I wrote my dissertation on the question of repentance and salvation in the NT. Croteau quotes me a number of times in this article (though he seems unaware that I changed my understanding of repentance in 1998, 16 years ago).
Though this is a 27-page article, the author’s contentions are quite simple and easy to follow. This article, which appeared in Master’s Seminary Journal in the Spring of 2013 (pp. 97-123), argues as follows:
1. Repentance in the NT is turning from sins, not a change of mind about Christ.
2. Though the words repent (metanoeō) and repentance (metanoia) are admittedly not found in John’s Gospel, the concept of repentance is a significant theme there.
3. In the Fourth Gospel we learn that one must turn from his sins in order to be born again.
4. In terms of application to modern evangelism, John’s Gospel teaches us, for example, that an alcoholic must stop getting drunk before he can be born again.
Let’s examine these four points.
Repentance in the NT Is Turning from Sins
Croteau is unaware that Zane Hodges, myself, and many other Free Grace writers agree with him that repentance in the NT is turning from sins. He cites decades-old journal articles by me as arguing that repentance is a change of mind (p. 97).
There is no reason to debate this point since I completely agree that Matt 12:41 and its OT counterpart in Jonah 3:10 shows that repentance is turning from sins. Indeed, I agree that the words metanoia and metanoeō always refer to turning from sins in the NT.
The Concept of Repentance Is in the Fourth Gospel
Croteau says, “While repentance cannot be said to be an overwhelming theme of the Fourth Gospel, it should not be considered absent” (p. 121).
Let me say that if it can be shown anywhere in John’s Gospel where someone is called to turn from his sins, then the concept of repentance is there even if the words repent and repentance are not. However, Croteau fails to show a single example of this, because there are none. So he is forced to go to texts that speak of evil deeds or of turning and argue that repentance must be implicitly present even if neither the words repent or repentance or the phrase turning from sins is found.
Before I go through the seven places in John where Croteau says that a call to turn from sins is implicitly present, let me say that I find this to be a moot point in any case.
Let’s imagine that the expression turn from your sinful ways occurred 99 times in John’s Gospel, but that not one of the contexts was an evangelistic context. Then even if the concept is present, it would still not be a condition of everlasting life.
Now let’s consider his seven proofs.
Four of the seven places where Croteau thinks he sees repentance are in John Chapter 3.
One place in which Croteau finds the concept of repentance is in John 3:14-15, the uplifted serpent as type of Christ. Yet there is no mention of turning from sins in John’s reference to the bronze serpent being lifted up, nor in Num 21:4-9. This is weak, to say the least.
Croteau thinks that the confession of Num 21:7 “describes the repentance of the Israelites from their sin” (p. 111). Possibly they did repent. But Num 21:7 does not describe repentance. Confession is not repentance. How does he know that they also repented? And even if they did, the condition for healing was neither confession nor repentance, but as Croteau acknowledges, simply looking at the uplifted serpent. Note this amazing admission: “just as the Israelites ‘looked’ at the serpent [and] were given life, so belief in Jesus gives life” (p. 111).
He also suggests that repentance is found in John 3:3-5 in being born again or born from above. Yet there is no mention of repentance or turning from sins there. The only condition there is believing in Jesus. Again, there is zero support for his contention here.
John the Baptist said the one who disobeys the Son shall not see life (John 3:36). Croteau sees there a call to repentance and obedience. Yet BAGD understands apeitheō in John 3:36 as “the supreme disobedience…meaning disbelieve, be an unbeliever” (p. 82D). This is a faith issue, not a works issue. That is why many versions translate apeitheō in John 3:36 as “he who does not believe the Son…”
But even if John 3:36 had said, “He who obeys the Son has everlasting life and he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him,” that would in no way introduce the theme of turning from sins. The issue would be obedience, not repentance. But John 3:36 does not say even that. John the Baptist said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life…” That is the same message as John 3:16. No repentance is present.
