Previous article in this series: October 1, 2022, p. 10.
A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul: but he that heareth reproof getteth understanding. Proverbs 15:1, 32
Martin Luther’s objections to indulgences, voiced publicly when he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, were the spark that led to the Reformation. Luther’s opposition to indulgences was not limited to the irreverent claims made by the indulgence peddlers as, for example, that they were effective to forgive a man even if he had violated the virgin Mother of God (Thesis #75). His opposition was not only against the unbiblical teaching of the meritorious value of good works, which was the basis for the sale of indulgences. But he also opposed the sale of indulgences because they promised God’s forgiveness apart from and before the sinner’s repentance. Luther opposed the so-called “God-first theology” that is being promoted as the gospel by the RPC (Reformed Protestant Churches).
From the beginning, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses are concerned with repentance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance” (Thesis #1).1 Luther’s distress was that “[t]hey preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition [that is, repentance] is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges” (Thesis #35). In Thesis #36, he asserts that “[e]very truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.” Take note that the “truly repentant Christian” has “a right to full remission,” that is, forgiveness of his sin “even without [the pope’s] letters of pardon.” If those who are repentant have a right to the full remission of their sins, forgiveness clearly follows repentance. Luther goes on to contend that “[i]t is very difficult, even for the most educated theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and also the need of true contrition” (Thesis #39). “Very difficult” is an understatement; it is impossible.
The theology that the RPs are promoting is not consistent with the gospel of the Reformation, but contrary to it. Luther was prompted to oppose the sale of indulgences because it corrupted the Bible’s teaching about the relation between repentance and forgiveness. Those in purgatory could not repent, so that apart from their repentance “letters of pardon” were purchased for them. And those who purchased indulgences for themselves did so prior to and apart from their own repentance, as a kind of insurance policy that paid out when they sinned. Rome’s false teaching about the relation between forgiveness and repentance contributed to the neglect of genuine repentance prior to the Reformation.
It is not my intention in this article and the next, however, to concentrate on Luther’s opposition to the wrong view of repentance in the church of his day. Instead, I will focus on the teaching of John Calvin. The Reformed tradition is the tradition that traces back to Calvin. What did Calvin have to say about the relation between repentance and forgiveness? How would he evaluate the “God-first theology” of the RPC?
I have before me a stack of 3 x 5 note cards over two inches thick (yes, I do research the old-fashioned way) of random quotes from Calvin that address the relation between repentance and forgiveness. I must of necessity be selective in the quotations that I use; there are far too many to use in the limited space of a couple of articles. I intend to appeal to Calvin’s witness in four distinct areas: his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his commentaries, his prayers, and comments taken from notes in The Geneva Bible, many of which were done by or taken from Calvin.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion2
“With good reason,” says Calvin, “the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins” (3.3.1). He goes on to insist that “both repentance and forgiveness of sins…are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith” (3.3.1). Applying the exhortation in Hosea 6:1, “Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten and he will bind us up,” Calvin says that “the hope of pardon is added like a goad, that men may not sluggishly lie in their sins” (3.3.2). If pardon of sin is a hope set before us and if it functions as a goad to prevent us from going on in our sins, it ought to be clear that repentance is first and after genuine repentance follows forgiveness. Citing the example of David, who “when he was rebuked by Nathan…acknowledged his sin of adultery” and yet “at the same time he awaited pardon,” so does also the repentant child of God await pardon, Calvin insists.
In connection with repentance, Calvin underscores the necessity of confession of sin. While confession of sin to men is not always necessary, confession to God is always necessary for forgiveness. Says Calvin, “yet to confess to God privately is a part of true repentance that cannot be omitted. For there is nothing less reasonable than that God should forgive those sins in which we flatter ourselves” and “which we hypocritically disguise lest he bring them to light” (3.3.18). The “way of confession is prescribed by God” as the way in which He is pleased to forgive our sins. “[S]ince it is the Lord who forgives, forgets, and wipes out sins, let us confess our sins to him in order to obtain pardon” (3.4.9). Clearly, Calvin teaches that forgiveness follows upon genuine confession of sin.
The title of section nineteen of book 3, chapter 3 is, “Repentance and forgiveness are interrelated.” Calvin begins by reflecting on John the Baptist’s preaching “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” “What else is this,” he asks his readers, “than that they, weighed down and wearied by the burden of sins, should turn to the Lord and conceive a hope of forgiveness and salvation?” Commenting on Acts 5:30- 31, Calvin uses the words of the passage to describe the purpose of Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation: “God raised Jesus…to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Besides taking note of the apostle’s teaching that God gives repentance, notice the order: repentance first followed by forgiveness. He concludes section 19 by affirming that “because the proper object of faith is God’s goodness, by which sins are forgiven, it was expedient that it should be carefully distinguished from repentance.”
