Which Comes First, Repentance or Justification?

Excerpts taken and adapted from, “Evangelical Repentance.”
Written by, John Colquhoun

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The gospel teaches needy sinners to come as sinners…

…to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for the remission of sins and all the other blessings of a free salvation (Isa 55:1; Rev 22:17; Acts 16:31). But he is far from coming empty-handed who brings the exercise of true repentance with him. If any say that faith, which he is understood to bring with him, is still something; it must be observed that, in the affair of justification, faith is not considered either as an inherent quality, or as a work, but only as the sinner’s receiving the gift of that surety-righteousness, by which he is justified. “Therefore it is of faith,” says our apostle, “that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom 4:16). Repentance is in this respect very different.

There is no spiritual grace which has more of the nature of giving, than true repentance, for it is a turning of the whole man from the love and practice of sin to the love and practice of holiness. There is nothing, therefore, to which a convinced sinner should be farther from allowing any place, among the means of his justification in the sight of God. The abettors of the opinion in question would do well to consider whether, instead of the covenant of grace, they are not taking up with a sort of covenant of works, the tenor of which is, “Do this: turn sincerely from all sin to God, though thou canst not turn perfectly, and thou shalt live in His favour.” This scheme is evidently of the same nature as that of the covenant of works; for in both, doing is the previous condition of acceptance with God. The difference between the doing in the one, and the doing in the other, as to the degree of obedience, makes no difference in the nature of the two schemes. The one is manifestly a covenant of works, as well as the other.

The blessed Gospel affords an ample warrant to any sinner of mankind who hears it, to receive the free offer which it makes of pardon in and through Christ, immediately upon hearing and understanding the import of it. But according to the false doctrine in question, no man can have a warrant for doing so, till he is satisfied that he has attained the exercise of true repentance. It is laid down by the apostle Paul, as an established maxim, that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23); that is, if we do any thing, whilst we doubt in our conscience whether it be agreeable to the will of God or not, it is sin. It is evident from the context that the apostle speaks there of the faith of God’s command. Suppose, then, that a convinced sinner believes the pardon of sin to be offered in the Gospel to none but the true penitent; and, suppose that he is doubting of himself, whether he be such a one or not; he cannot, in that case, without sin, embrace the offered pardon. To him it is forbidden fruit. Nay, before he so much as attempts to receive it, his conscience must be satisfied that his repentance has all the marks which distinguish a true and evangelical repentance from a false and legal repentance. And as it is impossible for a man to discern any thing spiritually good in himself, previous to his first acts of saving faith, he will never be able, according to the self-righteous opinion in question, to find his way to the offered pardon.

When I say that the first exercise of true repentance is after justification, I speak not of the order of time, but only of the order of nature; for no justified person is, or can be impenitent. For the exercise of repentance is either legal or evangelical. It is either under the influence of the law as a covenant of works, and the domination of a legal spirit; or under the influence of the covenant of grace, and of an evangelical spirit. It is readily granted that legal repentance is exercised before justification; but not that which is evangelical. The first exercise of evangelical repentance does not in order of nature go before, but comes after, justification or the judicial pardon of sin.

To pretend that we may exercise true repentance before the first acting of faith in Jesus Christ, is contrary to all those passages of Scripture which assert the necessity of faith in order to our living, standing, or walking in a spiritual manner; or in order to our performing any other duty in a manner acceptable to God (Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 1:24; 5:7; Heb 11:6; John 15:4,5). It is true, as already hinted, that repentance is, in some passages, mentioned before faith (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21). But things are not mentioned in Scripture, always according to the order of nature. For instance, it is not according to that order that, in 2 Peter 1:10, the calling of believers is put before their election; and that, in the apostolic benediction, 2 Corinthians 13:14, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is put before the love of the Father. So in the places in which repentance is mentioned before faith, what is intended is not to shew the natural order; but rather, first to propose repentance as the end, and then faith, as the instituted means of compassing that end.

I conclude, then, that as the first exercise of true repentance is after the first acting of faith in Christ, so it is after the pardon of sin in justification, which is received by faith only.