Screen-Shot-2014-10-13-at-12.11.02-1014x570Ever since the Lordship vs. Free Grace clash occurred in the mid 1980s, a hot bed of controversy has surrounded the Gospel of John and the place of repentance in a person’s salvation. Because John is considered by many “the gospel of belief” (cf. John 20:31) it is the go-to document for considering how one is to be saved.[1] Yet, while 11 of the 27 books of the New Testament do explicitly use the word μετάνοια (its verb or cognates), the word is conspicuously absent in John’s Gospel. Therefore, it flows from a certain line of reasoning that since John does not mention the word repentance, it is not required in a person’s salvation given that John is the gospel of belief. This essay will directly challenge that notion. In short, due to an artificial construct placed on the fourth Gospel, some are kept from seeing the concept of repentance in John which is powerfully illustrated within its pages. In other words, while it is true the verb μετανοέω and noun μετάνοια do not occur in the Gospel of John, their grammatical absence is not evidence of its conceptual absence. In contrast to some, repentance is dramatically and prominently featured in John’s Gospel.

The Debate

Scholars have long observed the absence of “repentance” in John’s Gospel and have responded with vitriol against those who insist repentance is nonetheless required for salvation. Dallas Seminary founder, Lewis Sperry Chafer, is a good example: “No thoughtful person would attempt to defend such a notion against such odds. And those who have thus undertaken doubtless have done so without weighing the evidence or considering the untenable position which they assume.”[2] More recently, Master’s University and Seminary president, John MacArthur, and former Dallas Seminary professor, Zane Hodges, went toe-to-toe debating whether repentance is necessary for salvation. MacArthur insisted that repentance is a gift from God and accompanies saving faith, and is thus required for one to be saved. Hodges insisted repentance is a human work and thus violates God’s free grace.

MacArthur insisted that repentance is a gift from God and accompanies saving faith, and is thus required for one to be saved. Hodges insisted repentance is a human work and thus violates God’s free grace.

Added to Hodges argument is the fact that the word for repentance does not occur in John’s Gospel, the “gospel of belief” (also referred to the “gospel of salvation”).

The debate between MacArthur and Hodges resulted into what is now known as the “Lordship Salvation” vs. “Free Grace” controversy. MacArthur, representing the former position, promoted true belief as repentance and submission to the Lord’s authority, and boldly stated: “Those who will not receive [Christ] as Lord are willfully rejecting Him….Thus there is no salvation except ‘lordship’ salvation.”[3] Hodges, a proponent of the latter position contended, “Indeed [one] could have searched the entirety of John’s Gospel repeatedly and never found even one reference to repentance, much less a reference to surrender or submission as a condition for eternal life.”[4] The irony is that both men appealed to the same Scriptures to make their case. The debate continues to this day.

Absence of Evidence Does Not Mean Evidence of Absence

In an article promoting the concept of repentance in John, New Testament scholar David Croteau listed several key doctrines absent in various NT writings:

(1) The concept of Jesus as Savior is absent from Matthew, Mark, Romans, Colossians, Hebrews, and Revelation; (2) The concept of grace is absent from Matthew and Mark; (3) The concept of salvation is absent (in noun form) from Matthew and completely in Colossians; (4) The verb πιστεύω [believe] does not occur in Colossians or Revelation and the noun πίστις [faith] does not occur in the Fourth Gospel.[5]

Acknowledging the above concepts and / or words are indeed absent from important NT books—doctrines that are essential doctrines to accept if one is to be a Christian—would anyone accuse, say, Matthew of rejecting Jesus as the Savior, or Mark of rejecting God’s grace? Absolutely not. In this same vein, John is not only devoid of the word repentance, the fourth Gospel is also absent of Jesus’ virgin birth, hell, and any notion of justification. Are we to believe that the apostle rejected these crucial doctrines? It seems unthinkable. So, rather than accepting one free-grace advocate’s stance that we should “admit that it was important enough to John that repentance not be included in his Gospel of Belief,[6]we would do well to remember that the absence of a word does not mean de facto an author purposely rejects the concept or intentionally left it out. Thus, the absence of a word does not equal the absence of its concept.

Repentance is in John’s Gospel

The noun for repentance, μετάνοια, occurs 22 times in the New Testament (NT), while its verb form μετανοέω occurs 34 times. Taken together, this equals a total of 56 times that repentance is explicitly taught in the Greek New Testament. The word μετάνοια, as used in the NT, is defined as “turning about, conversion”[7] while μετανοέω means to “change one’s mind,” and to “feel remorse, repent, be converted.”[8] While these words for repentance occur regularly throughout the New Testament, John does not use the actual words in his Gospel.[9] However, as it is the notion of conversion or turning that connects both noun and verb (as defined above), the concept of repentance is something prominently displayed in the fourth Gospel. For example, the crippled man healed in John 5 is told by Jesus to “sin no more so that something worse does not happen to [him]” (John 5:14). In other words, Jesus commands him to turn from his previous life. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus verbally scatters her accusers and commands her “to go and from now on sin no more” (8:11).[10] Thus a call to turn and be converted is portrayed. More explicitly, John uses the verb στρέφω in 12:40 when paraphrasing Isaiah’s rebuke of people refusing to repent (cf. Isaiah 6:9– 10). The verb στρέφω, as used by John here, means “to experience an inward change, turn, change.[11] Conceptually, this is the exact equivalent for the word “repentance.” Croteau’s words nicely bring us full circle: “Therefore, the absence of the word doesn’t necessitate the absence of a concept.”[12]


