Peter repented. We can only hope that so did the Laodiceans. In fact, the call to repent is also issued to the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:5), to the church at Pergamos (2:16), and to the church at Sardis (3:3).
On another occasion, the Christians at Corinth repented. Paul describes their repentance like this:
For though I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle has made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing (2Co 7:8-9; italics added).
In all probability Paul is speaking here about his rebuke to the church (1Co 5:1-13) for allowing a case of incest to go unjudged. Second Corinthians 7:12 seems to refer to this case, which the Corinthians have now apparently dealt with as Paul desired.
But whatever the precise reference, one thing is clear: New Testament repentance is not confined to the unsaved or to the moment of conversion. It may take place repeatedly within Christian experience, whenever there is a need for it.
Perhaps it is not too surprising, therefore, that both Martin Luther and John Calvin, the great Reformers, perceived repentance to be a way of summarizing Christian experience.
Luther wrote: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying `Repent ye, etc.,' willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."1 And in a striking passage from the Institutes, Calvin says: "In one word I apprehend repentance to be regeneration, the end of which is the restoration of the Divine image within us."2 Shortly thereafter, the Reformer states:
Wherefore, in this regeneration, we are restored by the grace of Christ to the righteousness of God, from which we fell in Adam.... And this restoration is not accomplished in a single moment, or day, or year.3
And he adds that the Lord renews His people's senses to purity so that "they may employ their whole life in the exercise of repentance, and know that this warfare will be terminated only by death."4
These observations are extremely valuable, and we will return to them later in this chapter. But just now we must also point out that neither Calvin nor Luther treated repentance as a condition for eternal salvation.5 Both stood firmly for the great Reformation insight expressed in the words sola fide-"faith alone."
No other position is biblical or truly evangelical. Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life.
Of all the New Testament writers, Luke speaks the most frequently about repentance. Yet, in one of Luke's most famous stories, a badly shaken Philippian jailer inquires of Paul and Silas, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" The answer they give to him is the only answer the Bible knows to such a question: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Ac 16:31). There is not a word here-not a syllable!-about repentance. Paul and Silas did not say, "Repent and believe," but simply, "believe."
Lordship salvation teachers are in dire straits with a text like this. They are reduced to trying to extract their doctrine from this passage by way of implication.6 But it is not there, and no amount of theological casuistry can put it there.
As we have already seen, the effort to find the concept of repentance and surrender in the word "believe" is totally without linguistic foundation. The word "believe" means "believe"-both in English and in Greek.
Indeed, John Calvin long ago rejected the notion that repentance and faith could be identified. He wrote:
For to include faith in repentance, is repugnant to what Paul says in Acts [20:21]-that he testified "both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ;" where he mentions faith and repentance, as two things totally distinct.7
It is an extremely serious matter when the biblical distinction between faith and repentance is collapsed and when repentance is thus made a condition for eternal life. For under this perception of things the New Testament doctrine of faith is radically rewritten and held hostage to the demand for repentance. No wonder that one scholar in the writings of Calvin has been moved to assert:
Those who teach that repentance precedes faith, and make faith and forgiveness conditional upon repentance, fail to see that theirs is a position parallel to the Roman doctrine of penance which Calvin so strongly opposed.8
There can be no compromise on this point if we wish to preserve and to proclaim the biblical truth of sola fide. To make repentance a condition for eternal salvation is nothing less than a regression toward Roman Catholic dogma.
"But," someone will say, "does not the Bible also declare God's demand for repentance?" Indeed it does, and perhaps nowhere more forcefully than in Acts 17:30 where Paul declares: "And these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent"(italics added).
Can this declaration be harmonized with sola fide-"faith alone"? Yes, it can, since the Bible is never internally contradictory. And the harmonization is really very easy and natural. How?
Simply put, we may say this: the call to faith represents the call to eternal salvation. The call to repentance is the call to enter into harmonious relations with God.
If the issue is simply, "What must I do to be saved?" the answer is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Ac 16:31). If the issue is the broader one, "How can I get on harmonious terms with God?" the answer is "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ac 20:21).
Moreover, if a person is ready for faith-as the Philippian jailer was-that person can take this step immediately. Thereafter they can be taught what things they need to repent of if they are to walk with God. Along the course of Christian life, the believer will need to repent many times as the Scriptures clearly attest. But no one will be saved more than once.
Thus, though genuine repentance may precede salvation (as we shall see), it need not do so. And because it is not essential to the saving transaction as such, it is in no sense a condition for that transaction. But the fact still remains that God demands repentance from all and He conditions their fellowship with Him on that.
Let us explore this concept in God's Word.
