ROBERT N. WILKIN
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Editor’s note: The following is a revised form of a paper delivered at the March 30-April 1 GES Conference on repentance, held in Grapevine, TX.
I. My Testimony:
Many Changes of Mind Concerning Repentance
While growing up in Southern California, I was heavily influenced by a religious boys’ club that taught an extreme form of Lordship Salvation. Repentance was a key part of my instruction. I was taught and believed that to be saved a person had to turn from his sins and progress in holiness.1 And, if he were fortunate enough to obtain salvation, then he had to maintain a sinless life to stay saved. One sin and salvation was lost, never to be regained.2
Then one day a friend from the club, John Carlson, challenged me with a pointed question: “Is it possible, Bob, that your view of the gospel might not be correct?” I accepted his invitation to go to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting at the University of Southern California. After the meeting there were people using profanity and smoking. Because of my past association with the boys’ club, it was unthinkable to me that these people could be Christians!
When I told John about my reservations concerning the spiritual condition of these people, he said, “Well, maybe there is such a thing as Christian growth.” As odd as it might seem, this was a revolutionary thought to me. I thought one had to be good to get saved and perfect to stay saved. To think that a person had to be bad to get saved and then stayed saved even after sinning was mind boggling to me.
Shortly after this I came to believe in Christ for eternal salvation, knowing that I was saved once and for all. I had learned from the Bible that eternal salvation was “not as a result of works, lest anyone should boast.”3
As best as I can recall, I didn’t even think about the issue of repentance when I came to faith-other than the wonderfully insightful comment by my friend John. I imagine if someone had asked me at the time, I would have said, “Paul said we’re saved by grace through faith and that it is not of works lest anyone should boast. If I had to repent to be saved, then I’d be able to boast. Repentance is a part of the Christian life, not something we must do to be saved.” I had changed my mind about repentance. I now believed that the sole condition of eternal salvation was faith in Christ.
However, when I was discipled and learned to share my faith, I changed my mind about repentance again. I came to believe, and to tell people to whom I witnessed, that in order to be saved a person had to turn from self to God. By this I meant that a person had to be willing to give up any sin in his or her life.
When I got to seminary I changed my mind about repentance yet again, adopting the change-of-mind view of Lewis Sperry Chafer4 and Charles Ryrie.5 I ultimately wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject.6 I would never tell people they had to repent to have eternal life, but if asked about repentance, I would say that it was changing one’s mind about Christ. In other words, I now believed that repentance was another name for faith.
Zane Hodges’s book Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation 7 was published in 1989. In Chapter 12, he states that repentance is not a condition of eternal life at all. Although I didn’t completely agree with Zane at the time (I still thought there were a few passages that conditioned eternal life upon repentance), I was intrigued by his view and resolved to think about it more. I have since become convinced that repentance is not a condition of eternal life. That is, I have undergone my fourth change of mind about repentance.
What about you? To modify John Carlson’s question, “Is it possible that you too need to change your mind about repentance?” Is it possible that you are not being as clear as you could be when you share the gospel? Are you willing to change your mind about repentance if the evidence of Scripture shows that your view is not biblical?
II. What Must I Do to Be Saved?
The Place of Repentance in Eternal Salvation
Paul’s answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” was simple, straightforward, and clear: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). The Lord Jesus and His apostles were united on this point. There is but one condition of eternal salvation-faith in Christ (see John 3:16-18; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25-27; 20:31; Acts 10:43; Eph 2:8-9). Another way of saying this is that there is but one condition of justification before God-faith in Christ (see Rom 3:28; 4:1-8; Gal 2:16; 3:6-16). Justification is by faith alone-sola fide as the Reformers put it so succinctly in Latin.
Since eternal salvation is by faith alone, there are only three possibilities regarding the role of repentance in eternal salvation. The options are:
- Repentance is a condition of eternal salvation since it is a synonym for faith in Christ. Thus “he who believes in Me has everlasting life” is identical to “he who repents has everlasting life.”
- Repentance is a condition of eternal salvation since it is a necessary precursor to faith in Christ. Thus one cannot believe in Christ until he first repents, that is, until he first recognizes his sinfulness and need of a Savior.
- Repentance is not a condition of eternal salvation since repentance is neither a synonym for faith in Christ nor a necessary precursor to faith in Christ.
If we can determine what repentance is, then it will be clear which of these three possibilities is indeed correct. Let’s turn now to the meaning of repentance.
III. What Is Repentance?
The meaning of words is determined by examining their usage. Thus to determine the meaning of repentance, we need to look at the fifty-five NT uses of the words repent and repentance. Having done that, I have chosen three passages that clearly illustrate its meaning in all of its uses.
Jesus said to a Jewish audience, “The men of Ninevah will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41).
