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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




In this chapter two very important practical topics have to be considered. The order of the Confession is now followed in taking up faith and repentance at this stage in the exposition of the Standards. The Shorter Catechism treats of these topics after the law of God has been expounded, while the Larger Catechism explains them in close connection with justification and sanctification. Faith is there made the instrument of justification, and repentance is regarded as a constituent element in sanctification. The order of the Confession, which is now followed, deals with faith and repentance in separate chapters, after justification, adoption, and sanctification are exhibited.

While speaking of the order of these topics, it may be of some service to devote a short paragraph to a deeper order. That deeper order relates to the order in experience of the several factors in salvation. It is necessary to remember that the logical order of the doctrines as arranged in the system may be different from the experimental order in which the various factors appear in a gracious religious experience. The latter is a fixed order, while the former may vary according to the logical principle of doctrinal classification which may be adopted. In the actual experience of the sinner, under the recovering grace of God, effectual calling surely comes first. Thereby the benefits of the redemption of Christ are applied to the soul, the soul is regenerated, and at the same time it is united to Christ. Conversion, or the actual turning to God in Christ for salvation, results from effectual calling. In conversion there are two factors, in both of which the soul is active. These are faith and repentance, and they not only mark the beginning of the active experience of those who are effectually called, but they abide all through the believer's life as important factors in his experience. Thus faith conditions justification and adoption, and, along with repentance, it enters into sanctification as a factor in it; while, on the other hand, sanctification grows out of regeneration and union with Christ as its roots.

The Catechisms both mention faith and repentance among the conditions of salvation, or of escape from the wrath of God due to us for our sins. These conditions are said to be faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, repentance toward God, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his redemption. The Confession omits this arrangement altogether. It is also a curious thing to observe that the two Catechisms differ in regard to the order in which faith and repentance are mentioned. The Shorter puts faith first, while the Larger mentions repentance first. This may or may not have any doctrinal significance; still, it is an interesting fact in its bearing upon the much-debated question of the order of faith and repentance.

I. Saving Faith is to be First Explained, Inasmuch as it Stands First in the Confession as Well as in the Shorter Catechism.

In the chapter before the last it was pointed out that faith in Christ was the condition or instrument of justification. In the last chapter it was seen that faith was not only the instrument of justification, but that it was also an important means of sanctification. This all-important personal condition of salvation is now to be explained with due care as it is set forth in the Standards.

No discussion of the philosophy of faith in general, nor of the psychology of saving faith in Christ in particular, interesting as they are, will be now entered on. These interesting and difficult questions the Standards do not raise for discussion. They simply assume faith as a fact, and take it in its somewhat ordinary, popular, scriptural sense, and proceed at once to expound its function in relation to salvation. The statement of the Shorter Catechism is worth setting down at the outset, as the starting-point of the explanation. The Confession and Larger Catechism simply expand this statement. "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is freely offered to us in the gospel." The Larger Catechism calls it justifying faith, and the Confession gives the title of saving faith to its chapter upon this subject. The Larger Catechism somewhat strangely lays considerable stress upon the fact of the conviction of sin in connection with saving faith. Some particulars are now to be noted.

1. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace wrought in the heart of the sinner by the word and Spirit of God, whereby the elect are enabled to believe in him to the saving of their souls. The Confession says that it is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their souls. It is gracious, therefore, and really God's gift to the soul. It presupposes effectual calling and regeneration, by means of which a new life is imparted to the soul, and ability to exercise faith in Christ is originated. The Confession in its exposition seems to take a wider view than the Catechisms of the scope of saving faith. The latter limit it almost exclusively to the matter of the faith which unites us to Christ in effectual calling, while the former seems to take the wider view of faith as a general religious exercise of the soul. Hence, the Confession says that by this faith the Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein, and acts differently upon its different parts. But the Confession adds that the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. It would thus appear that the Catechisms present faith, saving faith, as the single act of receiving and resting upon Christ, while the Confession regards faith as a series of acts, some of which lay hold of the truth of the revealed word of God, and others terminate upon Christ for the benefits of personal salvation. But these two views are not at all inconsistent with each other, and the broader view of the Confession will be of service in the full exposition of faith.

2. By saving faith the revealed word of God is taken to be true, and he who possesses this faith will be ready to act in accordance with the commands, threatenings, and promises of the word. This is what is sometimes called historical faith, which takes God at his word, and accepts the testimony which he has given concerning himself, concerning our sinful estate, and concerning the way of salvation through Jesus Christ his only Son. This conviction, as was seen in an early chapter of this exposition, is not a mere natural result of the truth in contact with the mind, but it is wrought in our hearts by the Spirit of God. But this intellectual conviction is not itself, even though it be produced by the Spirit of God, all of saving faith. Still, it may be said to be so necessary that if it be absent, or if there be intellectual revolt against the truth of the message which God has given in his word, then saving faith, receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, can never rise in that soul. At this point, also, it is to be carefully noted that the intellectual factor in faith, of which explanation has been made, is not a merely natural product of man's powers leading up to spiritual saving faith in Christ. This intellectual conviction is itself the product of the Spirit of God in the heart.

