Does John's Gospel Teach That People Can Be Saved from Hell without Repenting of Their Sins? By Max Aplin
Does John's Gospel Teach That People Can Be Saved from Hell without Repenting of Their Sins? By Max Aplin
The belief that especially marked out the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was that Christians do not earn their right to be saved from hell but that salvation is an unmerited gift from God. To put it another way, the first generation of Reformers, most notably Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, stressed that we are saved by faith and not by the performance of good deeds.
The Reformers, however, were all crystal clear too that if someone has saving faith, that faith will always be accompanied by good deeds in the saved person's life. When someone first receives salvation by faith, that person will always repent of their sins. And, as they continue through life in a state of salvation by faith, their life will be characterised by performing good deeds. The Reformers were adamant that if someone lives an unrepentantly sinful life, that person does not have saving faith.
Some decades after the beginning of the Reformation, another strand of Protestantism became prominent through the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Theologically, Arminius and those who followed him, such as John Wesley, differed in some ways from the first generation of Reformers (who actually differed quite a lot among themselves). But they also held firmly to the belief that Christians are saved by faith and not by performing good deeds, and that if someone has genuine, saving faith, that faith will always be accompanied by good deeds.
Traditional Protestants, then, also known as evangelicals, have always been clear that for someone to live an unrepentantly sinful life and to claim to be saved by faith shows that their faith is a dead faith that does not save. They have taught clearly that saving faith is always accompanied by a repentant attitude and good deeds in the saved person's life (although not anything close to moral perfection).
Around the beginning of the 20th century a heresy developed out of evangelicalism, which has come to be known as 'Free Grace Theology'. Adherents of this movement rightly assert that people are saved by faith, but they claim too that as long as someone makes a decision to accept Christ as their personal Saviour, they will be saved regardless of whether they repent of their sins and make Jesus Lord of their life. They fail to recognise that if someone never repents of theirs sins, it is always a sign that their faith is not saving faith but a kind of fake faith.
Given the influence that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Arminius and Wesley hold within evangelicalism today, it is important to recognise that the writings of these men make it abundantly clear that they would all have been completely horrified by so-called Free Grace Theology. We need to be as clear as we can be too that this movement stands not just outside evangelicalism, but outside anything that could be called orthodox, i.e., non-heretical, Christianity.
One of the arguments that is commonly used by adherents of the Free Grace movement concerns John's Gospel. The argument goes in this way:
John's Gospel teaches repeatedly about the need to believe in Jesus for salvation, but it never uses words meaning 'repent' or 'repentance'. This omission can hardly be accidental. Hence we can infer that according to this Gospel, turning away from sin is not necessary for someone to receive salvation.
This argument is naively simplistic and fundamentally flawed, as I hope to demonstrate in what follows.
To begin with, those who argue in this way have fallen into what can be described as the word - concept fallacy. The error here is to think that if a certain word which is commonly used to refer to a concept is not present, then that concept itself cannot be present.
In fact, human creativity being what it is, we sometimes find that the word or words that one author typically uses to refer to a concept, can be very different from the word or words that another author would use to refer to the same concept. Similarly, we sometimes find that a concept that one author makes explicit can at times be merely implied by another author.
For example, it is interesting to note that John's Gospel itself never uses the Greek word pistis, the standard New Testament noun meaning 'faith'. Nor does it use any other Greek noun with this sense. If you look up pistis in a Greek concordance of the NT, you will find that this word is used over 240 times in the NT as a whole but never in John's Gospel. Similarly, if you look up 'faith' in an English concordance, you will find hundreds of NT entries, but none in John's Gospel. Instead, when John wants to express the concept of having faith, he always makes use of the verb pisteuo, which can be translated into English as 'believe'. The concept of having faith is very much present in John's Gospel, even though the word 'faith' is never used.
As another example, take the Greek word charis, which is the standard NT word for 'grace'. It is interesting that in the Gospels we never find Jesus using this word with the meaning 'grace'. Nor do we find Him using any other Greek word with this meaning. If you look up 'grace' in an English concordance of the NT, you will not find Jesus using this term. But that, of course, in no way means that Jesus' message was not a message of grace. Rather, in the Gospels the grace in Jesus' message is strongly implied rather than made explicit.
The first grave error, then, of those who say that John's Gospel does not teach the necessity of repentance, is that they have been caught out by the word - concept fallacy. Just because words meaning 'repent' and 'repentance' are not found in John's Gospel in no way has to imply that these concepts are not present.
