This question is core to the issue of “Lordship salvation” and “Free-grace Theology.” The relationship between repentance and faith is a critical issue.
The so-called “Lordship salvation” issue is essentially about how to answer two questions: (1) Must a non-Christian repent to have eternal life? (2) Must a Christian continue to repent and believe and to do good works? The Bible answers “yes” to both questions.
Christians hold different views on progressive sanctification. (See the article “Models of Sanctification.”) On the issue of whether Jesus must be one’s Lord to be one’s Savior, the higher life and Chaferian views of progressive sanctification differ significantly from the Reformed view.
This debate has been especially controversial in the past one hundred years. In 1919, Lewis Sperry Chafer (Chaferian view) and B. B. Warfield (Reformed view) addressed it. In the 1950s, Steven Barabas (higher life view) and John Murray (Reformed view) addressed it. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Charles Ryrie (Chaferian view), Zane Hodges (a more extreme Chaferian view), and John MacArthur (Reformed view) addressed it.
A common label for this disagreement is the Lordship salvation controversy. But Wayne Grudem explains why that label is unhelpful in “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel:
The phrase Lordship salvation [is] a decidedly misleading and unfortunate summary of the central issues involved.… Both sides agree that Jesus is Lord of our lives in some sense and is not fully Lord of our lives in another sense. Trying to define precisely how much Jesus has to be acknowledged as Lord for genuine saving faith becomes an increasingly muddled task.… My own conclusion is that there are important differences concerning two other matters: 1) whether repentance from sin (in the sense of remorse for sin and an internal resolve to forsake it) is necessary for saving faith, and 2) whether good works and continuing to believe necessarily follow from saving faith. The two positions clearly and explicitly disagree on the answers to those questions. And it is on those two questions that the debate should be focused.1
What follows focuses on those two questions:
- Must a non-Christian repent to have eternal life?
- Must a Christian continue to repent and believe and to do good works?
The questions begin with must (not should) to ask whether an activity is essential.
Must a Non-Christian Repent to Have Eternal Life?
“Free Grace” Theology Says No
Zane Hodges argues, “Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life.… The call to faith represents the call to eternal salvation. The call to repentance is the call to enter into harmonious relations with God.”2 Hodges contends that the only condition for salvation is intellectually believing and that other elements such as repentance and surrender are heretical additions to the gospel that result in salvation by works rather than by faith alone.
The Grace Evangelical Society’s statement of faith expresses that view:
The sole condition for receiving everlasting life is faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died a substitutionary death on the cross for man’s sin and rose bodily from the dead (John 3:16–18; 6:47; Acts 16:31).
Faith is the conviction that something is true. To believe in Jesus (“he who believes in Me has everlasting life”) is to be convinced that He guarantees everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him for it (John 4:14; 5:24; 6:47; 11:26; 1Tim 1:16).
No act of obedience, preceding or following faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, such as commitment to obey, sorrow for sin, turning from one’s sin, baptism or submission to the Lordship of Christ, may be added to, or considered part of, faith as a condition for receiving everlasting life (Rom 4:5; Gal 2:16; Titus 3:5). This saving transaction between God and the sinner is simply the giving and receiving of a free gift (Eph 2:8–9; John 4:10; Rev 22:17).
Charles Ryrie, though not as extreme as Zane Hodges, also argues that the Bible does not teach that one must repent to be saved. His main argument is that God requires only that people believe in Jesus Christ for him to save them. Here’s how he concludes his chapter “Repent! About What?” in So Great Salvation:
Is repentance a condition for receiving eternal life? Yes, if it is repentance or changing one’s mind about Jesus Christ. No, if it means to be sorry for sin or even to resolve to turn from sin, for these things will not save. … Repentance may prepare the way for faith, but it is faith that saves, not repentance (unless repentance is understood as a synonym for faith or changing one’s mind about Christ).3
Ryrie denies that saving repentance includes “a sorrow for sins or even a sorrow that results in cleaning up one’s life,” and he claims that Lordship salvation “apparently makes repentance and faith two distinct and necessary requirements for salvation.”4
Ryrie’s chapter “Must Christ Be Lord to Be Savior?” answers the question with a dogmatic No:
The importance of this question cannot be overestimated in relation to both salvation and sanctification. The message of faith only and the message of faith plus commitment of life cannot both be the gospel; therefore, one of them is a false gospel and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel (Gal 1:6–9), and this is a very serious matter. As far as sanctification is concerned, if only committed people are saved people, then where is there room for carnal Christians?5
The Bible Says Yes
What Is Repentance?
