Jesus taught Sola Fide (by faith alone) salvation to Nicodemus. Jesus did not teach him Fide et Paenitentiae (by faith and repentance) salvation. There are folks who say things like:
Repentance is woven into the very fabric of the Gospel of John, though the word itself is never employed. In the account of Nicodemus, for example, repentance was clearly suggested in Jesus’ command to be “born again” (John 3:3-7). 1
Russian proponents of this theology rightly call the position, “Salvation through Lordship,” because it means that faith and repentance are necessary for eternal life. According to this view, the readers should read “repentance” into the text. When we push an idea like this into a text, we call it eisegesis (eis means “into” and egesis kinda means “lead or guide”). We want instead to practice exegesis (ex means “out of” or “from”), which is when we derive ideas from the text.
There are two proposed reasons for why John didn’t say that Jesus told Nicodemus to repent. The “Salvation through Lordship” view is that John didn’t write, “repent” because we are supposed to put it there. I take another view, which is that John didn’t say, “repent” because Jesus didn’t say, “repent.”
Here are three reasons why I believe Jesus did not tell Nicodemus to repent to be saved:
Repentance is not required for eternal life
Some folks point to the etymology of the Greek word for “repent” (metanoia μετάνοια) and say that it is just a change of mind, which is part of belief. It is true that belief is a form of a change of mind, but this is not all that metanoia means. Paul draws a distinction between repentance and faith in Christ:
Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:21 KJV)
Notice that there are two things: repentance and faith. There is no indication in the Bible or elsewhere that faith is the same as a change of action. There is overwhelming evidence that we are saved through faith alone (John 3:15-18; 3:36; 5:24; 6:35, 6:40, 47; 11:25-26; 20:31; Acts 13:38-39; 15:11; 16:31; Romans 1:16; 3:22-30; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; 1 John 5:11-13… and elsewhere). It seems to me that “repent” as Jesus uses the term elsewhere typically carries the “change of action” connotation. He never uses “repent” in an evangelistic conversation, so it seems that He is drawing a distinction between believing in Him for eternal life and repenting for other purposes.
The Gospel of John is not about Repentance
The purpose statement of the Gospel of John is:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:30-31 NKJV)
It is impossible to derive a salvation through Lordship, repentance, or any other work from these verses. Now, some have used this verse to advocate for Christian Pluralism, which says that faith in Christ is not necessary (see a response here), but that neglects the rest of the book, which clearly points to Christ as the object of faith for eternal life. The “Salvation through Lordship” approach is similar, but instead of neglecting the biblical information within the Gospel of John, it forces into the Gospel of John the idea of repentance. A glaring problem with this is that nowhere does the Gospel of John use the word “repent” or “repentance.” Nowhere. Not once. Nada. Nilch. Zero. Nol. Nein. Nyet. Nope.
Jesus hadn’t even started teaching repentance
Let’s fast-forward through Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 2:23-3:21) to the next three verses:
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. (John 3:22-24 NKJV)
Notice that John the Baptist is free as a bird. He hasn’t been arrested yet. Now, let’s look at what happens after he is thrown in prison:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. […] From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:12, 17 NKJV)
It isn’t until after John the Baptist is in prison that Jesus teaches repentance! John was still free during the Nicodemus discussion, so Jesus hadn’t even started to teach repentance.
It’s worth noting that the requirement for salvation has always been faith alone in Christ alone. When Jesus taught repentance, it was because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. In other words, Jesus was offering to bring the kingdom to earth if Israel would repent. They did not repent, so Jesus postponed the kingdom, but that’s a different topic. Suffice it to say that the Nicodemus conversation was evangelical and there was no repentance demanded.
Some concluding speculation
So, there you have it. Three reasons that I don’t believe Nicodemus was told to repent to gain eternal life. Now, Jesus did tell him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3b NKJV). It is possible that in this conversation, Jesus drew a distinction between 1) man being born again through faith and thereby being granted entrance to the future kingdom and 2) the kingdom entering earth through Israel’s repentance. We can’t tell for certain in the text of John 3, but He sure does seem to avoid developing a Messianic eschatology after Nicodemus sets Him up for it in verse 2. But even if Jesus did talk about Israel’s need to repent (as John the Baptist and Malachi before Him), He still pointed to belief as the requirement for the second birth. And this second birth is the topic of the Gospel of John and it’s the topic of the conversation which John records.