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.

In summary

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.