One issue that is periodically debated in Reformed circles concerns the relationship repentance has with justification, and more particularly with forgiveness. The Bible clearly states that repentance is necessary for forgiveness (Isa. 55:7; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). Accordingly, the Westminster Confession of Faith says that repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it (WCF 15.3).” The bone of contention, therefore, is not if repentance is necessary, but how it is necessary. Is repentance an antecedent condition or a consequent condition of forgiveness? In other words, do you need to repent in order to receive forgiveness or do you need to repent because you have been forgiven? Does repentance precede or follow (logically or temporally) forgiveness?
This debate may seem to some to be an example of splitting hairs, not worth the time of day. But it is important for at least two reasons. First, we need to be clear on what the Bible says we need to do or not do for forgiveness. The forgiveness of our sins is no small matter. Second, we need to avoid the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism, as well as falsely accusing the brethren of these errors. A right understanding of repentance in relation to salvation will help us do that.
Does repentance precede or follow forgiveness? The answer will, of course, depend upon the meaning of the word “repentance.” John Calvin often used it in a broad sense to refer to the “whole process by which a sinner turns to God and progresses in holiness (John Leith, John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 66).” Repentance in this sense follows forgiveness. God doesn’t wait for us to be sanctified before he forgives us. Repentance in the narrow sense, however—a sincere purpose of heart to turn from sin to God—precedes forgiveness. This is how the Bible and the Westminster Standards use the word.
The Greek word for “repentance” literally means “knowledge after” and refers to a change of mind. To repent is to renounce your sin and to have a desire to do what is right. Repentance is more than admitting your fault. A thief may admit that his stealing is wrong, but if he has no desire or intention to stop stealing then he is still impenitent. He has confessed his sin, strictly speaking, but he certainly hasn’t repented of it. Repentance involves hating your sin and wanting to change. In the words of Isaiah 55, it is to forsake sin and turn to the Lord. According to the Westminster Standards, repentance unto life is to turn from sin to God, “purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him, in all the ways of His commandments (WCF 15.2).”
Repentance must be distinguished from the works of repentance. Paul made this distinction when he declared that all should repent and turn to God, and perform deeds in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20; see also Luke 3:8). Repentance is saying no sin and yes to God. It is purposing to walk with God, but not the actual walking with God; it is desiring to change your behavior, but not the actual change of behavior. The actual walk or change is the fruit of repentance. God forgives us when we repent, and not when we have sufficiently proved our repentance by our works. Repentance precedes and fruit follows forgiveness.
The same is true of us, since we are to imitate God (Eph. 4:32). We are to forgive our brother after he says “I repent” and not wait until he produces the fruit of his repentance (Luke 17:1-4). In fact, we are to forgive our brother even if he turns to us seven times in the same day and says, “I repent.” Repentance is distinct from the works of repentance and it precedes forgiveness.
Westminster divine Anthony Burgess argued, contrary to the antinomians, that repentance is not a sign that God has pardoned a man but “the means and Way God has appointed antecedently to pardon, so that where this goes before, the other comes after” and that the Scriptures regard repentance “as a necessary condition, without which forgiveness of sin cannot be obtained (Ezek. 14:18, 30; Matt. 3:2; Mark 6:12; Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19).”
Witsius addressed this exact issue in his book on the English Neonomian-Antinomian debate at the end of the seventeenth century. He took the same position as Anthony Burgess. He said that faith and repentance arise from a regenerated heart and both precede justification. He wrote: “Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and a purpose of a new life. If therefore faith go before justification, as we have lately asserted; the same must be said of repentance, springing up together with it from the same principle of spiritual life.”
One objection to this position is that it compromises justification by faith alone. If repentance is an antecedent condition to justification and pardon, then we are not justified by faith alone, but by faith and repentance. I have addressed this point elsewhere, but suffice to say that the doctrine of faith alone does not mean that faith is alone at the moment of justification or that other graces can’t be antecedently necessary. The point is that faith is the alone instrument of justification and pardon.
In 1774, James Fraser (of Alness) wrote that he knew that some people would not bear to hear that repentance is previous to justification. Repentance for them must be wholly the consequence and effect of a sinner’s justification. That was true before Fraser’s day and it remains true today. Although many who hold this position, as Fraser notes, mean well, it is problematic because “it would direct them to express themselves in a way contrary to the language of Scripture, which calls on sinners to repent, in order to (and so previously to) the remission of sins.”
To teach that repentance follows justification and pardon is to teach contrary to the language and meaning of Scripture. It is to teach that we can and should expect pardon without repentance because we are pardoned before (logically or temporally) repentance. It is to teach a form of carnal Christianity because impenitent sinners are justified and pardoned. It is to teach that we can receive Christ as Savior but not as Lord. And it tends to produce false accusations of legalism and Neonomianism because it considers the Biblical position to be legalistic.
Repentance is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. We need to repent in order to be forgiven. We need to proclaim to the ends of the earth “repentance for the forgiveness of sins…in Christ’s name” (Luke 24:47).
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius’s The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.