Larger Catechism 76A: “Repentance a Saving Grace” Acts 11:18
The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on November 22nd, 1992. The text of this sermon was developed from Dr. Young’s handwritten notes, as the audio recording of this sermon was not found in his archives.
First, repentance unto life is a saving grace. The meaning of grace must be understood. Preachers often understand by grace the mercy of God to under-serving, ill-deserving and hell-deserving sinners. The old theologians had a broader notion of grace as simply the goodness of God to under-serving creatures, man or angels, sinless or fallen. On this view grace may be seen even in God’s gift of existence in hell to the devil and the damned. The difference in the meaning of the word has contributed to the present confusion among Calvinists about common grace. We do best to confine ourselves to the N.T. use of the word grace to refer to the provision and application of the gospel way of salvation for sinners of Adam’s race. With Edwards, Hodge and other good writers, we might contrast common and particular grace in the external and the effectual call of the gospel, but it’s best not to inflate the term “common grace” to include even God’s mercy in restraining sin in the ungodly and least of all to the preservation of the world. With respect to repentance in particular, let us not call the natural repentance of sinners apart from the Word by the words “common grace”. Such natural repentance of sinners who reform some gross sins as drunkenness, swearing, and open Sabbath breaking, to be sure, is not without the restraining mercy of God, but that does not contribute to the salvation of the soul. L.C. 76 like Acts XI, 18 is not speaking of such natural or even legal repentance where the law of God and the fear of hell enter in, but rather the repentance unto life, or what is called evangelical repentance.
The life in “repentance unto life” is eternal life, especially the forgiveness of sin and acceptance with God, and this repentance is called a saving grace because it guarantees present and final salvation as the unmerited gift of God’s free and sovereign will. This gift of repentance is found in the electing love of God, and each one chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world will be brought by grace to true repentance at the appointed time. We are not speaking of elect infants dying in infancy as “when Christ saves through the Spirit who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth.” (WCF, Of Effectual Calling, Chapter X, Par. III). This our text in Acts XI, 18 declares; that God has granted repentance unto life. (See also 2 Tim II, 25 and Acts V, 31)
Secondly, repentance unto life is wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Holy Spirit. Like saving faith in Jesus Christ, it is not of ourselves, but the gift of God. And these gifts are the first part of the graces wrought by the Spirit in an elect soul during the application of the redemption purchased by Christ. We should attend to the order of the saving operation of the divine Spirit as indicated in L.C. Questions 66ff. Here we have the union with Christ. Effectual calling, Justification, Faith, Adoption, Sanctification and now Repentance. The important matter at present is that together with saving faith, repentance unto life is the effect of regeneration and not its cause. The sinner dead in trespasses and sins cannot repent with godly sorrow not to be repented of. He may reform his outward life. He may feel deep regret and remorse. He may tremble at the thought of God’s unspotted holiness and the fearful torments of hell. But all that is not repentance unto life. Only the renewed soul trusting in the blood and righteousness of Christ is capable of evangelical repentance. Zech XII, 10 sets forth the blessed promise that the Most High will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem (i.e., the elect church) the spirit of grace and of supplications. The result is that they shall look upon the crucified Redeemer (i.e., saving faith), and “they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his first born.”
Never to be separated from the Spirit in this work is the Word, that is the revelation in Holy Scripture. Repentance unto life is produced by the law and the gospel. By the law is the knowledge of sin. Rom III, 20. VII, 7. By the gospel is the knowledge of all saving graces, also the grace of repentance. Such was the knowledge granted to the Gentiles as verses 20, 21 of Acts XI go on to set forth. Note that a great number believed and turned unto the Lord. Note that first there is faith in Christ and then there is turning to the Lord, i.e., conversion, of which repentance is the heart. The law without the gospel can only provide a legal repentance. But the gospel declaration of the mercy of God in Christ, showing that God’s justice required so fearful an out pouring of wrath against sin, is what breaks the heart of stone and brings forth from the believing soul a river of penitential tears. The Antinomian looks for a repentance from the gospel without the law. Against this error, Lutherans have sometimes too sharply separated law and gospel as the sources of repentance and faith. John Newton has expressed the truth of Scripture and experience in the words, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
Application: As repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought by God’s Spirit and Word, do not be satisfied with attempts to repent in your own strength. Unconverted sinner, let your prayer be, “Turn thou me and I shall be turned”. Any one who supposes that he has once repented and been converted, and needs no longer to repent, has reason to doubt whether he has ever repented with evangelical repentance. Look not to yourself for strength to repent, but look unto Christ with the eye of faith, and pray for the life-giving Spirit that the Lord will not refuse to those who ask for Him.