Faith and Repentance
Let’s return for a moment to the hypothetical case of the twin brothers, Jerry and Ed. If the biblical witness to the condition of fallen humanity is to be believed (and if we are Christians it must be believed), neither of these young men, if left to himself, has any desire for Christ or the blessings offered in the gospel. If neither comes to Christ it is not because they want to but are not numbered among the elect or are told that, notwithstanding their desire, God will not let them. If neither comes to Christ it is because they want nothing at all to do with Jesus or anything of a spiritual character. They revel in their unbelief, even if they conduct themselves in what we might call a civil and humane manner. There is nothing in Christ that appeals to them; nothing in his person that might lure their hearts from sin to salvation.
Then it happens. Whether gradually, over a period of months, or with the suddenness of a spring thunderstorm, Jerry’s heart is softened toward to the truth that he once hated. The reality of his sin and the eternally precarious position in which it has placed him grip his soul, and he shudders at the thought of having offended an infinitely righteous and holy God. Ed, who heard the same gospel proclaimed, cannot understand this sudden change in his brother. What Jerry now finds altogether lovely, Ed continues to loathe. Jerry’s unbelief disappears under a flood of repentance and whole-souled love for Christ. By an act of his will, Jerry embraces the redemptive sufferings of Jesus as his only hope and haven. He willingly repudiates sin and reliance on self, and with joy reposes in Christ. But Ed remains obstinate, and now even more indignant, in his unbelief. Finally, like the two thieves crucified on either side of our Lord, they leave this world: Ed in unbelief, Jerry in Christ.
Here is the critical question: What made Jerry and Ed to differ? The Arminian insists that what made Ed and Jerry to differ was Jerry. The ultimate and only sufficient reason Jerry believed and Ed did not is that Jerry exercised his own free will. Because God foreknew from eternity past that Jerry would believe and Ed would not, he elected Jerry to be an heir of eternal life, leaving Ed to his rightful recompense.
The Calvinist, on the other hand, knowing that because of the total moral depravity of both Jerry and Ed neither brother could or would believe, finds the reason for the difference between them in God and his unconditional, sovereign grace. Both Jerry and Ed desired and therefore deserved to be left to their sin and its inevitable outcome, eternal death. But for a reason hidden deep within his heart, God loved Jerry with an everlasting love and made a gift to him of both faith and repentance.
In saying that faith and repentance are God’s gifts to Jerry but not to Ed, we are not to think of them as some sort of material, tangible stuff that comes gift-wrapped with a red ribbon! The Bible portrays faith and repentance as God’s gifts to his elect in order to emphasize that although Jerry is the author of these actions, God is the ultimate cause. Jerry willed to believe, but only after and because God provided him with the power. Thus, Jerry’s repentance from sin and his faith in Christ are portrayed as gifts because they flow from God’s sovereign grace. Jerry did not earn them or obtain them by fulfilling some condition. It was not because God saw in Jerry certain qualities of character or potential for good that were absent from Ed. It was not because Jerry’s hair was slightly darker than Ed’s, and that God prefers black hair to blonde. Rather, to use the language of Scripture, “for although the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, [Jerry was elected] in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls . . . “ (Rom. 9:11).
Both Jerry and Ed were spiritually dead in their trespasses and sin. Neither man had a claim on divine favor, nor did he want it. But Jerry came to life, whereas Ed did not. Why? Just as Lazarus rose up and went forth from his grave because God infused him with physical life and breath, so Jerry was infused with a new principle of spiritual life by which he rose up and came to Christ in faith and repentance. In a subsequent study I will describe in more detail the order or process in this experience. But for now, let us see if Scripture warrants our description of faith and repentance as gifts of God’s grace rather than the effects of man’s alleged free will.
