What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)You may have heard someone talk about coming to Christ with an empty hand of faith.  What does this mean?  This phrase has a historical background.  In the 17th century, some Christian teachers were saying in order to be forgiven and justified a sinner needs to have repentance.  [Repentance in this context has a broad meaning which includes hating sin, turning to God, and endeavoring unto new obedience (see WLC 76 or HC 88-90)].  For example, Richard Baxter taught that a person must be forsaking sin and following Christ to be pardoned and justified.  This led some Reformed preachers to say that Baxter was setting up a new covenant of works!

I appreciate how Thomas Boston discussed this topic.  Here are some things he said in a treatise on this topic:

“I conceive that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe (Acts 10:43 ‘Through his name, whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins’).

Boston noted that if someone does need to be forsaking sin and following Jesus to obtain forgiveness, it would be like earning forgiveness.  Boston quotes Preston favorably: “It is a fault to think that God’s pardons are not free and that you must bring something in your hand.”

Upon the whole we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for remission of sins and God’s favor.  But he does not come empty-handed who brings repentance along with him.  If any shall say we screw up matters so high in this point that we must also cast away faith as well as repentance for obtaining pardon, as if faith is something we bring to attain pardon, I say this:

For the safety of God’s grace, let the ‘work-faith’ and the ‘inherent-quality-faith’ go, and be made to stand back, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified – that the empty-handed, ‘taking-faith’ may alone have place.  Hasn’t the Lord made pardon to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand and receives all?

Boston then said that in this matter there’s a big difference between faith and repentance (conversion/living a new life), for one receives (faith) and the other gives (repentance).  In fact, Boston exhorted readers not to turn the covenant of grace into a “bastard covenant of works” by saying we have to bring something when we come to Jesus to obtain his favor.

So what does “the empty hand of faith” mean?  It means coming to Christ empty-handed simply to receive the free, gracious gift of full forgiveness.  When we come to Jesus for pardon and justification, we don’t need to bring Him anything in exchange; we don’t need to clean up our act, put nice clothes on, or do a few good deeds so He notices us.  We come like a beggar would come before a king with nothing but an open hand to receive a gift from the king.  And as the Bible teaches, this King blesses beggars who come with an empty hand of faith!

The above-edited quotes are found in Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 6, p. 87ff

Shane Lems


6 comments on “What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

  1. Lon Hetrick says:

    Can we not clarify a bit using Augustine’s words?–“God gives what He commands.” God clearly commands repentance, and in regeneration, His Spirit enables the elect to both repent and believe in Christ. So, the doctrine of irresistible grace includes the Spirit’s whole work of regeneration and conversion, including repentance.


    • Lon – that does make sense. What Boston and other Reformed theologians were doing was guarding the free aspect of forgiveness and justification. In other words, our conversion (turning from sin and to new obedience) does not earn forgiveness, since forgiveness is a gracious gift of God. Does that make sense? It threw me off at first because the older Reformed theologians talked about repentance in a broad way – turning from sin to God in new obedience. Usually today when we say “repent” we mean “confess/admit your sins to God.” Hope this helps!

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  2. Steve L. says:

    For a more indepth look at this issue called the Marrow Controversy check out this three part series by Sinclair Ferguson



  3. Steve L. says:

    Below, Ferguson is clarifying why it is wrong to require repentance before coming to Christ. he is not saying repentance is not part of the order of salvation, but it is in a sense putting the cart before the horse. It is a synergistic work that is brought about a monergistic regeneration. Once regenerated, then a man choose to turn from sin and to Christ. So to say that man must first repent before he can receive and believe in Christ is turning the gospel on its head.

    “Perhaps it may help us as we think of this, if I put the doctrine that the Marrow Men opposed in the form of a logical syllogism.

    The major premise was this: the grace of God in Christ saves the elect. The minor premise was this: the elect are known by the forsaking of sin.

    And the conclusion drawn was this: grace is therefore given to those who forsake sin.

    And you see immediately what they were doing. Inevitably men operating with this kind of logic would find the Auchterarder Creed, and the words of Culverwell and Preston, and the teaching of the Marrow Men, some strange form of Arminian and Antinomian aberration.

    But you see what these men were doing. They were confusing the fruit of grace in their minor premise with qualifications for grace. They were saying that what grace does to a man when it touches his life and changes him, is what these men must present as their credentials to Christ before he touches them with his grace. And they were turning the free grace of God in the gospel upon its head, and distorting the message of the glorious God, both to those who heard it evangelistically, and to those who needed its healing and saving power pastorally.”- Sinclair Ferguson


  4. Steve L. says:

    And hence Boston’s agreement with the Auchterarder Creed, that it is not sound to say that a man must first quit sin in order to be qualified for the offer of the gospel that will lead him to Christ. For the offer of the gospel is not only a message about the fullness of Christ for all who will come, it is a message about the free grace of our Lord Jesus Christ bestowed not upon the righteous, but upon the unrighteous. – Ferguson


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