Blog 98: 3.2.43 - 3.3.4

Iain D Campbell

Sometimes Scripture uses faith and hope as synonyms, joining them closely together. They have the same foundation and the same goal - to rest in the mercy of God, abandoning ourselves to him.

But faith has another companion also - any discussion of faith, says Calvin, that neglected 'repentance and forgiveness of sins' would be 'barren and mutilated' (3.3.1). Calvin's introduction to this theme is worth quoting:

It ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered through the preaching of the gospel in order that the sinner, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of vices, may cross over into the kingdom of God, surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance (3.3.1).

The fact that Christ and the apostles emphasised the duty of repentance is not to suggest, says Calvin, that repentance precedes faith. The emphasis is 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'; the advent of the kingdom requires faith, and faith in it is what issues in repentance.

But it is not as though faith begets repentance, and brings it to birth after a long period of gestation. Repentance is the result of a deep, personal interest in God - and there can be no awareness of God without faith in him. Those who are serious about God fear him, and those who fear him repent before him. They are not like some Anabaptists or Jesuits, says Calvin, who prescribe to new believers a few days for penance and repentance; true believers know that repentance before God is the work of a lifetime, precisely because it is faith's constant companion.

Calvin is aware of a definition of repentance which says it consists of mortification - the hatred of sin which makes one wish one were another man - and vivification - 'the consolation that arises out of faith' (3.3.3). The primary act in repentance is to deal with the sins that are there; the secondary act is to look to the goodness of the mercy and grace of God.

Calvin is happy to distinguish between these elements of repentance, but not to separate them, and not to insist that one always follows after the other. The two acts of abhorrence of our sin and appreciation of God's grace are constantly working hand in hand.

He is also aware of the view that there are two kinds of repentance - evangelical and legal. Repentance of the law he understands as the wounding of the conscience by the law, with its consequent moral inability to find peace. Repentance of the gospel he understands as a similar wounding of conscience, with a subsequent laying hold of Christ 'as medicine for his wound' (3.3.4). In the latter case, faith is present.

Again, while Calvin is happy to employ the terminology, he does not wish to confine evangelical repentance to New Testament believers - Hezekiah, the Ninevites and David he cites as those who lived under the older covenant, yet experienced gospel repentance, since, by faith, they were brought to bitter weeping yet not to hopeless despair. They found grace as they turned to God.