Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (7): Repentance and Remission
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (6): Justification by Faith Alone. What follows is the final entry.
After his resurrection from the dead Jesus commanded: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name” (Luke 24:47). Two concepts are included and, clearly there is a relationship between them. Quite simply, God forgives the sins of those who repent, or God forgives sinners when they repent. “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, and he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). “I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:17b-18). That should be enough—God forgives us when we repent—but to dispel confusion, we should explain the relationship further.
First, repentance is not the ground of the forgiveness of our sins. We do not earn forgiveness by changing our mind (repenting) or turning. It is not theologically precise to say, “God forgives us because we repent.” Repentance does not make us worthy of the forgiveness of our sins. By repenting we do not make atonement for, or make amends for, any of our sins. In other words, sorrow over sin, while important, is not meritorious. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains in 15:3: “Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.”
Second, repentance is not a condition that we fulfill in order to get or obtain forgiveness. It is true that repentance precedes or comes before forgiveness, so that God forgives us after—not before—we repent, but that does not make repentance a condition for forgiveness. A condition is not something that comes before another thing, but a condition is something that we must do upon which the obtaining of something depends. If repentance were a condition, it would be something which we must do upon which the forgiveness of our sins depends. But that is impossible because God gives us repentance, he works repentance in us, and when we repent, he forgives our sins. Repentance is not our contribution to salvation on which it depends, but it is part of the gracious salvation that God gives to us: it flows from election (the fountain of every saving good) and is purchased for us on the cross. If it is part of salvation, it cannot also be a condition to salvation.
If God forgave our sins without repentance or before we repented, he would be communicating to us that sin does not matter. We might conclude that God approves of our sin, and it would even encourage us to continue in sin. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). “Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). God has joined forgiveness and repentance—and we may not separate them. God will not forgive the person who does not repent. Jesus said, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Justification, which is not the same thing as forgiveness, is by faith alone without works; and repentance is not a work that we perform in order to obtain any blessing from God.
One final thing: why does Jesus call his disciples to preach repentance and remission after his resurrection from the dead? Why is this to be the focus of the apostles’ preaching post-Pentecost? Jesus grounds the call to repent in the mercy of God. Christ has come, and he has suffered: he suffered the death of the cross to make full atonement and complete satisfaction for sins: that gives the judicial or legal basis for the forgiveness of our sins. God forgives sins not because we do good works, not because we obey, not because we repent, and not even because we believe. God forgives sins because Jesus had paid the penalty for sins. And Christ has risen again: if not, we would still be in our sins, for a dead Christ cannot give to us eternal life. Thus, says Jesus, these things (repentance and remission) must be preached in my name, in the name of the Savior who has purchased forgiveness of sins for his people on the cross by his sufferings and death.
That is why we repent: because we know God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. There would be no point in having a change of mind about sin if there were no mercy for penitent sinners. No sinner turns from sin to God unless he knows that God is merciful in the cross of Jesus Christ. That is why we change our mind, and why we turn—we seek the mercy that we know God has for penitent sinners. Without the knowledge of God’s mercy, we would never repent. We would flee from God in fear, dread, and terror. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, and he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). He will pardon because Christ has suffered and has risen again from the dead the third day. What a wonderful message of gracious salvation to miserable sinners!
These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:44-48).