Faith and repentance are the necessary response to the gospel. Faith is the instrument by which God unites the elect to Jesus Christ and makes them the recipients of the saving blessings that He secured by His death and resurrection. With respect to the believer’s justification—our being declared righteous in Christ—faith entails resting in Christ and receiving His person and work alone for salvation. In sanctification, faith bears active fruit as we live the Christian life. The whole of the Christian’s life is lived by faith. The Christian life is lived out by faith working through love. In the same way, the entirety of the believer’s life is lived with repentance. Repentance is also a saving grace. Unlike justifying faith, repentant faith is active. In repentance, believers turn from their sins and to God in contrition and brokenness—hoping in the mercy that He offers sinners in Christ. God grants these two graces to believers by the working of the Holy Spirit. Though faith and repentance are inseparable acts, they are nevertheless distinct acts. As believers live by faith and repentance, they stay in the narrow way that leads to life. Their perseverance in the Christian faith is undergirded by God’s preserving grace, which supplies them with the renewal of the Holy Spirit for the faith and repentance that God requires.
Throughout Scripture, God calls sinners to repent and believe (Mark 1:15). Repentance and faith are necessary responses to the promises of God and the message of the gospel. Faith is trusting in the God of promise and embracing the Lord Jesus Christ as He is freely offered to sinners in the gospel. From the earliest record of God’s work in redemptive history, we discover that faith is central to the life of God’s people. After God preached the gospel to Abraham in promise form (Gen. 12:1–3; Gal. 3:8), Scripture tells us that “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The moment Abraham believed the gospel, he was justified before God. His faith was not exchanged for righteousness, as is taught in Arminian theology. Rather, his faith was the instrument by which he received the righteousness of Christ by promise. The Apostle Paul appealed to Genesis 15:6 when defending the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Faith is not a blind leap or an irrational hopefulness. Rather, Scripture reveals that Abraham’s faith was grounded on the certainty of God’s promises and a well-reasoned consideration of God’s character (Heb. 11:19). Faith and reason are not antithetical to one another (Heb. 11:1).
Habakkuk 2:4 also serves as a key passage in Paul’s defense of justification by faith alone in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. This verse is central to the argument of the book of Hebrews regarding continuance in the Christian faith (Heb. 11:39–40). The faith by which God justifies His people is the same faith by which they are sanctified as they continue on in the Christian life. Faith has different acts by which it is exercised. In justification, faith is passive—that is, justifying faith merely receives. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly explains, justifying faith receives and rests on Jesus Christ alone as He is offered to us in the gospel (Q&A 86). Faith is not a work that we do by which we merit or gain righteousness. It is trusting in Christ and what He has accomplished for the undeserving sinners by His perfect life, saving death, and resurrection from the dead. Faith itself is not justifying righteousness; it is an open hand that receives the justifying righteousness of Christ. However, believers are called to continue to trust in Him as they exercise that faith in conjunction with Spirit-wrought love for God and neighbor. The essence of the Christian life is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Scripture also highlights the role of repentance in the life of believers. Repentance is the act of turning away from sin to God in hope of receiving the mercy that He freely provides in Christ. David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 models the nature of true repentance in the life of a believer. The parable of the prodigal son teaches that repentance involves a restoration of spiritual sensibility (Luke 15:17). The Apostle Paul distinguishes between true repentance and false repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Saving repentance, or repentance unto life, is fueled by contrition (true sorrow for offending the Lord) over sin before a good and holy God together with recognition that He has provided a way of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ. Like faith, repentance is a saving grace of God. Westminster Shorter Catechism 87 explains the nature of saving repentance when it states, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
Though Christ does not repent for His people, the faith and repentance a believer exercises are gifts of His grace (Acts 5:31; Phil. 1:29). As Herman Bavinck explained, “Christ has accomplished everything, and though he did not accomplish rebirth, faith, and repentance in our place, he did acquire them for us, and the Holy Spirit therefore applies them.” Like faith, repentance holds a continual place in the Christian’s life. Believers do not merely repent of their sins at the beginning of their Christian experience. Rather, as Martin Luther famously stated in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In writing this thesis, Luther was taking aim at the erroneous Roman Catholic penitential system. Regarding the certainty of the true believer’s continuance in the faith, Reformed theology differs sharply from that of Arminianism. The Arminian position is that someone could believe at a certain point in his or her life and then fall away. Instead, Scripture teaches that those to whom God gives the gift of saving faith will continue to believe in Christ since He preserves them in the faith (Phil. 1:6).
Throughout church history, other debates have occurred over the nature of faith and repentance. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was formed, in part, around a defense of justification by faith alone. The nature of saving faith in relation to justification was also debated among certain Puritans. John Owen publicly denounced the erroneous views of Richard Baxter regarding faith as a new law by which men are justified. Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity was at the heart of the Marrow Controversy in the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth century. Thomas Boston, John Colquhoun, and Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine were leading lights among the Marrow Brethren, who supported Fisher’s arguments. These men wrote extensively to refute the flawed views of those in the Church of Scotland who taught that repentance is a preliminary condition for a sinner to come to Christ. Repentance is not a condition that we must meet sufficiently to be saved; rather, it is a fruit of saving faith. In logical order, faith precedes repentance, though they occur simultaneously in conversion. We must first believe that God is willing to show mercy before we can truly repent. In the twentieth century, debate transpired among evangelicals over what became known as “easy-believism.” Toward the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Reformed theologians opposed the teaching of proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, especially in its more popular form in the writings of N.T. Wright. Wright argued that the Greek word pistis, translated to the English word “faith” in many of Paul’s letters, ought to be translated “faithfulness.” By substituting these concepts, Wright essentially denied the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.
And yet, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God justifies—declares righteous—those who embrace the gospel promise by faith alone. Out of sheer grace, God the Father grants and imputes to believers the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Through faith, believers are united to Christ and become partakers of Christ’s righteousness, which consists in His perfect obedience to all that the law of God requires and in His substitutionary endurance of the law’s penalty in the atonement. When it comes to the believer’s justification, faith is the exclusive instrument that finds in Christ and in His saving work a full and complete satisfaction of all of the requirements of the law. Faith is not a human achievement, but the end of all boasting before God (Eph. 2:9). For this reason, John Calvin speaks of faith as a ‘passive’ reception of what Christ has done to secure the believer’s right standing and acceptance before God. Calvin adds that faith is like an ‘empty vase’ that is filled with the righteousness of Christ as the only ground of the believer’s right standing before God and inheritance of eternal life. When faith sings, it always sings of Christ alone: ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.’