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

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New Testament Repentance: Repentance in the Gospels and Acts (R. Wilkin)

A Series on Repentance: Part 4

The books of the NT vary in the emphasis that they place on various doctrines. John's Gospel, for example, is evangelistic in emphasis (John 20:30-31). Galatians presents a defense of the Gospel in the face of the Judaizers, who were trying to pervert it. The Book of Revelation deals extensively with what is yet future. How do the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and Acts treat a specific doctrine--the doctrine of repentance?

1. Take a look at a concordance and count the number of times repentance (metanoeo and metanoia) is used by the Gospel authors.

Luke in his two-volume work, Luke-Acts, emphasizes repentance more than any other NT author. Nearly one half, or twenty-five of the fifty-eight uses of the primary NT terms for repentance (metanoeo and metanoia) occur in Luke-Acts. On the other hand, there is not even one use of either term in John's Gospel. This is especially surprising since John uses those terms twelve times in Revelation. Matthew and Mark use those terms eight and four times respectively.

Why this disparity--especially between Luke-Acts and John?

Scripture does not contradict itself. Different authors may have different emphases, but not disparate views, on a given doctrine.

2. As you study John, what is the condition for eternal salvation? Can this be substantiated with the other Gospel authors?

The four Gospels and Acts present a united front. There is but one condition of eternal salvation: faith in Christ alone. The following references from John's Gospel are clear on this point:

John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

John 6:47: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life."

John 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live."

John 20:31: "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."

The other Synoptic Gospels also present faith as the one and only condition. However, they do so less often and less forcefully than John's Gospel. Why? Because the Synoptics are written to people who were already believers. References to the Gospel in them are not central to their purposes. John's Gospel, however, is written primarily to unbelievers (John 20:30-31) and references to the Gospel are central to his purpose.

Tip: The hermeneutical principle called "the analogy of faith" suggests that we can best understand unclear passages of Scripture by allowing related clear passages to shed light on them. This principle suggests that one should understand the occasional references to the Gospel in the Synoptics in light of the Gospel of John and not vice versa. John's Gospel clearly says that the sole condition of salvation is faith in Christ. That will inform our understanding of any so-called problem passage in the Synoptics.

Some passages from the Synoptics clearly confirm that the sole condition of eternal salvation is faith in Christ:

Luke 8:12: "Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts; lest they should believe and be saved." The sole condition of salvation given by the Lord here is faith in Him alone. All who believe are saved.

Acts 16:31: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." In direct answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" Luke reports Paul's sole condition: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Other passages from the Synoptics and Acts, though less clear, conform to this understanding:

Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." The will of the Father, in relation to the Gospel, is that one believes in the Son whom He sent.

Matthew 18:3: "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." Little children are naturally trusting. The sole condition of salvation is childlike trust in Christ.

Mark 16:16: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." (1) The Lord indicates that the sole condition for condemnation is unbelief. This is clearly parallel to the Lord's teachings as reported by John (compare, for example, John 3:18 and 8:24). Whether one views the reference to baptism as parenthetical (2) or the reference to salvation as broader than eternal salvation, (3) the sole condition of escaping eternal condemnation is given as faith in Christ.

John 5 24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life."

John 6:28-29: "Therefore they said to Him, 'What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.'"

Repentance in the Gospels and Acts 13.

3. There are basically three views of salvific repentance: (A) Turn from or be willing to turn from one's sins as a condition of eternal salvation, or (B) changing one's mind about Jesus Christ as a condition of eternal salvation, or (B) repentance (turning from one's sins) is not a condition of eternal salvation. Given your theological perspective on the condition for eternal salvation, examine whether these three views of salvific repentance is compatible with it.

A. Turning from Sins as a Condition of Eternal Salvation: A View Inconsistent with Faith as the Sole Condition of Salvation.

Some suggest that the Greek terms for faith have within their fields of meaning the concept of turning from sins. For example, in another paper on repentance and salvation presented at the 1989 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. James Rosscup wrote:

"The Gospel of John always refers to 'believe,' never using the word for repenting. The Apostle John heard Jesus's [sic] command in Luke 24:47 to proclaim repentance to Jews and Gentiles. Assuming that John obeys his Lord, and also authors the Gospel that bears his name, his use of only 'believe' can have a reasonable solution. To him, believing draws into its attitude all that it means to repent, to change the attitude in a turn from the old life to Christ and the new life." (4)

Shortly thereafter he added:

"Faith which includes repentance involves obedience. Faith is a dependence on Christ and also an appropriation of Christ's free gift. At the same time, faith also embraces repentance, repentance including a changed attitude that has commitment, direction, purpose, loyalty." (5)

This argument utilizes the analogy of faith in reverse. It involves reading a questionable understanding of Luke 24:47 into all of John's uses of belief. It infuses into the concept of faith ideas wholly foreign to it. This view is inconsistent with faith as the sole condition of eternal salvation. And, in spite of assertions claiming that it does not, this view violates the concept of salvation as a free gift. Salvation is not free if the recipient must change his lifestyle and pledge to serve God to obtain it.

