The purpose of this editorial and those that follow is to provide theological instruction on the disputed issue of the doctrine of repentance as it was treated by Synods 2020 and 2021 of the PRC. The origin of the dispute was the protest of a minister’s sermon on Proverbs 28:13. Before I lay out the background to the case as it appeared at consecutive synods, a couple of comments are in order by way of introduction.
First, one of the lessons we have learned in recent years is that it is necessary for the church through her teaching ministry to lay out the disputed doctrinal issues on which synod has ruled in order to provide explanation and elaboration for the people of God. As a deliberative assembly, synod has a job to do. But synods do not convene so that ministers and elders can sit down and do theology by studying the Scriptures together with the goal of bringing the church’s knowledge of God to a higher state of development. When synods take up theological matters, it is because some concrete case has been brought before the body for its judgment, for example, an appeal regarding the protest of the doctrinal content of a sermon. Even the monumental and lengthy doctrinal deliverances of the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) are not five canons of doctrinal formulations produced by a body of theologians that decided to sit down and give a comprehensive explanation of Scripture’s teaching on the doctrines of sovereign grace, but are specific responses to the five Articles of the Remonstrants that had been causing agitation in the Dutch churches. In the course of answering an appeal, a synod will study the matter, make a judgment on the basis of Scripture and the confessions, and formulate grounds in support of its decision. Those grounds will necessarily enter into the theological issue and set forth argumentation. Nevertheless, synod is acting more like a judge than a theologian, and thus its decisions are typically succinct, containing the minimal amount of explanation needed to settle the case and no elaboration. Therefore, when synod adjudicates a case brought before it by way of protest/appeal, it is necessary and helpful for the church to respond by providing further explanation and elaboration.
Further instruction is the labor to which the church has called the minister of the gospel as a Reformed theologian. The duty falls particularly to the seminary professor, whose task according to the Church Order is “to expound the Holy Scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (Art. 18). This series of editorials, therefore, is intentionally designed to be scriptural exposition, and it will demonstrate from the Scriptures, as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative rule for faith and life, the faithfulness of the decisions of our broader assemblies.
The benefits of explanation and elaboration are many. The church is edified when the members receive clarity so that they can clearly discern the line between truth and error. Furthermore, the knowledge of the church is sharpened and developed. When there is a matter of dispute and a certain doctrine is being looked at from two different and even opposing points of view, the Spirit leads the way through the problem and usually leads the church into deeper understanding. Finally, the benefit of explanation is a defense of the church and her decisions against any threat of misrepresentation.
A second important point to make by way of introduction is that we all ought to recognize that when we handle the doctrine of repentance, we are touching one of the greatest wonders wrought by God. Repentance is simply astounding. How many events on earth cause eruptions of jubilation in heaven? Marriage is a wonder, even a great mystery as God makes two one (Eph. 5:31-32). Child birth is marvelous and that our soul knows right well, for from the womb emerges a new life fearfully and wonderfully made by God (Ps. 139:14). Our hearts are stirred and our tongues shout for joy, but Scripture does not tell us that the angels in heaven rejoice when a godly couple is joined in holy wedlock or when a new baby is born (Christ’s birth excepted). Repentance is different. Repentance is astounding, as we shall see, and when God brings one sinner to repentance, the Scripture tells us there is great joy in the presence of the angels (Luke 15:7, 10).
Repentance ought to stir you and me also. The wonder of it should keep us from proceeding in a purely academic and formal manner, and ought to warm our hearts and inspire us with worship and joy. But, most importantly, we must be warned against reading about repentance and seeking a deeper understanding of the concept in our minds while knowing nothing of it experientially in our own heart and life. Impenitent sinners who cover their sins shall not prosper.
And that brings us to the text of Scripture that occasioned a dispute.
In November of 2018 a Protestant Reformed minister preached a sermon on Proverbs 28:13, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” In that sermon the minister said,
But, to repeat, not on the basis of his repentance and not with repentance as some instrument, but in the way of his repentance, in the way of our repentance. Beloved, we have mercy, we have mercy of God. It’s not true simply that he that confesses and he that has mercy are the same person, of course that’s true. But that’s not the main or the only point of the passage, to simply say the one who confesses and the one who has mercy is the same person. But the text means to instruct us that it is in the way of confession, in the way of repentance that we have the mercy of God. And, beloved, that’s true with regard to all of our sins. On the one hand, covering the smallest sin, one will not prosper. But on the other hand, confessing the greatest sin, one has mercy. The free unmerited mercy of God in Jesus Christ… (Acts of Synod 2020, pp. 195-96).