Secondly, those who say that this Gospel does not teach that repentance is necessary for salvation have failed to take the letter of 1 John into account. No one disputes that the theology and thought-world of John's Gospel and 1 John are very similar. Yet, crucially, 1 John is a part of Scripture that is especially strong in its teaching that those who unrepentantly practise sin will not finally be saved.
1 John 3:8 states that 'the person who practises sin is of the devil'. 3:14-15 asserts, 'The person who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.' In 3:9 we are even told: 'No one who has been born of God practises sin, for His seed remains in him, and he cannot sin . . .' And 5:18 says: 'No one who has been born of God sins . . .'
In saying that those born of God cannot sin, and that no one born of God sins, 3:9 and 5:18 are surely using hyperbole, i.e., deliberately exaggerated language. In light of the rest of Scripture, we surely cannot say that born-again Christians are actually unable to sin or that they do not sin. Nevertheless, these verses, along with others in 1 John teach us plainly that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are not God's children. And only God's children will avoid hell in the end.
Given that 1 John teaches so strongly about the necessity of repentance for salvation, and given the close theological similarities between 1 John and the Gospel of John, it would be astonishing if this Gospel taught that people could be saved without repenting of their sins.
Thirdly and most importantly, if we look at John's Gospel, we find that on a number of occasions it strongly implies that those who come in faith to Jesus for salvation will only be saved if they repent of their sins.
We should carefully note the following passages:
(1) In John 3:19-21, Jesus asserts:
'19 This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who performs evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that his deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the person who practises the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds might be shown as having been done in God.'
The first point to note here is that in v. 20 the Greek word phaula, which I have translated as 'evil deeds', is a plural. The reference therefore cannot be to the single evil deed of failing to believe in Jesus, for which a singular word would be needed. Rather, this word refers generally to the evil deeds that a person performs.
So, Jesus is teaching that everyone who performs evil deeds in general hates the light and does not come to the light. But, if someone hates the light and does not come to the light, it is surely not possible that such a person could have saving faith. How could they have faith in Jesus, when they refuse to come to the light? Therefore, according to this passage, everyone who performs evil deeds in general does not receive salvation.
It is true that this passage, in line with much else in John's Gospel and in 1 John, uses a simplifying dualism when it contrasts those who perform evil deeds with those who practise the truth. It would be a serious misinterpretation to understand Jesus to be saying that those who practise the truth live perfect lives and do not perform any evil deeds.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to reconcile this passage with the idea that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives can receive salvation. Jesus clearly implies that those who unrepentantly perform evil deeds hate the light and do not come to the light in saving faith.
(2) In John 5:28-29, Jesus states:
'An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and will come out, those who did good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed bad deeds to a resurrection of judgment.'
'Resurrection of life' here can only be referring to the eternal life that 'those who did good deeds' will experience after they have been raised. This group of people will end up in heaven.
'Resurrection of judgment' can only be referring to the punishment that 'those who committed bad deeds' will experience after they have been raised. This group of people will end up in hell.
In this passage, the Greek words agatha and phaula, which I have translated as 'good deeds' and 'bad deeds' respectively, are both plurals. This means that it is not possible to understand the doing good in view here to be simply about having faith in Jesus and the doing bad to be about failing to have faith in Him. If that had been the intention, singular words would have to have been used. This passage therefore describes people who get to heaven as those who have done good deeds, and people who arrive in hell as those who have done bad deeds.
This passage, then, clearly implies that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on track for hell.
(3) In John 8:42, Jesus says to His Jewish audience:
'If God were your Father, you would love Me.'
The first point to note here is that to be saved, people surely need to have God as their Father. There is no warrant at all for supposing that there could be two kinds of Christian, one of which has God as their Father, and one of which doesn't.
Second, although Jesus is speaking only to Jews in this verse, He implies that if anyone is to have God as their Father, that person will love Jesus.
Third, loving Jesus here surely involves more than just believing in Him. This is confirmed by what we find in John 14:15, where Jesus states:
'If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.'
According to John's Gospel, then, those who love Jesus do more than just believe in Him. They also obey Him.
So, to sum up the argument here: Every Christian, i.e., every person on track for heaven, has God as their Father; everyone who has God as their Father loves Jesus; and everyone who loves Jesus keeps His commandments. We should therefore have no hesitation in saying that John 8:42 teaches that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives do not have saving faith.