Notice the frank admission of one holding this view who baldly asserts that to be saved one must pay for it by turning from his sins. Under the heading What must I pay to be a Christian? Dr. James Montgomery Boice answers:

"I must pay the price of those sins I now cherish. I must give them up, every one. I cannot cling to a single sin and pretend at the same time I am following the Lord Jesus Christ." (6)

Rather than the Lord Jesus Christ alone buying our redemption, this view demands that the recipient pay part of the price himself. Something is found wanting in Christ's work on the Cross. This view is a return to Rome.

B. Changing One's Mind as a Condition of Eternal Salvation: A View Consistent with Faith as the Sole Condition of Salvation.

The view of Chafer, Ryrie, and this writer is that the "repentance" which is required for eternal salvation is a change of mind about Christ. (7) The Jews of Jesus' day knew and rejected Jesus' claims. The Apostles called on them to change their minds about Jesus Christ in light of the new evidence of His resurrection. This call for a change of mind about Christ is synonymous with the call to trust in Him.

This view is consistent with the position that faith is the sole condition of salvation. It harmonizes John's Gospel and the Synoptics by viewing saving repentance as equal to saving faith.

C. Repentance is Not a Condition of Eternal Salvation: A View Consistent with Faith as the Sole Condition of Salvation.

In his recent book Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation, Zane C. Hodges suggests a view of repentance which approaches this subject from a completely different perspective. (8) He asserts that repentance is rightly understood as turning to God from one's sins. However, he goes on to say that there are no passages in which repentance is required for eternal salvation. Rather, he argues that repentance is a condition of coming into harmonious fellowship with God.

One is eternally saved, according to this view, by faith alone in Christ alone. Repentance may, but need not, occur before faith and salvation. Thus this view clearly is consistent with the faith-only view of salvation.

D. Conclusion

Two views are theologically possible: that repentance is a change of mind or that it is not a condition of eternal salvation.

These views need not be taken as mutually exclusive. One can take some passages one way and some the other.

However, the view that repentance is turning from one's sins and that it is required for eternal salvation is theologically impossible. Such a view contradicts grace, faith, and the freeness of the Gospel.

Gospels-Acts Passages in Which Repentance Is a Change of Mind about Christ and a Condition of Salvation

A. Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:17-18

These five references form the heart of the recorded preaching of salvific repentance in the early church.

Of the five references to the Great Commission in the Gospels and Acts, only in Luke did Christ cite the preaching of repentance. In Luke 24:46-48 He said: "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. And you are witnesses of these things."

The disciples were told that they would promise the remission or forgiveness of sins to those who "repent." Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we find in the recorded evangelistic messages of the disciples (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31).

It is conceivable that the forgiveness of sins in question is a non-salvific, fellowship sort of forgiveness, as in 1 John 1:9. (9) However, there are several reasons why this is unlikely.

First, the majority of the uses of the term for remission or forgiveness (aphesis) refer to salvific forgiveness. "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for the remission of sins" (Matt 26:28). "Whoever believes in Him will receive the remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). "Through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified" (Acts 13:38). "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered" (Rom 4:7). "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Eph 1:7). "In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:14). "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission" (Heb 9:22). "I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake" (1 John 2:12). (10) This is especially evident when only the noun form is considered--the form used in Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, and 5:31. There are no clear references to fellowship forgiveness using the noun. Yet it clearly often refers to salvific forgiveness.

Second, Jesus said in Luke 24:47 (and Acts 1:8) that the disciples would be witnesses concerning His death and resurrection. Witnessing to Christ's death and resurrection fits much better with the view that eternal salvation is in view.

Third, a comparison of Peter's preaching about the forgiveness of sins in Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, and 10:43 supports this conclusion as well.

In the first three passages Peter linked forgiveness with "repentance":

"Repent and let every one of you be baptized (11) in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

"Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19).

"The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:30-31)

In the last passage, however, Peter conditioned forgiveness upon believing in Jesus Christ:

"To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43).

It seems reasonable to conclude that Peter in each case was preaching about salvific forgiveness and that he was equating "repentance" (i.e., changing one's mind about Christ) with believing in Christ.

Peter's audience in Acts 2, 3, and 5 was Jewish. These were people who had rejected Christ and His claims. Now new evidence was in the resurrection. Peter was a witness to this dramatic new evidence. Peter called his unbelieving Jewish listeners to change their minds about Jesus Christ. To change their minds about Him was to believe in Him.

Talbert put it beautifully:

"The evangelist thinks that after Jesus' resurrection His trial is reopened and fresh evidence is presented by the apostles to get the Jews to change their verdict. The new evidence is the event of Jesus' resurrection. The condemnation of Christ had been done in ignorance (Acts 3:17; 13:27), but in raising Jesus God showed the Jews they had made a mistake: they had crucified the Christ (Acts 2:36). Now, however, the Jews are given a chance to change their minds, to repent ([Acts] 2:38; 3:19; 5:31)." (12)

Fourth, Acts 11:18 is a commentary on Acts 10:43ff. and the conversion of Cornelius and his household. After Peter told believing Jews that Cornelius and his household had been baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit, they said: "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life."

