THE DEBATE IN THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH
Within the evangelical church there has been and is significant debate concerning the requirement for man to repent in order to be saved or born-again. Zane C. Hodges and others represent the perspective that all that is required for salvation is faith, defined as belief and acceptance; whereas, repentance is a requirement to grow as a disciple. For example: current President of Tennessee Temple University, Dr. Danny Lovett’s book, Jesus is Awesome, contains an entire chapter on how to be saved and how to lead someone to Jesus, yet the word or concept of repentance or turning from sin is completely absent. In fact, Lovett uses the phrase “must know” five times in his gospel presentation. Lovett seems to distinguish between what one knows to be a Christian and what one does to be a disciple.
However, Millard J. Erickson and those who believe the scripture teaches repentance is necessary for salvation, believe that the “distinction between salvation and discipleship is very difficult to sustain.” One has to look only to the great commission to see that the church is charged with the responsibility to “go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28.19, NKJV, NIV, ESV, RSV, NASB, and NLT). Wayne Grudem states “Knowledge alone is not enough.
Personal saving faith involves more than mere knowledge.” However, the absence of the word “repent” in the Gospel of John and the belief that repentance is a work are two of the arguments used to justify a rejection that man must repent in order to be saved. As Zane Hodges writes, "Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life." Typically, the large number of verses that present faith alone as the means whereby man is saved are used to declare that repentance is not required. However, the clear words of Jesus, “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish” as recorded by the historian Luke unequivocally communicate the necessity of repentance as a part of God’s plan of salvation (Luke 3:3). Therefore, it is imperative that one correctly understand what it means to repent in order to not perish or be saved. The relationship between repentance and faith must be understood and accurately communicated by disciples of Christ. Additionally, it cannot be so complicated that a child cannot be saved and it must be possible to preach the gospel without using the exact word repent in so much as the word repent must represent a concept or expectation. According to Millard J. Erickson, an examination of repentance will produce an impression of “its importance as a prerequisite for salvation. The large number of verses and the variety of contexts in which repentance is stressed make clear that it is not optional but indispensable.” In so much as man is saved in the New Covenant, an examination of repentance and salvation must begin with the New Testament and more specifically the gospels.
REPENTANCE IN THE GOSPELS
The Gospel of Mark records that Jesus the Christ began His adult preaching ministry with a call to Jews: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (1:15). William D. Chamberlain in his book, The Meaning of Repentance, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the significance of the first and last notes struck in the New Testament being a call to repentance. In Matthew 3.1, John the Baptist, the forerunner to the Messiah, began his preaching ministry with the word “repent.” Dwight Pentecost believes the use of the word repent was designed to remind the people of God’s expectation that his people turn from disobedience to obedience. According to Pentecost, John was communicating that “before the Messiah’s blessings could come, the people must turn from their sin to God.” Thus in verse eight he insisted that the Jews bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (NKJV). The change in behavior would be a sign—fruit—that an inward change had taken place—repentance.
Then in Matthew 9.13, Jesus states that his purpose is to call “sinners to repentance.” In Mark 6, the twelve apostles are sent out by our Lord to preach that men “should repent.” In Luke 15, the reader of Luke’s gospel learns that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents. Luke also records Christ’s simple but clear and powerful statement that unless one repents, he or she will perish (Luke 13.3 and 5). Jesus also taught that those in hell desire more than anything that their unsaved brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and parents be warned about the torments and flames. A close examination of this sermon reveals that the understanding as taught by Christ is that if one were to repent, they would avoid hell. “It is not wealth, not poverty, not alms, not influence, but repentance that is needed.” According to Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, the text is clear that it is repentance that is needed by all to avoid the torment or wrath of God.
Luke 24:46-47 is of paramount importance in deciding the role of repentance in the salvation of man. “Then He said to them, thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” In response to this verse, Anthony A. Hoekema writes, “the preaching of repentance then is the purpose of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection.” C.G. Kromminga states it like this, “the preaching of repentance and remission of sins must be joined to the proclamation of the cross and the resurrection.” The easiest way to determine how the apostles understood these instructions is to examine what they preached in the remainder of the New Testament.