Out of the 39 books of the Old Testament only one is completely devoid of any Hebrew word for God: Esther. Yet, as any diligent Bible student knows—God is prominently lurking behind the pages of Esther, sovereignly controlling all the events to ensure the continuance of the Jewish race that would one day produce the Messiah. As it is unheard of to say the Book of Esther rejects any belief in God because His name is absent from the book, so it is to say that John rejects repentance because the word is not found in his book. The concept of repentance is most certainly found in John, just as God is certainly present in Esther. To categorize John as “the Gospel of Belief” is well and good as belief is most certainly the grand theme (cf. 20:31). However, it would do well to remember that that title is a man-made construct placed over it; it is not something the book calls itself. Thus to argue that repentance is absent form John’s Gospel or that it is something not required in salvation because it is simply the Gospel of Belief is to commit two errors: a straw man, and an argument from silence. As demonstrated above, John very much displays the concept, and even a word (12:40), that depicts a turning from one’s sin, i.e., repentance. Therefore, the Gospel of John is most certainly a Gospel of Belief—a Gospel of Repentant-Belief.[13]

[1] Theologians such as Charles Ryrie and Charles Bing immediately come to mind as representative of those distinguishing / categorizing the fourth Gospel as “the Gospel of Belief.”

[2] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 3:376–77. In fairness to Chafer, which many lordship advocates who negatively quote him have not been, it is vital he be understood in the proper context. What Chafer was responding to with this often-used quote was the false notion that repentance is a necessary, independent or separate act added to saving belief. Moreover, he thoroughly believed repentance was indeed necessary for salvation, and was gift from God. More on this below.

[3] John F. MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What does it mean when He says, “Follow Me”? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 34.

[4]  Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Corinth, TX: GES, 2014), 24.

[5]  David A. Croteau, “Repentance Found? The Concept of Repentance in the Fourth Gospel,” Master’s Seminary Journal 24, no.1 (Spring 2013): 108–09.

[6] Charles C. Bing, “The Condition for Salvation in John’s Gospel,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 9, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 34. Emphasis in original.

[7] BDAG, 4854.

[8] Ibid., 4853.

[9] Yet, John explicitly uses various forms of the verb μετανοέω 12 times throughout Revelation in chaps. 2 – 16 proving he was not opposed to the word. As for his Gospel, it is noteworthy that out of 98 uses, John uses only the verb for “faith,” πιστεύω, never its noun form, πίστις.Thus, for John, belief or faith seems only to be an action concept–of which repentance, being a mindful and soulful act, can certainly be inferred.

[10]  While the authenticity of this passage is disputed, it still validates the concept in John nonetheless.

[11] BDAG, 6856. This is the same meaning for its Hebrew counterpart שׁוב in Isaiah 6:10 (HALOT, 9407).

[12] David A. Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 57.

[13] This biblical notion of repentant-belief is precisely what Chafer advocated, and that it was an act entirely of God’s grace. For example, throughout his Systematic Theology (Dallas, TX: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 3:372–78, Chafer states the following: “Therefore, it as dogmatically stated as language can declare, that repentance is essential for salvation, and that none can be saved apart from repentance, but it is included in believing and cannot be separated from it” (373, emphasis added). “As before stated, repentance, which is a change of mind, is included in believing….That change of mind is the work of the Spirit (Eph 2:8) (374, emphasis added).  And finally Chafer concludes, “It is asserted that repentance, which is a change of mind, enters of necessity into the very act of believing on Christ, since one cannot turn to Christ from objects of confidence without that change of mind” (378). Quotes such as these prove Chafer was certainly in line with traditional Calvinistic soteriology, a fact (as a Presbyterian) he promotes throughout volume three of his eight volume theology set.

Posted by CMarsh

Cory M. Marsh is Coordinator of Bible and Theology and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Southern California Seminary, and holds memberships in the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Philosophical Society, Society of Biblical Literature, & Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics. Cory is married to his high school sweetheart Shannnan, and they are both members of Mission Bible Church. They currently live with their cat Wednesday in Mission Viejo, CA.

