WCF 15: Repentance Unto Life

Dear Church Family,

Faith and repentance can be thought of as two sides of the same coin in conversion. Understanding this biblical connection is helpful for both evangelism and the living out of the Christian life. And, properly understanding the biblical teaching that both repentance and faith are saving graces and therefore free gifts of God, will help Christians to avoid some very dangerous errors while seeking to live out their Christian lives.

(1) Faith and repentance are both essential elements of gospel preaching (WCF 15.1)

Chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith begins with a very clear statement concerning the relationship between repentance and faith: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (WCF 15.1). Mark summarizes Jesus’ preaching of the gospel this way: repent and believe in the gospel(Mark 1:15).

(2) The two parts of repentance (WCF 15.2)

There are two parts of repentance. Negatively, one part of repentance includes learning to hate one’s sin, seeking to turn from sin and unto God. The Lord calls His people to return to Him with all of their heart, to fast, weep, and mourn over their sins (Joel 2:12-13). The Apostle Paul means describes how godly sorrow produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation; there is an earnest longing and zeal to turn from one’s sin (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Positively, another part of repentance includes purposing and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of His commandments, to pursue obedience and righteousness. Josiah, one of the kings of Judah, was praised for initiating reforms as he cleansed the worship practices of God’s people from idolatry in keeping with the law of Moses (2 Kings 23:24-25). The Bible speaks of the one who has been converted as having to have been freed from slavery to sin, but now enslaved to righteousness (Romans 6:16-23).

(3) Repentance is not meritorious, but a necessary means of salvation (WCF 15.3)

Repentance is a saving grace, a free gift of God (WSC 87; Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:7). As a free gift from God, the Bible also speaks of repentance as necessary; that is, without repentance none may expect to receive pardon or forgiveness for their sins. When considering the calamity that befell others, Jesus admonishes, “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Preaching in Athens, the Apostle Paul explained that God may have overlooked the times of ignorance, but “is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30).

In this regard – as a necessary means of salvation – repentance is like faith: “Though repentance is not the cause of God’s pardon, we must also be clear that there is no pardon without repentance. Ponder the parallel, even if it is not a perfect one: God requires faith in Christ, but faith does not save us. In a similar way, God requires repentance, but repentance does not save us. However, that does not mean that either faith or repentance remain unimportant to God.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 198).

(4) Repenting of small and great sins (WCF 15.4)

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Each and every sin, no matter how small, is deserving of damnation. If we stumble in one point of God’s law, we are guilty of all God’s laws (James 2:10). Yet, the good news of the gospel is that no matter how great the sin, there is no damnation for those who truly repent. If we forsake our sinful ways and return to the Lord, He will have compassion and abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7). For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

(5) General and particular repentance (WCF 15.5)

It is good and necessary to confess and repent of our general sinfulness and disobedience, but we also ought to go on to confess and repent of our specific sins, as well. In the Scriptures, we find that when sinners experienced the free gift of salvation, they confessed and repented of their specific sins. For example, Zaccheus repented of his thievery and fraud, giving back what he had stolen plus interest (Luke 19:8), according to the commands of Scripture (Exodus 22:1). Likewise, Paul did not simply admit to being the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 12:15), he confessed to having been a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent aggressor (1 Timothy 12:13).

(6) Confession and reconciliation (WCF 15.6)

Of course, every sinner is required to privately confess their sins to God. And, in confessing and forsaking their sins, God promises His mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 32:5-6). After his sin of adultery and murder, David sought the Lord is confession and repentance (Psalm 51). If we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

But there is a place, also, for public declaration of repentance. When a Christian has sinned against a fellow believer (or the church), he ought to make private or public confession of his sin – and then declare his repentance to those whom he has offended (James 5:16). Of course, this does not mean that the believer needs to make all of his sins known to all people, but he ought to be willing to declare his repentance to those whom he has offended or scandalized. And, if someone comes to us, confessing and repenting of their own sins, we ought to forgive them (Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 17:3-4).

Conclusion

Concerning how we understand repentance, Bible-believing Christians should be wary of at least three major errors. First, the Roman Catholic Church has turned repentance into a sacrament, where in the sacrament of penance, it is believed that penance is actually a meritorious work by which sinners make real satisfaction for their sin (add to the work of Christ). Second, and similarly, Arminianism believe that repentance is a work on the part of the individual that is a necessary precursor to regeneration. Third, and very different from the first two errors, there are some who speak of repentance as a ‘dead work’ and therefore unnecessary. Those who hold to this third error are often associated with what Terry Johnson calls “The Grace Boys.”

 

All three errors make the mistake of seeing repentance as a meritorious work. The first two errors treat repentance as a necessary work which makes satisfaction for sin: either an initial meritorious work (Arminianism) or an ongoing meritorious work (RCC). The third error treats repentance as a dead work (even something to be repented of itself!); yet to preach faith in Christ apart from repentance from sin is to preach only half of the call of the gospel (Matthew 3:8; Luke 24:44-47; Acts 24:24-25).

Let us praise God for the saving grace of repentance unto life “whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (WSC 88). 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch