I appreciated Brian’s blog post on the law / gospel distinction narrowly considered. The law—gospel distinction was also highlighted by the godly 19th century pastor/ hymn writer John Newton, he wrote, “The correct understanding of the harmony between law and grace is to preserve oneself from being entangled by errors on the right hand and on the left.” Someone reading Brian’s post may ask: where does repentance fit in? Is repentance then part of the covenant of works or is repentance gospel? We must understand that repentance is gospel truth, it is an essential part of the salvation that the gospel brings. “Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works admitted no repentance; there it was, sin and die. Repentance came in by the gospel. Christ has purchased in his blood that repenting sinners shall be saved.” (Thomas Watson). Repentance has been called an evangelical grace, which declares it is a gospel grace. It is fashioned in the heart of the sinner by the Word and Spirit of God.
Jesus taught that repentance is necessary for salvation. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 15:3). Jesus commanded us to preach repentance for forgiveness of sins to all the nations (Lk 24:47). Paul said “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10). I could keep going, but these texts ought to have made the point. But some will say salvation must come first and then repentance will follow, because we believe we are saved by faith alone. I believe that we are justified by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never naked and alone. It is always accompanied by repentance. Faith is the instrument while repentance is faith’s always companion. That is how Paul talked in his explanations of his preaching (Acts 20:21; 26:18-20). That is how Peter preached in the day of Pentecost where he led with repentance (Acts 2:38), and here (Acts 3:19). What we mean by faith alone is that faith is the sole instrument in our justification. We do not mean that all other saving graces are not present. Francis Turretin gave a good illustration, “the eye alone sees but not when it is torn out from the body”. A bare naked faith without repentance cannot save “because God cannot pardon sin to an impenitent” (Turretin). It does not follow that repentance contributes anything to our justification either instrumentally nor meritoriously. We are justified by faith alone (instrumentally) in Christ alone but the faith that justifies is never alone.
Repentance is essentially a deep change of heart and mind about Christ and our sin that issues forth in a changed life. Repentance is fundamentally an inward act that necessarily moves outward bearing its fruits. In repentance there is a fundamental change of mind, a heartfelt sorrow for sin (2 Cor 7:10; Jer 31:18-19), and a resolve to forsake sin and walk in new obedience (2 Kings 23:25; 2 Cor 12:21). Repentance and faith are two sides of the one coin of conversion. Where the one is, the other will always be. So, “What is repentance unto life? Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavouring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience” (Westminster Larger Catechism Question 76).
This is why Jesus told us to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). We must let our antinomian generation know that repentance is “such a necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it… and is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (WCF 15).
John Goodell is the pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Grant Nebraska. By God's grace he came to know the Lord as a young adult. John attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney and is a graduate of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs. John is happily married to Angela and enjoys all five of his children.