A Reader Asks: “Was Peter’s experience of fellowship conditioned on his repentance?”
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Dear Rev. McGeown,
In your third blog post on the RFPA blog recently, “Abiding in Christ’s Love” (Nov. 18, 2019), you wrote the following: “Peter had to learn that the hard way: when he denied Jesus, he did not abide in the consciousness of Jesus’ love. Jesus loved Peter, but Peter had to weep bitterly with tears of repentance—which were the fruit of God’s grace—before he came to the renewed assurance of Jesus’ love for him.”
This statement confuses me. Earlier in this article, you explained how that although the statement of John 15:10 is in a conditional form it does not have a conditional meaning. You explained the meaning of condition, namely as something upon which salvation depends. You very clearly denied such conditions in salvation.
The above-quoted statement seems clearly conditional to me, hence my confusion. I see your statement as conditional for a couple of reasons. First, the position of the adversative—“but”—between Jesus’ love and Peter’s act of repentance. This is the language of contrast and qualification. Jesus’ love is one thing; Peter’s act of repentance is another. You do not make Peter’s activity to be the result of sovereign love. Jesus loved Peter and it was sovereign love that worked those tears. It was precisely Jesus’ love that drew Peter back to himself in the way of working the gift of repentance in Peter. As such, I think you should have said: “Jesus loved Peter, AND or THEREFORE Peter wept bitterly with tears of repentance…” The change of verb mood to “wept” would correspond with Jesus’ sovereign love being the reason for Peter’s repentance.
Second, your use of the preposition before is troubling. To say that Peter had to do something (repent) before he could be renewed in the assurance of Jesus’ love is to make Peter’s assurance contingent on something he did. It is of course true that we do not and cannot enjoy assurance as we live in disobedience. It is true that our disobedience is a reason for losing the sense of assurance of God’s favor for a time, but our obedience (whether our act of repentance or our good works) is never the reason for the restoration of the enjoyment of assurance. The explanation is God’s activity. The Canons make this clear when speaking of this very matter they ascribe our restoration to God’s activity alone: “But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their melancholy falls” (5.6); “and again, [God] by his word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins” (5.7).
In reality repentance is our life of fellowship with God including the assurance of that fellowship; repentance is not a condition to that life of fellowship.
I thank the reader for his letter. Since the matters he raises are very important, I decided to respond publically. Brother Rainey has kindly agreed to allow me to publish his letter and my response with his name. He is “more than happy” for me to include his name in my public response. Therefore, let us begin.
The statement that the reader questioned is:
Peter had to learn that the hard way: when he denied Jesus, he did not abide in the consciousness of Jesus’ love. Jesus loved Peter, but Peter had to weep bitterly with tears of repentance—which were the fruit of God’s grace—before he came to the renewed assurance of Jesus’ love for him.
The reader finds the statement confusing since, as he acknowledges, I explained that the “conditional form” of John 15:10 does not have a “conditional meaning.” “You explained the meaning of condition,” writes the brother, “namely as something [that we must do] upon which salvation depends. You very clearly denied such conditions in salvation” (Note: the brother did not include the bracketed words in his citation of my statement. Our salvation does depend on something; it depends on the work of Christ, but it does not depend on something “that we must do”).
I am thankful that the brother acknowledged that I very clearly denied conditions in salvation, which gives my other comments valuable context.
The reader is still perplexed, however, for “the above-quoted statement seems clearly conditional to [him].” Let me see if I can relieve the brother of his confusion. But first let us examine the reasons why the reader finds my statement above conditional, even “clearly conditional.”
First, the reader objects to “the position of the adversative—‘but’—between Jesus’ love and Peter’s act of repentance. The reader does not like the word “but;” he prefers the word “and.” “But,” claims the reader, is “the language of contrast and qualification.” Since I use “but,” I do not “make Peter’s activity to be the result of sovereign love.” The brother writes, “Jesus loved Peter and it was sovereign love that worked those tears. It was precisely Jesus’ love that drew Peter back to himself in the way of working the gift of repentance in Peter.”
I never denied that. I wholeheartedly agree with that. In fact, I emphatically stated it. I wrote that Peter’s tears were “the fruit of God’s grace.” Of course, they were!
