What does biblical repentance mean?

On Repentance

by John Calvin (abridged)1,2

1. Though we have shown how faith possesses Christ, and how by means of faith we enjoy His benefits, yet the subject would still be left in obscurity, unless we describe the effects which we experience. Faith must lead us to repentance.

2. The argument, that repentance rather goes before faith, is based on the preaching of Christ and John the Baptist, wherein they first exhort the people to repentance; and that the Apostles were commanded thus to preach (Acts 20:21).

Yet, when we speak of faith as the origin of repentance, we dream not of any space of time which it employs in producing it. Those who prescribe to their young converts certain days, to work out repentance before they could be admitted to the communion of evangelical grace, have erred. Anabaptists and Jesuits prescribe such a period for repentance which a Christian ought to extend throughout his whole life. These people also err in regarding repentance, merely as a product of terrors of conscience, without first having tasted a knowledge of grace. We say that a man cannot devote himself to repentance, unless he knows himself to be of God; and no man can know he is of God, until he has first received His grace.

3. Concerning repentance, some learned ancients have said that it consists of two parts—mortification and vivification. Mortification they explain to be the sorrow of the mind, and the terror experienced from a knowledge of sin and a sense of Divine judgment. This first part of repentance is also called contrition. Vivification they explain to be the consolation which is produced by faith; which contemplates the goodness of God, and the mercy and salvation bestowed through Christ. It is a feeling of re-invigoration, a recovery of courage. I cannot fully coincide with such an explanation of vivification, which should rather signify an ardent desire to live a holy life.

4. While there are those who see repentance as co parts, there are others who teach two kinds of repentance. One kind of repentance is called Legal, and the other Evangelical.

By Legal is meant that condition in a sinner, wounded by sin and harassed by fear of Divine wrath, in which he is deeply distressed, but has no power to extricate himself. Examples of such are Cain, Saul and Judas.

Evangelical repentance is discovered in all who have been distressed by a sense of sin in themselves, but have been raised from their depression, and re-invigorated by a confidence in the Divine mercy, and converted to the Lord. Examples of such are found in Hezekiah, the Ninevites and David.

5. Though these observations are true, the term repentance, as far as I can ascertain from Scripture, must have a different acceptation. Repentance cannot exist without faith. Now though these two cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished; and while they are indissolubly united, they are connected and not confounded. I am also well aware, that under the term repentance is comprehended a complete conversion to God. The Hebrew word for repentance denotes conversion or return. The Greek word signifies a change of mind. Repentance itself corresponds very well with both etymologies, for it comprehends these two things—that, forsaking ourselves, we should turn to God, and laying aside our old mind, we should assume a new one.

6. But before we proceed further, let us explain the definition we have given, in which there are three points. In the first place, when we call repentance “a conversion of the life to God,” we require a transformation, not only of the external actions, but in the soul itself (Ezekiel 18:31). The prophets speak of the circumcision of the heart, and Jeremiah speaks more clearly, “If thou wilt return, 0 Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me: . . . Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:1, 3, 4).

7. In the second place, we represented repentance as proceeding from a serious fear of God, a fear of the divine judgment. The fear of judgment should give man no interval of rest, but perpetually stimulates him to a new course of life, that he may be able to appear with security at judgment (Jeremiah 4:4; Acts 17:30, 31).

Godly sorrow is, therefore, the cause of repentance. Godly sorrow is not only dread of punishment, but abhorrence of sin itself, from a knowledge that it is displeasing to God. The fear of God is called the beginning of repentance also for another reason; because though a man’s life were perfect in every virtue, if it be not devoted to the worship of God, it may be commended by the world, but in heaven it will be only an abomination. The principal branch of righteousness consists in rendering to God the honour due to Him.

8. In the third place, we need to explain our position on repentance as consisting of two parts—mortification of the flesh and the vivification of our own nature, which is full of wickedness and perverseness. Mortification reminds us, how difficult it is to forget our former nature. We cannot be formed to the fear of God, and learn the rudiments of piety, without being violently slain by the sword of the Spirit.