The Meaning of the Original Words
The main words in the Greek New Testament for repentance are the noun metanoia ("repentance") and the verb metanoeo ("to repent"). Originally, these Greek words meant to change one's mind. But the standard Greek-English dictionary does not list any New Testament passage where the meaning "to change one's mind" actually occurs.9
In general use, the Greek verb and noun had come to be roughly equivalent to the English words "to repent" and "repentance."10 In the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, the Greek verb translates a Hebrew word meaning "to regret," "to repent."11
It follows that the translation of these words in our English Bibles is generally satisfactory, and the discussion in this chapter will take that fact for granted.12
Repentance and John's Gospel
One of the most striking facts about the doctrine of repentance in the Bible is that this doctrine is totally absent from John's gospel. There is not even so much as one reference to it in John's twenty-one chapters! Yet one lordship writer states: "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."13
This is an astounding statement. Since John's gospel does omit the message of repentance, are we to conclude that its gospel is not the biblical gospel after all?
The very idea carries its own refutation. The fourth evangelist explicitly claims to be doing evangelism (John 20:30-31). It is not the theology of the gospel of John that is deficient; it is the theology found in lordship salvation. Indeed, the desperate efforts of lordship teachers to read repentance into the fourth gospel show plainly that they have identified their own fundamental weaknesses.14 Clearly, the message of John's gospel is complete and adequate without any reference to repentance whatsoever.
In fact it is even plain that John the evangelist avoids the doctrine of repentance at a point where it could have been introduced with ease. The point in question is found in the very first chapter, for it is in this chapter that the fourth evangelist reports a dialogue between John the Baptist and a delegation from the religious leadership of Jerusalem. After listening to John deny that he is either the Christ or Elijah, or "the Prophet," the delegation hears him identify himself as simply a "voice of one crying in the wilderness" an 1:19-23). Exasperated, they pose a new question: "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" (Jn 1:25).
As everyone who has read Matthew, Mark and Luke knows, John the Baptist preached a "baptism of repentance" (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; see Mt 3:11). At this critical moment in his dialogue with this influential delegation of Jews, we expect John to announce the purpose of his baptizing ministry in terms of repentance.
But this he doesn't do. Instead, he simply says:
I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose (1:26-27).
Not a word-not a syllable-about repentance. And if ever there was a perfect place for the evangelist to inject this theme into his gospel, this is the place.
But his silence is deafening!
Many Bible scholars have thought-no doubt correctly- that the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who is mentioned in John 1:35-40 was none other than the fourth evangelist himself. But if the evangelist was a personal "pupil" of the Baptist before he attached himself to this new Teacher, his silence on the theme of repentance is made all the more amazing.
The silence of chapter one persists to the very end of the book. The fourth gospel says nothing at all about repentance, much less does it connect repentance in any way with eternal life.
This fact is the death knell for lordship theology. Only a resolute blindness can resist the obvious conclusion: John did not regard repentance as a condition for eternal life. If he had, he would have said so. After all, that's what his book is all about: obtaining eternal life (Jn 20:30-31).
Repentance in the Gospel of Luke
In striking contrast to the gospel of John, however, are the two books written by Luke. Out of nearly sixty New Testament occurrences of the noun or verb for repentance, twenty-five are found in either the gospel of Luke or the book of Acts.
Repentance, therefore, is a theme which the third evangelist especially has stressed.
If for the moment we pass over Luke's references to this theme in the preaching of John the Baptist (Lk 3:3, 8; Ac 13:24; 19:4), we come to the first mention of repentance in the ministry of Jesus (Lk 5:32) where the striking charge is found that Jesus has fellowship with sinners!
In his narrative Luke tells us that, at Levi's feast for our Lord, the scribes and Pharisees complained to His disciples. And they said: "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" (Lk 5:30; italics added). But, of course, the charge was really directed at Jesus. Why did He eat and drink with such people? The Savior's response is familiar and much loved:
Those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call [= invite] the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Lk 5:31, 32).
"I am here," says our Lord, "to bring spiritual health to those who are sick with sin. I have come to invite sinners to the banquet of repentance."
That is what repentance is all about. It is all about the sinner finding spiritual health. It is all about the sinner "sitting at the table"-having fellowship-with God.
In thinking of matters this way, it is obvious that this is exactly what Luke's story of the prodigal son is all about as well.
No doubt Luke 15 is the greatest chapter on repentance in the entire New Testament, perhaps in the entire Bible. But here, too, the three parables on repentance spring directly out of a question about Jesus' table fellowship with sinners. The opening words of Luke 15 set the stage for our Lord's teaching about repentance:
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Lk 15:1-2; italics added).
"How can this man sit down with people like that?" say the self-righteous religious leaders. "How can He have table fellowship with the dregs of society?"
