Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel. By Richard Owen Roberts. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002. 368 pp. Paper. $19.99.
When I saw the title, I knew I had to read this book. Repentance was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Since it is central in the gospel debate, I have long been concerned about repentance.
The endorsers on the back cover are impressive. They include famed Reformed theologian J. I. Packer, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, Executive Editor of Christianity Today, Timothy George, and host of Revive Our Hearts radio program, Nancy Leigh DeMoss. There is also a foreword from Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God.
The Table of Contents shows that Roberts covers most of the bases, having an amazing affinity for the number seven. Eight of the fifteen chapters start with the number seven. (Wouldn’t it have been better to have seven chapters starting with seven?) They are (with the Chapter number in parenthesis): Seven Myths of Repentance (4), Seven Maxims of Repentance (5), Seven Marks of Repentance (6), Seven Motives to Repentance (7), Seven Fruits of Repentance (9), Seven Models of Repentance (10), Seven Dangers of Delayed Repentance (11), and Seven Words of Advice to the Unrepentant (12).
When I looked further, I noted that essentially every chapter has seven points.
“Repentance and Its Accompanying Graces” (chap. 8), has seven “graces” (undefined what this means). So it easily could have been entitled, Seven Graces That Accompany Repentance. “Repentance in All Its Breadth” (chap. 13) has exactly seven “issues” concerning repentance. It could have been titled, Seven Key Issues in Repentance.
The first chapter, “Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel,” has seven major subheads (Repentance: The First Word of John’s Ministry; Repentance: The First Word of Christ’s Ministry; Repentance: The First Word of the Twelve; Repentance: The Focus of Peter’s Preaching; Repentance: The Heart of Paul’s Preaching; Repentance: The Last Call to the Churches in Revelation; and Repentance: A Source of Joy in Heaven).
There are seven headings in the second chapter, “Repentance in the Old Testament” and seven as well in the third chapter, “Repentance in the New Testament.”
The last chapter, “Repentance in Dust and Ashes” (chap. 15) has only four parts. However, part one has seven acknowledgements, part three has seven incidents, and part four provides seven evidences.
The only other chapter, “Repentance and the Character of God” (chap. 14) essentially has seven subpoints. Roberts talks about two rounds of attack which Job underwent at the hands of his friends. He then pinpoints five effects of these two attacks.
One wonders if Roberts hasn’t had to add things in or leave things out to force nearly every chapter to have seven points. While seven is the perfect number, the author seems to be pressing to make everything come out seven.
The arrangement of these chapters does not seem to follow any logical order. Roberts covers the same ground in many different chapters.
The bottom line for the author is that one must turn from his sins to escape hell. Evangelism must have calls to turn from one’s sins or else it is not a saving message.
But what about the many passages in which the only condition of eternal life is faith in Christ? Roberts’ answer is fascinating: “Some have reasoned that, because a call for faith sometimes appears in the New Testament without any mention of repentance, it is faith alone that is necessary for salvation. But it can also be said that there are occasional Scriptures in which repentance is demanded with no mention of faith. Are we about to insist, then, that it is repentance alone that is necessary for salvation? Certainly not. But the argumentative persons may want us to note that there are more mentions of faith and belief without repentance than there are of repentance without faith and belief. Does that then suggest that biblical issues are settled by majority vote? How absurd” (p. 68).
Several points are remarkable in that statement.
First, note his first question. “Are we about to insist, then, that it is repentance alone that is necessary for salvation?” While his answer is “Certainly not,” there are many who answer that question in the affirmative, with the proviso that there are multiple ways to come to Christ. Many NT scholars now say that there are different conditions of eternal life given by different NT authors. Some NT authors say you must simply believe. Others say you must commit or repent or be baptized.
Second, note how he fails to explain how the many places where faith alone is mentioned can be accurate. If today we must preach repentance to be clear, why not then? How could Paul say “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” if that isn’t enough? How could the Lord Jesus fail to tell the woman at the well that she needed to turn from her sins? How can he explain, for that matter, why the words repent and repentance don’t occur even once in John’s Gospel, the only evangelistic book in the Bible.
Third, notice that it is “argumentative persons” who bring up the fact that faith is the only condition for eternal life in myriads of passages. Why does this make them argumentative? Are they not being observant? Are we not called to search the Scriptures to evaluate any doctrine (Acts 17:11)?
