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What Is Evangelical Repentance?

evangelical repentance

How did the theological examination of a man in a presbytery (body of regional church elders) in a small town in Scotland in 1717 fuel a deep-seated theological schism among ministers in the Church of Scotland and result in a movement that still has bearing on the church in our day? In short, it was based on the Auchterarder Creed—a statement certain presbyters would ask those coming for ordination to affirm or deny. Though arguably a poorly worded statement, it read as follows:

It is not sound and orthodox to teach that we must forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.

That particular question inevitably revealed something of what the ministers in the Church of Scotland at that time believed about the place of repentance in the life of one who wished to come to Christ for forgiveness and redemption. The concern of those who affirmed the Auchterarder Creed was that those who rejected it viewed repentance as a legal condition of the covenant of grace. In other words, those who opposed the creed functionally taught that the moral reformation of a sinner was necessary if he were to be welcomed by Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and the other benefits of the gospel. Those who affirmed the creed wanted to highlight the free grace of God extended to any sinner who came to Him for redemption. They certainly stressed the absolute necessity of repentance as a condition of covenant blessing, seeing it as the flip side of faith in Christ. However, they viewed it as an evangelical condition, rather than a legal condition, of the covenant. They were clear that in coming to Christ by faith for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God, men and women also come repenting. But those who affirmed the creed argued that men and women do not repent in order to come to Christ. Those who affirmed the creed were called the Marrow Men. Those who opposed the creed came to be known as Neonomians.

Among those who affirmed the creed were Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, Ebenezer Erskine, and John Colquhoun. These men came to be known as the Marrow Men on account of their adherence to the theology of a book that had been written by a member of the Westminster Assembly—Edward Fisher. The title of that book was The Marrow of Modern Divinity. This book, most highly prized by Boston, became the source of the theological controversy between the two groups of ministers in the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland would ultimately ban the book and forbid its ministers and parishioners from reading it. Boston would subsequently write notes on the content of the Marrow and publish a version of it with those notes included. He would say, “The Church of Scotland may have banned the Marrow, but it did not ban the Marrow with Boston’s notes!”

The Marrow Controversy involved the theological distinctions between law and gospel, legalism and antinomianism, the place of good works in the covenant of grace, the free offer of the gospel, and a litany of other interrelated theological subjects of supreme importance. However, the chief point of theological controversy regarding the Auchterarder Creed was the nature of repentance in the covenant of grace. Is repentance a legal condition of our coming to Christ or a grace and an evangelical condition? In much of their writing, the Marrow Men drew out the contrast between legal and evangelical repentance.

For instance, in his work Evangelical Repentance, John Colquhoun defined legal repentance in the following way: “Legal repentance is a feeling of regret produced in a legalist by the fear that his violations of the Divine law and especially his gross sins do expose him to eternal punishment. . . . And yet under the dominion of his legal temper he presumes to expect that such repentance as this will in some measure atone for all his crimes against the infinite Majesty of heaven.”

He then explained the nature of evangelical repentance: “Evangelical repentance . . . is a gracious principle and habit implanted in the soul by the Spirit of Christ, in the exercise of which a regenerate and believing sinner, deeply sensible of the exceeding sinfulness and just demerit of his innumerable sins is truly humbled and grieved before the Lord. . . . This godly sorrow for sin and this holy abhorrence of it arise from a spiritual discovery of pardoning mercy with God in Christ, and from the exercise of trusting in His mercy.”

Colquhoun’s explanation of evangelical repentance is fully in keeping with the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism regarding “repentance unto life.” The catechism asks, “What does God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” And it answers, “To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption” (WSC 85).

The members of the Westminster Assembly unambiguously taught that repentance is a requirement (i.e., a condition) of covenant blessing. How, then, are we to rightly view the nature of this “repentance unto life” and its role as an evangelical condition of covenant blessing. In the answer to question 87 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, they explained, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”

Notice the different aspects of “repentance unto life” or evangelical repentance set out in their answer:

  • First, evangelical repentance is a saving grace. There is nothing legal or meritorious about repentance. It is not something that we can produce in and of ourselves. It is a gracious gift of God implanted in the souls of His people by His Spirit.