How? The answer was to be found in the heart of God. Like a loving and generous father, He waited to throw His arms around the returning sinner. But accepting that sinner hack was not all the Father had in mind. A banquet of joyous fellowship was also a part of His plan.
And that is the story of the prodigal son. out in the far country, reduced to desperation by his profligate lifestyle, this young man repents. The prodigal son's repentance is recounted by our Lord in these words:
And when he came to himself, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants" (Lk 15:17-19).
"I want to live at home," the prodigal son is saying to himself, "so I will go back and offer my services to my dad in exchange for room and board." In effect, the young man decided, "I want to repair the breach between me and my dad. Maybe I can put things right with an apology and by working for him."
This was a good decision. But it was flawed. His father was not interested in making the bargain his son was thinking about. His dad was prepared to receive him freely. His love for his prodigal boy was not conditioned on any kind of pledge to serve on the farm. Restoring harmony with his father was going to be ever so much easier than he had imagined.
The story of the prodigal son therefore is not simply a story about salvation. It is a story about how a long-separated father and son were reunited. It is a story about a dad who did much more than take his boy back. In fact it is a story about how a father lavished his love on an erring son and sat down with him, in fellowship, at a splendid and joyous banquet.
Unmistakably, the story of the prodigal son is the story of the sinner's restoration to fellowship with God our heavenly Father. But repentance is always about that, even when the repenting sinner is already a Christian!
Let us reconsider the words of Jesus to the Laodicean Christians:
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:19-20; italics added).
Repentance, dining with Jesus, fellowship-such are the intertwining threads which the Bible uses to weave this tapestry of truth. Harmony-fellowship-between a sinful humanity and a forgiving God must always be based on repentance, just as justification must always be based on faith alone.
To be sure, the prodigal son can represent an unsaved man whose repentance gets him turned in the right direction. Many an unsaved person has found salvation very much like that. Dissatisfied with a wasted earthly life, the unsaved sinner decides to "go home" to God, seeking harmony with his Maker. And though he may at first have the mistaken notion that he must work for God's acceptance, in time he will meet a forgiving Father whose love is utterly unconditional and whose salvation is absolutely free.
But the prodigal son can also represent a Christian who has drifted far away from fellowship with the Father and who likewise decides to "go home." Perhaps the Christian even plans to "make up" for failure by working extra hard for God. But on returning, once again there is the encounter with that same forgiving love first experienced at the moment of salvation-whether that moment was recent, or in the distant past.
It is always the same-whether we are coming to God for the first time or for the hundredth time. The Father is there with open arms and with an open heart.
"Take heed to yourselves," Jesus said to His disciples on one occasion. "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" (Lk 17:3-4; italics added).
And why should the disciples of Jesus do that? Because that is exactly what God does for them-for us-every day!
The story of the prodigal son, therefore, is a story which repeats itself-in principle-over and over again in every Christian's life. It is far from exhausted by our initial experience of harmonious contact with God, and those who limit it to that have not really understood it.
And so the Reformers were basically right. It is essentially correct to say that "our Lord and Master Jesus Christ . . . willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." For without repentance, repeated whenever the need for it exists, there is no fellowship with God.
Repentance in Acts
In his two-volume work, sometimes referred to as Luke-Acts, Luke has chosen to stress the theme of harmony between God and man. But Luke was evidently writing to a Christian audience as his prologue to Theophilus (Lk 1:1-4) suggests. His subject matter then is chosen for the benefit of Christians.
The theme of harmony-fellowship-with God was an appropriate one for Luke to emphasize, especially to believing readers of the first century. For one of the burning issues of Luke's day was the question of table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. How difficult this issue could become is clearly reflected in Galatians 2:11-21, where Paul had to stand alone for the right of Gentiles to eat at the same table with Jews.
But obviously, if God the Father Himself could have fellowship with repentant sinners, so could any Jewish believer. And this could be done even if the repenting sinner was a Gentile.
Like Cornelius! Indeed, there is a sense in which Cornelius is the "prodigal son" of the book of Acts.
It is important to observe, therefore, that Luke's narrative about Cornelius plays much the same role in Acts as the story of the prodigal son plays in Luke. And just as Luke highlights the prodigal's experience, so he also highlights the experience of Cornelius. For the story of the prodigal son is by far the longest of the three parables about repentance in Luke 15, and it is one of the longest stories in the entire third gospel. The story about Cornelius is also one of the longest stories in the book of Acts.
And here, too, we meet the issue of table fellowship. Indeed, when the apostle Peter went up to Jerusalem after his encounter with Cornelius, he ran into a firestorm of criticism. Thus we are told:
And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, "You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!" (Ac 11:2-3; italics added).
