A summary 

With this article I conclude my treatment of the doctrine  of repentance. I have used the Scriptures to explain and  elaborate upon the decisions of our recent synods. The  synods responded to protests expressing opposition to  the doctrinal teaching that “we repent and in the way of  repentance experience the mercy of God.” What follows  are a handful of positively stated biblical propositions  for a simple summary of the whole series of articles:

  • Repentance is a sorrowful turn from sin unto God  in seeking forgiveness.
  • Repentance is commanded by God; you must repent.
  • Repentance is the God-ordained way to forgiveness;  therefore, we enjoy God’s merciful forgiveness on  the basis of Christ’s atoning work, through the instrument  of faith, and in the way of repentance.
  • Repentance is a gift of God, earned by Christ, and  sovereignly and graciously worked by the Spirit, so that  what God commands of all He graciously gives to His  elect at His appointed time.
  • Repentance always manifests itself in the unmistakable  fruits of an amended life.

The issue in the protests 

The issue in the protests to synod was a matter of order  regarding God’s way of repentance. The protests rejected  the order taught in Scripture and the confessions, the  order of Proverbs 28:13 as it was taught by a minister  in a sermon on that text, the order defended by the  consistory, classis, and consecutive synods. The  protests made order the issue and in so doing rejected  the teaching that repentance precedes forgiveness as the  way unto it, that is, the teaching that “we repent, and  in the way of repentance experience the mercy of God.”  The protests contended that repentance cannot precede  God’s merciful pardon, but must follow as fruit. Even  though Proverbs 28:13 says, “He that covereth his sins  shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh  them shall have mercy,” the protests argued that the  preacher may not explain such a text to mean that the  penitent believer’s God-worked activity of confession  precedes God’s merciful pardon. If repentance is “A”  and forgiveness is “B,” then according to the protests,  A cannot come before B, otherwise the preacher has  taught “the lie” that presumably makes God in His  pardoning mercy dependent upon the believer in his  repenting. Moreover, the assemblies pointed out that,  more broadly, the protests denied that any God-worked  activity of the believer can precede a blessing of God.

As I have demonstrated from Scripture and the confessions,  God has ordained repentance as the way unto  pardon. By His sovereign grace God brings us to genuine  repentance and in that way of repentance we experience  the mercy of God as He pardons our sins. This  is God’s way, God’s order, and how God is pleased to  work. This was David’s own experience as expressed in  Psalm 32.

The underlying issue 

What underlies the protests is a misguided zeal for  the sovereign grace of God in salvation, resulting in a  rationalistic approach to Scripture. Rationalism is the  belief that the true knowledge of God is derived from  the mind of man and his natural reasoning rather  than the Word of God. When rationalism encounters  Scripture, it takes conceptions of the human mind and  imposes them upon the Word of God. A rationalistic  approach to the question of the order of repentance and  forgiveness goes like this: “In my mind I do not believe  that repentance can precede God’s mercy in forgiveness;  otherwise repentance becomes a condition for salvation  and makes God’s activity of forgiving dependent upon  the believer’s activity of repenting, which then elevates  man above God and allows man to take some credit  for his salvation.” Rationalism then imposes that  conception of the human mind upon the Word of God.  Consequently, the plain teaching of Scripture is denied,  people of all ages are left confused, and the preaching of  the Word is protested as false. Rationalism will not let  God be God and teach us His way of repentance.

Zeal for God’s glory is necessary and commendable, but it must always be “according to knowledge” (Rom.  10:2). When our zeal is not according to the truth of  God’s infallible Word, then it is misguided and we in effect  attempt to out-zeal or out-orthodox God Himself,  thereby negating His Word. The irony of a rationalistic  approach to God’s way of repentance, or any other  aspect of the doctrine of salvation, is that one ends up  committing the very error he set out to oppose. Rationalism  puts man before and above God by elevating  man’s mind above God’s Word. God has ordained repentance  as the way unto forgiveness and He has made  that very clear in His infallible Word. To that we must  humbly submit and that we must faithfully teach.

The work of the synods 

First of all, regarding the doctrine of “in the way of  repentance,” Synods 2020 and 2021 set forth no  new teaching. As is always the case in the context of  error, there is a sharpening of our understanding, and  an opportunity to explain and clarify our historic  teachings. But the synods did not establish any new  doctrinal teaching, emphasis, or perspective. There  was something new at these synods; it was the teaching  contained in the protests. The synods simply reasserted  the old paths of the truth that we have known,  confessed, and experienced from our youth, and in so  doing defended the Word of God and the preaching of  it.

The second thing to note about the work of the synods  is that in recent years God has tested the churches  with error coming from two directions. God has also  been gracious in granting to the broadest assemblies of  the denomination sound judgment to handle these protests  correctly for the defense and promotion of God’s  way.

