To Repent or Not to Repent:
John's Doctrine of Repentance
By Zane C. Hodges
In the last issue of Grace in Focus (May/June 98), we considered the fact that John is silent, in his Gospel, on the subject of repentance. In view of the purpose of the Gospel of John to bring people to eternal life (John 20:30-31), we were constrained to conclude that John did not regard repentance as a condition for eternal salvation.
John is also silent about repentance in his three epistles. This is an interesting fact to which we will return later in this article.
But John is far from totally silent on the subject of repentance. In fact, he refers to it no less than a dozen times in the book of Revelation. It is surprising to realize that John has more references to the subject of repentance than any NT writer except Luke!
The author who ranks third in references to repentance is Matthew (8 times). But all other writers trail Luke, John, and Matthew by a considerable distance. Mark has only 4; Paul in all of his thirteen letters only 5; the author of Hebrews 3; and Peter 1. Jude has none.
These counts are based on the actual number of occurrences of the Greek noun (metanoia) and verb (metanoeō) for repentance. Even if we also count metamellomai (a less common word for repentance), Matthew only gains 3 uses, Paul 1 and the writer of Hebrews 1. Paul also has 2 uses of ametamelētos (= "not to be repented of").
John's showing here is impressive, considering that all of his references are confined to one book. It seems clear that if we examine the dozen uses in Revelation, we ought to get a fairly definite idea about John's own doctrine of repentance.
Repentance for the Saved in Revelation
It is striking that eight of John's twelve references to repentance (all using the Greek verb metanoeō) are found in the letters to the seven churches. There is no good reason to take any of these references to unsaved people, and plenty of reason to refer them to the saved.
For example, in Rev 3:14-22 our Lord rebukes the church of Laodicea for being spiritually "lukewarm." Then in v 19 He states: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent." The reference to chastening here recalls the teaching of Heb 12:3-11 and clearly shows that the Laodiceans are the Savior's beloved children whom He desires to correct. They can avoid His chastening if they repent!
To the same effect is Rev 3:3. The Lord has just declared to the Christians of Sardis that "I have not found your works perfect [Greek = complete] before God" (3:2). He then commands them to "remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent." On its face it is plain that these are Christians who have actually labored for the Lord but whose works for Him are not yet complete. They have been overtaken by a spiritual deadness, or lethargy (cf. 3:1), from which they need to arouse themselves. They need to "be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain" (3:2) and "hold [them] fast" (Greek = "guard" or "keep" [them]). But to do this they need to repent of the deadness of their present experience (cf. James 2!) which was threatening the loss of their previous accomplishments for God (cf. 2 John 8).
That this is an experience appropriately applied to true Christians alone, is a fact that will probably only be denied by teachers of Lordship Salvation! Very obviously, John is not telling these people that what they really need to do is to believe and be saved. If anyone can find that in this text, he is a magician!
Basically the same thing can be said of the remaining references to repentance in the letters to the seven churches. The Christians in Ephesus have "left" their "first love" (Rev 2:4). Their original devotion to Christ has died down. So the Lord says to them: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent" (2:5). The future of the Ephesian church as a witness for her Lord depended on whether the Christians there would repent of their cooling devotion to the Son of God and resume their previous vigorous activity for Him.
In the church at Pergamos (Rev 2:12-17) there were those who held false doctrine that encouraged compromise with pagan immorality and idolatry (2:14-15). The church is called upon to repent of its toleration for such teaching, and warned that otherwise the Lord will deal with these people Himself (2:16).
Finally, the female teacher in the church at Thyatira, who called herself a prophetess (Rev 2:20), had been warned to repent of the immoral conduct to which her false teaching led, but she had failed to repent (2:21). For this reason, the woman herself would be disciplined by sickness (2:22; cf. 1 Cor 11:30), and her followers in the church would experience great tribulation, or trouble, "unless they repent[ed] of their deeds" (2:22). No one here was threatened with hell, but simply with severe discipline.
