What about repentance?

Sometimes we're asked this question: Given that God has forgiven and accepted all people in Christ, isn't it inappropriate to call people to repentance? Here is a helpful answer from Dr. Gary Deddo. For another post on this topic, click here.

It's appropriate to invite people to repent, so long as we call them to evangelical repentance rather than to legal repentance. John Calvin used these terms to speak of two different approaches on repentance that tend to lead in opposite directions. He noted that legal repentance undermines the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, which is the truth that salvation is by grace alone. More recently, J. B. Torrance, seeing that legal repentance had become predominant in both Reformed and Arminian traditions, urged his students to embrace and teach evangelical repentance.

A call to legal repentance says this: If and only if you repent will God forgive you. This "if we...then God" approach is based on the false belief that our act of repentance conditions God's heart and mind toward us, including his offer of forgiveness. It says that God will not forgive us but remains unforgiving toward us unless and until we repent (to his satisfaction).

A call to evangelical repentance (sometimes referred to as "gospel repentance"), says this: Since God has forgiven you in Christ, therefore repent. This "since God...so you" approach is based on the proclamation of who Christ is and what he has done already--it is a proclamation of the Gospel of grace. From this perspective, repentance is the response to grace/forgiveness not the condition we must meet for God to extend it to us.

The gospel truth is that God's heart, mind, purpose, attitude is already made up toward all people. He is reconciled to us all. He has extended to all his forgiveness without needing to be conditioned by anyone to do so. We do not need to fulfill any conditions to get God to provide for and extend his forgiveness to us. He freely and unconditionally offers us himself in Christ before we even think about responding.

In evangelical repentance, our repentance is a response to Christ and his grace already extended to us because of his love for us. God wants to be reconciled to us before we even think about it. Our repentance, then is the way we receive what God in Christ freely and unconditionally offers us.

Refusing to repent is thus refusing to receive God's grace--his forgiveness. And the consequence of this refusal is that we don't have his forgiveness--we are unable to enter into the full benefits of his forgiveness. Nevertheless, it remains there for us because God is who he is and has done what he has done. We cannot undo that.

Someone who says they acknowledge God's forgiveness but won't repent is not actually acknowledging his forgiveness. A person who presumes upon God's grace is doing just that--presuming upon it--they are not receiving it. Those who are attempting to take advantage of God's grace are doing just that--attempting to take advantage of it--they are not receiving it.

The reality of God's grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ calls for a response--it calls for repenting by faith. This is how we receive the free offer of God's forgiveness extended to us in Christ and by the Spirit.

It is an error, both psychologically and theologically, to present God's forgiveness as a possibility-- as a potential--that depends upon our response (the "if we....then God" formula). But often we think we'll increase the likelihood of someone repenting if we present it this way. But doing so inadvertently appeals to a person's pride thinking their action conditions God. It announces a relativism: God conforms to our responses to him--so who God is, is relative to our response. It really makes us lords of our own lives. We can take it or leave it. We're in charge here.

A call to legal repentance does nothing to stop people from presuming upon and attempting to take advantage of God's grace, his forgiveness. It simply puts the ball in their court--just where they like it! If they want forgiveness they know just how to get it. If they don't want it they know how to avoid it. This approach misrepresents who God is and what he has done. It has the following quite unfortunate consequence:
  1. It presents a God who is in two minds, in two hearts, heading in two directions: being forgiving and being unforgiving--depending upon us and our response. Thus it undermines faith in God, in who he is, because God is then both forgiving and unforgiving. So what can you trust to be true about God? Which "side" of God (as if there are two!) will you encounter?
  2. They get a blurry image of God because it presents two objects to respond to: one that calls forth trust and another that calls forth distrust. This yields a divided, unsure and inconsistent response. It puts us in two minds, in two hearts towards God. We become unsteady in our response.
  3. It presents our relationship to God as if it is based on conditions--on a contractual arrangement between God and us. This is a pagan notion of bargaining with God or seeking to appease God. 
  4. For some, it throws them back on themselves unsure that they are able to respond properly or fully enough to fulfill the conditions, the contract. So they give up or they continue to strive, trying over and over again to sufficiently repent. This hinders them from enjoying the gift of God's forgiveness.
  5. Perhaps worst of all, it makes of no consequence the ongoing mediation of Christ, our High Priest, who acts in our place and on our behalf, even in our acts of repentance. It makes it seem that we have to respond all on our own, as best we can, apart from Christ. Christ's substitution and so his vicarious ministry is severely restricted in this viewpoint to a few moments in his earthly ministry--it takes no account of his continuing ministry as our ascended Lord and Savior.
In short, a call to legal repentance leads to just that--a legal repentance. It fails to bring forth the repentance of faith in the faithfulness of God embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Also, a call to legal repentance tends to lead to a legal Christian life, where one is perpetually trying to find out what they need to do to get God to bless them. This approach is a misunderstanding of the very nature of God's relationship with us and our relationship with him as if it was a contract and not a covenant relationship. In relating to God this way, one ends up acting as if they are a slave and not a friend or beloved child of God.