In the years leading up to and climaxing in Synod  2018, the unconditional covenant was being threatened  by teaching that gave to our good works of obedience  a place and function they do not have in the covenant.  An error appeared that made our keeping of the law  in good works of obedience part of the way unto the  fellowship of the Father. The synod declared that our  good works of obedience to the law are not the way of  access unto God, for that way is exclusively Christ and  His perfect works. Rather, our good works of obedience  are the way of grateful conduct in the covenant,  so that enjoying covenant fellowship with God by faith  in Christ we bring forth fruits of thanksgiving. Synod  defended and promoted God’s way.

In the years following Synod 2018, God has also graciously  given subsequent synods the sound judgment to  defend and promote God’s way in another sense, and  not to react to the earlier errors in fear by overcorrecting  and thus negating the teaching of God’s Word. As  I have explained in the eight articles of this series, the  second error denied repentance as God’s way to pardon.  Again God was gracious to give to the synods knowledge  and conviction to stand with His Word.

While synodical decisions on protests may not win  universal thanksgiving, as the work of a synod seldom  does, the objective pursued by the ecclesiastical bodies  was accomplished by the grace of God: do the work of  the Lord faithfully by rendering righteous judgments in  accordance with God’s Word and the explanation of that  Word in the Reformed confessions. In that way God is  honored and His blessing is enjoyed in the churches.

Practical significance 

Would not the theology of repentance and forgiveness  contained in the protests to synod radically alter our  practice if synod were to adopt that theology and we  were to believe, confess, and apply it? If the theology of  repentance and forgiveness is that repentance may not  precede forgiveness but must always follow forgiveness,  then consider how different our approach to sin would  be. Think only of the consistory room where the elders  are working with an impenitent sinner who persists in  gross misconduct and rebellion.

There are two approaches. First, the elders can apply  to the impenitent sinner the truth of God revealed  in Scripture, the confessions and the Church Order,  namely, “forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in  the way of repentance.” Or, second, the consistory can  apply to the impenitent sinner an alternative approach  “forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, then repentance  as the fruit.”

If the consistory applies the first approach, they will  labor for repentance. The prayer of the elders is that they  may be able to receive the sinner’s genuine repentance,  and reconcile and restore him to the fellowship of the  church. The elders even assure the man they are ready  to forgive and are earnestly desirous of his restoration.  With that goal in view, they exercise Christian discipline  and labor for repentance. Following the teaching of the  Church Order, they pursue reconciliation “in the way  of repentance” (Art. 78) and will restore the sinner only  “upon sufficient evidence of repentance” (Art. 75). The  elders will meet with the man, instruct him, admonish  him, apply Scripture to him, pray with him, and look him  squarely in the eyes saying, “You must repent.” If there  is no repentance, then at the appointed time in the course  of ecclesiastical discipline, they will inform the congregation  of the man’s name so that the congregation can  confront the man and say, “Your sin is a great offense to God and us, repent!” In their private meetings the elders  will pray to God, and admonish the congregation to pray,  peradventure God will give the man repentance to the  acknowledging of the truth (II Tim. 2:25).

If the consistory takes the alternative approach of  “forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, then repentance  as the fruit,” they will forgive, reconcile and  restore the man whether he repents or not. They will  not only assure him that they are ready to receive him  should he repent, but they will actually say to him apart  from any evidence of repentance, “We forgive you.”  Even though Jesus teaches, “If thy brother trespass  against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him,”  (Luke 17:3), they forgive and restore him. Even though  the Church Order teaches reconciliation in the way of  repentance, they forgive and restore him. Even though  this particular fellow has proven himself to be a manipulative  deceiver who is eager to play games with the  consistory, they forgive and restore him. Even though  this lawless rebel is a grave threat to the wellbeing of  the entire congregation, the consistory informs the congregation  that they have forgiven him and that the congregation  must do likewise, restoring the man into full  fellowship. Even though the elders are called to watch  for the souls of men, they do the most destructive thing  they could possibly do to an as yet rotten, incorrigible  sinner and they forgive him with a meaningless forgiveness,  and implicitly assure him by their forgiveness and  reconciliation that his sin is not offensive and creates  no breach. The consistory declares, “We forgive you  all your terrible sins and restore you,” so that the man  experiences full fellowship in the body of the congregation.  The hope of the consistory is that their graciousness  in reconciliation and restoration will make the man  grateful so that he repents.

If that backwards theology of man takes root in the  church, it will work itself through and lawlessness will  reign. From the pulpit, the minister can issue calls to  repentance day and night, but they are empty. The erroneous  theology empties them. Lawlessness will reign.

The Church Order knows of one approach for the  consistory: Reconciliation in the way of repentance.  The theology behind this approach is the theology of  Scripture defended by the synods.

Take it to heart 

The doctrine of repentance is now on paper. But what  does it matter, reader, if you do not repent and if I do  not repent?

There is a way for reconciliation among God’s children  and peace in God’s church. It is God’s way of repentance.

May God take what is on paper and put it in our  hearts, causing us to prosper “in the way of repentance.”