Repentance, Life, and a Baptist Confession
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 in November 2022.
Chapter Fifteen of the Second London Baptist Confession addresses "Repentance Unto Life and Salvation." The location of this chapter in the confession should be noted; it follows on from the saving acts of God, stepping on from his sovereign and merciful deeds to the responses and engagements of those who are the recipients of his effectual call and its consequences (chs. 10–13). It also follows immediately upon the section that deals with saving faith (ch. 14). As professor John Murray said,
“[R]epentance is the twin sister of faith — we cannot think of one without the other, and so repentance would be conjoined with faith [in the order of salvation]. Conversion is simply another name for repentance and faith conjoined and would therefore be enclosed in repentance and faith.”
Faith and repentance can be distinguished, but cannot be disentangled or divided, and no one should attempt to do so; true faith is always bathed in — suffused with — true repentance. Christ saves through faith, and we should not give that place to repentance. Nevertheless, a faith that knows nothing of sorrow for sin, with a yearning for holiness and increasingly complete obedience to the will of God in Christ, is not a saving faith. It is, therefore, both proper and helpful to have faith and repentance standing together in the confession.
It is worth noting that, although we often like to divide up sins into categories or degrees, the repentance dealt with here is repentance for any and all sin. While it is true that there are some particularly vile, scandalous, distasteful or great sins (1 Cor. 5:1), and that some people can be accounted great sinners, no sin in itself is small (Rom. 3:23). Each sin requires covering with the blood of Jesus Christ. Every sin is grievous, an offence against God’s holy law, and to stumble in one point is to be guilty of all (James 2:10). The repentance required of sinners is repentance for sin generally and particularly, and we should continue with that in mind. Every sin is damnable. A single sin not dealt with would be sufficient to take us to hell.
As we consider this topic, we should be clear that repentance is not virtuous in and of itself. Repentance does not merit God’s favor, or oblige him to pardon. Repentance is not the effective cause of God pardoning our sins. Repentance itself is not a satisfaction for sin—that is the work of Christ alone.
While this might seem to be splitting hairs, it is vital that we do not fall into the error of attributing to sinful man what belongs to God and Christ, His Messiah. To rely upon our repentance as in any way entitling us to, or meriting, God’s favor would be to take the glory from Christ, and to make our salvation depend upon a good work.
It is true to say that even our repentance is marred by sin. Not one of us truly realizes the gravity and awfulness of our sin. That failure dishonors God. If we saw our iniquity the way that the all-holy God perceives it, we would be utterly crushed. Though the Holy Spirit might be pleased to make a man “sensible of the manifold evils of his sin” (paragraph 3), we fall short of the glory of God even in realizing what an offence sin is in itself when compared with his holiness and majesty.
Not long after the time of the apostles, some began to make a mistake whereby the concept of ‘repenting’ in the biblical sense was gradually replaced by the idea of ‘doing penance’. These concepts are not the same. To ‘do penance’ implies that we can somehow atone for our own sins, that there are works that we can do to make up for or counterbalance our sinfulness and sins. But true repentance is not a system of weights and balances, whereby we can somehow atone, by ourselves and in our own right, for an equal and opposite weight of sin. Our repentance is not the ground upon which we rest for the satisfaction of divine justice.
Some make penance a virtue by means of which God’s favor is merited by man (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church). This is not at all the biblical doctrine of repentance unto life. Salvation is not of works — not even of works that are good in themselves — lest any man should have grounds for boasting (Eph. 2:8–9). Such an attitude would make repentance an enemy of faith, rather than its twin grace. Repentance is a grace given by God.
Having said that, no man is saved unless he repents. True repentance is necessary before God will pardon our sins, because such sorrow for sin and turning from sin is the response of regenerate heart. When God, in sovereign mercy, creates the heart of man new, the Spirit of God invariably works both faith and repentance in the heart of that man.
So, although we are saved through faith in Christ’s glorious person and finished work and not because of repentance as the effective cause of our salvation, we are not saved without faith in Christ and repentance unto life.
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.
"Repentance and Faith: Preaching Tips from à Brakel" by Jonathan Holdt
"The Ordo Salutis: Repentance" by David P. Smith
The Need for Creeds Today by J. V. Fesko
The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961), 87.
 See the consideration of paragraph five below for more on these issues.