(4) In John 10:27-28, Jesus states:
'My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.'
First, we must observe that the text is explicit that Jesus' sheep represent those to whom He gives eternal life. These people are on the road to heaven.
Second, to suppose that there is another group of Christians on the road to heaven who believe in Jesus without becoming His sheep is wholly implausible. Nothing in John's Gospel would lead us to believe in the existence of such a group.
Third, we can note that Jesus' sheep are said to follow Him. This must mean following Jesus as a disciple.
This passage strongly implies, then, that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are not on track for heaven.
(5) In John 12:25, Jesus asserts:
'The one who loves his life loses it, but the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.'
In this verse, keeping one's life for eternal life must involve being on track for heaven. No other interpretation is at all plausible. Therefore, since losing one's life is set in contrast to this, those who lose their lives in this text must be those who are on track for hell.
Jesus is teaching, therefore, that those who love their lives are on the road to hell, but those who hate their lives are on the road to heaven.
It is entirely implausible to suppose that hating one's life can just mean believing in Jesus. The words must connote the hardship that is involved in Christian discipleship with its renouncing oneself, resisting temptation, etc.
This text is therefore another that clearly implies that repenting of sins is necessary to receive salvation.
The above five passages, then, show us clearly that John's Gospel teaches that those who do not repent of their sins will not be saved from hell. There are other passages which also point in this direction, but I have given those where this is taught most obviously.
The idea that people can have saving faith in Jesus without repenting of their sins therefore sharply contradicts John's Gospel.
To be sure, in this Gospel the theme of repentance is stressed rather infrequently in comparison to other parts of the NT. But we often find that parts of Scripture emphasise some aspects of the truth while teaching more lightly on other aspects. The various books of the Bible are in no way uniform, although they complement each other beautifully. John's relative lack of stress on repentance is made up for in other books. And, in any case, as we have seen, there are several passages in John where it is made clear that those who are saved will always turn away from their sins.
I think one reason why some of the Free Grace teachers say that people can be saved without repenting of their sins is simply because they can't understand how salvation is by faith and not by the performance of good deeds (as we are taught, for example, in Ephesians 2:8-9) and repentance is necessary for salvation. They can't figure out how these two things fit together, so they deny the latter.
What they do in this respect is similar to what others have done when they have been unable to understand how two biblical truths fit together. For instance, the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully human, yet one person. However, throughout the last 2000 years, many, not understanding how this can be so, have decided to reject one part of this truth by denying either His deity or humanity. They have exalted their own ability to understand above biblical revelation.
Personally, I don't properly understand how the one person Jesus Christ can be fully divine and fully human, but, with other genuine Christians, I accept both truths because the Bible teaches them, regardless of the fact that I can't fully understand.
Similarly, with regard to salvation, the Bible teaches (1) that we are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds and (2) that those who do not repent of their sins cannot be saved. Although I have spent some time trying to figure out exactly how these two truths fit together, I have not yet been able to reach a clear conclusion. But what I certainly will not do is deny either of these things just because I can't fully understand.
Let me finish with a warning to teachers of the so-called Free Grace movement. In Luke 17:1-2, the Lord Jesus warns:
'It is inevitable that causes of stumbling will come, but woe to the one through whom they come. It would be better for that person if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.'
I would suggest that the Free Grace teachers are doing something very similar to what Jesus condemns in this passage. They are teaching people who don't know much about the Christian faith that when someone becomes a Christian, turning away from their sins is not essential. They are telling people that they will be saved for all eternity as long as they make a decision to accept Jesus as their Saviour, regardless of whether they continue to live in unrepentant sin.
This is false teaching that has always been condemned by the church down through the centuries. Anyone who does not repent of their sins does not have saving faith, as the NT makes abundantly clear in a multitude of places. See especially James 2:14-26, which makes it plain that faith divorced from good deeds is a dead faith that will benefit a person no more than it will benefit demons on the Day of Judgment. Those who teach this terrible doctrine are therefore helping to send people down the road to hell.
Teachers of the so-called Free Grace movement urgently need to repent of what they are doing. If they don't, I expect that many of them will pay the ultimate price when they meet almighty God on that Day.
Please also see my related articles, which can easily be found using an internet search:
'Those Who Live Unrepentantly Sinful Lives Will Not Be Saved from Hell Even If They Believe in Jesus'
'Does the Bible Teach That People Must Repent of Their Sins to Be Saved and Become Christians?'
I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.
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