Distinguishing repentance and good works

Before I explain the concept of repentance, I want to demonstrate that repentance and good works of obedience should be distinguished as stated in one part of the decision of Synod 2021. I also want to show that this distinction is important in light of the connection that Scripture makes between repentance and remission.

In treating a protest against the decisions of Synod 2020, Synod 2021 demonstrated that the protest contained doctrinal misunderstandings, one of which was:

2) __________ fails to distinguish repentance and good works of obedience.

a) The Bible distinguishes between repentance and good works. Matthew 3:8, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” Acts 26:20, “…that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.”

b) Synod 2018 distinguished repentance from good works of obedience: “Though we may lose the experience of covenant fellowship by continuing in disobedience, we never gain it by our obedience, but it is restored by faith in Christ and in the way of repentance.”

c) conflates repentance and good works of obedience. About Synod 2020’s teaching on repentance, says “that our good works are activities that occur prior to the experience of particular blessings” (italics Synod’s).

d) This conflation appears already at the very beginning of his protest and contributes to his misunderstanding.1

Synod 2020 treated the protest of a sermon on repentance, and synod made decisions regarding repentance. A protest of that decision of Synod 2020 came to Synod 2021 and the protest contained pages of quotes from the confessions and Synod 2018 regarding good works. The protestant took quotations on good works and misapplied them to the synod’s statements on repentance to try to prove that Synod 2020 taught “the lie” and that the minister who preached the sermon on repentance was again, “giving to good works a place and function out of harmony with the Reformed confessions.” One part of the decision of Synod 2021 was to say, in essence, “You may not do that. In your theological argumentation you may not conflate repentance and good works so that there is no longer any distinction. When you do that you misread and misapply the decisions of previous synods and our confessions.”

Strictly speaking, repentance is not to be put in the category of “good works.” When we think theologically, and think with precision, we ought to think of repentance as one thing, and good works as something else. By repentance I am referring to the believer’s sorrowful turning from sin unto God. By good works (what synod called “good works of obedience”) I am referring to all the believer’s works of obedience performed according to the law of God in love for God and the neighbor (sometimes referred to as obedience, holiness of life, walking in God’s commandments). This is the Reformed understanding of good works in LD 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Q&A 91 defines good works as “only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory,” and then the Catechism proceeds to draw out for the catechumen what good works look like by expounding the Ten Commandments in LD’s 34-44. Good works are works of obedience to the law.

Merely labeling repentance a good work, or referring to repentance as a work when one is looking at repentance all by itself is one thing, a harmless thing. Some might conceive of good works as any good activity of the Spirit-filled believer, which would include repentance. It would be a simple task to find instances of ministers in our own churches referring to repentance as a good work, and I am not suggesting that such language be branded as “outside the bounds of orthodoxy.” For example, in the context of lamenting poor preaching that makes good works to consist of earthshaking events of social action for the improvement of society, Prof. Herman Hanko has taught that the child of God is rarely involved in such seemingly mighty events and that even in his seemingly insignificant walk of life he falls far short of God’s demands: “Thus repentance becomes more and more important. In the final analysis, repentance is the one most important good work of the Christian. Of what value are earthshaking events without repentance?”2 Similarly, Rev. Ronald Hanko has written about the repentance of the Ninevites: “We might notice too, that this repentance and humiliation are referred to in Jonah as works (v. 10), as indeed they are. Repentance for sin is one of the best works a Christian does, and so is humbling oneself before the Almighty.”3 These and similar examples of labeling repentance a “good work” are merely calling attention to at least two important truths. One, like the doing of good works of obedience to the law, repentance is an activity of the believer. Two, like good works of obedience, repentance is not an evil activity but a good activity originating in the sovereign and gracious work of the Holy Spirit within and proceeding from the good root of true faith.

In that same vein one can also find orthodox theologians calling faith a work, when looking at faith all by itself. Even Luther, that valiant defender of sola fide who vehemently denounced justification by faith and works, once wrote, “The text deals with the work that we are to perform, namely, to believe. Faith is a work that man must do, and yet it is also called the work of God; for this is the true existence, work, life and merit with which God desires to be honored and served.”4 Regardless of whether or not we agree with Luther’s handling of the passage, he is merely pointing out that faith is indeed an activity to which God calls the believer. Elsewhere, however, Luther taught something very different: “You should say this, I mean, in order to keep the one true and correct faith—the faith without works. Although works follow faith, yet faith should not be works, and works should not be faith, lest they be confused; but the boundaries and the realms of the Law or works and of faith should be correctly distinguished from one another.”5 Everyone knows that in his voluminous writings and for the defense of the gospel Luther clearly distinguished faith and works; nonetheless, it is possible to find an occasional statement in which Luther himself blurs that distinction.

To repeat, when one looks at repentance all by itself, it is one thing to call or label repentance a good work merely in order to teach that repentance is an activity. However, and this is the point of synod, it is another thing to have the understanding that repentance is a good work and then through the lens of that understanding interpret Scripture, the confessions, synodical decisions and other readings, relate soteriological concepts, and formulate arguments. Then the blurring of the distinction becomes problematic, as we shall see. Thus, when we do our theology, it is good and necessary to strive for theological precision and to maintain distinctions established by the Word of God.

