Repentance is not a work of the Law

Repentance is not a work of the Law.  That thought came to me today, and I’ve been mulling it all afternoon.  Repentance isn’t something we do as a duty to meet the requirements of the Law.  True repentance, which involves a change of behavior, isn’t something we can do entirely in our own strength.  Repentance doesn’t earn us forgiveness.

I’m not sure what to think about that.  On the one hand, I don’t think I can argue with it.  I’ve learned well that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  I know that we are utterly unable to be good enough to please God by our own effort, and thus that we are utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus at every moment.  If nothing we can do can earn God’s favor, how can there be an exception for repentance?  Repentance must ultimately be not our gift to God for his sake but his gift to us for our sake.  He doesn’t stingily withhold forgiveness until we can repent well enough or thoroughly enough to satisfy him.  Rather, he enables us to repent so that we can admit and confess our need for his forgiveness, and thus receive the forgiveness he gives.

Repentance can’t be a work by which we earn our salvation, even in part, but as I look at myself, I think I’ve understood it that way most of the time.  I suspect most of us do, even those of us in churches where grace is faithfully, powerfully, and consistently preached.  Were I of a different temperament, that would be a source of pride for me, and I would guess it is for many in the church.  As I am, it is instead a source of anxiety, and I know it is for many others.  My anxiety never quite rises to the level of doubting God’s ability or willingness to hold on to me, but it causes me to expect judgment from him rather than forgiveness.  I ask for his blessing, but I often feel extremely presumptuous in doing so.  I know God has every right to dismiss my requests with disdain and punish me instead, because I’m still a sinner, and part of me is always watching for him to do exactly that.  I don’t think I’m the only one who functions this way, and it’s a shame.

On the other hand, I don’t want to take God’s forgiveness lightly.  The German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine is reported to have said on his deathbed,

Of course [God] will forgive me.  That’s his job.

A more cynical iteration of the same attitude is also sometimes attributed to Heine (perhaps because of his deathbed joke):

I love to sin; God loves to forgive.
Really, the world is admirably arranged!

That gets things exactly backwards, in that it makes the whole matter about what we do; God simply responds to what we do.  Since the same is also true of the idea that we earn God’s forgiveness by our repentance, they are equal and opposite errors.  Rejecting one is likely to flip us over into the other.

The only way to avoid this is to shift our focus off ourselves.  In part, we need to recognize that our repentance and forgiveness are primarily about what God does:  he takes the initiative and we respond.  If our primary concern is still for ourselves, however, that recognition will only encourage us to take his forgiveness lightly.  As with everything else in Christianity, if our understanding of our faith is centered on ourselves, we’ll end up either in legalism or in lawlessness.  It’s only as we love the Lord our God with all that is in us, and before all earthly loves, that we escape that trap.

Which I guess is where this all comes out.  Repentance isn’t a work of the Law, it’s a response of love.  The question Jesus asks us is the one he asked Simon Peter:  “Do you love me more than these?”


Photo © 2008 vince42.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Quotes, Religion and theology.


  1. Rob, Well put and quite to the point, especially the conclusions: the focus must always be on God. I’ve always considered repentance nothing more than a response to the realization of how Holy God is and and how unholy our sinful nature is. From this arises both the need for forgiveness (which points us to to look toward Christ, further convicting us as unholy) and the need to respond to that forgiveness (and turn toward God’s amazing Grace) which in turn evokes repentance. It’s the love and desire of God’s unachievable Holiness and purity that evokes repentance as a response – nothing more and nothing less.

    To put it another way, if you allow me some latitude – repentance is the “ugly side of worship.” The same realization – God is awesome and we are not – brings about an overwhelming desire to acknowledge this fact. While worship considers this juxtaposition from the perspective God is Holy, repentance considers it from the perspective that we are not, but would like to be. Once this is realized, and we keep our focus on God’s Holiness, repentance is the only appropriate response, aside from a total rejection of God altogether.

    I think we are in agreement here – just struggling with how to express this realization. If one then sees repentance as being a similar response to worship, it follows that repentance falls completely outside the law and is not required – but will instead flow naturally from any heart that is changed anew by accepting Christ’s gift of Saving Grace. Which brings us to James. Faith without works is not faith at all can be paraphrased: acceptance of Grace without repentance is not acceptance of Grace at all The acceptance of Grace is the act of faith, repentance and worship (necessarily in that order by the way) ) are the “works” – proofs of faith if you will – that follow as a grateful response.

    Thanks for sharing. Steve Woolley

  2. I agree with both of you. Steve, it seems to me you’ve caught a key distinction that most people miss, which is that James isn’t talking about works *of the Law*, as Paul is. He’s talking about works of faith. As regards your broader analysis, you make a couple of intriguing points; I’ll have to spend some time mulling them.

    On another note, the “related posts” widget at the bottom of this post sent me to one from 2008 that I’d completely forgotten. The heart of that post is this gem of a quote from Kenneth Bailey, teaching on the Parable of the Lost Sheep: “Repentance is defined as acceptance of being found. The sheep is lost and helpless and yet it is a symbol of repentance. Repentance becomes a combination of the shepherd’s act of rescue and the sheep’s acceptance of that act.”

    It’s not what I don’t know that bugs me, it’s what I do know and have forgotten. 🙂

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