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The Lordship Controversy and Repentance

Ernest Reisinger

One major point in the Lordship controversy is the role of repentance in salvation. Both the Lordship and the Non-Lordship teachers believe in repentance. Their disagreements, which are not a few, stem from what they believe the Bible teaches about repentance. The differences have some serious implications and consequences affecting the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.

When I first read Charles Ryrie's shocking statement in his book Balancing the Christian Life. I did not know how to react--coming as it does from a very respected theologian and a very able teacher. The statement that I am referring to is in connection with the Lordship controversy. Referring to the Lordship preachers, Ryrie said, "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 false and comes under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel," (p. 170).

This is a serious charge. I do not know one Lordship teacher or preacher who does not believe that sinners are justified through faith alone plus nothing; however, the Lordship teaching is that faith which is alone is not the kind of faith that justifies. Lordship preachers all believe that Bible--repentance and saving faith are inseparably joined together in the application of God's salvation (see FJ 10, 11).

Lordship teachers recognize that the Bible has much to say about spurious faith and spurious repentance. James P. Boyce, in his Abstract of Systematic Theology (pp. 384-93) names three kinds of faith: (1) temporary or delusive faith, (2) implicit faith, and (3) historic faith--all spurious.

I do not want to believe that Charles Ryrie meant such men as Charles H. Spurgeon, John Bunyan, John Gill, John A. Broadus, B. H. Carroll, all Baptists who embrace the 1689 Confession, all Presbyterians who hold to the Westminster Confession and all Christian Reformed men who hold to the Heidelburg Catechism come "under the curse of perverting the gospel or preaching another gospel."

As I reflect on this extravagant statement I think he may be right--it is another gospel, a different gospel! If there two different gospels in this debate, the question that needs to be asked is: "Which one is the biblical gospel?" Dr. Ryrie's statement about Lordship teaching does set one thing straight, namely, that this is not some non-essential doctrine or some secondary matter. It does concern the purity of the gospel.

With these preliminary remarks behind us let us begin our study on the Biblical doctrine of repentance.

The Importance of Repentance

The subject is important because Jesus said, if we do not repent we will perish (Luke 13:3). "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." This is enough to make it of paramount importance.

This is why our Lord made repentance the opening message of His ministry: "Repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15). This is why He closed His ministry with a clear command to include repentance in our message to the world: "and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations . . . and you are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:47, 48). He began His ministry with the message of repentance and He closed His ministry on the subject of repentance.

Thomas Watson, an old Puritan, said, "Two great graces essential to a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven." Repentance is never out of season. If anyone misses repentance he will miss salvation, he is not in possession of eternal life, he does not have forgiveness of sin, he is a lost soul and without God and without hope in this world and the world to come. Jesus tied remission of sins to repentance. This makes it very important (Luke 24:47).

Jesus made repentance His keynote address: "From that time Jesus began to preach and say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17).

The twelve that he called to preach followed His example: "and they went out and preached that men should repent," (Mark 6:12).

Peter obeyed our Lord's command to preach repentance and remission of sins. In his first sermon (Acts 2:38) after our Lord returned to heaven Peter said, "repent and be baptized." Hear Peter again: "Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out," (3:19). In Acts 5:30-32, preaching to the persecutors he said, "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 Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him."

Our Lord's chiefest apostle, in his famous sermon on Mars Hill, to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers preached repentance (Acts 17) "God . . . now commands all men to repent," (v. 30). The great apostle, in summarizing a three year ministry, recounts to the elders of Ephesus just what he had taught and preached: "I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ," (Acts 20:20, 21).

Another apostolic example in the life of this great apostle is found in Acts 26:18-20. The apostle is giving his personal testimony before King Agrippa, and he tells the king what Jesus told him to do, that is, the purpose for which our Lord had appeared to him. Jesus said, "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness . . ." (v. 16). In verses 18-20, our Lord tells Paul what his ministry was meant to be: "To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sin . . . ."

In verse 20, Paul tells King Agrippa the content of the message: "that they should repent and turn to God . . . ." Not just trust, but turn to God and do works befitting repentance.

Now, this message of repentance almost got Paul killed. "For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me" (v. 21). And one reason men avoid preaching repentance today is this very point. It will cause some waves and some antagonism from this generation of poor, lost, self-deceived church members who are products of an evangelism that has left repentance out of its message. Therefore, the supposed converts have missed Bible repentance, and their lives and their dedication to Christ and His church testify that they do not perform deeds appropriate to repentance.