Necessity of repentance does not imply that repentance merits
In section 20, book 3, chapter 3, Calvin is concerned to deny the charge that insistence on the necessity of repentance implies that the sinner’s repentance merits God’s forgiveness. This is the same objection raised by the RPs. The necessity of repentance “is not so laid down as if our repentance were the basis of our deserving pardon.” And a little later in section 21, Calvin writes: “Not that repentance, properly speaking, is the cause of salvation, but because it is already seen to be inseparable from faith and from God’s mercy.” Still later, after reminding his readers “that forgiveness of sins can never come to anyone without repentance,” Calvin again adds that “at the same time that repentance is not the cause of forgiveness of sins” (3.4.3). Only if forgiveness follows repentance would the concern be raised, “Does this not imply that repentance earns forgiveness?” Such a concern would never be raised if forgiveness preceded repentance. In that case, no right-thinking person would ever suggest that man’s repentance earns God’s forgiveness. The concern is raised because repentance precedes forgiveness. And that is irrefutably Calvin’s teaching, “that forgiveness of sins can never come to anyone without repentance, because only those afflicted and wounded by the awareness of sins can sincerely invoke God’s mercy” (3.4.3).
In Institutes 3.3.25, Calvin contrasts sham repentance with true repentance. He begins by considering the hypocritical repentance of Ahab and Esau. Such examples of insincere repentance ought to teach Christians “more readily to apply our minds and efforts to sincere repentance, because there must be no doubt that…God, who extends his mercy even to the unworthy when they show any dissatisfaction with self, will readily forgive us.” Thus, our pride is reproved and we are encouraged with God’s “readiness to give pardon.”
Calvin promotes this same theme in his comments on the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, to whom Jesus said, “Thy sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). “The Lord clearly testifies in what way she obtained forgiveness of sins” inasmuch as Jesus said to her, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” (v. 50). “By faith, therefore, we gain forgiveness; by love we give thanks and testify to the Lord’s kindness” (3.4.37). If we are to be encouraged with God’s willingness to forgive the sins of those who truly repent, God’s forgiveness must follow our repentance, as indeed it does.
Petition for forgiveness
The petition for forgiveness, both in the prayers of believers individually and in the public worship of the church, arises to God’s throne of grace out of the awareness of the divine order, that God’s forgiveness follows on our repentance. So Calvin recommends the “custom observed with good result in well-regulated churches: that every Lord’s Day the minister frames the formula of confession in his own and the people’s name, and by it he accuses all of wickedness and implores pardon from the Lord” (3. 4.11). Thus, “after pardon of sins has been obtained, the sinner is considered as a just man in God’s sight. Therefore, he was righteous not by approval of works but by God’s free absolution” (3.11.3).
In book 3, chapter 20, Calvin begins his consideration of the truth concerning prayer. He warns that “the godly must particularly beware of presenting themselves before God to request anything unless they yearn for it with sincere affection of heart” (3.20.6). This applies in a special way to the petition for the forgiveness of sins. We must recognize our urgent need for forgiveness, lest we “leave off praying” for it. “For when should the many sins of which we are conscious allow us nonchalantly to stop praying as suppliants for pardon of our guilt and penalty? When do temptations yield us a truce from hastening after help?” (3.20.7). “To sum up,” Calvin concludes, “the beginning and even the preparation of proper prayer is the plea for pardon with a humble and sincere confession of guilt” (3.20.9).
The title of section 9, chapter 20, book 3, is: “The plea for forgiveness of sins as the most important part of prayer.” Calvin references the statement of the apostle John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). When he comes to consideration of the fifth petition, Calvin devotes several paragraphs to the qualification that is contained in the petition, “as we forgive our debtors.”
[W]e ought not to seek forgiveness of sins from God unless we ourselves also forgive the offences against us of all those who do or have done ill [to us]. If we retain feelings of hatred in our hearts, if we plot revenge and ponder any occasion to cause harm, and even if we do not try to get back into our enemies’ good graces, by every sort of good office deserve well of them, and commend ourselves to them, by this prayer we entreat God not to forgive our sins. For we ask that he do to us as we do to others (3.20.45).
Once again it ought to be clear that forgiveness follows repentance. If God does not forgive our sins so long as we refuse to forgive those who sin against us, forgiveness does not take place in eternity but in time. The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer makes no sense if forgiveness takes place in eternity. Thus, “[t]he sins of the saints are pardonable, not because of their nature as saints, but because they obtain pardon from God’s mercy” (2.8.59).
It ought to be clear that they who are teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance, that the sinner’s repentance follows upon God’s forgiveness are not building on Calvin. Neither can they argue that they are developing further the teaching of Calvin. In reality, they are rejecting and opposing Calvin. Calvin had it all wrong; they have it right. Rejecting Calvin, they make plain that they are laying another foundation than the foundation of the Reformed tradition that traces back to Calvin.
1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, intro. and ed. Stephen J. Nichols (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002). References to the theses will be from this booklet.
2 All references to the Institutes are from the edition edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, vols. 20 and 21 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). As is traditional, citations will be made by book, chapter, section.