Croteau thinks the call to step into the light in John 3:19-21 a call to repentance. Zane Hodges wrote a journal article on this passage, showing that coming to the light in this context refers to openly confessing Jesus, something Nicodemus did not do, but something that John the Baptist (discussed in the verses which immediately follow, John 3:22-26) did quite well (see BibSac, Oct-Dec 1978: 314-22).
There is no call to turn from sins in these verses. Instead, there is a call to confess Christ.
It is true that in v 19 the Lord says, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” But this is not a call to repentance. This is a statement of fact. Men’s evil deeds often, but not always, keep them from faith in Christ.
Of course, since some come to faith in Christ and all are sinners, some clearly do overcome this hindrance and listen to and believe the message of life. Nicodemus is one such person. And in the very next chapter John tells of the woman at the well coming to faith in Christ. Yet her deeds were especially evil. And there is no indication that she repented before or after coming to faith.
A fifth place in John where Croteau finds the concept of repentance is John 15:1-5. The theme of abiding there according to Croteau teaches turning from sins. But once again, there is no mention or even hint of turning from sins there. (Croteau actually lists this as his weakest argument, p. 121.)
Of his seven suggestions, only two of them might legitimately allude to repentance. Interestingly, Croteau himself ranks his seven texts in terms of strongest to weakest and the following two he lists as the two strongest arguments for the concept of repentance being present in John’s Gospel (p. 121).
In John 5:14 the Lord said, “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’” Similarly, in John 8:11 the Lord said to the woman caught in adultery, “‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” Interestingly, Croteau rejects John 8:11 as Scripture (p. 115, esp. note 112), and thus he is reduced to John 5:14. However, since John 7:53–8:11 is found in the vast majority of manuscripts and is clearly Scripture, I will discuss both.
In both cases the Lord told notorious sinners to “sin no more.” Is that the same as saying, “don’t return to the sin that got you in this predicament in the first place?” I’d say yes, but I’d also say that is not the same as repentance. Even Croteau stops short of calling this a command to repent saying, “this is essentially an injunction to repent” (p. 115, italics added).
Repentance is turning from our sins, plural. When the prodigal son left the far country, he left behind all the sins he was involved in there. Say the woman caught in adultery did not commit adultery again, thus obeying the Lord’s command, but she did continue in unrepented lying and stealing. Then she would not have repented.
I find it something less than a call to repentance when the Lord commands a person to not repeat the sin that led to their sickness or their near stoning.
Croteau’s final example is John 12:40. There John alludes to Isa 6:10: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.” The word translated turn is epistrephō. It is a word that is used in the NT to refer to both turning from one’s sins (Jas 5:20; Acts 26:18 uses hupostrephō) or turning to the Lord (Luke 1:16; Acts 9:35; 11:21; 2 Cor 3:16). Turning to the Lord is a synonym for believing in Him. In this passage in John 12:40, as well as in Isa 6:10, the issue is turning to the Lord, not turning from sins.
Croteau’s seven examples of repentance in John’s Gospel do not stand up to scrutiny.
The Fourth Gospel Teaches That One Must Turn From His Sins to Be Born Again
I am being gracious here to call this a point in the article. Croteau actually never once explicitly says the Fourth Gospel teaches that one must turn from his sins to be born again. The closest he comes is on p. 115 where he says concerning John 5:14, “the context is salvific.” Yet he gives zero evidence of the fact that the man’s healing is also his new birth.
Croteau is simply trying to show that the concept of repentance is somewhere in John’s Gospel. However, since he says that one must repent to be saved (p. 97) and that “repentance is a part of saving faith and without it salvation cannot occur” (p. 97; see also p. 121 where in his conclusion he speaks of repentance “in evangelism and gospel presentations”), I will discuss this point, even though he never does.
Obviously if the concept of repentance is not even found in John’s Gospel as I have argued in the preceding section, then the Fourth Gospel does not teach that one must turn from his sins to be born again.
However, even if John’s Gospel taught the concept of repentance—which it does not, it would only teach repentance as a condition of everlasting life if the concept of repentance was found in each and every evangelistic passage.
