Repentance and the Rich Man
in Luke 16:30

by Bob Wilkin

Recently a GIF reader asked whether Luke 16:30 teaches that repentance is a condition of receiving eternal life.

In Luke 16:30 there was a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. They both died. The rich man went to the portion of Hades apportioned for those who are eternally condemned. At some point he looked in the distance and saw Abraham, with Lazarus at his side.

Now it is the rich man’s turn to beg. Twice he begs Abraham for help (vv 24, 27).

First he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with even a few drops of water to cool his tongue. But, Abraham reminds him that there is a great chasm between them—one that can not be crossed by any man.

Then the rich man, remembering that his five brothers are still alive, does some more begging. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers in order to warn them of Hades. Abraham responds by saying, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them" (v 29). Then the rich man replies, "No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent" (v 30).

The problem in this passage is that the rich man points to repentance, not faith, as the expected result of his brothers meeting someone who has returned from the dead. And in this context he seems to be thinking that if they repented they would escape his fate of eternal condemnation.

There are three explanations of Luke 16:30 that are consistent with the Free Grace position. The first two understandings involve the rich man considering repentance as the condition of eternal salvation.

First, he might understand repentance as a change of mind about Christ. Thus for him repentance is the same as faith. What Abraham says in v 31 could be seen as substantiating the change- of-mind understanding: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead." Where the rich man spoke of repentance, Abraham spoke of persuasion. This was the position I adopted in my doctoral dissertation (DTS 1985).

Second, he might understand repentance as a decision to turn from one’s sins and get right with God. In this case, the rich man believed in justification by faith plus turning from sins. Of course, if this was his view, then he was wrong. Some might reject this understanding as out of hand. After all, it contradicts the good news. Yet we must remember that the Bible records what people have said, even if they were wrong.

Third, the rich man may not be implying that repentance is the condition for eternal salvation. He may know that the only condition is faith in Christ. However, he may believe that for his brothers repentance would come first, then faith. Certainly repentance can open a person to hearing the gospel.

Which of these options is more likely the case?

Abraham spoke of hearing Moses and the prophets, and of being persuaded about what they wrote. That is, Abraham was talking about believing the Old Testament teaching, which proves that Jesus is the Messiah.

The problem with the first view is that it equates repentance with listening or being persuaded or believing. Since writing my dissertation, I’ve become convinced that there is insufficient evidence to support that. Repentance is almost always in Scripture a decision to turn from one’s sins.

Even if one adopts the change-of-mind position, is there good reason to believe that is what the rich man meant? I think not. Abraham said that the rich man’s brothers already had all the revelation they needed to escape condemnation. "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them" (v 29). The rich man countered that OT revelation was not sufficient for them to escape torment. They would need a big sign like someone coming back from the dead.

The truth is, even a great sign like resurrection did not and will not persuade the hard of heart. The Lord Jesus raised seven people from the dead, including another man named Lazarus. Indeed, He Himself rose and appeared to many. The apostles raised people from the dead as well. Yet despite this, Israel was not persuaded about Jesus being the Messiah (John 1:11). The rich man was thus terribly wrong, for even the greatest of signs will not persuade the hardhearted. Scripture is sufficient for those willing to hear the truth (John 7:17; Heb 11:6).

As he was wrong about the sufficiency of Scripture and the potency of signs, the rich man was also wrong about what one must do to escape eternal torment. Faith in Christ–not repentance–is the sole condition of eternal life.

The third view infers a lot about what the rich man believed, without anything in the text to support it.

The second understanding is much simpler and is more likely what the rich man meant. It is reasonable to conclude that he still didn’t understand the gospel. Note that in light of Matt 7:22 there will be many who have spent time in Hades who nonetheless will still have a faulty view of the gospel when they get to the Great White Throne Judgment. Many will say "Lord, Lord" and will point to their works as the reason why they should get into the kingdom.

Is it that surprising that many in Hades will believe in a works gospel? Some, like the rich man, will be convinced they are doomed because they hadn’t lived a good enough life. Others, probably the majority, will think that when they appear before God for their final judgment they will be able to prove that they did enough good works to justify their entrance into the kingdom (Matt 7:22).

We should not develop our view of the gospel based on what a new arrival in Hades believes! After all, it was his works-salvation thinking that landed him in Hades in the first place! If we want to pick someone in Luke 19:19-31 who is clear on the gospel, wouldn’t Abraham be a much better choice?

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