What comes first: repentance or redemption?
According to Isaiah (and the rest of the Bible), redemption.
This seems backwards to many people, I know, but, in fact, if redemption did not come first there would never be any chance for repentance.
In Isaiah 43, God sets forth in beautiful imagery His thoughts about His people. Even though much of Isaiah’s book is spent revealing Israel’s sad state, chapter 40 turns a corner, with God announcing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people!” Building to a crescendo in chapter 53, where it is declared that the “Suffering Servant” would take on the identity of Israel and bear the sins of “all” (v. 6), chapter 43 is a movement in that direction.
After reminding Israel that He created and formed them, God then offers words of comfort and assurance: “Fear not,” He declares, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are mine” (v. 1). Notice: the Hebrew of “redeemed” (ga’al) is in the perfect tense, denoting past completion. This, no doubt, refers back to the exodus, when God brought Israel out of the house of bondage. (It bears mentioning that no one to whom God was speaking in Isaiah was literally there at the exodus; but they were there in a corporate sense “in” their ancestors.)
This is not terribly startling, but the end of the chapter takes a surprising turn. Despite the fact that God has already redeemed Israel in the past, He announces, “But you have not called upon Me, O Jacob; and you have been weary of Me, O Israel. You have not brought Me the sheep for your burnt offerings, nor have you honored Me with your sacrifices” (vv. 22-23).
In other words: there was no repentance; no faith; no contrition of soul.
Yet redemption was still a reality.
In fact, God surprisingly takes it even a step further in verse 25, declaring, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” In Hebrew, the clause is started with a double use of the pronoun “I” (anoki, anoki), thus emphasizing the weight of God’s declaration.
Thus, according to Isaiah, God first forgives sins not because of any subjective action on our part, but because it is an outworking of His own character and a demonstration of His own righteousness – as Paul echoes in Romans 3:25 (“to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed”).
Commenting on this passage, John N. Oswalt notes that God does not redeem Israel “because of anything they have done.” Neither does He redeem them because they have become “more perceptive or more obedient; nor is God’s salvation made conditional on their repentance.” It is simply because of “God’s loving care” (The Book of Isaiah, vol. 2, p. 136).
Yes, indeed, as the Bible demonstrates: God’s redemption, His forgiveness, His goodness, always precede repentance – and actually provide the necessary conditions to make repentance possible to begin with. If redemption and forgiveness did not come first, we would not be around long enough to even repent. We must first be bought and freed by God in order to respond to Him.
All this is borne out of God’s faith – what He sees we can become (we are “precious in” His “sight,” Isaiah writes in 43:4) by His grace.
Ellen White clearly confirms this. “For every human being, Christ has paid the election price. No one need be lost,” she writes. “All have been redeemed. To those who receive Christ as a personal Saviour will be given power to become the sons and daughters of God. An eternal life insurance policy has been provided for all” (7BC, p. 944).