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A definition

I am not aware of any carefully and comprehensively constructed exposition of the biblical concept of repentance produced in the history of the PRC. From one point of view, the absence of such a work is not entirely surprising because repentance is one of the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ, the renewed instruction in which the writer to the Hebrews deems unnecessary (Heb. 6:1). Yet sometimes we must revisit and sharpen, and perhaps even correct, our understanding of the elementary principles. Surely one of the good and praiseworthy purposes of our faithful God in laying His heavy hand upon us in recent years is to force us to wrestle with the doctrine of repentance, and especially what we mean by the phrase “in the way of repentance.” If you have followed carefully the disputed doctrinal issues brought to the assemblies over the last several years, and with sharp eyes have read through the many pages of the last several Acts of Synod, you might know that the phrase “in the way of repentance” made a single appearance somewhere deep in the synodical decisions of Synod 2018 and then rose to the foreground and was oft-repeated at Synods 2020/2021.

In this article I will give a definition of repentance and demonstrate how I arrived at it. Next time I will take this basic, bare-bones definition and go to the Scriptures to put some flesh on it. Repentance is the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission.

The Scriptures

To obtain a correct understanding of the precise idea of repentance in Scripture it is necessary to consider the Hebrew and Greek terms for it as inspired by the Holy Spirit. One Hebrew word is the verb nacham, which means, “to pant, to sigh, to breathe with difficulty,” and has come to mean “to repent.” Though seldom used with reference to man because it is actually the term Scripture uses for its profound teaching of the repentance of God (Gen. 6:6-7), this word emphasizes the penitent sinner’s experience of grief and is used in Job 42:6, “Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The other (and primary) Hebrew term used throughout the Old Testament is the verb shubh, which means, “to turn, to return,” and it emphasizes a radical change in one’s attitude toward sin and God. This word is translated “repent” (I Kings 8:47), but usually “turn” (Jer. 3:14) or “return” (Is. 55:7).

The most important New Testament term is the Greek verb metanoeo. It means “to change one’s mind,” and according to one lexicon is used “of those who, conscious of their sins and with manifest tokens of sorrow, are intent on obtaining God’s pardon.” The word is employed in connection with the preaching of John the Baptist—“repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); Jesus—“repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15); and the apostles—“repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). As a noun, metanoia is used in II Corinthians 7:10, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation….”

From these terms we get an accurate idea of the biblical concept of repentance. The most important and frequently used Hebrew term emphasizes turning— turning from sin to God. The most important and frequently used Greek term emphasizes the internal, spiritual change of the mind or heart whereby one looks back at his sin with sorrow and looks forward to the promised pardon of God. Once again, repentance is the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission.

The confessions

In the Reformed tradition the term “repentance” is sometimes used in a broader sense, and includes the concept of the quickening of the new man and a walk in a holy life. When repentance is used in this broader sense, it is synonymous with “conversion” so that the two terms are then used interchangeably. Conversion is a life-long, daily turning of the whole man, inwardly and outwardly, a turning of his whole life from the ways of sin to the ways of righteousness. The Heidelberg Catechism permits the use of the term “repentance” in this broader sense. In LD 33, Q. 88, the Catechism asks, “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?” However, in the original German we read, “Of how many parts doth true repentance or conversion consist?” Then Q&A 90 proceeds to teach that true conversion (“repentance”) includes this positive aspect: “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”

The likely explanation for the language of Q. 88 is that the biblical term for “turning” can be translated as either conversion or repentance. Besides, John Calvin, whose theology had an influence upon the authors of the Catechism, teaches in his Institutes, “[I]n my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of Him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.”1 And later: “I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God.”2 By “regeneration” Calvin means life-long, daily conversion.3 In the Reformed tradition, therefore, there is the accepted use of the term “repentance” to signify what the HC, LD 33 calls “conversion.”

Nevertheless, this broader sense should not become our default setting or govern our textbook definition and understanding of repentance. The Canons of Dordt do not use the term repentance that way, and none of our Three Forms of Unity treats repentance as thoroughly as the Canons. Our Reformed conception of repentance must rely heavily upon the Canons. From beginning to end, the Canons use both the terms “conversion” and “repentance,” and based on usage the authors appear to be making a conscious distinction. 4 The Canons speak of repentance in a sense narrower than conversion, and the uses can be divided into two groups. First, patterned after Jesus’ own preaching (Mark 1:15, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel”), the Canons repeatedly link together repentance and faith as the content of the call of the gospel and as that which God by the gospel confers upon the elect. This issued call, “Repent and believe!” means, “Turn from your sins and believe in God’s merciful pardon in Christ!” We see this use, for example, in Canons I.3, “by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.”5 Secondly, as I will show below, the Canons speak of repentance in Head V when explaining God’s work of restoring an erring sinner. God restores by bringing the sinner to repentance so that he turns away from his sin. However, when the Canons intend something broader they use the term “conversion.” Thus it is not “repentance” but “conversion” that appears in the title of Head III/IV, “Of the corruption of man, his conversion to God, and the manner thereof.”

