How Repentance Relates to Calling and Covenant
Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura, slated for release by Mentor Books in November 2022.
Faith and repentance go hand-in-hand. Gloriously, we are saved through faith in Christ’s person and work; our repentance is not the effective cause of our salvation. Having said that, no man is saved unless he repents. The one who is saved by the sovereign God receives a new heart, and into this heart the Holy Spirit invariably works both faith and repentance.
Chapter 15 of the Second London Baptist Confession begins by tying repentance in with effectual calling (alongside saving faith) and with the covenant of grace (see Chapter 7 of the Confession). These first two paragraphs contain incidental counsels and exhortations of warning and encouragement concerning repentance before the authors go on to deal with the nature of repentance itself.
We must avoid possible misinterpretations of these two paragraphs, making sure that we understand repentance in the light of the whole counsel of God, and the summary here in the Confession of Faith.
Such of the elect as are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life.
The first paragraph does not mean that only old sinners who have lived for many years in gross or scandalous sins (such as those indicated in Titus 3:3) need to repent, nor that you need to be a gross sinner in order to be sorry for sin. We are all sinning sinners. All people are sinners by nature and by deed, and all need to repent of their sins. Neither should we imagine that it is a pleasant, good or helpful thing to have lived a life full of gross sin before repenting; instead, we should consider that it was our sin that took Christ to the cross. Some people seem to think that you need a record of extravagant sin in order really to know and feel yourself sinful, but this is far from the case. The least sin appears abhorrent to the scripturally-trained conscience under the influence of God’s Spirit.
The second paragraph is not a warrant or license for the people of God to sin, or go on sinning, because God has provided a remedy. Paul thought that the idea of continuing in sin that grace might abound to be repulsive, and spoke against it in the strongest terms in Romans 6:1–14. Neither does it mean that a Christian no longer needs to bother repenting of sin, as is made quite clear.
Rather, these paragraphs might be read as counsels of warning, instruction and encouragement to particular types or kinds of people. The emphasis of the first paragraph falls on the fact that sinners are granted repentance in connection with their effectual calling (see Chapter 10, “Of Effectual Calling”). It is a function of gracious divine power. Writing to Titus, Paul reminds him that “we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:2–5).
Many men and women have spent many years of their life dead in trespasses and sins (sometimes terrible and vile sins) before being converted. Examples include Manasseh, the king of Judah who went so far as to sacrifice his children to idols, but who repented and believed after God took him into exile (2 Chron. 33:1–20); the apostle Paul, the violently arrogant blasphemer who persecuted the church of Jesus Christ until the risen Lord confronted him on the road to Damascus, saving him as a pattern of divine patience and mercy (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Tim. 1:12–16); and, the Philippian jailer, who was about to commit suicide at the prospect of his prisoners having escaped, but was prevented from doing so by Paul, who preached to him salvation in Christ, after which he believed, rejoicing (Acts 16:25–34).
The encouragement of this paragraph lies in the fact that those who have been spiritually dead in trespasses and sins for many years — including the most heinous transgression and appalling iniquity — are not beyond the saving power of God in Christ. Paul was saved as a very pattern of divine longsuffering (1 Tim. 1:16): old sinners, seemingly set in their sinful ways, can and should be preached to, warned, and exhorted to flee from the wrath to come, in the confidence that God can and will call them, and that Christ is willing and able to save all who come to him for salvation.
The instruction of this paragraph lies in the implication that, though such of the elect as are saved after a long life of wickedness are granted repentance unto life, not all of the elect are converted after long years of ungodliness. A child raised in a Christian home might early experience the light of salvation, dawning like the day, rather than flashing like lightning upon their soul in later years. Someone may sit under preaching for a long time, and come slowly to a saving knowledge of Christ; others might hear one sermon and be immediately converted. A crisis experience (like the exile of Manasseh, or the earthquake that awoke the Philippian jailer, or Christ’s confrontation with Saul) might be a legitimate part of a man's salvation, but it is not a necessary part. We should not demand it either of ourselves or of others.
