Faith and Repentance in Stone-Campbell Theology

Frontier Calvinism emphasized the necessity of regeneration as well as repentance before faith. The Spirit awakens godly sorrow that leads to faith. Consequently, the regenerate person mourns, regrets and despairs over sin and then comes to saving faith through some kind of religious experience.

From the beginning the Stone-Campbell Movement rejected this conversion narrative. In his “Compendium of the Gospel,” which appeared in the Apology of the Last Will and Testament, Barton W. Stone argued that “faith,” which is the belief of testimony, “produces regeneration” and “necessarily precedes it,” and that “faith produces reformation.”

The standard understanding of the ordo salutis in Stone-Campbell theology is faith, repentance, baptism, regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and then reception of the Holy Spirit. The elderly Stone wrote that faith purposes “to repent, reform and obey the gospel in order to justification, pardon and salvation” (Christian Messenger [1842], 329).

Alexander Campbell carefully distinguished between two Greek words in the New Testament. One, metamelomai, means mere regret or remorse. The other, metanoeoo, means a change of mind. Campbell preferred to translate the former as “repent” and the latter as “reform.” Evangelical repentance is not mere regret, but a reformed life or a change of direction. One may, in Campbell’s language, repent without reforming, that is, they may regret their mistakes without turning to God. The biblical definition of repentance is reformation and it is a necessary condition of salvation. The sin-offering of Christ is ineffectual without repentance.

Repentance, then, involves a regret for sin (a feeling) and a reformation of life (action). Both, however, are the effect of faith. The belief of God’s testimony about Jesus produces a sorrow for sin (feeling) that then leads to reformation (action). Campbell stringently maintains the psychological sequence of fact, testimony, faith, feeling and then action. Action involves “works worthy of repentance,” including restitution when possible. Actions evidence sincerity. “True repentance is, then, always consummated in actual reformation of life” (Christian System). The first act of repentance is to undergo the baptism of repentance and experience the “bath of regeneration.” Repentance, according to Campbell, “is intimately associated with Christian baptism.” Acts 2:38 functioned paradigmatically not only for baptism but also for repentance in Campbell’s theology.

Campbell’s ordo salutis created tension with his Calvinist contemporaries. They believed repentance preceded faith, but Campbell argued that faith preceded repentance. Frontier Calvinists appealed to Mark 1:15, “repent and believe the gospel” (as well as Acts 20:21). Campbell explained that this was addressed to covenant people who already believed in God and thus repentance was demanded on the basis of that faith. Since faith is the belief of testimony for Campbell, it is “one of the mysteries of mystic Babylon” how one can “repent of a sin against a God in whom he did not believe, or against a Christ of whom he had not heard.” Repentance is the “first fruit” of faith; it is an effect of faith.

The Stone-Campbell understanding of repentance is dependent upon Campbell’s foundational exposition, but the lengthiest articulation is found in Walter Scott. He presents repentance as a change of mind regarding Scripture, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and consequent moral conduct. Faith as an acknowledgement of facts and repentance as a change of mind regarding God’s moral authority and Jesus’ Sonship in Scripture, leads to repentance (moral reformation) and obedience to the gospel (and consequent reception of the Spirit). The significance of baptism as repentance, however, emerges strongly in Scott. Moral reformation without obedience to the gospel in baptism demonstrates “deference to the facts” but at the same time a rejection of divine authority regarding the “positive institute of baptism” (Gospel Restored, 318). The promise of God attached to baptism is the reception of the Holy Spirit and thus the power and strength for a holy, reformed life.

