Previous article in this series: January 15, 2023, p. 179.
Gentleness is good to the core and is revealed toward adversaries and enemies. It does not hurt them, does not take revenge, does not curse, insult, or spread lies about them; does not even wish bad things on them, even though they might have taken away property, reputation, body, friends—everything. Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works I
In this series of articles we are examining the antinomian theology of the Reformed Protestant Churches. At the moment, we are primarily concerned with the RPC teaching concerning repentance and forgiveness, specifically their teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance. It is the contention of the leaders of theRPs that the believer’s God-worked repentance over sin has nothing to do with God’s forgiveness of his sins. As we have seen, the RPs are adamant in maintaining that God’s forgiveness takes place in eternity, altogether apart from and long before He ever brings the elect sinner to repentance. We have seen that this teaching is contrary to the Bible and to the Reformed confessions.
At present we are demonstrating that the RP teaching is in conflict with the Reformed tradition, especially the teaching of the Reformer John Calvin. Thus far we have appealed to Calvin’s teaching in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and his Old Testament commentaries. In this article, we will hear what Calvin has to say in some of his New Testament commentaries.
From what we have already seen, it ought to be plain that the RP theologians are at odds with Calvin. Their theology is not a further development of Calvin. Rather, their theology stands in direct conflict with what Calvin taught. In the teaching of the RPs, we have an example of Calvin against Calvinists, or rather, Calvinists against Calvin. They are men who profess to be Calvinists and followers of John Calvin, but whose teaching is at odds with the Genevan Reformer—seriously at odds.
Calvin on the gospel accounts and Acts
In considering the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), Calvin writes,
We ought always, therefore, to begin with the forgiveness of sins: for the first hope of being heard by God beams upon us, when we obtain his favour; and there is no way in which he is “pacified toward us,” (Ezek. xvi.63,) but by freely pardoning our sins (Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:326).
After explaining why Jesus calls our sins “debts,” Calvin insists that our sins “alienate us entirely from God, so that there is no hope of obtaining peace and favour, except by pardon.” He concludes by saying, “For, when he commands all his disciples to betake themselves to him daily for the forgiveness of sins, everyone, who thinks that he has no need of such a remedy, is struck out of the number of the disciples” (1:326).1
Calvin implies that daily we receive the forgiveness of our sins. Daily we seek from God, and therefore also daily we receive, the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness takes place daily—many times in a day—Calvin insists. They who do not suppose that they have need daily forforgiveness have no right to consider themselves Christ’s disciples.
By teaching that we are forgiven daily, Calvin denies by implication that we are forgiven eternally. Indeed, he would be the first to insist that God in eternity has decreed our forgiveness. He would be the first to insist that the basis for our forgiveness is the cross of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, forgiveness itself takes place daily, in the day-to-day life of the Christian. They who think that they have “no need of such a [daily] remedy,” may have no assurance that they are among Christ’s disciples. In fact, such a person “is struck out of the number of the disciples.”
A bit later in his consideration of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Calvin comments on Jesus’ word in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” He explains why Christ added, “Forgive us, as we forgive”:
The reason is that God will not be ready to hear us, unless we also show ourselves ready to grant forgiveness to those who have offended us…. Unless God pardon us every day many sins, we know that we are ruined in innumerable ways: and on no other condition [that is, in no other way] does he admit us to pardon, but that we pardon our brethren whatever offences they have committed against us.
Calvin concludes with a very serious wake-up call:
Those who refuse to forget the injuries which have been done to them, devote themselves willingly and deliberately to destruction, and knowingly prevent God from forgiving them (Harmony of the Evangelists, 1:330).
It ought to be clear that Calvin knows nothing of an eternal forgiveness that takes place prior to repentance in time. God forgives us daily, he teaches, and He forgives us daily only if we “pardon our brethren whatever offences they have committed against us.” If we do not forgive our brethren, we “knowingly prevent God from forgiving [us].”
In Acts 3, the apostle Peter is preaching to the multitude that gathered in the courtyard of the temple after he healed the lame man who was begging at the Beautiful Gate. In verse 19, he issued the call to repentance, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” Calvin comments: “We must note, that when he exhorteth unto repentance, he doth also declare that there is remission of sins prepared for them before the face of God” (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, 1:149). In his comments, Calvin follows the order of the text: the call to repentance is first and then the promise, “that your sins may be blotted out.” Our sins are blotted out only when and after we repent of them.
