Calvin, Faith, & Repentance


Soteriology refers to the doctrine of salvation. Under this particular theological category, one finds a number of topics. For instance, the doctrine of conversion falls here. Then, under the doctrine of conversion, one finds discussions of faith and repentance. Often these two elements (faith and repentance) are discussed as two sides of the one coin of conversion.

But what is faith? What is repentance?

The first question is the overarching topic of my doctoral research. The definition of repentance, though not unimportant, is not specifically what I am after. However, in reading Calvin’s Institutes this morning I was particularly impressed with the following section where Calvin unpacks a bit of his understanding of repentance.

Indeed, I am aware of the fact that the whole of conversion to God is understood under the term “repentance,” and faith is not the least part of conversion; but in what sense this is so will very readily appear when its force and nature are explained. The Hebrew word of “repentance” is derived from conversion or return; the Greek word, from change of mind or of intention. And the thing itself corresponds closely to the etymology of both words. The meaning is that, departing from ourselves, we turn to God, and having taken off our former mind, we put on a new. On this account, in my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit. (Institutes, III.3.5)

In the Institutes, the discussion of repentance is preceded by a lengthy discussion of faith. For Calvin, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (III.2.7). Faith, then, is sure knowledge of God’s goodness towards us in Christ, which is made known to us and sealed in us by the Spirit. Yet, we should not understand Calvin to promote a purely intellectual view of faith. Barbara Pitkin has shown that for Calvin, “knowledge…involves the whole human being; true knowledge is not merely a matter of the intellect but also of the will” (Barbara Pitkin, What Pure Eyes Could See: Calvin’s Doctrine of Faith in Its Exegetical Context, 31). John Calvin’s saving faith includes a Spirit-wrought knowledge of God’s goodness in Christ and the exercise of the human will to trust in Christ for salvation.

Calvin then argues that faith and repentance should be held together.

Can true repentance stand, apart from faith? Not at all. But even though they cannot be separated, they ought to be distinguished. As faith is not without hope, yet faith and hope are different things, so repentance and faith, although they are held together by a permanent bond, require to be joined rather than confused. (Institutes, III.3.5)

When Calvin speaks of faith and repentance he rightly distinguishes them without separating them. Thus, he’d likely enjoy the idea of these two realities forming two-sides of one coin. Repentance is a turning to God. The embrace of God through Christ is the act of faith. You simply do not have one without the other.

Christians today should hold both of these theological realities together, without confusing or losing them. We turn from sin to God. Without turning from sin, there can be no salvation. Thus, for instance, you cannot embrace a sinful lifestyle and at the same time attempt to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior. For a person to be saved, they must turn away from sin.

Yet, we do not turn from sin to self-help or a generic concept of deity. We turn to God through Jesus Christ. In Christ we find the goodness of God clearly revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts by the Spirit. We turn from sin and self to a good God through faith in Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

When this turn takes place, we rightly say a person has been converted.


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