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: 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

Introduction 

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 Religion

“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.