Two Little Words Can Make a Big Difference
Earlier this week I posted a couple comments at Antonio da Rosa’s Free Grace Theology blog on the topic of repentance (see ‘Repentance and the Illustration of the “Stadium Event”’ for details). My goal was to make sure that anyone who read Antonio’s article was aware that there is a lot of disagreement over what it means to repent; his article only makes sense if you define repentance as a “turning away from sins.” Antonio is a student of the teaching of Zane Hodges who was a strong advocate of “Free Grace” theology (which is great!) but also held to a “turning away from sin” definition of repentance.
The title of this post refers to two competing definitions of the word “repent” as used in the New Testament (there are probably more than two such definitions floating around but I am not concerned with those). The first definition, and the one I believe is correct, is that repent means to have a “change of mind” or to “turn away” from something where that “something ” is determined by the context. The other definition of “repent” is that it always means to “turn away from sin” no matter what the context is. Those two little words, “from sin”, can make a surprisingly big difference in a person’s theology.
My attempt at commenting wasn’t very successful by the way. My first comment was too long so I couldn’t post it. I then tried to break the comment into two parts and post them separately. Unfortunately, the first comment has never been posted (I tried submitting it twice) so only the second half of my comment was actually published. This post is an attempt to correct all of that. I am going to expand my on my comments here and then post a link to this back at Antonio’s place. Ain’t blogging fun!
I. My Thoughts on Repentance Along with Resources for Further Study
How we define repentance is obviously very important. In the past when I have read debates over its meaning it often seemed as if both sides agreed that there can be one, and only one, definition of repent. The debaters then go about trying to prove how their singular definition is the only correct one. I just don’t believe that language, any language, works that way. Most of the time words have a range of meanings (the semantic range) and the particular meaning of a word in a particular passage depends on the context as well. I know that some words are supposed to have only one definition making them a “technical term” but I don’t think that the Koine Greek word usually translated as repent (metanoeo) is one of those words. When someone tries to use a “one size fits all” definition for metanoeo I think they run into a whole bunch of interpretational issues.
I do believe that metanoeo generally means to “change one’s mind” which is actually close to Zane Hodges’ preferred definition of “to turn away from sin” with one significant difference. To “turn away from” seems to me to be a synonym of “change one’s mind about” but when “from sin” is appended to “turn away from” it completely changes the meaning. Why must the object of “turn away from” in the New Testament always be “from sin?” How did sin get in there? The etymology of metanoeo, to the best of my knowledge, does not support the insertion of “of sin” into the meaning of the word. I also believe that to use the “turning away from sin” definition of metanoeo really doesn’t fit well with certain New Testament passages. I just don’t see it.
For completeness I am going to link to the three articles written twenty years ago by Bob Wilkin on what it means to repent. I know that his views on the topic have changed over the years but I agree with the “old” Bob Wilkin.
I have several resources that I have used in my personal studies in addition to the Bob Wilkin articles. In fact I found a new article by Bob Nyberg on repentance while doing a search for Zane Hodges “Harmony with God” view of repentance. For reference here are my additional materials including the new Bob Nyberg reference:
- A man by the name of Earl Traut became convinced that many of the definitions of biblical words were off base so he began doing his own word studies (all of his word studies can be found here). His study of the words translated repent (he uses the term “regret”) is short but is a handy reference anyway (link here).
- Bill Wenstrom (a dispensational pastor) has made a lot of excellent word studies available on his web site. His five page word study on repentance is available here.
- Bob Nyberg’s five page document on repentance discusses the differences between the Ryrie/Lightner view of repentance and the Hodges view of repentance (link here).
II. Other Problems I Have With the “Turning Away From Sin” Definition of Repent
In a nutshell my reasons for not following the “turning away from sin” definition of repentance do not center only on how it affects the presentation of the Gospel , there are also implications for experiential sanctification/the believers’ spiritual life. To give some context, those who hold that repentance means a turning from sin, and that a turning from sin is required for salvation, will interpret every passage containing the word repent as if it is a salvation passage. I have never interacted with anyone who held this view that didn’t also believe in perseverance of the saints (this flows naturally from the idea that a true Christian never has to repent). The holders of that theology reject the idea that believers can ever be out of fellowship with God (be carnal) and that no believer ever needs to confess personal sin to God the Father.
