Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative
Inclination: dispensational
Seminary: Dallas Theological

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Repentance in the Epistles and Revelation (R. Wilkin)

A series on Repentance: Part 5

I. Introduction

There is some disagreement among Bible scholars as to the intended readership of the NT books from Romans through Revelation. Two major schools of thought exist.

One school of thought suggests that the Epistles and Book of Revelation were addressed to professing Christians. (1) This group, they argue, contained both true and false professors. Hence they find many passages in Romans through Revelation, which they interpret as warning professing believers that they will go to hell if they fail to live consistent, godly lives.

A second school of thought is that the Epistles and Revelation are addressed to believers in Jesus Christ. According to this view all of the people to whom the books were specifically addressed were genuine believers.

Within this group some argue that there are passages, which warn believers (i.e., genuine believers) that they will end up going to hell if they fail to live consistent, godly lives. (2) This would be the Arminian understanding.

Others in this group argue that there are no passages, which warn believers, professing or otherwise, that they will go to hell if they fail to live consistent, godly lives. (3) This would be the Free Grace understanding.

How a person views the readership of these books greatly affects his or her understanding of the doctrine of repentance expressed within them.

This article will proceed with the understanding that the Epistles and Revelation are addressed to believers in Jesus Christ--not to a mixture of believers and unbelievers. While unbelievers surely have read these letters, the letters were addressed to actual believers in Jesus Christ, as the authors plainly indicated in their letters. (4)

We begin this study with a consideration of the condition of eternal salvation as found in the Epistles and Revelation.

II. The Gospel in the Epistles and Revelation

The Epistles and Revelation, while not evangelistic in purpose, affirm the truth of John 3:16: whoever believes in Jesus Christ, and Him alone, has eternal life. The following references give support to this point:

Romans 3:21-24: "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Romans 4:5: "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness."

Galatians 2:16a: "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ."

Galatians 3:6-7: "Just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham."

Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."

1 John 5:1a: "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God."

1 John 5:10-13a: "He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life...."

I did not attempt to provide passages from First or Second Peter, James, or Hebrews, since to do so would require citing extended portions--and even then I would need to provide exegetical comments.

Needless to say, if the NT is consistent and does not contradict itself--if the Pauline and Johannine Epistles can be shown clearly to teach that the sole condition of salvation is faith in Christ alone--then the other books must agree.

It is clear from the passages cited above that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life. It logically follows from this that if repentance is also said to be a condition (a point which some question (5)), then it must either be a synonym for faith or else an essential precursor to it.

Let us now turn to a consideration of passages in the Epistles and Revelation in which repentance is given as a condition of eternal salvation. In my estimation, there are very few. I have identified only three.

III. Repentance as a Condition of Eternal Salvation

A. 1 Thessalonians 1:9

"You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (emphasis supplied).

The normal NT word for repent, metanoeo, is not used here. Rather, the verb epistrepho is used. It means to turn. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols. The question is, was this turning necessary for eternal salvation or was Paul merely reporting what the Thessalonians had done?

Since an idolator cannot obtain eternal salvation without giving up his faith in idols and then placing his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, this passage almost certainly is speaking of what the Thessalonians did to gain eternal life.

According to Luke, some in Thessalonica were persuaded by Paul's preaching about the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:1-4). The reference to being persuaded (peitho) about Christ is synonymous with coming to faith (pisteuo) in Him. The Thessalonians were saved when they turned from faith in idols to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some see this verse differently. They suggest that the Thessalonians were saved both because they turned to God from idols and also because they made a commitment to serve God. (6) MacArthur uses this verse to suggest that to be saved one must make "a purposeful decision to forsake all unrighteousness and pursue righteousness instead." (7)

Some use the infinitival clause at the end of our verse to support this view. Paul indicates that the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to "serve the living and true God."

This interpretation does not stand up under careful scrutiny.

Paul does not say that the Thessalonians made a commitment to serve God. Nor does he say that their serving God was a condition of salvation. What he does say is that they turned to God from idols with the result that or for the purpose of serving God. Whether we understand the infinitival clause as expressing purpose or result is inconsequential as far as the Gospel message is concerned. In either case their salvation was not contingent upon this action.

Note, too, that Paul does not say that all people who trust in Christ do so with the result that they serve God or for the purpose of serving God. He simply reports that this was true of the Thessalonians. This verse cannot even rightly be used to show that all believers will definitely begin the Christian life by serving God, although that is clearly God's desire.

B. Hebrews 6:1

"Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God" (emphasis supplied).

Here we meet again the normal NT word for repentance--metanoia. The people being addressed were Jewish believers (cf. 3:1; 10:10, 19-25; 12:1-2; 13:22). According to the passage we are now considering, they had already laid the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.