An individual protested this sermon and charged that it “militated” against the decisions made earlier that year at Synod 2018 (Acts 2020, p. 190). The protestant wrote, “When you preach that not only the one who does the good work of confession and the one who has mercy are the same person, but that the text is teaching that ‘in the way of’ the good work of confession one receives (i.e., ‘proceed[s] on towards’) mercy, you put the good work of confession before the receipt of mercy by faith” (Acts 2020, p. 198). The protestant added, “…you preach works as coming before blessing. Synod has judged that works are ‘fruits’ and, therefore, cannot come before, but must come after receiving and knowing God’s mercy by faith” (Acts 2020, p. 199).
The protestant was objecting to the teaching that “in the way of repentance we have the mercy of God.” The protestant was also objecting to a clear implication. When the minister said the text was not merely teaching that “he that confesses and he that has mercy are the same person…” the minister was clearly implying that the “confession” of which the text speaks precedes the “mercy” of which the text speaks when it says, “but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). The protestant was contending that this teaching of the minister militated against the doctrinal decisions of Synod 2018. Synod 2018 had judged that in certain statements found in sermons a minister had given to good works a place and function out of harmony with the Reformed confessions, which then “compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2018, p. 70). When later in the year this same minister preached a sermon on Proverbs 28:13, the protestant objected and essentially argued, “The minister is doing it again. He is giving to good works a place and function they do not have, and is once again compromising the gospel.”
The consistory overseeing the minister responded to the protestant and said in so many words, “No, the minister is not preaching error, and is not militating against Synod 2018. You are mistaken.” The protest was not sustained.
The individual, therefore, appealed to Classis. Classis rejected the appeal, defended the minister, and declared that the minister’s teaching that “in the way of repentance we have the mercy of God,” is in harmony with the decisions of Synod 2018, the Confessions (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 32; Canons, V, 5) and Scripture (Ps. 32:3-4; Is. 55:7) (Acts 2020, pp. 77-79). Classis also explained that the minister did not militate against Synod 2018 when he taught the idea “that there is an activity of the believer that is prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God” (Acts 2020, pp. 78-79, emphasis Classis’).
The individual then appealed to Synod 2020, which rejected the appeal and gave as its grounds the grounds from Classis (Acts 2020, pp. 79-82). To Synod 2021 came another individual with a protest against this decision of Synod 2020, contending that the decision of Synod 2020 contradicts the Scripture, the confessions, and Synod 2018/19. The individual asserted that the decision of Synod 2020 is “the lie” (Acts 2021, p. 89), and stated, “The question before Synod 2021, therefore is, ‘Which is the truth?’ Are good works fruits of faith and thus the way in which we live in the covenant as the expression of our thanksgiving for all the blessings of salvation we have and enjoy by faith? (Synod 2018 and 2019). Or are good works activities that occur prior to the experience of particular blessings and thus the way in which particular blessings of salvation are received? (Synod 2020).” The protestant also argued that the confessions do not support the teaching that “there is an activity of the believer that is prior to the experience of particular blessings from God” (Acts 2021, pp. 89-90).
Synod 2021 responded with its decision (see Acts 2021, pp. 119-124). In that decision synod demonstrated how the decisions of Synod 2020 are in perfect harmony with the decisions of Synod 2018/2019; how the protestant failed to interact with synod’s scriptural grounds, which are the proof of synod’s teaching; and how the protestant errs in denying that a God-worked activity of the believer can be prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God.
With its decision and grounds regarding the truth of repentance, the synod, both in 2020 and 2021, was not setting forth some new thing, some heretofore undiscovered truth, some novel interpretation, or some new way ministers ought to preach repentance. When the synod taught that there is a God-worked activity of the believer that precedes a certain blessing from God, the synod was not turning the focus from God to man, or making man first and God second, or teaching ministers to emphasize man and his activity in their preaching. The synod was not flirting with conditional theology and introducing repentance as a new condition the believer must fulfill in order to receive mercy, as if God’s will to bestow mercy hinges upon the believer’s will to repent of his sins. The synod was not introducing some profane species of covenantal bargaining in which the ‘party’ man meets the ‘party’ God and they both agree that, if man does his part and repents, then God will do His part and forgive.
The synod, in 2020 and again in 2021, was simply vindicating against error the long-standing teaching of the PRC that the believing sinner enjoys God’s mercy in the way of repentance. The teaching of the PRC is the teaching of Scripture, the confessions, and the orthodox Reformed tradition. The synod was protecting the Word of God and the preaching of it against the charge that it is the “lie.” If the minister cannot mount the pulpit and explain Proverbs 28:13 by preaching that “in the way of repentance we have the mercy of God,” then the mouth piece of Jehovah is muzzled from proclaiming the Word of God.
Is repentance a good work? I will begin there next time.