Repentance is a God-enabled change of heart that results in a change of life. It is a gift that God gives (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2Tim 2:25; cf. Acts 3:26; Rom 2:4). It is an active, volitional turning from sin to God that consists not just of sorrow for the wrong done to God but also of a genuine desire to abandon that sin. “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2Cor 7:10). Repentance is not self-reform or doing acts of penance to earn God’s favor.
Repentance involves a 180-degree turn away from sin to God. Negatively, repentance involves turning away from sin. What do people repent or turn from?
- “your wickedness” (Acts 3:26)
- “this wickedness of yours” (Acts 8:22)
- “these vain things”—that is, idolatry (Acts 14:15)
- “darkness … the power of Satan” (Acts 26:18)
- “the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2Cor 12:21)
- “idols” (1Thes 1:9)
- “dead works” (Heb 6:1)
- “sexual immorality” and “adultery” (Rev 2:21–22)
- “the works of their hands … worshiping demons and idols … murders … sorceries … sexual immorality … thefts” (Rev 9:20–21)
- “their deeds” (Rev 16:11)
Positively, repentance involves turning to God. To whom or to what do people turn when they repent?
- “to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16)
- “to the Lord” (Acts 9:35; 11:21; 2Cor 3:16)
- “to a living God” (Acts 14:15)
- “to God” (Acts 15:19; 26:20)
- “toward God” (Acts 20:21)
- “to light … to God” (Acts 26:18)
- “to serve the living and true God” (1Thes 1:9)
- “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25)
Repentance involves a change of one’s whole being, and that change has three aspects:
- Intellectual. Repentance involves a change of mind about one’s sin and about God. This is evident when a sinner realizes the gravity of their sin before the holy God.
- Emotional. Repentance involves a change of feeling—both sorrow and joy (e.g., 2Cor 7:9–10). This is evident when a sinner both regrets their sin and rejoices in forgiveness.
- Volitional. Repentance involves a change of will, purpose, or acting. Repentant people demonstrate that their repentance is genuine by bearing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8), by “performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). This is evident when a sinner repudiates their sinful ways and resolves to forsake them and follow Jesus the Messiah.
How Does Repentance Relate to Faith and Conversion?
Repentance + faith = conversion.
Saving faith is a God-enabled, unreserved trust in who Jesus is and what he did on the cross (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Rom 3:21–31; 10:9). It involves more than just intellectually understanding the gospel; its essence is dependence. It involves surrendering to the authority of Jesus the Messiah with an attitude that is willing to obey him as one’s new Master (Rom 6:17–18; 2Cor 5:15). Its content is the word of God (John 20:31; Rom 10:17; 2Thes 2:13). It is God’s means of saving people—not its cause (Eph 2:8–9).
Conversion is the God-enabled, two-faceted act of repentance and faith. Conversion is turning from sin to God. The act of conversion (repentance + faith) is connected to receiving forgiveness. God commissioned Paul to serve Jews and Gentiles for this purpose: “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
Sometimes the New Testament mentions repentance and faith together (e.g., Acts 20:21), but sometimes it mentions only repentance (e.g., Acts 11:18) or only faith (e.g., Acts 16:31). Some (like Zane Hodges) conclude that the calls to repentance and faith are so different that they are separable. Others (like Charles Ryrie) conclude that repentance and faith are virtually synonymous. A better solution is to recognize that repentance and faith are distinct yet theologically inseparable. They are an example of the figure of speech synecdoche in which a part can represent the whole. Repentance and faith are not synonymous, but one can stand for both when the other is absent; mentioning one implies the other. Saving faith is a repentant faith, and genuine repentance is a believing repentance. They are two sides of the same theological coin (i.e., conversion).
