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Is Repentance Required for Eternal Salvation?

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important subject known to mankind.  It is the, “power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).[1] Yet, among those that love the Lord Jesus Christ there is great disagreement about the content of the Gospel.  One definite area of disagreement circles around the word repentance.  The battle lines have been drawn.  Those who believe in the free grace of God generally believe that repentance simply means, “to change one’s mind.”[2] In regard to the Gospel of Christ it is taught that repentance, “means changing your mind about the particular sin of rejecting Christ.”[3] Those from the Reformed camp would disagree.  Regarding the role of repentance in receiving eternal salvation, consider this excerpt from author John Stott in his book, Basic Christianity:

First, there must be a renunciation of sin. This, in a word, is repentance.  It is the first part of Christian conversion.  It can in no circumstances be bypassed.  Repentance and faith belong together.  We cannot follow Christ without forsaking sin.  Repentance is a definite turn from every thought, word, deed and habit which is known to be wrong.[4]

Popular author, John MacArthur, takes the same view.  In his book, The Gospel According to Jesus, he wrote, “Note the three elements of repentance: a turning to God; a turning from evil; and the intent to serve to God.”[5] Is the intention to serve God really part of accepting the free gift of eternal life?  Is repentance required for eternal salvation?  What does it mean to repent?  Does it mean a change of mind about rejecting the Savior Jesus Christ or does it mean forsaking every wicked thought and deed?  There can only be one right answer to each of these questions and the stakes could not be higher.  It is critical to have a clear understanding of the Gospel of Christ.  The Apostle Paul warned, “but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:7-8).

Given the gravity of the situation we must search the Scriptures for answers.  It is in the Word of God that we will find that repentance, in regard to eternal salvation, means a change of mind about rejecting Jesus Christ as Savior.  First, we will define the word repentance as it is used in Scripture.  Then, we will look to the Word of God and how it uses repentance in regard to eternal salvation.  Next, we will see if the biblical usage of repentance matches what is being taught by Christian authors in our day.  We will examine why the Reformed view of repentance is not in agreement with Scripture.  Finally, we will confirm that a correct understanding of the role of repentance has a profound impact on how we share the Gospel and on how we as believers in Jesus Christ have fellowship with God.

Defining Repentance

The word for the noun repentance used in the Greek New Testament is metanoia (μετάνοια).  There is considerable agreement on the meaning of this word.  Consider the following definitions:

  • μετάνοια is used to convey, “repentance, conversion.”[6]
  • μετάνοια is used to convey, “change of mind, repentance.”[7]
  • μετάνοια is used to convey, “after-thought, repentance.”[8]
  • μετάνοια is used to convey, “repentance, change of mind,” and “afterthought.”[9]
  • μετάνοια is used to convey, “change of mind, repentance.”[10]
  • μετάνοια is primarily used to convey, “a change of mind.”  Here we have an additional note that metanoia has the added, “focus on the need of change in view of responsibility to deity.”  It can also include the idea of remorse, conversion, and turning about.[11]

We should also recognize that the word for the verb repent in the Greek New Testament is metanoeō (μετανοέω).  The meanings include:

  • μετανοέω is used to convey, “to think differently or afterwards.”[12]
  • μετανοέω is used to convey the meaning of changing one’s mind, feel remorse, be converted, or to turn away from.[13]
  • μετανοέω is used to convey to, “turn around, change one’s mind.”[14]

The most basic meaning of the words repent and repentance is simply a change of mind.  It is often assumed that repentance must always mean turning from sin.  Yet, we read in Amos, “The Lord repented for this: This also shall not be, saith the Lord God” (Amos 7:6).[15] What is most fascinating is that the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses a form of the word metanoeō to signify that God repented.[16] We see this again in Jonah 3:9-10.  If repentance is always connected with the idea of turning from sin, then the Bible is teaching that God had sin to repent of.  However, if we understand that to repent means a change of mind or to turn from something, then we can understand that God was simply turning from the actions that He was about to take.  This obviously makes much more sense in both passages.  More importantly, it teaches us that repentance is not automatically connected with the idea of turning from sin in the Bible.