3. The Larger Catechism, with peculiar propriety, emphasizes, in relation to faith, the fact of our personal conviction of sin and misery. The Confession also hints at this fact when it says that faith in the revealed word of God leads us to tremble at its threatenings. The Larger Catechism further says that this conviction discovers to the sinner his disability in himself, or, by the aid of all other creatures, to recover himself out of his lost condition. The Shorter Catechism lays stress upon the fact of the conviction of sin in connection with repentance, but this only shows how very closely faith and repentance are associated in the complex yet unitary experience of the sinner's recovery from his sinful estate. It is undoubtedly true that all saving faith, terminating upon Christ, has connected with it a sense of sin, and a conviction of our inability to save ourselves from its guilt and power. Hence, a personal conviction of our sin and of our helplessness wrought in our hearts by the word and Spirit of God is to be intimately associated with saving faith in the believer's experience.

4. The special function of saving faith is to receive and rest upon Christ and his righteousness as it is set forth in the promise of the gospel. This faith not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but it also trusts in Christ as held forth therein for the pardon of sin, and for accepting and accounting our persons as righteous in the sight of God. This is what the Confession calls the principal act of faith, and it is really its consummation. The other two factors are necessary as leading to this one, but they might both exist, and yet if the element of personal trust in Christ, as the mediator of the covenant of grace, through whom alone we have justification, adoption, sanctification and eternal life, were absent, our faith would not be complete as saving faith.

This point connects itself closely with the exposition of justification ; for when the sinner believes upon Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour, then God pardons his sins, which were borne by Christ in his own body on the tree, and accepts his person as righteous by imputing to him the righteousness of Christ, and gives to him a title to the reward of eternal life on the ground of Christ's perfect obedience, which is also laid to his benefit. Thus saving faith conditions everything on man's side in the matter of salvation.

It is worth while noting the force of the words receive and rest upon Christ for salvation. The word receive evidently relates to the acceptance of Christ at first unto justification of life. The phrase rest upon points to the abiding state and relation of the believer in Christ. It is a permanent state of grace, and the form which faith takes is a constant resting on, or trusting in, Christ, so that the life which we now live we live by faith upon the Son of God. This is an all-important point, both in regard to the function of faith in the believer's life, and as exhibiting that abiding state of grace into which justification introduces him.

5. The Confession adds a statement to the effect that this faith is different in degrees, sometimes weak and sometimes strong; and that, though it may be often and in many ways assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory in the end, growing up in many into the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith. Here faith is viewed rather as one of the Christian graces in connection with sanctification, than as saving faith, the condition or instrument of justification. Of course, the statement of the Confession is true in both respects, but as a Christian grace it is brought specially before us in this statement. In the same believer faith may be much stronger at some times than at others; and in different believers it may be widely variant in strength. One may have the faith that could remove mountains, and another faith which is only like a grain of mustard seed. In a word, faith viewed as a Christian grace shares in the fluctuations of all the other graces in the experience of sanctification, but in every case victory is assured in the end.

II. Repentance unto Life is the Other Topic for this Chapter.

Repentance is always to be coupled with faith, as the twofold factors in conversion. Both have reference to sin. Faith relates to the guilt of sin, and repentance to ita heinousness. Faith is directed towards the Lord Jesus Christ, and repentance is directed towards God. Both are to be preached constantly by every minister of the gospel, so says the Confession. A number of points are now noted in order, in connection with repentance as it is presented in the Standards.

1. Repentance is a saving grace wrought in the heart of the sinner by the word and Spirit of God. The Catechisms both call it repentance unto life, while the Confession calls it evangelical repentance. It is not the mere natural sorrow or regret for sin which is unto death, but a godly sorrow which is unto life. The root idea of the word is a change of mind or view, in regard, specially, to the matter of sin. It implies a radical change of heart and mind, of life and conduct, in regard to sin and its deserts. It is distinctly set forth in the Scriptures as the work of the Holy Spirit. It is said to be a gift of God, just as plainly as faith is. To give repentance unto Israel and the remission of sins is the frequent language of the word of God upon this matter. It is clear that repentance implies that the heart which repents has been regenerated.

2. Repentance implies a sight and sense of sin. This is the language of the Larger Catechism and of the Confession, while the Shorter Catechism speaks of a true sense of sin. This is a sense and sight of the danger of sin, and of the certainty that it will surely be treated as it deserves. To see sin in its relation to the law of God, which is perfect, and in the light of his holy character; and, above all, to behold sin in the light of the cross, and of the love of him who suffered thereon, is an all-important factor in repentance. To be convinced of the danger of continuing in sin is another element in true repentance. From this danger repentance bids the sinner flee to God in Christ.

