Any true repentance will only ever be borne in our lives when we come to see that Christ was crucified for sinners and that He freely receives and welcomes sinners. A sight of God’s great mercy in Christ fuels saving repentance. It sees, as Richard Sibbes so eloquently put it, that “there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.”
It is not uncommon to come across statements on repentance on social media. Most of these come in the form of atomistic sayings. Some of these statements–though well-meaning–are simply theologically inaccurate. Others lack biblical nuance. Many fail to connect repentance to the good news of the gospel. Still others gives the impression that repentance is a legal and preparatory cause of the application of redemption. This is no novel error. The entire history of Christianity has, to some extent, been shaped by debates over the proper understanding and practice of repentance. What, then, do we learn from a consideration of historic treatments of repentance? And, how ought we to give biblical nuance to our definition of repentance?
Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, noted the way in which an error in regard to the doctrine of repentance permeated the church in the early centuries after the Apostles. He wrote,
“In those first centuries, the doctrine of the application of salvation was not at all developed and in part already steered in wrong directions early on. Although there are a few ‘testimonies of evangelical truth’ here and there, on the whole the gospel was soon construed as a new law. Faith and repentance were generally regarded as the necessary way to salvation but were ultimately the product of human freedom. Though salvation had objectively been acquired by Christ, to become participants in it the free cooperation of humans was needed. Faith as a rule was no more than the conviction of the truth of Christianity, and repentance soon acquired the character of a penance that satisfied for sins. The sins committed before one’s baptism were indeed forgiven in baptism, but those committed after baptism had to be made good by penance. Penitence was frequently still viewed as sincere contrition over sin, but the emphasis shifted increasingly to the external acts in which it had to manifest itself, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so on, and these good works were viewed as a “satisfaction of work.” Soteriology was altogether externalized. Not the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit to the heart of the sinner but the achievement of so-called good—often totally arbitrary—works was regarded as the way of salvation. Christian discipleship consisted in copying the life and suffering of Christ, which was vividly portrayed before people’s eyes. Martyrs, ascetics, and monks were the best Christians.”1
This was not simply an error in the early centuries of the Christian church. The antithetical distinction between penitence and repentance lay at the heart of the Reformation. Luther’s ninety-five theses were not theological expositions of justification by faith alone (although they would later be inexorably linked to his theology of justification); rather, they were a corrective to the legalism of the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance.
In the post-Reformation era debates ensued over the nature of faith and repentance.