According to the reader, I make Jesus’ love “one thing” and Peter’s act of repentance “another [thing].” Indeed, I do, for they are two different things—Jesus did the loving (his love is unchangeable, sovereign, and efficacious), and Peter did the repenting. Jesus did the loving, and Peter did the weeping. Is that controversial? Or did Jesus do the weeping and repenting for Peter? Of course he didn’t—and I know that the brother does not believe that he did. They are two very different activities, performed by two very different persons, and yet, they are related. I explained the precise relationship, but the brother fears that I have related them, as if one (Jesus’ loving) was conditioned upon the other (Peter’s weeping and repenting), or as if Peter’s penitent weeping was the activity that Peter performed on which the other activity (Jesus’ loving or Peter’s consciousness of Jesus’ love) depended.
I did not write that. I distinguished the two things—even with a “but”—but I did not explain one activity as a condition for the other activity.
The reader continues:
You should have said: “Jesus loved Peter, AND or THEREFORE Peter wept bitterly with tears of repentance…” The change of verb mood to wept would correspond with Jesus’ sovereign love being the reason for Peter’s repentance.
I could have written that, but I do not think I needed to write that, and I do not think it is helpful to encourage a tendency to quibble about words, so that the preacher or writer is under constant scrutiny for every expression that comes out of his mouth or from his pen. While the listener—and especially the elder—is called to judge the preaching to ward off heresy, he should not be hypercritical, pouncing on every word, as, regrettably, the brother has done. I am not above criticism, far from it, but orthodox expression should not be so restricted, as if “but” is heterodox or at least suspect, while “and” is orthodox. This is especially the case when the context is a series of blog posts in which I very clearly explained that salvation is not conditional. Besides that, if Christ could see fit to say, without teaching conditional salvation, “If ye keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:10), certainly we do not need to overreact to every use of the word “but” or (as we shall see shortly) “before.”
If I had written, “If Peter desired to enjoy fellowship with Christ, he was required to repent: while he walked in the darkness of impenitence, God’s countenance was hidden from him,” would the reader have protested? Would that have been “clearly conditional” language, or worse, justification by works or works righteousness? And yet scripture declares, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:4). Should John have added—just in case someone suspected him of teaching conditions—“but don’t forget that your keeping of his commandments is the fruit of God’s grace in you”? Were John’s readers not convinced that the beloved apostle taught the gospel faithfully, and does the brother not know that I—who am by no means an inspired apostle—do not teach conditional salvation? He acknowledged as much before raising his objection. Do I have to make it plain, qualifying every statement, every time, lest someone misinterpret me? In such an atmosphere of suspicion, who would dare preach or write?
Second, the reader objects to the preposition “before,” my use of which is “troubling” to him. Surely, thinks the brother, the preposition “before” makes my statement doubly conditional—it was conditional when I used “but.” I compound my error by using “before.” The reader argues:
To say that Peter had to do something (repent) before he could be renewed in the assurance of Jesus’ love is to make Peter’s assurance contingent on something he did. It is, of course, true that we do not and cannot enjoy assurance as we live in disobedience. It is true that our disobedience is a reason for losing the sense of assurance of God’s favor for a time, but our obedience (whether our act of repentance or our good works) is never the reason for the restoration of the enjoyment of assurance. The explanation is God’s activity.
I agree that the explanation is God’s activity, but I strongly disagree with the allegation that my wording is conditional. I insist that the reader’s rewording (“Jesus loved Peter, and/therefore Peter wept bitterly with tears of repentance”) and my original wording (“Peter had to weep bitterly with tears of repentance—which were the fruit of God’s grace—before he came to the renewed assurance of Jesus’ love for him”) are both acceptable. They are both orthodox ways of expressing the same truth. Neither is conditional. Neither should be condemned. Neither should be viewed with suspicion.
The point I make is simply this: in the experience of Peter “A” happens before “B,” indeed, “A” must happen before “B.” Tears of repentance (“A”) must flow (or repentance must occur—tears are not indispensable to repentance, for tears can be faked), and Peter’s sense of Christ’s love (“B”) must be restored. It must be restored because God is faithful and he will not suffer Peter to fall fatally and finally. However, to state that “A” comes before “B”—or that “A” must come before “B”—does not condition “B” upon “A.”
Let me be crystal clear: Peter’s sense of Christ’s love (“B”) was not restored before he repented (“A”). I do not think that anyone would argue that it was, for that would be absurd. If the brother prefers to pinpoint the restoration of Peter’s consciousness of Christ’s love to the very moment of the Savior’s penetrating look, I have no objection (who can truly fathom the exchange that took place between Peter and Christ and how it affected Peter’s soul?): “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered…and went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). The point is, however, that when Peter was denying Christ with oaths and curses (Matt. 26:74) he was not abiding in the consciousness of Christ’s love, but he was walking in darkness, and Peter knew it.
Something happened in Peter’s heart, therefore, before he began to be conscious of Christ’s love again or before God’s gracious countenance shone upon him again: Peter felt shame, sorrow, and grief. Peter’s grief was the fruit of Christ’s merciful and reproving look, the fruit of Peter’s hearing of the crowing of the cockerel, and the fruit of Peter’s recollection of Christ’s words in connection with that crowing—all of which was the fruit of God’s grace, which I stated in my original blog post. The fruit of that maelstrom of emotions (which led to Peter turning from his sin in sorrow), which I simply call “bitter tears of repentance,” was the renewed assurance of Christ’s love for him. Without that (which, I repeat, somewhat redundantly at this point, is the fruit of God’s grace) Peter did not know the comfortable sense of God’s presence with him and he did not abide in the consciousness of Christ’s love.
Consider some words from Matthew Henry on Luke 22:61:
It was a significant look: it signified the conveying of grace to Peter’s heart to enable him to repent; the crowing of the cock would not have brought him to repentance without this look, nor will the external means without special efficacious grace. Power went along with this look, to change the heart of Peter, and to bring him to himself, to his right mind…One look from Christ melted him into tears of godly sorrow for sin. The candle was newly put out, and then a little thing lighted it again. Christ looked upon the chief priests, and made no impression upon them as he did on Peter, who had the divine seed remaining in him to work upon. It was not the look from Christ, but the grace of God with it, that recovered Peter.
Similarly, David did not know the forgiveness of his sins in Psalm 32 until he confessed and repented. It is not that God forgave David’s sins in his consciousness and restored to him the joy of his salvation before he repented. That, too, would be absurd. Of course, David’s repentance was the fruit of God’s grace in him, but David had no experience of the blessedness of forgiveness until he repented. Until David repented (or before he repented), God’s hand lay heavy upon him, his bones waxed old through his roaring, and his moisture was turned into the drought of summer (Ps. 32:4). Listen to David’s confession: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD,’ and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (v. 5). The order is: “I said, I will…and thou forgavest.” David does not write, “Thou forgavest, and then I confessed,” but the order is (1) confession/repentance and (2) forgiveness (the experience of forgiveness). That’s the logical, temporal order, but that does not make confession/repentance the condition that David had to fulfill in order to obtain forgiveness. We sing in Psalter 83:
WHILE I kept guilty silence, my strength was spent in grief. Thy hand was heavy on me, my soul found no relief. But WHEN I owned my trespass, my sin hid not from thee, WHEN I confessed transgression, THEN thou forgavest me (my emphasis).
Or take the wise counsel of Solomon in Proverbs 28:13: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” What comes first—having mercy or confessing/forsaking sin (i.e. repentance)? The text is clear: first, we confess/forsake sin, and then, we have mercy.
Now we could make all kinds of qualifications, as theologians are wont to do, but then we blunt the sharpness of the warning. We could say, “Ah yes, but the wicked man confesses/forsakes only because God has first worked by his grace: therefore, God’s mercy is first.” Of course—who among us denies that? But is that what Solomon—or the Holy Spirit through Solomon—purposed to communicate in Proverbs 28:13? Does the preacher of that text first set out his Reformed credentials by emphasizing repentance as the fruit of God’s mercy (which it certainly is), or does he issue the call to the wicked man to repent, promising God’s mercy to such a wicked, repenting, confessing, sin-forsaking man in the way of his repentance? Dare a preacher even say, “If you repent, you shall receive mercy”? Does such a faithful preacher not also threaten God’s judgment upon the man, even the church member, or even a child of believing parents (as the first reader of Proverbs was) who covers his sins? Dare he even say, “If you do not repent, you shall not prosper”? Does an elder take such a text to an impenitent church member and warn him that, as long as he walks in sin, he will not—he cannot—know the favor of God? Does he press such a man with the urgent need for repentance, forbidding him even to consider himself a child of God unless and until he repents? Does the consistory forbid him fellowship with the crucified body and shed blood of Christ in the Supper until he repents? To ask those questions is to answer them.
Christ said, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). He did not condition salvation (non-perishing) on repentance, but he did insist that no man could be saved without it. Paul wrote, “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die” (Rom. 8:13). Shall I whisper to the man living in harmony with his flesh (as the serpent did), “Ye shall not surely die”? Paul continued, “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (v. 13). Paul does not condition salvation on our mortifying of the flesh, but there is no salvation without it. Examples could be multiplied from the scriptures.
Indeed, Jesus even speaks of the cycle of love: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him…If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him” (John 14:21, 23). The Father loves us, Christ loves us, we love Christ, and we keep his commandments, but what is the relationship? Clearly what Jesus teaches is this: when we walk in obedience, we know the love of God in Christ, but when we walk in sin, we do not know the love of God in Christ. This does not mean that our fellowship with God in Christ is conditioned upon our obedience. Nevertheless, one who walks in darkness cannot experience the blessing of fellowship with God, and he will not experience it again until he repents. God is holy and he does not dwell with the unholy. He dwells with believers who keep his commandments.
Listen to Herman Hoeksema on John 14:23:
Love [for God] is not a vague, sentimental feeling, a matter of the emotions, expressing itself in smile or tear, vanishing under stress as the fleecy morning clouds before the rising sun. It is a matter of the deep heart, a matter of the mind and of the will, expressing itself in delight in the words of Christ, in keeping his commandments, in walking in his way; in hatred and sorrow over sin, in true repentance, in an earnest desire and endeavor to walk not only according to some, but according to all his precepts. Oh, say not that you love him when you walk in darkness. For he who loves me keeps my words. And say not that the Father in Christ came to you and made his abode with you, if you do not walk in that active love. If you do, you are a liar. For if a man love me and keep my words, then the Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him. But what then? How shall these things be? Must we, then, love him first, in order that we may make ourselves worthy of his love or receptive to his love? Must we first prepare our hearts as a suitable abode for him, before he will come and receive us into his home? God forbid! Love is always of God. He loves us first. Our love is but the return to him of his own love. He loved us in the blood of the cross, while we were still enemies. Yet the sphere of love, created within us by himself in our hearts, is the only sphere in which he will dwell with us. And in the way of keeping his word we taste his blessed fellowship. Here in small beginning. Soon in heavenly fullness (Communion with God [RFPA: Jenison, MI, 2011], 14–15; my italics).
The brother then quotes from the Canons of Dordt.
The Canons make this clear when speaking of this very matter they ascribe our restoration to God’s activity alone: “But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their melancholy falls” (5.6); “and again, [God] by his word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins” (5.7).
However, with all due respect to the brother, he quotes from the wrong part of the Canons, overlooking the section most pertinent to the present discussion. Canons 5.5 states:
By such enormous sins (the previous article specifically mentions Peter’s “lamentable fall”), however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, UNTIL on THEIR returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines on them (my emphasis).
It is absolutely true, as Canons 5.7 states (to which the brother referred), that God “effectually [renewed Peter] to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for [his] sins.” But do not overlook the words that come next: “THAT they may seek and obtain remission…[AND THAT] they may again experience the favor of a reconciled God.” The word “that” in Canons 5.7 expresses a purpose: first, God effectually renewed Peter, then Peter had sincere sorrow, and then Peter experienced God’s favor. That—and only that—is the divinely prescribed order, which does not make Peter’s repentance the condition for his experience of God’s favor. Nevertheless, without repentance, Peter does not experience the favor of God. He does not. No impenitent sinner does. No impenitent sinner can.
Canons 5.13 express the same truth, but from a different perspective. Take Peter for our example: did Simon Peter, having been restored by God’s grace to sincere repentance, become careless in the future? Absolutely not: Peter now knew the relationship between sin and the sense of God’s favor.
Neither does renewed confidence of persevering produce licentiousness or a disregard for piety in those who [like Peter] are recovering from backsliding; but it renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which he hath ordained, THAT they who walk therein MAY maintain an assurance of persevering; LEST (the word “lest” means “so that not”), by abusing his fatherly kindness, God should turn away his gracious countenance from them (my emphasis).
