Is forgiveness prior to repentance? This was a question Professor James B. Torrance used to ask his students challenging their understanding of the gospel. What do you think? Our answer to this question quite distinctly reveals our assumptions concerning God’s love and Christ’s finished work. What is our message to the world? Do we proclaim a perfect work of reconciliation by our loving Father through Jesus Christ, or are there implicit some conditions in the gospel we present which have to be met before a person can know he belongs to God?
C Baxter Kruger, who was student of Torrance, tells us that Torrance’s abiding point was that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and is to be proclaimed as such to the world.
When I accepted Christ I was enrolled in a Pentecostal church. It took several weeks, if not months, before I was secure in my salvation. No one was able to give me the word that would settle the fact. I was a newborn infant and hence unable to discern between the Spirit’s confirming inner witness and the enemy’s strategy of confusion. It was in that environment I learned that repentance is prior to forgiveness. An understanding which came to follow me closely in the years to come and which would color my entire outlook. It is interesting to note that this perspective never made me safe in my relationship with God. One failure and I believed I was an outcast.
Does our understanding of the reconciliation make us declare that all without exception has been forgiven and embraced by the Father?
C Baxter Kruger writes: “Either we believe in the fact of our forgiveness in Jesus, and thus have something real to believe in, or we believe in the possibility of our forgiveness, and thus believe in whatever it is (our faith, repentance or goodness) that makes the possibility a reality.”
The gospel is not news about what might be if we do our part. It is not a conditional gospel telling us that if we believe right and repent we might be saved. The gospel is the good news about what God already has established in Christ. Forgiveness is prior to repentance and even prior to faith. When the good news is proclaimed in such a manner that God’s unconditional love is clearly articulated then repentance might follow, that is, a person might turn to God or reject God’s love. Faith arises when the word is ministered to the world (Rom 10:17), and even more stunning; it is the faith of Christ which is awakened in us.
Without the proclamation of the truth that every man is embraced and forgiven by God in Jesus Christ there is nothing real to believe. If we proclaim a different gospel we give people nothing to believe in except themselves and the imagined power of their own faith and self-whipped-up repentance.
In the aftermath of the Pentecost experience Peter filled with the Holy Ghost boldly declared to the different peoples gathered in Jerusalem: And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21) Peter evidently shared in Torrance’s conviction. It is also noteworthy to observe that before the cross Jesus coupled repentance with salvation in such a manner that repentance was prior to salvation. However, no man can be saved by self effort as Jesus so lucidly demonstrated when he conducted the Sermon on the Mount. The cross will forever be the dividing line between the old and the new dispensation.