Is Repentance a Condition of Salvation?

Acts 17:31

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2009

What do you have to do to be saved? Is faith the ONLY condition of salvation?  Can a person be saved without repenting?  Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), the founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary wrote, “the New Testament does NOT impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation.” [1]  Many agree with him.

Many believe that faith was the only condition of salvation based on the Gospel of John.  John was written so that people might have life and get saved. It is the only book of the Bible written for that express purpose (John 20:31).  John is evangelistic in nature. The Gospel of John uses the terms “ believe” or “faith” about one hundred times but does not mention the verb “repent” or the noun “repentance” at all.

The Fourth Gospel teaches that the ones who BELIEVE in Jesus become the children of God (1:12).  It says that believers shall NOT perish but have eternal life (3:16).  It teaches that whoever believes is NOT condemned (3:18) and will NOT come into judgment but has passed from death to life (5:24).

If repentance was part of the gospel, then John would have mentioned it. The purpose of John was to tell people how to receive eternal life.  That is the whole purpose of the book.  If you have to repent to get eternal life, then John would have mentioned it but he does not do so, not even once.  Is this a valid argument?

It sounds pretty good (especially if John was the only book in the Bible) but there is a problem. This argument makes a logical fallacy. It is an argument from SILENCE. To find the condition or conditions of salvation, we should not limit ourselves to the Gospel of John or any other book of the Bible. We need to look at the whole counsel of God. We need to look at everything God says in His revealed Word.  There are other verses in the Bible which also deal with salvation.

It is a big mistake to only read half of the Bible. Some in the charismatic movement just read the Book of Acts and ignore other portions of Scripture.  Furthermore, the argument from silence is a weak argument.  A specific word may not be found in the text but the context may still be taught.  The words  “rapture” and “incarnation” are not found in the Bible but are both clear scriptural teachings.

John does focus on belief.  It is a key term in his gospel.  Many have pointed out that the word “believe” is used 98 times in John (compared to 34 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 16 times in the rest of the NT). John may not use the word “repent” in his Gospel but that does not necessarily mean that he does not believe in the concept of repentance.  The concept of repentance is clearly taught.

Many have pointed out that, in the Fourth Gospel, Christians are portrayed as those who love the light (3:19), come to the light (3:21-22), hate the darkness (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), love God (8:42), follow Jesus (10:26-28), and keep his commandments (14:15). [2]  John does prove that you can preach the gospel without using the word repentance but even John has the concept of repentance in the Fourth Gospel.

Six Myths about Repentance

1) The only thing you have to do to be saved is to believe

This myth teaches that repentance has nothing to do with salvation, which is strange because it is tied to the Great Commission in Luke 24.  Repentance is said to be a condition of salvation in many passages.  Repentance is said to be “UNTO LIFE” (Acts 11:18) and “FOR the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38; 3:19).  Jesus said that if you do not repent, you will PERISH (Luke 13:3).

2) Repentance is synonymous with faith

Charles Ryrie[3] believes that faith and repentance are just synonyms, as many others do.  Charles Ryrie was one of my favorite writers as a young Christian.  He is very good and breaking things down and making them easy to understand but, if faith and repentance are just synonyms, that would make the command to repent and believe (Mark 1:15) completely redundant.  “Repent and believe the gospel” would just mean to “believe and believe the gospel.”

Mark 1:15 does NOT just say to “believe the gospel.”  It says to “repent AND believe the gospel.”  There would be no need to repent and believe the gospel if to repent means to believe the gospel.  It would make it pointless for Paul to testify “both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, AND faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21 ESV), if they are the exact same concepts.

The two are related concepts.  Some say that repentance is part of faith but the two are not entirely synonymous.  It is possible to repent but not believe.  It is also possible to believe but not repent.  That is why we have to command to repent AND believe, not just a command to repent and not just a command to believe.  The order is always the same: “repent and believe,” not “believe and repent.”

3) Repentance just means a change of mind

It is merely changing the way we think. In Greek, the word means “change of mind” but in Hebrew it means a “change of action.”  Both are correct.  One leads to the other.  Change of actions begins with a change of mind or attitude.

John the Baptist preached repentance.  In fact, he preached a baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins. However, he did not just tell people to change their mind.  He told the Pharisees to change their behavior (Luke 3:10-14) and bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8).

The Apostle Paul taught the same thing in Acts 26:20.  If repentance just means a change of mind, there would be no need for people to produce fruit consistent with repentance.  A change of mind would be all that is needed.

The OT king Saul and the Apostle Judas are examples of people who had a change of mind.  They both had a change of mind.  They both said the words “I have sinned” (I Samuel 15:24; Matthew 27:4).  They both admitted that what they had done was wrong but neither one of them repented in the biblical sense.

Repentance which is only a change of mind is NOT biblical repentance.  Repentance without works is dead, just as faith without works is dead.  Biblical repentance is not just intellectual or mental.  God is interested in far more than a change of mind.  He wants a change of heart and a change of life.

4) Repentance is a work

Many reject the notion of repentance because they see it as man-made efforts of self-righteousness that are done to gain merit before God.  The Bible clearly teaches that we are not saved by works.  Repentance is not a work because it is a GIFT.  The ability to repent is a gift from God.  It is called a a gift of God in many passages (Acts 5:30-31; 11:18; II Timothy 2:25).

5) Repentance is unbiblical

Some seem to think that it is a man-made teaching invented by a church.  Repentance is a clear biblical term. It is all through the Bible. The OT mentions repentance and the NT mentions repentance.

John the Baptist preached repentance for salvation. He preached “a baptism of repentance FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS” (Mark 1:4). John said, “The kingdom of God is near. REPENT and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

Jesus preached repentance. Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17). He taught that repentance was necessary for salvation. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

6) All repentance is the same

The Bible teaches that there is true and false repentance, just as there is true and false faith.  The Bible talks about a faith that saves and a faith that does not save.   It talks about a repentance that bears fruit, just as it talks about saving faith which also bears fruit.  It talks about a repentance that leads to LIFE (Acts 11:18) and a false repentance that leads to DEATH (II Corinthians 7:10).  Judas repented but his repentance did not lead to life.  It lead to despair and death (Matthew 27:3-5).

Jesus COMMANDED repentance to be preached to ALL NATIONS as part of the Great Commission (Luke 24:46-47). Peter preached repentance for salvation. On the day of Pentecost, he said, “Repent and be baptized FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF YOU SINS” (Acts 2:28).

In Acts 3:19, Peter said, “Repent and turn to God, SO THAT YOUR SINS MAY BE WIPED OUT.” In Acts 5, Peter said that God exalted Jesus to his own right hand as Prince and Savior so that “he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31).

In Acts 8, Peter tells Simon Magus: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. REPENT of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart” (Acts 8:20-22). Paul preached repentance. Paul said that “God now COMMANDS all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:31).

The Biblical Teaching on Repentance

If you put all verses these together, we learn the following things about repentance. This is a brief summary of the biblical teaching on repentance.

1. Repentance is BIBLICAL

There are some on the Internet who teach that if you preach repentance, you are preaching heresy.  You are not preaching heresy, you are preaching the Bible.  Repentance is a a biblical concept.  It is a biblical term.  It is found all through the Bible.  It is not limited to Jews.  It is not limited to the Old Testament.  It is also in the New Testament.

2. Repentance is ESSENTIAL

It is essential for salvation, not optional.  It is not just a biblical concept, it is a command (Acts 17:31).  It is called “repentance UNTO LIFE” (Acts 11:18).  In the OT, God tells people to TURN AND LIVE (Ezekiel 18:32).  If you do not repent, you cannot be saved.  It is a matter of life and death.  If you don’t do it, Jesus said, “you will PERISH” (Luke 13:3).

If you do not repent, you sins cannot be forgiven and you cannot be saved.  There is no salvation without repentance. A gospel which teaches that you can continue to live in sin and still be saved is not the biblical gospel.  It is a false gospel.

3. Repentance is UNIVERSAL

Repentance is for everyone.  It is for “ALL PEOPLE” (Acts 17:31) and “ALL NATIONS” (Luke 24:47), not just some people or some nations. It is for both Jews and Gentiles.

4. Repentance is IMPORTANT

Repentance is part of the gospel.  It is mentioned in the Great Commission (Luke 24:46-47).  It is a condition of salvation. It is FOR the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). The NT says, “Repent and turn to God, SO THAT YOUR SINS MAY BE WIPED OUT” (Acts 3:19).

[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, III, 373 (emphasis mine).  The citation can be accessed online at http://www.bibleone.net/print_tbs45.html.

[2] C. Samuel Storm, “The Lordship Salvation Debate,” Enjoying God Ministries (November 6, 2006),   http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/the-lordship-salvation-debate/; John MacArthur, “Repentance in the Gospel of John,” https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A238/repentance-in-the-gospel-of-john.

[3] Charles Ryrie, So Great Salvation, p. 88.

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