Repentance and remission: The issue
Having thoroughly explained repentance and God’s sovereign grace in bringing us to repentance, we come to the heart of the issue in the disputed matter that came to the PRC synods. Is there a God-worked activity of the believer that precedes a certain, specific manifestation of God’s mercy? In this case, the God-worked activity of the believer is repentance. The certain, specific manifestation of God’s mercy is remission. Is it permissible to teach that repentance precedes remission? Or, would that necessarily be false doctrine, some kind of conditional theology?
The issue is order, mere order.
The protests that came to Synods 2020 and 2021 made very plain that the issue is order, and the synods addressed that issue. Synod 2020 said about the relation between repentance and remission, “The fact that an activity of the believer may occur temporally prior to the experience of a blessing from God does not automatically make such an activity a condition or prerequisite for earning, gaining, or meriting the blessing from God.” The protest to Synod 2021 called this teaching “the lie.”1 In response to this protest, Synod 2021 stated and demonstrated, “The fundamental error that underlies the protest is that denies that any God-worked activity of the believer can be prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God.”2 The issue is order, and the specifics are repentance and remission.
Remission: The idea
Let’s be clear on what we mean by remission, synonyms of which are forgiveness and pardon. When we ask God for the remission of our sins, we are not asking God to do what He did in mercy for us at the cross. What God did in the person of His crucified Son was something that was done once (Heb. 7-10). At the cross our Savior shed His blood as the atonement for all our sins, satisfying the justice of God and obtaining remission of sins for us. His blood “is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
Therefore, when we ask for remission (forgiveness) as Jesus taught us to do in the model prayer (Matt. 6:12) and as He illustrated for us in the plea of the publican (Luke 18:13), we are asking God to apply to us what Christ obtained for us. We are asking God to apply to us right now, personally and subjectively, the benefits of the objective act and display of His mercy at Calvary by declaring to us, “I forgive your sins, releasing you from the obligation to pay.” We are asking God to take the blood that was shed by Jesus and to apply it to our hearts, so that we who are conscious of our sins and very troubled by them may be forgiven by hearing His blessed word of forgiveness to us. On account of our sins and sinfulness we feel guilty, ashamed, polluted, and miserable as our conscience testifies against us. Upon genuine repentance in which we believers, by the sovereign grace of God, turn from our sins unto God, crying, “God be merciful to me the sinner,” God pardons us. Over and over again we are awakened to our sin and misery, and we cry for pardon. Over and over again, God declares to us by the Spirit of Christ and through the word of the gospel preached and read, “I forgive you.” By that pardon God quiets the storm within us and gives us peace.
This remission of God, like His redeeming of us at the cross, and like His turning of us to Himself in true repentance, is His mercy to us, and as I have explained in earlier articles, we receive this mercy of God in the forgiveness of sins by the one and only instrument of faith.
Repentance and remission: In Scripture
Scripture teaches repentance precedes remission as the way unto it. Scripture teaches that to the penitent believer who turns away from his sin in sorrow and unto God in the seeking of remission God is merciful and grants remission. Ponder that…the pure lovingkindness of it. What if the penitent sinner came to God with the plea, “My sins are more than I can count, my heart has failed for grief, be pleased O Lord to rescue me, O haste to my relief,” and God rebuffed him? What if you were trembling and pleading, “O God, be merciful to me! I am so sorry I have done this evil in thy sight! Forgive me!” and He rebuffed you? We might do that to each other, but God never does. O blessed God and gospel! How could He deny the request of the pleading sinner when He is the loving God who turned that sinner to Himself!
Scripture plainly teaches that repentance is unto remission, so that as the Westminster Confession so aptly states about repentance, “It is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (WCF, 15.3). If any man walks in disobedience and refuses to repent, saying, “I enjoy the forgiveness of my sins whether I repent or not, because Jesus died for me and covered all my sins,” that man is a liar. In love, you should take the words of Isaiah to him and pray God uses those words: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:7). Or, as Jesus Himself put it: “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 17:3). Say this: “Repent! You are on the road to perdition and so long as you continue in that rebellion you may have no confidence that Jesus died for you, and you may not say ‘I am forgiven.’” If someone objects to your admonition and contends that you are teaching conditional forgiveness, denying the cross, emphasizing man, putting man before God, teaching that God depends upon man, etc., then they are either confused theologically or deliberately corrupting the truth with wicked theology, and they bear responsibility for making comfortable a soul on the road to everlasting hell.
Take note of only a handful or so of the many Scripture passages teaching that repentance is the way unto God’s merciful pardon.
Hezekiah commissioned a letter to be sent out to all Israel and Judah, teaching them that when they return to God in repentance He will be gracious and merciful to them: “Ye children of Israel, turn again unto the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and He will return to the remnant of you…. For if ye turn again unto the Lord, your brethren and your children shall find compassion before them that lead them captive, so that they shall come again into this land: for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if ye return unto him” (II Chron. 30:6, 9).