This issue deserves careful thought. It takes time to sort it out--to figure out how to communicate how a truly evangelical repentance and Christian life are ones of the obedience of faith that avoids falling back into legalisms that run counter to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

For other Surprising God posts on the topic of repentance, click here - here - here and here. For a related article at GCI.org, click here.


Bill Ford said…
It’s been years since I have asked God for forgiveness; that is, since I became assured that we already have it. I confess my sins to the Father in repentant prayer, as per 1 John 1:9-10, and there I am reminded of God’s continuing unconditional forgiveness and help made available in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Steve McVey, in a Grace Communion International “You’re Included” interview with Mike Morrison said, “In fact, it insults the finished work of Christ when you do ask for forgiveness.” Perhaps, exaggeration for effect? At the very least, it is a sad misunderstanding to continually ask God for forgiveness.
By the grace of God, I get that, but when I preached this to the church, i.e., it is not necessary for us to ask God for forgiveness, in the context of 1 John 1:9-10, there was some push-back about the misunderstood bit in the Lord’s Prayer: Father . . . forgive us our debts, as we forgive others. Mike Morrison, in a GCI online article provides a good explanation of what this means in light of Colossians 3:13.
If you, Ted, or anyone, can point to other explanations of this, especially Torrance, et al., in light of God’s unconditional ongoing forgiveness, I would appreciate it.
Again, I am not focusing here on the Amish application of this, rather what appears to be Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to ask for forgiveness, when in fact we have been forgiven by his grace, past, present and future. It seems that many confuse confession and repentance with asking God for forgiveness, an unnecessary and misunderstood request, I think.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Bill for your helpful comment. This is an issue that arises quite frequently as folks wrestle with the objective and subjective aspects of the truth of the gospel. There is an objective truth, established in the person of Jesus. In this context, that truth is that all sin has been forgiven, for Jesus has borne it away on our behalf. But that objective truth (what is true for all), must be personally (subjectively) realized, for it to be meaningfully experienced by the individual.

That being the case, I have no problem personally when people (me included!), pray to our Father in heaven, "Father, forgive me for I have sinned." I pray that prayer knowing that he has forgiven me already, but it is for me a prayer of confession--agreeing with the truth that I am a sinner, and also the truth that God, in Christ, has forgiven me already. I understand what Steve McVey says about this, but, as you suggest, he is using a bit of hyperbole for effect.

In a similar way, I take Jesus' statement in the Lord's prayer to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" as a reflection of this subjective/personal apprehending of our forgiveness. In other words, those who do not extend forgiveness to others, are unable to experience the reality of God's forgiveness of them.

For more about this, see my earlier Surprising God post at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2011/08/is-gods-forgiveness-conditional.html
Ted Johnston said…
Also see my earlier post at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2010/08/is-gods-forgiveness-conditional.html
Bill Ford said…
Thank you for the links, Ted. I had earlier searched for same on the blog using "Lord's prayer", but no hits.

How about this: "Father I have sinned, thank you for your ongoing unconditional forgiveness. Assurance of this draws me confidently to your throne of grace in times of need." Subjective now living within the Objective.
Ted Johnston said…
That prayer is both beautiful and theologically accurate. I like the way many liturgical churches, following the Book of Common Prayer will often have in their services a communal prayer of confession ("Father we have sinned....") followed by the pastor/priest's pronouncement of forgiveness--not forgiveness earned by the prayer of confession, but a declaration of the gospel, which tells us that, in Christ, God has forgiven us.
Tom Mahon said…
In Garry Deddo's article on repentance, not one single text was quoted from the bible to say what type of repentance God requires, nor did Deddo gave any examples of repentance that are found in the bible. Yet the bible is very clear about the type of repentance God requires, and it gives several examples of genuine repentance.

For the benefit of your readers, perhaps you or Garry could address the above mentioned omissions?
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Tom, for a study of the topic of repentance that interacts with many scriptures on the topic, see the GCI article, "Getting a Grip on Repentance" posted at http://www.gci.org/gospel/repentance.