The question of the necessity of good works and the proper and clear explanation of that necessity of good works can be seen in the saving work of repentance. Repentance is frequently described as the work in the way of which we enjoy covenantal fellowship with God. The language that in the way of repentance we enjoy God and the fellowship of God in the covenant is contrasted with repentance being a prerequisite, or a condition, of the covenant and the fellowship of God.
That the covenant is enjoyed in the way of repentance is accepted Reformed language to contrast the truth of the unconditional covenant of grace—that repentance is necessary while at the same time being a gift of God in the covenant and not that upon which the covenant depends—from the false doctrine of the conditional covenant—that repentance, even that worked by grace, is that upon which the covenant and the God of the covenant depend. It is true that this teaching of the conditional covenant teaches this along with the teaching of a universal offer of grace: God gives grace to every baptized child, and by that grace the child can repent. Thus the defenders of this position when pushed to the wall insist that the condition of repentance is fulfilled by grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the activity of the sinner by grace is that upon which the promise of God, the covenant of God by that promise, and ultimately the eternal salvation of the child depend. The decisive place in the covenant to obtain what the covenant promise is given to works performed by grace—repentance—and those works are instruments by which the covenant is fulfilled.
The purpose of the language that the believer enjoys the covenant of God in the way of repentance is precisely to deny this teaching. The language is intended to teach that the saving benefit of repentance belongs to the benefits of the covenant of grace and is not a condition unto the covenant of grace or to the experience of the covenant of grace. Another purpose of this language is to insist that repentance is necessary in the covenant of grace. The unconverted and unrepentant do not inherit the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this language teaches that God in the covenant so works that repentance in the sinner that the repentance is his real activity.
To describe repentance as that which is necessary in order to have fellowship with God or for covenantal fellowship with God corrupts the truth that covenantal fellowship with God is in the way of repentance. The language in order to have fellowship with God corrupts the truth by teaching that repentance is that upon which covenantal fellowship with God depends and of which covenantal fellowship with God is the end result. This language effectually makes repentance a condition of the covenant, for the experience of the covenant, and for fellowship with God in the covenant, although the word condition is not used. It is exactly this error that the language in the way of is intended to deny. The explanation of the precise meaning of the phrase in the way of, however, is often lacking.
The Reformed confessions help in understanding this language. The Reformed faith teaches in Lord’s Day 32 that good works are necessary because Christ renews his people by his Holy Spirit according to his image. The Catechism intends by this renewal to describe both the implanting of the new life of Christ Jesus in God’s work of regeneration and the fruit of regeneration in the conversion of the sinner. In God’s work of conversion the sinner becomes active. That the Catechism has conversion in view is clear when it asks in the same Lord’s Day: “Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” Further, the Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 33, “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?” The point, then, is that the renewal of the sinner issues in his conversion. Conversion is the only fruit of regeneration.
Lord’s Day 33 describes conversion as “the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.” The mortification of the old is “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.” The quickening of the new man is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to life according to the will of God in all good works.” Both of these may be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is a one-word summary for the conversion of the sinner, in which is implied not only his turning from sin, but also his whole life of holiness with God.
In the Hebrew language this is made clear by the word for repentance, which means, to turn. It describes the spiritual activity of the sinner whereby he turns from sin and turns to the living God. This spiritual activity is the fruit of God’s conversion of the sinner and ultimately of his regenerating and calling the sinner. The prophet Jeremiah makes the relationship between God’s work of converting the sinner and the sinner’s own activity of converting himself plain: “Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth” (Jer. 31:19). The sinner repents after God has turned him. The sinner smites upon his thigh in deep sorrow over his sin, after God has instructed him.
Repentance is shorthand for true conversion. True conversion summarizes the whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his people. The whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his redeemed and delivered people can be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to the living God every day. Repentance consists of hating sin and living according to the will of God in all good works. Repentance is the word that summarizes the whole life of gratitude that God requires of the redeemed and delivered sinner. By this life of repentance he gives a testimony of gratitude to God for his redemption and deliverance. By this life of repentance he praises God as his God. Daily, weekly, yearly, and all his life the word of God to the redeemed and delivered believer is “Repent!”
That the life of the God-delivered and God-renewed sinner consists of repentance was Luther’s first hammer blow in his ninety-five theses against Roman Catholic false doctrine: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther taught this over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that repentance is the work of the sinner by which he merits with God. Rather, the whole life of the child of God who is redeemed and delivered is to be repentance. This necessary repentance is the work of God and the gift of his grace to the sinner. To this life the believer must be called. In this life he must be instructed. This is not because he gains anything from God by it, but because God works it in him by the Spirit and requires it of him in gratitude for his deliverance.
This repentance, being the one-word summary both of the believer’s whole life of turning from sin and turning to God to live with God in all good works, is also the necessary way of life in the covenant. Without it none shall inherit the kingdom of God. This is because those whom God redeems and delivers he also renews by the Holy Spirit. Repentance, then, describes the whole life of the child of God in the covenant of God. The Catechism says that it is turning from sin, hating and fleeing from sin, a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. What more is necessary for the life of the redeemed, justified, and renewed believer?
Repentance is also the child of God’s experience of the covenant. What deeper experience does he have of God and covenantal fellowship with God than what is described as belonging to repentance in Lord’s Day 33?
That life of repentance is rightly and properly called the necessary way of fellowship with God in the covenant, the necessary way of life in the covenant, or the necessary way of the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant. In short, the experience of fellowship with God is repentance. Or fellowship with God is in way of repentance because it consists in that activity.
