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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1991 — Volume 4:1

Repentance and Salvation Part 6:

How to Communicate the
Doctrine of Repentance Clearly

Robert N. Wilkin*

I. Introduction

This is the final installment in a series on repentance and salvation. It has been a great challenge for me to write these six articles.113

The doctrine of repentance is a difficult subject.

It is not that it is so hard to show what repentance is not; that is fairly easy. What is more difficult to show is what it is—particularly in a few problem texts.

How does one go about teaching the doctrine of repentance clearly?

II. Be Humble

One wag suggested that preachers must be taught in school that when they get on thin ice and aren't quite sure what they are saying, that is the time to raise their voice, pound the pulpit, and at least act as if they know what they are talking about. The rule seems to be: when in doubt, shout!

We must take great care to avoid this. If we are not persuaded of the correct interpretation of a given text, we should say so. While it is desirable to be confident of the correct interpretation of the passages which we are teaching or preaching, practically speaking it may not always be possible especially when we are presenting a topical message.

I would encourage all who preach or teach on repentance to begin with a confession. Confess that you find this to be a difficult subject and that, while you have some vital information to share, you don't know everything there is to know about the subject. This will help relax your audience. They won't be as much on their guard.

III. Be Well Prepared

Anyone can confess to limitations. However, if what follows in your presentation is not well thought out, compelling, and persuasive, the confession will have served only to "turn off" the audience.

If after confessing your limitations you bring forth well reasoned and well delivered arguments in favor of your thesis about repentance, people will most likely be favorably influenced.

This is not a message (or series) which you should prepare the night before! (Are there any?) This topic especially demands serious preparation. I would suggest that a person spend at least three to four weeks in preparation. Even if one can only spend a limited amount of time each day, the cumulative effect of such study over a period of time will prove powerful.

To be well prepared I suggest that one study the five previous articles in this series, Zane Hodges's chapter on repentance in Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation,114 Charles Ryrie's discussion of repentance in So Great Salvation,115 John MacArthur's treatment of the subject in The Gospel According to Jesus,116 as well as, of course, the key NT passages on repentance (e.g., Matt 3:1ff; 4:17; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:17-18; 17:30; 1 Thess 1:9). Several readings of the only book in the Bible primarily devoted to evangelism, the Gospel of John, would be wise as well. Discover what, if anything, John tells us about the role of repentance In salvation.

IV. The Role of Repentance in Eternal Salvation

The first and foremost question in the minds of most people concerns salvation. People naturally want to make sure that they have met the biblical condition(s) for eternal salvation. And they want to make sure that they are accurately sharing the same with others.

A. The "Turn from Sins for Salvation" View117

Most people today think that in order to reach heaven they must turn from their sinful ways. Thus our first goal in teaching about repentance is correcting this erroneous idea, which essentially amounts to salvation by works.

This can be done in a number of ways.

First, the "turn from sins for salvation" view is contradicted by the Gospel of John. The Greek term normally translated repentance is metanoia. The verb form is metanoeō. How frequently do they occur? Actually neither the noun nor the verb occurs even once in the Gospel of John, which is the only book of the Bible whose primary purpose is to show people how they may obtain eternal life (John 20:31).

While arguments from silence are weaker than direct statements, this particular argument is very strong.

Not only is there no direct mention of repentance in the Gospel of John, but nowhere in the book is the concept of turning from sins given as a condition for obtaining eternal life.

Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that he had to turn from his sins in order to be born again (John 3). Nor did He tell the woman at the well that she had to turn from her sins to obtain eternal life (John 4). The same is true with the man born blind (John 9), and Martha (John 11). And, tellingly, the book's statement of purpose (John 20:31) does not mention turning from sins as a condition for eternal life.

Turning from sins cannot be a condition for eternal life, since it is inconceivable that the Gospel of John would fail to mention it if it were.

