In Reply to Mac Regarding Repentance

by Jay Guin

In The Repentance Requirement Todd asked a couple of important questions regarding repentance —

(1) Do you claim that sincerely believing error even on the issues earlier cited (e.g., Was Junias an apostle? Where do saints go immediately after death? etc.) will lead to the loss of salvation if not corrected? And if not, on what basis do you distinguish these doctrinal errors from those that are truly fatal?

(2) Do you believe that repentance always entails the cessation of the sin? If yes, doesn’t this lead to an impossible perfectionism?

Mac responded in a post titled The Two Questions On the Repentance Requirement. We greatly appreciate Mac’s participation in this dialogue and his response to these questions.

I’ve copied all of Mac’s post, other than the introductory paragraph, below, and I’ve interlineated my responses throughout. My comments are in bold solely to help the readers distinguish my words from Mac’s. Please don’t take the bold to mean I’m shouting! When I say “we,” I’m speaking for both Todd and myself.

I’m pleased to report that Todd and I find ourselves in agreement with much that Mac says. However, we do have some questions that we hope will lead to a better understanding of Mac’s thoughts.

[Mac’s post follows in normal font, with my responses in bold.]

If one can be saved by sincerely believing anything, then we do not need a Bible. That is, if a man can “sincerely” believe anything and yet be saved, then the gospel is meaningless.

We agree.

Briefly, not all errors damn the soul.

We agree.

Those doctrinal errors that when believed create divine doctrinal violation (sin), however, could damn the soul. I could not know what God’s final handling of all the cases involving saints will be. I could not even be aware of some privately held doctrinal error in the minds of some of my own brethren in my own congregation.

We don’t understand the point. What errors “create divine doctrinal violation”?

God obligates the church to uphold the truth, however (1 Tim. 3:15). We are to be ready to give defense for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). The world will be lost, and only those whom God deems faithful Christians will be saved (Rev. 14:13; 1 Jno. 5:19).

We agree.

The kind of heart that takes a man to glory is an honest and good one (Luke 8:15). A sincere heart is either (1) honest and good, (2) honest but not good, (3) good but not honest, (4) neither good nor honest. The Bible teaches that every honest and good heart is saved because of its association with and attachment to truth (Luke 8:15; 1 Tim. 2:4). No one can be saved without truth (Rom. 1:16). It is not saved prior to its finding truth, it is not saved in spite of its failure to find truth,  it is not saved having abandoned the truth, and it is not saved by sincerity alone (Acts 26:9). The New Testament in no passage replaces the concept of truth with the concept of sincerity.

We agree.

But it does teach that genuine sincerity (the good and honest heart) always finds truth by which it will be saved (Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 11:13; Acts 17:27; 1 Tim. 1:12-17). Given the nature of man and the nature of truth, it could not be otherwise.

And no right respect for New Testament authority allows minimizing the value of truth while maximizing the weakness of man. It is, rather, because of human weakness that the knowledge of truth is so necessary and ought to be maximized, for in it lies our only hope (Acts 20:32; Jas. 1:21; Rom. 1:16).

We agree that truth, as the word is used in the New Testament, should be maximized and is our only hope.

The non-Christian must cease practicing sin and obey the gospel.

This could be read as saying one cannot be saved unless he ceases all sin, which is impossible. We know that this is not Mac’s belief, and so we take “cease practicing sin” to mean “repent from sin.” And if we understand Mac correctly, we agree.

To die in sin is fatal (Rom. 6:23). Ultimate truth (the truth) and actual grace (the grace) are found in Christ (John 1:17). No sinner who fails to become a Christian can be saved (Mark 16:15, 16). And no Christian who abandons the gospel can be saved (Heb. 10:26-31; Gal. 4:6).

We agree.

And no Christian who is bent on self-justification at the cancellation of divine obligation can be saved (Luke 10:25-37).

We agree that self-justification can cost one his soul (Gal. 5:4). On the other hand, we don’t believe that all error as to divine obligation damns. Rather, the danger Paul discusses in Galatians 5 arises when a Christian seeks to be justified by works rather than faith in Jesus.

And no one who is unwilling to have his religious convictions carefully examined can be all that sincere. And no one who fails to desire spiritual improvement in understanding and action can be loving God with all his heart.

