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

Although the wicked, while they reproach God and pour and vomit out the venom of their breast, harden themselves in the vain hope that they shall not be punished, still there will not be a syllable which the Lord does not hear and which he does not at length call to account. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 3:123

In this series of articles we are examining the false teaching of the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC) that God’s forgiveness of sins takes place before Godworked repentance over sin. On account of their teaching we have charged them with maintaining the dread error of antinomianism, which is indeed true both from an historical viewpoint and a theological viewpoint. This was one of the errors that the English antinomians held prior to the Westminster Assembly.

Until now, we have examined this distinctive doctrine of the RPC in light of John Calvin’s teaching. We have demonstrated that no one can read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or his commentaries without concluding that he taught that God’s forgiveness (pardon) follows God’s work of bringing the elect sinner to repentance. God forgives our sins in the way of our repentance. And apart from repentance, God does not forgive sin. Calvin knew nothing of an eternal forgiveness before—long before—the sinner’s repentance. The promise of the gospel is that God for Christ’s sake will forgive the sins of every truly repentant sinner. Every sinner who grieves over his sins, as David does in Psalms 32 and 51, receives from a gracious God the forgiveness of sins.

I want to conclude our examination of Calvin’s teaching by calling attention to Calvin’s prayers. Calvin’s prayers give us a unique glimpse of his theology. Many of Calvin’s Old Testament commentaries were not written as biblical commentaries. Instead, they began as Calvin’s class lectures to students aspiring to the ministry in the Academy of Geneva. These class lectures were taken down by dictation, edited, and later printed as commentaries. Included in the transcription were also the prayers with which Calvin concluded each of his lectures. Whenever his time was up, he brought his lecture to a close, but before dismissing his students he offered up prayer. Then, at the next class period, he simply picked up his lecture at the point at which he had previously ended. Calvin’s prayers offer an easily overlooked witness to his teaching on the relation between repentance and forgiveness.

Lectures on the prophecy of Jeremiah

Calvin’s lectures on the prophecy of Jeremiah, translated into English, extend to five volumes. At the conclusion of his lecture on Jeremiah 9:3-9, Calvin prays that we “may not continue obstinate in evil nor pertinaciously [stubbornly] resist thy will, but that we may on the contrary learn to anticipate thy judgment and thus receive thy corrections, so that our sins may be hated by us, and that we may become judges of ourselves, in order that we may obtain pardon, and that having obtained it we may not doubt ever to call on thee as our Father” (1:473). If we are to hate our sins “in order that we may obtain pardon,” it is clear that forgiveness of sins follows sorrow over and confession of sin. Further, it is clear that since we “obtain pardon,” this benefit of salvation is bestowed upon the child of God during his lifetime.

Calvin’s prayer after his lecture on Jeremiah 11:18- 23, includes the plea “that we may not sleep in our sins,” but rather “humble ourselves before thee, and so seek thy pardon, that when we may lie down in true repentance, thou mayest absolve us in thy mercy, through the virtue of that sacrifice by which thine only-begotten Son has once for all reconciled us to thee.” Calvin’s expressions are moving: “that we may not sleep in our sins,” that “we may lie down in true repentance,” and that “thou mayest absolve us in thy mercy.” Absolution and forgiveness are present blessings of God. They are enjoyed by us when we “lie down in true repentance,” humbling ourselves before God and pleading His mercy for the sake of God’s only-begotten Son.

Having completed his lecture on Jeremiah 14:10-14, Calvin prays that God will deal so kindly with us as daily to show us our sins and “exhort us to repent, and teach us that thou art ready to give us forgiveness.” He goes on to plead that “we may not be of a refractory mind,” but “learn seasonably to repent, and be touched with the fear of thy judgment, so that we may truly and from the heart seek that reconciliation, which has been procured for us by the blood of thine only-begotten Son” (2:227). The child of God must “learn to repent,” and in a proper way “be touched with the fear of [God’s] judgment.” In this way, he will enjoy the reconciliation that “has been procured for us by the blood” of God’s Son.

A bit later, after his lecture on Jeremiah 14:21-15:2, Calvin prays: “Grant, Almighty God, that since thou art graciously pleased to exhort us to repent…that we may not obstinately provoke against ourselves thy extreme vengeance, but render ourselves obedient to thee.” He goes on to plead that God would “not only hear others praying for us, but that our own prayers may also obtain pardon from thee, especially through the intercession of Christ.” Through the preaching of His Word, God exhorts us and moves us to pray for pardon. Through such prayers, God is pleased that we obtain the pardon for which we pray. Clearly, we obtain pardon of our sins after we repent.

Calvin prays, after his lecture on Jeremiah 23:36-24:2, that “we may thus learn humbly to present ourselves to thee for pardon, and with true repentance so implore thy mercy, that we may from the heart desire wholly to submit ourselves to thee.” If we present ourselves to God for pardon, it is evident that pardon takes place in time and not in eternity. If with true repentance we are to implore God’s mercy in forgiving our sins, it is equally clear that our repentance precedes God’s merciful forgiveness.

