In his well-known work “The Doctrine of Repentance,” the great Puritan Thomas Watson marvels at the gracious nature of repentance, an aspect of repentance that many Christians (and non-Christians) are ignorant of. He writes:
“Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works admitted no repentance; there it was, sin and die. Repentance came in by the gospel.”
I’ll be honest, when I first encountered this in Watson’s book, I had to stop and think about what he was saying, as I had never quite realized just how gracious repentance is. As we consider what Watson means here, the grace of God towards sinners is magnified all the more in light of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.
“The Covenant of Works Admitted No Repentance”
The Covenant of Works is a biblical and theological concept regarding a particular covenant relationship between God and man. This is seen first in the Garden of Eden, as explained by the 1689 Confession of Faith:
“God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” (2LBCF 19:1)
In fact, Thomas Watson, in his commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, explains the Covenant of Works in a similar way:
When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him upon condition of perfect obedience, forbidding him to eat of the tree of knowledge upon pain of death.
As we can see in both these definitions, God’s covenant with Adam was based entirely upon Adam’s obedience: if Adam maintained perfect, personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience to God’s moral law and the positive command regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would have lived. If he failed, even once, for even a second, in the slightest degree, then the threat of death seen in Genesis 2:17 would come thundering upon him and his posterity.
And that is exactly what happened.
Adam’s continued covenant relationship with God in the Garden was contingent upon his obedience; that is the fundamental basis for the Covenant of Works. It depends entirely on the terms of the covenant being kept by man. According to this covenant arrangement, man is judged based solely on his works. Paul alludes to this reality in Romans 2:6-8:
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Under the Covenant of Works, there is no “second chance.” There is only “Do this and live; fail and die.” Of course, for sinful humans, such an arrangement spells out certain death and doom, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:10-13:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Under the Covenant of Works, failure to keep God’s righteous law earns us nothing but death. There is no room for repentance, but only an inseparable link between obedience and life, and failure and death.
Fortunately, God has made another covenant that allows for such a gracious thing as repentance: the Covenant of Grace.
“Repentance Came in By the Gospel”
Tragically, repentance and grace have been so diametrically opposed in the minds of many that this statement may come as a surprise but, biblically, Watson is vindicated:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)
For our Lord, repentance and grace were not enemies but friends. The Gospel proclaims the Covenant of Grace.
The Covenant of Grace is a different covenant arrangement than the Covenant of Works:
Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ. (2LBCF 7:2)
Both the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works offer salvation to mankind, but the way mankind receives this salvation is much different. Under the Covenant of Works, man must merit his salvation through obedience. Under the Covenant of Grace, salvation is received through faith as a free gift, accomplished by the work of Jesus Christ:
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23–25)
The gracious nature of the Gospel and the Covenant of Grace are what makes repentance both possible and accepted by God. In fact, God graciously commands repentance as a response to the Gospel.
What was Peter’s response to those who wanted to be made right with God in Acts 2?
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 )
What was Peter and John’s evangelistic proclamation before the senate of Judea?
“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31)
What did Paul testify to before the Ephesian church?
“…repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:21)
Watson’s statement that repentance came in by the Gospel does not mean that repentance was not commanded or accepted in the Old Testament; it means that only under the economy of the Covenant of Grace (which spans both sides of the Cross) can repentance be accepted. After all, repentance, by its very nature, is a turning away from sin. Under the Covenant of Works, there would be no opportunity to turn back to the Lord to receive His forgiveness and grace; instead, there would only be punishment, wages earned for transgression.
Yet the Gospel proclaims a different message: there is grace, there is forgiveness, there is opportunity to repent made possible through Jesus’s perfect and substitutionary work of obedience to the Law, bearing our sins and the penalty they deserve, and rising again that our justification might be made possible.
Watson’s words help us realize the way we should view repentance; not as a heavy burden, but as an amazing opportunity given to us by God for Christ’s sake, made possible by the Gospel. May this keep us from slowness or fear in repenting of our sin, and instead, may it spur us on to partake in the gracious and undeserved blessing of repentance.
Daniel Ruben (MDiv, Midwestern Baptist) is a pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Carson City, NV. He is husband to Shaelby and father of two.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.