Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in Wyoming, MI

Previous article in this series: July 2022, p. 418.

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man. Colossians 4:6


In the previous article in this series, readers were introduced to the first error that is being promoted by the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC), on account of which they are justly accused of being antinomians. That error is the teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance. This is “God-first theology,” RP theologians contend. At the same time, they insist that this is one of the main doctrines that distinguishes the RPC from the PRC. Besides demonstrating that this is indeed the teaching of the RPC, we also refuted this error from Scripture. One of the passages to which we appealed was Psalm 32. The versification of this psalm is found in The Psalter, number 83. The second stanza is:

While I kept guilty silence,

My strength was spent with grief,

Thy hand was heavy on me,

My soul found no relief;

But when I owned my trespass,

My sin hid not from Thee,

When I confessed transgression,

Then Thou forgavest me.

The versification, sung for nearly a hundred years in the PRC, captures accurately the teaching of Psalm 32. When David confessed his sin, then and only then did God forgive David.

The teaching that God forgives sin apart from and prior to repentance, that He forgives the sinner in eternity long before he sheds a single tear in sorrow over sin in his lifetime, has been the teaching of the antinomians in the past. This ought to be alarming to those who are promoting the same error today. It was the teaching of the seventeenth-century English antinomians in what is known as the first antinomian controversy.

The faithful Presbyterian stalwart, John Flavel (1627- 1691), vehemently opposed these antinomians. In a work entitled A Blow at the Root of Antinomianism, Flavel identified as one of the main errors of the antinomians, “That believers are not bound to confess their sins, or pray for the pardon of them; because their sins were pardoned before they were committed; and pardoned sin is no sin.”1 What the RPs are teaching is not new under the sun of antinomian heresy. Although it is true that the RPs have not gone so far as to teach that believers need not confess their sins or pray for forgiveness, this is the necessary implication of their teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance. Forgiven sin is no sin, and if there is no sin, then sin as you please because your sin has already been pardoned eternally.

In this article, I want to show that the teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance is contrary to the Reformed confessions. The Reformed confessions bind every Reformed officebearer, presumably the leaders of the RPC as well. If a teaching is contrary to the confessions, the presupposition is that it is contrary to Holy Scripture. What do the confessions have to say about the relation between forgiveness and repentance?

Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism treats the tenth article of the Apostles’ Creed in Q&A 56.2 Even the placement of this article in the Apostolicum is worth noting. The confession of “the forgiveness of sins” belongs to that which every believer confesses to be the proper work of the Holy Spirit. It is positioned between the confession of the holy, catholic church and the communion of the saints and “the resurrection of the body.” This indicates that forgiveness of sins takes place simultaneous to the gathering of the church and prior to the final resurrection. Forgiveness of sins takes place in time and history, therefore, and not in eternity antecedent to the gathering of the church. First the Holy Spirit works repentance and confession of sin, and then God forgives His repentant child. At Christ’s second coming, the repentant, forgiven believer will be raised up to everlasting life. The order in the Creed reflects that of Scripture.

According to Q&A 56, the confession of the forgiveness of sins means “[t]hat God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long.” My corrupt nature is the nature with which I am born. My sins during my lifetime arise out of my corrupt nature. God’s not remembering my sins nor my corrupt nature follows the sins that I commit and the sinful nature from which they spring. God’s “not remembering my sins” is the Catechism’s description of forgiveness—a biblical description (Ps. 25:7; 79:8). Clearly, forgiveness follows and does not precede repentance.

Q&A 70 of the Catechism speaks of the spiritual reality of baptism, which applies to the elect who are baptized. For them baptism is “to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ.” And what does that entail? “It is to receive of God the remission of sins freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He has shed for us by His sacrifice upon the cross.” After his baptism, as he matures in the faith, the child of God appropriates the spiritual significance of his baptism. At that point he “receive[s] of God the remission of [his] sins freely.” Once again, remission (forgiveness) of sins takes place during and not before the lifetime of the child of God.

The Heidelberg Catechism has a similar Q&A regarding the Lord’s Supper. After asking in Q. 76 what it is to eat the crucified body and drink Christ’s blood, the Catechism answers that it is “to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ,” and in that way “to obtain the pardon of sin and life eternal.” Faith in Christ, which is always accompanied by repentance, clearly precedes “obtain[ing] the pardon of sin and life eternal.”

Q&A 80 is well known for its condemnation of the Roman Catholic mass as “a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” Having condemned the mass, the Catechism goes on to ask, “For whom is the Lord’s Supper instituted?” The catechumen responds, “For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ.” The Lord’s Supper has been instituted “[f]or those who are truly sorrowful for their sins,” who yet believe that their sins are forgiven. Forgiveness follows upon true sorrow over sin. The Lord’s Supper has been instituted to confirm to the repentant sinner that the sins over which he grieves are forgiven.

The keys of the kingdom of heaven are treated in Lord’s Day 31. Q. 84 asks, “How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?” The first part of the answer is: “Thus: when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Take note of the order: “whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, [then] all their sins are really forgiven them of God.” Faith and repentance are first, and then follows forgiveness by God. That is the God-ordained order in the life of the Christian.