Jesus was here rebuking the people of Israel, most of whom failed to repent even at the preaching of the Son of God! The men of Ninevah repented centuries earlier under the preaching of a much lesser prophet than Jesus. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He didn’t want the Ninevites to repent.
What the Lord Jesus means by repentance here is evident when we look at the repentance of the Ninevites in Jonah Chapter 3. In response to Jonah’s proclamation of coming judgment, all of the people of Ninevah fasted and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5) and “turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10). The repentance of the Ninevites was not faith in Christ and it was not a necessary precursor to faith in Christ. They decided to turn from their sins because they hoped to escape the destruction of their city and the widespread loss of lives that Jonah had proclaimed (“who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”-Jonah 3:9).
The apostle John wrote prophetically about what will happen in the coming Tribulation: “And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Rev 9:21). Once again, repentance is not faith in Christ or a necessary precursor to that, but it is a decision to turn from one’s sinful ways, which the people in question did not do in spite of the terrible Tribulation judgments that they were experiencing from God.
Jesus taught the apostles about repentance when He said, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:4). Again, repentance here is neither faith in Christ, nor a necessary precursor to faith in Christ. It is a decision to turn from one’s sins.
All fifty-five NT references to repentance bear this out. In each case repentance is a decision to turn from one’s sins. It is never a synonym for faith in Christ or a necessary precursor to faith.
IV. Further Evidence That Repentance
Isn’t a Condition of Eternal Life
There are other compelling reasons to give up the belief that repentance is a condition of eternal life.
A. Repentance “Strikingly Absent” from Paul
One NT scholar wrote that whereas the Judaism of Paul’s day emphasized the need to repent to get into the kingdom, the idea of repentance is “a category strikingly absent from Paul.”8
Consider for example Gal 3:6-9:
Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.
Ten times in those four verses we find the words believe and faith. Not once do we find the words repent or repentance. In fact, those words are not to be found anywhere in the entire Epistle to the Galatians.
The Book of Galatians is a defense of the gospel against the attacks of the Judaizers. Paul argues that the gospel of Jesus Christ is foundational to the Christian life. There is no other gospel. It is indeed significant that repentance is absent in a book where Paul is presenting and defending the gospel message he received directly from the Lord. Surely if repentance were a part of Paul’s gospel, he would have said so in his defense of his gospel in Galatians.
B. Repentance “Completely Absent” from John’s Gospel
While repentance is “strikingly absent” from Paul’s writings, it is “completely absent” from John’s Gospel. But how can this be in a book whose primary stated purpose is evangelistic (John 20:31)?
It is not that John was unfamiliar with repentance. He was almost certainly a disciple of John the Baptist (see John 1:35-40) whom he had heard preach about repentance. He had seen John baptize people with his baptism of repentance. Later as a disciple of Jesus he no doubt heard Him call people to repentance many times. And John himself had much to say about repentance in the Book of Revelation, using the verb metanoew twelve times. Yet there is not a word about repentance in John’s Gospel.
The obvious reason for John’s omission is that repentance is not a condition of eternal life. Because of that, John took great care not to mention it.
That the only evangelistic book in the Bible fails to mention repentance is a smoking gun. It is a piece of evidence so clear and powerful that the prosecution can rest its case on this alone. Repentance is not a condition of eternal life.9
IV. Various Questions about Repentance
A. But Isn’t the Change-of-Mind View Clear on the Gospel?
As one who held the change-of-mind view for a long time, I certainly agree that one can be clear on the gospel and hold that view. Many Free Grace people hold that view and find great comfort in it.
However, as I reflected on the way I presented the gospel when I held that view, I realized that I didn’t bring up repentance. I told people that in order to have eternal life they simply had to believe in Christ. The only time I would discuss repentance with someone when witnessing would be when they brought it up. And I am far from alone in this. Many, if not most, who hold the change-of-mind view of repentance rarely mention repentance when sharing the gospel. Since believing in Christ is the sole condition of eternal salvation, it makes sense to tell people to believe.
I realized even when I held the change-of-mind view that there was a risk in even admitting to someone that they had to repent to have eternal life. Most people think of repentance as a decision to reform one’s life. Thus if I would say that repentance is indeed a condition, they could quite easily reject my definition of repentance (as being clearly contradicted by the NT uses) and yet accept my conclusion that repentance is required for eternal salvation.
Therefore, while people holding the change-of-mind view may share the gospel quite clearly, often by not mentioning repentance at all, this does not mean that the change-of-mind view is correct. If it is incorrect, we should not continue to promote it, even if we find it easy to explain.10
B. But Didn’t Jesus Say That Those Who Don’t Repent Will Perish?
Yes, He did. In Luke 13:3, 5 He said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” However, the word perish does not always refer to eternal condemnation (though it does, for example, in John 3:16). In many contexts it refers to temporal judgment and death.11 That is surely the case here, as the context makes crystal clear. Notice the word likewise in the statement by the Lord. The occasion for Jesus’ remark was that some “told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). In other words, Pilate killed some worshipers. Perishing in Luke 13:3, 5 refers to physical destruction and death. And, in fact, Israel did not repent and experienced destruction and death during the Jewish Wars of 66-70 A.D.
