Have you ever been in a situation where you were sure of your knowledge of a thing only to realize that after years of certainty, you don’t understand it at all? Take our current American political landscape, for instance. For the first time in my lifetime, I learned about the possibility of an objection to the electoral votes casts by states in November handled by congress every January 5. Previously, I was unaware of the January process for congress’s formal approval of electoral votes (probably because I don’t follow politics closely). Maybe you’ve had this experience with car mechanics, internet technology, or even cooking—you were sure of something that turned out to be different, perhaps even radically different. I am having this experience with the doctrine of biblical repentance, so I wonder how many of us truly understand what it is and how God uses it in our spiritual growth? Let’s start with where Biblical repentance starts for us—when we turn from the rejection of Jesus Christ as the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation to receive him. Only God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience lead us to repent of our cold, defiant hearts toward him. I pray that we will thank God for his goodness, which alone rescues us from his righteous judgment and wrath.
In the middle of a narrative about the sinfulness of all people and the consequences of rejecting God, Paul writes, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4-5) “Paul disagrees with much of the Jewish teaching of his day, according to which the Jews were not storing up wrath but were in good standing with God through their covenant relationship, not needing to meet God’s standard of perfect obedience but needing only an intention to obey God.” (1) Many people today also believe that by not stealing, murdering, lying, committing adultery, or coveting, by attending church, not using God’s name, and honoring their parents, they have earned God’s favor and escape from wrath at the final judgment. But they do not love God, only fear his punishment. “Theologians make a distinction between two kinds of repentance. The first is called attrition. Attrition is a false or spurious kind of repentance. It involves remorse caused by a fear of punishment or a loss of blessing…motivated by an attempt to get a ticket out of hell or to otherwise avoid punishment. Contrition, on the other hand, is true and godly repentance.” (2) Our sinfulness is a reality; arrogantly thinking that we are ok, acceptable, or good enough to earn God’s favor is the sin of pride—idolatry and self-justification, as if God didn’t exist. Many people believe in what I call “salvation by death,” as if everyone who dies goes to heaven by default.
“’Do you presume’ is probably directed against Jews who thought that their covenant relationship with God would shield them from final judgment. After all, they had often experienced his kindness and forbearance and patience. They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.” (3) After years of Bible study, I have adopted a particular order of praying in the morning, including confession. I first recognize God’s attributes, then give thanks. I find it very easy then to move into repentance. I can only do this because of God’s gifts of faith and repentance that I received from the Lord when I was lost, unworthy, and utterly unaware of his grace. I thank God for His kindness, tolerance, and patience that led me to repent of my cold, defiant heart toward him. God rescued me, as he does all believers, from his righteous judgment and his wrath for sin.
“We do not earn salvation by our repentance; nevertheless, Scripture says we do not belong to Jesus apart from repentance. If we profess faith and yet do not seek to follow Christ—who commands us to repent—we do not have saving faith in Jesus (Matt. 7:21-23)… Repentance and faith can be distinguished but they cannot be separated. Saving faith is a repentant faith, and authentic repentance is repentance that trusts in Christ. Daily as we follow the Savior, we should be grieving our sin, asking for forgiveness, trusting in Jesus, and asking Him to strengthen us to serve Him. That is the way of repentance.” (4) Louis Berkhof invites us to see repentance, not as a work we do, but “According to Scripture repentance is wholly an inward act, and should not be confounded with the change of life that proceeds from it. Confession of sin and reparation of wrongs are fruits of repentance…true repentance never exists except in conjunction with faith, while, on the other hand, wherever there is true faith, there is also real repentance. The two are but different aspects of the same turning,—a turning away from sin in the direction of God…the two cannot be separated; they are simply complementary parts of the same process.” (5) Have you thought of repentance in this way? Let’s be glad to think about this idea in light of Scripture.
“Some people even claim that if we say repentance is necessary for salvation we’re adding works to the gospel. They claim that if repentance is required then we’re no longer saved by God’s grace alone, but by what we do as well. But what does the Scripture say? Jesus says, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32) Jesus told his disciples to proclaim ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ in his name to all the nations (Luke 24:47). When the apostles preached in Acts, they called people to repent of their sins in order to be forgiven (See Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:32, 17:30, 20:21, 26:20).The apostle Paul makes it clear that those whose lives are characterized by sin ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 6:9-10; see also Rom. 8:12-13, Gal. 5:21, Eph. 5:5). According to the unanimous testimony of Scripture, repentance is absolutely necessary in order to be saved. Only those who turn from their sin, trust in Christ, and live lives that are characterized by righteousness will be saved on the last day. But then is repentance a ‘work’ we must perform in order to earn our salvation? Not at all! repentance and faith are really two sides of the same coin. Repentance is turning from sin. Faith is turning to, trusting in, and relying on Christ. Repentance is not a ‘work’ any more than faith is: we simply renounce our sin and rely on Christ.” (6)
In Romans 2:4-5, “Paul has spoken of two paths open to human beings as a result of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience. One path is the path of contempt for God’s blessings. The other path, the one Paul recommends, is repentance. Paul argues that the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God are to lead us to repentance. But will this happen?” (6) “There is an interesting image suggested by Paul’s language at this point, for Paul speaks of the stubborn and unrepentant person ‘storing up wrath’ for the day of God’s judgment. [“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5)] It is the image of a greedy individual, a miser, who has been storing up wealth which, contrary to his expectations, is destined to destroy him…That is the way it is for those who pile sin upon sin and show contempt for God’s kindness…They think of their sins as building up a life of future happiness and freedom. But each sin is actually a storing up of wrath.’” (8) “I want to give you three reasons why you should allow [God’s] attributes to lead you to repentance and should no longer despise the goodness of God. First, if God is a good God, then whatever you may think to the contrary in your fallen state, to find this good God will mean finding all good for yourself…Second, if God is tolerant of you, it is because he has a will to save you…Third, if God is patient with you in spite of your many follies, it is because he is giving you an opportunity to be saved…If God is good in his patience, his reason for being so must be to do good. His patience must be to give you opportunity to turn to him.” (9)
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” (Psalms 130:3-7)
Additional Related Scripture: Psalm 119:128; Job 42:5-6; 2 Corinthians 7:10; 2 Peter 3:15.
- English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Romans 2:4-5, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.
- The Reformation Study Bible, Article: “Repentance” (p. 1964), Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015.
- ESV Study Bible Notes, Ibid.
- Ligonier Ministries, “Repentance Required,” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/repentance-required/
- Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Scriptural View of Repentance”, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993.
- 9Marks, “Is repentance necessary for salvation?” https://www.9marks.org/answer/repentance-necessary-salvation/
- Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 2:4-5, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
- Boice, Ibid.
January 8, 2021