Let’s go up to 35,000 feet to see the lay of the land. There are really two issues in the dispute over repentance. One: what is repentance? Two: how does it relate to remission? Is it permissible to teach that repentance precedes remission or does that put man before God, so that the pardoning God must wait upon the penitent sinner? The second issue is the main issue of dispute. Protests to synod said: repentance cannot be prior to remission, because repentance is a good work and good works always come after blessings of salvation. Synod rejected the protests because they deny the order God has established in His Word: repentance is unto remission.
In article #1 in this series I introduced the doctrinal issue faced by our synods. In article #2 I distinguished repentance and good works of obedience, because synod judged these two were confused by the protestant. In article #3 I took the time to provide a carefully worded, bare-bones definition of repentance and demonstrated my reliance upon Scripture, the confessions, and the Reformed tradition. In article #4 I took that skeletal definition, “repentance is the believer’s sorrowful turn from sin unto God in the seeking of remission,” and put some meat on it with the language of Scripture. At this point then, we have a very thorough explanation of repentance. Before I come to remission of sin and take up the main issue in relating repentance to remission, I want to establish the gospel truth that repentance is not of man but entirely of God’s sovereign grace.
All of grace
The sinner repents. God does not repent for the sinner. Should there ever be a theology that teaches that repentance is the act of God, in the sense that the sinner, because he is by nature totally depraved, does not repent but that God actually performs the activity of repentance for him, then that theology is not only contrary to Scripture and the confessions but an absurdity. God does not turn from sin in sorrow over it and turn to another seeking remission, nor does He do that somehow in our place. We repent, and thus we properly speak, and without nervousness, of “our repentance,” by which we do not mean that we are the source, but the subject of the action. That we repent is the official teaching of the Reformed faith in Canons III/IV, Art. 12: “Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”
Our activity of repentance, however, is to be explained by God’s sovereign grace. Apart from divine grace not one person over the length and breadth of the earth would ever repent. There is absolutely no native desire or ability in man to repent. If repentance were a condition for pardon so that the pardoning God had to wait upon us and our repentance, He would forever be waiting and never pardoning. Should there ever be a theology that teaches that repentance is the act of man apart from or even in cooperation with divine grace, and an act upon which God depends, then that theology is not only contrary to Scripture and the confessions but nonsense according to the believer’s own experience. That repentance is all of grace is also the official teaching of the Reformed faith in Canons III/IV, Art. 12, when it teaches that we repent “by virtue of that grace received,” and in Canons V, Art. 7, when it teaches that God, “by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance.”
Who does not know from personal experience that repentance is all of grace? Have you ever tried to get through to a stubborn sinner, even a defiant toddler? More importantly, we all know about ourselves personally that we will never repent apart from the wonder of God’s grace. Having sinned, we will defend ourselves, stringing together one lie after another if necessary; we will play the victim and try to manipulate the impressionable to our side; we will point the finger at everyone else and blast away at all their impiety and self-righteousness; we will feign sorrow after getting caught and weep the big tears of a hypocrite in order to relieve the pressure being applied; we will find and distort some verse in the Bible upon which to rest our case of self-justification and then piously thump away; we will stand before God, angels, and all men everywhere and insist upon our innocence, but we will not repent. We are so wicked by nature that we not only sin, but we deny our sin and act incredulous or indignant when someone dares to suggest we did, in fact, sin.
Of ourselves we will never admit wrong. We will never say, “I did it. I sinned.” Like our father we say, “She gave me of the tree,” and like our mother we say, “The serpent beguiled me.” With a massive timber log in our own eye, we deceive ourselves and say, “Look at the speck in his eye, let’s pull it out!” “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). The problem is within us. We need a change of mind and heart. We need repentance. And only God can renew us to repentance.
We repent, but repentance is not of man. Repentance is of God, and through God, and to God, so that when a sinner repents he will never take credit for it but give glory to and adore the God of his salvation. From beginning to end Scripture teaches the sovereign grace of God in repentance.
Repentance is rooted in and flows out of God’s eternal decree of election. Scripture teaches election as the deepest source of repentance when it describes us as sheep. The foremost theological truth being taught by Scripture in its identification of us as sheep is not that we are weak, foolish, defenseless, and vulnerable, but that we are elect. All throughout John 10, the elect are identified as the sheep whom God gave to Jesus. Most notably, we read of Jesus telling the Jews that they do not believe in Him, “because ye are not of my sheep” (v. 26). The designation “sheep” underscores eternal election. The Jews did not believe because they did not belong to the company of the elect given to Jesus from all eternity and appointed to salvation.
