Saturday, September 18, 2010

Repentance as a Change of Mind

Many people who believe that eternal life is received by faith alone in Christ alone will also say that repentance is necessary for salvation. They harmonize these two views by saying that repentance simply means a change of mind and is basically synonymous with faith. This is based on the fact that the Greek word metanoia is constructed of the words "after" and "mind." So, those who hold that view agree with proponents of Lordship Salvation that repentance is necessary for eternal salvation, but disagree with them regarding the definition of repentance. Though I for several years held to this position, over time it has become obvious to me that there are some serious problems with this view, and that it is more biblically consistent to see repentance as involving turning from sin, but as not being a requirement for eternal salvation.

Weaknesses of the "Change of Mind" Position
One easily apparent weakness of the position that "repent" simply means to change one's mind is the fact that there are many uses of the word in the New Testament which either refer to or strongly imply a change in actions. This is important, because words in languages are defined by their usage, not simply by the parts by which they are made up. So once it is granted that repentance is a requirement for receiving eternal life, it is very difficult to maintain the idea that good works are not a part of the equation, at least as an "inevitable result" of repentance. Here I will give just a few examples.

In Luke 17:3, Jesus spoke of forgiving a brother who has sinned against you if he repents. It seems clear that the brother being spoken of here doesn't simply change his mind about his behavior and continue in it, but actually turns away from what he has done, at least for a time. In Acts 26:20, Paul is recorded as saying that he taught people that they needed to "repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance." So if Paul is here summarizing his teaching of how to have eternal life, then not only did he fail to mention faith, but good works seem to play an integral part, at least in showing the reality of repentance. In 2 Cor. 12:21, speaking to believers, Paul talked about his fear of having to deal with those who had not repented of the sins which they were practicing. Again in this context, it is clear that more than a change of mind is in view. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to stop practicing those sins, and knew he would have to deal harshly with them if they had not. Revelation 9:20-21, speaking of unbelievers during the tribulation period, says that they would not repent of their idolatry and other sins. Again, the point is not simply that they would not change their minds and recognize that they were sinners, but that they were determined to persist in those sins.

In addition to the problem that there are several passages in which repentance clearly refers to abandoning some kind of sinful behavior, there is the problem that biblical Greek dictionaries nearly always refer to repentance as in some way involving turning from sin. For example, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says, "this change of mind involves both a turning from sin and a turning to God." Louw and Nida's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines repent as "to change one's way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness." Other lexicons are similar. While it is possible that all the Greek scholars involved in these works were misguided by their theology, it still makes it difficult to maintain or promote a position which requires that every Greek dictionary is wrong, not to mention every English Bible translation since the English word repent, used in every major translation, also carries the idea of turning from sins.

The other major weakness in the change of mind position is also a weakness in the view that repentance as a turning from sin is necessary in order to receive eternal life, and that is the fact that John, the one book of the New Testament which was written to lead unbelievers to faith in Christ, does not mention repentance at all. Nor is repentance mentioned in the book of Galatians, which was written to defend the true gospel, or in Ephesians, or in any section of Romans which deals with justification. Surely if repentance, no matter which way it is defined, was a necessary part of receiving eternal life, it would have been mentioned in the one book of the New Testament which was specifically written to bring people to faith in Christ, and would have been present in the apostle Paul's discussions of justification.

Problems With the Implications of the "Change of Mind" Position
Initially, when I started to study out the issue of repentance and whether it refers to more than a change of mind, I was focussed only on the usage of the word in scripture and which definition fit the data better. However, over time, I began to realize that there were logical problems with the change of mind view which I had not previously seen. One of these issues is that it introduces subjectivity into the reception of eternal life. Most of the references to repentance, if they are referring to a change of mind, do not specify what people must change their minds about. So how could anyone know if he had adequately changed his mind about the right things? If the word "repent" was understood to mean "turn from your sins," then it would make sense that it would often appear in scripture without any further clarification. But if it meant "change your mind," then people would need to know exactly what they needed to change their minds about.

The other thing I realized about defining repentance as a change of mind and seeing it as a prerequisite for eternal life is that it actually presents two requirements for eternal life, rather than the single requirement of believing in Jesus which is presented so clearly in the book of John and in the epistles. When I held to the change of mind view, I would have said that repentance and faith were basically synonymous, but at the same time I would have said that unless a person had adequately changed his mind about God's holiness, his own complete sinfulness, and the identity of Christ, he would not be saved. That means that I was viewing these changes of mind as prerequisites to saving faith, and faith and prerequisites to faith cannot be the same thing.

When repentance is viewed as a change of mind, it is often said that it is synonymous with faith, but it is difficult to see how changing one's mind about sin, for example, and believing in Jesus Christ for eternal life can mean the same thing. If we make a change of mind about sin into propositions, it might look something like this, "I used to think that any wrong I had done was not a big deal. Now I have changed my mind and know that my sins are offensive to God and have cut me off from Him." While this kind of thinking certainly should prepare a person to believe in Christ, it should be easy to see that it is not the same as believing in Him, and therefore cannot be synonymous with faith. Also, it is quite possible for someone to have this kind of change of mind about sin without believing in Jesus for eternal life. This then becomes two requirements for salvation.

Even if repentance is defined specifically as a change of mind about Christ, rather than about sin or self, it is difficult to see how it is synonymous with faith. A person who has changed his mind about Christ might say, "I used to believe that Jesus was just a great teacher, but now I have changed my mind and believe that He is God." Again, this might prepare a person to believe in Christ for eternal life, but is not the same thing as believing. Many people believe that Jesus is God without believing in Him in the biblical sense of believing in Him for eternal life. Thus they have "changed their minds" about Him, but have not believed. If one can do one without the other, they cannot be synonymous.

So how many requirements for eternal life are there? Is it enough for a person to believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life or eternal salvation, or must he first meet certain prerequisites by changing his mind about God's holiness, his own inability, the offensiveness of sin, and the identity of Christ? Again, these areas may be psychological prerequisites for most people, but that is different than presenting them as biblical prerequisites to faith and then trying to say that they aren't really an additional requirement besides faith.

Most unsaved people have at least one major issue about which they will need to change their minds in order to believe in Jesus. Some have many issues. But I do not believe that these changes of mind leading up to faith are what the Bible refers to when it says "repent." In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were never called on by the prophets to change their minds, but they were often called on to turn from their evil ways in order to turn aside God's temporal judgment. In the same way, in the New Testament, Jews and Gentiles, believers and unbelievers are in different contexts called on to "repent," or turn from their sins, but this is a different issue than "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." The changes of mind which might need to take place in order to lead someone to faith in Christ will take place as they are exposed to truth, if they are open to it, but this is a different issue than repentance.