Relevant Biblical Texts
on Faith as a Gift of God
Let us take note of three passages relating to saving faith. The first is Ephesians 2:8-10.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
What exactly is the “gift” (v. 8) of God? Arminians have often appealed to a point of Greek grammar that they believe makes it impossible for “faith” to be the “gift” to which Paul refers. The word faith, they argue, is feminine in gender, whereas the pronoun translated that (“and that not of yourselves”) is neuter. Had Paul intended to describe “faith” as the gift he would have used the feminine form of the pronoun. To what, then, does the word that refer? What is the “gift” of God?
Some point to the “grace” (v. 8) by which we have been saved. But the word “grace,” like “faith,” is also feminine in gender. Therefore, if “that” which is not of ourselves cannot refer to “faith,” far less can it refer to “grace,” which has the added liability of being even farther removed in the sentence from the pronoun “that”. So what is Paul saying? What is the antecedent of “that”?
Clearly the “gift” of God is salvation in its totality, a salvation that flows out of God’s grace and becomes ours through faith. From beginning to end, from its inception to its consummation, salvation is a gift of God to his elect. Consequently, that faith by which we come into experiential possession of what God in grace has provided is as much a gift as any and every other aspect of salvation. One can no more deny that faith is wrapped up in God’s gift to us than he can deny it of God’s grace. All is of God! Salvation is of the Lord!
Consider also what Paul says in yet another text. In Philippians 1:29 he writes, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” What may have been difficult to understand in Ephesians 2 is inescapably lucid in Philippians 1:29. The startling thing about this verse, however, is not that belief in Christ is a gift of God but that suffering for Christ is!
The translation “it has been granted” does not bring out the fullness of Paul’s meaning. We are not to think of either suffering or believing in Christ as simply a concession on God’s part. We often speak of “granting” something to someone, but mean that we somewhat reluctantly give our permission or acquiesce to what we otherwise may have been opposed. Not so here. The Greek word Paul uses means “to give graciously and freely.” In other words, God delights in making these a gift to us. He does it lovingly and with all the exuberance of a father who takes joy in the blessedness of his children. Thus, suffering in the Christian life is not always imposed as a punishment, nor does it come haphazardly as if some calamity befell us outside of God’s will and power. Suffering for Christ’s sake, just like believing in his name, is a privilege which God in loving mercy and gracious concern gives us.
One other passage that speaks to the issue of faith as a gift of God is 2 Peter 1:1. There we read, “Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Peter refers to his readers as recipients of a faith that is in no way inferior to that of the apostles. The NIV translates it “a faith as precious as ours.” Others prefer to interpret Peter as saying that the faith of these Christian men and women to whom he writes places them in the same privileged position as the apostles, with equal access to the Father through the Son.
What is of paramount importance here is the word translated “have received.” It is related to a verb that means “to obtain by lot” (see Luke 1:9; John 19:24; Acts 1:17). Thus, faith is removed from the realm of human free will and placed in its proper perspective as having originated in the sovereign and altogether gracious will of God. For it is not by chance or the luck of the draw that some come to saving faith, but by virtue of the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Relevant Biblical Texts
on Repentance as a Gift of God
But what about repentance? Does the Bible also portray it as a gift of God? We may begin with a passage from 2 Timothy:
“And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2:24-26).
The apostle exhorts young Timothy to be gentle and patient with people in the hope that God might deign to grant them repentance that leads to the knowledge of the truth. People are by nature incapable of repenting of their sin, not because they want to but are hindered by God or by circumstances beyond their control. They are incapable of repentance because it is their nature to love sin, not hate it. They choose not to repent; they prefer to persist in their sinful and rebellious ways.
If a man is to repent he must be enabled by God to do so. He must be “granted” repentance as a gift. Whether or not a person repents, says Paul, is ultimately up to God. It rests with him and his sovereign good pleasure to give or to withhold that which leads “to the knowledge of the truth.” That God does not bestow this gift universally is self-evident. Were repentance something that God gives to all, Paul would hardly have said “if perhaps” God may grant repentance. Clearly he envisions the real possibility that God may not so grant.