C. Doesn’t the Parable of the Prodigal Son Teach That Repentance Is Necessary for Eternal Salvation?
While many understand it in precisely that way, the context suggests a completely different interpretation. A fact most fail to take into account is that the prodigal was a son of his father before he went to the far country, while he was in the far country, and when he returned from the far country. He didn’t become a son when he repented. Rather, by repenting this son came back into fellowship with his father.
Since the father in the parable surely represents God, the prodigal son illustrates a child of God who has strayed and who needs to repent to get back in fellowship with God.12 Whenever a believer is out of fellowship, God waits with open arms to take him back, if he comes to his senses.
D. But Doesn’t the Great Commission in Luke Include the Preaching of Repentance?
Yes. In Luke 24:47 the Lord said “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” However, we must remember the Great Commission was not merely a commission to evangelize. It was also a commission to disciple those who believe. In fact, in some expressions of the Great Commission the Lord only spoke of discipleship.
In Matt 28:18-20 the Lord told the disciples to make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He had taught them. We don’t conclude from that, do we, that baptism and discipleship instruction are conditions of eternal life? In the same way, the Great Commission in Luke concerns discipleship. Repentance is indeed a condition of fellowship with God and of the forgiveness associated with that fellowship (e.g., Luke 5:32; 15:4-32). We know from 1 John 1:9 as well that all believers need ongoing fellowship forgiveness from God. While we are completely forgiven at the moment of regeneration positionally (Acts 10:43), we need ongoing forgiveness in our experience.13
E. But Didn’t Paul Say That Repentance Leads to Salvation?
Yes, he did. In 2 Cor 7:10 Paul wrote, “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation.” However, we must observe the context to see what type of “salvation” or deliverance is in view. Paul was speaking of the deliverance of believers from temporal judgment, not of the deliverance of unbelievers from eternal judgment. Those whom Paul was addressing were “beloved” (v 1). He wrote them a previous letter rebuking them for tolerating blatant sin in their midst. Paul said, “even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it.” Why? “Because your sorrow led to repentance…that you might not suffer loss in anything. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
Paul’s point is that if a person is sorry for his sins, but doesn’t repent, then he is on the path of death. God judges unrepentant sin. Sorrow for sin won’t win any release from the punishment. However, the person who is both sorry for his sin and repents is on the path of life. God delivers him from ongoing temporal judgment, just as He delivered the Ninevites from judgment when they repented.
F. But Didn’t Both John the Baptist and Jesus Say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
Yes, they did. Compare Matt 3:2 and 4:17. However, it is wrong to conclude that what they meant was that in order for an individual to enter God’s kingdom, he or she must repent.
John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching to national Israel. They were calling the entire nation to repent in light of the nearness of the kingdom.
God has given only one condition for individuals to enter God’s kingdom-faith in Christ. However, He has given two conditions for the kingdom to come to the nation of Israel: faith in Christ and repentance. Jesus stated both of these conditions in Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Someday national Israel will indeed respond properly to the commands to repent and believe in the gospel. At the end of the Tribulation the nation of Israel will be made up of believers who are in fellowship with God. If Israel had responded by believing in the Messiah and by repenting of its sins when it heard the preaching of Jesus and John the Baptist, then the kingdom could have come to national Israel then, rather than later.
V. What Are the Benefits of Repentance?
The passages we have considered show that repentance has a number of benefits to the believer, and to the unbeliever as well.
First, both the believer and the unbeliever may escape temporal judgment if they repent. Second, gaining fellowship with God, and the attendant blessings that come with it, is something that only a believer can experience. However, a repentant unbeliever may be more likely to come to faith in Christ and then he too can gain fellowship with God and the attendant blessings.
For example, suppose a person is lost and decides that he wants to turn to God. He stops going to bars and disassociates from his drinking buddies. He buys a Bible and begins reading it daily. He starts visiting churches in his area, looking for one that teaches the Bible. He asks friends whom he knows are churchgoers to give him some pointers on how to get closer to God.
While none of these things are necessary to be saved, they may well lead to the person hearing and believing the gospel.
Now admittedly a well-intentioned person might start looking in all the wrong places. He may visit cults. He may listen to those who proclaim a false gospel, and he may think his decision to turn from his sins to God is necessary to go to heaven. However, if the person is truly seeking God, God will eventually show him that what he is listening to is false and will lead him to the true gospel (Acts 10; Heb 11:6).
