Calvin on Faith: Grace and Repentance

Legal vs. Evangelical Repentance

Immediately after developing his robust definition of faith in InstitutesIII.2.ii, Calvin discusses repentance and grace in III.2.iii. He makes a distinction between “legal repentance” and “evangelical repentance.” Legal repentance is the view that says, “Repent, and IF you repent you will be forgiven!” as though God must be persuaded into being gracious. It makes the imperatives of obedience prior to the indicatives of grace, and regards God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness as conditional upon what we do—upon our meritorious acts of repentance.

Evangelical Grace

Calvin argued that this inverted the evangelical order of grace, and made repentance prior to forgiveness, whereas in the New Testament forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand takes the form that, “Christ has born your sins on the cross, therefore repent!” What this means is that repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace. The good news of the gospel is that there is forgiveness with God and God has spoken the word of forgiveness in Christ and that word summons from us a response of faith.

The Perfect Response

Implicit in our receiving the word of God’s love there is, on our part, a humble submission to the verdict of guilty. But who can make the perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the verdict of guilty? What we cannot do, God has done for us in Christ.

God Living Vicariously For Us

Calvin saw that the coming of Jesus Christ is not only the coming of God as God, but also the coming of God as human to do vicariously for us what we cannot adequately do for ourselves. Christ deals with humans on the part of God and deals with God on the part of humans. In Christ, we have both God giving himself to humanity in unconditional forgiveness, and at the same time we see Jesus, as the representative head of humanity, taking on our humanity in order to absorb the just judgment of God in our place. God does not merely speak a word of forgiveness and then throw us back on ourselves to make our response of repentance. God knows our weakness and condition. Grace means that in Jesus Christ we have God personally present as a human giving himself in forgiveness, and at the same time from our side vicariously making the perfect response for us to God. In light of this, we are summoned to a life of faith, but our response is now by the grace of God, through the Spirit, a response to God’s response in Jesus. To be continued.