It is important to note that in Paul’s mind God’s sovereignty in no way minimizes Timothy’s ethical obligation or the urgency with which he fulfills it. Paul does not say, “Relax, Timothy; don’t worry about how you act. After all, whether or not these people repent is in God’s hands, not yours. So ease up and do as you please.” Paul knew that Timothy’s patient love may well be one means utilized by God in the gracious bestowal of repentance. Thus, once again we see that the antecedence of divine sovereignty does not undermine the moral significance or necessity of human volition.
Do not be misled by inaccurate statements about the teachings of Calvinism. It is not as though contrite and sorrowful sinners stand before God pleading that he grant them repentance, but God, locked in by his cruel decree, refuses to heed their request. There is “none righteous,” says Paul, “not even one.” There is “none who understands,” there is “none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11). If any should repent, he will be saved. But none will repent unless God graciously grants it to him.
This foundational truth is echoed in the Book of Acts: “And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18; see also 5:31). When Peter and his associates witnessed the saving response to the gospel on the part of these Gentiles, to what conclusion did they come? Was it that by free will they met the conditions on the basis of which God would elect them? God forbid!
Peter saw their response and could only deduce that God had made a gift to them of repentance. Peter would not need to have drawn such a conclusion if repentance were a universal gift that all receive. He sees and hears their faith in Christ, from which he concludes that God granted them repentance. If everyone, even those who persist in unbelief, are granted repentance, Peter could not and would not have reasoned as he did.
As it was for Peter and Paul, so with us, this doctrine will radically affect our motives and methods in evangelism. J. I. Packer has explained how:
“While we must always remember that it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. It is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. We must not at any stage forget that. For if we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only Good can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize” (J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God [Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1961], p. 27).
Once we begin to think that faith and repentance are in man’s power to produce, we shall adopt those methods and contrived devices by which to extract them from him. We would become sinfully pragmatic: whatever works to secure a decision is for that reason deemed acceptable. Knowing what the gospel is would be only half the task. We would also need to develop an irresistible technique for evoking a response. The truth or falsity of an evangelistic method, therefore, would be determined solely on the basis of the fruit that it allegedly bore. Furthermore, Packer continues, “we should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing” (28).
But it is not right, Packer concludes, when we take it upon ourselves to do more than God has commissioned us to do:
“It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish what only God can accomplish. To do that is to intrude ourselves into the office of the Holy Ghost, and to exalt ourselves as the agents of the new birth. And the point that we must see is this: only by letting our knowledge of God’s sovereignty control the way in which we plan, and pray, and work in His service, can we avoid becoming guilty of this fault” (29).
In bringing this lesson to a close I want to urge you not to conclude rashly that the New Testament evidence for faith and repentance as gifts is sparse simply because I have discussed only five passages (pellucidly clear, though they be). I assure you, the New Testament is replete with texts that assert the divine initiative in salvation. We will examine those texts in a subsequent lesson. Here I have purposely restricted our study to passages in which faith and repentance are explicitly referred to as gifts of divine grace.
At this juncture someone might also object: “But what if Jerry (or any elect person) should refuse or even abuse the gift? Just because God gives us faith and repentance does not guarantee that we will accept and use them, does it?” It most certainly does! But again, this is an issue that I will take up later. For now, suffice it to say that election must be unconditional, because the so-called conditions upon which the Arminian suspends it are beyond man’s ability and willingness to meet. If Jerry repents and believes the gospel, it is because God has sovereignly and graciously enabled him to do so; and if Jerry would only take time to consider the matter, he would surely agree. The testimony of Charles Spurgeon as to his own conversion illustrates what I have labored to explain:
“One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, ‘How did you come to be a Christian?’ I sought the Lord. ‘But how did you come to seek the Lord?’ The truth flashed across my mind in a moment – I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, ‘I ascribe my change wholly to God’” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, vol. 1, The Early Years, 1834-1859 [reprint ed.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973], p. 165).