Remission in the way of repentance
As I promised last time, I will now explain what we mean when we relate repentance and remission with the phrase “in the way of.” As the title to the series indicates, this gets to the heart of the issue.
First, when we say that we receive the remission (forgiveness, pardon) of our sins in the way of repentance we are not teaching that repentance is a work of man that merits or earns forgiveness with God, or that repentance is the condition for, basis of, ground of, or procuring cause of pardon. In fact, the language “in the way of” has been deliberately used in order to deny these erroneous conceptions.
Repentance could never be something in which we rest as satisfaction for our sin, the cause of our pardon, or the foundation of our comfort, because our best repentance is still a poor and imperfect act that of itself is sufficient to sink us into hell. Is your sorrow deep enough to propitiate God’s wrath? Is your act of confession sufficient to pay for and cover in God’s sight all your sins? Are you ready to ask God to forgive you on the basis of your repentance? Such ideas are inimical to true repentance, because in true repentance there is absolutely no self-confidence but only self-condemnation: “Woe is me, for I am undone!”
Remission is always free and never earned by us in the repentance that precedes it. Only the death of Jesus can earn forgiveness with God. God does not forgive us because of our repentance, but because of Christ who came to take away our sin (John 1:29), was wounded for our transgressions (Is. 53:5), and in whose blood there is remission (Heb. 9:22, 26). Thus, from childhood’s earliest days we were taught to conclude our prayers, especially our penitent petitions for pardon, with the words “for Jesus’ sake.”
Second, when we say that we receive the remission of sins in the way of repentance, we are not teaching that repentance is the instrument for receiving God’s merciful pardon. Repentance has no receiving capacity. Faith is the sole instrument by which we receive. The call of the gospel is always “repent and believe,” because it is by means of believing that we receive God’s mercy in the declaration of our pardon. Thus Peter preached, “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). We enjoy God’s mercy in the way of repentance and by means of (that is, through the instrument of) faith.
Third, when we say that we receive the remission of sins in the way of repentance, we simply mean that repentance is the necessary way in which, or the necessary path along which God, in His sovereign covenant love, is pleased to conduct us unto the personal experience of His merciful pardon. God eternally and wisely ordained our whole salvation from beginning to end. He ordained forgiveness for us; and He ordained repentance as the way unto that forgiveness. It is not God’s will to take us from our sin and the ‘pleasure’ of it directly into forgiveness and its joy. Rather, He conducts us to forgiveness along the way of repentance. Why this way? Because it is only when we are, by the power of the Spirit, in that way of genuine, breast-smiting, self-abhorring repentance that we truly experience how dreadfully serious and hideous our sin is, how bitter its consequences are, how hopeless life without Christ is, how awful separation from God is, and how great is our need for mercy. If you do not know this way of repentance, you are to be pitied.
Fellowship in the way of obedience
The concept “in the way of repentance” must be related to and distinguished from “in the way of obedience.” As was evident in protests to synod, confusion arises when it is wrongly assumed that repentance and obedience are one and the same, and that, therefore, the phrases “in the way of repentance” and “in the way of obedience” communicate the exact same meaning and can be used interchangeably.
Synod 2018 reaffirmed the proper relation between two things that God has joined together: 1) covenant fellowship with God, and 2) our obedience to the law in a life of good works. Synod drew the antithetical line between the truth and the lie by demonstrating that there are wrong ways to relate covenant fellowship and obedience. Positively, synod taught, “we experience covenant fellowship with God in the way of obedience.”
With this language we mean that there is a spiritual way or path called “grateful obedience to God’s law,” and we enjoy walking in covenant fellowship with God and having assurance of our salvation as we are walking in that way of obedience, and not as we are walking in rebellion against God. As we pass through time, two things occur simultaneously in our life. We who are by faith united to Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, are 1) walking in communion with God and, because faith is always fruitful, we are 2) walking in obedience to Him. That path on which we walk with God could be called “the way of life.”
When we say that “we receive remission in the way of repentance” we are also expressing a relation between two things God has joined together: 1) remission and 2) repentance. However, we do not merely mean that remission and repentance occur simultaneously (like fellowship and obedience), but we also mean that repentance precedes remission as the way unto it. We have always explicitly taught this. For example, in commenting on John Calvin’s teaching that repentance is prior to forgiveness, Prof. D. Engelsma explains how repentance, without being a condition for pardon, is “necessary for forgiveness” and “the way to pardon.”1
The teaching that “remission in the way of repentance” includes the idea of repentance preceding remission as “the way unto it” has been a major point of confusion in protests to synod since Synod 2018. Consider what happened most recently at Synod 2021. Synod 2020 judged that the teaching of Scripture and the confessions is that, “we repent and in the way of repentance experience the mercy of God.” A protest to Synod 2021 contended that this teaching is “diametrically opposed to” and “contradicts the decisions of Synods 2018 and 2019.”2 Synod 2021 rejected that claim and responded, “the statement of Synod 2020 is exactly in harmony with Synod 2018, which taught, ‘Obedience never gains us or obtains anything in the covenant of God. 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.’”3 This statement from Synod 2018 very clearly teaches that while our good works of obedience are not the way back to the restoration of fellowship, repentance is. There has not been any contradiction in the decisions of our recent synods on the teaching of repentance. Our synods have consistently taught and defended on the basis of Scripture and the confessions that repentance is the necessary way to pardon and restoration. In other words, repentance precedes remission.
