[Jesus proclaimed,] “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” — Mark 1.15
How Jesus’ command to “repent and believe in the gospel” is interpreted significantly shapes what day-to-day faith looks like. For moralists, the command is a linear progression: repent of moral fault and then believe (e.g. pray a prayer of some sort). This understanding leads to a lifetime of confronting outsiders with a perspective on morality in order to trigger a moment of belief.
Legalists interpret Jesus’ words as an circular process. Repentance is limited to a list of modern actions, based upon interpretation of Scripture, that must be confessed each and every time there has been a transgression. Belief is an instrument of guilt for transgressors and an instrument of pride for those whose list of moral interpretations has not been violated.
Jesus words aren’t referring to a momentary decision nor an infinite loop of guilt and pride. When we read them together they describe the recursive act of faith.
“Repent and believe in the gospel.” In other words, you already believe in other things for your own goodness, worth, and freedom—turn your back on those things. Stop counting on your financial status for security and on your job for identity—repent and believe in the gospel. Stop looking to your own power and past success to thrive—repent and believe the gospel.
British philosopher Alan Watts explains the difference between belief and faith:
In general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes.
Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.
The opposite of believing the gospel isn’t disbelief, it’s unfaithfulness. You can fully “believe” the gospel and yet rest none of your faith inside of it. To repent and believe the gospel is to divest one’s faith from everything in the world except Christ.