Recent decades have given way to many theologians arguing against the necessity of repentance in conversion and gospel preaching. People might not talk about it but please ask yourself, do they call people to repentance from sin when presenting the gospel in your local church? The evidence is in the silence. Hillsong have been guilty of this for years – they are even guilty according to their own doctrine statement. Brian Houston avoids the subject like the plague and is even willing to change Bible translations to avoid mentioning the word (as he did during his recent visit to Rick Warren’s fellowship).
The wholesale abandonment of repentance preaching really took root at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in the 70’s. It has created a sub-culture of professing Christians who live lives that look no different to the world. It has been a mission field catastrophe and created mass confusion as to why people claim to be Christians and yet persist in bringing reproach on the body of Christ through their lives of perpetual unrepentant sin. The Bible has a name for this kind of Christian – non-Christians!
Without a doubt, Zane Hodges from DTS was one of the leading voices in spreading this poison. He wrote:
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… 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.
This post has been written in order to respond to Hodges beliefs, which are still very influential on the global mission field. I stand with John MacArthur in my assessment that this is one of the defining theological issues of our time and must be fought with unyielding resolve. This article is designed to show that it is the gospel Zane Hodges advocates that is deficient and not even a Christian gospel at all. Following is a list of ten reasons that Hodges assertion is wrong regarding the absence of repentance in the gospel of John.
1. This is a Very Easy Game to Play
I can easily play the same game with Zane Hodges. The word love makes no appearance in the book of Acts. Therefore we should ignore the importance of love in fulfilling the Great Commission and make sure we don’t make it a necessary part of our preaching. A little closer to the issue at hand, I could also argue that Jesus never mentions grace in John’s gospel and therefore we should also avoid preaching or insisting upon God’s grace. Though my comments are sarcastic, these ludicrous ideas reveal a major deficiency in Hodges’ argument.
2. John is Not the Only Book in the Bible This is simple but it is true. John’s gospel is not the entire Bible. The true theologian has to deal with the subject of repentance as it is dealt with within the entirety of Scripture. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments comprise one canon – not 66 canons!
3. John Wrote More Than One Book John’s gospel is not the only book he wrote. In fact, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation were all probably written later as well.
The word, repent, features prominently in the book of Revelation. It is used to describe wicked sinners who refuse to repent (Rev 9:20, 9:21, 16:9, 16:11). Their refusal to metanoia<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> means much more than a change of mind because the context in these passages reveals their unrepentance by their continuation in their sinful practices. Jesus also commanded five of the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 to repent – Ephesus (Rev 2:5), Pergamum (Rev 2:16), Thyatira (Rev 2:21-22), Sardis (Rev 3:3), and Laodicea (Rev 3:19). John’s context is clear here that the repentance demanded requires outward action – “repent and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:5).
Although the word repent is not used in John’s three epistles, the concept is both dominant and clearly portrayed. He who perseveres in disobedience and wicked works is described as someone who “does not have God” (2 John 1:9). Those who do good are from God and those who do evil have “not seen God” (3 John 1:11). In his first epistle, John goes so far as to say that God’s children are those who practice righteousness and the Devil’s children are those who continue in their sinful ways (1 John 3:4-10). Repentance was clearly not a concept that was foreign to John, nor was it a subject he treated as anything less than a matter of eternal importance.
4. True Biblical Repentance Has a True Biblical Context As mentioned previously, when Jesus tells the church in Ephesus to repent, He elaborates on His point by telling them to do the works they had been doing previously (Rev 2:5).
5. True Biblical Repentance Results in a Change of Mind that Results in a Change of Action
When John the Baptist preached repentance he commanded his sinful audience to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. He was asked by the crowds:
“What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).
6. True Biblical Repentance is Tangible and Humanly Quantifiable
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him (Luke 17:3-4).
Jesus is clearly implying, in these verses, that repentance is measurable to humans. His command to the offended party is based on the repentance of the guilty party. The offended party has to be able to determine if repentance is forthcoming – it must be something more than a change of mind because it is only the outward change in behavior that is discernable to a human observer.
7. True Biblical Repentance is Inseparable From Saving Faith
Jesus’ death for sins was an act of salvation. To receive God’s gracious gift Scripture explicitly teaches that:
Truly, then, God overlooking the times of ignorance, now He strictly commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day in which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He appointed, having given proof to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
The Apostle Paul said that; “Godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10a). This repentance from sin and turning away from it is also a turning to Christ in saving faith in order to receive salvation:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). And that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).
And how I kept back nothing that was profitable, but have shown you and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21).