The early church did indeed have female prophets, as is made plain by Acts 21:9 and 1 Cor 11:5. Whether the woman designated as "Jezebel" in Rev 2:20 was a true prophetess by spiritual gift and now claimed to utter prophecies that God had not given to her, or whether she was not a gifted prophetess at all, it is not possible to say. But that she was also unsaved goes far beyond anything indicated in the text. Even the false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander, are treated by Paul as subject to discipline to purge them from blasphemy (1 Tim 1:20; cf. The Gospel Under Siege, 2nd ed., pp. 83-84).
The NT plainly recognizes that some false teachers (though not all) are Christians who have gone far astray and will perhaps only be recovered by severe discipline. There is nothing to show that the "Jezebel" of Thyatira (probably not her real name) was not one of these. The statement of her impending punishment strongly suggests that John thought of her as a Christian who had severely strayed from God. Despite God's longsuffering patience, she has ignored her opportunity to repent and now faces His approaching discipline.
In these eight occurrences of the verb "to repent" in the letters to the churches, not so much as one of them suggests the idea of turning from unbelief to faith in God or Christ. In every case a particular failing of some duration is the object of the repentance that our Lord commands.
The words of some duration are deliberately chosen. In every case in Revelation 2 and 3 something has gone wrong with either the attitude or the behavior (or both) of some (or all) of the Christians in these churches. Significantly there is no call to repentance in the letters to the churches at Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13). The reason is obvious: there is nothing about which these churches need to repent!
This is obviously the reason for the absence of a call to repentance in 1 John. The church, or churches, addressed (perhaps the leaders are chiefly in view) are in excellent spiritual condition (cf. 1 John 2:12-14, 21) and need simply to "remain" (= "abide") in the truth and in fellowship with their Lord (2:24, 28). The same may be said of the church addressed in 2 John and of Gaius, who is addressed in 3 John.
As John's use of repentance in Revelation 2 and 3 makes clear, repentance is for those Christians who have in some way gone astray. The issue is not some failing which is immediately addressed by confession (1 John 1:9). The issue is always some prolonged attitude or practice. The same view of repentance is found in Luke 15 which, Deo volente, we will address in a future article.1
Repentance for the Unsaved in Revelation
There are four uses in Revelation of the Greek verb for repentance (metanoeō) which are clearly applied to the unsaved. These are: Rev 9:20, 21 and 16:9, 11. What is remarkable about these uses is that they too refer to repentance from long-held sinful attitudes or practices. In no case is there a reference to repentance from unbelief.
In 9:20, 21 the list of things not repented of is long: "The rest of mankinddid not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood…And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts." This is pure and simple an assertion that the unsaved did not repent of their sins. And this unrepentance was maintained in the face of the devastating plagues of Revelation 8 and 9, and in particular the plague of 9:13-19, by which a third of the world's population is killed (9:18)!
In Rev 16:9, as men are scorched with heat from the fourth bowl judgment, "they blasphemed the name of God who has power over these plagues; and they did not repent and give Him glory" (italics added)! Put another way, they refused to stop blaspheming and withheld the glory which was due to Almighty God (cf. Rom 1:21). In 16:11, under the fifth bowl judgment, men "blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds" (italics added).
Clearly there is nothing in these texts about repenting of unbelief! In fact, mankind actually believes that God is behind these plagues and they refuse to change either their attitude or their ways. For this reason, God's judgments continue to fall. There is no issue in these texts that pertains directly to eternal salvation. The issue is plainly unrepentant behavior which justifies the temporal judgments of God.
In Revelation, therefore, repentance is always related to God's temporal judgments, whether of His own people or the world at large. This is John's clear doctrine of repentance. Repentance is never related by John to obtaining eternal life.
Many very fine grace people have held the view that the apostle John, at least in his Gospel, regarded repentance as a "change of mind" that turned one from unbelief to faith in Christ. Unfortunately it is impossible to find such a doctrine of repentance anywhere in John's writings.
The view that repentance is sometimes a virtual synonym for saving faith is without any evidence in John's five NT books. In future articles I hope to show that this concept of repentance cannot be found anywhere in the NT. Instead, the doctrine of repentance as found in Revelation is in fact the teaching of all the NT authors.
1The next article in this series by Zane is entitled "The Ninety-Nine Righteous Sheep: Repentance in Luke 15:1-10."