“Repentance…not to be repented of.”
2 Corinthians 7:10
Yes, you must study for confession. But you must also repent and turn to God. How can an unconverted person make a sincere confession of his Lord?
It is unfortunate that Methodism has worked havoc in our Reformed churches in this respect. It was the influence of Methodism, was it not, that in an evil hour led some of our churches to suppose that regeneration and conversion are identical? The implications of that false distinction are these: that the act of God by which regeneration and conversion suddenly and simultaneously occur is experienced by only a numbered few, and is usually experienced by these few at a very advanced age.
Naturally the more thoughtful of those who accepted this notion of the matter felt themselves placed before a choice between two alternatives. Either they could insist upon conversion as a condition for confession, and accordingly refuse to accept into the church those who could not testify that this sudden act of God had accrued to them; or they could accept others also by insisting less rigorously upon “repentance” as an unconditional prerequisite for confession.
Each of these alternatives presented serious difficulties. Suppose they chose the first and granted admission to those only who in the Methodist fashion could speak of a sudden, striking, right-about-face conversion. That would mean that very few individuals could be accepted, and that all instruction in the Christian religion was really superfluous. Suppose that they chose the other alternative, and as a general rule accepted all those who had reached the age of eighteen or twenty. Conversion then would no longer be a prerequisite for confession. “Making confession” would become a kind of examination in what had been learned, would have no real spiritual significance, and would have no import for the future life.
In favor of saving the status of education in religious things, they chose the second alternative, with the result that the “making of confession” was emasculated of its very essence.
This precarious condition can be avoided and remedied only by a reaffirmation of Reformed principles. Persons of truly Reformed persuasion acknowledge and confess that neither parental admonishment nor the preaching of the word, nor the instruction of catechism or Sunday school classes, can avail anything against an unregenerated person who, because he is unregenerated, lives in a state of elemental enmity against his God. Reformed people acknowledge and confess that if such means of grace are to be effective, an act of God must take place within the soul beforehand. In other words, they maintain that conversion and repentance are not identical, and that regeneration, an act of God accomplished in the soul, must take place before that soul can repent and turn to God.
Conversion can be expected only from a person who has been regenerated, and can be expected from him only as a fulfillment of regeneration. That is the Reformed view of the matter.
Almost half of the children who are baptized die before they have reached the years of discretion. Perhaps no one would care to maintain that all who die in infancy are lost. In view of that, and because entrance into the kingdom of God without regeneration is inconceivable, the Reformed churches confess that this act of God as a general rule accrues to the elect person while he is an infant. They do not mean to suggest that because regeneration occurs at an early age, the seed then planted immediately bursts into blossom. Sometimes that seed lies dormant until the person has reached an advanced age. Nevertheless, the glorious assumption that that secret regeneration does take place is the sole and conclusive ground upon which the Reformed churches base their demand that every baptized person must repent and turn to God if he would sit at the Lord’s holy table. If they accepted that the baptized are not reborn, they could not insist upon this prerequisite, for only regeneration enables a sinner to repent and turn to God.
If baptism therefore is to be a baptism of repentance, the church must cling to the conception of regeneration. That conception gives you a founded hope in God when it pleases him to take your children from you in their infancy. It gives you a sharp goad with which relentlessly to urge your children to study God’s word. It prevents you from ascribing such early manifestations of piety as you sometimes observe in your children to their natural guilelessness, but compels you to think of these as the effects of their regeneration. It makes the desire in you eventually to lead your children to the holy supper a holy desire. Above all, the conception of regeneration gives you the freedom and the right always to insist that your children shall repent and turn to God.
In the age of spiritual prosperity our fathers clung to this conception. Because of it, God’s Zion flourished, and thousands upon thousands of souls enjoyed a more beautiful assurance of faith. Hence no one in those days spoke of “being received” by the church; no one thought that a kind of examination in what had been learned had to be successfully passed. They came as soon as possible to confess the Christian religion and to take their places with other believers at the Lord’s table.
But things have changed for the worse since then. Churches insist upon study, study, and more study. Then they demand that an examination be passed in the matter studied. After that, confirmation takes place. Sometimes it seems that then one can attend the holy supper or one can ignore it. Irrespective, however, of whether one attends it or not, of conversion as a prerequisite for confession many seldom think.
Perhaps they do ponder about it sometimes, but in a way that conceives of conversion as a kind of final appeal that must be stressed during the six weeks immediately preceding the time those who desire to confess hope to make their confession. Those six weeks are marked by special drill. Catechism classes meet somewhat longer; a certain party or entertainment must be foregone; the minister speaks somewhat more earnestly; those who plan to confess study harder than usual and conversion is held up as the objective of it all.
We know what frequently happens then. The minister dared not insist too rigorously upon conversion. To use a figure, the whole plant was not rooted in the confession of the fact of regeneration. Words of appealing admonishment had to suffice. But as the parable of the sower has it, much of the seed of that admonishment is snatched up by birds. In other cases that seed grows up luxuriously and rank, and withers away, that is, it causes an emotional upheaval that soon subsides. In the case of others the imparted plea is smothered all too soon by the many attractions life offers. The result is that we seldom hear a man testify that his conversion occurred at the time he was received or at the time of his public confession. It happens, but rarely.
The evils inherent in such assumptions and in such practices can be avoided only by decisively and periodically holding up conversion before a child as his obligation. A child must study before he reaches an age of maturity; that study ought not to be postponed until about three weeks before he hopes to make his confession. They will also admit that much confession should antedate the event of public confession before the congregation. Naturally. They see a person who lives in his daily conduct as though he were ashamed of his Jesus. They see that this person makes his confession and thereafter continues in the same disgraceful conduct he practiced before. Seeing that, they realize that a constant confession is necessary and that confession should begin at childhood. But just as surely as study and confession should begin early, so surely should conversion come to expression early.
You may not let your children grow up without ever causing them to think of the obligation of conversion. You may not let them suppose that conversion is something that gradually happens to older people. If you do, you share the guilt when your children confess publicly without ever previously having thought of the responsibility for conversion.
Every Christian child must be educated to the conviction that he must repent and turn to God. He should be appropriately educated to that in a manner outlined in Lord’s day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Conversion, it should be remembered, means about in one’s way, so that one no longer pursues a way that leads away from God, but one that leads to God and to his Christ. In demanding conversion from a child one demands that he have a sense of direction in his life, a habit of struggling against the sins of childhood, and a simple, childlike knowledge of the fact that he can enjoy a precious peace and happiness in his God.
Any question as to how far one has proceeded upon that new way is beside the point. True conversion is a life-long process. Consequently there is only one relevant question: In which direction are you traveling—to Christ, or away from him? Remember that he who has not repented and turned to Christ cannot and may not make his confession.