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John's Gospel and Repentance

Posted by Matt Postiff July 20, 2011 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Bible Texts 

I was recently asked this question: "How do you account for the total non-mention of repentance in John's Gospel? Does this mean that believing includes repentance? Is repentance a requirement for salvation, or only for discipleship?"

Here is my answer:

1. In the absence of other clear teaching, arguments from silence are tenuous at best. Esther does not use God's name, but God is behind the scenes and the book does belong in the canon. You could probably say most books of the Bible are silent on one or more doctrines, but that does not warrant a big conclusion from that silence. If I grant the premise of the question, that John does not mention repentance (and that is a widely held premise), I would not grant that means that repentance is not part of saving faith.

2. I do not believe you can legitimately build your theology of salvation on John's gospel alone, and upon an argument from silence at that.

3. I believe that saving faith is repentant faith. That is, saving faith includes a change of mind not only about Jesus but about sin. So, I could say that believing includes repentance. Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38, Luke 24:47, Acts 5:31, 11:18, 20:21, Romans 2:4, Hebrews 6:1, and 2 Peter 3:9, among other verses make it clear that repentance is not dispensable. Repentance is "built in" to John's use of belief. In other words, Suppose you were to ask John, "Is belief that is unrepentant over sin (as in James 2:19) the kind of belief you were talking about in your gospel?" I believe based on the Scriptural evidence that John would answer, "Absolutely not!"

4. I question the premise (mentioned in #1 above). I agree that John does not use the word "repent" in his gospel. He does use it often in Revelation. But the word does not have to be used for the concept to be present. Let me suggest several places where repentance is conceptually present:

    4.a. Jesus tells two people to "go and sin no more" or words to that effect: John 5:14, 8:11.

    4.b. John 12:40 quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 (see Matt. 13:15, Mark 4:12, Acts 28:27) and says "lest they should understand with their hearts and TURN and I should heal (forgive) them." Here we see the idea of conversion, turning away from sin and turning to God. I understand this to be synonymous with repenting and believing. Luke 1:16-17 uses the same word twice, from epistrephw, in a similar manner. See also Luke 22:32, Acts 9:35, 11:21, 14:15, 15:19, 2 Cor. 3:16, 1 Thess. 1:9, 1 Peter 2:25. All of these verses use the concept of turning away from sin/idolatry/etc. to God. Acts 3:19 and 26:20 even use the term immediately next to "repent."

5. The nature of belief that John presents assumes repentance about at least one thing--who Jesus is. Now, some interpreters limit repentance to just that--one's view of Jesus. I disagree that repentance is that specific. I believe it has to do with sins more generally, and one very notable sin is unbelief in Christ's person and work. John focuses on this notable sin of unbelief and calls his reader to change his mind about it. You could say this accounts for the non-mention of repentance--John is using "unbelief/belief" terminology in calling his readers to turn away from unbelief (repent) and turn toward belief. Consider:

    5.a. The Spirit will convict of sin "because they do not believe in Me" (John 16:8-9).

    5.b. The whole purpose of John's gospel is to get the reader to change his beliefs so that he believes in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God, John 20:31. This implies a change of mind away from a wrong belief to a right belief.

    5.c. John 8:24 says a person will die in his sins if he does not believe in Christ. Obviously a change of mind is needed.

    5.d. Jesus appeals to several witnesses in John 5:31-47, all of which testify to Christ. Yet, many of the Jews refused to change their minds/beliefs about Christ. Jesus is calling on them to change their minds.

6. Saving faith is more than mere mental assent to the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It also involves the man's will and affections such that he desires to seek pardon from sin and that he understands the personal application of forgiveness from God. To believe, according to John's use of the term, a man has to understand his lost condition due to sin, and want to get the remedy for that lost condition. The idea of repentance is built in to this kind of belief.

Update 10/4/2019: A few days ago I made a connection in my mind that had escaped my conscious notice until now. I wrote the above in 2011. In 2017, I wrote an article on the use of repentance in the book of Revelation. Now, I realize that the 2017 article is a helpful addition here. John may not have used the word "repent" in his gospel, or even in his 3 general letters, but he certainly wrote about it in his letters to the seven churches, and elsewhere in the Apocalypse. It would be very strange if John believed repentance was not a part of the gospel, for him then to discuss it as a crucial part of the same gospel.

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