by Mark Horne
Version 1.2 (5/18/2004)
REPENTANCE ENTAILS ALL OF LIFE
According the Westminster Divines, “repentance to life” is an “evangelical” (WCF 15.1) and “saving” (WLC #87) “grace”.
By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments (WCF 15.2).
Notice here that repentance is not some one-time act of contrition (though it may involve such a thing at times) but also includes “endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.” The Shorter Catechism concurs saying that repentance means, among other things, that a person in regard to sin will “turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (#87).
Allow me a brief excursus: Frankly, though I agree with the Divines that hatred of sin is required, I hope readers know that none of us hate sin as much as we ought to hate it. Do not think that because you don’t hate sin as much as you ought to (after all, if you really hated it as much as you should, it would not attract you as much as it does) you have not thereby truly repented. You need to hate it enough to turn from it and embrace Christ in faith who suffered and died under the curse you deserve because of your remaining attraction to sin as well, as all your other many sins. Trust in Christ all your life and he promises to continue to teach you what it means to hate sin.
The main focus of this brief paper, however, lies in another area. Repentance, according to the clear statements of the Westminster Divines, includes “full purpose of, and endeavor[ing] after, new obedience.” We cannot repent and refuse to obey God. We must repent of refusing to obey God.
REPENTANCE IS NECESSARY AND REQUIRED
This is important because, as the Westminster Standards also teach, no one will receive pardon from God if he refuses to repent. Lest this requirement be misunderstood, the Divines were careful in their formulation: “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 it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it (WCF 15.3). Repentance (including new obedience) is necessary for pardon.
Let’s give a concrete illustration: Imagine a person undergoes a tremendous conversion experience and confesses Christ as Lord and renounces his sinful lifestyle and gets baptized and remains a member in good standing in a Church for several years. Imagine that years later he gets involved in an extramarital affair and is confronted by his pastor and elders. “No,” he replies, “I will not give up this affair. I know it’s wrong but I won’t do it.” In such a case, it is the pastor’s and elders’ duty to tell him that unless he repents he will not inherit eternal life. He will not be pardoned and will die in his sins. If he continues in his stubbornness until the church excommunicates him, then it will be bound on heaven as it was on earth that this man is shut out of the Kingdom. No past faith or service or testimony of grace will avail. On the contrary, they will all be reasons for worse punishment because the man has rejected the overwhelming grace of God in his life.
Now, in terms of theological terminology, I would deny that such a person ever truly trusted God as he is offered in the Gospel. But experientially it is simply a fact that the person was a professing believer who abandoned his trust in God. Jesus himself uses “faith” to describe such a person in his parable of the soils: “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (Luke 8.13). So for all experiential believers it is simple Biblical truth that they are required to continue believing with all that such belief entails according to various circumstances.
The fact that repentance, and thus new obedience, is required for pardon is amplified by question 153 of the Larger Catechism and question 85 of the Shorter Catechism. Here I will quote from the Larger:
That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, [God] requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.
Here we have a list of three requirements, the last of which covers the faithful attendance at worship (it is unpacked as including, but not limited to, the Word—especially the preaching—the sacraments, and prayer). It seems the answer in these catechisms is distinguishing repentance from the new obedience that the Confession includes in it. This is no real contradiction. To say that a repentance that includes new obedience is necessary for pardon is not much different from claiming that repentance and new obedience are required to escape God’s wrath.
SOME SOURCES OF EXPLANATION
In the environment of American fundamentalism, justification by faith is commonly abstracted from the fact that sanctification is given by the same faith that justifies. Thus, in our present religious culture, what seemed natural for the Westminster Divines seems strange to many of us. Over a century and a half ago, the German Reformed pastor and professor John Williamson Nevin saw how American denominationalism was prone to extremist formulations on this issue:
It is well to note how generally the sect system adheres to the article of justification by faith, and how prone it is to run this side of Christianity out to a false extreme, either in the way of dead antinomianism or wild fanaticism. With many persons, at this time, the test of all soundness in religion is made to stand in the idea of salvation by grace as opposed to works, Christ’s righteousness set over to our account in an outward way, and a corresponding experience more or less magical in the case of those who receive it, which goes under the name of evangelical conversion. But now it falls in precisely with the abstract mechanism of the sect mind to throw itself mainly on this view of religion, to the exclusion, or at least vast undervaluation, of all that is comprised in the mystery of Christianity as the power of a new creation historically at hand in the Church. It is common for sects, accordingly, to make a parade of their zeal, in such style, for the doctrines of grace and the interests of vital godliness; and this is often taken at once for a sufficient passport in their favor, as though any body of religionists professing faith in free justification and violent conversion must needs be part and parcel of Christ’s Church, however unchurchly in all other respects. But surely, for a sober mind, it should be enough to expose the fallacy of such thinking to look over the array of sects which is here presented to our view, and see how easy it is for almost the whole of them, if need be, to legitimate their pretensions in this way. All fragments of the Scotch Secession, of course, are one here, however divided in their ‘testimonies’ at other points. They make election the principle of Christianity, turn justification by faith into a complete abstraction, and so nullify the law in one form, only to come too generally under the yoke of it again in another (“The Sect System” in The Mercersburg Review, II , 353-67, reprinted in The Mercersburg Theology, ed. J. H. Nichols [Oxford, 1966], p. 109).
But the Westminster Divines saw faith as a turning to God that entailed a turning away from idols. Thus, they defined faith as inclusive of obedience and repentance as inclusive of faith. To see this, let us consider, first, how they defined faith:
By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (WCF 14.2).
Recently some have tried to insist that only the last sentence is actually the definition of saving faith. The first sentence is a list of other things that are done “by” faith. There are several problems with this idea.
By it [i.e. this repentance], a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.
According to the proffered novel hermeneutic of the chapter on faith, repentance must not be defined as turning from sin to God, but as something else, previous to that turning, which causes one to do it or enables them to do it.
On the other hand, if only the last sentence is counted as a definition of faith, then “faith” would be indistinguishable from wishing one was in Christ, hoping one is in Christ, or imagining strongly that one is in Christ. Justification by faith would degenerate, as John Williamson Nevin once observed, into justification by fancy.
Repentance is required of those who would be pardoned by God precisely because one is justified and saved only by faith. New obedience is not an attempt to be good enough to win God’s favor, nor a checklist of conditions by which one maintains God’s favor. Rather, it is simply faith in God through Christ as he has offered himself in the Covenant of Grace. It is the embodiment of trust in God.
What such a life of faith will look like will vary according to many considerations. Any attempt to make some apparent level of sanctification the condition for salvation is hostile to the Gospel. Indeed, claiming that such a level is merely the “fruit” of faith is no less legalistic and dangerous. Matthew 18 gives us the process by which a professing believer may be considered an unbeliever, and that same chapter strongly warns against judging people or cutting them off from hope simply because of repeated sinning. The question is not how much someone obeys God but if they trust God. That trust, operating within a revealed structure of promise and warning, will be visible to oneself, to others, and to God.