Second, the "turn from sins for salvation" view does not harmonize with Romans and Galatians—the two NT epistles which are designed in great part to instruct believers about the Gospel.

The NT terms for repent and repentance are not found in the Book of Galatians. Certainly if repentance is a condition of salvation separate from faith, Paul would have reminded the Galatians of that fact.

The evidence from Romans is similar. The verb form (metanoeō) does not occur at all. The noun form (metanoia) is found only once (2:4). Certainly if repentance is another condition for eternal life (with faith being the other), Paul would have stressed this fact in Romans—just as he repeatedly stressed faith.

In addition, the solitary reference to repentance in Romans (2:4) merely says that God's kindness is designed to lead men to repentance. That is hardly an unequivocal statement showing that turning from sins is a condition for eternal life. Indeed, the entire context in which that verse appears requires close study and attention. One should not rush to conclusions about Rom 2:4. If Paul had meant to say that one must turn from his sins to gain eternal salvation, he could and would have said so clearly and unequivocally.

Romans and Galatians both show that the sole condition of eternal life is trusting in Christ alone. Both letters show that eternal life is a free gift. Nowhere in either epistle is turning from sins mentioned as a condition for eternal life.

Third, the Scriptures are clear that eternal salvation is wholly apart from human works (e.g., Eph 2:9). Yet if the "turn from sins for salvation" view were true, salvation would be by faith plus a commitment to works. If a person must reform his or her life to be eternally saved, salvation would be at least partly payment for work done. It would not be the reception of a free gift.

Let's suppose that a very rich man needed monthly blood transfusions to survive. This man has a very rare blood type—so rare, in fact, that you are the only known person who has it. He offers you $1,000,000 a year if you will donate your blood each month.

Would the million dollars be a free gift? Of course not. If you had to give something up to get it, then it would be something you earned. While the pay would be great, there would be a definite cost to be paid to get the desired benefits.

A good rule of thumb to use when salesmen offer you "free" gifts is this: if you must pay something, in time, money, or effort, then it really isn't a free gift. It may or may not be a good deal; however, it is only free if there is absolutely no cost to you.

Thus the "turn from sins for salvation" view is also contradicted by the fact that eternal life is not a result of works.

Fourth, we know from Scripture that some people do obtain eternal life. While the way is narrow and few find it, few is considerably more than none. However, if the "turn from sins for salvation" view is carried to its logical conclusion, then no one would have eternal life. Salvation would be impossible, because no one ever fully turns from his sins!

"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). If a sinner cuts down on his sinning, he does not cease to be a sinner. He still falls short of the glory of God. Even if a sinner could stop sinning altogether (which no one can) he would still remain a sinner, since, biblically speaking, it takes only one transgression at any point in a person's life to make him a sinner (Jas 2:10).

Our only hope of deliverance is the blood of Christ. If the blood of Christ is not sufficient to cover all of our sins—past, present, and future—then no one can be saved. If His blood is sufficient, then once we meet the sole biblical requirement for salvation, faith in Christ alone, we have eternal life.

The "turn from sins for salvation" view is terribly dangerous. Instead of pointing people to the Cross and to faith in Christ alone, it points much of their attention to their own efforts at self-reformation. Sadly many, if not most, people hearing this distorted message fail to trust in Christ alone.

As we shall discuss in more detail below, in addition to distorting the Gospel, the "turn from sins for salvation" view also undermines assurance. For if a person must turn from his sins to be saved, one could legitimately wonder for the rest of his life if he had turned from a sufficient number of sins, and if he been sorry enough for his sins—to mention just two resultant fears. Since God's holiness is absolute, these fears would have no resolution.

Having shown the bankruptcy of the "turn from sins for salvation" view, the next step is to discuss the merits of a second view, the change-of-mind view.

B. The Change-of-Mind View

As mentioned above, the normal NT word for repentance is metanoia (and its verbal form metanoeō). The Latin Vulgate translated metanoia as poenitentia ("penance"), which is an unfortunate rendering that helped to promote a works-salvation theology. The King James translators rendered metanoia as "repentance," a word which in English can refer either to turning from one's sins or to changing one's mind about someone or something. This translation choice has become so fixed in people's minds that modern translations have not changed the rendering, even though a better alternative is often available.

According to this view, the Greek word metanoia (similar in origin to our "after thought" or "second thoughts") means a changing of one's mind about someone or something. Support for this understanding is found in its classical usage, its pre-Christian usage, and its usage in the NT. (The reader is encouraged to see the third article in this series for further details.118)

There are many NT examples which show that "change of mind" is the preferred translation. Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, Acts 11:18, Heb 6:1, 12:17, and 2 Pet 3:9 are good places to demonstrate this point.

For example, in Heb 12:17 we read that Esau found no opportunity to change his father's mind (metanoia) after he sold his birthright, although he sought for such a change of mind through tears.

According to this view, it is thus essential whenever we see the word repent in the NT to ask what one is being called to change his or her mind about.

To receive eternal salvation one must change his or her mind about the Lord Jesus Christ. One must come to see Him as the One who takes away all his sins and guarantees him eternal life (cf. Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, and Acts 11:17-18).

For example, in Acts 11:17-18 repentance (metanoia) is seen as being synonymous with faith (pistil). Peter, in recounting the salvation and subsequent baptism of Cornelius and his household, pointed out that he could hardly refuse baptism to people who by faith had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then the Jewish believers to whom Peter was speaking said, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life." Cornelius and his household placed their faith in Christ alone (Acts 10:43-44). At the precise moment when Peter called them to believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit fell upon them (Acts 10:43-44). All they did to gain eternal life was to trust in Christ. Peter never mentioned anything about turning from sins.

Another way of saying that individuals have come to faith in Christ is to say that they have changed their thinking about Him.119 To believe in Christ is to come to see Him as the One who guarantees eternal life to all who trust in Him.

There are passages in which metanoia has sinful behavior as its object. That is, there are texts in which a change of thinking about one's sinful behavior is being called for. And, a call to change one's mind about sinful behavior is a call to turn from it. However, such calls always deal with the condition for escaping temporal difficulties and for pleasing God, not for escaping eternal death. We will discuss this point more fully below.

While I feel that there are a few passages in which repentance (i.e., changing one's mind about Christ) is a condition for eternal salvation, there is another Free Grace view which suggests that repentance is never found to be a condition of eternal life. I have labeled that view the harmonious relationship view for reasons which will soon be apparent.

C. The Harmonious Relationship View

According to this view, NT repentance (metanoia) is a decision to get right with God. This includes a decision to turn from one's sins. However, this view suggests that this decision to get right with God and turn from one's sins is always given in the NT as a condition for coming into a harmonious relationship with God, not for obtaining eternal life.120

One who repents, who decides to get right with God, will come to faith in Christ if he follows through with his decision. This is guaranteed because God promises that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6). However, the decision to get right with God and turn from one's sins is not a condition of eternal life. The sole condition of eternal life is placing one's faith in Christ alone.

Thus, according to this view, in agreement with the change of mind view, the sole condition of eternal life is placing one's faith in Christ alone.

This view is different from the change of mind view in two key points. One, this view defines repentance differently. Rather than seeing repentance as a change of mind, it views repentance as a decision to get right with God and turn from one's sins. Two, this view always sees the goal of NT repentance as coming into a harmonious relationship with God and never as obtaining eternal life.121 While this view works well in most NT passages, in my estimation it is somewhat strained in passages such as Luke 15:7, 10; Acts 2:38; 11:17-18; and 2 Pet 3:9.122

D. Summary

Turning from sins is not a condition of eternal salvation.

Is repentance in some sense a condition of eternal salvation? I believe that it is, but only in a few NT passages. In those texts a change of mind about Jesus Christ is given as a condition for eternal life. Changing one's mind about Christ is another way of speaking about believing in Him. Repentance is not a second condition for eternal salvation. It is another way of talking about faith in Christ.

