In his Institutes, John Calvin makes a wonderful distinction between what he calls “Legal repentance” and “Evangelical repentance.” After a close reading of this text, it is abundantly clear that Calvin would be quite happy with our contemporary nomenclature of “legalistic” and “gospel-centered” to communicate the difference between legal and evangelical repentance.† Consider his descriptions:
Legal (legalistic) Repentance
“Legal repentance; or that by which the sinner, stung with a sense of his sin, and overwhelmed with fear of the divine anger, remains in that state of perturbation, unable to escape from it.”
This kind of repentance rises and falls with the effort of man. It leaves us upset with ourselves and fails to carry us to joy in Christ. It is a man-made trap of moral performance, an act that keeps us in the jaws of guilt never to experience the liberation of grace. Legalistic repentance is the antithesis of gospel-centered repentance. It exchanges grace for law, Christ for man, peace for anger and produces no real change at all.
Evangelical (Gospel-centered) Repentance
“The other they term Evangelical repentance; or that by which the sinner, though grievously downcast in himself, yet looks up and sees in Christ the cure of his wound, the solace of his terror; the haven of rest from his misery.”
This kind of repentance rises and falls upon the grace of God. It brings about a bittersweet conviction that is less bitter than sweet. Instead of beating us down, it lifts us up. Gospel-centered repentance makes much of the death and resurrection of Jesus on behalf of sinners. It carries us to Christ, where we find perfect forgiveness, acceptance, and rest. Gospel-centered repentance is the antithesis of legalistic repentance. Gospel repentance exchanges law for grace, man for Christ, anger for peace, and produces lasting change in the life of man.