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Calling to Repentance and Faith

One of the most important aspects of the gospel is its emphasis on repentance and faith. This two-part emphasis is seen throughout the Bible and across different characters and events. Familiar stories include Paul on the road to Damascus, David turning away from the sin of adultery, and even Joseph’s brothers coming to repentance years after their sin. Strikingly, much can also be learned where repentance and faith are absent, including the examples of Judas Iscariot in his plot against Jesus and Esau, who sold his birthright. Throughout most of these stories, aspects of faith and repentance are connected with good works, but they are also kept distinct, as we will see. 

Although faith, repentance, and good works are often found together in Scripture, they are separate concepts. In his blog series “Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness,” Rev. Martyn McGeown helps readers understand these distinctions. First, he defines repentance as being “a change of mind.”1 However, repentance does not end in changing the mind; it bears fruit. The initial fruit of repentance is that we turn away from our sin and we stop committing it. The additional fruit of repentance is that good works flow out of it.  

While repentance is defined as a change of mind and a turning away from sin, the Heidelberg Catechism defines good works as “those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory.”2 Notice that repentance is not in the definition of good works. McGeown explains this distinction by noting that the regret (or sorrow) we experience in repentance does not fulfill the law of God, which requires simple obedience.3  

An example of this is seen in Esau’s life. Esau sold his birthright for one morsel of meat and was rejected by God. Hebrews 12:17 says that “he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” While Esau’s reaction was one of regret, it was a regret over missing his chance at a blessing rather than a turning from his sin. Simply having regret does not make us right with God. Rather, there needs to be a proper regret with true sorrow and turning from sin to show the fruit of repentance. 

The Bible makes another further distinction between repentance and good works. In Acts 26:20 the apostle Paul explains that the content of his preaching to the Jews was “that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Likewise, Revelation 2:5 gives the command, “Repent, and do the first works.” In both instances, repentance comes first, and good works follow. Though often seen together, repentance and good works are separate activities.  

An especially clear example of this is seen in Paul’s life. Paul describes his life before his conversion in Galatians 1:13 when he says, “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.” Before his conversion, Paul did not do good works; rather, he persecuted and destroyed the church. He was, however, eventually converted and brought to a true faith, which led to repentance and finally good works. It is the fruit of his labor that we still see today in God’s word, many books of which were written by Paul. 

Although repentance and faith cannot be separated in the same way as repentance and good works, one ought to recognize the difference. The Catechism defines faith as a “certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart.”4 McGeown describes repentance and faith as being two sides of the same coin: “By faith we look to Christ and by repentance we look away from sin.”5 Therefore, there can be no true repentance without faith in Christ. A person can only hate sin and draw near to God if he loves God already (James 4:8). And a person can only love God if he has true faith.  

An example of the relationship between faith and repentance can be seen in David’s repentance after his sin with Bathsheba. David cries out in Psalm 51:1, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” This is a heartfelt plea that can only come from true faith in God and from the heart of a repentant believer. Therefore, while faith and repentance are separate activities, they are always connected in the life of the believer. 

The distinct activities of repentance and faith are connected under the broader theme of conversion, which is a necessity in the Christian life. In fact, according to Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, “Man’s conversion in this life is so necessary, that without it no one can obtain everlasting life in the world to come.”6 The Bible teaches in John 3:5, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Being born (again) by “water and…the Spirit” is God’s work of conversion, which produces repentance and faith in his elect children. To be saved, therefore, one must repent and believe.  

Ursinus’ commentary also describes the effects of conversion, which are that the believer has a true love for God and the neighbor. This love shows itself by the believer’s desire to obey God’s commandments without exception, to live in good works, and to convert others by leading them toward salvation.7 These fruits of conversion demonstrate that God is working in us, through Christ and the Spirit. By God’s sovereign operation we have faith, which leads to repentance and a life dedicated to good works.  

Scripture is filled with stories that provide important examples of faith and repentance, from David to Paul. While understanding the difference between repentance, faith, and good works is significant, each of us needs daily to hear the call of the gospel to repent and believe. This daily work of conversion, graciously provided by our heavenly Father, is the true hope of the gospel. 

Michael is a senior in the nursing program at Calvin University. He is a member at Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church.