Redefining the Vocabulary of Faith

The following is a series of excerpts taken from an email exchange that occurred during the last week of Sixth month between Daniel Rowan and me. Daniel is a young Brit who recently has found Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) after having passed through the time of affliction of which Scripture speaks (Mk. 13:19) and which was frequently documented in early Friends journals as a time preceding their having come into the knowledge of the Lord.

In this exchange, we begin by discussing the meaning of the term “repentance” and then move on to a more general discussion of how terms of faith are redefined after one has moved through what Penington identifies as the three-fold state of man: the state of nature, of the law, and of grace. Two of Penington’s tracts are referred to in this exchange: (1) “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At,”1 and (2) “There Is a Three-fold State of Man, Wherein the Grace of God Visits Him.”2  

On Sixth month, the 22nd, Daniel wrote: From what I have read and heard, the early Friends understood that there was but a single true way to God, and that was through true repentance: to be convicted by God through Christ and to be reformed inwardly and then to be reformed outwardly by God through Christ. Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary. It is necessary to deny one’s self, take up one’s cross and follow Christ above all else. One therefore has to be prepared to accept that single route to God otherwise there is no route to God. One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God; to accept that we are in a fallen state; to accept the sword of Christ to severe our preoccupations with worldly things and worldly ways, and put our priorities and loyalties in order with Him being number 1; to accept the fire of Christ to burn from us our sinful thoughts and ways. Anything that is in service of the ego will not work, and I wonder if a hunger and thirst to be loved and for God’s love is in service of the ego. On the other hand, I wonder if a hunger and thirst to want to love God and thy neighbour, recognising one’s inability to do that without His help, could be sufficient, although that may be referring to much the same thing as hunger and thirst for righteousness. But I may be wrong. I came to God on my hands and knees in existential desperation for righteousness, and I don’t have any other experience to draw on.

On 6/23, Patricia wrote: What I sense in [this] paragraph is a focus upon the first-birth state and the need to get beyond it, along with a mixed understanding of what “repentance” is. What I mean by “mixed” is the implication in some sentences but not others that the agent to effect repentance is the person himself: Your statement “Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary” suggests to me that though insufficient for salvation, the person chooses to repent; and an example of the second describes the fraught state pursuant to accepting Christ’s gift of repentance [where you write]:

One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God. 

The Quaker understanding of repentance is Christ is the agent, not the person. “Christ’s turning of the heart from the dead nature, and from the dead works, towards the living principle, and the living works thereof,” is Penington’s description of the term “repentance” (337). 

For a long time after coming to the Quaker faith, I thought that repentance was to be sorry for wrong-doing and to “deny oneself.” It’s the common meaning of the word: the idea most of us were first given. There’s a problem, however, of having the concept of a thing reside in one’s mind when one doesn’t have the experience of the thing itself. (I don’t think that this is your situation, given the things I’ve read and heard from you.) Once one has the experience, the new-found knowledge resulting from that experience can assist in redefining the vocabulary of faith to more accurately reflect the Truth.    

Now why is it important to name the agent of repentance to be Christ rather than the self? First, it’s true; and second, because the mistaken idea that one can choose to repent allows for a false assumption that one can put oneself right with God. One does not and cannot become righteous until after the second birth has been given: one can’t turn to God; one can only receive Christ when repentance is given. Again, Penington writes: 

Quest. Cannot a man turn from sin, and turn to God when he will? 

Ans. No; man is a captive, his understanding captive, his will captive; all his affections and nature in captivity; and nothing can turn him towards God, but that which is stronger than that power which captivateth him (337). 

Practically, if a person who hasn’t known Christ considers himself to be his own agent of repentance (and furthermore entertains popular concepts about faith), he will likely decry his sin, “turn to God,” and think he’s done his bit to obtain salvation. And he can remain captivated, decrying his sin forever—and perhaps secretly congratulate himself for his pious act of “repentance”—all the while not realizing that his confidence in his concepts and his “repentance” express a pride that is keeping him more insidiously captivated than any particular behaviors he and his social group deem sinful. 

Once true repentance is given by Christ, one has a new understanding of Christ, how he comes to be known; of faith, hope, and love; of obedience; of peace, or rest; of joy; of liberty; of prayer; of regeneration, justification, sanctification, reconciliation, and redemption. All these topics are covered in an excellent tract by Penington that I’ve already referred to a couple of times in this email: “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At.” The body of the tract is comprised of Penington’s redefining the vocabulary of faith to reflect Quaker understanding, recognizing the ever-present discrepancy between concepts (what he calls “description . . . received into the understanding”) and “revelation or unveiling . . . in the heart”(333).

It may seem as though I’ve dwelt too much in this email on the issue of concepts and revelation affording different meanings to words. But striving for clarity of speech, clarity of meaning, exercises and strengthens discernment, and discernment is our given, natural power for developing sensitivity to truth. Along with the desire for truth, its exercise is the means by which the Father draws us to the Son (Jn. 6:44).  Our seeing our inevitable failure to find truth/righteousness—and suffering the humility that follows—are necessary to bring our consciousness to what you’ve rightly identified as “a state of sufficient desperation” where we are ready “to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God,” or what is experientially known as personal effort that has led to nowhere. And in that state of despairing resignation, one is prepared to receive the true repentance that God in his mercy gives. 