Calvin on the New Testament epistles
Many a preparatory sermon has been preached on II Corinthians 7:10, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Calvin begins his comments on this passage by noting that “Paul seems to make repentance the ground of salvation.” That would mean, says Calvin, that “we are justified by works.” This he rejects, noting that Paul “is not inquiring as to the ground of our salvation, but simply commending repentance from the fruit which it produces.” Repentance is not the ground of our salvation, but “it is like a way by which we arrive at salvation,” says Calvin. Further, “God by way of free favor pardons our sins, but only when we renounce them.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding of the expression in II Corinthians 7:10, “repentance to salvation,” Calvin adds,
Nay, more, God accomplishes in us at one and the same time two things: being renewed by repentance, we are delivered from the bondage of sin; and, being justified by faith, we are delivered also from the curse of our sins. They are, therefore, inseparable fruits of grace, and, in consequence of their invariable connection, repentance may with fitness and propriety be represented as an introduction to salvation, but in this way of speaking of it, it is represented as an effect rather than as a cause.
Calvin, then, defends his distinction—the distinction demanded by II Corinthians 7:10—by adding,
These are not refinements for the purpose of evasion [of the teaching of the text], but a true and simple solution, for, while Scripture teaches us that we never obtain forgiveness of sins without repentance, it represents at the same time, in a variety of passages, the mercy of God alone as the ground of our obtaining it (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 2:274-275).
That we “never obtain forgiveness of sins without repentance” does not mean that repentance earns or merits forgiveness. This is simply the God-ordained order: repentance precedes forgiveness; forgiveness follows repentance. And is this not the order of experience, as well? The teaching that forgiveness precedes repentance contradicts experience. As a parent, I cannot forgive my disobedient and wayward child, until that child repents and beseeches my forgiveness. My wife cannot forgive me until I repent and beseech her forgiveness. We cannot and we may not forgive a brother or sister who has sinned against us, until they repent. Perhaps she has spread a false and hurtful rumor about me. Or, perhaps, he has stolen something from me. We can want to forgive them. We can pray to forgive them. We can admonish them so that they will repent and we can forgive them. But we cannot and we may not forgive them until they are repentant. We are called to deal with each other in this way because this is the way in which God deals with us.
Hebrews 6:6 is a passage often appealed to by those who deny the perseverance of the saints: “If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” Besides addressing this issue, Calvin also treats the relation between repentance and forgiveness in his comments on this passage. “As then,” writes Calvin, “[so now] the Lord promises pardon to none but to those who repent of their iniquity; it is no wonder that they perish who either through despair or contempt, rush on in their obstinacy unto destruction.”
A little later, though still commenting on verse 6 and the phrase, “seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame,” Calvin says, “for it would be wholly unbecoming, that God by pardoning apostates [that is, those who are unrepentant] should expose his own Son to contempt” (Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, 139). God does not pardon apostates, so long as they go on in their apostasy. He pardons those apostates only who repent of their apostasy.
Calvin has a good deal to say on the proper relation between forgiveness and repentance in his extended commentary on I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is true that the apostle speaks explicitly of the relation between those who confess their sins and God’s forgiveness. But none confess their sins—truly confess their sins—who are not repentant over their sins. And if the sinner is truly repentant over his sins, he will also surely confess his sins.
Calvin begins his explanation of the text in I John by affirming that the apostle
again promises to the faithful that God will be propitious to them, provided they acknowledge themselves to be sinners. It is of great moment to be fully persuaded, that when we have sinned, there is a reconciliation with God ready and prepared for us: we shall otherwise carry always a hell within us.
If we cannot be assured when we have sinned that there is forgiveness for those who repent of and confess their sins, we will always carry “a hell within us.” A powerful and true statement. A statement that underscores the urgency of repentance, acknowledging ourselves to be sinners.
A bit later, Calvin appeals to the justice of God upon which rests the promise to forgive those who repent of and confess their sins. For this reason, all the more “it becomes us to receive with the whole heart this promise which offers free pardon to all who confess their sins.” To all those—only to those, but to all those—who confess their sins in sorrow over them, God promises free pardon. Their repentance does not earn their forgiveness. For the sinner who is truly repentant casts himself or herself on the mercy of God. It is always mercy for which the repentant sinner cries out to God: “God be merciful to me the sinner” (Luke 18:13). And mercy and merit are polar opposites.
Thus, Calvin concludes that the apostle John “commends grace from its necessity; for as no one is free from sin, he intimates that we are all lost and undone, except the Lord comes to our aid with the remedy of pardon. The reason why he so much dwells on the fact, that no one is innocent, is that all may now fully know that they stand in need of mercy” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 167).
1 Italics in the quotations from Calvin are mine, unless otherwise noted.