Who’s First?: The Relationship Between Faith and Repentance

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One of the controversies within The Marrow Controversy, which Sinclair Ferguson has recently dedicated an entire book to explore, is the relationship between faith and repentance. The historic controversy that fueled disagreement and dissent in Reformed Scottish churches some 300 years ago revolved around whether or not repentance precedes faith. In other words, should Jesus Christ–as he is revealed in the gospel–be offered to those who show no signs of repentance? Is it possible to come to Christ without first turning from sin? Where does repentance logically fall in the economy of the gospel? Before or after faith?

Historically, those who have answered that repentance is not necessary for the gospel to be proclaimed or even intellectually and willfully accepted have been accused of antinomianism. Conversely, those who have answered that repentance is necessary for the gospel to be proclaimed and received have been labeled as legalists. In his new book, The Whole Christ, Ferguson deals with the historical, theological, and biblical implications of this issue thoroughly.

The relationship between faith and repentance and where they fall in the ordo salutis isn’t a conversation merely fit for ivory towers and seminary classrooms. Understanding the relationship between faith and repentance drastically impacts the preaching, teaching, and evangelistic ministries of the church. It also takes a right understanding of God’s grace to stand in reverent awe of God’s glory. Understanding God’s sovereign grace in rescuing his people from sin produces Godward adoration. Seeing a big God of booming grace is fuel for the fire of personal holiness and living a God-centered life. So, considering the implications of the relationship between faith and repentance is practically useful for every Christian.

Let’s consider the relationship between faith and repentance for a moment. There is a natural tendency for us to see repentance as a necessary precursor to faith. After all, when we see how good God is in comparison to how bad we are, shouldn’t this cause us to desire to turn from sin and embrace Christ? In order to run to Christ, don’t we first need to turn from our sin?

First, it is important to remember that turning from sin and trusting Christ occur (experientially) instantaneously. The Christian does not know repentance of sin or faith in Christ without the other. Neither is merely an instantaneous action, though. Repentance and faith mark the whole life of a Christian. Ferguson puts it this way:

Repentance is not a discrete external act; it is the turning round of the whole life in faith in Christ…Repentance then is not the punctiliar decision of a moment but a radical heart transformation that reverses the whole direction of life. In the context of faith the repentant sinner is immediately, fully, and finally justified–at the very beginning of the Christian life (The Whole Christ, 100).

There is so much rich truth in that quotation. Repentance and faith begin in an instantaneous moment. But they do not end there. Repentance and faith only end when faith becomes sight and sin is no more. The key issue in the relationship between repentance and faith is whether a volitional act (repentance) can be accomplished apart from the reception of God’s saving grace through saving faith. In other words, can repentance live outside the garden of faith? The Westminster Divines, including Thomas Boston, as well as John Calvin before them would answer emphatically, “Absolutely not!”

True repentance cannot exist outside of true faith in Christ. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, it is only “upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ” that sinners repent of sin. Calvin would write, “Both repentance and forgiveness of sins–that is, newness of life and free reconciliation–are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith.” And with surgical precision, Thomas Boston declared, “In a word, gospel repentance doth not go before, but comes after remission of sin, in the order of nature.”

True repentance cannot exist independently and true faith won’t! For while repentance never precedes faith, it always follows it. Faith motivates repentance. Boston wrote, “Faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in him, and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit.” Faith is the heart’s glad apprehension of Christ in the gospel, and it is always pregnant with repentance. The heart that is awakened and resurrected to see Christ as a superior treasure has been given new tastes. Sin has for the first time become distasteful to the palette of the soul. And our hearts have had their inaugural good taste of Christ in the gospel.

God is only desired and sin is only despised when the heart receives Christ in his fullness as Savior, Lord, and Treasure. In the words of Edward Fisher,

Sorrow and grief for displeasing God by sin, necessarily argue the love of God; and it is impossible we should ever love God, till by faith we know ourselves loved of God.

No man can turn to God, except he be first turned of God; and after he is turned, he repents…The truth is, a repentant sinner first believes that God will do that which he promiseth, namely, pardon his sin, and take away his iniquity; then he rests in the hope of it; and from that, and for it, he leaves sin, and will forsake his old course, because it is displeasing to God; and will do that which is pleasing and acceptable to him. So that first of all, God’s favor is apprehended, and remission of sins believed; then upon that cometh alteration of life and conversion.

First, we believe that God will do what he promises to do in Christ, pardon our sin by his propitiation. Then, and only then, will we “forsake our old course” and find our sin utterly displeasing to both God and ourselves. Seeing repentance as the fruit of faith results in three implications:

1. Your standing with God is not on the basis of a volitional act of morality or mortification of sin

God’s grace is conferred in the gospel to sinners through saving faith, which is the reception of the gift of God’s grace in Christ. True faith is a glad reception of Christ. It is the product of regeneration–God’s work in giving life to a dead heart. God is not waiting for you to act in a particularly penitent way before uniting you to himself. God saves you in Christ by his grace and through faith.

2.You do not have to wait for signs of repentance before sharing the gospel

Those who have freely received Christ freely offer Christ indiscriminately. It is Christ who saves! Faith is the heart’s glad reception of the whole Christ and all he has done for sinners. The ordo salutis has great evangelistic implications. If you are waiting for signs of repentance before offering Christ, you will likely rarely offer Christ. But because faith precedes repentance, we know the only way for a person to be truly transformed is for them to see and savor the Christ of the gospel. So, offer Christ indiscriminately, knowing that God’s grace in the gospel creates faith, which produces true repentance unto life.

3. If you have trusted Christ you have the power to turn from sin

Because faith precedes repentance and repentance is a necessary fruit of faith, sin has no power over you. Before you trusted Christ, sin had total dominion over you. You were never truly sorrow for your sin. You never adequately desired God or pursued holiness. But after you saw Christ and delighted in what you saw, which is the act of saving faith, sin’s grip has been eternally loosed by the power of the cross. Your life can now be a continuous work of trusting and turning. As Calvin has said, “A man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.”

Only through the “explosives power of a new affection” will a sinner have a life marked by trusting Christ and turning from sin. This new affection is the product of God’s grace, received by faith, and played out in repentance and obedience.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

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