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Where does repentance fit?

Where would you place the 'confession' in a communion service? 

I was speaking about that yesterday with another gospel minister.  I 'flew a kite' for the idea of confessing after receiving the sacrament.  Perhaps, I wondered aloud, we could receive Christ in the bread and wine (of course with reverence recognizing the body of the Lord) and then repent of all our unworthiness.  Perhaps this would better model the fact that our repentance flows from the prior grace showered on us 'when we were still sinners.'  (Rom 5:8)  In our sin we are unable to turn to Christ, yet in His mercy He has turned to us to 'justify the wicked' (Rom 4:5).  And, as recipients of such undeserved mercy, our hearts are then humbled into repentance.  So should we put the confession after communion?

What do you think? 

I've been thinking about this especially because I'm writing a paper on repentance at the moment.  Here is the outline of my proposal. I'd love any thoughts you may have on it...

"I propose to write on the implications for pastoral ministry of our doctrine of repentance. Where should repentance fit into our soteriology and therefore how should we proceed in preaching and teaching, in evangelism, administration of the sacraments, in pastoral care, edification of the flock and in relations with the parish and wider world? In each instance the minister of the Word of grace encounters sin in its various forms. In each instance there is a danger that the covenant love of God will be presented as a conditional contract - a kind of "repent, then believe" ordo salutis. This would be to invert the Gospel in which Christ meets us exactly in our sin and does so unconditionally and with no respect to our capacity for Him or His new life. (Romans 4:5).

On the other hand Christ's salvation is precisely a salvation from sin - a deliverance from the realm of the flesh, the world and the devil. "The wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:9). The triune God embraces sinners and in that embrace, changes them (1 Cor 6:11).

How do we as church model this Gospel ordo salutis? How do we preach repentance from our pulpits? At what point do we call the enquiring non-Christian couple to live out a Christian sexual ethic? To whom do we administer the sacraments? (In this question lies, among other things, the balance between communion as a "converting ordinance" and the dangers of "eating and drinking judgement" (1 Cor 11:29)). How do we counsel our people towards repentance? What counts as repentance when various addictions and relational involvements muddy the waters?

I'm sure my research for this will take me in many directions, yet I propose that I begin with the Biblical material, in particular the Old Testament covenants and the NT Pauline corpus. I also hope to investigate the controversies regarding the Western 'ordo salutis' comparing historical positions with each other and the Biblical data. I intend to make use of Calvin's distinction between 'Evangelical and Legal Repentance', especially as it has been developed by JB Torrance. As I begin these lines of enquiry I expect that many others will subsequently open up."

Any help?


0 thoughts on “Where does repentance fit?

  1. Dave K

    I have no answers for this one, and it is a difficult one.

    However, I would encourage you to read Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon's Debate With John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia by Timothy J. Wengert as it seems to me (although I may be wrong) that your question is nothing more than a continuation of that debate. the book offers no answers but I think it is essential reading for any consideration of your question. In fact I think Calvin's ‘Evangelical and Legal Repentance’ was a distinction that first came up in that debate.

    I did a little post on it recently although you may have read that already. I found it a wonderful book.

    The question is a huge one for apologetics as well as liturgy. I look forward to reading your thoughts as you research it.

  2. Missy

    Glen, I don't get much of what your saying here, it's all Greek, err.. Latin to me.

    But I'll tell you my immediate thoughts and you can make of it what you will. :)

    I try to practice communion daily, confession daily, repentence daily. I am of the opinion that Jesus' admonition to "do this in rememberence of me" had more to do with gathering together again after his death than the bread and the wine or even intimate communal time with God - that it was a desire for His disciples not to suffer loss alone and to keep leaning on one another. Confession is about keeping my life in the light of truth so I don't become lukewarm and comfy in my self-denial, and again I lean on my brothers and sisters for an environment that fosters safe openness. And repentence is what keeps me desiring to do those things when it gets tough. No one can call me to that, only God can - through you (hypothetically) practicing communion and confession with me. Seems pretty simple to me. :)

  3. Marc Lloyd

    Hi Glen,

    Do you think of the Supper as a converting ordinance, then? Where do you get that from? (I can only think of coming across it as the idea of Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather (?), which JE rejected?) Isn’t the Supper rather for the converted (who are to examine themselves before eating of it) for their comfort and growth in grace? Receiving the Supper with grateful faith conforms us to the likeness of Christ, but if our fundamental orientation is not already towards him, don’t we receive it to our condemnation?

    I guess we should be constantly repenting of our sin, but the confession does seem to belong towards the beginning of the Lord’s Day service to me: as we approach our Holy God we are conscious of our need for cleansing and forgiveness. Shame the BCP saves it to just b4 the Communion. Didn’t DP have a moan about that?

    Gordon Wenham argues: “The pattern of OT sacrifices may thus provide a pattern of truly Christian worship. Worship should begin with confession of sins, a claiming of Christ’s forgiveness, and a total rededication to God’s service, before going on to praise and petition.” Leviticus, NICOT p66

    Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow ID, Canon Press, 2003) also advocates a pattern of cleansing, consecration and communion seen in the sequence of Entrance and Call to Worship, Confession and Absolution, Consecration and Ascent, Communion and Benediction.



  4. kc

    Glen aside from our differences on the communion service I really do appreciate your reasoning. I think it’s critical to understand that a believer participates in the communion service with foreknowledge having remembrance whereas an unbeliever is not cognoscente of what Christ accomplished prior to belief. I think given this fact and in light of 1 Corinthians 11:26 thru 33 repentance and confession would be in order prior to participating. With respect to the Gospel I cannot begin to imagine how a person could repent of something they don’t even believe. Isn’t it only reasonable to expect that only believers can repent?

    BTW I can’t get enough of your teaching on the Trinity! ;-)

  5. glenscriv

    Hi Dave,

    Yes the Melancthon/Agricola debate does interest me - your post has certainly whetted my appetite. Perhaps I'll order it (do you know of any web-articles on the same debate perchance?)

    And yes, on the issue of apologetics it would seem that to take the Agricola view (which, from what I'm gathering from your descriptions, I'm leaning towards) would be to 'answer' unbelievers simply with gospel (rather than some pre-evangelical 'truth').

    Hi Missy,

    Just the one latin phrase (sorry pasted it from elsewhere without translating). Thanks for keeping me honest though!

    I'm with you on confessing and repenting always. And I also think that turning the Apostle's practice of breaking bread 'with glad and sincere hearts' into a funereal, private, eyes-down, nibble on a cube of bread, sip a drop of wine/juice, shuffle back to pew and be quiet - is a crying shame!

    I guess I'm just trying to get at our motivations in confession/repentance. (And this is in reponse to Marc and KC also...) What is it that will truly drive us to our knees? I want to kneel before my Lord Jesus and confess my unworthiness before I partake of course I do. But, as an act of self upon self I don't think I'm ever driven to the same depths of repentance that I am *after* I've experienced His grace in a fresh way.

    Wouldn't we all testify to the fact that our most whole-hearted times of confession and turning have occured in the aftermath of experiencing the grace of God? That's certainly been my experience. Or in Paul's words: "The kindness of God leads you to repentance." (Rom 2:4)

    Hi Marc,

    I certainly bow to your knowledge on these things. It was Edwards' grandfather I was thinking of. And on further reflection if 'converting ordinance' was ever in danger of meaning 'free-for-all whether you're in the covenant or not' then that should be rejected. But if it meant 'joined to the Word, this is appropriate for any who recognize the body of the Lord and wish to receive Him (i.e. join the covenant people)' then it's allowable isn't it? Perhaps not, happy to retract.

    Some of this discussion depends (crudely speaking) on which way we see the arrow pointing in the communion service. If we see it predominantly as "we approach a Holy God" then we should humble ourselves and repentance should come very early. (And I see the merits of this - don't forget I'm flying a kite here). But if we saw the communion service as predominantly the arrow coming down - God the Son says 'this is my flesh which I give for the life of the world.' We hungry, dying sinners haven't attracted this gospel offer by our repentance. While we are still sinners Christ in His great compassion condescends to feed us with His own body and blood. We are wide-eyed with wonder as we recognize the sacrifice He as made. And we honour this self-giving by *taking*. *As* unworthy sinners we chomp down in grateful thanks and then, having been revived, we perceive the depths from which we've been saved and *this* drives us to our knees. That's the sort of thing I'm tentatively suggesting.

    Notice I've said it's important to 'recognize' what we're doing as we eat and drink, and notice that this is about emphases and when, not if, we confess/repent.

    I will read 1 Corinthians again on this. Certainly there is an unworthy manner of reception and certainly there is self-examination. But note the context of 11:20-22. These phrases shouldn't be seen as equivalents to the confessions of our liturgies.

    Hi KC,

    Good Scriptures. I'll think some more on this - note the above paragraph.

    I have a little pastoral trinity post coming up. I'll dedicate it to you!

    Off to bed now. Night night.

  6. Dave K

    Although I am quite new to this Reformation history game it is still shocking to me how little there is out there other than on Calvin and Luther, and even on them there is not as much as you think.

    On this particular debate which was particularly focused on repentance (it broadened out a decade later into Luther's conflict with Agricola over Antinomianism although Luther was peacemaker at this stage) there seems to be nothing other than reviews of Wengert's work, and none of those seem to do it justice in my opinion.

    Review Article here:

    Shorter review (JETS) here:

    This blog review is better than the JETS one though:

  7. The Orange Mailman

    Hi Glen-

    I would view confession as a subset of repentance. Repentance would be the entire process with confession as one step. I noticed you seemed to be using the terms interchangeably. Repentance would include a change of heart, confession, believing the gospel, being converted, and even baptism. But I'm not saying repentance is necessary for salvation, it is simply a part of "changing your ways" in identifying yourself with the kingdom of God.

    As far as confession in relation to a communion service, I think the circumstance that Paul was writing about in I Corinthians 11 was a far cry from any church service I have ever attended. It seems that some were eating the bread before everyone had arrived and when others came later there was nothing for them to eat. Some wound up hungry and others were drunken. Paul's admonition in 11:23-29 seems to be trying to instill a sense of holiness to the event that wasn't being observed at all.

    So the main idea Paul was trying to convey was that this communion of the bread and cup is unlike any meal that they eat at home. Any communion service at church is already in observance of this. If they were eating the meal because they were hungry, they were eating for the wrong reasons.

    I'm not going to officially say that I think a time of confession should precede the communion rather than come after, but what is the order of events in Matthew 5:23-24? If someone is in need of making confession to God or has relationships to mend, should that not come before any act of worship? Food for thought.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  8. glenscriv

    Dave - thanks for the links. I'll check those out.

    Orange - nice to hear from you, good points too.

    You're right I was sliding between 'confession' and 'repentance' (I was aware of it too, just lazy). And I think you're right about the context in 1 Corinthians. I also feel that the warnings there are very different from so much of the 'self-examination' of our liturgies.

    Anyway, I'm sensing some resistance from you all about putting confession/repentance after communion. ;-) Ahh, maybe you're right.

    Just flying a kite...

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