Which Came First: Forgiveness or Repentance?

This is a section from Dennis Ngien’s book “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser“. I’m presenting it in a few parts because the section is long for a blog post. This is part one.

As regards the order of salvation, is forgiveness by God logically prior to our repentance, or repentance logically prior to forgiveness? To resolve this, we are necessarily confronted by the question: how does God forgive our sins? Does God forgive only when we repent? Some would say that God cannot forgive if we do not repent. And if God forgives the unrepentant, would he not be charged with condoning their sins? What are we to make of the liturgies of the Church which speak to the effect that “whoever repents of his sins may be forgiven.” Is it theologically accurate to speak of God’s forgiveness in this way, that our repentance is the prerequisite of God’s forgiveness? Though it is not entirely wrong to speak of it in this way, there is a hidden danger in it, for it may lead people to feel that repentance is something we must do in order to obtain, earn or deserve God’s forgiving grace. In that case, repentance becomes a “work” necessary for salvation, in which case we are no longer saved by grace alone. If repentance is a work necessary to achieve God’s forgiveness, then we are confronted with an acute problem that haunted Luther then and haunts our conscience now: how much work is necessary for salvation?

In the popular mind, repentance is defined as feeling sorrow for our sins. But to what extent are we really sorry for what we have done amiss, and to what degree are we simply sorry about the consequences of the sin? For instance, the child caught stealing money is very sorry, sorry for being caught and having to suffer the punishment for it, but not necessarily sorry for their criminal offence. Also if forgiveness is based on feeling sorrow, how can we be certain that we feel the right kind of sorrow for our sins? It is true that the Bible links forgiveness and repentance. But there is no evidence that repentance is a cause of God’s grace. For Jesus certainly pronounced forgiveness when there was no sign of repentance. At the cross, he uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). Those who crucified Jesus showed no signs of repentance; on the contrary, they were getting much sadistic pleasure out of torturing him. Likewise Jesus shocked the Pharisees by proclaiming the opposite of what they wanted to hear, that the paralytic’s sins had been forgiven, despite no sign of repentance by the paralytic (Mark 2:5; Matthew 9:2; Luke 5:20). In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the son was forgiven by the father. Was he forgiven only when he returned home, or because he returned home? Neither! The father’s attitude was always one of forgiveness, independent of the son’s disposition towards him. If anyone had known the mind of the father, he would have gone to the son in the far country with this good news: your father has forgiven you, let’s go  home. The truth of the matter is that the father’s attitude towards the son was not changed by the son’s returning home. The only change was that the son, by coming home, put himself in a position to recognize or appropriate the father’s forgiveness, not cause or condition it. The most succinct explanation of this was found in Luther’s Large Catechism, where he commented about the petition for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer:

Here again there is great need to call upon God and pray, “Dear Father, forgive our debts”. Not that he does not forgive sin even without and before our prayer; and he gave us the gospel, in which there is nothing but forgiveness, before we prayed or even thought of it. But the point here is for us to recognize and accept this forgiveness.

Luther caught this vision of God’s forgiveness as unconditionally given. It does not wait for us to repent or to pray for it. God’s forgiveness is thus prior to our repentance and prayer. His forgiving grace does not waver, and it refuses to abandon us. His love for us is completely realistic and unconditional, based at every point on the prior knowledge of the worst about us so that no future discovery about us could ever disenchant God in the way we so often become disillusioned about ourselves. The father has forgiven his son even in the far country, even before he repents, or before he feels sorry, or before he comes to his senses. But the son cannot be reconciled insofar as he remains aloof in the far country. He has to come home and “accept” his father’s forgiveness. Faith, as Paul Tillich aptly defined it, is “accepting our acceptance.” Forgiveness is already there, and all we need to do is to receive it and accept it. Nevertheless our acceptance by God does not depend upon our accepting his grace, for we are already accepted by God in Jesus Christ. It is a gift given to us. If our accepting causes God’s acceptance of us, then our salvation is not by grace alone. Therefore any understanding of salvation in a legal context in which we have to do something meritorious so as to earn God’s forgiveness was not part of Luther’s theology of grace. There is a causal relationship between forgiveness and repentance, Luther maintained. But it is never our repentance that causes God’s favour; rather, it is God’s forgiveness that causes our repentance. To invert the evangelical order of grace, making repentance prior to forgiveness, is to destroy sola gratia, for it regards God’s grace as conditional upon what we do. For Luther, God cannot be made gracious. The indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of obedience. Thus salvation must be understood in the evangelical context, in which the priority of the gospel and primacy of God’s justifying words reign so supremely that they effect a change in us, moving us towards repentance and faith.

More to come….

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2 thoughts on “Which Came First: Forgiveness or Repentance?

  1. jwskud says:

    Pastor Juhl, this is fantastic stuff. Thanks for posting – looking forward to future installments!

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