The biblical response to the gospel of Jesus Christ is repentance and faith. When the Bible exhorts men to lay hold of gospel grace, at times they’re told to believe (Acts 16:30-31, Jn 3:16, Rom 10:9, Eph 2:8-9, etc.), at other times to repent (Lk 24:45-47, Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30, 2 Cor 7:10, etc.), and at other times both are explicitly mentioned (Acts 20:21; Mk 1:14-15, Heb 6:1). It is often said — and well said — that faith and repentance are like two sides of the same coin; one describing what we turn toward, the other describing what we turn from, but both describing the same turn from different perspectives. Sinclair Ferguson argues both faith and repentance function as a synecdoche, “the figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole. Thus, repentance implies faith and faith implies repentance. One cannot exist without the other.”1 True faith is repenting faith. Likewise, true repentance is believing repentance.
This should make a difference in how we counsel people. An essential part of biblical counseling is helping people pursue true repentance (then, secondarily, exhorting them to perform deeds in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20; Mt 3:8). When you’re trying to lead a counselee to repentance, are you teaching and modeling a repentance that’s explicitly bound together with faith in Christ and his work? You should.
I’ll freely admit that if we’re taking our cues from the Bible’s pattern, we don’t need to explicitly tether all our calls for repentance to gospel faith. Recall that at times the Bible just offers a barebones call to repent, wherein faith is only implied. So it isn’t necessarily wrong at times to tell your counselee to repent, while not offering, “believe in the Lord Jesus” as a concomitant exhortation. According to Scripture itself, that strategy would not necessarily be legalistic, moralistic, graceless, etc.
On the other hand, very often a “standalone” exhortation to repentance in Scripture is explicitly grounded upon the goodness and grace and mercy of God (Joel 2:12-13, Is 55:7, Jer 3:12; cf. Ps 55:1). In these cases, it’s rather obvious that repentance implies trusting in that offer of grace from God, even though there is no direct exhortation to such faith. Along these lines Calvin taught, “For while Christ the Lord and John preach in this manner: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ [Mt 3:2], do they not derive the reason for repenting from grace itself and the promise of salvation?”2 Even the simple “repent or perish” types of exhortations in Scripture (Lk 13:3, etc.) imply a call to hope for divine mercy: Repent, because not perishing is a real possibility before God for sinners!3
Given the broad perspective of the Bible’s teachings on faith and repentance, I think we serve our counselees well to make the connection explicit whenever we teach and call for repentance. In his classic work Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, John Murray taught, “True faith is suffused with repentance”4 (“suffused” means “spread throughout, spread all over, or permeated with”). The inverse proposition is equally true: True repentance is suffused with faith. When I teach a counselee to repent, I want that plan of repentance to have gospel faith spread throughout and all over it. This kind of instruction should be a primary focus in our counseling ministries: showing counselees how to walk in ongoing, gospel-centered repentance.
A Lesson from Ryle
After I began a study on repentance a few months ago, I was struck by how often some of my theological heroes, past and present, wrote about keeping our repentances tightly and explicitly tethered to gospel faith. For brevity’s sake, I am going to share just one example that I found to be particularly stirring.
JC Ryle was one of the last of the great English Puritans. In his book Old Paths he has an excellent chapter on repentance, wherein he continually encourages this faith-suffused kind of repentance. Ryle begins the chapter by giving a thorough explanation of the nature of true repentance. After doing so, he writes that he must add one more important qualification to make his picture of repentance complete:
But now, is the picture of repentance complete? Can I leave the subject here, and go on? I cannot do it. There remains yet one thing behind which ought never to be forgotten … True repentance, such as I have just described, is never alone in the heart of any man. It always has a companion—a blessed companion. It is always accompanied by lively FAITH in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Wherever faith is, there is repentance; wherever repentance is, there is always faith … I am bold to say that the two graces are never found separate, one from the other. Just as you cannot have the sun without light, or ice without cold, or fire without heat, or water without moisture—so long you will never find true faith without true repentance, and you will never find true repentance without lively faith. The two things will always go side by side.5
A little later in the chapter, Ryle warns about counterfeit versions of repentance. Here’s what he says he is most concerned about to ensure one’s repentance is not a sham:
Take heed, above all things, that your repentance is closely bound up with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. See that your convictions [i.e. conviction over sin] are convictions which never rest except at the foot of the cross whereon Jesus Christ died. … Going to Sinai, hearing about the ten commandments, looking at hell, thinking about the terrors of damnation—all this may make people afraid, and has its use. But no repentance ever lasts in which a man does not look at Calvary more than at Sinai, and see in a bleeding Jesus the strongest motive for contrition. Such repentance comes down from heaven. Such repentance is planted in man’s heart by God the Holy Spirit.6
Ryle sounds the same note in the chapter’s conclusion:
May this be our divinity, your divinity, my divinity; your theology, my theology! May repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ be the two great pillars before the temple of our religion, the corner-stones in our system of Christianity! (2 Chron. 3:17.) May the two never be disjoined! May we, while we repent, believe; and while we believe, repent! And may repentance and faith, faith and repentance—be ever uppermost, foremost, the chief and principal articles, in the creed of our souls!7
Amen. Let this kind of repentance be ever uppermost and foremost in our counseling ministries as well. May our counselees, while they repent, believe. Let us take heed, above all things, that their repentance be closely bound up with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Ferguson, Sinclair. “Faith and Repentance.” Ligonier Ministries. June 1, 2003. Accessed October 20, 2017. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/faith-and-repentance/.
2. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. 2 vols. (Louisville, LY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 593–594.
3. Compare Jonah 3:4-4:2 for an interesting parallel.
4. Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 122. Consider also these words from the same work: “The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance … It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith” (pg. 119). ““Christ’s blood is the laver of initial cleansing but it is also the fountain to which the believer must continuously repair. It is at the cross of Christ that repentance has its beginning; it is at the cross of Christ that [repentance] must continue to pour out its heart in the tears of confession and contrition” (pg. 122).
5. Ryle, J.C. “Old Paths.” (Monergism, 2016). Accessed November 2, 2017. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/ryle/oldpaths_p.pdf. Emphasis mine.
6. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
7. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
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