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Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (3): Classifying Repentance (b)

Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (3): Classifying Repentance (b)

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (2): Classifying Repentance (a).


Fourth, repentance is not conversion. Again, theological precision and distinguishing of concepts are important. Conversion is broader than repentance, and repentance is narrower than conversion. Conversion is a turning to God from sin, while repentance is the change of mind (metanoia) which precedes conversion. In other words, conversion follows repentance, but is not the same thing as it. They are distinguished, for example, in Acts 3:19: “Repent ye [repentance], therefore, and be converted [conversion],” and in Acts 26:20: “That they should repent [repentance], and turn to God” [conversion]. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches about the mortification of the old man, which is one part of the two parts of conversion: “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them” (A 89). Sorrow, hatred, flight: that is the mortification of the old man or the putting to death of the flesh. Repentance is not the same thing as mortification of the old man: repentance is narrower than the mortification of the old man. Repentance, a change of mind [metanoia], leads to and issues in the mortification of the old man [sorrow, hatred, flight]. 

Fifth, repentance is not faith and faith is not repentance. Faith is knowledge, confidence, trust, and assurance. Repentance is a change of mind. Nevertheless, faith and repentance are inseparably connected. Since we believe in Christ for salvation from sin, we necessarily repent of our sins at the same time. We cannot look to Christ in faith for salvation from sin while we hold to our sins. If we have true faith, we change our mind concerning our sins. Thus repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin: by faith we look to Christ and by repentance we look away from sin. Thus Paul summarizes his preaching in Ephesus in Acts 20:21: “Testifying both to the Jews and the Greeks repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

John Calvin writes, “Repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith… Can true repentance stand apart from faith? Not at all. But even though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, 3.3.1 and 3.3.5 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 1, 593, 597).

The Canons of Dordt do not separate repentance and faith, although they also distinguish them: “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom he will and at what time he pleaseth by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith” (Canons 1:3). Men are not called only to faith without repentance or only to repentance without faith; they are called to both repentance and faith or to faith and repentance. “Moreover the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published” (Canons 2:5). Unbelievers are called to repent and believe or to believe and repent. Those two spiritual activities can and should be distinguished, but not separated; quite simply, if a person refuses to repent of his sins, he shows that he has no faith. Indeed, if a believer walks impenitently in gross public sin for a time he “interrupt[s] the exercise of faith” (Canons 5:5). 

John Murray also discusses this question: 

The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance… The interdependence of faith and repentance can be readily seen when we remember that faith is faith in Christ for salvation from sin. But if faith is directed to salvation from sin, there must be hatred for sin and the desire to be saved from it. Such hatred of sin involves repentance which essentially consists in turning from sin unto God. Again if we remember that repentance is turning from sin unto God, the turning to God implies faith in the mercy of God as revealed in Christ. It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith. Regeneration becomes vocal in our minds in the exercise of faith and repentance (Redemption Accomplished and Applied [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955], 113).

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