REPENTANCE TO LIFE AND SALVATION
1 Some of the elect are converted in later years, having lived for some time in their natural state1 in which they have served various lusts and pleasures. Then God gives them repentance to life by effectually calling them.2
This section of the confession departs noticeably from the Westminster Confession, being revised first by Puritans like John Owen and then followed by the Baptists who wrote the London Confession. It would seem that the reason for the departure was a desire to emphasize the difference between repentance as a crisis event and repentance as a common grace shared by all believers. Those of the elect who are not converted until late in life, like Paul and the Philippian jailer, may experience repentance in a dramatic fashion. This should not lead us to think, however, that such dramatic experiences are essential for true repentance. We need not doubt our salvation experience simply because we lack a crisis experience, an emotional earthquake or a radical change in our lifestyle. It is nevertheless a testimony to the power of God’s grace that he should save those who for so long and so vehemently denied him. That God should save such men even late in life gives us all hope for those who seem untouched by our preaching and prayer for so many years (Waldron, 197).
The repentance that leads to life is, like faith that leads to life, a gift of God that stems from his effectual call. These two gifts are so closely tied to salvation that they have sometimes been confused. When the Jews at Pentecost asked Peter what they could do in light of their terrible sin against Jesus he answered, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he could do to be saved he responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Both faith and repentance are inextricably bound to salvation and thus bound to each other. One cannot be found without the other. And yet they are not the same. Faith is the conviction that what God says about sin and forgiveness in Jesus is true. Repentance is a turning away from the things Scripture tells us are wicked towards God as revealed in Jesus. Faith emphasizes the grace of God in salvation while repentance emphasizes the radical change that God works in a man’s heart at salvation. Both are essential to salvation, but must be distinguished so that confusion does not set in as has happened when some have defined faith as including repentance. Faith is God’s appointed means of receiving his salvation while repentance is the immediate, natural result of that change of heart that salvation effects. This distinction is important in maintaining the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.
2 There is no one who does good and does not sin,3 and the best of people may fall into great sins and provocations [against God] through the power and deceitfulness of their indwelling corruption and the strength of temptation.4 Therefore God has mercifully provided in the covenant of grace that when believers sin and fall they shall be restored to salvation through repentance.5
The first paragraph might be misinterpreted to mean that only those who come to the Lord late in life need to repent. This paragraph sets that misconception straight. No matter how good the man, none are without the need of repentance. Even the most faithful believer is subject to being deceived by his own heart, corrupted as it is by indwelling sin. Some of our sins as believers may be very great and hateful towards our Father, but through repentance God has offered us the way to be restored to fellowship with him, to enjoy once again the joy of our salvation. When we fall into sin, even terrible sin, we need not allow our grief over sin grow into despair because our Lord has provided in repentance the means to restoration.
3 Saving repentance is a gospel grace6
The repentance that leads to salvation is a gospel grace. It is not a natural fear the unsaved man feels upon hearing the threats of the law. True repentance is a gift that comes when through the preaching of the good news we are given new life. Where there is no new creation there can be no true repentance. Even the unregenerate may fear the consequences of his sin, and in terror of hell try to reform his life, but this is not repentance that leads to life.
by which we are made aware of the many evils of our sin by the Holy Spirit.7 By faith in Christ8 we humble ourselves over our sin with godly sorrow, hatred of it, and self-loathing.
There are two convictions which provide the soil in which repentance can grow. First, a man must be convinced of the depth and breadth of his sin. He must know that in God’s eyes he is both defiled and guilty and thus worthy of condemnation. He knows that with his sins stacked against him he has no hope of ever being cleared of his guilt. The weight of sin is felt not just in the fear of condemnation, but in a deep, heartfelt sorrow for our sinfulness. With the prodigal son we stand to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
We pray for pardon and strength of grace, and determine and endeavour, by [the power] supplied by the Spirit, to walk before God and to please him in all things.9
Second, repentance recognizes the infinite mercy of God. Judas Iscariot recognized the depth of his sin but could not believe God’s mercy would cover even his sin, so he went and hung himself. Godly repentance has a confidence that when we turn back to God, he will accept and receive us. To live without either of these convictions, sorrow for sin or belief in God’s mercy, is deprive oneself of the possibility for repentance to take root and grow.
In this soil true repentance (metanoia), a turning of the mind, takes place. Repentance is not simply doing things differently, but having a change of mind and heart. We do not simply cease doing those things we once enjoyed because we have found out they are sinful, we actually despise them and are grieved by the thought that such things were once pleasurable to us. Repentance is a turning away from an old way of life, but it is more for it involves a turning towards God. The first act in this turning comes in recognition of his mercy and involves a prayer for pardon and a request for his grace. It includes also an earnest desire to live in a manner the pleases God. Having turned from dependence on his own efforts, the repentant man does not begin to reform his life through self discipline, but by turning to God and living in the power of the Holy Spirit who supplies the power need for godly living.
4 Repentance is to continue through the whole course of our lives because of our ‘body of death’ and its activities.10 So it is everyone’s duty to repent of particular known sins with particular care.11
Like faith, repentance is not a single event in the life of a Christian, but is instead a condition as permanent as the old nature that resides within us. Repentance is not merely the temporary experience of those who have a crisis conversion, it is the habit of life for all believers as long as they live. The repentance that is called for is not of sin in general, but of specific, particular sins. The repentance that is called for is not of our most grievous sins or our most public sins, but of all sin we are conscious of. We are not just grieved by this or that sin, but by sin in whatever form it manifests itself in our lives. True repentance cannot come in a flippant or hurried fashion, but requires careful consideration and solemn reflection. In days gone by times of fasting were set apart for this activity. One of the surest signs of whether a person is truly a Christian is not whether he still gives evidence of being a sinner, but of whether he gives evidence of being a repentant sinner.
5 In the covenant of grace God has made full provision through Christ for the preservation of believers in their salvation, so, although even the smallest sin deserves damnation,12 yet there is no sin great enough to bring damnation on those who repent. This makes the constant preaching of repentance essential.13
The fact that there is need for continual repentance for sins does not diminish in the least the assurance believers can have that they will be saved. Full provision not just for the forgiveness of past sins, but for all sins yet future have been made for all those who will repent. The infinite worth of the Savior who died on the cross was sufficient for all the sins of all the elect of all times. There is no sin so great that it cannot be forgiven, so long as the sinner finds a hatred in his heart for that sin and turns towards the merciful God who promises forgiveness. Because so great a blessing is attached, it is the church’s obligation and privilege to faithfully and constantly call men, believers and unbelievers alike, to repentance. How foolish and negligent we would be to failed to urge men to repent because it would embarrass us to call them sinners.