3. Repentance also involves a sight and sense of the filthiness and odiousness of sin. This sight shows sin to be utterly contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God. Sin is seen to be moral depravity, and utterly abhorrent to a holy God. God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and in true repentance we are led to look upon it in the same way. Sin is spiritual leprosy or uncleanness, and repentance should lead us to regard it with the utmost abhorrence. It is very important to have this feeling in regard to sin in order to true repentance.

4. Again, repentance implies an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ. A sense of danger alone will only alarm, and not lead to any action, unless some place of shelter from the danger be also pointed out. A mere sense of the odiousness of sin will afford no relief, but rather produce dismay, unless there be also provided some remedy from this odious thing, sin. The gospel message presents Christ as the refuge from the danger, and his blood as the means of cleansing from the pollution. When this message is brought home to the heart and life, the sinner turns to this refuge, and seeks the cleansing of the blood. This, too, is an element in true repentance which should ever have due importance given to it. To learn that God is merciful, gracious, long- suffering, and ready to forgive all who come to him by his Son, Jesus Christ, is a strong motive to lead the sinner to exercise true repentance by turning from sin to God in Christ.

5. Repentance further implies true penitence, and grief for our sins, and a hatred of them. The Shorter Catechism says that there is to be grief and hatred of our sins in repentance, but the Larger Catechism and the Confession use the word penitence, which is an exceedingly good term. It denotes the inward experience of the heart which has a true sense ofsin, while repentance is rather the outward action following that inward experience. Penitence is the humble, broken heart on account of sin, while repentance is the change of mind in regard to sin. The grief now spoken of points to the true sorrow for sin, and not to the sorrow of the world which worketh death. Moreover, this sorrow does not exercise itself so much with the consequences of sin, as with the inherent nature of sin, as an offence against God, whose law is just, holy, and good. The hatred here spoken of indicates the antagonism to sin which true repentance generates. The heart being renewed, and the view of sin having undergone a radical change, the nature, as renewed, is opposed to sin; and the affections, which used to go out towards it, are now turned away from it with hatred. This hatred is essential to evangelical repentance.

6. Once more, repentance involves turning from all our sins unto God, with a holy purpose and an honest endeavor to walk worthy of God, and in the ways of his commandments. This is the outward, practical side of repentance which relates to our conduct. True penitence results in piety of heart, and genuine repentance produces reformation in life. Unless our sight of the danger of sin, and our sense of the ill-desert of sin, result in our actually turning away from it into the ways of a new obedience, there is a defect some where in our repentance, and we have good reason to doubt its reality. There must be full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience; and if this exists in any heart, it affords one of the best evidences that the repentance is a genuine one. Thus repentance, if it is bringing forth its meet fruits, results in real reformation of life and conduct. Even though the believer fall into sin he will rise again, repent and be forgiven. Thus, penitence surely paves the way up to perfection, and repentance leads finally to complete reformation.

7. Yet again, repentance is, in a sense, necessary to salvation. True, it is not necessary in the sense that faith is necessary. Still, it is true that without repentance no one can be saved. Repentance, of course, is not in any way to be trusted in as a satisfaction for sin, nor is it in any sense to be regarded as the cause of the pardon of sin. All this is due to the free grace of God in Christ, yet repentance is indirectly the condition on our part for the exercise of the divine clemency in the pardon of our sins. Hence, repentance is necessary for salvation, in the sense that no one can expect pardon without repentance.

Then, too, this repentance relates to all sins, small and great, as they are sometimes called. There is no sin so small that it does not deserve condemnation, hence if we are to escape we must repent and obtain forgiveness. Then, on the other hand, the Confession happily assures us that there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent and turn to God in Christ for pardon. The Confession further adds, that men should not be content with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to repent of his particular sins, particularly. This is a very valuable practical suggestion. Men are apt to be content, both in their public prayers and in their private devotions, with a very general repentance and confession, which may not mean very much. Our sins should be set in order before us, and then laid before God in sincere confession, praying that they may be forgiven, every one.

8. Finally, repentance is to be followed by confession, and, in certain cases, by reconciliation with our neighbor. Every man who repents of his sins and turns to God for pardon must make a personal confession of his sins to God, and then pray sincerely for the divine forgiveness. Then, if his repentance be true, and he forsake his sins, he shall find mercy at the hands of God and be freely forgiven. This matter of confession completes repentance, and if it be wanting no one can expect pardon or peace.

Further, in certain cases where a man by his sins has scandalized his brother or the church of Christ, the Confession says that he ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those who are offended. It is their duty in turn to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive and restore him. Care must be taken here to give no favor to the Romish doctrine of penance, according to which the church forgives sins, and it is ever to be kept in mind that no man, not even one whom we may have injured or offended, can pardon our sins in the case. Man may forgive the injuries done to his fellow-man, but God alone can pardon his sins. Sin has thus, in some cases, a twofold bearing. It may be a sin against God and an injury to our neighbor. Our neighbor may forgive the injury, but God alone, and he only for Christ's sake, can pardon our sin in the case.

This completes the exposition of faith and repentance. The next chapter will deal with some additional topics in religious experience, especially good works, perseverance, and assurance.

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