We agree. Christians are called to grow in their discipleship, to test their understanding, to be held accountable, and to seek improvement in their walk with Jesus.

However, the degree to which God allows doctrinal error in the heart of a saint at a given time is not always clear to us, nor does it have to be.

We agree that we often cannot know what error a brother believes. We do believe that the scriptures teach, in principle, which doctrinal errors damn and which do not. Surely God did not leave us to guess at such a central question!

On the other hand, while the scriptures teach the boundaries of the Kingdom in principle, it is often beyond our wisdom to know whether a given person has crossed that boundary. It’s not easy from a mere mortal to know someone’s heart.

There is certainly time allowed for growth (11 Pet. 3:18). That is God’s concern. But what we know to be truth we are obligated to respect, and we must live in the light of that knowledge. Congregationally speaking, elders are to make sure that the unity of the Spirit is maintained.

We agree.

If “doctrinal perfection” is defined as knowing all that God knows about a doctrine, then of course we can never arrive at that. There could be no such thing as “doctrinal perfectionism.”

We agree.

However, we can arrive at personal “completionism” that entails walking in the light of what we know. So said Paul (Phil. 3:15, 16). And Jesus said we could, upon a given condition, know the truth (John 8:32). After all, it is a matter of an honest will (John 7:17).

We agree that the scriptures teach that Christians can in fact walk in the light and that the truth, as that term is used in the New Testament, may be known.

Doctrinal error that is clearly personally corruptive, congregationally disruptive, or doctrinally detrimental is condemned (1 Cor. 5:1-8; Tit. 3:10; 11 Tim. 2:18; Gal. 2:5).

If by “is condemned” you mean the person in error is damned, then we disagree. If you mean that we should judge and reject the error, we agree.

Error means any less-than-perfect understanding of God’s will and self-revelation. We should all want to be entirely error free. But as Mac notes, none of us will get there, because none of us has the ability to know as God knows.

We agree that error that is personally corruptive or congregationally disruptive is particularly severe. We don’t understand “doctrinally detrimental.”

Regarding Todd’s second question as to whether or not repentance always entails the cessation of the sin, let me say that it does. If I keep on striking you in the face while you plead with me to stop, it would be impossible for you to believe that I have repented of the deed.

We disagree. There is a difference between repenting of “sin” and repenting of “a sin” (as in Mac’s illustration). There’s also a difference between committing a sin repeatedly because of lack of repentance (as in Mac’s illustration), and committing a sin repeatedly because of weakness, against one’s own desires (Rom. 7:14-25). At Pentecost, Peter called on his listeners to “repent and be baptized.” It’s not likely that he meant for them to never sin again. Rather, he called on them to change their lives, submitting to Jesus as Lord.

Godly sorrow produces repentance (11 Cor. 7:10). There would have to be enough sorrow to stop the act at least for a while. The cessation of the act alone would not prove repentance, but the continuation of the act without an interim would indicate no repentance whatever. Cessation followed later by another attack would not in and of itself prove that repentance had not earlier occurred. We are not told how much time there must be between acts in order for repentance to have occurred. It is not a matter of time as such. It is a matter of attitude toward the deed. And, there are degrees of sorrow and regret. If the act never stops, however, no degree of repentance has been actualized. The return of the act later would not, in and of itself, determine that a prior repentance had not actually occurred (Matt. 18:21, 22).

Again, there is a difference between repeatedly committing a sin because of rebellion (no repentance), and repeatedly committing a sin because of weakness or ignorance (in spite of repentance). Take the case of a drug addict. A man hooked on methamphetamine is converted and repents of his addiction. However, the very next Friday he slips and gets high on meth once again. He struggles with his demons for months, relapsing frequently. Has he repented?

Or more to the point at hand, a man in Eastern Europe subscribes to a correspondence course, puts his faith in Jesus, finds a friend to baptize him in a local swimming pool, and starts his own church with nothing but a New Testament and the first 5 lessons of his correspondence course. He uses a guitar in his worship fully convinced that this is pleasing to God. Assuming the guitar is sin, has he repented? Is he saved? In this case there is no cessation of the sin because there is no awareness of the sin.

We believe that in both cases repentance has occurred. Both are struggling against sin and seeking to submit to Jesus as Lord. Both are saved despite their imperfect repentance and, in the second case, imperfect knowledge. Surely this is so.

