Although I was providentially prevented from attending the recent GES conference on repentance, I have heard that it was a very fine conference. The following article grows out of an issue that I understand was raised at the conference.
In Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation, I stated that the silence of the Gospel of John about repentance was “the death knell for lordship theology” (p. 148). I believed that firmly then, and I believe it firmly now.
However, I am told that at the GES conference the objection was raised that this is an “argument from silence” and therefore, invalid. This is not the case.
To begin with, we do not really have here an argument from silence, but an argument about silence. The issue is: why is John silent about repentance in the fourth Gospel?
A classic “argument from silence” would run like this: “Our historical data for (let us say) the period 1168 B.C. to 1068 B.C. is sketchy and incomplete, so Arabia could have been a major regional power during that time.” The argument is worthless, of course. The silence of our historical data tells us nothing about the power status of Arabia during the period described.
The present issue is not comparable, as the following discussion will show.
Second, it is important to note that those who might reject the argument about the absence of repentance in John’s Gospel are not claiming not to know John’s view of repentance. On the contrary, they are making a direct claim about John’s theology!
For example, lordship people claim that, of course, John held that repentance was necessary to salvation. They usually add that, though he does not mention it explicitly, repentance is there implicitly. But the search for “implicit” indicators of repentance in John’s Gospel becomes a hopeless hodgepodge (forgive the expression) of guesses and misguided creativity.
In the same way, grace people who hold the “change of mind” view1 of repentance are telling us that John did believe repentance to be necessary to eternal life, but simply chose never to say so explicitly.
If my view of John’s silence is an argument from silence, so is this–bigtime!
So you can see what I mean when I say the argument is really an argument about John’s silence. Why was he silent on this major biblical theme?
Let me illustrate. Suppose a cardiologist wrote a book called Significant Treatments for Heart Disease. (I have recently acquired an interest in cardiology and the Lord has provided me with a good heart doctor.) Let us now suppose that in the course of his lengthy book, this cardiologist referred to angioplasm, cholesterol-reducing drugs, and Dr. Dean Ornish’s plan for reversing heart disease without surgery or drugs. But suppose he referred not even once to heart bypass surgery. Would we not find this surprising?
The absence of any reference to heart bypass surgery in a book on Significant Treatments for Heart Disease would literally cry out for explanation. We could, perhaps, conclude that the author was poorly informed and incompetent. But if we knew otherwise, his silence about this widely-used medical procedure would carry profound implications. The most obvious explanation for such silence by a trained professional would be that he held “heart bypass” surgery to be not significant, no matter how widely used.
Someone may reply that it is inconceivable that a trained writer could write such a book in the present medical climate. The widespread use of this surgery would virtually compel some reference to it by the author, whether he approved of it or disapproved. Not to mention it, would not be a reasonable option. (For example, Ornish’s book2 does mention heart bypass surgery and elaborates on its drawbacks.)
This only strengthens my case.
Those who claim that repentance is necessary for salvation (even in the sense of a “change of mind”) have every reason to be uneasy and perplexed about John’s silence. Especially so in the light of our Lord’s command in Luke 24:47 that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (italics added).
John certainly does not preach repentance in his Gospel! You don’t preach a truth by being silent about it. One needs only to compare this with how explicit Peter is on this subject in Acts 2:38 and 3:19 (not to mention Paul on Mars Hill, Acts 17:30).
The verb used in Luke 24:47 and translated “preach” is the Greek verb kerusso, meaning “to proclaim aloud, announce, mention publicly, preach.” If any GES member knows how to “preach” a truth without ever mentioning it by name, please write to me in care of GES!
A False Premise
The whole problem we are discussing is due to a false premise. The false premise is this: repentance is necessary for eternal life.
No medical professional today would dream of writing a book on Significant Treatments for Heart Disease without mentioning bypass surgery precisely because in the context of modern medicine this is a significant treatment in the view of most medical professionals. Only if most medical professionals agreed that bypass surgery was not significant, would it make sense to write a book ignoring it.
In the same way, if no NT apostle or prophet held that repentance was necessary for eternal life, then John would have no reason to mention it when telling people how to obtain that life. This explanation—and this only—fits the facts naturally.
This is why I refer to the view that “repentance is necessary for eternal life” as a false premise. This view is in reality a petitio principii—that is, a begging of the question. It cannot be demonstrated from Scripture.
Let’s put it this way. If we started with the Gospel of John, would we have any reason from the Gospel itself to suppose that repentance was necessary for eternal life? The obvious answer is no.
Why then do we think that John included it implicitly in his Gospel? Because we bring to the Gospel the untested and unprovable assumption that other NT texts show that repentance is necessary. Apart from this false premise, John’s silence about repentance is both easily explained and natural.
This is not the place to tackle every text that might be adduced in favor of the necessity of repentance for eternal life. I have covered much of that ground in chapter 12 of Absolutely Free!
But this is worth repeating: No text in the NT (not even Acts 11:18) makes any direct connection between repentance and eternal life. No text does that. Not one.
We ought, therefore, to reexamine our ingrained assumptions about NT repentance. I know how hard this is for preachers and teachers who have long taught otherwise. I myself once held the “change of mind” view of repentance and taught it.
But the Scriptures have persuaded me otherwise. Perhaps, as God permits, we will consider this issue further in future GES newsletters.3 For now, I simply call on GES people to search the Scriptures and to be open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit.
1Editor’s note: The change-of-mind view suggests that the NT words for repentance, metanoia and metanoeo, mean a change of mind. It argues that these words are sometimes given as conditions of eternal life, though never in John’s Gospel, and that in such cases they refer to a change of mind about Jesus Christ. This change of perspective is seen as being a synonym for faith in Christ. Thus there is but one condition, faith in Christ, which can also legitimately be called repentance. This is certainly a Free Grace view. However, as one who argued for that position in my doctoral dissertation and has since rejected it, I would urge all our readers who hold this view to re-examine it in light of the arguments made at the conference and in this article by Zane Hodges (and hopefully future articles by him as well).
3Editor’s Note: There are many other facets of this discussion, and, Zane has agreed to contribute other articles in upcoming issues of this newsletter to address them. His next article will appear, Deo volente, in the July-Aug newsletter, and is entitled: “To Repent or Not to Repent: John’s Doctrine of Repentance.”