession of sin
- Breaking off from sin
- Hatred of all sin
Also, biblical (true) repentance must be:
- An issue of the heart
- A turning unto God
- Forsaking of sin
- Closely bound up with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
A.W Pink also identifies three components: sorrowing for sin, heart-repudiation of sin, and heart determination to forsake sin. 
The best account of repentance I have found is Isaiah 55:7: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
As we already saw from Paul, repentance is not just turning away from sin, it is a turning unto God; and not just to God in the abstract but as he has been revealed in Jesus Christ – as saviour and Lord.
This is why Ryle above mentioned that repentance must be closely bound up with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we have seen, Paul and Christ brought the two together. Ryle puts it like this:
“True repentance, such as that which I have just described, is never alone in the heart of anyone. It always has a companion – a blessed companion. It is always accompanied by active faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Wherever faith is, there is repentance. Wherever repentance is, there is always faith. I do not decide which comes first – whether repentance comes before faith, or faith before repentance – but I am certain enough to say that the two grace are never found separate, one from the other.”
Mark Jones also adds: “True sorrow for sin leads to repentance, which leads us back to Christ.”
Repentance is not just what we call unbelievers to, it must be a mark of the believer’s life as well. As Luther said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Or take A.W Pink: “as the Christian grows in grace, he has a clearer realization of what sin is – rebellion against God – and a deeper hatred and sorrow for it”
There are three important components of faith that theologians have recognised:
- Notitia: The content of our faith, which is the Lord Jesus, as revealed by Scriptures (see 1 John 2:18ff).
- Assensus: Our affirmation of the content of faith as true and reliable. That is, we intellectually believe that the gospel is true.
- Fiducia: Even demons believe but they only shudder (James 2:19); true faith must therefore trust and rely on Christ. In essence, it is we saying, “the gospel is true and I want to personally trust the Christ it reveals for my salvation.”
According to A.W Pink, true faith must include “yielding to the authority of God,” “complete surrender of my whole being and life to the claims of God upon me,” “unreserved acceptance of Christ as my absolute Lord,” and real love for the Lord. This is in line with James 2 (where faith is attached to works), Matthew 7 (where faith is attached to doing the Father’s will), and Matthew 13 (where it is attached to fruit bearing and perseverance), among others.
Just as repentance cannot stand alone without faith, faith cannot do without repentance. “Something more than ‘believing’ is necessary to salvation,” said Pink. “A heart that is steeled in rebellion against God cannot savingly believe: it must first be broken. It is written ‘except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3).”
Again, “to think that one may be saved by Christ whose conscience has never been smitten by the Spirit and whose heart has not been made contrite before God, is to imagine something which has no existence whatever in the realm of fact” 
To summarise, when we encounter unbelievers, we are to present the gospel to them (who Christ is and what he has done) and then call them to repentance and faith.
Repentance, biblically defined, is beyond making moral improvements. It involves sorrow for sin, forsaking of sin, hatred for sin, and, importantly, a turning to God in Christ. It is not saving repentance if it is not evangelical, that is if it does not involve turning to Christ as the new treasure of the heart. People can improve morally without hating sin or turning to Christ; such moral improvement is worth nothing salvifically.
Similarly, faith is beyond just saying “I believe in Christ;” it includes knowing Christ, assenting to the truths about him, and, with a contrite heart, yielding oneself to him as saviour and Lord, in utmost trust and reliance. It is casting your lot with him, entrusting yourself to him, walking in his footsteps, and submitting your will to his authority.
Moral reformations devoid of true faith and repentance will not save anyone. Our message to unbelievers is that they should repent (and turn to God) and believe the gospel.
Also, mere moral reformation will not cut it because the scriptures conceptualise salvation as nothing less than a new birth, which can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God (John 3:5-8). In essence, salvation, in its objective accomplishment and subjective reception, is the work of God.
We can see this by noting that the Bible identifies both repentance and faith as gifts of God.
First, faith. According to Paul, faith is a grant from God (Philippians 1:29) and a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8 – “it is the whole concept of salvation by grace through faith that is described as the gift of God,” said F.F Bruce), a gift that is poured out upon sinners (1 Timothy 1:14). Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, said the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:2). And, according to Peter, faith comes through Jesus (Acts 3:16).
To summarise, “a natural faith is sufficient for trusting a human object; but a supernatural faith is required to trust savingly in a Divine object … saving faith is a miraculous thing,” said Pink. 
It’s the same with repentance. It is a grant from God (2 Timothy 2:25) given to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:18). According to Jones, repentance is a saving grace. “The Spirit of mourning is from above; it is from a supernatural power and principle.”
Because repentance and faith are God’s supernatural gifts, they can only proceed from a heart that has been newly recreated by God in regeneration (Ezekiel 36:24-27). No one can enter God’s kingdom without being born again and since it is by repentance and faith that we enter the kingdom, it means no one can repent and believe without being born again. To use the metaphor of Ephesians 2:4, dead men cannot repent and believe; they must receive a new life in regeneration.
The point here is that bringing people to Christ is beyond us admonishing them to moral reformation and improvement. What is needed is heart surgery, a new birth, and resurrection from the dead, and only God can grant such. Therefore, while we call them to repentance and faith (after proclaiming the gospel of Christ to them), we must labour with God in the place of prayer that he will grant them faith and repentance and draw them from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13).
As the Spirit of God convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11), we will have many opportunities to be in conversation with people who are under that conviction.
Knowing how to deal with these situations can be the difference between leading people to Christ or down the path of self-righteousness and mere moralism. The former leads to life and the latter to death.
Leading people to the path of life requires that we continuously uphold the gospel of grace – how it is grace that has procured salvation for humanity and the same grace that makes it possible for us to be saved. Moral improvement can be produced by men but the faith and repentance that the gospel demands can only come from God.
Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
 For a detailed explanation of how baptism relates to repentance and faith, see J.V Fesko, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformed Heritage Books, 2013).
 F.F Bruce, Acts: A Bible Study Commentary (Nashville: Kingsley Books, 2017), p. 42
 Blue Letter Bible, Metanoia, Available at: G3341 – metanoia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (kjv) (blueletterbible.org)
 J.C Ryle, Repentance (Aneko Press), p. 2-3.
 A.W Pink, Studies on Saving Faith, p.11
 Ryle, Repentance, p.6.
 Mark Jones, Knowing Sin (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2022), p. 79.
 Pink, Studies, p.10
 Pink, Studies, p.28-30
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, p. 10.
 F.F Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Bath: Creative Communications, 2012). p. 60
 Pink, Studies, p. 31.
 Jones, Knowing Sin, p. 190, 77.
 Thomas Brooks in Jones, Knowing Sin, p. 77.