The addict is saved despite his relapses because he is struggling against the sin, even though he knows his relapses are sin. The East European convert is saved despite his error in worship, because he is unaware that he is in error and the error is not a repudiation of the gospel (as was the Galatian heresy, for example — Gal. 1:6-7). Sincerity does not cover all sin, but for those in grace — those saints who maintain a submissive faith in Jesus — grace does.

Now, for a sinner to become a saint he must repent (Acts 17:30, 31). He must determine to leave the practice of sin. A Christian does not and cannot practice righteousness and sin at the same time. It cannot be done (1 John 3:7-9). We either walk in the light (1 John 1:7) or we go back to the darkness (Eph. 5:7-9). There is a great difference between a man’s momentary lapses while remaining in and desiring to remain in a scriptural marriage and his sinning against the marriage itself (cf. 1 Pet. 3:7 with Matt. 19:9).  There is a difference between a Christian’s manifest weaknesses because of his human nature (Matt. 26:41) and his leaving the light for the darkness (1 John 1:6-8). The tug between flesh and spirit is constant (Gal. 5:17). The cessation of a sinful act followed by lapses over and over again does not necessarily prove that genuine repentance did not occur but rather indicates the constant need of divine help in order for us to hold sin down (Rom. 8:12-14).

We agree.

Just as there is a difference between a man’s committing sin in a marriage while seeking the good of the marriage and his sinning against the marriage itself, there is a difference between a Christian’s sinning while still walking in the light and sinning in such a way or to such a degree that shows that flesh now dominates spirit and that he has (whether intentionally or unintentionally) given up Christ. While we have no possibility of human “perfectionism,” we have the obligation to go on unto completion or full growth (Heb. 6:1) trusting the promise of God “being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

We agree. In fact, we consider this very insightful. As you said, a Christian can walk in the light and yet sin in a way that doesn’t “show[] that flesh now dominates spirit and that he has (whether intentionally or unintentionally) given up Christ.” Exactly!

A man who will not admit or claims not to see the difference between legitimate marriage and adultery is not being honest about either marriage or adultery. If I cannot see the conceptual difference between (1) a Christian’s momentary lapses because of the nature of flesh and spirit while he continues to walk in the light and (2) anyone’s walking in the darkness (never having left the darkness or having left it only to return to it), then I cannot yet see the qualitative distinction between the significance of truth and error.

We agree.

As we study this thoughtful post, there are places where we’re not confident whether we disagree. Hopefully a few questions will allow us to narrow our differences.

1. You speak often of “truth,” which we agree is a central New Testament concept. We believe the New Testament use of the term is the truth about Jesus and the truth that Jesus himself represented in his life of service, death, burial and resurrection. “Truth” is often used as a virtual synonym for gospel in the New Testament.

I posted a detailed study of the use of “truth” in the New Testament at —

The “Teaching of Christ” in 2 John

John’s Gospel

“Truth” in Paul, Part 1

“Truth” in Paul, Part 2

“Truth” in Hebrews, James, and 1 & 2 Peter

Do you use “truth” in a different way from how I describe it in those posts? And if so, what do you take “truth” to refer to? You cite Rom 1:16 for the proposition “No one can be saved without truth,” and Rom 1:16 is speaking specifically of the gospel, and so we think you may be in agreement with us.

2. What do you mean by “Those doctrinal errors that when believed create divine doctrinal violation (sin), however, could damn the soul.” What is a “divine doctrinal violation”? Don’t all doctrinal errors, by definition, violate divine doctrine? It sounds as though you are saying that any doctrinal error that leads to sin could damn the soul. Is that right? If so, are you saying that God is less willing to forgive sin coming from a doctrinal shortcoming than sin coming from a moral shortcoming?

3. What do you mean by errors that are “doctrinally detrimental”? Aren’t all errors detrimental to some extent?

4. Just to take an example, when Richland Hills Church of Christ added an instrumental service, did they become lost in their sins (subject perhaps to a time of God’s patience hoping for their penitence)? We understand that you consider the use of instruments in worship a sin, but is it possible that this sin is covered by grace for those members who, after thoughtful and prayerful study, genuinely believe that they are not sinning? We readily concede that anyone worshiping contrary to his own conscience is guilty of sin, whether or not he is actually in the wrong.

