Chapter 15.3, 4, part one

iii. Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

iv. As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent. 

Repentance as 'self-satisfaction' or the 'cause' of pardon?

The first two paragraphs of chapter fifteen tell us what repentance is. It is a work of God's grace that sees us climbing out of the swamp of our sin and despair and walking instead down the straight and narrow path that leads to God and eternal life. But how essential is our repentance to our salvation? These central two paragraphs set out to answer this question.

In the first place, we should not exaggerate the importance of our repentance in salvation. God forgives us when we turn from our sin to him in Christ, but he does not forgive us because he considers our repentance a deed that deserves an award. Nor does he forgive us because he thinks that in repenting of our sin we are atoning for our own wrongs. Our repentance does not earn God's pardon; that was the late medieval view of penance in its crassest form. Penance came to be understood as the sinner's self-satisfaction - the sinner paying the price for his own sin by pious deeds before God. This mind-set is something that we slip into effortlessly, on our own, without lessons in medieval church history.

Here the basic point is that we ought not to think that our change in attitude and action impresses the Lord - a message which the Lord passed on more than once through his prophet Ezekiel. The covenant Lord declared through the prophet that he was going to show mercy to his wayward people. He was going to give them a new heart and cause them to walk in his statutes, and keep his laws. These people were going to be transformed, but they needed to remember that God was not doing it for their sakes; that is, not for anything that they had done or were about to do. He was helping them in spite of them, and only because he is merciful. Their only appropriate stance was shame for sinful ways and gratefulness for the Lord's mercy. Pride for their recent transformations was not to even register on their spiritual radar (Ezek. 36:31-32; Ezek. 16:61-63). 

God's free grace in Christ

We do not rely on repentance as the grounds of our pardon. No, we rely on 'God's free grace in Christ'. It is free grace that God emphasized through the life and teaching of the prophet Hosea. 'I will heal their waywardness', God promised, speaking of those who had come to rely on human helpers and false religion. I will 'love them freely', he went on to say, 'for my anger has turned away from them' (Hosea 14:4; c.f., 14:2-4). 
God justifies penitent people 'freely by his grace' and he does so in Christ, or, as Paul says in Romans 3, 'through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus' (Rom. 3:24). We find this teaching in more than one place in Paul's writing. It is not our new walk of life that saves us; instead, our redemption is through Jesus' blood only. Stated differently, 'the forgiveness of sins' is not in accordance with the quality of our repentance, but 'in accordance with the riches of God's grace' (Eph. 1:7).

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.