Ever since the Lordship vs. Free Grace clash occurred in the mid-1980s, a hot bed of controversy has surrounded the Gospel of John and the place of repentance in a person’s salvation. Because John is considered by many “the gospel of belief” or “the gospel of salvation” (cf. John 20:31) it is often the go-to document for considering how one is to be saved. Yet, while 11 of the 27 books of the New Testament do explicitly use the Greek word or its cognates for “repentance” (metanoia), it is conspicuously absent in John’s Gospel. It then flows from a line of reasoning that since John does not mention the word repentance, repentance is not required in a person’s salvation. This must be so, goes the thought, since John is the “gospel of belief/salvation.” Such a conclusion must be challenged. 

As this brief essay argues, an artificial construct strips John’s Gospel of its presentation of a true saving belief, barring some from seeing its clear concept of repentance powerfully illustrated within its narrative. In other words, while it is true the verb “repent” (metanoeō) or the noun “repentance” (metanoia) do not occur in the Gospel of John, their grammatical absence is not evidence for their conceptual absence. Contrary to those who think otherwise, repentance is dramatically portrayed in John’s Gospel. That is to say, for John, belief in Jesus is not simply a mental assent acknowledging His existence. Rather, true belief for John is a repentant-belief in Jesus. 


The Debate

Johannine Interpreters have long observed the absence of the word “repentance” in John’s Gospel. Some have responded with vitriol against those who insist repentance is nonetheless required for salvation. Dallas Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer is often (erroneously) appealed to as an example: “No thoughtful person would attempt to defend such a notion against such odds. And those who have thus undertaken doubtless have done so without weighing the evidence or considering the untenable position which they assume.”[1] More recently, Master’s University and Seminary chancellor John MacArthur went toe-to-toe with former Dallas Seminary professor Zane Hodges, debating in book-form whether repentance is necessary for salvation. 

MacArthur insisted that repentance is a gift from God and accompanies saving faith and is thus required for one to be saved. Hodges, on the other hand, insisted repentance is a human work and thus violates God’s free grace. Hodges’s argument was bolstered by the fact that the word “repentance” does not occur in the Gospel of John, a book he and others viewed exclusively as the “Gospel of Belief” or the “Gospel of Salvation.” The debate between MacArthur and Hodges resulted into what is now known as the “Lordship Salvation” vs. “Free Grace” controversy. MacArthur, representing the former position, promoted true belief as repentance and submission to the Lord’s authority, boldly stating: “Those who will not receive [Christ] as Lord are willfully rejecting Him….Thus there is no salvation except ‘lordship’ salvation.”[2] Hodges, a proponent of the latter position, contended, “Indeed [one] could have searched the entirety of John’s Gospel repeatedly and never found even one reference to repentance, much less a reference to surrender or submission as a condition for eternal life.”[3] The irony is that both men appealed to the same Scriptures to make their case. The debate continues to this day.

Absence of Evidence Does Not Mean Evidence of Absence

In an article arguing for the concept of repentance in John, New Testament scholar David Croteau listed several key doctrines that, along with the word “repentance” in John, do not appear in various NT writings:

(1) The concept of Jesus as Savior is absent from Matthew, Mark, Romans, Colossians, Hebrews, and Revelation; (2) The concept of  grace is absent from Matthew and Mark; (3) The concept of salvation is absent (in noun form) from Matthew and completely in Colossians; (4) The verb πιστεύω [“believe”] does not occur in Colossians or Revelation and the noun πίστις [“faith”] does not occur in the Fourth Gospel.[4]

Though Croteau’s list risks being too broad[5], it nevertheless raises important questions. If these critical concepts and/or words are absent from important NT books—essential doctrines to accept if one is to be a Christian—would anyone accuse, say, Matthew of intentionally rejecting Jesus as the Savior, or Mark of intentionally rejecting God’s grace? The thought seems unreasonable. In this same vein, John’s Gospel not only lacks the word repentance, it also says nothing of Jesus’ virgin birth, hell, or any notion of justification whatsoever. Does their absence in John suggest the apostle intentionally rejected these crucial doctrines? It’s hard to imagine. So, rather than accepting one free-grace advocate’s stance that we should “admit that it was important enough to John that repentance not be included in his Gospel of Belief,”[6] readers of Scripture would do well to remember that the absence of a word does not mean de facto an author purposely rejected the concept or intentionally left it out because it was unimportant. Thus, the absence of a word does not equal the absence of its concept.


Repentance is in John’s Gospel

The noun for repentance (metanoia) occurs 22 times in the New Testament (NT), while its verb form metanoeō occurs 34 times. Taken together, this equals a total of 56 times that repentance is explicitly taught in the Greek New Testament. The word metanoia is defined as “turning about, conversion” while metanoeōmeans to “change one’s mind,” and to “feel remorse, repent, be converted.”[7] While the Greek noun and verb for repentance occur regularly throughout the New Testament, it is true that John does not use the actual words “repent, repentance” in his Gospel.[8] However, as it is the notion of conversion or turning that connects both noun and verb (as defined above), the concept of repentance is something prominently displayed in the Gospel of John. 