Belgic Confession of Faith

The Belgic Confession of Faith is in full agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching of the relation between repentance and forgiveness. Specifically, the Belgic Confession agrees with the Heidelberg Catechism that repentance precedes forgiveness.

The closing sentence of Article 22, the title of which is “Faith in Jesus Christ,” is: “And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.” Faith, which is always accompanied by a turning away from sin and self to Christ, is the instrument that joins us to Christ. It is the means by which all the benefits that are in Christ become ours, including the benefit of the forgiveness of our sins. Faith is the means “to acquit us of our sins.” First we believe in Jesus Christ and are sorry for our sins. Then we receive the blessings that are in Christ, including the blessing of forgiveness. This order echoes the experience of the believer.

Article 23 focuses on the outstanding benefit that they who believe on Jesus enjoy: justification. Faith always “rel[ies] and rest[s] upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities and to give us confidence in approaching to God.” Faith believes on and rests in Jesus Christ. Relying on and resting in Christ, we enjoy the covering of all our iniquities. Once again, faith in Christ is first and then through faith we enjoy the forgiveness of our sins.

In Article 29, the Belgic Confession treats “The Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs from the False Church.” Besides the marks of the true church, the article also treats the marks of the true Christian. Included in these marks is that they “avoid sin” and “crucify the flesh with the works thereof…fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in Him.” In the way of “taking their refuge in the blood” of Jesus Christ, which is faith accompanied by repentance, believers “have remission of sins.” If that is true, and it is, then it must follow that forgiveness does not precede but follows repentance.

Canons of Dordtrecht

The Canons of Dordt is the third of the Three Forms of Unity. And it is certainly the case that the Canons agree with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession on the relation of repentance and forgiveness.

Canons II.5 calls for the promiscuous preaching of the promise of the gospel: “This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations.” The command to repent and believe must be accompanied by the promise of the gospel. The promise is that they who “believe in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” The promise of everlasting life is joined to the command to repent and believe. Only they whose sins are forgiven enter into everlasting life; those whose sins are not forgiven perish. The promise, therefore, is essentially that those who repent and believe will have the forgiveness of their sins. Having the forgiveness of the sins over which they have repented, they will enter into life everlasting. Forgiveness follows repentance and precedes everlasting life. Repentance, followed by forgiveness, followed by everlasting life—this is the biblical order.

The teaching of Canons II.5 is confirmed by Canons II.7. In Article 7 the Canons teach that “as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God.” Once again the order in the Canons is faith (“as many as truly believe”) and forgiveness (“are delivered and saved from sin”). Faith, which is always accompanied by sorrow over sin, precedes deliverance from sin, the beginning of which is forgiveness.

According to Canons III/IV.10, that some obey the call of the gospel and are converted “must be wholly ascribed to God, who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son.” God’s conferring “faith and repentance”—the two always together—is the beginning of the deliverance of His elect people. That beginning is followed by rescue from the power of darkness, which includes certainly forgiveness of sins. The divine order of repentance followed by forgiveness is confirmed once again.

The fifth head of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt concerns the perseverance of the saints. Article 5 teaches that by “enormous sins” as well as by impenitence in sin the child of God may “lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.” That happened in the life of king David. But, “on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.” In the way of repentance, God forgives the sins of His fallen child and once again the light of His fatherly countenance smiles upon him.

Article 7 of the fifth head teaches that when the elect fall, God preserves in them “the incorruptible seed of regeneration.” In His preservation of them, God “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.” God renews the elect sinner to repentance that he may seek and obtain remission of his sin. The language of the article is clear and its teaching entirely biblical: in the way of repentance the sinner seeks and obtains forgiveness in the blood of Christ.

Minor confessions

In line with the teaching of the Three Forms of Unity is also the teaching of our secondary or minor confessions, the Reformed liturgical forms. I refer only to the Form of Excommunication and the Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons.

In the former, part of the closing prayer is: “But O Lord, Thou art merciful unto us for Christ’s sake; forgive us our trespasses, for we heartily repent of them.” That is clear and striking language: “forgive us our trespasses, for we heartily repent of them.” There can be no doubt concerning what precedes and what follows. In the Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons, we read: “Christ teacheth us in the aforementioned text [II Corinthians 2:7], that the sentence of absolution, which is passed upon such a penitent sinner according to the Word of God, is counted sure and firm by the Lord; therefore, no one ought to doubt in the least, who truly repents, that he is assuredly received by God in mercy.” God’s sentence of absolution is passed upon the penitent sinner, that is, God forgives the sin of those who repent. No one who truly repents ought to question whether God forgives him. Included in the questions put to the person who is about to be readmitted is, “[A]rt [thou] sincerely sorry for the sin and stubbornness, for which thou hast been justly cut off from the Church? Whether thou dost also truly believe, that the Lord hath forgiven thee, and doth forgive thy sins for Christ’s sake.” That is the God-ordained order: sincere sorrow over sin, followed by God’s forgiveness, concluding in reception back into the church.

1 John Flavel, A Blow at the Root of Antinomiamism (repr., Apollo, PA: Ichthus Publications, 2016), 39. Emphasis added.

2 All references to the confessions are taken from The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).