Clarifying repentance, forgiveness, and baptism

Forgiveness and repentance are stunning and central concepts to Christianity.  To not only consider but to experience Divine forgiveness and to live a life of repentance is truly wonderful, life giving and life filling.

Jason Goroncy of Whitley College has written a short article for the Baptist Union of Victoria on the nature of forgiveness and repentance. He offers a few helpful insights. For instance, he recognising how repentance is hard. He is a great line about confession, “confession is neither a transaction nor a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Moreover, it is ‘the after-the-last gasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection”.

Unfortunately, the article is also filled with a series of strange and problematic arguments which may leave readers confused about what Baptists believe and what the relationship is between repentance and forgiveness.

First of all, why is a baptist minister promoting (on a baptist website) infant baptism? 

“This is one reason why infant baptism, not something all Baptists always appreciate or welcome, can be such a powerful witness to the Gospel. It makes public the claim that no amount of sincerity, grovelling, or religious acrobatics can achieve forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath.” 

As I was reading this paragraph a baptist pastor called me. He too was stunned by this out of place argument. The analogy may well find a home in Anglican or Presbyterians circles but it is certainly not Baptist. Don’t misunderstand, I love my Anglican and Presy brothers and sisters, but baptism is one of the key distinctives that set us apart. 

There is a reason why Baptists don’t “appreciate or welcome” infant baptism; it’s because we do not believe infant baptism as taught or practiced in the New Testament. Also, Baptists don’t accept that infant baptism is a “powerful witness to the Gospel” because we’re unconvinced that infant baptism is congruent with Scripture. Baptists do however gladly affirm and acknowledge how believers baptism holds a theological connection with God’s grace, as it does with repentance and faith. Baptism symbolises our response to God’s grace. It marks our receiving of God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ. 

At Pentecost the crowds listened to Peter preach the Gospel. We read, 

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “

As the Baptist Union of Victoria’s Doctrinal Basis states,

“Baptism being the immersion of believers upon the profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a symbol of the fellowship of the regenerate in His death, burial and resurrection;”

I don’t know what Jason’s personal convictions are about baptism. It would be odd for an ordained baptist minister to hold to infant baptism.

It is also a little unclear whether Jason is in fact advocating infant baptism here or not. At one level that point is moot, for the issue is that a Baptist theologian believes infant baptism is a valid theological explanation for the grace of God. That in itself cuts against the grain of what Baptists believe. I confess that I also find it weird to read this kind of theologising in a Baptist context. As someone said to me last night, should we be expecting the next article to advocate for bishops?

There is another statement that sits uncomfortably. Jason claims, “confession is something like waking up to what is already most true about us – that we are loved beyond measure – and about God – that God will not be God without us!” 

I agree with the first and second parts of the sentence. But the third? God refuses to be God without us? Can God not be God without us? Is Jason suggesting that God needs us or that God is somehow lacking without us and without our repentance? What does he mean? I understand how theologians love to write in obscure and impenetrable ways, but sometimes this leaves readers (even intelligent readers) with a conclusion that may not be intended, despite how it reads. I certainly hope Jason isn’t suggesting a needy God.

There is another and broader theological issue that I wish to raise about Jason’s Goroncy’s piece. He repeatedly suggests that forgiveness comes before confession and repentance. Indeed, this is his main thesis.

“The parable [of the Prodigal Son] also suggests that as far as Jesus is concerned, real confession is both subsequent to and made possible by forgiveness. Only the forgiven can confess their sins.”

“forgiveness comes before we ask for it, before we are aware of its need before we take our first breath. It comes like a grieving father breaking all protocols – exposing his bare legs and running out to embrace a traumatised child at the edge of life’s horizon where life has become no life. It is pure gift. It is unthinkable. It is.”

I want to say a big ‘Amen’ to the suggestion that God’s forgiveness is a gift; I couldn’t agree more. If Jason’s primary concern is to guard against human performance and to emphasize God’s grace, that is a worthwhile venture. Indeed, it is not the perfection of our repentance which saves. Only Christ can redeem us, and His atoning death on the cross is sufficient for this task. However, to achieve this emphasis Jason has made a misstep. He seems to conflate forgiveness with grace. Of course the former is an expression of the latter, but the two are not identical. In making this categorical error, Jason argues that Divine forgiveness precedes repentance. 

In the example of the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jason suggests that forgiveness is the action the Father takes as he awaits his son’s return. In my view, that is reading too much into the parable. We are told, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). This is certainly a picture of God’s grace. It is an exquisite illustration of the Father’s grace toward us. It is compassion that compels the father to take initiative toward his loved and yet undeserving son. In Darrell Bock’s 2 volume commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he summarises verse 20 in two words, “compassion reigns”. But to mount an argument from this scene that forgiveness is given prior to repentance is asking more of the text than we are given. 

This means we need to rely on other parts of the Bible. As we do, we discover that Divine forgiveness does not precede confession and repentance. Rather, grace precedes our confession and repentance (as in the prodigal son parable), and forgiveness follows our confession and contrition. 

Of particular note, following the Prodigal Son Parable, only two chapters later, Jesus say this, 

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4). (Bold indicates my emphasis)

Forgiveness is conditional upon confession and repentance.

1 John 1:9 explains,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Psalm 32:5,

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Again, assuming that Jason’s purpose is to stress God’s grace a priori, we can say that it is not the size of or emotional intensity of repentance that leads to forgiveness. We are nonetheless told in Scripture that forgiveness comes to those who confess their sins and turn from them.  In no way does this make repentance into performance, repentance is the acknowledgement of personal guilt before a holy God, the dependence upon the work of Christ for forgiveness, and the transformed life that follows.

Is there any sense in which God forgives prior to our repentance? Yes, but only in a very particular sense and only to those who are in Christ. To those who are called by God to be in Christ and on account of Christ, God forgives all our sins, including our yet to be committed sins.

Stephen Wellum explains, 

“from God’s viewpoint there is no problem with saying that when he declares us just, he forgives our future sins—as well as our past and present sins—since our future lies before him as an open book. Yet from our point of view, it’s best to think of our justification as the forgiveness of all our past and present sins, and as the judicial ground for the forgiveness of future sins.”

…There is absolutely no contradiction between justification by grace through faith and our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin. We ask God to forgive us not to be re-justified but to walk before him in confidence that Christ has paid it all, and we are debtors to grace alone. Justification occurs once for all time, yet confessing sin and receiving forgiveness is ongoing until we are glorified and sin no more.”

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