The Lordship Controversy and Repentance
by 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:
Non-Lordship teaching has a repentance that is not an essential part of salvation.
Non-Lordship teaching has a forgiveness of sin that is not necessarily joined with repentance.
Non-Lordship preachers teach that repentance is a call to fellowship with God and has nothing to do with eternal life.
Non-Lordship teaching removes repentance from any concept of turning from sin initially in coming to faith in Christ.
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).
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.)