by John Calvin



(Repentance the fruit of faith: review of some errors connected with this point, 1-4)


Even though we have taught in part how faith possesses Christ, and how through it we enjoy his benefits, this would still remain obscure if we did not add an explanation of the effects we feel. With good reason, the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins [Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31]. Any discussion of faith, therefore, that omitted these two topics would be barren and mutilated and well-nigh useless. Now, both repentance and forgiveness of sins - that is, newness of life and free reconciliation - are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith. As a consequence, reason and the order of teaching demand that I begin to discuss both at this point. However, our immediate transition will be from faith to repentance For when this topic is rightly understood it will better appear how man is justified by faith alone, and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life, so to speak, is not separated from free imputation of righteousness. Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered through the preaching of the gospel in order that the sinner, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of vices, may cross over into the Kingdom of God, surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance. 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, band are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument.


Christ, they say, and John in their preaching first urge the people to repentance, then add that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near [Matthew 3:2; 4:17]. Such was the command the apostles received to preach; such was the order Paul followed, as Luke reports [Acts 20:21]. Yet while they superstitiously cling to the joining together of syllables, they disregard the meaning that binds these words together. For while Christ the Lord and John preach in this manner: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" [Matthew 3:2], do they not derive the reason for repenting from grace itself and the promise of salvation?

Accordingly, therefore, their words mean the same thing as if they said, "Since the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, repent.'" For Matthew, when he has related that John so preached, teaches that the prophecy of Isaiah had been fulfilled in him: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God" [Matthew 3:3; Isaiah 40:3]. But in the prophet that voice is bidden to begin with comfort and glad tidings [Isaiah 40:1-2]. Yet, when we refer 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. These matters will be more clearly discussed in what follows. Perhaps some have been deceived by the fact that many are overwhelmed by qualms of conscience or compelled to obedience before they are imbued with the knowledge of grace, nay, even taste it. And this is the initial fear that certain people reckon among the virtues, for they discern that it is close to true and just obedience. But here it is not a question of how variously Christ draws us to himself, or prepares us for the pursuit of godliness. I say only that no uprightness can be found except where that Spirit reigns that Christ received to communicate to his members. Secondly, I say that, according to the statement of the psalm: "There is propitiation with thee...that thou mayest be feared" [Psalm 130:4, Comm.], no one will ever reverence God but him who trusts that God is propitious to him. No one will gird himself willingly to observe the law but him who will be persuaded that God is pleased by his obedience. This tenderness in overlooking and tolerating vices is a sign of God's fatherly favor. Hosea's exhortation also shows this: "Come, let us return to Jehovah; for he has torn, and he will heal us; he has stricken, and he will cure us" [Hosea 6:1, cf. Vg.]. For the hope of pardon is added like a goad, that men may not sluggishly lie in their sins. But lacking any semblance of reason is the madness of those who, that they may begin from repentance, prescribe to their new converts certain days during which they must practice penance, and when these at length are over, admit them into communion of the grace of the gospel. I am speaking of very many of the Anabaptists, especially those who marvelously exult in being considered spiritual; and of their companions, the Jesuits, and like dregs, Obviously, that giddy spirit brings forth such fruits that it limits to a paltry few days a repentance that for the Christian man ought to extend throughout his life.


But certain men well versed in penance, even long before these times, meaning to speak simply and sincerely according to the rule of Scripture, said that it consists of two parts: mortification and vivification.

Mortification they explain as sorrow of soul and dread conceived from the recognition of sin and the awareness of divine judgment. For when anyone has been brought into a true knowledge of sin, he then begins truly to hate and abhor sin; then he is heartily displeased with himself, he confesses himself miserable and lost and wishes to be another man. Furthermore, when he is touched by any sense of the judgment of God (for the one straightway follows the other) he then lies stricken and overthrown; humbled and cast down he trembles; he becomes discouraged and despairs. This is the first part of repentance, commonly called "contrition." "Vivification" they understand as the consolation that arises out of faith. That is, when a man is laid low by the consciousness of sin and stricken by the fear of God, and afterward looks to the goodness of God - to his mercy, grace, salvation, which is through Christ - he raises himself up, he takes heart, he recovers courage, and as it were, returns from death to life. Now these words, if only they have a right interpretation, express well enough the force of repentance; but when they understand vivification as.65 the happiness that the mind receives after its perturbation and fear have been quieted, I do not agree. It means, rather, the desire to live in a holy and devoted manner, a desire arising from rebirth; as if it were said that man dies to himself that he may begin to live to God.


Others, because they saw the various meanings of this word in Scripture, posited two forms of repentance. To distinguish them by some mark, they called one "repentance of the law." Through it the sinner, wounded by the branding of sin and stricken by dread of God's wrath, remains caught in that disturbed state and cannot extricate himself from it. The other they call "repentance of the gospel." Through it the sinner is indeed sorely afflicted, but rises above it and lays hold of Christ as medicine for his wound, comfort for his dread, the haven of his misery. They offer as examples of "repentance of the law" Cain [Genesis 4:13], Saul [1 Samuel 15:30], and Judas [Matthew 27:4]. While Scripture recounts their repentance to us, it represents them as acknowledging the gravity of their sin, and afraid of God's wrath; but since they conceived of God only as Avenger and Judge, that very thought overwhelmed them. Therefore their repentance was nothing but a sort of entryway of hell, which they had already entered in this life, and had begun to undergo punishment before the wrath of God's majesty. We see "gospel repentance" in all those who, made sore by the sting of sin but aroused and refreshed by trust in God's mercy, have turned to the Lord. When Hezekiah received the message of death, he was stricken with fear. But he wept and prayed, and looking to God's goodness, he recovered confidence [2 Kings 20:2; Isaiah 38:2]. The Ninevites were troubled by a horrible threat of destruction; but putting on sackcloth and ashes, they prayed, hoping that the Lord might be turned toward them and be turned away from the fury of his wrath [Jonah 3:5, 9]. David confessed that he sinned greatly in taking a census of the people, but he added, "O Lord take away the iniquity of thy servant" [2 Samuel 24:10]. When he was rebuked by Nathan, David acknowledged his sin of adultery, and he fell down before the Lord, but at the same time he awaited pardon [2 Samuel 12:13, 16]. Such was the repentance of those who felt remorse of heart at Peter's preaching; but, trusting in God's goodness, they added: "Brethren, what shall we do?" [Acts 2:37]. Such, also, was Peter's own repentance; he wept bitterly indeed [Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62], but he did not cease to hope.

(Repentance defined: explanation of its elements, mortification of the flesh and vivification of the spirit, 5-9)


Although all these things are true, yet the word "repentance" itself, so far as I can learn from Scripture, is to be understood otherwise. For their inclusion of faith under repentance disagrees with what Paul says in Acts: "Testifying both to Jews and Gentiles of repentance to