A Non-Christian Must Repent to Have Eternal Life
Here’s one way to state the gospel in a single sentence: Jesus lived, died, and rose again for sinners, and God will save you if you turn from your sins and trust Jesus. Repentance (i.e., turning from your sins) is a necessary part of how one must respond to the good news about Jesus. That is why Jesus proclaimed, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). This is most prominent in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. Although the Gospel of John does not use the words repent or repentance, it teaches the concept.6 The New Testament letters do not speak as frequently about initial repentance because they do not feature evangelistic content like the Gospels and Acts.
Repentance characterized the preaching of John the Baptist (e.g., Matt 3:2, 8), Jesus (e.g., Matt 4:17), and the apostles (e.g., Acts 3:19; 17:30). Faithfully heralding the gospel includes repentance—either explicitly or implicitly—because it is part of Jesus’s Great Commission: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
Must a Christian Continue to Repent and Believe and to Do Good Works?
“Free Grace” Theology Says No
Zane Hodges denies that a person who believes in Christ must continue believing to possess eternal life. He argues that someone who previously believed in Christ can “drop out” of the Christian life, just as a student can drop out of school.7
Charles Ryrie also argues that the Bible does not teach that good works and continuing to believe in Jesus are necessary fruit of saving faith. He argues that Christians may be in a lifelong state of carnality and may even become unbelieving believers; those who once believed are secure forever—even if they turn away.8
Hodges and Ryrie distinguish between salvation and discipleship based on how Chafer adopted and adapted the categories of carnal and spiritual Christians from higher life theology. (See the article “Models of Sanctification.”)
The Bible Says Yes
Continuing to repent and believe in Jesus and to do good works are necessary fruit of conversion. God enables all Christians to persevere. Genuine believers can neither totally nor finally fall away from the faith but will certainly continue in the faith to the end and be eternally saved. “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb 3:14; cf. Col. 1:22–23). (See the article “What Is Apostasy? Can a Christian Become Apostate?”)
Repentance is not just a positional turn without forward motion. It continues throughout the entirety of a believer’s earthly life. For example, when you are driving south and realize that you are going the opposite direction you desire, you “repent” by making a U-turn, and you start driving north. Similarly, when you realize that your sinful lifestyle is moving you away from God toward hell, you make a U-turn by turning away from your sin toward God in saving faith. Repentance is a change of heart that results in a change of your direction in life. “Repentance starts us and keeps us on our spiritual journey.”9 (See the article “The Christian and Repentance.)
From the perspective of the Reformed view of progressive sanctification:
- David A. Croteau, “Repentance Found? The Concept of Repentance in the Fourth Gospel.”
- Wayne Grudem, “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel.
- John MacArthur
- “Afterword,” in Andrew David Naselli, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful (pp. 101–4). This article updates pages 25–27 of that book.)
- The Gospel according to Jesus: What Is Authentic Faith?
- The Gospel according to the Apostles: The Role of Works in the Life of Faith
- The Gospel according to Paul: Embracing the Good News at the Heart of Paul’s Teachings
- John Murray, “Part V,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (pp. 277–317).
- John Piper
- Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord and Christ: The Implications of Lordship for Faith and Life.
- B. B. Warfield, review of He That Is Spiritual, by Lewis Sperry Chafer.
From the perspective of the higher life (Keswick) view of progressive sanctification:
- Steven Barabas, So Great Salvation: The History and Message of the Keswick Convention.
- Evan H. Hopkins, The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life.
From the perspective of the Chaferian view of progressive sanctification:
- Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual.
- Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation.
- Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation: What It Means to Believe in Jesus Christ.
- Bob Wilkin’s resources. Wilkin is founder and executive director of Grace Evangelical Society, which propagates what Zane Hodges taught.