If there is one thing that especially marks out evangelicalism, it is surely the belief that Christians don’t earn their right to be saved from hell. Instead, we evangelicals believe that salvation is an undeserved gift from God that we accept by faith in Christ.
The Reformers in the 16th century strongly opposed the Roman Catholic view that Christians partly earn their salvation. And ever since, evangelicals have stressed that Christians are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds.
Good deeds will always accompany saving faith
Evangelicals, however, are crystal clear too that if someone has saving faith, that faith will always be expressed by doing good deeds. It is the faith that saves, but where there is genuine faith, good deeds will always, so to speak, tag along.
This means that when someone first receives salvation by faith, they 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.
That is not to say that any Christian is able to live even close to a morally perfect life. But it does mean that if someone who claims to be a Christian is not even trying to live in a way that pleases God, that person does not have saving faith. Instead, their faith is a kind of fake, dead faith that doesn’t save.
James refers to this dead sort of faith several times in chapter 2 of his letter. He says:
‘So too, faith by itself, if it has no deeds, is dead.’ (James 2:17)
‘You believe that God is one. Very impressive! Even the demons believe that – and shudder!’ (James 2:19)
‘Do you want evidence, you foolish person, that faith without deeds is useless?’ (James 2:20)
‘For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is also dead.’ (James 2:26)
According to James, then, saving faith will always be accompanied by good deeds, and a multitude of other biblical passages say the same thing. This is what the Bible teaches, and it is what evangelicals believe.
Free Grace Theology
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 agree that people are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. But they claim 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 Him Lord of their life.
It is true that those in this movement don’t say that morality is unimportant. They say that people should make Jesus Lord of their lives. But they claim that this is not necessary for salvation. According to them, all that is necessary is to believe that Jesus is the Saviour and choose to accept Him as such.
Those who take this view are making a terrible mistake. They have failed to recognise that if someone never repents of their sins, it is always a sign that their faith is a kind of fake faith that doesn’t save.
If the 16th century Reformers were around today, there is no doubt that they would all be completely horrified by Free Grace Theology. Their writings make this abundantly clear. And evangelicals today should be equally horrified.
We need to very clear too that Free Grace Theology stands not just outside evangelicalism, but outside anything that could be called orthodox, i.e., non-heretical, Christianity. The idea that people can be saved without turning away from their sins is heresy, pure and simple.
The Free Grace argument that uses metanoeo and metanoia
One of the arguments that is commonly used by those in the Free Grace movement concerns the meanings of the Greek words metanoeo and metanoia in the New Testament. The argument goes in this way:
Metanoeo, the Greek verb that is usually translated ‘repent’ in English translations of the NT, really means ‘change one’s mind’. And metanoia, the Greek noun that is usually translated ‘repentance’, really means ‘a change of mind’. Therefore, when the NT uses these words in the context of people becoming Christians, the idea is simply that they are changing their minds about themselves and Jesus by recognising that they are sinners and Jesus is the Saviour. In the context of becoming a Christian, these words don’t suggest that people turn away from their sins.
The mistaken appeal to root meanings
Some of the Free Grace teachers who use this argument try to support it by appealing to the root meanings of these two words. They claim that the root meaning of metanoeo is ‘change one’s mind’ and the root meaning of metanoia is ‘a change of mind’. And they assume that we should interpret these words according to their root meanings.
There are two big mistakes here.
First, the root meanings of these words don’t in fact connote a change of mind. The root meaning of metanoeo is actually something along the lines of ‘perceive afterwards’. And the root meaning of metanoia is something like ‘a perception afterwards’.
Second, it is a big mistake to assume that words should be interpreted according to their root meanings. Crucially, the meanings of words tend to evolve over time.
For example, the English word ‘nice’ originally meant ‘ignorant’, but the sense of this word has moved far away from what it used to be. Likewise, ‘refer’ once meant ‘carry back’, and ‘goodbye’ meant ‘God be with you’, but the meanings of these words have also evolved a long way from what they once were. Thousands more examples could be given of where the sense of an English word has moved far away from its root meaning.
The English language has been around for hundreds of years. And that has allowed plenty of time for the meanings of many words to evolve. Similarly, when the NT was written, the Greek language had been around for well over 1000 years. And that had allowed a lot of time for the meanings of many words to change.
When considering the meanings of metanoeo and metanoia in the NT, then, root meanings are not really relevant. What is important is how these words were used in the first century, and especially how they are used in context in the NT.
The mistaken appeal to meanings outside the NT
There is another argument used by Free Grace teachers to try to support their claim that, in connection with Christian conversion in the NT, metanoeo and metanoia just refer to a change of mind.
They often point to how these words were used outside the NT, especially in the centuries before the NT was written. And then they argue that this usage shows that the meanings of the words were always ‘change one’s mind’ for metanoeo and ‘a change of mind’ for metanoia, without any connotation of turning away from sin. They then go on to say that we can expect these words to have the same meanings in the NT too.
Free Grace teachers do agree that metanoeo and metanoia are used within and outside the NT in the context of people turning away from sin. And they agree too that the change of mind is sometimes a change of mind about sin. But they claim that these words in themselves never connote turning from sin, just a change of mind.
It is true that in the centuries before the NT was written metanoeo and metanoia quite often referred to a change of mind or a decision to replace one course of action with another, without any connotation of turning away from sin.