A Reformed definition of repentance can be drawn from Canons V.7, which is arguably the definitive confessional statement on repentance. It teaches:

For in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing, or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Here we have three elements following the phrase, “renews them to repentance.” First, what immediately follows is the Canons definition of repentance. When God renews someone to repentance, He brings them “to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator.” The definition contains two parts: sorrow and seeking. Those who repent are those who sorrow over their sins and seek remission for those sins in the blood of the Mediator. A more literal rendering of the original Latin, as proposed by Homer C. Hoeksema, makes plain that it is through the instrument of faith that forgiveness is obtained: “in order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator.”6

Secondly, the Canons continue by stating the immediate and blessed result of repentance: “…may again experience the favor of a reconciled God….” Upon repenting and having obtained through faith the remission of God in the blood of Jesus, the believer experiences the favor of a reconciled God.

Third, the Canons conclude with the fruit of repentance— the fruit that emerges from the heart of the sinner who has been reconciled to God and experiences God’s mercies anew: “…through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” With a renewed taste of the mercies of God, the penitent believer cries in adoration: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity” (Micah 7:18)! Then, with greater diligence, the restored sinner works out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Salvation is worked out in a holy life of obedience to the law. Here again, we see that a holy walk in good works, while the necessary fruit of genuine repentance, is not part of repentance as such. It belongs to the “henceforward.”

On the basis of the Canons, then, we arrive at our working definition, a definition that is in perfect harmony with the scriptural terms for and teaching of repentance. Repentance is the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission.

The tradition

The Reformed tradition supports this definition and understanding. Interestingly, in his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Hoeksema mimics the Canons and locates his formal definition of repentance in that section in which he covers the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. There he states, “Repentance is a state of mind, a turning of the mind from the love of sin and unrighteousness unto the love of righteousness, and therefore unto a true sorrow over sin.”7 In harmony with this definition, he distinguishes conversion and repentance in his work Wonder of Grace. About conversion he writes, “By this I mean that it is a turning about of the whole man, with. his internal life as well as with his external walk;” he adds, “…conversion has two aspects. The first of these is that it is a turning away from sin with all our heart and a fighting against sin. This, in general, is what the Bible means by the putting off of the old man, or the mortification of our members which are upon earth. Its chief characteristic is repentance, or true sorrow over sin;” then he concludes, “conversion is that work of God in man whereby the sinner repents and walks in all good works.”8 For Hoeksema, conversion is one thing, and repentance is an element of it and something narrower— an inward turning and sorrow.

Although Calvin made repentance and regeneration (conversion) synonymous in his Institutes, one can with little difficulty read through his commentaries and find him giving a much narrower signification to repentance, even as we saw last time in his comments on Matthew 3:8 and Acts 26:20. Furthermore, although the original German of the HC, Q. 88 makes repentance and conversion synonymous, author Zacharias Ursinus clearly distinguishes them in his commentary on the Lord’s Day: “For repentance does not comprehend the whole extent of the subject—it does not express from what, and to what we are changed, but merely signifies the sorrow which is felt after the commission of some sin. Conversion, on the other hand, embraces the whole, as it adds that which is the beginning of a new life by faith.”9

Another similar formulation common in the Reformed tradition is that set forth by Louis Berkhof: “conversion comprises two elements, namely, repentance and faith,” and repentance is defined as “that change wrought in the conscious life of the sinner, by which he turns away from sin.”10

Is not the conception of repentance set forth in this article confirmed by the biblical construction, “repent of ­­____ ?” For example, Revelation 2:22, “except they repent of their deeds.” Repentance is fundamentally an activity of ours with respect to sin. If there is no sin, there is no need for repentance (Mark 2:17). We repent of sin. We do not live a holy life of sin. We are not renewed of sin. We repent of sin. Our definition must fit within that construction and account for the fact that repentance pivots about sin. Repentance is turning from sin, in sorrow over sin, and seeking God’s remission for sin.

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1 Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mc Neill, trans.
Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977),
3.3.5.
2 Institutes, 3.3.9.
3 Speaking of Calvin’s influence, we know that at the same time
Ursinus was writing the HC he was translating into German
Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, which in all of its versions equates
repentance and regeneration (conversion). See, Lyle Bierma, An
Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Academic, 2005); and James T. Dennison, Jr., Reformed
Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation,
vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books,
2008)
4 This distinction does not come out in the Dutch, which uses the
same word bekeering for conversion and repentance. However,
the Canons were originally written in Latin and the distinction
holds in the Latin. “Conversion” in the Canons is the translation
of the noun conversio, “turning, conversion,” or the verb
converto, “to turn, to change.” “Repentance” in the Canons is
the translation of the noun resipiscentia (which corresponds to
the Greek metanoia), “a change of mind, recovery of one’s sense,
becoming wise again,” or poenitentia, “repentance, penance, regret.”
5 The remaining references are: II.5, 6, and III/IV.10, 12.
6 Voice of Our Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, 1980), 681.
7 Reformed Dogmatics, (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, 2005), 173.
8 Wonder of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, 1982), 75-78.
9 Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ:
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 469.
10 Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans,
1953), 486.