9. Now if we truly partake of Christ’s death, our old man being crucified by its power, so that the corruption of our former nature loses all its vigour (Romans 6:5, 6); and we are partakers of the resurrection, we are raised by it to a newness of life which corresponds with the righteousness of God. Repentance is therefore equated with regeneration, the end of which is the restoration of the Divine image in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:23, 24).

Now this restoration is not accomplished in a single moment, or day, or year; but by continual and sometimes tardy advances. The race of repentance runs during our whole life.

10. Thus, the children of God are liberated by regeneration from the servitude of sin; not that they have already obtained the full possession of liberty, and experience no more trouble from the flesh, but there remains in them a perpetual cause of contention to exercise them. And not only to exercise them, but also to make them better acquainted with their own infirmity. All sound writers are agreed, that there still remains in a regenerate man a fountain of evil, continually producing irregular desires, which allure and stimulate him to the commission of sin. Augustine calls this, fountain of evil infirmity, which we, on the contrary, deem to be sin. We maintain, therefore, that sin always exists in the saints till death, because their flesh is the residence of that depravity of concupiscence [lust; violent desire].

11. But when God is said to “cleanse” His Church (Ephesians 5:26) from all sin, we refer this phrase to the guilt of sin, than to the existence of sin. It is owing to the mercy of God, that saints are delivered from this guilt, who would otherwise be justly accounted sinners and guilty because of the continuing existence of sin in their bodies.

12. Sin has caused the natural appetites of God, implanted in us, to become insolent, and to resist the commands of God. Our appetites are therefore so corrupted, that disorder and intemperance are visible in all our actions. In a word, all the desires of men are evil; and they are considered sinful, not as they are natural, but because they are inordinate [beyond usual bounds; unrestrained]. And we affirm they are inordinate, because nothing pure or immaculate can proceed from a corrupted and polluted nature. Where Augustine says, “that the law of sin remains in the saints, and that only the guilt is abolished,” he sufficiently indicates that he is not averse to our opinion.

13. Augustine speaks more fully on the continuing existence of sin in the saints, in his second book against Julian, “This law of sin is both abolished in the spiritual regeneration, and continues in the mortal flesh; abolished, since guilt is removed in the sacrament, by which believers are regenerated; but continues, because it produces those desires against which also believers contend.” In his forty-first homily on John, he says even more explicitly, “If in the flesh you serve the law of sin, do what the apostle himself says—’Let not sin reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof ‘ (Romans 6:12). He says not, let it not exist; but let it not reign. As long as you live, sin must necessarily exist in your members; let it at least be divested of its kingdom, so that its commands may not be fulfilled.

14. Some Anabaptists imagine frantically, that the children of God, are restored to a state of innocence and are, therefore, no longer obliged to restrain the licentiousness [lust] of the flesh. They ought rather merely to follow the leadings of the Spirit, under whose direction it is impossible to err. This is madness and sacrilegious presumption. In Christ, they say, there is no more the distinction in our behaviour between chastity and fornication, sincerity and knavery, truth and falsehood. Dismiss (they say) all vain fear; the Spirit will command you nothing that is evil, provided you securely and intrepidly resign yourself to His direction. But what do the Scriptures teach about the work of the Spirit? Is He not given for our sanctification, to purify us from all our pollutions, and lead us to obey the Divine righteousness? But the Anabaptists, hiding under the Spirit’s direction, would allow an unlimited licence. The truth is that, though we are purified by His sanctification, we are nevertheless encompassed with numerous vices and great infirmity, as long as we are burdened with the body. Wherefore, being at a great distance from perfection, it behoves us to make continual advances; and strive against vices every day. Now the Apostle’s testimony is that he was buffeted by “the messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 9), that his strength might be “made perfect in weakness” (Romans 7), in his conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.

15. There are seven things which are connected with repentance according to the Apostle, whether they be causes or effects, or parts of it. These are carefulness, excuse, indignation, fear, vehement desire, zeal, revenge.

For behold this selfsame thing, that you sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things you have approved yourselves to be clear [innocent] in this matter.  (2 Corinthians 7:11  KJVER).