Two points are noteworthy. One, this "repentance" was to life. It is quite unlikely that physical life was meant. Cornelius already possessed physical life. Two, Peter never mentioned "repentance" to the Jewish brethren. Rather, he referred to believing (Acts 11:17). Thus the text explicitly equates "repentance" to life with believing for the remission of sins and eternal salvation.

In light of all this evidence, it can be asserted with reasonable certainty that Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 5:31, and 11:18 all refer to changing one's mind about Jesus Christ as a condition of eternal salvation.

B. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32

Several passages in the Gospels and Acts use "repentance" as a virtual synonym for eternal salvation. Matthew 9:13, Mark 2:17, and Luke 5:32 are parallel accounts. I have selected Mark's account as representative.

In Mark 2:17 Jesus responded to scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling because Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

All are sinners. Jesus was not suggesting that some didn't need Him. Rather He was asserting the opposite. All who see their need are invited by Him to heed His call: "Repent" and be saved. "Repentance" is used here as a metonymy of cause for the effect. The cause is changing one's mind about Christ, believing in Him. The effect is eternal salvation.

Thus Jesus was saying in effect: I have not come to call those who think that they are righteous, but those who recognize that they are sinners, to eternal salvation.

Gospels-Acts Passages in Which Repentance is a Turning from Sins and Is Not a Condition of Salvation

A. Luke 17:3-4

"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."

Clearly this passage does not refer to eternal salvation. The forgiveness in view is man-to-man. It involves fellowship. The repentance in question is a change of mind about sinful behavior. In such a passage the English word repentance is a good translation.

B. Acts 8:22

"Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you."

Peter spoke these words to Simon Magus. The wickedness in question was Simon's attempt to buy the power to convey the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands (Acts 8:18-19). The English word simony, the buying or selling of positions in the church, is derived from Simon's act.

Luke left no doubt as to Simon's spiritual condition. In Acts 8:13 he explicitly indicates that Simon came to faith in Christ and testified to his faith by water baptism, just as many other Samaritans had (v 12). The forgiveness spoken of by Peter in v 22 thus refers to forgiveness of a believer--not to salvific forgiveness.

Peter commanded Simon to repent concerning (i.e., change his mind about) his wicked request so that he might obtain fellowship-forgiveness from God. Simon's physical life was probably on the line. The reader would not be surprised should the text go on to say that shortly thereafter Simon died and was carried away to be buried, (13) as was the case with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

There may be other passages in the Gospels and Acts in which repentance is a condition for fellowship forgiveness and temporal salvation. However, other passages are not nearly as clear as the ones cited. It is to the more questionable passages that we now turn our attention.


1. Two early Greek manuscripts and one twelfth-century one omit the so-called longer ending of Mark's Gospel, including this verse. However, the vast majority of manuscripts (over one thousand), including some early ones, include it. In my opinion there is no doubt that this is canonical.

2. This view can be illustrated in this way: "Get on the bus (and take a seat) and you will get to the stadium. He who doesn't get on the bus won't get there." In this illustration taking a seat is a parenthetical thought. The sole condition for getting to the stadium is getting on the bus.

3. About half of the NT uses of the terms of salvation, sozo and soteria, refer to temporal salvation. If that is the case here, Jesus' point is this: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved from the wrath of God, eternal and temporal. He who does not believe will be eternally condemned." Faith is necessary to be saved eternally. Baptism, and the commitment which it signifies to begin the course of discipleship (Matt. 28: 19), is necessary to be saved temporally.

4. James E. Rosscup, "The Relation of Repentance to Salvation and the Christian Life" (unpublished paper), p. 17.

5. Ibid., 18.

6. James Montgomery Boice, Christ's Call to Discipleship (Chicago Moody Press, 1986), 12-13.

7. See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press 1948), 3: 372-78; Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989), 91-100.

8. Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988). See especially pp. 143-63.

9. See also, Matt 6: 12-15; Mark 11:26; Luke 11:4; 17:3-4; Acts 8:22; Jas 5:15.

10. See also Matt 12:31-32, Mark 3:29, 4:12, Luke 1:77, Acts 26:18, Heb 10:18.

11. In Acts 3:19 and 5:31 Peter links the forgiveness of sins with "repentance" only--not with a repentance" plus baptism. This strongly suggests that the reference to baptism here is not a condition of forgiveness. It is most likely a parenthetical thought: "Repent (and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of sins…" This is much as we might say, "Get on the bus (and take a seat) and you will arrive at the destination." Those who fail to sit down would still get to the destination, although they would displease the bus driver.

For further discussion of this and other views of Acts 2:38 and baptism, see the article by Lanny Tanton in this issue of the Journal.

12. Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroads, 1982), 231.

13. For fuller details regarding Luke's account of the conversion of Simon Magus see James Inglis, "Simon Magus, Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 2 (Spring 1989): 45-54.

Continued: Gospels-Acts Passages Which Are Difficult to Categorize Regarding Their Use of Repentance

1 / 2 / NEXT>

Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 5: New Testament Repentance: Repentance in the Epistles and Revelation

Series: Repentence (R. Wilkin)
Part 3: The Doctrine of Repentance in the New Testament

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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