Before giving a definition of repentance let me name some major errors of the Non-Lordship position:

  1. Non-Lordship teaching has a repentance that is not an essential part of salvation.
  2. Non-Lordship teaching has a forgiveness of sin that is not necessarily joined with repentance.
  3. Non-Lordship preachers teach that repentance is a call to fellowship with God and has nothing to do with eternal life.
  4. Non-Lordship teaching removes repentance from any concept of turning from sin initially in coming to faith in Christ.
  5. Zane Hodges, one of the front runners for the Non-Lordship position, argues for his position by noting that the word "repentance" is not mentioned in the Gospel of John (I will address this objection below).
  6. Non-Lordship teaching is redefining repentance in such a way as to remove it from any concept of turning from sin. (For information of these assertations see Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, p. 27 and chapters 9 and 12.)
  7. The Non-Lordship position argues that regeneration does not necessarily produce faith and repentance. The best writer for the Non-Lordship position is Robert Lightner. He is like a good lawyer with a bad case. He says, "repentance is almost a synonym for faith" (Sin the Savior and Salvation, p. 167). Statements like this clearly show that Lightner does not see that regeneration always precedes faith and repentance, and if it does not precede both it does not produce either. A statement like this also shows that the Non-Lordship teaching does not see that the Bible teaches that there is an inseparable connection between faith and repentance. It is because of this inseparable relationship that I will spend a little more time on this aspect of the differences in the two positions. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.
One Non-Lordship teacher goes so far as to make the following assertions:
  • "Any teaching that demands a change of conduct toward either God or man for salvation is to add works or human effort to faith, and this contradicts all Scripture and is an accursed message."
  • "Lordship salvation contradicts Scripture."
  • "This message is accursed of God."
  • "The person who preaches such a message [Lordship] is also accursed of God."
These are all quotes from the book, Handbook of Personal Evangelism, by Dr. Ray Stamford, then president of a large Non-Lordship Bible College. (They reflect antinomianism at its worst.)

Hodges also separates faith and repentance. He says, "Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life" (Absolutely Free, p. 144).

Hodges uses Acts 16:31 and quotes Paul and Silas' answer to the Philippian jailor's question, "What must I do to be saved?"

He says, "There is not a word here--not a syllable--about repentance. Lordship salvation teachers are in dire straits with a text like this" (p. 144).

Hodges quotes Calvin's Institutes, Book III, Chapter 3. However, he apparently did not read Calvin carefully because the Reformer's words destroy his arguments.

Calvin, in this chapter, says: "With good reason, the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31)" (p. 592); and, "surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of past life into the right way, applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance" (Book III, p. 593). Further, he says, "Repentance has its foundation in the gospel, which faith embraces" (Book III, p. 593).

Calvin asks the question, "What then? Can true repentance stand apart from faith? Not at all. But even though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished. As faith is not without hope, yet faith and hope are different things, so repentance and faith, although they are held together by a permanent bond, required to be joined rather than confused" (p. 597).

Faith and Repentance Are Inseparable

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" Mark 1:15. Note that this is a two-fold command. In God's salvation faith and repentance are inseparable.

If repentance is only a change of mind. How do I know if I have changed my mind? Do I just say I have changed my mind? One can only be sure that he has changed his mind if that changed mind leads one to change his direction.

Regeneration can only be known in its effects on the life, likewise, a changed mind can only be known by a changed direction.

Repentance is always consistent with faith. Spurious repentance is to dwell on the consequences of sin, rather than on sin itself. I have known some sinners so disturbed with the fears of hell and the thoughts of death, and eternal judgment that, to use the words of one old preacher, "they have been shaking over the mouth of hell by their collar, and have almost felt the torments of the pit before they went there." This may come with true repentance but this is not the essential part of repentance.

John Bunyan, in his Holy War, illustrates this as follows: "Diabolus often beats the great hell-drum in the ears of Mansoul, to prevent their hearing the trumpet of the gospel which proclaims mercy and pardon."

Let me emphasize that any repentance that keeps a sinner from believing in Christ is a repentance that needs to be repented of. Any repentance that makes a sinner think Christ will not save him goes beyond the truth of the Bible, yes, it goes against the truth.

Any repentance that leads to despair and remorse but does not embrace mercy is a repentance of the devil and not of God. A person may feel that he did wrong, yet go on in his sin all the same, feeling there is no hope and that he may as well continue to live as he will, and get the pleasures of sin since he cannot, as he thinks, have the pleasures of grace and forgiveness. This is spurious repentance. It is the fire of the devil which hardens, and not the Lord's fire of mercy which melts the heart, as seen in Peter's repentance. Peter wept bitterly, yet embraced the mercy of God in Christ. One old Puritan, on his sick bed, expressed, "Lord, sink me low as hell in repentance; but lift me high as heaven in faith."

Let me express it yet another way. True repentance is to repent as bitterly for sin as if you know it should damn you, but to rejoice so much in Christ as if sin were nothing at all.

These two things are made clear in the definition of repentance I wish to use.

What is true evangelical repentance? Why do I say "evangelical"? Because there is a legal repentance. What is the difference? Legal repentance does not embrace the mercy of Christ. Consider Judas (Mt. 27:3). He repented--he was remorseful, but his was not a evangelical repentance. We will see this in our definition of repentance, taken from Question 87 in the Shorter Catechism.

Question: What is repentance unto life?

Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace; whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after, new obedience.

Notice the phrase, "and the apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ" One might think it strange to find the necessity of grasping "the mercy of God in Christ" in a definition of repentance. Ah, but it only underscores the point that where saving faith is found, there evangelical repentance will be found also, and where evangelical repentance is found, there true saving faith will be found. They are Siamese twins--inseparable in their application.

Two lines that meet are the stripping of repentance and the clothing of faith: a repentance that purges the soul of dead works, and a faith that fills the soul with living works; repentance which pulls down, and faith which builds up; a repentance which orders a time to weep, and a faith that gives a time to dance. These two things together make up the work of grace within whereby men's souls are saved.

The repentance we ought to preach is one connected with faith. Thus we may preach repentance and faith together without any difficulty whatsoever.

True repentance is born at the same time with faith. They are twins. To say which is first is past my knowledge. They come to the soul together and we must preach them together.

Spurgeon said, "So then, dear friends, those people who have faith which allows them to think lightly of past sin, have the faith of devils and not the faith of God's elect."

Repentance and belief are ongoing. We must repent and believe the gospel until our dying day. Rowland Hill, when he was near death said he had one regret and that was that a dear friend who lived with him for sixty years would have to leave him at the gate of heaven. "That dear friend, said he, is repentance; repentance has been with me all my life, and I think I shall drop a tear, said the good man, as I go through the gates to think that I can repent no more."

Repentance in the Gospel of John

Zane C. Hodges makes much of the fact that the Gospel of John does not use the word repent. What Hodges fails to recognize is that the word repent does not need to appear for us to see the principle of repentance as part of the message of God-centered evangelism.

Let me illustrate it from our Lord's evangelism. In His personal evangelism to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), the rich young ruler wanted to know what to do to have eternal life (Mark 10:17). The Master Evangelist addresses Himself to the young ruler's question, but He did not use the words, "believe" or "repent." However, He got to the heart of true repentance and saving faith by showing the rich young ruler that he could not have two Gods, and therefore, he must turn from his green god. "Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said to him, `one thing you lack: go your way, sell whatsoever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasures in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.'" This is preaching repentance, and it was necessary for the rich young ruler to turn from, as well as to turn to, in order to have eternal life.

Jesus taught repentance to the harlot woman in John 8 when He told her to sin no more, that is "turn." It is not necessary to use the word "repent" to teach repentance. The word repent was not used with the prodigal son in Luke 15 but he did repent--he turned from his sin and embraced his father's mercy. However, the word "repent" is not in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). True evangelical repentance is inseparably joined to faith.

Let me just give you one verse that sets forth three things that happens in some degree in every true conversion. 1 Thess. 1:9: "For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God."

  1. Turned to God--that is faith.
  2. Turned from idols (sin)--that is repentance.
  3. To serve--that is evidence of repentance; "do works meet for repentance."

Summary

We believe that repentance and faith are (1) sacred duties, and also (2) inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God, whereby being deeply convicted of our guilt, danger, and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King, and relying on Him alone as the only and all sufficient Saviour.

From these facts, it will be seen that:

  1. The seat of true repentance is in the soul. It is not of itself a mere intellectual knowledge of sin, nor the sorrow that accompanies it, nor the changed life that flows from it, but it is the soul's apprehension of its heinous character, which produces the horror and self-loathing which accompany it, and the determination to forsake sin which flows from it.
  2. That true repentance is inconsistent with the continuance in sin because of abounding grace.
  3. That true repentance consists of mental and spiritual emotion, and not of outward self-imposed chastisements. Even the pious life and devotion to God which follow are described not as repentance, but as fruits meet for repentance.
The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 contains an excellent summary explanation of repentance in chapter 15. This chapter is reproduced in its entirety below.

Of Repentance Unto Life And Salvation
  1. Such of the elect as are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life. Titus 3:2-5.
  2. Whereas there is none that doth good and sinneth not, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of the corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall into great sin and provocations; God hath, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation. Ecc. 7:20; Luke 22:31, 32.
  3. This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person, being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency, praying for pardon and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavor, by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all wellpleasing in all things. Zech. 12:10; Acts 11:18; Ezek. 36:31; 2 Cor. 7:11; Ps. 119:6, 128.
  4. As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man's duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly. Luke 19:8; 1 Tim. 1:13, 15.
  5. Such is the provision which God hath made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation, that although there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation on them that repent, which makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary. Rom. 6:23; Isa. 1:16-18; 55:7.

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