Finally, note his clever question, “Does that then suggest that biblical issues are settled by majority vote?” He doesn’t ask Does that then suggest that biblical issues are settled by the clear teaching of the preponderance of Scripture? “Majority vote” sounds like we are talking about the majority of people, not passages. If a large number of texts teach that the only condition of eternal life is faith in Christ, then should this not lead a person to wonder if there are any texts which list any other condition? Maybe we’ve misunderstood texts reputedly teaching that we must turn from our sins to have eternal life. But the author doesn’t entertain that possibility.
Another example of his approach to the subject is found in his chapter on seven motives to repentance. The sixth motive is given as “God’s Warnings” (pp. 167-68). I found it interesting that the only warnings mentioned here concern eternal condemnation. Why no mention here of warnings about temporal judgment? Also interesting is the fact that of the four texts he cites as warning the need to repent to escape eternal condemnation (Matt 13:41-42; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 12:4-5; Heb 10:26-31), none of them mentions repentance! With 55 NT uses of the words repent and repentance, if repentance is a condition for escaping eternal condemnation you think one would be able to come up with quite a few passages which actually mention repentance and eternal life or repentance and eternal condemnation. That the author doesn’t give us even one is telling.
One final example of the way in which Roberts handles the text concerns the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. The jailer is given as one of the seven models of repentance. But is this warranted by the text.
Paul tells him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” He said nothing about repentance. Not only that, but Luke doesn’t indicate that the man repented.
Roberts laments: “The simplicity of the answer given to the jailer’s question and the swiftness of his response and baptism have led some zealous persons to an unfortunate conclusion about whether repentance is always essential to salvation. Without giving any adequate consideration to the setting itself and to the wonderful circumstances surrounding this clear-cut example of repentance and faith, they have made a universal out of a very singular incident” (p. 232).
Again we find those of us who believe that turning from sins is not a condition of eternal life labeled as “zealous persons.” We fail to give “adequate consideration of the setting itself.”
And what in the setting tells us this is a repentant man? Was he a God-fearing Gentile like Lydia earlier in the chapter? Was he in a synagogue or place of prayer when he asked what he must do to be saved? Was he a man, like Cornelius, known for his prayers and almsgiving? Well, no.
Roberts finds him to be a “clear-cut example of repentance and faith” because he heard Paul and Silas singing in jail, because he was awakened by an earthquake and discovered all the prison doors open, and because he was about to kill himself (p. 233). Wait a minute. Since when has suicide been proof of repentance?
We could grant that if the jailer repented, he did so after he was preparing to take his own life. A repentant person doesn’t willingly commit the sin of suicide. If he did repent after that, what evidence is there? Does the man indicate he will turn from his sins and serve God? No. Frankly, there is absolutely no evidence that the jailer repented. He believed and was baptized.
An unbiased reading of Acts 16 would find one clear-cut example of a repentant person, Lydia, who came to faith, and one clear-cut example of an unrepentant person, the jailer, who came to faith. Thus Acts 16 shows that repentant or not, all who believe in Jesus have everlasting life.
One finds very little in the way of exegesis in this book. The author is not trying to explain texts. He is instead preaching. My guess is that most or all of the chapters in this book are converted topical (rather than exegetical) sermons. I like the author’s zeal for God and for holiness. I like the conviction with which he writes. I am saddened, however, that his conclusions are not consistent with the Word of God or the Gospel of Grace.
I feel compelled to mention the way he closes one of the chapters. After discussing seven myths of repentance, he warns the readers that they personally might be guilty of sending people to hell: “Now let me ask, ‘Do any of these myths fit you?’ Is it possible that what you have been calling repentance is nothing other than a foolish and grievous myth? What about your church? Have you considered the likelihood that many in your church have embraced the myths of repentance and are clinging to the repentance that leads to eternal death rather than the repentance that leads to salvation and eternal life? Is it possible that they have missed the way of life because of your careless and shabby treatment of eternal things? In the final judgment, will their blood be on your hands?” (p. 103).
Wow. I do not happen to believe that the eternal destiny of people is in our hands. However, we surely will give an account for how we have taught the word of God. (Of course, believers will not experience “final judgment.” That is for unbelievers only [Rev 20:11-15; cf. John 5:24]. Believers will be judged at the Judgment Seat of Christ.) I fear that Roberts’ words may come back to haunt him, as he has indicted himself, since his own view of repentance is not the way to eternal life, but to eternal condemnation.
JOTGES readers who want a detailed presentation of the traditional view of repentance will want this book. It clearly presents the turn-or-burn view position—and in great detail.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society