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.