Does this sound familiar? This was precisely the criticism that the scribes and Pharisees made about Jesus Himself. It was also the spirit of the elder brother of the prodigal son. In fact, in the concluding section of our Lord's narrative in Luke 15, the father of the repentant boy goes out to the older brother to invite him to the banquet inside.
But the self-righteous older brother rudely rejects the opportunity for fellowship with his father and with his younger brother. His words are indignant:
Lo these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time, and yet you never gave me a young goat that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him (Lk 15:29-30; italics added).
"How could you do this?" the older brother complains sullenly. "How can you have a big party for this profligate brother of mine?"
How? Because God desires fellowship with repenting sinners. And He desires this even if those sinners are Gentiles like Cornelius.
No wonder, then, that when Peter finished his account about God's acceptance of Cornelius and of Cornelius's friends, the critics' mouths were stopped. And so we read:
When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (Ac 11:18; italics added).
"Repentance to [or, unto] life"! Repentance that led to life-such was Cornelius's actual experience.
Let these words not be misread. Emphatically they do not say, "repentance unto eternal life." Instead, they are the reflection of that "coming to life" which is always the end result of repentance whether it be the repentance of a Christian or the repentance of the unsaved.
For even to Christians, Paul could say: "For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if you through the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Ro 8:13; italics added).
Or, to put it into the words of the father of the prodigal son, "It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found" (Lk 15:32; italics added).
The truth embodied in this declaration is profound. Whether it is a Christian or a non-Christian who wanders off into sin, such a person is a lost and straying sheep, cut off from the experience of real life which can only be "tasted" and enjoyed in the presence of God Himself-in fellowship with Him.15
Thus to repent is to rediscover our direction and to experience true "life" in harmony with our Maker. But repentance is not the means by which we acquire eternal life. Luke's testimony on this point is crystal clear: "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed" (Ac 13:48; italics added). Not, let us note, "repented and believed." Simply, "believed."
What must I do to be saved? The answer of Paul and Silas is the answer of Luke as well: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Ac 16:31). And for that, repentance is not a condition. Indeed, Luke never says that repentance is a condition for salvation any more than John the Evangelist says that it is. Eternal life is by faith alone-sola fide!
Of course, Cornelius was unsaved when Peter reached his house. But the angel had promised Cornelius that Peter "will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved" (Ac 11:14). However, when Peter came he did not preach repentance. Why? Because Cornelius needed to be saved. He had already repented!
Nothing is more evident than this fact. Cornelius had turned from his paganism to seek the God of Israel. To that end he "gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always" (Ac 10:2). This was nothing more nor less than Cornelius's search for God and for harmonious relations with his divine Creator. Thus his prayers were directed toward the discovery of how he might find true peace with the God of Israel. The coming of Peter was the answer to those prayers.
This point is made clearly in the words Cornelius himself spoke when the apostle arrived:
And Cornelius said, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, `Cornelius your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter'" (Ac 10:30-32; italics added).
"Your prayer has been answered," the messenger announced. "You will hear words by which you and all your household will be saved" (Ac 11:14).
What words were those? They were not words about repentance at all. Instead, they were words about faith. Thus Peter says to the crowd assembled in Cornelius's house: "To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins" (Ac 10:43; italics added).
The results were instantaneous. No sooner are these words out of Peter's mouth than salvation occurs. The Holy Spirit is poured out on his believing hearers (Ac 10:44).
We have already suggested that Cornelius is the "prodigal son" of the book of Acts, and so he is. Living as he did in the "far country" of gentile paganism, this centurion-like the prodigal-"came to himself." He decided, as it were, to "go home" to the true and living God.
Just as a journey separated the prodigal son from his father's farm, so a "journey" was undertaken by Cornelius as well. This journey took time, but Cornelius traveled it with alms, with prayers, and with fasting. And at the end of the road he made precisely the same discovery that the wayward prodigal boy made: He found a loving Father who accepted him freely and who lavished His love on him by pouring out the gift of His own Holy Spirit. Shortly thereafter, Cornelius was baptized and he had fellowship not only with God but with God's servant Peter, whom he asked "to stay a few days" (Ac 10:48).
Who will deny that many people find Christ in very much this way? Like the prodigal son, and like Cornelius himself, they awaken one day to their need for God. At that point they repent and begin to seek their Creator.
Perhaps they start going to church. Perhaps they take up prayer and Bible reading. Perhaps they begin to give some of their money to God. Perhaps they try to clean up their lifestyle. Such people are under the drawing and convicting power of God's Holy Spirit. But they are not saved by any of the things they do in their search for God. They are not saved by their repentance.