However, there are places in the Septuagint, i.e., the Greek translation of the Old Testament and apocrypha, composed in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, where the words themselves seem to have developed a connotation of turning away from sin. This is the case in Isaiah 46:8; Jeremiah 8:6; 38:19 (31:19 in English translations); Sirach ; 44:16; 48:15; Wisdom of Solomon ; , 19; and possibly Proverbs . It seems that this meaning was growing in popularity in the centuries before the NT was written.
Metanoeo and metanoia in the NT
Importantly, when we come to the NT, metanoeo and metanoia seem typically to include some connotation within the words themselves of turning away from sin. Never in the NT do these words seem to connote ‘change one’s mind’ or ‘a change of mind’ without any accompanying connotation of making a decision to forsake sin.
It is important to recognise that when Free Grace teachers deny that these words connote turning away from sin when they are used in the NT, they are going against the NT scholarly consensus. The NT scholars who take the Free Grace position are tiny in number in comparison with those who oppose it. English translations of the NT typically translate metanoeo by ‘repent’ and metanoia by ‘repentance’. And they do so because the scholars doing the translating rightly recognise that these are good English words to represent the turning away from sin that the Greek words signify.
In preparation for writing this article, I looked at all the NT examples of metanoeo and metanoia in the Greek text to see how these words are used in context.
The verb metanoeo occurs 34 times, in Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 11:20, 21; 12:41; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3, 4; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Revelation 2:5 (twice), 16, 21 (twice), 22; 3:3, 19; 9:20, 21; 16:9, 11.
And the noun metanoia occurs 22 times, in Matthew 3:8, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7; 24:47; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:24; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9, 10; 2 Timothy 2:25; Hebrews 6:1, 6; 12:17; 2 Peter 3:9.
Before I read through these texts, I was expecting to find a few places where the context shows that the words must mean something other than a turning away from sin. In fact, when I read, I found no places where this is the case at all. Even Hebrews 12:17, a text that Free Grace teachers often appeal to, is not an example of this.
It is true that most of these passages are so concise that they can’t be used as evidence for what metanoeo and metanoia mean. But never is there any indication that the words mean something other than a turning away from sin. And, in some texts, the context suggests that turning away from sin is included in the meaning. This is true for metanoeo in Matthew 12:41; Luke 10:13; 15:7, 10; 17:3; Acts 8:22; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Revelation 2:5, 21-22; 3:3, 19; -21; . And it is true for metanoia in Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; 5:32; 15:7; Acts 26:20; Hebrews 6:1.
I would encourage the readers of this article to look at these passages for yourselves, to see what I mean. If you don’t know Greek, looking in English translation shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you bear in mind that ‘repent’ in the English is a translation of metanoeo, and ‘repentance’ is a translation of metanoia.
The reason why the wording is often so concise and the meanings of metanoeo and metanoia are not explained is apparently because there was no need to do this. It seems to have been well known to Greek speakers of the first century that these words typically connoted turning away from sin.
Metanoeo and metanoia referring to conversion
In the NT metanoeo and metanoia are used in connection with Christian conversion in Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20; Romans 2:4-5; 2 Timothy 2:25; Hebrews 6:1, 6; 2 Peter 3:9. (Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9, 11 are also relevant for Christian conversion by implication.)
In view of the above discussion, we should have no hesitation in saying that in each passage in this list, these words connote a turning away from sin. Anyone who denies this has been taken in by shallow and ill-founded arguments.
A similar error
There are some Free Grace teachers who agree that in the NT metanoeo and metanoia connote turning away from sin. And they will admit that this is even true in passages that refer to Christian conversion.
However, they claim that when these words are used in connection with conversion, only the sin of not believing in Jesus is in view. They say that to be saved, this is the only sin that people absolutely must turn away from.
This is completely wrong. In each of the texts that use metanoeo or metanoia in the context of Christian conversion, a general turning away from sin is in mind.
It is true that in Acts ; there is a special focus on repenting of the sins of crucifying Jesus and not believing in Him. But even these verses imply that people must turn away from all their sins if they are to be saved.
Motivation for Free Grace teaching
I think one reason why some Free Grace teachers say that people can be saved without repenting of their sins is because they can’t understand how two biblical truths fit together. The Bible teaches that people are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. And it also teaches that those who are saved repent of their sins and do good deeds. Some Free Grace teachers apparently find these truths contradictory, so they deny the latter.
What they do is similar to what other people have done when they have been unable to understand how two biblical truths fit together. For example, the Bible teaches that Christ is fully God and fully human, yet one person. However, throughout the last 2000 years, many, not understanding how this can be so, have denied either His deity or humanity. They have exalted their own ability to understand above biblical revelation.
If the Bible teaches two themes, however, we should always accept both of them. And we should do so regardless of whether we can figure out how they fit together.
A warning to Free Grace teachers
Let me finish with a warning to teachers of the 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 Free Grace teachers are doing something very similar to what Jesus condemns in this passage. They are telling people who don’t know much about the Christian faith that they will arrive in heaven as long as they make a decision to accept Jesus as their Saviour, regardless of whether they turn away from their sins.
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. James 2:19, which I quoted above, even implies that faith without good deeds will benefit a person no more than it will benefit demons on the Day of Judgment. Those who teach the terrible doctrine of Free Grace Theology are therefore helping to send people down the road to hell.
These teachers 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.