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Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (2): Classifying Repentance (a)

Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (2): Classifying Repentance (a)

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (1): Repentance.


Classifying Repentance 

If repentance is “a change of mind,” how exactly do we classify it theologically? Confusion in the church world forces us to face that question. Is it something we do, is it something God does, is it a gift to us, is it an activity of man, is it part of our salvation? These questions are asked today. 

First, repentance is the gift of God. In Acts 5:31 we read about Jesus, “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” In Acts 11:18 we read that God “also to the Gentiles hath granted repentance unto life.” In 2 Timothy 2:25 Paul writes, “if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.” Repentance leads to an acknowledgment of the truth and it is God’s gift to give or to withhold: he gives it to the elect and he withholds it from the reprobate. Left to ourselves we would never—and we could never—repent. By nature we are so in love with our sins that we could never have a change of mind concerning them. By nature we are in utter, miserable bondage to sin—sin’s servants or slaves. But when God works in us by his grace and Spirit, then we have a change of mind (metanoia), or we repent; then we sorrow over our sins and turn from them. “God, who as he has chosen his own from eternity in Christ, so he confers upon them faith and repentance” (Canons 3-4.10). 

Second, repentance is the activity of the sinner: God works in us, so that we repent. Obviously, or it should be obvious, God does not repent for us, in us, through us, or instead of us. We sin, and we repent—we have a change of mind. God does not change his mind: he is unchangeably opposed to all sin. Mark 6:12: “And they went out, and preached that men should repent.” Luke 5:31-32: “And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 15:10: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” Acts 26:19-20: “Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Canons 3-4:12 summarizes this teaching of Scripture: “Man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”

Third, repentance is not a work, that is, repentance is not the doing of a good work, such as obedience to the law is a good work. Yes, it is an activity of the sinner—we repent—but it is not a good work as theologians generally classify good works. If a man is a thief, and he has a change of mind about theft, and he resolves to stop stealing, he does not perform a good work. A good work would be to “labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he might have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). If a man is a liar, and he has a change of mind concerning his lies, so that he resolves to stop lying, he does not perform a good work. A good work would be to “speak truth with his neighbor” and to speak “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (vv. 25, 29). Repentance is a change of mind, which leads to the turning from evil works. In addition, Heidelberg Catechism A 91 defines good works, and does not include repentance in that definition: “Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory.” When we repent, we do not perform a work in obedience to the law of God. The law says, “Do” and “Do not.” If we say, as penitent sinners, “I now know that what I did was wrong (I have changed my mind about it—metanoia) and I am sorry (I regret it),” we do not by that do what the law requires. We simply express regret that we have not done what the law requires. The law is not satisfied with regret; it requires and demands obedience. 

To call repentance a work is to confuse it with penance, which in Roman Catholicism is a work. That confusion arose and developed in the Middle Ages because the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible translated metanoeite (repent ye) in Matthew 3:2 and other places with poenitentiam agite (do penance). Instead of repenting, medieval Christians did penance, which involved three things: contrition (sorrow), confession (usually to a priest), and satisfaction (undergoing some punishment or loss to pay for sin). 

Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called perfect (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible. The contrition called imperfect (or attrition) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner… The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Dublin, Ireland: Veritas Press, 1994] paragraphs 1451, 1452, 1460, pp. 326, 328).

Notice that in Roman Catholicism penance is meritorious—it obtains from God the forgiveness of sins. By it the sinner performing penance makes satisfaction to God for his own sins. We reject that false teaching. Repentance is not penance, and it is certainly not meritorious. By sorrowing over sin, by weeping over sin, by turning from sin we do not make any atonement for our transgressions or lessen our guilt one whit before God. Only the blood of Jesus Christ—not penance, not repentance, not sorrow, not regret, not an attempt to make amends—washes away our sins. 

The Bible distinguishes between repentance and good works; it does not call repentance a good work. Acts 26:20 says, “That they should repent, and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” In Revelation 2:5 Christ commands, “Repent and do the first works.” In Matthew 3:8 John the Baptist urges, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” Repentance is a change of mind, and the fruit of that change of mind is good works, but repentance itself is not a good work. The Bible does not classify it as a good work. The creeds do not classify it as a good work. We should not classify it as a good work. The closest definition that the Canons of Dordt give of repentance is in Canons 5:7: “a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins.” Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism A 87 defines repentance not as a good work, but as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” 

G. I Williamson, commenting on the Westminster Confession, writes:

True repentance is a recognition of the fact, conviction of the fact, and assent to the fact that there is no possible way in which the sinner could satisfy divine justice other than to experience eternal damnation. Indeed, it is precisely this recognition, conviction, and assent which also requires him to trust in the suffering satisfaction of Christ alone for salvation. We could not more radically misconceive repentance than to regard it as a work performed ... Repentance, far from being a conscious act of obedience well-pleasing unto God and bringing in return his blessing and reward, is rather a consciousness of one’s total inability to please God or to do anything to secure his blessing and reward. It is precisely the psychological as well as theological reason why there can be no true repentance without faith in Christ. When one is conscious of complete inability to do anything to avoid God’s wrath and curse and win his favor, he is ready to trust in Jesus Christ who has borne that wrath and curse and won his favor as the substitute for his people (The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes [Philadelphia, PA: Pesbyterian and Reformed, 1994], 99, 100, my italics).


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