Carefulness, or solicitude, is produced by godly sorrow. One who has sinned against God is affected with a serious sense of displeasure, and stimulated to a diligence, that he may completely extricate himself from the snares of the devil.

Excuse, or self-excuse, signifies not a defence to escape God’s judgment, either by denying his transgressions or extenuating his guilt, but an excuse in deprecation of punishment, an excuse to obtain pardon.

This is followed by indignation, in which the sinner laments within himself, expostulates with himself, and is angry with himself, while he recollects his perverseness and ingratitude to God.

The word fear denotes the trepidation with which our minds are penetrated, whenever we reflect upon our demerits, and on the terrible severity of Divine wrath against sinners.

Desire denotes the diligence in duty and alacrity of obedience, to which the knowledge of our faults ought to be a most powerful stimulus.

Zeal, which is immediately subjoined to desire, signifies the ardour with which we are inflamed by such thoughts as, “What have I done? Whither had I precipitated myself, if I had not been succoured by the mercy of God?”

The last is revenge, or punishment. The greater our severity is towards ourselves, so much the stronger hope that God will be merciful. Every soul, who is impressed with a dread of the Divine judgment, must inflict some punishment on himself. Truly pious persons experience what punishments are contained in shame, confusion, lamentation, displeasure with themselves, which arise from a serious acknowledgement of their transgressions.

On this subject of the emotions connected with repentance, Bernard admonishes, “Sorrow for sin is necessary, if it be not perpetual. I advise you sometimes to quit the anxious and painful recollection of your own ways, and to arise to an agreeable and serene remembrance of the Divine blessings. Let us mingle honey with wormwood, that its salutary bitterness may restore our health.”

16. Now, with regard to the fruits of repentance, they are the duties of piety towards God, and of charity towards men, with purity in our whole life. The fruits of repentance must first come from the internal affection of the heart. Therefore, Joel says, “Rend your heart, and not your garments” (Joel 2:13), while in James it is thus expressed, “cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded” (James 4:8).

17. What is said above, by Joel and James, properly belongs to repentance; but weeping and fasting, which some consider to be the principal part of repentance, are rather as circumstances belonging to a particular case.

Whenever the Lord appears to threaten us with any calamity, it is right for the pastor to exhort his people to weeping and fasting; provided it is insisted on the principal point, that they must rend their hearts, and not their garments.

Fasting is not always concomitant of repentance, but is appointed for times of peculiar calamity. But the life of the pious ought at all times be regulated by frugality and sobriety, that it may appear to be a kind of perpetual fast.

18. As I have said above, that repentance is an internal conversion to God than an external profession; to repent “in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21) is only a public species of confession. It is not necessary, in all cases, publicly to make men witnesses of our repentance. A private confession to God is a branch of true penitence which cannot be omitted. And it is not only necessary to confess our sins from day to day; more grievous sinning should lead us to recall even those long buried in oblivion. We learn this from David’s example. Being ashamed of a recent crime, he examines himself back to the time of his conception, and acknowledges that even then he was corrupted with carnal impurity (Psalm 51:5).

19. Repentance and remission of sins are twin blessings of grace offered in the Gospel. Thus John “came, . . . preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3, Mark 1:4). The Apostles also, after His resurrection, preached that Christ was exalted by God, “to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Repentance is preached to show men they are corrupt; and, therefore, it is necessary for them to be born again. Remission of sins is preached, when men are taught that Christ is made unto them “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). Both these blessings, we have previously shown, are apprehended by faith. However, remission of sins should be carefully distinguished from repentance.

20. Wherefore, when God offers remission of sins, He requires repentance on the part of the sinner, even as hatred of sin is the commencement of repentance. It is necessary, if we desire to abide in Christ, to strive for this repentance all the days of our lives (Isaiah 59:20; 55:6, 7).

Plato says, that the life of a philosopher is a meditation of death. We may assert with more truth, that the life of a Christian is perpetually employed in the mortification of the flesh, till it is utterly destroyed, and the Spirit of God obtains the whole domination in us.

