Previous article in this series: December 1, 2022, p. 109.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:12
We are at present demonstrating that the theology of the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC) is antinomian. This is not merely the tendency of their teaching, but is the position that they openly embrace. Antinomianism has bedeviled the Reformed faith since the time of the Reformers and, before them, was a threat to the apostolic gospel of justification by faith alone. The charge that they are promoting the age-old error, albeit cosmetically refurbished, ought to be clear to the discerning Reformed Christian.
The leaders of the RPC view the charge of antinomianism as a badge of honor, as though the charge itself is a clear testimony to their orthodoxy. It is certainly true that not everyone down through history who has been charged with holding the tenets of antinomianism has in fact been guilty of antinomianism. The PRC have had this charge wrongly leveled against them from the time of their inception nearly one hundred years ago. Especially on account of our teaching of sovereign, particular grace and rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, we have been stigmatized with the labels of hyper- Calvinism and antinomianism. It does not, however, follow that though some are wrongly accused of antinomianism that all who are charged with the error are falsely maligned. No more does it follow that since some who preach the law of God are legalists, teaching that our good works merit with God, that all who call for strict obedience to God’s law are necessarily legalists. In some instances, those who are charged with antinomianism do indeed embrace the theology of the antinomians. And that, sadly, is the case with the RPC.
Our focus at present is the error taught by the RPC’s leaders that forgiveness takes place prior to repentance. This is the so-called God-first theology that the leaders of the RPC are promoting. We have seen that this teaching contradicts Scripture and the Reformed confessions. In the preceding article, we began to compare this view to the teaching of John Calvin, focusing on what he has written in the Institutes. If ever there was a God-first theologian, it was John Calvin. But in reference after reference, we saw that in his Institutes Calvin clearly teaches that God’s forgiveness of our sins follows upon God-worked repentance. Although God has eternally decreed our forgiveness, as well as our repentance, and although the basis for that forgiveness is grounded in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s decree is realized in time. This is the order that He has determined in time that His forgiveness follows upon our repentance.
With the present article, we turn our attention to what Calvin has written on the relation between repentance and forgiveness in his commentaries. Calvin published commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible. In the nature of the case, it will be necessary for us to be selective in our references to what he teaches in his commentaries. After consulting his commentaries, it will be seen that Calvin’s teaching there is consistent with what he teaches in his Institutes.
Calvin’s Old Testament commentaries: The Psalms
Psalm 32 finds its occasion in David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Calvin begins his exposition by pointing out that some men are so blinded by hypocrisy and pride “that they are not at all anxious in seeking forgiveness, [though] all acknowledge that they need forgiveness.” “This confession,” Calvin goes on to say, “that all need forgiveness, because no man is perfect, and that then only is it well with us when God pardons our sins, nature itself extorts even from wicked men” (1:522). It ought to be clear that the “seeking forgiveness” and the “need [of] forgiveness” of which David speaks precede the time “when God [actually] pardons our sins.”
Commenting on the phrase in Psalm 32:5, “I have acknowledged my sin unto thee,” Calvin says that David describes his misery, “in order to show to all the ready way of obtaining the happiness of which he makes mention.” That happiness is the happiness of forgiveness, as Calvin makes plain when he adds that David’s “only relief was unfeignedly to condemn himself before God, and humbly to flee to him to crave his forgiveness” (1:530). Calvin goes on to say that “when the sinner willingly betakes himself to God, building his hope for salvation not on stubbornness or hypocrisy, but on supplication for pardon,” he receives from God the forgiveness of his sins. David “promised and assured himself of pardon through the mercy of God, in order that terror might not prevent him from making a free and an ingenuous [straightforward, frank] confession of his sins” (1:531). David, therefore, made “known his own guilt, that being self-condemned, he might as a suppliant obtain pardon” (1:531).
In his exposition of Psalm 32, Calvin is concerned to guard against the evil of teaching that our repentance and confession of sin earn God’s forgiveness. This dread error Calvin repudiates. In the quote at the end of the preceding paragraph, Calvin does not say that “because he is a suppliant,” he should obtain pardon, as though his act of confessing his sins merited God’s forgiveness. Rather, he says that “as a suppliant” he might obtain pardon. We might rightly paraphrase David’s teaching by saying that “in the way of repentance and confession, God forgave David’s sin.” On this same note, Calvin concludes his exposition of Psalm 32:5, by saying “that as often as the sinner presents himself at the throne of mercy, with ingenuous confession, he will find reconciliation with God awaiting him.” “Should any infer from this that repentance and confession are the cause of obtaining grace, the answer is easy; namely, that David is not speaking here of the cause but of the manner in which the sinner becomes reconciled to God.” Thus, “it is not admitted that everything which is necessarily connected with pardon is to be reckoned amongst its causes…. David obtained pardon by his confession, not because he merited it by the mere act of confession” (1:531-2).
If it were not the case that forgiveness follows upon repentance, if instead we were eternally forgiven, there would be no real concern over the question whether our repentance merits God’s forgiveness. If forgiveness is eternal, whereas repentance takes place in time, it ought to be clear that our repentance could never merit forgiveness. It would be a non-issue. But the very fact that this is a real danger, that there is the strong possibility that some would conclude that our repentance earns God’s forgiveness, arises out of the fact that forgiveness follows repentance. Otherwise the concern makes no sense.