Why do the previously backslidden carefully continue in the ways of the Lord—so that (that’s the language of the Canons) by God’s grace they may maintain an assurance of persevering! Why by God’s grace do they not abuse God’s fatherly kindness—so that (again, that’s the language of the Canons) God does not turn away his gracious countenance from them! Is the “so that/lest/so that not” language of the Canons conditional? It certainly is not. The Canons simply express the relationship that God has ordained: in the way of obedience we experience the light of God’s countenance; in the way of sin we do not.
Homer Hoeksema is exactly on point in his exposition of Canons 5.5:
But the point is that UNTIL we repent, or in case we have completely departed from the way of sanctification, UNTIL we return into the way of life through earnest repentance, the fatherly countenance of God does not shine upon us again. The way of life is the way of repentance, not the way of sin and impenitence. And only IN THE WAY OF repentance can we have the sense of God's favour" (Voice of Our Fathers [RFPA, Grand Rapids, MI: 1980], 669, my emphasis).
Does the reader dislike my use of the words “but” and “before”? Does he accuse Homer Hoeksema of clearly teaching conditions with his use of the word “until”? Hoeksema merely expresses (with exactly the correct words) the relationship between repentance and the enjoyment of the sense of God’s favor: without “A” (repentance) there is no “B” (the shining of God’s countenance) or before “A” (repentance) there is no “B” (the shining of God’s countenance).
Hoeksema writes, too, about Peter’s experience in his treatment of Canons 5.13 (striking to notice is that—according to Hoeksema—Peter was not completely restored to a sense of Christ’s favor until after his conversation in John 21: there was still uneasiness in Peter’s heart until that point, although Christ had certainly forgiven him earlier):
If you would ask [Peter] whether he would gladly pass through that whole experience again, he would undoubtedly have said: “What? Deny my Lord? Experience again that penetrating look of my Savior? Feel that I had no right to be called a disciple and an apostle? Endure the excruciating pain of that question, thrice asked, ‘Lovest thou me?’ I would indeed go into prison and into death for the sake of my Lord, but never let me experience again that agony of denial” (Voice, 753).
Again Hoeksema writes:
Because [God’s] grace is not dependent on us, but functions in the sphere of the perfect righteousness and holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ, our sins and iniquities cannot interrupt the current of his grace (Voice, 754).
Oh yes, God’s grace flows uninterruptedly even when we sin, but let us never use that precious truth as an excuse for our sins. (I urge everyone to study carefully Hoeksema’s treatment of Canons 5.5 and 5.13 in Voice of Our Fathers. Hoeksema’s description of the misery of the backslider is sobering).
Although “we interrupt the exercise of faith” (Canons 5.5), God preserves “the incorruptible seed of regeneration” (Canons 5.7) in his elect people. Nevertheless, Hoeksema rightly distinguishes between the current of God’s grace and our experience of God’s grace:
In his very gracious purpose, yea, while his grace continues to operate, God causes the saints to EXPERIENCE all the dreadful torments of the withdrawal of his countenance AS LONG AS they continue in sin. But he uses that very experience in all its dreadful and soul-rending bitterness as a means to bring his erring child back, first of all. In the second place, that grace which has never basically and internally forsaken the saint ultimately goes into action to renew the backsliding saint unto repentance and sorrow. And THUS, coming to repentance and sorrow over sin through free grace only, the child of God has the renewed confidence of persevering, enjoys the light of God’s countenance, and through the same grace STRIVES TO MAINTAIN THAT ASSURANCE with renewed zeal and watchfulness (Voice, 754, my emphasis).
The brother concludes:
In reality repentance is our life of fellowship with God including the assurance of that fellowship; repentance is not a condition to that life of fellowship.
How does the brother’s statement, “Repentance is our life of fellowship,” differ from a similar statement, “Repentance is the necessary way of—not the necessary way to—fellowship”? And again, I repeat, I never suggested that repentance is “a condition to that life of fellowship.”
This truth stands firm, a truth to which we must do full justice: one who is living in obedience to God’s commandments, that is, one who is walking in the light, is in fellowship with God. One who is not living in obedience to God’s commandments, that is, one who is walking in darkness, is not in fellowship with God. He may deceive himself—his friends and family may assure him that he is, the devil may whisper into his ear that he is—but God says that he is not: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” (John 15:10), which means, “If ye do not keep my commandments, ye shall not abide in my love.” “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:6–7).