This is also how Canons of Dordt 5.7 describe the restoration of the backslidden sinner: “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance.” The same article describes that renewal by its fivefold effect:
In order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator, that they should again feel God’s favor, having been reconciled, that they should through faith adore his mercies, and that henceforth they should more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.
The life of repentance consists in all these things, all of which also constitute the conversion described by the Catechism. Life with God for the sinner is the life of repentance. Covenant with God is repentance. Experience of fellowship with God is repentance. This is true now and in eternity, where, though sin will be forever banished, the positive side will remain: turning to God, an eternal turning to God in perfection.
To say that repentance is the necessary way of the covenant means, first, that God himself grants, gives, and works that repentance in the believer as a gracious gift of the covenant of grace. The sinner repents, both sorrowing for sin and living in good works, because God grants it. Second, the necessary way means that the very experience of the covenant of God consists in the benefit of his grace called repentance. In repentance the believer has a deep and intimate experience with God. He experiences God as the one who confronts him in his sin. In his sin the hand of God is heavy on him. He experiences God as the one who arrests him in his sin with his own hand and Spirit. He experiences God as the one who instructs him about his sin and makes him sorrow over it. He experiences God as the one who calls him personally and individually out of his sin. He experiences God as the one who turns him from that sin and leads him out of that sin. He experiences God as the one who in all of that work draws near in love to a perfectly unworthy sinner, so that he experiences God as the God of all grace. He experiences his God as the one who forgives his sins, original and actual, for Christ’s sake alone. He experiences God as the one who teaches him the way of everlasting life and leads him by his Spirit in that way. He experiences God as the one who empowers him to live in that way in love toward God and love toward the neighbor and who actually works that in him so that he walks in it. In that way of repentance he draws near to God and God draws near to him.
To say that it is necessary to repent in order to have fellowship with God or as necessary for fellowship with God is, then, a corruption of the truth of repentance—both its negative side of sorrow for sin and its positive side of joy in God and good works—as the description of the covenantal life of the believer with God. Such a view places repentance outside of that fellowship as something that must be accomplished for the fellowship. Fellowship, then, is not constituted in that gracious gift of repentance, both the turning from sin and the turning to God in all good works, but fellowship is its result. One can say that we do it all by grace, but that does not change the fact that repentance is not that wherein the believer fellowships with his God, but that which he must do in order in the end to have the fellowship of his God. Fellowship with God is the end result of repentance.
That language also redefines both fellowship with God and the experience of salvation and of the covenant. The experience of salvation for the believing sinner is his repentance. In that gracious gift of repentance, he experiences deliverance from both the damning power and the polluting dominion of sin. In repentance the believer experiences God as his justifier and sanctifier. In repentance he both sorrows over sin and delights in the good. This is also how he fellowships with his God. It is the necessary way in which he fellowships with God, not that after which he has fellowship with God. The covenant of God is in the way of repentance, then, but repentance is never a condition or that because of which fellowship with God comes to the believer.
Such an understanding of repentance as constituting the fellowship of the elect sinner with God also does justice to the Reformed doctrine of the covenant that the law is the guide to the believer’s thankful life with God in the covenant. The law demands perfection. In the covenant, that law as the law of liberty cannot demand that perfection of the believer in order to live, to remain in the covenant, to stand with God, or to enter heaven. It cannot because by faith the believer is righteous in Christ, lives, and is worthy of eternal life. But the law’s demand of perfection remains.
No one may ever teach without becoming a rank antinomian that the law does not demand perfection. This is the teaching of James to the justified believer:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11).
As James points out, if the law no longer demands perfection, God is no longer God. The issue is not so much the law, but the ONE who said in the law. Saying that the law does not demand perfection is a denial of God and opens the possibility that the sinner is saved by law. The worst form of the error that James exposes is the idea that a man can be righteous before God or obtain from God because of his works.
Because the law demands perfection and the believer’s life in the covenant is according to the law, his life in the covenant must be repentance, namely the abiding and deep sorrow over and hatred for his sins, both original and actual. Because the law demands perfection and his life in the covenant is governed by the law that demands repentance of the believer, so that he constantly seeks and finds remission for those sins in the blood of Jesus Christ, the mediator. Because the law demands perfection, the believer can only stand in that covenant and before the face of God in that covenant on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Because he is renewed and his life in the covenant is according to the law, he already has a small beginning of the new obedience according to that law and does with love and delight live according to the will of God in that law in all good works. Because the law is the guide of life in the covenant—perfection—he must constantly seek God’s grace and Holy Spirit to live that way and to be more and more conformable to God’s image in Jesus Christ, until he arrives in perfection in heaven.
It is with this life of repentance that the Catechism also ends its treatment of the law and effectively opens its section on prayer as the chief part of the thankfulness—repentance—that God requires:
Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?
A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at that perfection proposed to us in a life to come.”
The purpose of God in the preaching of the law is to increase the life of repentance as the very experience of the covenant for the child of God.
Repentance is not necessary in order to have fellowship with God. Repentance is the necessary way of fellowship with God because that repentance is the experience of fellowship with God. This understanding of in the way of does justice both to the phrase and to its intended purpose both to teach the necessity of repentance—and good works—and to deny that these are ever a condition or prerequisite of the covenant, of the experience of the covenant, or of salvation. The covenant of grace is unconditional. Repentance and good works are necessary. The phrase in the way of properly explained and understood guards both of these truths.
This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.
Previous articles in this series:
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy
The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations