What is meant by the phrase “saving repentance” used in the 1689 Confession chapter 15 paragraph 3? Is this terminology legitimate? We are accustomed, of course, to speak of “saving faith” and properly so. But should the idea of a grace being “saving” be reserved exclusively for faith, or extended to also include repentance, or perhaps be stretched to include all the graces of the Christian life?
Doubtless we should not be too absolute in answering the question, we may use the word “saving” in different ways provided we make sufficiently clear what we mean and that we reflect biblical truth.
In Acts 11:18 we read “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to (or unto) life.” The Greek preposition eis used, however, does not indicate that there is a causal relationship between repentance and life; but only (in this case) that repentance accompanies, or is associated with life. In reality, regeneration (life) precedes and causes repentance not vice versa. But as a result of this translation, there has been a widespread tendency to interpret the passage as suggesting that repentance precedes and brings about life and salvation.
If that is not the thought, as appears evident, is it possible that the 1689 writers meant that repentance was “saving” only in the sense of a general association with salvation- a necessary and constituent element of a genuine saving experience? In 11:2 the confession indicates that faith is “is ever accompanied with all other saving graces.” Is repentance simply among these all-inclusive saving graces, all constituent parts of a valid experience?
Then why do we not see the prefix “saving” affixed to the other graces such as for example “saving good works,” “saving love” etc.? Only faith and repentance are described specifically and pointedly as “saving.” Clearly, it seems, there is a distinction being made that repentance is “saving” in a way that love, good works and other graces are not.
Can it be said, that because of the prominence given to repentance and faith in apostolic gospel preaching, these two graces are preeminent in the context of the immediate gospel response and experience? Yes, and in this sense the writers of the 1689 (following the Westminster confession) call repentance and faith “evangelical graces.” Well enough.
But, it is a large further step and problematic when repentance is then elevated to the status of a “saving grace” with faith, and above all other graces not so particularly denominated. What then becomes of the uniqueness of “saving faith”? Is it not obscured and trampled by “saving repentance”?
Faith, as the confession states (11:2), is the “alone instrument of justification” and by it the elect “believe to the saving of their souls” (14:1) Thus, there is to be a very real and important sense in which we speak of faith as uniquely “saving” in a way not true of any other grace. Repentance is not saving in the way that faith is. And when we equate them at this point we convey, at best, ambiguity – if not, in fact, error.
There is not a cogent case to be made for speaking about “saving repentance” alongside “saving faith” and in distinction from other graces. Repentance is not any more “saving” than hope, love, patience, or any other grace. And the real and present danger is the inevitable watering down and obscuring of the unique place of saving faith – a consequence to be tenaciously avoided.