The other well-known penitential Psalm is Psalm 51, which has the same historical background as Psalm 32. Commenting on the third verse, Calvin asserts that “we will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear.” And “the more easily satisfied we are under our sins, the more do we provoke God to punish them with severity, and if we really desire absolution [forgiveness] from his hand, we must do more than confess our guilt in words” (2:284-5). Those who desire forgiveness must confess their sins from the heart.
Psalm 51:9 relates the plea of the sinner to God: “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.” Says Calvin that “it by no means follows that a person may not be assured of the favour of God, and yet show great earnestness and importunity in praying for pardon.” In fact, says Calvin, since “pardon [is] the first thing we should pray for, it is plain that there is no inconsistency in having a persuasion of the grace of God and yet proceeding to supplicate his forgiveness” (2:297). Since pardon is something for which we are to pray, pardon being “the first thing we should pray for,” it follows that pardon follows upon our praying for it. And that means that we are not pardoned (forgiven) in eternity, but in time following upon the Christian’s prayer for pardon.
Once again, this in no way implies that our repentance earns forgiveness. That is made clear, Calvin teaches, by the plea in Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” “By employing the term create, he expresses his persuasion that nothing less than a miracle could effect his reformation, and emphatically declares that repentance is the gift of God” (2:298). The very fact that the psalmist prays, “Create in me a clean heart,” harks back to God’s miraculous work of creation in the beginning. As God alone brought all things into being, and the creature did not bring itself into being—contrary to the damnable lie of the evolutionists—so does God miraculously work repentance in the hearts of His people. That is no less the work and gift of God as was the creative work of God in the beginning.
Calvin’s Old Testament commentaries: The minor prophets
In his commentaries on the minor prophets, Calvin has a great deal to say about the relation between repentance and forgiveness. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that the minor prophets issued repeated calls to wayward Israel to repent. This is the case with the prophet Joel in chapter 2, verses 12-14:
Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God?
In his exposition of this very familiar passage, Calvin says that the awful threats pronounced by the prophet were not intended merely to terrify the people, “but on the contrary, to encourage them to repentance; which he could not do without offering to them the hope of pardon.” “Men cannot be restored to the right way, except they entertain a hope of God’s mercy…. Hence the Prophet now represents God as propitious and merciful, that he might thus kindly allure the people to repentance” (2:55). Calvin goes on to speak of God’s indulgence toward Israel, “since he left a hope of pardon to a people so obstinate and almost past recovery” (2:57). Since God “allures the people to repentance” with a “hope of pardon,” pardon follows and is future relative to repentance. That is always the nature of hope.
Calvin continues: “Then follows the promise of pardon, ‘For he is propitious [gracious] and merciful.’ We have already said that repentance is preached in vain, except men entertain a hope of salvation.” He adds that,
whenever the Prophets were anxious to effect anything by their doctrine, while exhorting the people to repentance, they joined to the invitation “Come,” the second part, “Ye shall not come in vain.” This “Come,” comprehends all exhortations to repentance; “Ye shall not come in vain,” includes this testimony respecting God’s grace, that He will never reject miserable sinners, provided they return to him with the heart…. Hence, whenever Scripture exhorts us to repentance, let us learn to join this second part, “God invites us not in vain.” If then we return to him, he will be instantly inclined to grant forgiveness; for he wills not that miserable men should labour in vain or be tormented. (2:60).
Calvin concludes this section of his exposition in this way:
As though the Prophet says, “Though ye think that it is all over with you as to your salvation, and ye deserve to be rejected by God, yet ye ought not to continue in this state; rather entertain a hope of pardon.” This is what the Prophet had in view; he throws in no doubt, so as to make the sinner uncertain, whether or not he could obtain pardon. (2:63-4).
Commenting on Zechariah 8:14-15, Calvin again establishes the relation between repentance and forgiveness— the proper order of these works of God’s grace:
And hence we may gather a general truth—that God cannot be intreated by us [notice, cannot], except we begin to repent; not that our repentance anticipates God’s mercy, for the question here is not, what man of himself and of his own inclination can do; as the object of Zechariah is only to teach us, that when God designs to forgive us, he changes our hearts and turns us to obedience by his Spirit (5:216).
“Our repentance anticipates God’s mercy,” that is, God’s mercy to forgive our sins follows upon our repentance. Finally, I call attention to what Calvin says in expounding Malachi 3:7, “Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?” Calvin says that God “exhorts them to repentance, and kindly addresses them, and declares that he would be propitious and reconcileable to them, if they repented.” He calls attention to the fact that elsewhere he has pointed out “that all exhortations [to repentance] would be in vain without a hope of pardon…. This course the Prophet now pursues, when in the person of God himself he promises pardon, provided the Jews repent.” And he adds that
the Papists very foolishly conclude that repentance is in the power of man’s free-will. But God requires what is above our strength; and yet there is no reason why we should complain that there is a too heavy burden laid on us; for he regards not what we can do, or what our ability admits, but what we owe to him and what our duty requires (5:582-3).
It is foolish to conclude that the call to repentance and the teaching that forgiveness follows upon repentance mean repentance is a work of man or, worse still, to conclude that repentance is a work of man that earns God’s forgiveness. This is foolish, not only because it does not follow logically; but it is foolish because it contradicts the clear teaching of God’s Word.