When Scripture teaches, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way” (Is. 53:6, see also I Pet. 2:25), what guarantees our repentance and restoration is that we are sheep. From eternity we have been chosen unto salvation, including repentance. We were not elected because of foreseen repentance, but we were eternally and graciously elected unto repentance so that “God who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election… certainly and effectually renews them to repentance” (Canons V, Arts. 6, 7). Even if only one sheep should go wandering, Christ will go out to seek, find, and restore that sheep by bringing him to repentance (Luke 15:3-7) because that sheep is His to save and preserve according to eternal election.
To say that the decree of election is the deepest source of repentance is to ascribe repentance to the love of our covenant God. God loves us with an eternal and unchanging love that draws us to Himself (Jer. 31:3). God’s love is always first and sovereign. God promises His love and mercy to those who repent and He certainly gives the taste of it to those who repent, but He is the One who by His covenantal love and mercy brings the sinner to repentance. Even when we do not love our Friend-Sovereign, but disdain Him and His good commandments, going our own stubborn way, not conscious of His love for us, still He loves us. In His abiding love, our Father renews us to repentance so that we sing, “Though we oft have sinned against Him, still His love and grace abide” (Psalter 280, stanza 3).
The truth that repentance is all of sovereign grace includes the truth that repentance is one benefit of our salvation procured for us by the Good Shepherd when He laid down His life for us sheep on the cross. The Scripture traces repentance and the preaching of it back to its source in the cross. To the disciples Jesus expounded the Scriptures concerning Himself, “And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” (Luke 24:46-47). Repentance is preached in His name, because He is the One who suffered, died, and rose again to obtain repentance for His sheep. The call to repentance is grounded in Christ’s work of redemption at the cross so that God says: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee” (Is. 44:22).
The Spirit’s work
The truth that repentance is all of sovereign grace is taught most commonly in Scripture when it teaches that repentance is God’s gift to us, a gift He works in us by His Holy Spirit so that we turn. The God who freely gives us remission of all of our sins, is also the God who freely grants us repentance unto remission.
Why do the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourn over their sins? Because God pours out His Spirit of grace upon them: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn” (Zech. 12:10). Why do the Gentiles repent? Because God gave them repentance: “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18, see also Acts 5:31). If a rebellious man of the congregation is brought to repentance, how is that to be explained? God gave him repentance: “In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (II Tim. 2:25).
If I turn from my sin, what explains that turning? God turned me, as He did Ephraim: “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth” (Jer. 31:18-19). In repentance I turn, I truly turn with my heart, mind, soul, and strength. But I turn because God turned me. He worked in me so sweetly by His Spirit, changing my heart and bending my will, so that I consciously turn from my sin unto Him in true sorrow.
Furthermore, the repentance of Ephraim teaches us that God is often pleased to bring His wayward children to repentance through the means of chastening so that we say with Ephraim “Thou hast chastised me.” If we ever lose our spiritual senses like the prodigal son and are ruled by the lusts of the flesh, then God may bring us into miserable straits and lay His heavy hand of love upon us so that we groan in agony. In that way of chastening, God the Spirit brings us to our spiritual senses so that we see the emptiness of sin and the hopelessness of life without God.
To put it another way, repentance is simply the fruit of God remembering His covenant. When we stray, then Jehovah says, “Nevertheless, I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. Then thou shalt remember thy ways and be ashamed…” (Ez. 16:60-61). When God remembers His covenant, He remembers His unbreakable promise and keeps it by breathing His Spirit into our hearts so that our faith is rekindled and we turn in repentance. The very repentance and faith He demands in the gospel is the repentance and faith He gives in remembrance of His covenant.
The church’s preaching
Finally, Scripture teaches the truth of God’s sovereign grace in repentance by teaching God’s use of the chief means of grace, the preaching of the gospel, to turn us. Of John the Baptist, Luke 1:16 teaches, “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.” No one knows better than John himself that he did not and cannot turn one heart to the Lord. The preacher cannot even turn his own heart. Nevertheless, what belongs exclusively to the sovereign grace of God wrought through the Spirit’s effectual operations is ascribed to the preacher only to demonstrate that God uses the ministry of the Word by the church to work repentance. The Word, not resurrections from the dead or other miraculous demonstrations of divine power, but the Word is how God is pleased to bring His own to repentance. Luke 16:30-31, “And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
When the Good Shepherd goes out to seek, find, and restore us, His foolish, wandering sheep, He uses His voice (Luke 15, John 10). When through lawfully called and ordained heralds the church sends forth the gospel with its call “Return!” that gospel goes forth as the effectual voice of the Shepherd. With His Word the Good Shepherd pursues us. He breaks down our hard hearts as with a hammer (Jer. 23:29) and pierces them through as with a sword (Heb. 4:12). God be praised for our repentance!