Third, the national repentance of Israel is a condition of the kingdom coming. While an individual is guaranteed kingdom entrance by faith in Christ alone, the kingdom will not come for Israel until the nation as a whole believes in Jesus Christ and repents. That is why both John the Baptist and Jesus were calling the nation to repentance and faith.
In summary, repentance is for believers and unbelievers. It can occur before or after regeneration. It can even aid a person in coming to faith in Christ. However, repentance is not a condition of eternal life.
If one tells a person that in order to be saved he needs to believe in Christ and to repent, no matter how one defines repentance, a fuzz factor is introduced in the gospel presentation. The person will have difficulty understanding and believing the gospel. A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew. If some lack of clarity exists in a gospel presentation, the listener may well be in a fog.
The solution is simple: tell unbelievers to believe in Christ for eternal life, and tell believers to repent of their sins in order to be in fellowship with God. Don’t confuse the two. The former is justification. The latter is progressive sanctification.
When you are talking with unbelievers, don’t be afraid to ask them to read the Bible, pray, or go to church. Don’t be afraid to ask them to decide to turn from their sinful ways. While those things are not conditions of eternal life, they are ways in which a person might come to understand and believe the gospel.
When telling someone what they must do to be saved, why not give the biblical answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved”? If it was good enough for the apostles and the Lord Jesus, it should be good enough for us as well.14
1The club taught that each person could only be saved during a short time period, his “window of opportunity,” typically one to two weeks, which only God knew. If the person didn’t gain eternal life during that time, he would likely never get another chance. Thus there was tremendous pressure to clean up your life and keep it clean. Failing to be ready for that opportunity would be disastrous.
2In this way of thinking neither confession of sins nor repentance was for believers. Those were things one did to prepare for salvation. Once saved, absolute sinlessness was required.
3A staff member with a college ministry, Warren Wilke, met with me many times, repeatedly going over Eph 2:8-9, and ultimately leading me to faith in Christ. Warren and I became fast friends, and have maintained our friendship all these years.
4See, for example, Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), III: 373-78. Though he argues for the change-of-mind view, note this comment: “From this overwhelming mass of irrefutable evidence [the absence of repentance in John, only one occurrence in Romans, its absence in Paul’s reply of Acts 16:31], it is clear that the New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation” (p. 376).
5See, for example, Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 175-76 (“The content of repentance which brings eternal life, and that which Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, is a change of mind about Jesus Christ,” p. 176); A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 139; and So Great Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 91-100.
6Robert N. Wilkin, “Repentance as a Condition for Salvation in the New Testament,” An Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1985. A condensed version of the dissertation appears in the first six issues of this Journal.
7It was co-published by Redenciï¿½n Viva (Dallas, TX) and Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids, MI). In a clever marketing twist, Zondervan placed it in displays in bookstores all over America alongside John MacArthur’s, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988). It challenged the bookstore patrons to decide who was correct.
8James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God: A Renewed Perspective on Justification by Faith,” Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 43 (April 1992): 7.
9At the conference some objected that this is an argument from silence and that arguments from silence prove nothing. However, as Zane Hodges has since pointed out in a newsletter article (Grace in Focus , May-June, 1998), this is really an argument about silence and it proves much.
10As one who has held both views, I now see that the idea that the change-of-mind view is easy to explain is not quite right. It is hard to convince someone that repentance is a change of mind about Christ when so many (actually all) NT passages clearly contradict that definition. Actually the view of repentance advocated here is much easier to explain and is much simpler.
11This is true as well in 2 Pet 3:9, “God wishes that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” That isn’t talking about eternal condemnation. The only other use of the word perish in 2 Peter occurs three verses earlier and there it unequivocally refers to the physical death that occurred when God sent a worldwide flood upon Noah’s generation: “by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.”
12The older brother thus also represents a believer, since he too is a son. However, he represents a legalistic (Pharisaic) believer who takes offense at God rejoicing in the return of an errant son.
13Acts 2:38 and 22:16 are both best understood in this way as well. For example, Peter’s audience at Pentecost believed in Jesus as the Messiah as indicated in v 37, “they were cut to the heart.” When they asked “What shall we do?” they were not asking how they could be saved eternally; they were asking how they could be saved temporally from God’s wrath which should have fallen upon those who said, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt 27:25). For further information on this interpretation, see Lanny Tanton’s articles on Acts 2:38 (JOTGES, Spring 1990: 27-52) and Acts 22:16 (JOTGES, Spring 1991: 23-40).
14I have received a number of letters and calls from people who are upset that I have abandoned the change-of-mind view. To all such people I wish to say that I personally understand their angst. I held the change-of-mind view for years, even writing a doctoral dissertation defending it. When confronted with the view that I now advocate, I was skeptical. However, I have always considered Acts 17:11 to be a vitally important attitude to have: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” After following that admonition, I changed my thinking about repentance