Subsequent discussions of repentance followed the lines of Campbell and Scott. For example, J. W. McGarvey’s Lard’s Quarterly exposition depends upon Campbell, and N. B. Hardeman practically reproduces McGarvey’s sermon on repentance. The discussions, however, became more pronounced against Calvinism or more defensive of baptism. T. W. Brents, for example, not only objects to the theory that repentance precedes faith but that repentance is a direct gift from God. Brents rejects any understanding of total depravity that undermines a person’s ability to repent when God has commanded it. God induces repentance through facts (faith) and persuasion. Guy N. Woods stressed that some place repentance before faith in order to preserve “the dogma of salvation by faith only” since if people are saved at the moment of faith and repentance is necessary for salvation, then repentance must precede faith.

However, Stone-Campbell theology is not uniform. Robert Milligan, for example, identified repentance with the change of will rather than mind. Faith involved an intellectual (mind) change that generated an affective (heart) change. Love for Christ engendered repentance (a change of will) that then led to a change of conduct (conversion). Repentance is not a change of conduct, but “it consists properly and essentially in a change of the will, effected by means of godly sorrow in the heart.” Repentance is the submission of the human will to the will of God. Milligan’s conditions of church membership were faith, love, repentance, conversion, prayer, confession and baptism.

Those who define faith as trust in Christ for salvation have tended to see repentance as logically prior to faith. Focused on Acts 20:21, Hiram Christopher argued that repentance toward God in the sense of both sorrow for sin and a change of mind precedes faith in Jesus which leads to obedience in baptism. The order is faith in God, repentance from sin, faith in Jesus and then baptism. Also in the light of Acts 20:21, K. C. Moser believed the order was belief in the facts, repentance toward God, and trust in Christ. Moser insisted that faith was more than belief of testimony. Rather it was a trust in the redemptive work of Christ. Consequently, repentance preceded faith because the penitent sinner who has renounced sin seeks redemption from sin through acceptance of Christ’s work through trusting in him. Though “repentance logically precedes faith in the sense of trust,” they are actually “inseparable.” For Moser this penitent trust in Jesus is expressed in baptism. Baptism embodies the sinner’s change of mind and his full trust in the atonement of Christ.

Where faith is defined primarily as “belief of testimony,” then it precedes repentance. Thus faith can exist without repentance as the will stubbornly refuses to submit to reform. But where faith is defined primarily as “trust,” then it follows repentance since one does not trust in what one is not willing to follow. Contemporary discussions generally recognize that evangelical faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. They are so intertwined that the logical sequence is inconsequential. Even Milligan notes that “faith and repentance have always a mutual and reflex influence on each other.” Faith and repentance are practically a single event and ultimately one does not exist without the other if faith is understood as an affective trust and repentance is understood as a change of mind and life.

Bibliography: Alexander Campbell, “Repentance,” Millennial Harbinger Extra 4 (August 1833), 345-48; “Reformation,” MH Extra 4 (August 1833), 349-51; “Tracts for the People.—No. IV. Repentance Unto Life,” MH 17 (April 1846), 181-92; “Repentance and Faith? Faith and Repentance,” MH 32 (January 1861), 14-18; Walter Scott, The Gospel Restored, 315-412; J. W. McGarvey, “Repentance,” Lard’s Quarterly 1 (1864), 172-82; “Repentance,” in Sermons, 97-108; T. W. Brents, “Repentance,” The Gospel Plan of Salvation, 234-48; Robert Milligan, Scheme of Redemption, 456-60; Hiram Christopher, Remedial System, 269-76; N. B. Hardeman, “Repentance,” in Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons (1922), 196-203; K. C. Moser, “Repentance and Faith,” in The Way of Salvation, 60-76; and Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers, 249-252.

2 Responses to “Faith and Repentance in Stone-Campbell Theology”

  1.   Jim Woodell Says:

    What you share illustrates that the best minds in the restoration stream often differed. However they shared a common conclusion- reformed lives that was generated by a relationship with Christ.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2.   Andrew Jones Says:

    Very good discussion to have. Would like some more on Milligans view. I will look in his “Scheme of Redemption” book during my next study time. This also is a great lesson for those who try to put everyone in neat little philosophical boxes.

    Thank you for everything John Mark.

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