V. The Role of Repentance in Assurance of Salvation

If repentance were a condition of eternal salvation, one must know that he has repented in order to have assurance of salvation.

If turning from sins were a condition of eternal salvation, one could never be sure he was saved. One would always be unsure if he had turned from enough sins to be saved.123

If, however, saving repentance is synonymous with saving faith, then a person can indeed be sure of his salvation. All one need do is to ask himself if he believes that Jesus Christ guarantees eternal life to all who trust in Him. If he does believe, then he is sure that he has eternal life.

The fact that the Scriptures teach that believers can and should be absolutely sure of their salvation (e.g., 1 John 5:13a) gives additional evidence that the "turn from sins for salvation" view of repentance is not right. Any view of repentance which eliminates assurance is a faulty view.

The issue of repentance is thus not only an issue in evangelism, as important as evangelism is. It is also a key issue in discipleship. How we share assurance of salvation—or more accurately, if we share assurance of salvation—is dependent on our view of repentance.

VI. The Role of Repentance in Sanctification

If we are not careful, it is possible to give the false impression that turning from sins is not commanded in the Scriptures. While it is true that turning from sins is never given as a condition of eternal salvation, it is commanded repeatedly in the Scriptures.

Repentance has a definite role in progressive sanctification. Believers must turn from their sins in order to please God.

While a host of passages could be selected to show this, Eph 4:17-31 is an excellent representative text. Believers are called upon to put off their former sinful conduct (v 22), lying (v 25), stealing (v 28), bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking (v 31).

Sin has its passing pleasures, to be sure (Heb 11:25). However, the passing pleasures it offers are not worth the lingering pain which are its long-term consequences (Heb 12:3-11; Jas 1:15). As believers we need to tell ourselves repeatedly that sin never pays. The pain far outweighs the fleeting pleasure.

Not only does sin have painful consequences now, but sin jeopardizes the quality of our eternal experience. The believer whose life is characterized by sin and disobedience will not have treasure in heaven or an abundant eternal experience (Matt 6:19-21; 1 Cor 9:24-27). While all believers will have joy forever, only faithful believers will have fullness of joy.

All three views of repentance agree that the repentance which is a part of sanctification is a turning from sins (or a change of mind about one's sinful behavior). Throughout our lives we as believers are to turn from our sins and to do those things which God commands. Of course, we never complete this process until we go to be with Lord. There are always sins to be confessed and abandoned.

There are some passages in which it is hard to decide if eternal salvation or sanctification is in view. For example, when John the Baptist and Jesus said, "Repent [or, change your mind] for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," (e.g., Matt 3:1, 4:17) did they mean, "Change your mind about Christ in order to get into the kingdom"? or did they mean, "Change your mind about your sinful ways in order to be properly prepared for (i.e., in order to be in a position to have honor and treasure in) the coming kingdom"? It is hard to say. Either view is possible.124

VII. Conclusion

More than one preacher has charged that if a person doesn't preach repentance, then he hasn't proclaimed the authentic Gospel.125

If that is so, then the Gospel of John doesn't present the authentic Gospel! Perhaps it needs to be cut out of the Bible! The Gospel of John does not even once use the NT word for repentance. That surely means that we can proclaim the Gospel clearly today without even mentioning repentance.

When I share the Gospel I like to tell people both what they need to do to be saved (trust in Christ alone) and what they need to avoid doing (trusting in their own good works, baptism, their turning from their sins, church attendance, etc.). As Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer was so fond of saying, saving faith is giving up every other confidence and placing one's confidence solely in Jesus Christ.126

In order to proclaim the Gospel clearly, we must be exceedingly careful what we say, if anything, about repentance. The simplest course would be to say nothing about repentance. After all, that is what John did in his Gospel!