Instead, in such cases, their repentance gets them on the road back to God. It moves them in the right direction, for it moves them to seek harmony with their Maker. But God must always disclose Himself to such people. And indeed He always does, for the Bible declares, "He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Heb 11:6).
Somewhere on the road of our search, God meets the repentant sinner. But God's self-disclosure is always the revelation of His full and unconditional love for us. It is always the disclosure of a loving Father who grants everlasting salvation, to anyone who wants it, on the basis of faith alone.
At the end of the search, therefore, the sinner always confronts the divine sola fide!
Ready to Believe
We can see, therefore, how God can use repentance to draw men to saving faith in Christ. But He does not need to. He may use gratitude instead.
The man born blind who was healed by our Lord (Jn 9) is a classic case in point. Our Lord specifically disassociates this man's condition from any sin on either his or his parents' part (vv. 2-3). Not once in His own interaction with this man does our Lord even intimate that He is concerned about the man's sin. By contrast, the legalistic and unbelieving Pharisees accuse him harshly (v. 34). But when the blind man meets the Savior again, the one and only issue between them is faith: He said to him, "Do you believe in the Son of God?" (v. 35). The blind man replies: "Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?" (v. 36).
"I only need information," this man is saying. "I am ready to believe if you'll just tell me who that Person is."
Our Lord's answer is revelatory: "You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you" (9:37).
The blind man's response is immediate: "And he said, `Lord, I believe!' And he worshiped Him."
It would be a true piece of theological casuistry to find repentance in a story like this. It simply is not there.
Unlike the prodigal son who was drawn back to his father by his own empty life in the far country, the blind man is drawn to Jesus by sheer gratitude. Here was the Man who had opened his eyes. He was as ready to believe as a person can get.
And when someone is ready to believe, they can do so immediately. There is no need to preach repentance to such a person at that point. Like the former blind man, they should be invited to believe right then and there.
But as surely as God can use gratitude to bring us to faith, He can also use fear. Such, in fact, was His method with the Philippian jailer. Terrified by the obvious divine intervention in his prison house, shaken no doubt by his own close brush with death (Ac 16:27-29), the jailer is ready-even eager-to be saved. All he needs to be told, therefore, is to believe.
Or again, God may use inward dissatisfaction-our own inner thirst-to bring us to faith in Christ.
This is what He did with the woman at the well of Sychar, whose life had been scarred by a dissatisfying round of unhappy marriages (Jn 4:17-18). Jesus said to her:
If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, "Give Me a drink," you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water (Jn 4:10).
"You are thirsty," Jesus is saying. "So much so, in fact, that if you only knew who I am and the kind of water I can give you, you would already have requested it. That's how thirsty you are!"
Not a word to this woman-not a syllable!-about repentance. She is not even asked to leave her present illicit relationship (Jn 4:18). Why? Didn't Jesus care about that? Of course He cared about how she lived. But that was not the issue at that specific time. The issue right then was eternal life.
Repentance could come later-for this woman, for the Philippian jailer, and for the man born blind. If they were to experience fellowship with their heavenly Father, it would have to come-not once, but many times. Repentance was indispensable to effective Christian living.
But it was not a condition for eternal life.
We must beware of trying to confine God to a "box" of our own devising. To be sure, God saves every man and woman in the same way-by faith alone. But His methods for bringing people to the moment of faith are rich and varied.
God may use repentance. But He may also use gratitude, or fear, or dissatisfaction, or any number of other powerful incentives. God is sovereign. He works with each soul precisely as His own wisdom ordains. But the words of invitation stand irrevocably true: "Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev 22:17).
God has only one way of giving this water. He gives it freely. But God has many ways of making people want the water He gives.
Other Passages on Repentance
If we will keep carefully in mind the things we have considered thus far, we will be able to understand many other biblical statements about repentance, and thus avoid much confusion and error.
The call to repentance is the call to harmonious relations with God. And that is precisely what it was when John the Baptist preached repentance to Israel (Mt 3:2, 8, 11; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3, 8). It was a call to the nation to repair its relationship with the God who had selected them out of all the families of the earth, to be His people.
In John's preaching, repentance played precisely the role it had in the life of Cornelius. It was designed to prepare the nation for faith in the Coming One. Paul states this clearly in Acts 19:
Then Paul said, "John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying to the people [= Israel] that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus" (Ac 19:4).
Here we see once more that repentance and faith are not the same thing. Rather, repentance was to prepare Israel for faith, exactly as it also prepared Cornelius the Gentile for faith.
