True and False Repentance

True and False Repentance

John Calvin
[From III. iii. 25 of the Institutes of Christian Religion]

The question arises, however, inasmuch as the apostle denies that sham repentance appeases God, how Ahab obtained pardon and turned aside the punishment imposed upon him; since he appears, from the later conduct of his life, to have been stricken only by some sudden fear (1 Kings 21:28-29). He, indeed, put on sackcloth, cast ashes over himself, lay upon the ground (1 Kings 21:27), and as is testified concerning him, humbled himself before God; but it meant little to rend his garments while his heart remained obstinate and swollen with malice. Yet we see how God is turned to mercy.

I reply: Hypocrites are sometimes spared thus for a while, yet the wrath of God ever lies upon them, and this is done not so much for their own sake as for an example to all. For even though Ahab had his punishment mitigated, what profit was this to him, but that while alive upon earth he should not feel it? Therefore, God’s curse, although secret, had a fixed seat in his house, and he went to eternal destruction.

The same is to be seen in Esau; for, even though he suffered a repulse, a temporal blessing was granted to his tears (Gen. 27:40). But, because the spiritual inheritance from the oracle of God could rest in the possession of only one of the brothers, when Esau was passed over and Jacob chosen, the disinheriting of Esau excluded God’s mercy; yet this solace remained to him as an animal man: to become fat with the fatness of the earth and the dew of heaven (Gen. 27:28).[1]

And this which I have just said ought to be applied as an example for the others in order that we may learn more readily to apply our minds and our efforts to sincere repentance, because there must be no doubt that when we are truly and heartily converted, God who extends his mercy even to the unworthy when they show any dissatisfaction with self, will readily forgive us. By this means, also, we are taught what dread judgment is in store for all the obstinate, who with shameless forehead no less than iron heart now make it a sport to spurn and set at nought the threats of God. In this way he often stretched out his hand to the sons of Israel to relieve their calamity, even though their cries were feigned and their hearts were deceitful and false (cf. Ps. 78:36-37), as he complains in the psalm, that they forthwith reverted to their character (v. 57). And thus by such kindly gentleness he willed to bring them to earnest conversion or render them inexcusable. Yet in remitting punishments for a time, he does not bind himself by perpetual law, but rather sometimes rises up more severely against the hypocrites and doubles their punishment to show how much their pretense displeases him. But as I have said, he sets forth some examples of his readiness to give pardon, by which the godly may be encouraged to amend their lives, and the pride of those who stubbornly kick against the pricks may be more severely condemned.


1Following LXX and Vg. here (as in his Comm. Gen. 27:38, 39), Calvin has interchanged the blessing of Esau with that of Jacob in Gen., ch. 27. Cf., However, Heb. 11:20.