REPENTANCE IN ACTS
There can be no question as to whether repentance was a part of the Apostle Peter’s preaching ministry—it was. When the Jews were pricked in their hearts, Peter did not respond with pray or believe; instead, Luke records the first word spoken by Peter was “repent” (Acts 2.42). Then, one chapter later, Peter points out the wickedness of killing “the Prince of life”; he describes the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. When nothing more can be said he commands them to “repent therefore, and be converted” (Acts 3.19). After more days of preaching, the apostles defend their message in front of the council (Acts 5.27), and the high priest learns from the apostles that Christ was crucified and rose again in order to “give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (vs. 31). Repentance is a gift.
Therefore, repentance cannot be something that man does in order to earn or contribute to his salvation. When Gentiles were saved in Acts 11.18, the apostles concluded that God “granted repentance unto life.” “The meaning of this is simply that repentance is wrought in man by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit.” Yet all people everywhere are commanded to repent in Acts 17.30—“truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” “There can be no doubt, then, that repentance is an ineradicable part of the gospel message.” Man is commanded to repent; yet, he cannot repent until it is granted by a sovereign God. Hoekema describes repentance as both the work of God and the work of man. Referencing 2 Timothy 2.25, Paul teaches that any believer may hope that God grants repentance. Furthermore, Hoekema understands God granting repentance as enablement to repent. This is worthy of further attention—the paradox between a grant and a requirement.
Then as the transition occurs between Peter to Paul, the reader of Acts sees Paul continuing to preach a message of repentance. Hoekema is convinced that Paul was just as committed to bringing people to repentance and received this commission on the road to Damascus as described in Acts 26.17-18. Paul had a mission to turn Gentiles from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to the power of God. This is a very important point that must be examined to determine how one reconciles the absence of the word “repent” in the Gospel of John. In this case, Paul describes the change repentance brings about as turning. This is very clear in Acts 26:20 where Paul describes his preaching ministry to those in “Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” Paul understands turning from darkness to light as “works befitting repentance.” In this verse, Paul uses the two chief New Testament words for repentance: metanoia and epistrepho.
REPENTANCE AFTER THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Paul’s statement concerning repentance in the introduction of the letter to the Romans is powerful. In Romans 2.4, Paul states that God’s kindness is meant to lead sinners to repentance. Therefore the message and necessity to repent is a message of kindness from God. This can only be the case if repentance is necessary for and leads to eternal life. “God’s purpose is to lead people toward repentance—a return to Him—through His kindness.” Paul’s next use of the word repentance in his second epistle to the Corinthians is just as strong in its link to salvation. Paul writes that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7.10). Regardless of one’s understanding of the order of salvation, Paul clearly links repentance to salvation in this verse. Those who reject repentance as a requirement for salvation reject the idea that the salvation Paul refers to here is eternal. The student of the Bible must ask: “What then does godly sorrow lead to, if it is not repentance toward eternal salvation?” Peter’s sorrow led to repentance and forgiveness which demonstrated he was saved even before he denied the Lord. Judas “repented himself”, but it was not led by God and thus did not result in salvation (Mt. 27:3).
The apostle Peter expresses a similar understanding in 2 Peter 3.9 where he wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (ESV). Repentance is the means of avoiding perishing; those who do not repent will perish. A failure to give evidence of repentance is an indication that one’s faith in Christ is not salvific. Reformed Theologian Packer expresses this concept in this way:
Repentance is a fruit of faith, which is itself a fruit of regeneration. But in actual life, repentance is inseparable from faith, being the negative aspect (faith is the positive aspect) of turning to Christ as Lord and Savior. The idea that there can be saving faith without repentance, and that one can be justified by embracing Christ as Savior while refusing him as Lord, is a destructive delusion.
It is this understanding of repentance and faith that makes it possible to present God’s plan of salvation without the express use of the word “repent”. This is what the Apostle John does in his gospel; he expresses the concept of repentance in numerous ways without using the word repent. James does the same.