Scripture’s distinction

Scripture distinguishes repentance and good works. The first passage to which synod appealed is Matthew 3:8. Preaching to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a generation of vipers, John the Baptist declared, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” For all their differences, the Pharisees and Sadducees were characterized by hypocritical, self-serving, lifeless externalism that found security and peace in their vain confession, “Abraham is our father!” John was calling them to true repentance and to the corresponding attitudes and actions of a holy life that demonstrated genuine repentance. Luke’s parallel account gives three examples of what these “fruits” look like. It is striking that John does not call attention to the first table of the law and the duties we and the self-righteous religious leaders of his day owe to God in worship, but to the second table of the law and how we treat people. Be not injurious in your dealings with others, but be charitable and just and honest! To the people who asked, “What shall we do then?” John replied, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:10-11). To the publicans, he said, “Exact no more than that which is appointed you” (v. 13); and to the soldiers, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages” (v. 14). Being charitable toward others would be a proof that these vipers had turned from sin unto God in true repentance. That Matthew 3:8 distinguishes repentance and good works is clear to John Calvin. He comments:

It ought to be observed, that good works (Titus 3:8) are here called fruits of repentance; for repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruit in a change of life. But as the whole of this part of doctrine has been grievously corrupted by Popery, we must attend to this distinction, that repentance is an inward renewal of the man, which manifests itself in the outward life, as a tree produces its fruit.6

The second passage used by synod is Acts 26:20, “… that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Again, Calvin comments:

And because repentance is an inward thing, and placed in the affection of the heart, Paul requireth, in the second place, such works as may make the same known, according to that exhortation of John the Baptist: ‘Bring forth fruits meet for repentance’ (Matt. 3:8).7

Comparing Scripture with Scripture, one does not have to read a passage such as Jonah 3:10 and identify repentance as a “work.” The passage states, “And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.” The passage can easily be understood as referring to two things: repentance (“they turned from their evil way”) and good works (“their works”), and the relation is that the works of the Ninevites demonstrated the genuine character of their repentance.

In harmony with the Scriptures, notable confessions of the church that treat repentance as a separate head of doctrine distinguish repentance and good works and treat the two in separate chapters. For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith contains Chapter 15, “Of Repentance unto Life,” and Chapter 16, “Of Good Works.”8

The importance of maintaining the distinction

If in doing our theology, we do not maintain this biblical distinction between repentance and good works but conflate or confuse them in our thinking, then we run into problems interpreting Scripture. For example, how will we teach the relation between repentance and remission in Acts 3:19 (and by the way, that is exactly the question we shall finally answer in these articles)? Peter issued the call of the gospel to the Jews who murdered the Prince of life: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out….” The call to repentance here is not a call to works, that is, a call to bring forth the fruits of repentance, a call to walk in the commandments, a call to love our neighbor in providing him a coat or conducting an equitable business transaction with him. Of course, a call to repentance is ultimately a call to good works of obedience because genuine repentance will always demonstrate itself in a holy life; but the call as such is not a call to works. Perform good works of charity that your sins may be blotted out? That is a Roman Catholic interpretation, but not a Reformed, which is to say, a biblically faithful, interpretation. Repent! “Repent” is not a call to bring to God your good works as an offering of praise and gratitude, but the call to turn away from your sins. Turn to God in sorrow, acknowledging you are unclean and disobedient!

Speaking of Rome, if there is a well-established historical example of a detrimental confusing of repentance and good works, it is found in what Chapter 14 of the Second Helvetic Confession calls “the pope’s lucrative doctrine of penance.” Relying upon Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and its disastrous mistranslation of the Greek metanoeite (“repent”) in Matthew 3:2 as poenitentiam agite (“do penance”), Rome turned repentance into works. Most egregiously, Rome turned repentance into a whole elaborate system of meritorious works. Rome taught that the poor sinner finds remission by confessing all his sins to a priest and then going home to perform the assigned acts of penance, which could include such things as saying a whole slew of “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers,” pouring money into the church coffers, living the single life, attending mass, various monastic exercises, and maybe even some self-flagellation. What about repentance—true, genuine repentance in a sorrowful turning from sin unto God?

Certainly, we also run into problems, serious and fatal doctrinal problems, if we operate with the understanding that faith is a work, and then that understanding runs through our theology. If faith is a work, then “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” does not have to mean “trust in Jesus and His work and thou shalt be saved,” but it could mean something very different: “obey the Ten Commandments and thou shalt be saved.” Or justification by faith becomes justification by working.

As we read theology and do our theology, think through concepts and relations, and formulate argumentation, let’s follow the Scriptures as synod advised, and keep repentance and good works distinct.


1 PRC Acts of Synod and Yearbook 2021, p. 124.
2 The Mysteries of the Kingdom (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free
Publishing Association, 2004), 215. It is interesting that even
here Hanko implies a distinction between good works and “the
one most important good work,” which is repentance.
3 Standard Bearer (Oct. 15, 2021), p. 35. Here also, repentance is
not just another work among many, but there is the sense of some
kind of distinction because repentance is “one of the best works.”
4 “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John” in Luther’s Works, American
Edition, vol. 23 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing
House, 1959), 23. These sermons were delivered between the
years 1530-1532.
5 “Lectures on Galatians” in Luther’s Works, American Edition,
vol. 26 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1963),
273. These lectures were delivered in the year 1535.
6 Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark,
and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
Books, 2003), Vol. 1, 189-190.
7 Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2, trans. Henry
Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 383.
8 See The Second Helvetic Confession for another example, chapters
14 and 16.