David experienced that when he confessed his sin in repentance God forgave him: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). But so long as David refused to repent, he did not know forgiveness and peace but only misery: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long, For day and night thy hand was heavy on me, my moisture is turned into the drought of summer” (Ps. 32:3-4).
With a view to divine forgiveness, the apostles always called sinners 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” (Acts 3:19); or, “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 8:22).
The apostle John taught: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9).
The apostle Paul taught, “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (II Cor. 7:10; “to” is literally “unto” or “with a view to” or “leads to”). Make “salvation” what you will, it is certainly God’s mercy, and the apostle makes repentance something that leads to God’s mercy. Similarly, Peter reported, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
Synod 2020 appealed to some of these passages, and then one of the important grounds for Synod 2021 rejecting the protest against Synod 2020 was given: “In contending that Synod 2020 taught “the lie” ____ failed to interact with synod’s scriptural grounds, which are proof of synod’s teaching.”3
Repentance and remission: Historically
Throughout our history as churches, we have taught that repentance precedes forgiveness, or more generally, that a God-worked activity of the believer can precede a certain, specific manifestation of God’s mercy. What follows are only a few examples, and, so far as I know, these men have never been charged with teaching “the lie,” at least not publicly.
Herman Hoeksema plainly taught his seminary students that a God-worked activity of the believer (confession) precedes a manifestation of God’s mercy (forgiveness): “If we confess, then the result is that God forgives our sins.”4
Prof. Herman Hanko:
In the second place, repentance is important because it is the way to the conscious experience of salvation. It is not God’s purpose to save His people in such a way that they are unaware of their own salvation. God saves them so that they know their salvation. But the way to the consciousness of salvation is always the way of confession of sin…for this is the path that leads to peace with God and rest for our weary souls. When we sin, we seek forgiveness in Christ; repenting, we find peace for our hearts in the blood of the cross.5
Prof. David Engelsma:
Also, His salvation is in the way of Israel’s repentance. Only when Israel repents and confesses does God deliver. Repentance on Israel’s part is no meritorious work. On the contrary, repentance is God’s own gift to Israel through the chastisement that He sends and that He makes effective in her heart by the Spirit. Nevertheless, repentance is the way in which Israel receives deliverance (emphasis Engelsma).6
And John Calvin, long before these PRC ministers:
(Commenting on Ezekiel 18:23) But the manner must be noticed in which God wishes all men to be saved, namely, when they turn themselves from their ways. God thus does not so wish all men to be saved as to renounce the difference between good and evil, but repentance, as we have said, must precede pardon…. We hold, then that God wills not the death of a sinner, since he calls all equally to repentance, and promises himself prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent.7
(Commenting on Matt. 3:2) Repentance is not placed first, as some ignorantly suppose, as if it were the ground of the forgiveness of sins, or as if it induced God to begin to be gracious to us; but men are commanded to repent, that they may receive the reconciliation which is offered to them…. And indeed without hatred of sin and remorse for transgressions, no man will taste the grace of God.8
Over and over again in his commentaries Calvin teaches that repentance precedes forgiveness so that in his Institutes, he actually devotes a section to the question of what it means that repentance is prior to forgiveness. 9
Repentance and remission: Expressing the relation
We express the relation between repentance and God’s mercy in remitting our sins by saying that we receive and enjoy God’s merciful pardon in the way of repentance. Classis East (January 2020) replied to an appeal by stating—and this was later adopted by Synod 2020 and defended by Synod 2021—“Rev. _____ did not militate against Synod 2018 when he preached ‘in the way of repentance we have mercy with God.’”10 Classis went on to explain, “Rev. ____ in the sermon explicitly distinguishes between what Christ has done as the basis for mercy, faith as the instrument for obtaining mercy, and repentance as the way in which mercy is received.”11
The PRC has always taught “remission in the way of repentance.” Herman Hoeksema led the way: “Only in the way of repentance and confession can we obtain forgiveness from God.”12 Hoeksema and the PRC are only walking in the old paths of the Reformed churches, which have always taught remission and reconciliation “in the way of repentance.” Article 78 of the Church Order of Dordt states, “Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance….” The Canons of Dordt V, Article 5 likewise teach that those guilty of enormous sins “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until on their returning into the right way of serious repentance.”
Next time I will explain this language of “in the way of repentance,” and then with one more article after that, I will give a summary, concluding comments, and significance.
1 PRC Acts of Synod and Yearbook 2021, p. 120. 2 PRC Acts 2021, p. 119. 3 PRC Acts 2021, p. 119. 4 Chapel Talks on I John (Grandville, MI: Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, n.d.), 27. 5 The Mysteries of the Kingdom (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 216. 6 Unfolding Covenant History, vol. 5 (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 9-10. 7 Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Thomas Myers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 247. 8 Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 179. 9 See, PRC Acts 2021, pp. 122-23 where synod cited Calvin’s Institutes (3.3.20). 10 PRC Acts 2021, pp. 86-7. 11 PRC Acts 2021, p. 87. 12 Triple Knowledge, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1972), 604.