How one views repentance can depend on how one views grace.
On paper, most Christian’s view would be that grace is a gift; on paper. I say on paper because many might agree that grace is a gift but then when they hear the word repent they hear Law. They hear something that they must do. They hear “you have to repent, you have to change your mind”. Yet is that biblically accurate? Does repentance start with me? Is repentance something that I do?
What is Repentance?
Repentance has two parts: contrition and faith. This effect of God’s Law and Gospel is shown throughout Holy Scripture. The Law condemns sinners as guilty and the Gospel or Promise of Grace comforts with a declaration of not guilty for Christ’s sake.
An example of this is (Col 2:14). The record of debt is the Law and Christ cancelling that debt is the Gospel. The Law is the handwriting that condemns and the Gospel is the erasing of that handwriting. A few other examples of contrition and faith (or absolution) are(Psalm 119:28; 1 Samuel 2:6)
The Law Works Contrition
Contrition is the Laws effect on the conscience. When the Law is heard two things happen. Either someone walks away proud or guilty. If the Law is given lightly, one can say “Yeah, I’ve kept that commandment”, or “I can do that”. We can think of how some people might think of adultery or murder in this way. I’m reminded of how Jesus explained those commandments in the 5th chapter of Matthew when He explains that if you have hated or lusted that you have broken those commandments.
He revealed the Law in it’s fullness and when this happens the conscience is burdened with guilt. For all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Who then can stand? (Psalm 130:3) We become like David when he says “I have sinned against the Lord”(2 Samuel 12:13). Contrition is also shown forth in the psalms (Psalm 38: 4,8; Psalm 6:2-3).
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head.
As a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
8 I am faint and severely bruised.
I have groaned by reason of the anguish of my heart. – Psalm 38: 4,8
2Have mercy on me, Yahweh, for I am faint.
Yahweh, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul is also in great anguish.
But you, Yahweh—how long? Psalm 6: 2-3
Contrition is the effect of the Law. It will accuse and terrify the conscience. There is nothing here that is any work that we do for the natural man hates God (Romans 8:7) and this mirror of the Law comes from God to fix our skewed view of our conscience to show us that we are in fact not a good person.
This is contrition and the conscience won’t be quieted until it either drowns itself with it’s own works, or until it finds rest in the Gospel. This is the second part of repentance; faith.
The Gospel Works Faith
The second part of repentance is faith. Just as contrition isn’t something that we muster up from inside of ourselves apart from God’s revealed condemnation of sin though the Law, since through the law came knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), so also faith is not our work either. Christian’s are not semi Pelagians or synergistic. Faith is a gift, not our work (Eph 2:8-9).
Holy Scripture is full of statements and examples of how God first loves, we pull away into sin, and God pulls us back to Him. This is namely the sum of repentance; we pull away, God brings us back. This cycle repeats itself because we are still sinners running after our sinful desires and God calls us back daily. (More on this later).
Faith is a gift that comes by the Gospel (Romans 10:17). This is not something that we muster up in ourselves to soothe our conscience, for how can the natural man, who hates God and fears His condemnation, love his way back to an angry God? We must be brought to God by God. In the comforting promise of Christ we believe that God loves us and is no longer angry with us over our sin. This is how God brings faith; through the Gospel. This is how a terrified conscience is soothed and comforted. Faith grasps the Promise.
The Daily Fruit of Repentance
One can hardly talk about repentance without discussing one important thing. When or how often does one repent? Some think that repentance is a one time deal; you’re saved and now it’s time to do good works. This is sadly how some people think of the Gospel; that it only gets you in the door of Christianity and is only for the conversion of unbelievers.
Yet, repentance, much like the Gospel, is a daily necessity for the Christian. We are sinners and sin is in our very nature. The Gospel and faith are not. They are alien and foreign to our nature. We must have the Gospel always refreshing our tired weary souls.
Repentance, is a daily thing. We daily see our sin, for we always have the Old Adam (our sinful nature) about our necks dragging us to follow those sinful desires. Thus, if we sin, we need forgiveness, how can forgiveness come if not by faith in the Promise that those sins are forgiven?
Out of this daily killing of the Old Adam in repentant faith, good works flow forth. This is where the fruit of repentance grows; from the Gospel, by faith, that is living and active. Good works follow faith, they naturally flow from a repentant heart that has been born again by the Gospel, because we have been loved by God so now we love our neighbor. This new obedience is nothing but the Spirit working in us, this too is not our own doing. While there is some work of cooperation on our part in this new obedience it is like a gnat pulling a cart next to an Ox. If the Holy Spirit (Ox) departs we can do nothing.
Grace and Repentance; Putting it all Together.
The role of Grace in repentance should be clear. Grace comes to us by the Gospel, this is the faith part of repentance. If grace weren’t a factor we would just be left with the Law and it’s burden. It is imperative that we understand that repentance is God’s work of Law and Gospel, to create and sustain faith. This is grace, this is mercy, that you are not left with your sins and the condemnation of the Law.
The love of God, His abundant grace, is given when though the whole world were convicted of sin and damnation, Christ set aside His glory, came down from heaven, became the Godman, fulfilled the requirements of the Law that condemn you, took the punishment that is yours, and died.
Rising from the dead, having taken your unrighteousness and leaving it in the grave, gives you His righteousness by repentant faith. You are now holy, yet still sinner, justified yet sinner, simultaneously justified and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). This is why God grants us His grace in daily repentance. Though we are holy, sinless, and justified, we are still sinful and unclean until death or Christ returns.
Grace is repentance and repentance is grace. You cannot have repentance without faith. Since faith justifies and faith is a gift given by grace. Repentance, therefore, is grace and it is not of your own doing, but an act of grace by God. Without any works for you to soothe your conscience, without any debt left to pay, with your sins forgiven, you are free. Go in peace.