Does Jesus repent for us? That question was raised in an online discussion group due to a comment made on social media that asserted that Jesus completely repents for us. It reminded me of the heated debate the Westminster divines had with the so-called antinomians in London during the 1640s. John Saltmarsh affirmed that Jesus repented for us and Samuel Rutherford took issue with it. My goal in this article is to look at Rutherford’s response to Saltmarsh. Please note carefully, I am not attempting to interpret or address the brief social media comment. I am only looking at Saltmarsh and Rutherford.
In his survey of antinomianism, Rutherford noted a number of mistakes that the antinomians made concerning the covenant of grace. One was concerning the parties of the covenant (for more on this see here). Rutherford singles out Saltmarsh. He notes that Saltmarsh argues that the new covenant is not properly made with us but with Christ. Saltmarsh is concerned to deny any conditions on our part in the covenant. There are covenant conditions but they were all fulfilled by Christ, the proper party of the covenant. The covenant is only said to be made with us “because we are Christs, I Cor. 3.”
Rutherford agrees that Christ stands for us as the “principall undertaker” and who “articles as the second Adam for us.” Christ is the “Mediator, surety, witness, Messenger, or Angel of the Covenant for us.” The problem, as Rutherford sees it, is that the antinomians like Saltmarsh emphasize the role of Christ in order to deny any conditions or requirements on our part. We don’t need to repent, believe and walk in holiness because Christ has done all of this for us perfectly. Rutherford cites Saltmarsh: “Wee are, (saith Saltmarsh) to beleeve, that our beleeving, repenting, new obedience, mortification, are all true in Christ, who beleeved, repented, obeyed for us.”
Rutherford is careful to point out that everything we do (believing, repenting, new obedience and mortification) is “true in Christ” in two senses. First, they are true in Christ in a meritorious sense. No one believes, repents or obeys perfectly. As Jerry Bridges once said, “Even our tears of repentance need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Christ’s saving work atones for all of our sins, including “the sinfull defects in our believing, repenting, obeying.” Second, they are true in Christ in an empowering sense. We are not able to believe, repent or obey in our own strength. The reason we are able to work out our salvation is because God is working in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. The problem with Saltmarsh’s statement, and with the antinomians in general, is that they do not allow these things to be true in us. After all, if we are not properly parties of the covenant, then there can be no requirements that we need to keep. Rutherford writes: “But Antinomians will not have us to beleeve, they are true in us; as personally, and in our selves, though by Christs strength acting them, or doing, or performing the duties of beleeving, repenting, mortifying our lusts by any obligation of the Law or Gospel commandement.”
Does Jesus repent for us? Well, if you mean that Christ repented for us in that his saving work atones for our imperfect repentance or in that he empowers us by his Spirit to repent, then the answer is yes. But if you mean that Jesus repented for us so that we don’t have to repent then the answer is no. We personally need to repent. As WCF 15.3 says, repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.”