Following your argument, it’s hard to see how a Christian’s worshipping in unintentional error shows “that flesh now dominates spirit and that he has (whether intentionally or unintentionally) given up Christ.” The Richland Hills congregation has certainly not (as a whole) given up Christ. They still meet to worship God, are very active in missions, evangelism, and help for the poor and hurting in their community, and so we see no evidence that “flesh now dominates spirit” in that congregation.

Or would you contend that the use of an instrument necessarily shows that a church has given up Christ and allowed flesh to dominate spirit?

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12 Comments on “In Reply to Mac Regarding Repentance”

  1. laymond Says:

    I am fully aware I am placing “the fly directly into the ointment” by asking this question. If possible I would like to get four answers even if they are all the same.
    “Those doctrinal errors that when believed create divine doctrinal violation (sin), however, could damn the soul.”

    What about a doctrine which is not believed, which is incomprehensible, to one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and the only way into the kingdom.
    Since The churches of Christ claim no creed, and I believe all four of the participants here are members of that church.
    Can a person who denies “The Trinity doctrine” be a member in good standing of a church of Christ.?
    Aren’t Christians supposed to have the doctrine, of Jesus as their own, and since the word trinity does not appear in Jesus’ teachings, is it a sin to believe in a doctrine which was wholly formed in the mind of men.? (what man sees in scripture)

  2. Joe Hegyi III Says:

    I don’t think you’d get any argument from most in the churches of Christ that it is not necessary to believe in the Trinity to be a Christian.

  3. thumper Says:

    What I do think you would get is a tremendous objection if someone claimed Jesus was not divine, pre-existent and the one in whom dwelled “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”.

    I also think you would hear loud objections to a denial that the Holy Spirit is also divine in the same way.

    Claiming that Jesus was “just a man” upon whom God infused some of His “divineness” would cause a loud objection.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses anyone?

  4. laymond Says:

    Since this discussion is about “Doctrines that damn, send one to Hell” I thought I was staying within the parameters of the discussion. but seems the fly in the ointment, is not only a fly, it is a “big green blow fly” which the people here avoid. It is just to yucky.

  5. thumper Says:

    Laymond, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    My response was not about the trinity per se, but about other questions that often surround it.

    Where did anyone say you were outside the parameters, etc?

  6. laymond Says:

    thumper, what I said was not intended as a comment on what you wrote, I was talking about the silence of the four principals of this blog, and I do appreciate what you said.I also know that the Jehovah Witnesses, believe in what you said, I do not belong to that organization, I do believe they make a believable argument for Unitarian belief. one supreme God . I believe the bible makes that argument also.

  7. Ed Boggess Says:

    I suspect the reason you have not received responses is because this is not the place to discuss the legitimacy of the Trinity doctrine. It would not further this discussion. All responding are agreed that there are doctrines that when believed damn, for instance, anyone who refuses to confess belief that Jesus has come in the flesh.

  8. laymond Says:

    Ed, how can there be a discussion on legitimate doctrine, such as the one you referred to, as some which damn, and some that don’t. Unless the doctrine, which some say is the very foundation of the church, is discussable? Is it the fact that some are taboo? some such as the one you referred to are OK, but some are not. I agree the trinity is a controversial doctrine, but so is any doctrine which some agree with, and others disagree with. I was just asking will this doctrine, damn a soul or not? simple question, should require a simple yes or no answer, I suspect that answer is not what is feared here, it the question “WHY” that will come later.

