The Ordo Salutis: Repentance

It summarizes all that John the Baptist, Jesus and Jesus’ apostles preached (Mt. 3:2; 4:17; Mk. 1:15; 6:12). It defines what it means to preach and teach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is, in other words, the summary message of Scripture and the fundamental character that marks true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is repentance from sin.

Martin Luther (1486-1543), who is largely credited with igniting the Protestant Reformation, affirmed in the first of his ninety-five theses, that when the Lord Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mt. 4:17) he meant that the whole of life was one of repentance. Not only was Luther correct, but he also compels us to investigate the definition and character of repentance. After all, if the entire life of the Christian is summarized as repentance, then it stands to reason that we need to know what this thing called “repentance” is and how it is that we can and should do it.

About 125 years after Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the 17th century Westminster Divines set out in their Confession of Faith and Catechisms to teach what Scripture affirmed regarding repentance. It was necessary because the Roman Catholic Church had failed to preach and live by this cardinal biblical doctrine. Question 87 of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith asks: “What is repentance unto life?” The answer given is: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, 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 endeavor after, new obedience.” This is an excellent summary explanation of what the Bible teaches about repentance.

First, note that biblical repentance is “unto life,” because it is turning away from sin, which is death, (Rom. 6:23) and turning to God, who is life (John 1:1-5). The presentation of repentance and faithful obedience to God as turning away from sin and turning to God is found repeatedly in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 5:32-33; Lev. 19:4; 1Ki. 8:33; 2Chron. 6:26). Ezekiel 14:6 states it clearly: “Therefore say to the house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: ‘Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.’” Repentance, then, is not merely the rejection of particular thoughts, desires and actions that violate God’s Ten Commandments, but the practice and pursuit of thoughts, desires and actions that please God, or those that are in keeping with his Ten Commandments. After all, Jesus came to fulfill God’s Law (Mt. 5:17-20).

This brings me to our second point, one that we have already noted in Luther’s first thesis. Repentance is not simply a one-time act at the beginning of the Christian life, but the very DNA that defines that life. Repentance marks the daily life of the true Christian, the person who endeavors after new obedience to God. In Mark 1:15 we read Jesus having said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” Believing the gospel is the positive expression of repentance. Both verbs—repent and believe in Mark 1:15 are present active imperatives. In other words, repenting and believing the gospel are not two actions that are merely done once in the Christian life, but rather are done repeatedly or continuously by the true Christian. This is why the Apostle Paul preached the gospel in writing his letter to the Roman Christians—people who had already believed the gospel (Romans 1:1-17).

Thirdly, we need to emphasize that because repentance is a saving grace it is a gift from God. Peter and the other apostles made this clear in Acts 5:31, “God exalted him [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Herein is a definition of who is the true “Israel” of God—those who actually repent of sin. Later Paul would write in Eph. 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not from you but the gift of God.” How does this reveal that repentance is the gift of God? It does so because Jesus taught that an unavoidable aspect of repentance is believing the gospel. Since we are saved from sin by Jesus through faith in him and repentance is the necessary expression of this faith in Jesus, we must conclude that repentance is God’s gift.

But fourthly, repentance only occurs when we apprehend the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. That is, as we recognize and receive the mighty and majestic mercy of God in sending his own Son to live the life we could not, but must, and to die upon a God-forsaken cross for our sin, and then to rise victoriously over the grave and ascend into heaven to continue to intercede for those who believe in him, we are overwhelmed. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! Such mercy! Such grace! Those who know it are grieved by and hate their sin, and then run, like Peter did to the empty tomb, to know forgiveness for sin and reconciliation with their Heavenly Father. For them, repentance from all that violates God’s Law is a joy, because it is their life.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.