Does Faith Go Before Repentance

Hebrews 11:6  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 6
A great deal has been written on repentance. Various definitions are given, and different conclusions arrived at: not a few are still inquiring concerning it, but, what saith the scripture?
Some continue to define repentance, according to an old tradition, as " sorrow for sin;" but such have often to find out, as a matter of fact, that persons who have had much distress of mind because of some striking sin they have committed, have shown themselves to be entire strangers to the glad-tidings of divine grace and of repentance toward God. Others, not satisfied with this definition of repentance, have declared it to be as change of mind but when an immoral person has been seen to become moral, a drunkard become a man of sober habits; a man of loose ways become practically chaste and refined; an irreligious man become so outwardly religious as to contend that God ought to be served, thus simply indicating a change of mind upon the subject of sin, without any idea of repentance toward God, they have hesitated to abide by their former conclusion that repentance is simply a change of mind. There are others who have held that repentance is the judgment of self and its ways, according to God, which is much nearer the truth; and this, as far as it goes, cannot fail to commend itself to the thoughtful Christian.
But a question still remains open as to whether faith precedes repentance, or only accompanies, or follows it. Those who contend that repentance precedes faith, forget that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:66But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)), and are driven to the untruthful conclusion that, after all, man is not a dead in trespasses and in sins" but capable of doing something good apart from the operation of divine grace in the soul. This would controvert God's own conclusion, after He had tested man in various ways during thousands of years, that "they which are in the flesh cannot please God."
The truth is, that while "God commandeth all men everywhere to repent," and the Savior commanded that u repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name" we are also told that it is the goodness of God which leadeth to repentance. (Luke 24:46, 4746And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: 47And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46‑47); Rom. 2:44Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4)) The soul therefore that is truly acted on by the gospel, is brought under the reality of the unutterable grace of God in Christ Jesus, and this goodness leads to repentance. When this is the case, no doubt such "judge themselves and their ways in the presence of God according to His word," and in them there is also "a change of mind," as well as " sorrow for sin;" there will be "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 20:2121Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:21).)
If then it is the goodness of God which leadeth to repentance, and that the natural man is incapable of bringing forth fruit to God, it can no longer be questioned that faith goes before repentance. But, about this, we cannot more clearly bring the subject before our readers than by quoting the words of a well-known writer on the subject.
u All who know what grace is, believe that faith precedes repentance, and everything else which is good and right in man. Otherwise he would have what is good before he believed the truth at all; he would have it without God. And, as to repentance, substantially the whole moral change, the essence and substance of his return to God would have been effected without any truth at all. For, if he repents through the truth, he must believe the truth in order to repent. Nothing can be more absurd than putting repentance before faith; for a man then repents believing nothing at all. The word of God has not reached his soul, good or bad; for, if it has, he is an infidel, or he believes it, and it has thus wrought repentance. That a man does not understand redemption and salvation before repentance; be it so. Certainly, he does not really know it for himself. But that does not say faith does not precede it.....How does divine grace operate? Is it not by the word; by the presentation of divinely given objects of faith? If faith is not the source of repentance—that is, in the moral sense precedes it, then the vital change in the state of a man's soul is without faith, without grace; or grace operates without any revelation of a divine object. The eye must be opened to turn men from, darkness to light; is it opened on vanity, or on God's revelation of Himself in Christ? Hence I find that repentance and remission of sins were to be preached in His name. Am I to believe that the repentance was to be wrought in unbelief in that name, or by faith in it? So in John 16 'He shall convince the world of sin, because they believe not on me.' And Peter, accordingly, having announced Jesus, charges them with having crucified Him; and then they are pricked to the heart. And then he tells them the way of escape. Philip goes down to Samaria to preach Christ to them. Did they repent through faith in it or not? The goodness of God leads man to repentance. (Rom. 2:44Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4).) Is there no goodness to be believed in this work? What led the poor sinful woman in tears to the feet of Jesus? She heard that Jesus was in the house. Satan, to bring in lust and sin, had first undermined confidence in God. God, he insisted, had kept back just what would make man like Himself. God is manifest in flesh, and moves in grace through the wretchedness of man, showing grace in Himself, abounding over sin to win back the confidence of sinful man, in spite of, yea through the burden and shame of sin to Himself, while surely warning him of the consequences of abiding in it. The poor woman had felt this; she could go to God thus manifested (not explain it all, I dare say), and showing her to herself too in the light which she dared not to any human heart. She loved much. When she heard that Jesus was in the house, she came. What business had she there? When God and grace were there, for her He filled the place in His beauty and grace. He was alone for her soul. It is brokenness and renewed feeling in life fitted to the grace that was revealed in Him. God was there for it. That was all. The rest was all human vanity. Christ had a claim which made nothing of all the rest. Its glitter had found its truth in her sorrow; but Christ met what she was. She knew, what the Pharisee did not, that grace and that God, morally speaking, for she might not know it doctrinally, was there. She did not know forgiveness; but repentance had been produced by the revelation of God in Christ to her soul. And Christ had pronounced the forgiveness, and told her to go in peace. Now here we get faith, repentance, and forgiveness in their divine order. Now more clearly preached, no doubt; but not otherwise. Peter preaches Christ. There is faith, that works repentance; for the heart had been enmity to the Christ believed in, and then comes the knowledge of forgiveness through His work. Faith, then, according to scripture, does go before repentance. Peace may not, and surely will not..... Repentance is a much deeper thing than is thought. It is the judgment of the new man in divine light and grace in all that he who repents has been or done in flesh. Law may be the means of bringing the soul to it; but though salutary, it is made for the unrighteous. The full knowledge of Christ gives a far deeper hatred of sin. And such is the Holy Ghost's way; all else, if true, is imperfect. 'He shall convince of sin because they believe not on me.' To have hated good, to have seen no beauty in Christ to desire Him; a nature which could do this is even worse than the lusts which the spirituality of the law so justly condemns. Lawless, law-breaking, and God-hating; such is the flesh's character in scripture, and the order of its manifestation for showing what sin is. Hence, repentance will, in one sense, deepen all one's life, as the knowledge of God grows. It is not a quantum of sorrow, nor even a perception of separation from God by sin. That leads to it. It is the soul of man judging divinely of sin, and that, in the consciousness it had been self, when God is known in grace. At any rate in some measure."