Repentance and Salvation

Repentance is necessary for the forgiveness of sins.

To teach that repentance follows justification and pardon is to teach contrary to the language and meaning of Scripture.  It is to teach that we can and should expect pardon without repentance because we are pardoned before (logically or temporally) repentance.  It is to teach a form of carnal Christianity because impenitent sinners are justified and pardoned. It is to teach that we can receive Christ as Savior but not as Lord


One issue that is periodically debated in Reformed circles concerns the relationship repentance has with justification, and more particularly with forgiveness.  The Bible clearly states that repentance is necessary for forgiveness (Isa. 55:7;Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). Accordingly, the Westminster Confession of Faith says that repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it (WCF 15.3).”  The bone of contention, therefore, is not if repentance is necessary, but how it is necessary. Is repentance an antecedent condition or a consequent condition of forgiveness?  In other words, do you need to repent in order to receive forgiveness or do you need to repent because you have been forgiven? Does repentance precede or follow (logically or temporally) forgiveness?

This debate may seem to some to be an example of splitting hairs, not worth the time of day. But it is important for at least two reasons.  First, we need to be clear on what the Bible says we need to do or not do for forgiveness. The forgiveness of our sins is no small matter. Second, we need to avoid the twin errors of legalism and antinomianism, as well as falsely accusing the brethren of these errors.  A right understanding of repentance in relation to salvation will help us do that.

Does repentance precede or follow forgiveness? The answer will, of course, depend upon the meaning of the word “repentance.”  John Calvin often used it in a broad sense to refer to the “whole process by which a sinner turns to God and progresses in holiness (John Leith, John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 66).”  Repentance in this sense follows forgiveness.  God doesn’t wait for us to be sanctified before he forgives us. 

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