Some who are drawn gradually to faith in Christ might agonize over their lack of such a rapid and distinctive experience of salvation. Yet they should not be building their hopes upon any felt experience in themselves, but rather upon the Christ of salvation. On the other hand, we observe that not everyone who experiences some sort of deep emotional or spiritual crisis (even one that issues in a profession of faith) is necessarily saved. There are other indications of new life in Christ that must go alongside any such experience. The issue is one of God’s effectual call by his word and Spirit, out of death and into life. All to whom that experience occurs receive the grant of repentance.
With repentance and faith now connected to effectual calling, paragraph two further situates repentance within the covenant of grace.
Whereas there is none that doth good and sinneth not, and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall into great sins and provocations; God hath, in the covenant of grace, mercifully provided that believers so sinning and falling be renewed through repentance unto salvation.
This language was first introduced in the seventh chapter of the Confession, concerning God’s covenant. There it was used to identify the free and sovereign determination of God to save his people from their sins in accordance with his most holy, wise, and good purposes. The same language is found in the second paragraph of Chapter 14 on saving faith, where it has precisely the same connection. Believing and repenting are mercies found within the provisions of God’s gracious covenant with his lost people, and cannot be understood or experienced outside of the provisions of that covenant.
The second paragraph contains warning and encouragement for believers falling into sin. The authors probably had in mind the biblical examples of David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, but repented of his sin (2 Sam. 11:11–12:15; Ps. 51), and Peter, who denied the Lord Jesus three times, even with cursing, but who was pierced to his soul by Christ’s look, wept bitterly in true repentance, and was subsequently restored by our Lord (John 13:36–38; 18:15–27 cf. Luke 22:54–62; John 21:15–19). We are reminded here that ‘the best of men are men at best’: every person sins and has sinned, even the best and most sanctified of men (Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20), except Christ. Sin no longer reigns in the Christian — the power of sin is broken (Rom. 6:11, 17–18) — but sin does remain in the Christian, and temptation stirs up that sin and it breaks forth in thought, word, and deed (James 1.13–15), as it did with both David and Peter, who were redeemed men. Observe, too, that though David and Peter sinned awfully (adultery and murder in the former, and the denial of the Lord Jesus in the latter) the principles of repentance taught here are true for every believer with regard to any sin.
This is not told to us so that we can relax about the prospect of falling into sin. Rather, there is an encouragement to the penitent saint who grieves over sin (sometimes truly grievous sin): God has mercifully provided in the covenant of grace that believers who sin might be renewed through repentance unto salvation. The new covenant in Christ is an everlasting covenant, in which the Almighty so puts his fear in the hearts of his people that they will not depart from him (Jer. 32:40). Our Lord himself prayed for Peter, that his faith should not fail (Luke 22:31–32). But notice that the sinning and falling saint is renewed through repentance unto salvation: this is the only path back.
While there is encouragement for the believer who truly repents over sin, there is a fearful warning for those who simply become dull to sin, or who sin and resist all the means that God has provided for their restoration. This is not preservation of the saints regardless of their activity; it is preservation by means of perseverance. A man who goes on in sin without repentance calls into question his profession. It does not matter what he has been in the past: the mark of a true saint under such circumstances is renewed and ongoing repentance for sin, joined with faith in Christ. Then, and only then, can there be any confidence of God’s favour (1 John 1:9–2:2). Someone who goes on in sin without such repentance calls into question the genuineness of his or her profession of faith.
Observe, too, that no believer is bound to fall into some great and public sin; it is not inevitable. Many believers go through life without committing such sins (and every believer will desire and aim to live without such sin breaking out). Great sins and great repentance are not required to validate Christian experience. True repentance is repentance, regardless of the sin or sins over which someone grieves.
Jeremy Walker serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books, and is grateful to preach and to write as opportunity provides.
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