The word repentance (metanoia) literally means a change of mind or perspective. (8) The readers had already come to change their perspective about human works. Formerly, before their salvation, they had thought that all good Jews would obtain kingdom entrance. They thought that good works were the ticket. Now, however, they understood well the error of such thinking. They now believed that the one and only ticket to the kingdom was faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Good works, they came to understand, are dead--that is, they produce death. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life (Rom 6:23).

Repentance from dead works is the reverse side of faith in God and in His Messiah. In order to come to faith in Christ, one must first recognize the bankruptcy of one's own works. It is impossible to trust in Christ alone and cling to some confidence in one's own deeds.

C. 2 Peter 3:9

"The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (emphasis supplied).

In this passage Peter is discussing the Lord's return to set up His kingdom. While some may scoff and suggest that He isn't coming ("Where is the promise of His coming?" 3:4), Peter is affirming that His return and kingdom are sure. No doubt about it.

Peter even gives a reason for the delay. God doesn't want anyone to perish. Rather, He wants all to come to repentance.

Zane Hodges suggests that metanoia here refers to turning from one's sinful ways with the result that one is in harmonious fellowship with God. (9) This view certainly maintains a Free Grace view of the Gospel. Although it is a possible view, I find it unlikely.

Peter is contrasting two things: perishing and repentance. Clearly the latter is a metonymy of the cause for the effect. That is, repentance is a figure for whatever it produces. If the effect is eternal life there is a quite natural antithetical parallelism with the idea of perishing. The opposite of perishing eternally is being saved eternally. If Hodges's view is correct, and it may be, then the effect is eternal rewards. But rewards are not the opposite of perishing.

This same concept is found elsewhere in Scripture. In I Tim 2:4 we read that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Clearly eternal salvation is in view there.

I suggest that repentance in 2 Pet 3:9 refers to a change of mind about the Person and work of Christ. Those who come to a proper perspective regarding the Gospel, those who come to faith in it, will not perish but have eternal life John 3:16. Since Peter was writing to a believing readership, he did not give an extended discussion on this point. His topic was the seeming delay of the Second Coming and the Kingdom. His point is that one reason the Lord hasn't returned yet is because He is giving additional time for more people to be saved.


1. See, for example, John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 22-23, James Montgomery Boice, Christ's Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 110-12, 166-67; Walter Chantry, Today's Gospel: Authenticor Synthetic (Carlisle, PA: The Banner or Truth Trust, 1970) 67-77.

2. See, for example, Ray B. White, "Eternal Security" Insecure or The Heresy of "Once In Grace Always in Grace." (Zarephath, NJ: Pillar of Fire, 1939); C. J. McElligott, The Crown of Life: A Study of Perseverance (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1963); Robert Shank, Life in the Son, 2nd ed. (Springfield, MO: Westcott Publishers, 1960, 1961) Guy Duty, If Ye Continue (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship: 1966); 1. Howard Marshall, Kept By The Power of God: A Study of Perseverance And Falling Away (London: Epworth Press, 1969).

3. See for example, Charles C Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 47-49, 59-66, 135-44; Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids and Dallas: Zondervan Publishing House and Redencion Viva, 1989), 47-88; Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 Soteriology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 347-93.

4. See for example, Rom 1:7; l Cor l:2; 6:19-20; 2 Cor 1:1; 5:1-21; Gal 1:9; Eph 1:1; 2:8-9; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2; I Thess 1:2-4; 2 Thess 2:13-14; I Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:5; Titus 14; Phlmn 4-7; Heb 6:4-5; Jas 1:16-18; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:1; I John 2:25; 5:9-13; 2 John 1; 3 John 1-3; Rev 1:5; 2:1-3:22.

5. See Hodges, Absolutely Free!, 143-63.

6. See, for example, MacArthur, The Gospel, 162-63; James E. Rosscup, "The Relation of Repentance to Salvation and the Christian Life, Unpublished paper presented at the 1989 Annual Evangelical Theological society meetings held in San Diego, California, 47-49.

7. MacArthur, The Gospel, 163.

8. For documentation see a previous article by this writer: New Testament Repentance Lexical Considerations, JOTGES 2 (Autumn 1989): 13-21.

9. See Hodges, Absolutely Free!, 226.

Continued: Repentance as a Condition of Temporal Salvation

1 / 2 / NEXT >

Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 1: The Doctrine of Repentance in Church History

Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 4: New Testament Repentance: Repentance in the Gospels and Acts

Related subject:

Topical Index: Salvation>Salvation From the Penalty of Sin>Conviction / Repentance / Confess

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Author Index: Wilkin, R.

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