One Comment

  1. Definitely the Gospel of John is meant for more than just the Nation of Israel – it is meant for the Church – the body of Christ – to understand why repentance is not used in this chapter requires that one can divide and discern the word of God correctly. From the very foundation, it was God’s plan to restore Israel as stated in Matthew 15:24: He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But look what happens when the gentile woman drops the pretense of Judaism – First she comes to Jesus and addresses Him as the King – the King of Israel and the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus responds to her that He has only come for the lost sheep of Israel. The the woman drops the pretense and simply states to her Lord and Savior – please help me – I need saving (Even the little dogs get the scraps from the table). Jesus then responds to her need as the Savior, not the King of Israel – Matthew 15:28 Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. See this example and examine the difference between what we, today, call repentance, and what Jesus did in an instant for those that called on His name for salvation. There was no ask for repentance, there was no qualification to receive the blessing, even though the woman was not who Jesus was there for at that point in time. The Kingdom of Heaven was still on the table for the Jews. The teaching of the Gentiles has yet to be commanded of the disciples. By current teaching, this woman should not have been helped by Jesus – but she was! Why? Because repentance or any other self motivated, self righteous, self induced precept is not consistent with the teaching for the Church. There is no qualifier for your salvation through Christ Jesus. If you call on His name, the one whom God sent and was sacrificed, dead, buried, and rose on the 3rd day – you – like the gentile woman are given salvation through your faith in Jesus not your repentance. Through faith in Jesus, God sees you obedient, God sees you holy, God has taken your name to the book of life – even in your darkest moments – your faith in Jesus has sealed you to the body of Christ – which is the church. The message for the church is not get your life right for Jesus – it is have faith in what Jesus has done to reconcile us back to God. If you could get your life right then why do you need a Savior – you would not! However, because God created man to have dominion over the earth and man knelt before satan and transferred that dominion to the evil one – God sent His Son – Jesus to reconcile man back to God. We, man, could not do this on our own nor could the Law of Moses reconcile us back to God – because man could not follow the law and the law was given not as an instruction but as a reminder to man that man needed a savior.
    As case in point: The sermon on the Mount was not intended for the Church – nor any of the teaching of Jesus in that sermon was meant for the church – it was meant for the Jewish nation of Israel who were being offered the Kingdom of Heaven – the literal Kingdom where Jesus as King would sit on His rightful throne from the line of David. Kingdom teaching is very complex and you must be able to divide and discern what is for the Jew and what is for the church. None of the sermon on the mount was for the church because Jesus was not here for the Gentile but for the lost sheep of Israel at that time – we – as the church – should not even teach the concepts of the sermon on the mount to the church because it isn’t meant for us. We the church have an entirely different purpose. The Jews were told to repent because their faith was in the law and was misguided (remember, Jesus called them lost) because of the self righteous teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus told those Jews that they need to have much more faith than the Pharisees – because the Pharisees thought the law from a self righteous point of view but Jesus told the crowd that even if they had anger against their brother is was murder – that even if you thought about lust you had committed adultery and the list goes on – but this was meant for the Jewish people not not not the church. Jesus tells them to repent – to change the way they are thinking because it is wrong – that the law cannot save you – only Jesus, as your Savior and your King can save you. Jesus knew that the nation of Israel would deny Him and therefore He stated that narrow is the way and broad is the path to destruction for the JEW not the church. The sinners prayer is a Kingdom prayer for the Jew and not the church. Romans 4:6-8 speaks to the church- David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered;Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin. Ephesians 2:1-6 – And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience,among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Unlike the Jew, whose plan was created to take place over time, the believer, like the Gentile woman, was saved in an instant by the grace and mercy of God through Faith in Jesus. Their is no qualification of repentance like the Jew for salvation of the Church. You are either Jew, Gentile or Believer. The Jew rejected Jesus and His Kingdom so the age of Gentiles was created by God while the Kingdom of Heaven is on hold until the millennial rule. Those Jews and Gentiles who accepted Jesus as their Savior are now believers in Christ and part of the body of Christ or the church. As a believer, it is not about your works it is about the finished work of salvation and reconciliation of man back to God. As a member of the church you are made one with Jesus and the Holy Spirit resides in you which means you cannot be demon possessed – ever! Through your faith in Christ, God sees you as obedient, faithful, holy – because when God looks upon you He sees His Son – your transformation is internal not external – your redemption is based on sacrifice not the law and as a righteous member of the church who is reconciled to God through faith in Jesus you are no longer under law – like the woman who knelt before Jesus for her daughter’s sake and begged a Savior to save her – her salvation and yours is instantaneous and not contingent upon repentance. Is Jesus our King? Yes. Is Jesus sitting on the throne of David? No – that is for a future date since He was rejected by the Jewish Nation of Israel. Read the story of David when he became King and went into hiding for a type and shadow of Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus, during the age of Gentiles to bring in the Church is sitting on the throne in the Kingdom of God (Very different than the Kingdom of Heaven) as our High Priest/Savior/Sacrifice. Just like the woman who approached Him as King of the Jews – she received nothing until she had faith in Him as Savior. And as for the repentance used in Revelation – not for the church. The church will be raptured before the 7 years of tribulation – called up into the air to meet Jesus – be given our glorified bodies – and return with Jesus when His Kingdom is established on earth with the throne of David in Jerusalem to help Him rule. While we are in heaven we will be prepared as bride to the Bridegroom. Then Jesus will rule His Kingdom with a rod of iron – but not you because you are His bride.

    Kind regards,
    J Arnn
    Jewish Studies for Christians


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