In a different variation on the theme, Zane Hodges believes in Free Grace but also uses the definition that repentance is defined as a “turning away from sin” (turning away from sin, in a salvation context, would be works salvation not Free Grace). This leads to his conclusion that repentance is never used in any salvation passage. As I try and explain below, this affects who the target audience is in many New Testament passages that deal with repentance. If the focus of repentance passages is shifted from the unbeliever to the believer then there must also be a major shift in the Gospel presentation and to the commands given to believers.
Let’s say that a passage contains the word “repent”, and we dismiss out of hand that the passage is speaking of salvation, then what do we do with it? Either it must be speaking to believers or it must be some general call of repentance that goes out to all mankind (such passages would have to be in the minority). There really are no other options. Without doing a detailed study of Hodges’ teaching I would think that many of the repentance passages that I, and many others, believe are aimed at calling unbelievers to salvation would now be applied to believers and their spiritual life. The affects of changing the target audience of these commands have to be substantial. I have seen running battles over the issue of how this impacts the Gospel presentation but I haven’t read any discussion about how this impacts the Christian walk. I suspect the answer is “a lot” but I don’t have time to dig into it.
I was able track down Zane Hodges’ teaching on the “Harmony with God” view of repentance. He published a detailed development of his view in the Chafer Theological Journal in 2003. I quickly looked through the articles (linked below) and he does indeed have some different ideas on the believer’s relationship with the God than I do. I have been taught a fairly well developed doctrine on how the believer interacts with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as he matures. Hodges’ views on repentance would probably throw out large chunks of that. That is not proof of anything, of course, and I understand that. However, I don’t think it is a wise use of my time to learn someone else’s theology so I can nitpick at it. If I don’t accept Hodges’ definition of repent none of the rest really matters.
Here are the Hodges article links if anyone is interested:
- Harmony with God (Part 1 of 3), by Zane C. Hodges
- Harmony with God (Part 2 of 3), by Zane C. Hodges
- Harmony with God (Part 3 of 3), by Zane C. Hodges
III. The Doctrine of Forgiveness and the Interpretation of Several New Testament Passages
To flesh out the doctrinal implications due to a change in definition of repent could easily be turned into a Ph.D. dissertation. Rather than try something that ambitious, I tracked down a copy of the Doctrine of Forgiveness that I learned from R.B. Thieme, Jr. (my pastor in my “formative” years). The point of this exercise is to provide an opportunity to do a compare and contrast between the two teacher’s interpretations with Colonel Thieme having the more traditional dispensationalist view. I have actually copied the doctrine to my blog if anyone is interested in studying it in detail (link here).
There are two sections of the Doctrine of Repentance that would be heavily impacted by the change in interpretation fostered by the different definition of repentance. Section 3) a) is titled “Forgiveness and salvation” and Section 3) b) is titled “Forgiveness after salvation,” these are the two sections I focused on. I believe that many of the passages listed under “Forgiveness and salvation” would have to be moved to the “Forgiveness after salvation” section based on Hodges’ teaching. I just don’t see it. I’m not trying to be difficult but I cannot see making that switch.
For example, I have copied one of the points under the “Forgiveness and salvation” section below. It references four Bible passages which I also reproduce below. I added the text “[repentance]” to the quote and one of the passages below just to make sure my point comes through.
3) a) ix) Although mankind has been forgiven by God, an individual doesn’t secure His forgiveness until he changes his thinking [repentance] and believes in Jesus Christ as Savior (Luke 3:3; 24:46-47; Acts 2:38; 26:18).
The phrase “changes his thinking” means repent in this context. Here are the passages listed in support of that point:
3 He went into all the vicinity of the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
46 He also said to them, “This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
38 “Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
18 to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light [repentance] and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in Me. ‘
I am not going to ask Antonio, or anyone else, to give a detailed defense of how none of those those passages are salvation passages. However, I still hold that to turn the interpretation of those scriptures away from being salvation messages to something else would require a huge adjustment in theology. What a difference two little words make.