For example, the crippled man healed in John 5 is told by Jesus, “Sin no more so that something worse does not happen to you” (v. 14). Similarly, to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus verbally scatters her accusers and commands her “to go and from now on sin no more” (8:11).[9] More explicitly, John uses the verb strephō in 12:40 when paraphrasing Isaiah’s rebuke of people refusing to repent (cf. Isaiah 6:9–10). The verb strephō, as used by John here, means “to experience an inward change, turn, change.[10]Conceptually, this is the exact equivalent for the word “repentance.” These Johannine cases portray a clear call to turn and be converted—which is the very idea of a sinner’s initial repentance toward God. In other words, John’s Gospel commands non-believers in the narrative—and through them, non-Christian readers today—to turn from their previous life of sin and live unto God’s holiness. As Croteau concluded: “Therefore, the absence of the word doesn’t necessitate the absence of a concept.”[11] Indeed, biblical repentance transcends the mere word “repentance.” While he may have chosen not to use the terms metanoeō or metanoia, John chose the more vivid route of painting its reality as a portrait in his Gospel.



Of the 39 books of the Old Testament, only one is completely devoid of any Hebrew word for “God”: the book of Esther. Yet, as any diligent Bible student knows—God is prominently lurking behind the pages of Esther, sovereignly controlling all the events to ensure the continuance of the Jewish race that would eventually produce the Messiah. As it would be ludicrous to think that Esther rejects any belief in God simply because the term “God” is absent from the book, so it would be to think that John rejects repentance because the word “repentance” is not found in his book. In actuality, the concept of repentance is certainly present in the Gospel of John, just as God is most certainly present in the book of Esther. 

To categorize John as “the Gospel of Belief” is well and good since to believe in Jesus is most surely its grand purpose (20:31). However, it must be admitted that such titles are man-made constructs placed over John’s Gospel. The book itself is void of such labels. Thus, to argue that repentance is absent from John’s Gospel wholesale or that it is something not required in salvation simply because some have labeled it the “gospel of belief” or the “gospel of salvation” is only to erect a straw man to blow down. Moreover, to argue that repentance is absent from John’s Gospel simply because the word “repentance” is absent is to argue from silence and ignore hermeneutical distinctions between words and concepts.[12] As demonstrated in this short essay, John very much displays the concept—and even a word (“strephō,” 12:40)—that depicts one’s turning from sin, i.e., repentance. Therefore, the Gospel of John is most certainly a Gospel of Belief. It is a Gospel of Repentant-Belief.[13]


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this essay first appeared in SCS Magazine as “Repentance in the Gospel of John?” available at Used with permission.


[1] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 3:376–77. In fairness to Chafer, which many lordship-advocates who negatively quote him have not been, it is vital he be understood in the proper context. What Chafer was responding to with this often-used quote was the false notion that repentance is a necessary, independent or separate act added to saving belief. Moreover, he thoroughly believed repentance was indeed necessary for salvation, and was gift from God. More on this below.

[2] John F. MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What does it mean when He says, “Follow Me”? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 34.

[3] Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Corinth: GES, 2014), 24.

[4] David A. Croteau, “Repentance Found? The Concept of Repentance in the Fourth Gospel,” Master’s Seminary Journal 24, no.1 (Spring 2013): 108–09.

[5] E.g., it is difficult not to see the concept of “savior” in Matthew, especially given the angel’s pronouncement that Mary’s son will be called Jesus who will “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The same can be said of the concept of grace in Mark. I presume that what Croteau actually means is that the words “savior,” “grace,” and so on are absent in his listing of NT writings, not their concept

[6] Charles C. Bing, “The Condition for Salvation in John’s Gospel,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 9, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 34.

[7] Walter Bauer, F.W. Danker W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 4853–4854. Bible Works Software. Hereafter, BDAG.

[8] Yet, John explicitly uses various forms of the verb metanoeō 12 times throughout Revelation in chaps. 2–16 proving he was not opposed to the word. As for his Gospel, it is noteworthy that out of 98 uses, John uses only the verb for “faith,” (pisteuō), never its noun form, pistis. John’s exclusive use of the verb suggests he understood faith/belief conceptually as an action concept of which repentance, being a mindful and soulful act of turning can certainly be inferred.

[9] While the authenticity of this passage is disputed, it still validates the concept of repentance in John, nonetheless.

[10] BDAG, 6856. This is the same meaning for its Hebrew counterpart שׁוב (shuv) in Isaiah 6:10 (cf. HALOT, 9407).

[11] David A. Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Common Misconceptions (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 57.

[12] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 92: “We dare never study only occurrences of the particular term if our purpose is to trace the theology behind a word or phrase.”[12]

[13] This biblical notion of repentant-belief is precisely what Chafer advocated, believing it to be an act entirely of God’s grace. For example, throughout volume three of his eight volume Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), Chafer states the following: “Therefore, it as dogmatically stated as language can declare, that repentance is essential for salvation, and that none can be saved apart from repentance, but it is included in believing and cannot be separated from it” (3:373, emphasis added). And again, “As before stated, repentance, which is a change of mind, is included in believing…. That change of mind is the work of the Spirit (Eph 2:8) (3:374, emphasis added). Finally, Chafer concludes, “It is asserted that repentance, which is a change of mind, enters of necessity into the very act of believing on Christ, since one cannot turn to Christ from objects of confidence without that change of mind” (3:378). Quotes such as these prove Chafer was certainly in line with traditional Calvinistic soteriology, a fact, he promotes throughout his eight-volume theology set.