Perhaps the most deadly feature of hyper-Calvinism is the idea that one must first discover certain qualifications of the Spirit’s work in his heart before he has warrant to believe in Jesus. Over the centuries hyper-Calvinists have taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that a certain amount of remorse for sin or love for Christ must be located the soul in order for a person to know that he is elect and has warrant to believe in Jesus for salvation.
Once accepted, however, this damnable notion can keep many souls from Jesus and salvation. Happily, the New Testament does not require any qualifications of the sinner before he come to Christ. The call is to “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Jesus calls to sinners, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
What About Repentance?
But what about repentance? Aren’t we commanded often in Scripture to turn from our sin? Yes, and as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, repentance is necessary for salvation.
“Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5)
“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Act 3:19 NASB)
But what is repentance, and what is its relation to faith? The Greek word typically translated repent means “to change one’s mind.” The picture is of a person changing his mind about who Christ is and turning from a path of rebellion and indifference to follow after the Savior. Yet, repentance is not “a discrete external act,” as Sinclair Ferguson rightly notes; “it is the turning round of the whole life in faith in Christ” (The Whole Christ, 100).
Repentance, therefore, is not something we must do before we come to Christ; it is something that we do in coming to Christ. Consequently, true repentance can never be exercised apart from faith because there must be some nutrient of belief in Christ’s pardoning grace if repentance is going to be genuine. Another way to say it: true faith is always repentant faith, and real repentance is always faith-filled repentance. And we will be in danger of advocating either legalism or cheap grace if we allow a distinction to become a separation between these two concepts.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Speaking of Calvin and his understanding of how faith and repentance functioned together, Ferguson helpfully comments:
Calvin…insisted on giving priority to faith. Only within the context of faith taking hold of Christ in whom we find the grace of God to us can repentance be evangelical….Christ should be presented in all the fullness of his person and work; faith then directly grasps the mercy of God in him, and as it does so the life of repentance is inaugurated as its fruit (The Whole Christ, 100-01).
For Calvin, to confuse the relation of repentance to faith was no small error.
There are some, however, who suppose that repentance precedes faith, rather than flows from it, or is produced by it as fruit from a tree. Such persons have never known the power of repentance, and are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument….Yet, when we refer to the origin of repentance to faith we do not imagine some space of time during which it brings it to birth; but we mean to show that 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” (The Whole Christ, 105).
In the above quote Calvin is not suggesting that one believes and then, after a certain amount of time–hours, days, weeks–repents from his or her sin. Rather, he is arguing that only confidence of one’s acceptance before God, brought about by an immediate act of faith, can produce genuine repentance. Otherwise, one’s turning from sin would be motivated by slavish fear and be nothing more than a legalistic work to earn God’s favor.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and You Will Be Saved”
Repentance, therefore, is not a condition one must meet in order to come to Christ; it is, rather, a characteristic and fruit of genuine faith. Faith is not real if it is not repentant; nor is repentance genuine if it does not flow from faith.
But this important distinction can be lost if we begin to make it sound as though repentance is a qualification a sinner must attain before he can believe in Christ for salvation. Robert Traill (1642-1716), in his excellent little book Justification Vindicated, helps us better understand the folly of requiring qualifications of a sinner before he come to Christ.
According to their principles they must say to him, ‘Repent, and mourn for your known sins, and leave them and loathe them; and God will have mercy on you.’ ‘Alas!’ says the poor man, ‘my heart it hard, and I cannot repent aright. Yea, I find my heart more hard and vile than when I was secure in sin.’ If you speak to this man of qualifications for Christ, he knows nothing of them; if of sincere obedience, his answer is native and ready. ‘Obedience the work of a living man, and sincerity is only in a renewed soul.’ Sincere obedience is therefore as impossible to a dead unrenewed sinner as perfect obedience is (27).
What should we do, then, in offering the gospel to sinners? Traill continues:
Why should not the right answer be given, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners….If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God’s gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God’s express commandment (1 John 3:23) to believe on Christ’s name….Tell him of Christ’s ability and goodwill to save; that no man was ever rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving (27-28).
The New Testament offers Christ to all, with all the promises of life and peace and forgiveness and justification to everyone who believes. The warrant to believe is in the gospel itself, and the conditions for acceptance with God have already been met in Christ. To require a sinner, either implicitly or explicitly, to meet certain conditions or qualifications before he can believe in Christ is to obscure the gospel and, potentially, keep people out of the kingdom (Luke 11:52). Such a possibility should horrify us and make us all the more earnest to get the gospel right.