Our search for the way metanoia and metanoeō are used in the New Testament must be further clarified by how these words are used in the context of the passages that we find them in.  In other words, as we approach any passage in the New Testament we must ask, “If repentance is simply changing our mind or turning from/toward something, what specifically is the text referring to?”  J.B. Hixson has broken down the different meanings in the New Testament regarding repentance and the verb repent.  His first of three categories is to repent or repentance, “in the context of eternal salvation.”  This includes a change of mind about the, “Messiah/kingdom” and a change of mind, “about God/Christ/salvation.”  His second category is to repent or repentance, “in the context of sinful behavior.”  His final category is repentance, “in the sense of ‘a general change of mind.’”[17]

Repentance and Salvation in the New Testament

In the majority of the passages that use either the noun or verb form of repentance the context has nothing to do with individual eternal salvation.  However, there are some that do.  One such text is found in Acts 20.  It is there we see that the Apostle Paul was speaking to the elders of the church of Ephesus while at Miletus.  Paul told them, “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:18-21).  Here the word for repentance is metanoia. Clearly, this is a passage about eternal salvation.  Notice in verse 21 that there is nothing about calling for people to forsake every sin in their life.  There is nothing about turning from every sinful thought, word, or deed.  Instead we read, “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 21).  This is, “a beautifully balanced way of expressing what is essential for justification. One must change his or her mind Godward and place trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[18] According to Charles Ryrie, “Repentance focuses on changing one’s mind about his former conception of God and disbelief in God and Christ; while faith in Christ, of course, focuses on receiving Him as personal Savior.”[19]

A second, and important, passage to consider is Acts 2:38.  This, again, is another text that refers to repentance in regard to eternal salvation. Here the text records, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38).  Here we see that the word used for repent is metanoeō. What did Peter want the people to repent of?  In verses 22-24, Peter had just spoken about the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Jewish people certainly had a role in putting Jesus to death.  Peter then turned to Psalm 16 to show that David had prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah.  Peter also demonstrated, in verse 29, that David was dead and buried.  Therefore, in Psalm 16 David could not have been referring to himself.  Instead, David was prophesying about the Christ!  Referring to David, Peter stated, “He, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).  Then in verse 32 Peter continued by proclaiming, “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).   Furthermore, in verse 33 Peter told them that Jesus was now at the right hand of God the Father and had poured out the Holy Spirit.

Verse 36 is a critical verse.  It is Peter’s conclusion where he tells them, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  The manner in which Peter used the word Lord (kurios) in verses 21, 34, and 39 makes it self-evident that Peter used this term to proclaim that Jesus is God.  His message to them in verse 36 is that Jesus, the man that they had put to death, was both God and the Messiah!

It wasn’t that these people needed to start feeling remorse over their sin, as some would define repentance. They already stood convicted.  They already wanted to know what they should do.  Verse 37 testifies, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).  This is when we see that Peter had called for them to repent.  Was their sin involved?  Yes, they had rejected the Messiah Jesus.  They needed to change their minds about Jesus of Nazareth.  The message was, “Whatever you thought about Him before or whoever you thought He was, change your minds and now believe that He is God and your Messiah who died and who rose from the dead.  That repentance saves.”[20] This is changing your mind (repenting) about Jesus, thereby believing (placing your faith) in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose again to pay your penalty for sin; so that you might receive eternal life.  This is by no means underestimating the penalty of sin.  Placing your faith in Jesus Christ means that you understand and believe that the penalty of sin is death, but God has offered mankind the gift of life!  It is often said by Reformed writers that this position means we do not believe in repentance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We believe in the biblical definition of repentance.

There are other passages in the New Testament where repentance is connected with eternal salvation.  In the opinion of this writer, these would include: Luke 24:46-47; Acts 11:18; 17:30; 26:20; Romans 2:4; and Hebrews 6:1.