Some people claim that “faith alone” in Ephesians 2:8 negates the need to repent. But we must remember this hermeneutical rule: Scripture cannot contradict itself – therefore in understanding it rightly, it must harmonize with the rest of Scripture. As we harmonize all of Scripture we can clearly see that sometimes only faith or belief is mentioned, sometimes only repentance is mentioned, and sometimes both are mentioned (refer to the verses above).
By harmonizing all of these (rather than focusing on a single verse) we can see that the salvation call is a call to turn away from sin in repentance and a turning to Christ in faith – trusting Him alone to save us. The turning to Christ (faith) necessitates a turning away from our carnal affections (repentance). Man cannot serve two masters.
8. True Biblical Repentance is a Work of God
This salvation is ultimately a work of God. Both repentance (Acts 11:18) and faith (Eph 2:8) are works of God. We cannot come to God unless the Spirit draws us (John 6:44). We are not saved by praying a prayer or walking down to the front of a church. It is God who saves. It is God who gives us a love for His law and a desire to live in holiness. It does not mean we stop sinning but it does mean we have a new relationship with sin manifest in a love for God’s law and a desire to obey it:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezek 36:25-27).
9. True Biblical Repentance is the True Biblical Fruit of True Biblical Conversion
The regenerative work described in Ezekiel 36:25-27 produces the repentance described in verse 31:
Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations (Ezek 36:31).
Within its context, this repentance is brought about by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. As we have seen earlier in John’s epistles, a lifestyle of repentance is the fruit and sign of a truly regenerate Christian.
10. True Biblical Repentance is in the Gospel of John
There is so much that can be said here, I could take up a great number of pages in discussion of this one point. For the sake of brevity I will point out some of the big ones:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (John 3:19-21).
Repentance is clearly included by implication in these verses that follow right on the heels of John 3:16.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36).
Notice here that the opposite of belief is disobedience. The belief John describes is clearly a repentant belief. Turning to Christ means turning away from sin.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you (John 14:15-17).
John MacArthur drives the whole issue home:
To say that John called for a faith that excluded repentance is to grossly misconstrue the apostle’s concept of what it means to be a believer. Although John never uses repent as a verb, the verbs he does employ are even stronger. He teaches that all true believers love the light (3:19), come to the light (3:20-21), obey the Son (3:36), practice the truth (3:21), worship in spirit and truth (4:23-24), honor God (5:22-24), do good deeds (5:29), eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood (6:48-66), love God (8:42 , cf. 1 John 2:15), follow Jesus (10:26-28), and keep Jesus’ commandments (14:15). Those ideas hardly concur with no-lordship salvation! All of them presuppose repentance, commitment, and a desire to obey.
Thomas Watson responded to this 20th Century invention 300 years earlier:
“He commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Repentance is not arbitrary. It is not left to our choice whether or not we will repent, but it is an indispensable command. God has enacted a law in the High Court of heaven that no sinner shall be saved except the repenting sinner, and He will not break His own law. Though all the angels should stand before God and beg the life of an unrepenting person, God would not grant it. “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, keeping mercy for thousands, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exod 34:6-7). Though God is more full of mercy than the sun is full of light, yet He will not forgive a sinner while he goes on in his guilt: “He will by no means clear the guilty.
Repentance Properly Defined and Applied
Repentance is clearly important to God. The Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and Jesus Himself all began their ministries with a call to repentance. Jesus made it very clear when He spoke about a natural disaster of His time where eighteen people died. He said that although they did not die because they were more sinful than others, “unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3).
What is repentance? Perhaps it is better to initially state what it is not. repentance is not reformation. Repentance is not remorse. Repentance is not regret. Wayne Grudem defines repentance as “a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” Repentance is genuine sorrow for offending God that changes us to be more like Jesus.
Jesus said “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Our repentance starts a celebration in heaven. It is repentance that sets us truly free. Free from the fear of being found out. Free from condemnation. Free from the facades that we live behind. Free from guilt. Repentance should not be a one-off event but a lifestyle practice. We all need to live this way because we are all sinners. The Bible makes it clear that we are all sinners (Romans 6:23) therefore we’ve all got stuff we need to repent of. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
Heavenly Father, Maker of heaven and earth, Your ways are so much higher than our ways. All that You do is perfect and all of Your ways are just and right. I come to You in the name of Jesus Christ knowing that I cannot stand in Your presence in any other way. I have sinned against You and have no excuse. You know all the thoughts and intents of my heart. I confess them to You. I am not sorry because of the consequences but because it damages my relationship with You. I repent of it, turn away from it, and plead Your forgiveness. I put all of my trust in Your promise that You will immediately totally cleanse me of all my unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Thank You Lord for the greatest act of love in history by dying for my sins so that I can have right standing with You and eternal life instead of hell. In Jesus name amen.