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:
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.
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.”