Featured image from “Seventh Plague of Egypt,” 1823, by John Martin (1789-1854). Wikimedia Commons.
At this point, Egypt has undergone six other plagues: water turning into blood, frogs, gnats, Egyptian livestock dying, and boils. It’s not until after the seventh plague—hail—that Pharaoh finally admits his sin and offence. This is probably because this is the first time God’s plagues got personal for him, “‘For this time I will send all My plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth'” (v. 14).
Because God’s plagues are affecting him personally now, this could be why Pharaoh finally repents: “Then Pharaoh sent and called Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail, I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer'” (vv. 27-28). Pharaoh finally repents, or does he?
As it turns out, his repentance is not genuine. “So, Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and stretched out his hands to the LORD, and the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer poured upon the earth. But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. So, the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses” (vv. 33-34).
Rather than praising God for the relent granted to him and keeping his word by letting God’s people go free, Pharaoh instead sins and hardens his heart and refuses to let the people of Israel go free. With the number seven often representing God’s holiness in the Scriptures, it turns out the 7th time is not the charm to cause genuine repentance in Pharaoh and give glory to God.
So, what can be said about genuine repentance? The Lutheran Confessions speak of repentance in two parts: contrition and faith. Calvinists want to add a third part of genuine repentance, which is the fruit of good works. Our Confessions don’t reject this third part of repentance, insofar as they are simply “good works that follow conversion” (FC SD XII, 28). In other words, because Christ has made the tree—that is, the person—good, good fruit necessarily follows rather than the other way around (Matthew 7:18-20). Good fruit do not make the tree good; the good tree makes the fruit good. Thus, good works do not make the Christian good, but the good Christian makes the works good, and it is Christ alone who makes the tree good by faith. Furthermore, good works follow faith, not the other way around.
But I digress. While we acknowledge good works as a third part of repentance insofar as it is understood as something the Christian does without thinking (FC SD IV, 11), we primarily confess two parts to genuine repentance: contrition and faith. “This contrition takes place when the Word of God denounces sin” (FC SD XII, 29). In other words, when God’s Law reveals your sin, your conscience is troubled, and you confess it before God out of true godly sorrow, that is, sorrow for offending God. (If the Law does not make you feel sorrow for sin you’ve committed, some serious reflection needs to take place.)
The second part is faith, “namely, that in the midst of these terrors [contrition], the gospel about Christ (which freely promises the forgiveness of sins through Christ) ought to be set forth to consciences. They should therefore believe that on account of Christ their sins are freely forgiven. This faith uplifts, sustains, and gives life to the contrite, according to the passage [Rom. 5:1]: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.’ This faith receives the forgiveness of sins. This faith justifies before God, as the same passage testifies, ‘since we are justified by faith'” (FC SD XII, 35-36).
In short, one who genuinely repents is sorrowful for the sin they have transgressed against God and neighbour, confesses this to God, and by faith believes His promise that they are forgiven in Christ.
What exposes Pharaoh’s lack of genuine repentance was not so much his going back on his word and, therefore, the lack of the fruit of repentance (though it is certainly connected) but rather his hardening of his heart. Repentance is a matter of the heart, not works. The hardening of the heart is purposefully setting yourself in opposition to God. One who feigns repentance and harden’s one’s heart would look something like this, “Lord, forgive me for committing this sexual act that Your Word expressly forbids. Amen.” Then they say internally, “I don’t care what God’s Word says. I’m going to commit that sexual sin again anyway.”
This is much different than the person who accidentally falls into a pattern of sin. For example, an addict knows his behaviour is wrong, which he confesses; yet when he relapses, he still knows it is wrong. He does what he knows and believes is wrong because the substance has control over the addict rather than the other way around. The person who hardens his heart, on the other hand, does not believe what he’s doing is wrong. Rather than depending on God’s grace like the addict, he takes advantage of it that he may abound in his sin even more, which is a rejection of one’s Baptism (Romans 6:1-4).
Therefore, it is dangerous to say, with the Calvinist, that the fruit of repentance (i.e., good works) is assurance of our election because anyone can appear to produce good fruit, even unbelievers. If all we’re looking at are external works, then no one will be able to distinguish between a believer and an unbeliever. Rather, the heart is literally the heart of the matter—whether it is hardened by sin or softened by the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). And here’s the key thing to remember: only God knows the heart. And because God knows you are justified by faith in Christ and baptised into His Holy Spirit, He knows your heart has been softened by His Spirit, even before you repent.