Common Objections

One common objection regarding the free grace definition of repentance that is often given is found in Luke 13:3.  H. A. Ironside used this verse as a part of the title of his book, Unless you Repent. Luke 13:3 became the theme of the book.  On the very last page he wrote, “Repentance is not only desirable, but it is imperative and all important.  Apart from it, no sinner will ever be saved.  God Himself commands all men everywhere to repent.  Our Lord Jesus declared, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’”[21] But is this really the meaning of this text in Luke? I would suggest that it is not.

Let’s take a closer look.  Verse 1 sets up the context, “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1).  The subject at hand was that some Galileans were killed by Pilate while they offered sacrifices.  Verse 2 teaches, “And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?’” (Luke 13:2).  These people had suffered; they had physically died.  In verse 4 we see a second tragedy had taken place, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4).  Once again, we see that people had physically died.  “Many of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that tragedy or accident was the direct result of some personal sin (cf. John 9:1–3). Thus they concluded that the Galileans who had perished must have been great sinners.”[22] In response to both situations we see in verses 3 and 5 Jesus proclaimed that being killed by a tragedy does not mean these people were worse sinners than the rest of them.  This is why Jesus told them, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).  The sin of those who died was no worse than the sin of the people that Jesus was talking to.  Here, repentance is connected with sin.  These people needed to change their mind about their own sin.

What did Jesus mean that unless they repented they would also perish?  Does this mean that unless they repented of their sins they would be eternally separated from God?  The word perish is apŏllumi. It means, “destroy, die, lose, mar, perish” and can be used either literally or figuratively.[23] The context of this entire passage is physical death.  There is nothing that would suggest that the word perish does not mean this in verse 3.  This same word for perish is used in Matthew when the disciples and Jesus were in a storm on the boat in the Sea of Galilee.  There we see that the disciples said, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” (Matt. 8:25).  This is just one example of the way that this word is often used.

Physical death has come into this world because of sin.  Romans 5:12 teaches, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”  All physical and spiritual death is because of sin.  These individuals that had died were not worse sinners than the people that Jesus was talking to.  The Jews talking with Jesus were judging those who had died.  All that Jesus was saying in this passage was:  If you don’t stop sinning, you are likely to die too. There is nothing in the immediate context that refers to eternal life.  We should also note, that we see in other places within the Word of God that sin leads to physical death, such as in: Leviticus 10:1-2; Proverbs 2:18; Acts 5:1-10; and 1 Corinthians 15:30.

If Luke 13:3 is really a call to individual justification, where is the call to faith?  Where is the call to believe in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation?  Repenting of sin alone will not save.  This is not a statement about eternal salvation.  This is a rebuke for the sin of judging those who had died.

Another common objection regarding the proposed definition of repentance is made by pulling statements out of context from both the teaching of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and of John the Baptist.  Consider the following statement from John MacArthur about the Gospel of Christ:

We begin with a chapter on repentance, because that is where the Savior began.  Matthew 4:17 records the dawning of Christ’s public ministry:  “From that time [the imprisonment of John the Baptist] Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  I noted in chapter 4 that the opening word of that first sermon characterized the theme of Jesus’ earthly ministry.[24]

It is beyond the scope of this work to examine every passage regarding repentance in the Gospels.  Yet, let us look at Matthew 4:17.  I would agree that both Jesus and John the Baptist were teaching the same message regarding the Kingdom.  In Matthew 3 we read, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt. 3:1-2).  This was the same message as that of Jesus, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17).  Is this really the salvation message for the Church Age?  Would either of these statements give us enough information to place our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior?  In both verses we are told the reason to repent was because the, “kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Regarding this, Thomas Stegall correctly teaches:

This is the good news that God will set up a literal, physical, earthly kingdom in fulfillment of the promised Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7) and many other Old Testament promises to the nation of Israel.  This good news of the kingdom was preached by John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus as being “at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17, 23; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 3:18; 4:43; 10:9-11; etc.).  During the earthly life of the Lord Jesus a legitimate, bona fide offer of the kingdom was made to Israel, and in this sense it was imminent or “at hand” during their lifetime. ... Of all the uses of euangelion and euangelizō, this form of good news is conspicuously never preached or required to be believed during the Church age.[25]

The good news of the coming kingdom is not the same as the Gospel of Christ that is to be preached today.[26] How critical it is as we look to New Testament passages that use the words repent and repentance to make sure that we always keep them in context.  Matthew 4:17 is a kingdom passage that is not the Gospel message that is to be proclaimed in the Church Age.