“[A]nd so humbly solicit pardon, that we may thus shew that we really and habitually repent, so that thy name may in every way be glorified, until we shall come into thy celestial glory, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.” With these words, Calvin concludes his prayer following the lecture to his students on Jeremiah 25:27-31. The child of God “humbly solicit[s] pardon” of his sins from God, knowing that he has no claim on God’s forgiveness. Such a humble prayer for pardon sincerely made is itself the demonstration “that we really and habitually repent.”

Similarly, after his lecture on Jeremiah 34:1-5, Calvin prays that we may submit to God’s chastisements “and so acknowledge our sins, that we may not at the same time doubt but that thou wilt be merciful to us, and that we may with this confidence ever flee to seek pardon, and that it may avail also to increase our repentance, so that we may strive more and more to put off all the vices of the flesh, and to put on the new man.” The Christian’s confidently “flee[ing] to seek pardon” from God avails “to increase our repentance.” Seeking and enjoying God’s gracious forgiveness is itself an incentive to future repentance and the assurance of future forgiveness.

“Grant, Almighty God,” Calvin prays at the end of his lecture on Jeremiah 36:1-2, “that everyone may so examine his life, that being prostrate under a sense of thy wrath, we may betake ourselves to the only true remedy, even to implore thee, and to seek forgiveness.” Under the heavy hand of God, the believer’s response ought to be conviction of sin and seeking God’s forgiveness. If seeking God’s forgiveness is to be a response to the experience of His heavy hand on us, clearly God’s forgiveness takes place in our lifetime and not eternally.

Lectures on the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel

Calvin was busy lecturing on the prophecy of Ezekiel at the time of his death. His commentary on this Old Testament prophet, therefore, was left unfinished. However, his lectures on the first part of the book have been preserved.

Calvin’s prayer at the end of his lecture on Ezekiel 12:8-16 begins, “Grant, I say, that we may embrace what is proposed to us in thy name with humility and reverence becoming to thy children, so that we may repent of our sins, and obtain their pardon.” Clearly, the order in Calvin’s mind is that we repent of our sins and then obtain their pardon. Genuine repentance is the way in which God is pleased to grant us the pardon of our sins. Repentance over our sins is first, followed by the forgiveness of our sins.

At the close of his lecture on Ezekiel 13:8-9, Calvin prays that “our destined pastors may faithfully call us to repentance,” lest we be left in our sins. At the same time, he prays that when we experience His severe chastisements, “the taste of God’s paternal goodness may never be so lost to us, so that a way may always be open to us to seek reconciliation in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Once again, Calvin teaches that repentance is the way to the enjoyment of our reconciliation with God.

“Grant, also, that we may beg pardon of thee, and resolve upon a true repentance, not with vain and useless fictions, but by true and serious proofs.” With these words, Calvin begins his prayer at the end of his lecture on Daniel 4:25-27. We beg pardon of God while at the same time resolving upon a true repentance. Calvin presupposes, of course, that God does not grant pardon to those whose repentance is disingenuous and hypocritical. When we truly repent, God in His mercy forgives our sins.

After finishing his lecture on Daniel 8:17-23, Calvin prays, “May we learn also to consider our sins as the cause of whatever adversity happens to us; may we consider thee to be not only faithful in all thy promises, but also a Father—propitious to those wretched ones who suppliantly fly to thee for pardon.” To those who suppliantly fly to their heavenly Father for pardon, it is Calvin’s prayer that they may find God to be propitious— ready and willing to forgive their sins.

Having lectured to his students on Daniel 9:4-7, Calvin makes supplication to God, “Grant, Almighty God, as no other way of access to thee is open for us, except through unfeigned humility, that we may often learn to abase ourselves with feelings of true repentance.” He continues: “May we be so reconciled to thee, as not only to be absolved from our sins, but also governed throughout the whole course of our life by the Holy Spirit, until at length we enjoy the victory in every kind of contest, and arrive at that blessed rest which thou has prepared for us by the same Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” In this prayer, we find the same thought as in previous prayers: in the way of true repentance, we experience that we are absolved from our sins.

Clearly for Calvin, the forgiveness of sins is enjoyed in no other way than the way of true repentance. And since it is the case that only the truly repentant enjoy the forgiveness of their sins, forgiveness follows repentance. Further, if forgiveness follows repentance, it is clearly Calvin’s teaching that forgiveness is a blessing of God bestowed in the lifetime of the child of God. Although its source is in the eternal decree of God, forgiveness takes place in the lifetime of the Christian—throughout the lifetime of the Christian.

Calvin’s prayers brim with his theology. Among other things, his prayers teach us what he held to be the proper relation between repentance and forgiveness. Whatever the skewed theology of the Reformed Protestant Churches may be, it is not the theology of John Calvin. It is instead the dread theology of antinomianism. For if forgiveness takes place in eternity, what need is there for repentance in the lifetime of the Christian?