If we do touch on repentance in our evangelistic efforts, we must be careful to point out that turning from sins is not a condition of eternal life. If repentance is a condition, then it must be synonymous with saving faith (i.e., a change of mind about the person and work of Christ is equal to coming to faith in Him).

Let us remember that the cry of the Reformation (in concert with John) was "Sola Fide"—"By Faith Alone"!


Used by permission:
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Volume 4, No. 1 — Spring 1991

*Executive Director Grace Evangelical Society

113While I spent a year and a half studying and writing on this subject for my doctoral dissertation (Robert Nicholas Wilkin, "Repentance as a Condition for Salvation in the New Testament," Dallas Theological Seminary, 1985), each of the articles has involved major rewriting of my previous work.

114Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas and Grand Rapids: Redencion Viva and Zondervan Publishing House, 1989). Hodges adopts the harmonious relationship view of repentance. That is, he suggests that repentance is never given anywhere in Scripture as a condition for eternal salvation.

115So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989). Ryrie holds the change-of-mind view. That is, he teaches that saving repentance is a change of mind about the person and work of Christ—not a turning from one's sins.

116The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988). MacArthur argues for the "turn from sins for salvation" view of repentance. That is, he believes that one must turn from his or her sins in order to obtain eternal life. And, he says that if one is "truly saved" he or she will keep on turning from sins as ongoing proof that his or her life has been indeed transformed.

117This has sometimes colloquially been called the "turn or burn" view.

118See Robert N. Wilkin, "Repentance and Salvation Part 3: New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations," JOTGES 2 (Autumn 1989): 13-21.

119I have sometimes been questioned if this is true of children. I have been asked: Do small children really need to change their thinking about Christ? My response is twofold. In the first place, I believe that children, even those who grow up in dynamic Christian homes, do indeed need to change their earliest thinking about what they must do to obtain eternal life. I believe that as a result of the fall all people have a natural inclination to works salvation thinking. However, let's assume that this is not so. Let's assume that once children can understand abstract thought their minds are a tabula rasa, a blank sheet. Then it would be true that children do not need to change their minds about anything to be saved. However, that would not prove that no one needs to change his mind to be saved. Only very small children would be exempt from the need to change their thinking. Since all of the NT verses dealing with repentance are addressed to adults, this objection, even if it is true, would have no bearing on those verses.

120For further details regarding this view see Hodges, Absolutely Free!, 143-63.

121The change of mind view does sometimes see the goal of repentance as being fellowship with God (e.g., 2 Cor 7:9-10). However, it also sees the goal of repentance in some passages as being the appropriation of eternal life (e.g., Acts 2:38; 2 Pet 3:9). By contrast the harmonious relationship view sees the goal of repentance as always being a harmonious relationship with God.

122The reader is encouraged to consult previous articles in this series for details.

123There is an interesting section in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (71-73) in which the author, J. I. Packer, an advocate of the "turn from sins for salvation" view argues that one must be careful when sharing the Gospel to make sure to list everything a person must give up to become a Christian, or else the person may well end up remaining unsaved due to a failure to give up everything the Lord requires. In reading those remarks I was struck by how subjective and difficult it would be to share such a "gospel" by how impractical and impossible such a gospel is for sinful people, and by how such a message leaves no real room for assurance.

124See the fourth article in this series JOTGES 3 [Spring 1990]) for further details.

125See, for example, Packer, Evangelism, 71-73, and MacArthur, Gospel, 65-66, 84, 88, 159-68. For example, MacArthur writes, "No evangelism that omits the message of repentance can properly be called the gospel, for sinners cannot come to Jesus Christ apart from a radical change of heart, mind, and will. That demands a spiritual crisis leading to a complete turnaround and ultimately a wholesale transformation. It is the only kind of conversion Scripture recognizes" (167).

126See Lewis Sperry Chafer, "The terms of Salvation," JOTGES 1 (Autumn 1988): 42, 57.

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