A Clear Message

“More than 160 times the New Testament conditions eternal life upon faith alone.”[27] In the Gospel of John we read, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).  The Apostle John wrote this Gospel so that people may believe and have eternal life.  Charles Ryrie teaches:

It is striking to remember that the Gospel According to John, the gospel of belief, does not use the word repent even once.  And yet John surely had many opportunities to use it in the events of our Lord’s life which he recorded.  It would have been most appropriate to use repent or repentance in the account of the Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus.  But believe is the word used (John 3:12, 15).[28]

Eternal salvation in the Bible is a one step process that is by faith alone.  There is nothing in Scripture about having to surrender, commit, pledge your life, or repent of sins for eternal salvation.  Even though we don’t have to repent of our sins for eternal salvation we do have to acknowledge that we are a sinner.  Otherwise we would have no need for a Savior.  The content of the Gospel of Christ could be summarized as follows:

Mankind is alienated from God because of our sin.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the Cross to the pay the penalty for our sins and rose again.  Whosoever trusts in Him and Him alone as their personal Savior receives eternal life.  This is saving faith.

The Significance

A correct understanding of the doctrine of repentance should have a profound impact on how we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When we have clarity surrounding the issue of repentance it will be less confusing for us as Christians and for those that we witness to.  We must remember that in Galatians chapter 1 Paul told the churches of Galatia that God’s judgment would be upon those that continually preach a false gospel.  So when we come to a position of clarity on repentance and the Gospel of Christ, it helps us to have confidence before God and confidence as we share God’s precious message of redemption.

There is another application that should not be overlooked.  Repentance of sins should be a part of the life of the believer in Christ.  How do we know this?  Revelation chapters 2 and 3 make it extremely clear.  In Revelation 2:5 the church at Ephesus was instructed to repent.  In Revelation 2:16 the church in Pergamos was told to repent. Again, in Revelation 3:3 the church at Sardis was told to repent. Then, in Revelation 3:19 we read a telling statement for the church at Laodicea, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.”  The Lord reminded this church that He chastened them because He loved them.  An important part of fellowship with God for the believer is repentance of sins.  This is part of sanctification. The Apostle John instructed, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Repenting of our sins should be a part of our lives for those that are a part of the family of God!

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are taken from The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).

[2] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, So Great Salvation, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1997), 82.

[3] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), ch. 7.

[4] John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 109-110.

[5] John F. MacArthur, Jr. The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 162-163.

[6] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 636.

[7] Inc. Logos Research Systems, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008).

[8] H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), 503.

[9] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint: Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[10] Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998).

[11] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 640.

[12] James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., vol. 1, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 47.

[13] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 640.

[14] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, vol. 2, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 415.

[15] The Holy Bible: King James Version (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009).

[16] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Amos 7:6–9.

[17] J.B. Hixson, Getting the Gospel Wrong (LaVergne, TN: Xulon Press, 2008), 360-361.

[18] Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Acts 20:18.

[19] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, So Great Salvation, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1997), 88-89.

[20] Ibid., 86.

[21] H.A. Ironside, Unless You Repent (Port Colborne, ON: Gospel Folio Press, 1994), 146.

[22] Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Luke 13:2.

[23] James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., vol. 1, A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and the Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 14.

[24] John F. MacArthur, Jr. The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 159.

[25] Thomas L. Stegall. The Gospel of the Christ (Milwaukee: Grace Gospel Press, 2009), 235.

[26] Ibid., 236.

[27] J.B. Hixson, Getting the Gospel Wrong (LaVergne, TN: Xulon Press, 2008), 137.

[28] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, So Great Salvation, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1997), 88.

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