  9. Ed Boggess Says:

    Errors that “create divine doctrinal violation”, said Mac. As I understand it, it is the same as N. B. Hardeman’s statement: “Any kind of a lie on earth which would cause me to sin or to fall short of doing God’s will or go beyond that which God demands is the type of a lie that will condemn the soul and rob it of a blissful crown.” That which causes me pause is Jay’s narrow definition of “truth”. There is no question that Jesus is the embodiment of truth: “I am the truth” and that he is the “Word”. But to claim in regard to Jn 17:17 “Jesus was not presently speaking of the New Testament — not a word of it had yet been written. Rather, Jesus is speaking of himself and what God communicates to us through the giving of Jesus for us” appears to me to be smoke and mirrors. Jesus says, “I am the truth” because he reveals God’s will, God’s truth, which when fully revealed and written became what we call the NT. In Jn 8:31, 32 Jesus is speaking to people who believed the “things which I heard from God”, v 26. Are “My word” (31) and “the truth” (32), only words and truth about Jesus? Certainly Jesus is the centerpiece of all his words and truth, but the “truth which I heard from God” (40) includes, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount. To reject what Jesus taught at the Sermon on the Mount, is to reject Jesus, Jn 12:48. Why is there such an effort to separate words about Jesus from words of Jesus? I believe it comes down to John 4:23, 24. How can we get IM fellowshipped? By redefining “in truth”. Jay: “’Truth’ does not mean ‘according the rules of worship inferred from the silences of the scriptures.’ ‘Truth’ means the truth about Jesus learned through living in the Word.” However, such a redefinition does not answer to the context. The woman asked about the proper place to worship. First, Jesus affirmed the Jews had been right (insofar as to what she asked). Second, he told her that things were changing. Place would no longer matter. But Jesus also affirmed that God is seeking “true worshipers” and they are those who worship “in spirit and truth”; in face they “must”. Jay explains the “in spirit” in this way: “to worship ‘in spirit’ is to worship in Spirit. It fits the context and fits Jesus’ point that God is spirit. In other words, the worshippers must somehow be ‘in spirit’ in the same sense that God ‘is spirit.’ And that is given to us when we receive the Spirit. Gal 4:6) Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.'” However,if it is the Spirit who enables us to worship (as he is suggesting) then the Father isn’t seeking anything, because worship is then something that the Spirit brings about. Moreover, it misses entirely the continuity of the contrast between what had been and what God seeks. What had been was Samaritans and Jews in conflict over the place. The Samaritans wanted to worship God but they weren’t doing it at the proper place. So Jesus tells her, place is no longer important; but this is important, a “must”, “in spirit”, the human spirit exalting God; and “in truth”, as properly (just as the Jews had been right about the place).


  10. How can “in truth” mean “properly (just as the Jews had been right about the place)” when the place was changing? And when Jesus says nothing about a new place to be right about, except that it will be “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”?

    Your logic escapes me there, Ed.

  11. Ed Boggess Says:

    Good question: B F Westcott explains it this way – “in spirit and truth” relate to the two groups in context; the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews had the truth but needed the “in spirit” and the Samaritans had the spirit but needed the “truth”.I believe he nailed it! It best fits the immediate context of the kind of worshipers God is seeking. God is Spirit, unconfined, unlimited, unbound by place; so we may bow before him in Jerusalem or this mountain. But we “must”, inasmuch as He is God, approach Him in spirit (the human spirit focused on exalting Him) and in truth (in harmony with how He wishes we worship). Westcott: “The two characteristics answer to the higher sense of the 2nd and 3rd commandments, the former of which tends to a spiritual service, and the latter to a devout regard for the ‘name’ of God, that is, for every revelation of His Person or attributes or action.” Now then, how does this relate to conclusions drawn from the “silence” of scripture? Regarding the Person of God, his majesty and holiness, I do not carelessly or without caution approach, but as the 24 elders casting their crowns before Him and falling down to worship, I humbly follow what I know He wills without addition or modification, as best I understand.

  12. Tim S. Says:

    Ed,

    Your analysis of John 4:24 seems, to me, to be flawed.

    You do not take into account the broader context (John 3) of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus in which He declared that “that which is born of Spirit is spirit” just a few verses prior. In 4:24, “in spirit,” seems to me to be in that “born-again relationship” with God and all that it implies. John, writing in Revelation 1:10, said “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” I do not believe this necesarily refers to a mystical trance-like state, but it does sound much more intense than most worship assemblies I have seen! Certainly here was a man whose worship experience brought him into the presence of God!

    Also, you speak of truth as if Jesus is speaking of specific instructions about the actions of worship (or the “five avenues of worship” we hear so much about?). In 1 John 3:18 the same author who recorded Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman has a similar construction in speaking of truth. There he wrote that our love must be “in deed and truth.” Here “truth” seems to mean “genuine” or from the heart. Your construct of John 4:24 makes Jesus say “according to the truth” when He literally said, “in spirit and truth.”

    In reality, He seems (to me) to be saying that our worship must be in a spiritual relationship with God and that it must be genuine and from the heart. It no longer depends on ritual performed in one place but not another.


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