Repentance is a two sided coin. It is both necessary and unnecessary, required and unrequired. Boston tackles this dilemma when he asks the question, “Whether or not repentance be necessary to the obtaining of the pardon of sin?” At the heart of the question is what is meant by repentance and where repentance falls in the order of salvation. As Boston has already addressed this issue in the answers for his previous two questions, it may seem redundant to take on a third and similar question. However, there is much more here to unpack.
Yes and no may be the actual best answers to this question, but for the purpose intended, the acquisition of pardon for sin, the answer is dependent on the axiom from which you approach the question. Does God annex pardon for sin to repentance or is repentance annexed to pardon? If you have been following this series of questions it is obvious how Boston will answer. Boston would clearly conclude that repentance is not necessary in order to obtain pardon for sin. Pardon for sin must bring about repentance. He gives concessions to the necessity of repentance.
God commands us to repent and it is a element of eternal life, the avoidance of temporal punishment, and the acquiring of a sense of pardon. Repentance is a fruit of faith and proceeds from our union with Christ. Repentance is pleasing to God, but can only be done by faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”(Heb. 11:6) This logical progression can only lead to a conclusion that one can only truly repent if your sins are already pardoned, because the first act of faith is union with Christ. To be united with Christ you have to be cleared of the quilt for sin because God can have no mingling with sin.
Boston uses two terms to describe the examples of repentance used in scripture. You must look closely to see the nuances. First is legal repentance. As the term implies, legal repentance has to do with the law of God and how the law applies to the individual. In other words, legal repentance is a conviction of the conscience as a response to the requirements of a particular law being broken.
Two examples stand out in scripture as examples of legal repentance. Cain had a natural conviction of conscience when he killed his brother. He needed no codified law to inform him because it was written on his heart. When questioned by God as to what had transpired, we see by his response that, although he knew what he had done was wrong, he was only sorry that he had been found out and would be punished, not sorry for offending God. Judas was so convicted for his part in killing Jesus, that he killed himself. Sorrow for self is not sorrow towards God.
Gospel repentance , on the other hand, is true repentance. Like legal repentance, gospel repentance is conviction of conscience, but it includes a turning from sin to God, a fleeing to Christ. As David describes his “broken spirit and contrite heart,” his sorrow for sin leaves him no other place to run to but to the mercies of God. Secondly and most important for us, is the motivation behind gospel repentance. The law of God does not motivate gospel repentance because, for the believer, the law has been made powerless. When we obey a traffic law, generally it is because we fear the consequences of being caught. That is legal repentance. If we obeyed the traffic law out of a love for the lawgiver, that is gospel repentance. In fact, to take the argument farther, it would be like driving the speed limit even though we have diplomatic immunity. The law of god no longer holds the penalty of death for the believer. Though there may be chastening from God for transgression, the law cannot condemn.
I think by now you have a good idea of Boston’s position that repentance is a result of pardon not a prerequisite for pardon. He provides a few more objections for the latter. Within the doctrines attributed to Calvinism, but really are a collaborative work of the protestant reformation, is the doctrine of “Unconditional Election.” Basically what this doctrine teaches is that God puts no requirements on your salvation. You do nothing to merit God’s favor, but rather he favors you because he has a right to do so as your creator. He shows mercy on whomsoever he chooses. He chose to show mercy to Abram not because there was anything special about Abram. Christ chose to pardon the woman who washed his feet in Luke 7, not because of her washing his feet. She washed his feet because she was already pardoned. She loved him because he loved her first.
Repentance is a part of your sanctification. As we noted before, true repentance is a turning from sin to God. We do not do this naturally. It takes supernatural power. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you,” says God to Ezekiel (36:26), “and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”( 36:27) He regenerates you then empowers you to repent. Hosea is told, “I will heal their backsliding, (idol worship) and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”(14:4) God healed them, loved them, and turned away his anger all before they repented. God told Isaiah, “I have swept away your offenses (past tense) like a cloud, your sins like the morning dew. Return to me, for I have (already) redeemed you.(Is. 44:22)
Scripture taken out of context is a dangerous practice in the Church. A passage like Acts 3:19, taken out of context, changes all the rest of scripture. Peter, speaking to the Jews after he had healed the crippled beggar says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing might come from the Lord.” If you take the order of repentance before pardon from this verse, then you undo the last three passages Boston gave us. If you plug this verse back into the passage, you see what Peter is intending. He is calling the Jews to take their own teachings from the prophets and see that Christ was the foretold Messiah. They had killed the messiah whom they should have worshipped. Peter indicted them, about five thousand were convicted, pardoned by God, and empowered to repent.
Boston wants you to beware of the vicious cycle created by a notion that repentance is necessary for pardon. If every time sin rises up in your life, and you feel the need to be re-pardoned for it, remember that God desires your repentance but does not require your repentance. God provides for all he demands. God loves you so much that he wants you to avoid the effects of sin on your life. He delights in showing mercy. Your repentance, is his mercy.