My favorite theologian of all time is wont to argue that the defining task of the theologian is to make distinctions. That’s what we do. We bring clarity through precision, precision through distinction. The man who may well be my favorite theologian’s favorite theologian, Francis Turretin, published his three-volume work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology as a sort of systematic theology by contrast. Each point is broken down, compared and contrasted, and examined in light of its opposite.
One could argue that theologians are here following the path of their Maker. We serve a God who delights in distinctions. Reading through the creation account, for instance, we see not only the creation of light, but the separation of light and darkness, not only the creation of land, but the separation of land and sea, or land and sky.
On the other hand, the same God who delights in distinctions warns us against tearing asunder what He has brought together. He is a God who brings people of every tongue and tribe together into a holy nation, a royal priesthood. He makes of many grains one loaf.
Reformed theologians especially are given, at least when dealing with the critical issue of our salvation, to razor-thin distinctions. The links in our chain of the ordo salutis, or “order of salvation,” are strong, unbreakable, but nevertheless rather small. There is good reason for this, but also some danger. Sometimes the wedges we drive between concepts go too deep.
Consider faith and repentance. There is good reason to see these as two distinct things. With one, we look with hope to the provision of God in Christ. With the other, we acknowledge and confess our need for that work. Hypothetically, one could affirm that Jesus died for sinners and miss the glaring truth that the one making the affirmation is a sinner. One could more easily recognize the reality of his sin but know nothing of the provision in Christ. Thus, the two are two, and both equally needful.
On the other hand, one could argue that the two things are actually one, or at the very least that they flow from the same source. Faith is indeed the coming together of understanding, agreement, and trust. But on a more fundamental level, faith is simply this—believing God. Faith is displayed when God speaks and we say, “Amen.”
The devil, of course, knows that God is true. He is quite informed on the sacrifice of Christ. He knows to his very core, from the very longing of his heart by which he misses those who slipped through his fingers, that Jesus came to save sinners. He is also quite well aware of what and who he is—a sinner. All of this knowledge will make his eternity that much more painful.
Faith and repentance, then, might be at their closest when we confess that, as He says, we are sinners, and as we cry out, as He has commanded, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and we say, “Lord, Your judgments are true.” When God says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15), we do not merely affirm our agreement, but we sing it with hallelujahs and amens.
For all the important nuances, for all the valuable precision, the simple truth of the matter is we fell in the garden because we failed to believe God. All sin is a failure to believe God. The good news is that we are rescued from our sins by believing Him, both His judgment and His promise. That is, we are gifted with faith and repentance.
Just as we can make theology more complex than it need be, just as we are called, in seeking orthodoxy, to say our amens to what God has revealed about Himself, so we can make the living of our lives in faithfulness, the seeking of orthopraxy, more complex than it need be. Here, too, we are to say our amens about what God has revealed about His promises for us, about His law. He commands that we not worry about what we will eat or wear, and we are called to repent of our fears and believe His promises. He commands us to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and we are called to repent for our pursuit of personal peace and affluence, and to believe His promises.
It is true that God is true and all men are liars. It is true, in turn, that every man is miserly while God is extravagant. Were we wise, we would repent expansively, even as we would believe with both deep conviction and broad expectation. Our sin is simple—we do not believe God, and so do not obey God. The solution is simple—believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:31). We do not merely believe this once and then nevermore; rather, we believe it both evermore and evermore.