21. That repentance is a peculiar gift of God, from the doctrine just stated, precludes the necessity of a long discourse to prove it. That repentance is “given” is emphasized by Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:25, 26); and admired by the Church, as it is stated that “then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Repentance is so “given” or “granted” by the efficacious working of the Spirit of regeneration. Hence we are called God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10).

The Apostle, intending to exclude apostates from all hope of salvation, asserts, that “it is impossible . . . to renew them again unto repentance

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5 And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, 6 If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame (Hebrews 6:4-6).

This passage describes God’s wrath in hardening the reprobate; and his vengeance against wilful apostates who, when they depart from the Gospel, trample on the blood of Christ. Again, “if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment” (Hebrews 10:26, 27). The Apostle’s teaching is in harmony with our Lord’s, who affirms that “all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. . . . neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matthew 12:31, 32).

22. The unpardonable sin of the reprobate against the Holy Ghost is committed by those who, though they are so overpowered with the splendour of the Divine truth that they cannot pretend ignorance, nevertheless, resist with determined malice. This they do merely for the sake of resisting it. Those who ignorantly revile Christ, but at the same time are open to the truth if revealed to them, are pardonable: “whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven Him” (Matthew 12:32). But those who are convinced in their conscience, that what they have heard is God’s Word, and yet reject it, they are said to blaspheme against the Spirit. This is so, because they strive against the illumination they receive, which is the particular work of the Holy Spirit. Examples of those who unpardonably resist the Holy Spirit are found in the Pharisees whom the Lord rebukes.

23. The rejection of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, that is unpardonable, is not to be equated with those who transgress the Word of the Lord by a dissolute and licentious life. Those who are unpardonable are those who professedly renounce all His doctrines. These are they who, with deliberate impiety have smothered the light of the Spirit, rejected the taste of the heavenly gift, alienated themselves from the sanctification of the Spirit, and trampled on the Word of God and the powers of the world to come. This they have done “wilfully” (Hebrews 10:26).

24. There are those who object to the teaching above, as being too severe and inconsistent with the Divine clemency, that pardon should be refused to those who flee to the Lord. This is easily answered. For the Apostle affirms not that pardon is denied to them who turn to the Lord, but he absolutely denies the possibility of their attaining to repentance, who are stricken with eternal blindness by the righteous judgment of God, on account of their wilful rejection and ingratitude. Esau is such an example, who vainly endeavoured with weeping and tears to recover his lost rights of primogeniture [the right of the eldest son to inherit his father’s estates]. “Though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them” (Jeremiah 11 :11). Such forms of expression signify neither conversion nor invocation of God, but the anxiety felt by the impious in extreme calamity. “Crying” and “weeping” only signify that dreadful torment, which excruciates the impious with the agonies of despair. The reprobate, in their crying and weeping, are never converted; and while they seem to seek God, at the same time they continue to flee from His approach.

25. But it is inquired, since the Apostle denies that God is appeased by a hypocritical repentance, how wicked Ahab had obtained pardon when he “humbleth himself before me [God],” with sackcloth (1 Kings 21:27, 29)? I answer, it was nothing to rend his garments, while his heart remained perverse. Yet, we see how God is inclined to clemency. Hypocrites even are sometimes spared for a season, not so much for their sakes, as for a public example. Ahab’s “pardon” was merely a stay of execution of God’s wrath, which finally broke out over his family, while he himself, at the end of his life, went to his eternal doom. Nor is Esau’s temporal benediction granted, for his tears, any agreement for pardoning the reprobate. Therefore, let us learn to devote our exertions with more alacrity [cheerful readiness] to sincere repentance; for God readily forgives those who are truly and cordially converted. But, what dreadful vengeance awaits all the obstinate, who, with impudent countenances and hardened hearts, despise and ridicule the Divine threatenings.

References and Notes

  1. An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Book I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 215-223, 1997.
  2. My emphases added. One set of verses inserted (Hebrews 6:4-6). KJV used throughout except where indicated.

About John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.
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