Is Repentance Necessary?
by Rick Shrader
It is a telling sign of our time that we have to ask ourselves this question. But when every other teaching that makes us uncomfortable is taken away, why should we be surprised when sinners are no longer told they need to repent? This view is being taught today largely by what is called the “Free Grace” movement. It was made popular in 1989 when Zane Hodges, then of Dallas Seminary, wrote his book Absolutely Free! By claiming that preaching repentance as a requirement or prerequisite for faith would be preaching works for salvation, Hodges virtually eliminated repentance from salvation. He wrote, “Thus, though genuine repentance may precede salvation, it need not do so. And because it is not essential to the saving transaction as such, it is in no sense a condition for that transaction.”1
The disdain for repentance was heightened by Chuck Swindoll’s book, The Grace Awakening, in 1990 but it was an attack on Christian standards and good works after rather than before salvation.2 Today, however, most of this teaching comes from the Grace Evangelical Society and its Executive Director Bob Wilkin. In a current article on the GES website Wilkin admits, “Throughout Church history nearly every theologian has taught that repentance is essential for salvation from hell. . . . Unhappily, this view knew little or nothing of grace.”3 It is certainly amazing that all the theologians for the last two thousand years have missed this teaching, but Wilkins and others have finally discovered the true teaching on salvation.
The Free Grace movement is a definite reaction against some expressions of Lordship Salvation. This author is not in total disagreement with criticisms of Lordship Salvation. Even Darrell Bock, in debating Wilkin over this, referred to “soft” Lordship and “hard” Lordship.4 Some views of Lordship come close to a works salvation by adding extra hoops for the sinner to jump through in order to prove that he is ready to believe. But this only highlights two extremes regarding Free Grace and Lordship. Free Grace errs by placing repentance after faith, and Lordship (often) errs by putting Lordship before faith. As to the latter, it is possible that a sinner may truly be saved even though he is asked to promise more than is necessary (as long as he is not trusting in his ability to keep the promise) but it is not possible to be saved if he has never come to a place of repentance for his sin.
Salvation is certainly by faith alone. But as is often said, faith is never alone. Repentance and lordship are both integral elements of the gospel. Both are vitally linked to faith. Repentance, however, is attached to faith at the front end and cannot be moved to the back. Lordship is attached to faith at the back end and cannot be moved to the front. Picture a bridge that crosses a great chasm. The bridge is faith. There is a road leading up to the bridge, without which no one can get to the bridge. That road is repentance. No one can place saving faith in a Savior who has not first come to the understanding of his own sin and lostness. The bridge of faith would be useless without this road leading to it. The road on the other end of the bridge is lordship. After one experiences faith, lordship will naturally follow,5 else faith, the bridge, stands alone and takes one nowhere (James 2:20).
All illustrations come short at some point, so we should emphasize again: Repentance is a vital “up front” part of the saving act whereas lordship is a natural consequence of it. In faith the sinner is asking to be SAVED FROM sin. Lordship, though not of necessity promised up front (also not something the sinner has necessarily denied) is something he will find himself easily given to once the bridge of faith is crossed. To the sinner at the time of salvation, (as the road that brings one to the bridge differs from the one which will take him from it) sin is something he is familiar with because of bitter experience but lordship is something he knows nothing of and yet is about to joyfully discover.
The Necessity of Repentance
Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Restraint is the price of civilization, and we are casting off restraint.”6 Not only has America become a country of civilized barbarians, but our churches are becoming houses for paganized Christians, as any of us who lived through the last half of the twentieth century has sadly observed. Laws and restraints have been rescinded or removed; manners and deportment have been practically erased and forgotten; respect under authority and humility under tutelage are now seen as oppressive and legalistic, even un-American.
Into this environment comes a movement like this that gives theological teeth to a culture of narcissism and self-esteem. In the best-case scenario our churches have been stripped of godliness and have winked at worldliness among believers. In the worst-case, our churches are being filled with unbelievers who, having a form of godliness, have denied the power thereof. Our churches and our religious movements were supposed to see and warn the people as these days came upon them. But they have rather taken the easier road of appeasement and success. But one does not have to look far to see that this huge experiment has not worked. We are losing our young people not saving them from a perverted generation. We’ll either have to redefine being holy as God is holy or we’ll have to take drastic action in our churches, action that will not be very popular.
