Blog 104: 3.4.1 - 3.4.3

Sean Lucas

After discussing what the biblical doctrine of repentance is, Calvin moves to show how medieval theologians failed to understand repentance correctly. He structures the section around the medieval division of repentance into three parts: contrition (3.4.1-3), confession (3.4.4-24), and satisfaction (3.4.25-3.5.10). And in each part, he demonstrates the pastoral failure of the medieval approach to these issues.

The failure of the medieval approach to contrition was quite simple. Medieval theologians demanded that contrition for sin--weeping bitterly for sins to demonstrate one's displeasure and hatred toward them--be "just and full." The problem came in the fact that it was never determined "when a man can have assurance that he has in just measure carried out his contrition" (3.4.2). Further, if the bitterness of one's sorrow was to match the magnitude of the crime, how could one muster up appropriate levels of contrition: "if they say that we must do what is in us, we are always brought back to the same point. For when will anyone dare assure himself that he has applied all of his powers to lament his sins?" (3.4.2) 

By believing that forgiveness is conditioned on how contrite one was for her sins, there was no pathway for a genuine assurance of pardon. Against this faulty pastoral approach, Calvin reminded his readers that "we have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord's mercy alone" (3.4.3). Jesus is the only resting place for the hearts of anxious sinners. Amen.