Which Comes First in the Order of Nature: Faith or Repentance?

Which Comes First in the Order of Nature: Faith or Repentance?

In Thomas Boston's work "The Necessity of Repentance", he clearly articulates that faith precedes repentance in the order of nature. Although the grace of faith and repentance are bestowed simultaneously in time, faith is described as the "spring and source of repentance." This implies that in the spiritual regeneration of an individual, the act of believing in Christ inherently comes before the act of repentance. Boston argues that the process of turning away from sin (repentance) is initiated by and rooted in the act of placing one's faith in Christ. Thus, according to Boston, for one to truly repent, they must first exercise faith in Christ​​.

He states that faith is not only the precursor to repentance in the natural order of spiritual transformation but also its primary motivator. Boston argues that faith is the "leading grace" and the "first breathing of a quickened soul," indicating that without faith, it is impossible to please God, and consequently, impossible to truly repent in a manner that is pleasing to Him (Heb. 11:6; Jer. 31:20; John 15:5). He supports this with several points:

  1. Faith as the Leading Grace: Boston emphasizes that faith is the foundational grace upon which all other graces, including repentance, are built. This is because repentance requires a turning away from sin towards God, which cannot happen without first recognizing and trusting in God through faith. He cites Zechariah 12:10 and Acts 11:21 to illustrate how belief in God precedes and catalyzes the act of turning towards Him in repentance.

  2. Faith Generates Repentance: Boston posits that faith is what "generates" the godly sorrow necessary for repentance, melting the hard heart and producing the tears of repentance. He argues that it is through the lens of faith that one sees God in Christ, which in turn causes the soul to turn to Him in repentance (Jeremiah 3:22).

  3. Motivation for Repentance: Boston also points out that the Scriptures and the promises of grace serve as motivations for repentance, indicating that a soul is brought to repentance through a "believing application" of these promises. He illustrates this by referencing several scriptural instances where God's willingness to forgive and heal is presented as a basis for turning back to Him (Jeremiah 3:14, 22; Joel 2:12-13; Hosea 6:1; Matthew 3:2, 4:17).

  4. The Nature of Repentance Itself: Finally, Boston explains that the very nature of repentance, a cordial turning from sin to God, inherently requires faith. He underscores that one cannot turn to God without going through Christ (John 14:6), and there is no way to come to Christ except by faith. This implies that repentance, being a turning to God, is fundamentally rooted in faith.

Boston acknowledges that some may place repentance before faith or mention repentance without explicitly mentioning faith as the way to salvation (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38, 3:19). However, he clarifies that while repentance is undoubtedly necessary for salvation, its presentation without mention of faith does not diminish the role of faith as the means to achieve the end of repentance. He elaborates that Christ’s command to repent is essentially an invitation to believe, as true repentance cannot occur without faith in Christ.

IBoston's discussion serves to correct misunderstandings about the order and relationship between faith and repentance. He emphasizes that true repentance is a fruit of faith and that attempts to repent without first having faith in Christ are misguided. This understanding is crucial for guiding sinners towards genuine conversion and for encouraging believers to deepen their faith as the foundation of their spiritual life.

The discussion on the order of faith and repentance is integrated into his broader exposition on the necessity of repentance and the dynamics of faith and repentance within the Christian life. Boston weaves this theological point into a larger narrative or doctrinal exposition rather than isolating it in a single, specifically titled chapter.

His discussion spans across sections where he addresses objections, clarifies misconceptions, and provides a thorough biblical and theological rationale for placing faith before repentance in the order of spiritual transformation. This approach reflects Boston's method of embedding key theological insights within a broader doctrinal and pastoral framework, aiming to offer a comprehensive understanding of repentance's role in salvation and its inseparable connection to faith.

Thomas Boston's book on repentance, as illustrated by the in-depth discussion on the relationship between faith and repentance, offers several compelling reasons for recommendation:

Boston provides a rich, theologically grounded exploration of repentance, emphasizing its necessity and the role of faith. His work is deeply rooted in Scripture, offering insights that are both profound and practical.

  • The book is notable for its thorough scriptural analysis. Boston uses a wide range of biblical references to support his arguments, making the book valuable for those interested in understanding repentance from a biblical perspective.
  • Despite its theological depth, Boston's work exhibits a pastoral sensitivity to the struggles and questions of the Christian life. His discussion on faith and repentance addresses common objections and misconceptions, making it helpful for both individuals seeking to deepen their faith and pastors looking for resources to aid in teaching and counseling.
  • Reading his work provides historical insight into the theological debates and understandings of his time, enriching one's appreciation for the development of Christian doctrine.
  • Beyond its academic and theological value, the book has a devotional quality that encourages self-reflection and spiritual growth. It challenges readers to examine their own lives in light of biblical truths about repentance and faith.
  • Boston's comprehensive examination goes beyond a superficial understanding of repentance as mere sorrow for sin, exploring its complexities, its grounding in faith, and its implications for the Christian life.

For these reasons, Thomas Boston's book on repentance is a valuable resource for theologians, pastors, seminary students, and lay Christians alike. It offers depth, clarity, and encouragement to those seeking to understand and practice genuine repentance.


Related Resource:
Repentance in the Ordo Salutis