The book of Romans
This book ought to be the primary text for the subject of repentance. After the apostle Paul described his own apostolic ministry in the gospel of Jesus Christ, he began to describe the gospel as the power of God unto salvation and the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith (1:16-17). But such a gospel cannot be comprehended without first writing of the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness (1:18). This subject of the world’s sinfulness will take Paul through chapter three, verse 20 before he can come back to the subject of salvation by faith. We are not ready to be saved until we see that God has proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God (3:9-11). It is not until we realize that there is no difference: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (3:22-23) that we can be justified freely by his grace (3:24). All the world is condemned by one of three laws.
The law of nature
First Paul deals with the heathen who has never heard of God, the Bible, or the gospel. Yet this man is without excuse because of the law of nature. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (1:20). David had already declared, The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard (Psa 19:1-3).
By this law God prepares the unlearned and unknowing man for the gospel by proving to him that he is without excuse before a holy God. It cannot of itself reveal grace and faith or the gospel message, but it can prepare for faith by proving sinfulness. Alva J. McClain wrote, “Every man has the same revelation. It is the evidence of creation. When a man can look out at the created universe and fail to see the power, the Godhead, and the divinity of God, he is a man who is holding down the truth—not because he cannot see it, but because he is unrighteous.7
In this day of evolutionary belief and atheism the sinner is convinced that he is the highest product of an upward process rather than the fallen creature of a holy Creator. Repentance would be the last thing he would want to hear. Our society is opposed in every way to the law of nature found in God’s creation.
The law of conscience
Secondly Paul writes to the moral man who insists he is not as bad as most others in the world. He is educated, informed, cultured, and erudite. But Paul says he is inexcusable (2:1) because such people show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness (2:15). The moral rights and wrongs in the world open windows for reflecting on where morality and absolute truth come from. A people without a conscience for these things is a people without God.
This postmodern world is known for its rejection of moral absolutes. Even among believers we find the “Emerging” church movement which caters to postmodernism and questions even the truth of God’s Word. They are certainly happy with setting old-fashioned repentance aside and having a faith which costs nothing and admits nothing. It is a conscience which can be easily seared and not so easily pricked.
The law of Scripture
Specifically Paul addresses the Jewish readers and reminds them that they have the Law of Moses as well as all the Scripture. Confident that they are a guide to others, they are reminded that they break the same laws themselves (2:21-23). The “curse of the law” is that unless it is kept entirely one is “guilty of all” (Gal 2:10). It is this Word of God that pierces even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12).
Polls continue to show that even Christians are losing their faith in the Word of God. Inspiration is doubted or redefined, methods of interpretation allow for anyone’s belief to be accepted, and disallowance of application forbids modern sins to be named. It is no wonder that a gospel without repentance, even though clearly contrary to Scripture, is easily accepted.
The Receiving of Faith
Paul proclaimed that before faith may be desired, every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (Rom 3:19). Salvation is more than a head knowledge about the facts of Christ. “Believing” has an ethical element, a “receiving” element to it. John records that when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit (lit. “believe”) himself unto them, because he knew all men (John 2:23-24). They believed in their head, but not with their heart. They gave assent to the facts but did not commit the keeping of their souls to Him. John concluded his book by using the word “believe” in both ways, But these are written, that ye might believe [the facts] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [receiving] ye might have life through his name (John 20:31). Repentance is that part of faith that creates the thirst and makes clear the need to receive forgiveness.
And So . . . .
Vance Havner may have been right when, in the 1960s, he wrote, “We have made it easy for hundreds superficially to ‘accept Christ’ without ever having faced sin and with no sense of need. We are healing slightly the hurt of this generation, trying to treat patients who do not even know they are sick.”8 May the Lord grant us patience with such patients, but also the courage to confront with the real solution to their sin, repentance, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Notes: 1. Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 146. 2. See Dr. Ernest Pickering’s excellent rebuttal, Are Fundamentalists Legalists? A review of this is on my website. www.aletheiabaptistministries.org 3. www.faithalone.org is the official website for the Grace Evangelical Society. 4. See “Debate” on GES website. 5. Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology points out that Lordship would use the term “inevitably” here, while Free Grace would say no lordship is “necessary.” (vol. 3, p. 521) 6. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in CyberSpace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) 91. 7. Alva J. McClain, Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973) 65. 8. Vance Havner, Hearts Afire (Old Tappan: Revell, nd) 51.