The Canons of Dordt
The Canons can help us here, especially with regard to our experience. Logically, in order of nature, repentance precedes forgiveness, even as sin, logically, in order of nature, precedes repentance. First sin, then repentance. First repentance, then forgiveness. However, experientially, in order of time, we might not always experience repentance as preceding forgiveness, but might find repentance and forgiveness running side by side.
Here the distinction of the Canons between “sins of infirmity” (V, Art. 2) and “great and heinous” (V, Art. 4) or “enormous sins” (V, Art. 5) is helpful. Although all sin is in principle “heinous,” there are “sins of infirmity.” These sins are not planned and intentionally committed, but they suddenly arise in us because we regenerated believers are still so spiritually weak with a desperately wicked flesh cleaving to us. At any given moment there can suddenly arise within us a flash of anger, impatience, jealousy, pride, bitterness, or lust, even while we are praying or worshiping. This is our infirmity!
Therefore, in a normal, spiritually healthy Christian life when we are walking in the way of life, walking with God in fellowship on the path of obedience, our obedience is far from perfect. Due to our constant sinning, we are constantly repenting and constantly flying to Christ for refuge. Thus, the way of life, or the way of obedience, is always at the same time, the way of repentance. In that case it may be difficult to make a temporal distinction between our repentance and God’s merciful pardon, because repentance and remission run through our life simultaneously. Both are essential elements of the whole organic life of a healthy believer who is walking in the ways of the Lord. This ongoing life of constant repentance is captured in the Canons when it teaches that on account of “sins of infirmity” we are furnished “with constant matter for humiliation before God, flying for refuge to Christ crucified” (V, Art. 2).
However, when we are dealing with what the Canons call “great sins,” then we more readily experience that repentance precedes pardon. As an illustration, the Canons present David’s lamentable fall. Adultery and murder are not sins of infirmity that seemingly spring out of nowhere in the man who is happily walking with his God. There is a process that leads to the sin of taking another man’s wife or murdering another woman’s husband. David had set himself upon a very specific path of pride and self-reliance. He had gone off the path of life/obedience and into the ways of darkness. David was not constant in watching and prayer. He was seduced by and complied with the lusts of the flesh. He was thus drawn into great and heinous sins by Satan, the world, and his own flesh. As a result of his sin, he very highly offended God, incurred a deadly guilt, grieved the Holy Spirit, interrupted the exercise of faith, very grievously wounded his conscience, and lost the sense of God’s favor for a time (Canons V, Art. 5). Not only that, he continued in impenitence and had the bitter experience of God’s heavy hand of chastisement upon him (Ps. 32:3-4). David was not walking in communion with God. He was not walking in the way of obedience. He was not walking in the way of ongoing repentance. He had turned aside from the way of life and was walking in the dark way of rebellion, impenitence, and death.
There are times when a believer, though not necessarily guilty of committing the exact same great and heinous sins of David or of walking in continued impenitence, has committed some sin that feels great to him. The guilt is pressing heavy upon his conscience. He is miserable and feels wretched before God. Or he simply feels the enormous weight of all his sins in a very acute way, so that he has no peace of conscience. Or his internal spiritual life grows frigid as he drifts away from God and sets his affections on the things of this world. Such a believer is no longer walking in the way of life, the way of obedience, the way of ongoing repentance. He has slowly drifted off the path into the way of darkness and does not have a strong sense of the nearness and favor of God, and maybe no sense at all.
According to the Canons, such a believer does not experience God’s mercy in remission “until” he repents (V, Art. 7). The God who is merciful and pardons is the God who has ordained that forgiveness and the delightful experience of knowing His favor comes “in the way of repentance.” Only as God turns the sinner in genuine repentance does the sinner find forgiveness and enjoy restoration.
In Psalm 32 David very plainly describes this order as a matter of his personal experience. What believer does not sing Psalter 83 stanza 2 with David?
While I kept guilty silence, My strength was spent with grief, Thy hand was heavy on me, My soul found no relief; But when I owned my trespass, My sin hid not from Thee, When I confessed transgression, Then Thou forgavest me.
The Canons teach that repentance precedes remission and the renewed experience of God’s favor. First, Canons V, Art. 7 states that God “by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God….” Here the Canons teach that the mercy of God in a renewed sense of His favor follows the repentance that He certainly and effectually works.
Secondly, Canons V, Art. 5 teaches that “by such enormous sins” believers “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.” The sinner does not experience God’s sweet favor and nearness as a covenant friend “until” God renews him to repentance so that he repents. What H.C. Hoeksema proposed as a better translation of the original Latin is interesting: “Until, having through earnest repentance returned into the way of life.”4 The Canons speak not of “the way of repentance” but “the way of life.” The “way of life” is the way of obedience and constant repentance, the way in which the believer walks with his God in sweet communion. For the sinner burdened by great sin, there is only one way back unto that path, only one way unto God’s merciful remission, and it is the way of repentance.
On the basis of Scripture and the confessions, the PRC has always taught what was reaffirmed by our recent assemblies: “We repent, and in the way of repentance experience the mercy of God.”
Next time a brief summary, concluding remarks, and significance.
1 The Reformed Faith of John Calvin (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2009),
207-8. For synod’s use of Calvin and Engelsma, see PRC Acts of
Synod and Yearbook 2021, p. 122-23.
2 Acts of Synod 2021, p. 119.
3 Acts of Synod 2021, p. 119.
4 Voice of Our Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, 1980), 661.