Over and over again the sole condition in the Fourth Gospel is believing in Jesus. The word believe (pisteuō) occurs 99 times in John’s Gospel. In addition, in many places the concept of believing is presented, as in coming to Jesus (John 6:35), eating the bread of life (John 6:35), drinking the water of life (John 4:14; 6:35), and receiving Him (John 1:12). But never do we find an evangelistic passage in John in which anything other than faith in Christ is the condition of everlasting life.
But let’s say that we accepted all seven texts in John that Croteau says teach the concept of repentance. And let’s go even further and grant that all seven of those texts are evangelistic passages. And let’s go even further and say that in all seven the texts explicitly says that one must turn from his sins in order to have everlasting life. Now let’s say that there were 50 total evangelistic passages in John. Even Croteau would be forced to admit that in 86% of the cases the only condition given is faith in Christ. Then he would be forced to conclude that there are two different ways to be born again in John’s Gospel!
Think about it. If the Lord Jesus told some that whoever believes in Him has everlasting life, but He told others that whoever turns from his sins has everlasting life, then there would be different conditions for different people. In the conclusion of his review of Millard Erickson’s article, “Lordship Salvation: The Current Controversy,” Darrell Bock says precisely that: “There are many kinds of [evangelistic] invitations in the Scriptures. Some of the offers of eternal life come with pure invitation and others are presented with demand. Jesus Himself seems to have given a variety of invitations, depending on the situation He addressed” (BibSac, July-September 1991, p. 361).
There are zero passages in John’s Gospel (or the Bible) that say anything even close to “whoever turns from his sins has everlasting life.” But, unless each and every evangelistic passage in John’s Gospel taught that, Croteau would have to either say that the sole condition is faith in Christ, or else that there are different conditions for different people.
Evangelistic Application: All Sins Must Be Abandoned Before a Person Is Ready to Be Born Again
Croteau actually gives the example of an alcoholic and says he must “change his lifestyle,” or at least “be willing to do so in order to obtain salvation” (p. 97). This is remarkable. Croteau is just using that one sin as an example. He means that a person must change his entire lifestyle, turning from all his sins, to obtain salvation. Or at least he must be willing to do so.
Say an evangelist is speaking one on one with a person he just met. He would need to find out what sins this person was involved in so as to make sure the person understood that he needed to turn from all those things to be born again.
According to Croteau, to be born again a person must cease immorality, stop getting drunk, stop getting high on other drugs, give up lying, stop stealing, cut out cursing, eliminate hitting, cease coveting, stop being jealous or envious, cease being prideful, and so on.
In his famous book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer wrote:
In our own presentation of Christ’s gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything (p. 73, emphasis added).
Note the same sentiment expressed by James Montgomery Boice in his famous book Christ’s Call to Discipleship:
I say that the minimum amount a person must believe to be a Christian is everything, and that the minimum amount a person must give is all. I say, “You must give it all. You cannot hold back even a fraction of a percentage of yourself. Every sin must be abandoned [emphasis mine]. Every false thought must be repudiated. You must be the Lord’s entirely” (p. 114).
If repentance is a condition of everlasting life, then one must not simply turn from a sin, or even a few sins, but from all sins. If repentance is a condition of everlasting life, then part of evangelism needs to be instructions on what is sin. Young people today do not know that sex outside of marriage is sin. Most people today do not consider lying to be sin. Or cheating on your income taxes. Or stealing little things like stamps and staplers and pens from work. Or calling in sick at work so you can go fishing. Or taking the Lord’s name in vain.
How many sins are there? Let’s say that there are only 200. You’d need to keep that list with you at all times when you evangelize so that you could tell the person all he needed to give up in order to be born again.
I respect the author’s zeal for holiness. I share that concern. However, he pollutes the living water when he adds works into it. A person being evangelized by him could only be born again if he rejected the idea that it takes belief plus turning from sins to be born again.
Yes, we should call those who are enslaved to sin to repent, but not in order to gain everlasting life.
That the author can find the concept of repentance in a book that doesn’t mention any of the words or expressions of repentance is a sad commentary on the need for people to read their theology into the Word rather than allowing the Word to form or change their theology.