James articulates the same idea, only slightly modified, when he states that his faith produces works that can be seen (James 2). Faith without works is a dead faith; likewise, faith without repentance is no faith at all. Repentance does not precede belief but accompanies it. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2.18). Repentance is the evidence that man has been born from above. Grudem writes, “When we realize that genuine saving faith must be accompanied by genuine repentance for sin, it helps us to understand why some preaching of the gospel has such inadequate results.” No man can serve two masters; when one believes in Christ, he turns to God from idolatry or all forms of sin (Matthew 6.24; 1 Thessalonians 1.9). Man’s desire to think in a linear manner makes fully grasping the relationship of repentance in salvation a difficult concept. Concerning this idea, Grudem reminds his reader that although one often thinks of the initial time of repentance and faith, it is also important to recognize faith and repentance are not confined to the beginning of the Christian life. In the book of Revelation, five of the seven churches are told to repent: Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea (Revelation 2-3). For the some people in these five churches, it is reasonable to conclude that this is a post-salvation experience. Hoekema believes “the Christian life in its totality is a life of repentance.”
THE CONCEPT OF REPENTANCE
In the most literal sense repentance means a change of mind. Grudem defines repentance as “a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” Moreover, Grudem points to the idea that this is something that occurs at a particular time. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, evangelical repentance “consists of (1) a true sense of one’s own guilt and sinfulness; (2) an apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ; (3) an actual hatred of sin and turning from it to God; and (4) a persistent endeavor after a holy life in walking with God in the way of his commandments.”
Packer defines repentance as:
The New Testament word for repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and life-style, motives and purposes are all involved.
Hoekema describes repentance “as the conscious turning of the regenerate person away from sin and toward God in a complete change of living, which reveals itself in a new way of thinking, feeling and willing.” Only Hoekema is careful to call the person repenting “regenerate” which implies that the repentance is a result of salvation as opposed to a pre-salvation event. Hoekema admits that this is a paradox and addresses the paradox.
If one’s soteriology forces salvation to be viewed in a linear manner, then repentance as defined by Easton’s Bible Dictionary could be seen as a “clean yourself up first concept” and then God saves. To suggest anything that destroys the Protestant Reformation tenant of justification by faith alone is completely unacceptable. Therefore salvation cannot be viewed as linear, and repentance must be seen as an event that occurs over and over again with a clear starting point of being born from above or regenerated. Only by defining repentance can one determine whether the concept of repentance is present in the Gospel of John and thus decide whether repentance is or is not a requirement of conversion. If the student of the Bible cannot find the concept of repentance in the Gospel of John then the argument that repentance is necessary for salvation is not near as strong. However, if repentance manifests itself outwardly after one is born-again by an inward change wrought by the Holy Spirit, then it is fair to conclude that repentance is not a meritorious work contributing to salvation.
AN EXAMINATION OF THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
The argument against repentance being necessary for the salvation of a person is based on the explicit evangelistic purpose of the Gospel of John (20.31) and the absence of either of the Greek words often translated repent in the New Testament. John MacArthur articulates the opposition’s position, “If repentance were so crucial to the gospel message, don’t you suppose John would have included a call to repent?” This is precisely the point. Zane Hodges writes, “One of the most striking facts about the doctrine of repentance in the Bible is that this doctrine is totally absent from John’s gospel.” Is Hodges correct? Is this doctrine totally absent in the Gospel of John? MacArthur believes “repentance is woven into the very fabric” of the Gospel of John in spite of the fact that the word is not used. The concept is there.
To say that John called for a faith that excluded repentance is to grossly misconstrue the apostle’s concept of what it means to be a believer. Although John never uses repent as a verb, the verbs he does employ are even stronger. He teaches that all true believers love the light (3.19), come to the light (3.20–21), obey the Son (3.36), practice the truth (3.21), worship in spirit and truth (4.23–24), honor God (5.22–24), do good deeds (5.29), eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood (6.48–66), love God (8.42 , cf. 1 John 2.15), follow Jesus (10.26–28), and keep Jesus’ commandments (14:15).
In John 10.27, John quotes Jesus as saying, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life” [emphasis mine]. Certainly “follow me” clearly communicates to an even greater degree what Hoekema defined as repentance. D.A. Carson believes that the fourth gospel was written late into the first century with an express purpose of evangelizing Jews and Jewish proselytes. If this is correct, it certainly is reasonable to conclude that his targeted audience would be very familiar with the Biblical expectation of repentance toward God; moreover, it is even more reasonable to conclude that the Holy Spirit led John to communicate the concept of repentance to further clarify what it means to believe in Jesus.
