Does God forgive us based upon our repentance? We covered a couple of problems with such an idea in our previous post. This time around, I want to canvass what I would suggest is the real killer to the whole idea: it overturns justification by grace through faith alone.
What does God require of human beings? What does his law require (whether contained in the Mosaic law, the wisdom literature, the Prophets, the teaching of Jesus, the book of James or Ephesians)? The Bible has various ways of articulating it: God requires us to worship him alone—to seek his glory. God requires us to love him with all our heart, soul and strength. God requires us to keep his commandments and fulfil his law. God requires us to serve him—to live our lives in his service.
What, then, is sin? Again, there are various descriptions that each correlate to the above requirements: sin is to commit idolatry—to worship someone or something other than God; it is to rebel against God and to be at enmity with him; it is to break his commandments and to be lawless (for sin is lawlessness); it is to seek our interest ahead of the kingdom of God.
That is, sin and the law are opposites. God’s commands, exhortations, instructions and the like draw a picture of what he requires from human beings—what it means to be good. And those requirements are fundamentally the same no matter where you turn in the Bible. Paul and the Pentateuch are in fundamental agreement as to humanity’s obligations before God. Sin is to not discharge those obligations. Accordingly, it covers the full gamut of human existence: it involves both our treatment of God in our fundamental attitude and our specific acts in the way we treat others. It is all sin.
So what, then, is repentance? Repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to God. It is to stop doing what is wrong and to start doing what is right. It is to amend one’s ways. Just as godliness (or the law) and sin can be defined in many ways, so can repentance: we can stress the moral dimension of what we do, or the relational attitude of our stance towards God. But it is all of one piece.
As 1 John 4:20b says, “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”. If repentance means to stop being God’s enemy and to start loving God, then that must also mean repentance means to start loving my brother or sister. And as 1 John 5:3a says (“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments”), so loving God also means doing what God commands. Even if you try and limit repentance to just turning from sin (and not sins) and turning to God (and not to godliness or to morality), then you are still forced, by the teaching of Scripture, to include the latter aspects in the former. Repentance means to stop doing wrong and to start doing what is right—both attitude and action, both God and our neighbour.
So do we really want to say that God does not forgive us until we repent in this robust biblical sense of what repentance is? For the Bible’s notion of repentance is, as I suggested in an earlier post, part of what theologians mean when they talk about ‘good works’. It is a good work to love God, to love one’s neighbour, to fulfill the law, to keep God’s commandments and to worship God. These are all ‘good works’—things we do that please God—and if they were done perfectly, they would lead to a judgement of ‘this person is righteous’ on the Last Day. Repentance means stop working evil and start doing good.
So do we really want to say that God’s forgiveness is conditional on us beginning to do good works—even if it’s “only” the good work of resolving to leave sin and to begin to love God? Why then the Reformation? Any Catholic worth their salt would be happy with a forgiveness from God that is conditional on us loving God first. Faith plus works (repentance) is the Catholic understanding of the basis of justification.
So let’s run through the issues raised half a millennium ago. How much repentance is necessary to meet the condition? How perfectly does God need me to love him before he will forgive me? Are they linked? To the degree that I love him, is that the degree he forgives me? Jesus stated in Luke 7:47b that “he who is forgiven little, loves little”. But it actually works the other way: “He who loves little is forgiven little”.
Or perhaps it will be suggested that there’s just some basic level of repentance that we need to meet and then we get full forgiveness. We can’t do repentance worthy to merit God’s forgiveness, but we can do repentance that is good enough, and God will treat it as though it has earned forgiveness; a mustard seed of repentance is enough. As long as we make just the first step away from sin to God—as long as we harbour just a small desire to be God’s friend, say—then that is sufficient. Here too the scholastics already own this ground, with the medieval view that God’s grace is shown by the way that he takes our inadequate efforts and treats them as though they are more than what they strictly are.
The Reformers considered this point to be so important that it was written into our confessions. Consider Article XIII Of Works before Justification from the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church:
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.
Works done before the grace of Christ are not pleasant to God. Why? Because they do not spring from faith in Jesus Christ. So a repentance that occurs before salvation is a repentance that occurs before grace is received. If it occurs either at the same time as faith or before it, then it can not be caused by faith. And whatever is not of faith is sin. And so, the article goes on to stress, such works do not make men or women fit to receive grace; they cannot form a basis for God’s grace. They are sin. So to say that God forgives because we repent—that he forgives because we try and turn from our sin and turn to him—is tantamount to saying that he forgives our sin because of our sin. That door isn’t just shut; it has been welded closed, and blast doors thick enough to resist a thermonuclear explosion have been placed in front, with the whole construction being guarded by sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. You simply cannot pass that way. When it comes to us and God, we repent because we are forgiven, not in order to win it. As Article XII Of Good Works makes clear, even our love for God as regenerate Spirit-led believers is so corrupt—so far less than the perfect repentance that we should offer—it merits damnation on its own terms. Only in Christ is our repentance acceptable to God. So how could our repentance be a condition needing to be met to be able to be united to Christ?
I gently suggest that people reconsider their view of what we are capable of doing as sinners. This is because behind the idea that God’s forgiveness is based upon our repentance is either a shrinking of the nature of repentance or a rejection of our inability to truly do something that pleases God in and of itself, and not only in Christ. We are either more confident in our abilities to please God than we should be, or we have reduced God’s demands down to a point whereby we think that even we can fulfil them.
The irony (as is often is the case) is that this was all clearly and helpfully addressed by Calvin in the Institutes centuries ago—in Book III chapter 3. Anyone wishing to grow in their understanding of this essential teaching could do much worse than carefully working over his treatment of the topic there. It is, I would argue, directly following in Calvin’s footsteps (even as he follows the teaching of Scripture), part of the glory of the gospel that it frees us from sin’s hold on us. Both sin’s guilt and condemnation, and its mastery of us is broken by the gospel. That means that repentance is not the precondition for the gospel, but its fruit. True faith produces repentance, just as it produces love. Because grace produces repentance just as surely as it produces a righteous standing before God, repentance is the surest sign that someone has been forgiven, and the absence of repentance removes any grounds we have to treat someone as a brother or sister in Christ. However, that correlation is not because our repentance causes God’s forgiveness, but because God’s forgiveness breaks the hold of sin upon us and so sets us on the path of righteousness. God’s forgiveness causes repentance, and that’s why repentance is the evidence of faith and of justification. Repentance is a gift of the gospel, not its precondition. It is part of the glory of the gospel. What God rightly demands of us but we could not do, he gives us to us when he forgives us and unites us with his beloved Son. We do not say no to ungodliness in order to prepare the way for grace but, as Titus 2:12 says, the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness” (NIV). And for this, we praise God.