Moreover, many of the threats voiced against unrepentant Israel have in view the national calamities that would overtake them if they remained out of harmony with God. John the Baptist spoke, for example, of the ax of judgment that was laid at the root of the trees and which would cut down every fruitless tree so that it could be cast into the fire (Mt 3:10; Lk 3:9). Yet this should by no means be read as a threat of eternal damnation, but rather as a warning about the fiery holocaust which engulfed the nation in A.D. 70 and resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths.
This fact should be evident when we closely consider the additional words which the Baptist spoke:
His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mt 3:12; italics added).
Every farmer in John's audience understood this analogy perfectly well. Chaff was completely burned up by the fires to which it was consigned. In short, the chaff was destroyed.16
This can only refer to temporal judgment and physical death. The unsaved are not "burned up"-they are not "destroyed"-in hell! In that place, the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mk 9:44, 46, 48). But in the national tragedy of A.D. 70 the physical lives of many thousands were cut down and destroyed.
To the same effect are the words of Jesus in Luke 13: "but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (13:3, 5). Here the word "perish" is a perfectly good Greek word which can simply mean "die."
And transparently, Jesus is talking about physical death. The "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Lk 13:1) had died. The "eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell" had been "killed" (Lk 13:4; italics added).
"You're going to die, too," says our Lord, "unless you repent." No doubt many of His hearers did die in the devastation the Romans brought to Palestine in A.D. 70. But those who repented-who repaired their relationship with God-would survive.
Let there be no mistaking this principle. The end of the road for any unrepentant sinner is death.17 This is true even if the unrepentant sinner is already saved and certain of his or her destiny in heaven. Apart from repentance the sinning Christian is headed toward an untimely death under the chastening hand of God.
That is what James had in mind when he urged his Christian brethren to turn one another from any sinful path:
Brethren, if anyone among you should wander from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins (Jas 5:19-20; italics added).
"Be concerned," James is saying, "to seek your brother's repentance whenever you see him going astray. When you do that, you can save his life!"18
From what we have seen in this chapter, we must conclude that the call to repentance is broader than the call to eternal salvation. It is rather a call to harmony between the creature and His Creator, a call to fellowship between sinful men and women and a forgiving God.
If we keep this fact firmly in mind, we will never make the mistake of thinking that repentance is a condition for eternal salvation.
Thus it will be with full comprehension that we read words like these:
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Lk 24:46-47; italics added).
This, of course, is the Lucan form of the Great Commission. And like Matthew's expression of this mandate (Mt 28:18-20), it focuses on the broad call into a vital experience with God.19
In Matthew, that experience is described as discipleship to Jesus Christ our Lord (Mt 28:19) and involves obedience to His commands (28:20). In Luke, that experience is presented as the fellowship with God into which we enter by means of "repentance and remission of sins." Indeed-not surprisingly-Luke's form of the Commission immediately follows another instance of table fellowship between the disciples and their now risen Lord (Lk 24:42-43).
In contrast to Matthew and Luke, however, stands the gospel of John. Whereas Matthew and Luke focus on the experience with God into which people are called, John focuses on a more narrow topic: how to get eternal life. And since that topic was in his mind, John the Evangelist had no need to discuss repentance.
Of course, the words "repentance and remission of sins" (Lk 24:47) are a summary statement. They do not express all the details of Luke's theology. Instead, as we have seen, Luke agreed with John that eternal life-eternal salvation-is by faith alone.
But clearly, the words "repentance and remission of sins" are programmatic for the book of Acts. In fact, repentance and remission of sins are at the core of the preaching that is done there. To begin with, John the Baptist's call to Israel to repent is repeated in the opening chapters of Acts (2:38; 3:19; 5:31). As was true also in John's preaching, this repentance was to be expressed in baptism (Ac 2:38).
Especially noteworthy is Acts 5:30-31, which picks up, in reference to Israel, the theme of Luke (24:47). Thus, speaking to the Jewish leadership, Peter declares:
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you killed by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted with His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins(Ac 5:30-31; italics added).
So the early preaching in Acts, which begins at Jerusalem (Lk 24:47), is a repeat of the call made by John the Baptist to Israel to repair their disastrous breach with God. And if matters were serious in John's day, they were far worse now. For now the nation had crucified the One whom God had made both Lord and Christ (Ac 2:36).
In grim reality, the dreadful fires of A.D. 70 were now that much closer to being kindled.
As Israel rejects this call, however, the invitation to "repentance and remission of sins" moves outward "to all nations" (Lk 24:47). The book of Acts is our only biblical record of the spread of God's truth into the gentile world.
In his account of this spread, therefore, Luke selects the story of Cornelius as the centerpiece of his narrative. As we have seen, Cornelius was a striking example of repentance, as he is also an example of the forgiveness of sins, which Cornelius received by faith (Ac 10:43-44).
Cornelius, then, is Luke's prototype and model for Gentiles everywhere, to whom Paul would preach "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ac 20:21).
Paul, of course, was Luke's hero. He is the commanding figure of Luke's narrative. And as Paul's sometimes traveling companion, Luke understood Pauline theology as well as anyone ever has. Luke knew, for example, that if Paul were asked what a man must do to be saved, the answer would be simple and direct: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Ac 16:31).
And what about justification? Luke knew that in Pauline theology this, too, was by faith alone. In fact, Luke quotes Paul on this subject in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia: "And by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Ac 13:39; italics added].
Not a word here-not a syllable!-about repentance. And how utterly like the book of Romans are such words. And why not? The words are Paul's in both places.
But Luke also knew that Paul preached a broader message. That message consisted of a call to men-both Jews and Greeks-to enter into vital fellowship with God Himself. And in this broader message, repentance played a prominent role.
In his sterling defense before King Agrippa and the Roman procurator Festus, Paul declares the full scope of his proclamation to men:
Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works suitable to repentance (Ac 26:19-20; italics added).
"I preach holiness," Paul is saying. "I preach the kind of religious experience that turns people to God and produces good works."
But Paul is not saying, as lordship theology alleges, that one cannot be saved without repentance or that one cannot go to heaven unless a life of good works is lived. Paul never said that! The Bible never says that. What Paul and the Bible do say is clear:
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Ro 4:5; italics added).
Putting this another way, if you could have inquired of Paul what you needed to do to be eternally saved, he simply would have said: "Believe!"
Yes, the Reformers got it right after all. The inspiring insight of Reformation thought is altogether biblical and true: Sola fide!
Return to the Repentance Menu
(After the first reference to an author's work, later references to the same work often use a shortened form and the reader is referred back to the initial reference for full bibliographic details.)
1See Luther's and Zwingli's Propositions for Debate: The Ninety-Five Theses of 31 October 1517 and the Sixty-Seven Articles of 19 January 1523, in the original version and contemporary translations, with a new English translation, introduction, and bibliography by Carl S. Meyer (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1963), pp. 2-3.
5Both Reformers treated repentance as a fruit of faith. Cf. Institutes III.III.1. And note this interesting discussion by Luther:
In the first place, they [the Romanists] teach that contrition takes precedence over, and is far superior to, faith in the promise, as if contrition were not a work of faith, but a merit; indeed, they do not mention faith at all. They stick so closely to works and to those passages of Scripture where we read of many who obtained pardon by reason of their contrition and humility of heart; but they take no account of the faith which effected this contrition and sorrow of heart, as is written of the men of Nineveh in Jon. 3 [:5]: "And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, etc." Others again, more bold and wicked, have invented a so-called "attrition," which is converted into contrition by the power of the keys, of which they know nothing. This attrition they grant to the wicked and unbelieving, and thus abolish contrition altogether. O the intolerable wrath of God, that such things should be taught in the church of Christ! Thus, with both faith and its work destroyed, we go on secure in the doctrines and opinions of men, or rather we perish in them. A contrite heart is a precious thing, but it is found only where there is an ardent faith in the promises and threats of God. Such faith, intent on the immutable truth of God, makes the conscience tremble, terrifies it and bruises it; and afterwards, when it is contrite, raises it up, consoles it, and preserves it. Thus the truth of God's threat is the cause of contrition, and the truth of his promise the cause of consolation, if it is believed. By such faith a man "merits" the forgiveness of sins. Therefore faith should be taught and aroused before all else. Once faith is obtained, contrition and consolation will follow inevitably of themselves.
A paragraph later, he adds:
Beware then, of putting your trust in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own remorse. God does not look on you with favor because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed his threats and promises, and which has effected such sorrow within you. Thus we owe whatever good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith. All other things are the works and fruits which follow of their own accord. They do not make a man good, but are done by the man who is already made good through faith in the truth of God. Even so, "smoke goes up in his wrath; because he is angry he shakes the mountains and sets them on fire," as it is said in Ps. 18 [:8,7]) [sic]. First comes the terror of this threatening, which sets the wicked on fire, then faith, accepting this, sends up smoke-clouds of contrition, etc.
Martin Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," Luther's Works, vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1959), pp. 84, 85.
6For the idea that the word "Lord" here implies "lordship" doctrine, see our discussion of Acts 16:31 in chapter 13.
8See M. Charles Bell, p. 39 n. 208 (bibliographic data: chap. 2, n. 8).
9See the Bauer-Gingrich-Danker lexicon, pp. 511-12 (bibliographic data: chap. 2, n. 4).
10The concept of "sorrow" or "remorse" is frequently implied by the English word, though by no means always implied. In this regard, the English context is decisive for the English word, just as the Greek context is for the Greek word. "Remorse" cannot always be presupposed in either English or Greek, so that the idea is often softened to the level of "regret." See the lexicon cited in the previous note.
11The Hebrew word is niham. It is not appropriate to say, as J. Goetzmann does, that "the New Testament does not follow LXX usage but employs metanoeo to express the force of sûb, turn around." (See article on metanoia, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 1:357. On the contrary, the New Testament word for "turning around" is the verb epistrepho (noun = epistrophe). There is no good reason to think that the Septuagint translators and the New Testament writers did not share the same understanding of metanoeo as a functional equivalent to niham.
12Many very fine expositors of the New Testament who preach a completely free salvation hold the view that "to repent" means simply "to change one's mind." They then affirm that in salvation contexts the call to repent means basically nothing more than the change of mind involved in moving from an attitude of unbelief to one of faith in Christ. For such expositors, repentance becomes almost a synonym for faith. Or, at least, it is the opposite side of the coin since some change of mind is necessarily involved in coming to faith. I certainly respect this point of view even if I cannot agree with it. It is a view that maintains the integrity of the gospel offer. For a scholarly discussion from this perspective, see Robert Nicholas Wilkin, Repentance as a Condition for Salvation in the New Testament (unpublished Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1985).
14Astoundingly, MacArthur finds repentance implied in Nicodemus's questions, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (p. 40) and in our Lord's reference to the brazen serpent story of Numbers 21 (p. 46). But in both cases, repentance has scarcely ever been detected in either case in the Johannine narrative. MacArthur's efforts to extract it from John's text will be seen by any fair-minded person to be a counsel of desperation.
15The reader is referred again to Anders Nygren's excellent discussion of Romans 8:12-17 (see chap. 6, n. 3). Particularly appropriate here are these words by Nygren (p. 326):
So there are two different ways to live. Man can "live according to the flesh" or "live according to the Spirit." As to the former manner of life, it must be said that it is not really life. On the contrary, in its basic nature it is quite the opposite. Therefore, Paul says, "If you live according to the flesh you will die" [italics in the original].
Shortly after these words, alluding to Romans 8:10 ("if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin"), Nygren writes (p. 327), "With his `mortal body' the Christian lives in an order where death reigns. It is here-in his mortal body-that the Christian must carry on his battle against the flesh and death." Sin, then, involves an experience that cannot truly be called "life." It is, in fact, a species of "death." All repentance, therefore-whether by the unsaved or the saved-is like an awakening from a state of "death" to an experience of "life" with God.
16The Greek verb for "burn up" is intensive and is normally applied to things which are fully consumed by fire (see Ac 19:19; 1Co 3:15; Heb 13:11; Rev 8:7). Of course, the contextual imagery of chaff makes the force of the verb plain in Matthew 3:12. The same verb is also used in the parallel passage in Luke 3:17. Even in the case of the darnel (= "tares") in Matthew 13:30, 40, the metaphor suggests complete destruction. The reference in Matthew 13 will then be to the eschatological judgments of the end-times, which result in such widespread destruction of life that the extinction of the human race is threatened (Mt 24:22).
The reference to "unquenchable fire" in Matthew 3:12 (and Lk 3:17) means, of course, that the fire is irresistible and cannot be extinguished until the chaff is destroyed. The fires of hell are also unquenchable (Mk 9:44, 46, 48), but they do not consume, or "burn up," the lost.
17Of course, if an unrepentant attitude deters a person from seeking or accepting God's free and unconditional salvation, he will not only die but also end in hell. No doubt, the rich man of our Lord's well-known narrative was a case in point (Lk 16:19-31).
But we should not look for theological sophistication in this man who has just awakened in Hades (16:23). He is mistaken about the possibility of receiving relief from Lazarus (16:24-26), and he is also mistaken about the impact Lazarus could have on his five living brothers (16:27-31). But at least he does know that his brothers need to get right with God, and it was natural for him, as a Jew, to indicate this need by a reference to repentance (16:30). But we are certainly not to infer that he awakened in hell with a clear-cut theology of salvation by grace through faith!
18Paul is close to James in describing the Corinthians' sorrow and repentance as leading "to salvation [or, deliverance], not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2Co 7:10; italics added). The Corinthians have chosen a life-saving path (see v. 11).
19Not surprisingly, the apostle Peter refers to this broader call from God in 2 Peter 3:9 when he writes, "The Lord ... is longsuffering toward us, not desiring that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." Repentance is God's universal desire for people. Not only does He not wish that any man undergo eternal judgment, but also He wants every man to repent. That is, God desires harmony and fellowship with all, and He desires the damnation of none.
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