According to MacArthur, “repentance underlies all John’s writings. It is understood, not necessarily explicit.” Another example of the concept of repentance being taught by Jesus is found in John 8.11 where Jesus tells the women at the well to “go and sin no more.” A second example occurs in John 9.36-38 where Jesus heals the blind man and then asks if the man believes in the Son of God?” The man responds with “Lord, I believe” which is fair to assume is salvific faith and then John includes a critical detail—“and he worshipped him.” In Luke 19, Jesus told the Pharisees that if the people did not worship Him, God would raise up stones to worship Him. Previously in Luke 3:8, Jesus told these same Jews to bring “forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” and that if they failed to do so “that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” to do what is expected of children of God. Worship is an example of the fruit of repentance; therefore, John’s simple additional words “and he worshipped him” reinforce that John understood that salvific faith always includes the repentance. Mark Dever in a chapter titled A Biblical Understanding of Conversion writes about repentance, “The real change that we need is this conversion from worshipping ourselves to worshipping God, from being guilty in ourselves before God to being forgiven in Christ.”
One would have great difficulty substantiating the message that change is not part of conversion from the gospel of John with the number of people who are radically changed in John. Charles Ryrie states, “To repent is to change your mind. However, this only defines the word, not the concept, for you need to ask, “change your mind about what?” Depending on how you answer that question, repentance might be a synonymous concept to believing in Christ or it might become an additional requirement for salvation.” Repentance cannot be another requirement for salvation, but it must be required to follow the Lord and Apostolic example previously outlined.
REPENTANCE: THE WORK OF GOD AND MAN
Regardless of how difficult it is to understand how repentance is required for salvation yet requires regeneration to become a reality, the preacher, missionary and evangelist all must insist that the potential convert repent. Hoekema writes, “Sinners must repent, to be sure, but God must enable them to do so” and discusses the apparent paradox.
The preacher must call people to repentance and conversion; yet only God can empower them to repent. We must always keep both aspects of the truth in mind: (1) it is the preacher’s solemn duty to urge people to repent; (2) it is God who sovereignly bestows on people the gift of repentance, enabling them to turn to him.
This is difficult to rationalize, but the disciple of Christ is not called upon to rationalize his theology; he or she must first be faithful to the Bible. Man is both commanded to repent (Acts 17.30) and granted repentance (2 Timothy 2.25). To be commanded to do something one is not capable of doing alone requires faith or trust in the entity commanding what is impossible. When this kind of faith is placed in the Lord Jesus Christ it results in salvation and always involves repentance. Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7.21). Repentance is doing the will of the Father as the Father enables His will to be done. The Apostle Paul said it like this, “I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 1.10).
A FINAL WORD ON REPENTANCE
The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article VIII, refers to repentance as both a sacred duty and a grace. This is an excellent way of thinking and describes the biblical paradox present when one studies repentance as it relates to soteriology. Furthermore, the confession refers to faith and repentance as “inseparable.” It states that:
Repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession, and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King.
The importance of a proper understanding of biblical repentance as it relates to salvation cannot be overstated as the consequences are eternal. Erickson writes “the Bible’s repeated emphasis on the necessity of repentance is a conclusive argument against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace.’ ”
This is not primarily an intellectual debate between two groups of scholars in the Evangelical Church; instead, it is a matter of life and death. If the watchman must sound the alarm and warn the people to avoid being held accountable for the blood of those who die without a warning, he must sound the right alarm. A proper understanding of biblical repentance ensures the right warning is given (Ezekiel 33). The word repent is consistently presented as a command. Just as belief in Christ is not optional to avoid the wrath to come; neither is repentance. “It is inconsistent and unintelligible to suppose that anyone could believe in Christ yet not repent.”
Preachers, evangelists, missionaries and disciples of Christ should follow their Lord’s example when He preached “repent ye and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15) and then expect that God will be faithful and do the work that only the Spirit of God can do in and through man. John Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania said, “It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith.”
PS I was unable to transfer the footnotes when I copied this document onto the blog, if you are interested in the references and bibliography I can send you a digitial copy.