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