Penington begins this tract with these words: “None but Christ, none but Christ, saith my soul, from the sense of my continual need of him, and from the deep love of my heart to him” (333). Knowing Christ, we feel Penington’s words reverberate within us: just as his thought focuses on the savior, and not on sin, so must ours. We may discover on occasion that in our souls “the enemy is not there wholly cast out,” yet, as Penington continues, “if the bent of the heart be against the sin committed, God chargeth it upon the enemy and not upon the soul” (338), and Penington supports his statement with a reference to Romans 7:20. Acknowledgment of one’s transgression is necessary, but dwelling upon it is not productive—especially if one knows Christ. Dwelling upon and pleading for sin was the primary difference between the 17th-century Puritans and the Quakers. One’s focus should be where the Quakers placed it: upon one’s need and love for Christ, accompanied by the confidence born of experience that when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn. 3:2). 

On 6/25, Daniel wrote: One could say “a person can do the will of God or can chose not to,” which implies one can chose to do the will of God. But that makes no sense. If one’s will has been surrendered to that of God, one has surrendered one’s choice, or capacity to choose, to God. And so it would be better to say: a person can do the will of God or can chose. That is, the word “choice” needs to be redefined as = not doing the will of God = sin, or choice = sin. God has given us the physiological and psychological “machinery” to do his will on earth. But in our fallen, wretched ego-laden state, some of that psychological machinery has become corrupted such that it serves ourselves and can be exercised for our own sake: choice, free will etc. God wants us to return to our right state and will, at some point(s) in our lives, “knock at our doors” and offer us His Spirit and Power to return us to that right state. At that time of visitation, we can either surrender choice, and be guided onto the path to return, or we can continue to choose, and remain in that fallen state. This makes much more sense of my experiences since December 2021 of being convicted by the Lord and there feeling that I did not have and did not make a choice. Since that point, Christ has been redefining me. Hallelujah!

Am I getting it?


On 6/27, Patricia wrote: Yes, Daniel, I think you’ve understood that there is no free will until Christ appears within and sets us free from sin. We need his heavenly light and power revealed within to become free from that which confines consciousness to its natural, darkened state.

Isaac Penington writes of the “three-fold state of man” (258) in which he outlines different conditions of the soul. Each condition is supplied with a form of God’s grace that is appropriate to it. In the first, the state of nature, man is given leadings towards the good and away from the evil: divine leadings to choose good over evil, but in this state, Christ isn’t known and is yet a promise, and the person himself identifies the particulars of what “good” entails. In the second state, says Penington, the soul is exercised in obedience to the law and continues in the “pure fear . . .  the place of wisdom’s teaching,” and in this state, the person anticipates coming into knowledge of Christ. Finally, in the state of grace or faith, a person knows and enjoys the power to do the will of God; “the light of life entering into, and possessing the vessel.”These states are not permanent–one doesn’t possess them; our soul’s condition depends upon which spirit, in fact, possesses us! 

These differing inward conditions of the soul yield different perspectives on what religion is and what the words of faith mean. The first state of nature where Man himself decides what is good and chooses to enact it is, I think, what modern Friends mistake for God’s leadings. Do you see the distinction between this and the gospel state? That is, in the first (the state of nature), people may choose “good,” but they themselves define what “good” is rather than being given knowledge that arises when “the light of life enter[s] into, and possess[es] the vessel.” In the first state of nature, repentance would be seen as arising from a person’s will to repent, because he knows repentance is “good.” Erroneously identifying the state of nature with the state of grace, the modern Quaker is averse to coming into the second state, that of the law, proudly thinking he’s beyond needing an external standard of righteousness, and not acknowledging early Friends’ stand that “the law, the light, the life, the wisdom, the power, are one and the same.” The law checks the state of nature but is met and superseded by the state of grace or faith. 

For those who have come into a state of faith, the third state, it’s necessary to communicate the new and living way that we’ve been given. To do this, we often have to redefine religious vocabulary to reflect our newfound understanding. We need to do this for two reasons: (1) it alerts others to the fact that there is something beyond the state or condition of nature or law that they presently inhabit, implying the need for them to come into it themselves, and (2) our clear communication of our new understanding supports and strengthens others who also have come into the new understanding. So for these reasons, it’s helpful for us to work together to honestly and clearly communicate the one thing needful: Christ—whether through ministering the gospel, or by intellectually parsing ideas to accurately reflect the reality we’ve known.


On 6/29, Daniel wrote: If I understand correctly, those three states of man relate to the three states of mankind, or three states of relationship with God, in the bible: the natural state parallels our “fallen” state, the law state parallels our state within the old covenant, and the Gospel state parallels our state within new covenant through Christ.

Also, if I understand correctly, you are using a definition of “free” that would arise from the faith state, i.e., free from our own will, and a slave to God’s will. This contrasts with the definition that would arise from the natural state, which really means free from God’s will and a slave to “our own” will (our pride, ego etc.), to other egos in the world, and to evil one.

An analogy of God’s power to work on us to gravity came to me the other morning. God is always pulling on us towards Him. When we are further away from Him, we feel that pull more weakly, but it is still there. And as we are pulled closer towards Him, so we are pulled harder (to those who have some, more will be given). While it is not through our power that we fall towards Him, we can resist and pull, and be pulled, away. But He is always trying to pull us back. When we let go, we initially feel that we are in free fall, confused, unable to breathe. But if we continue to let go, we realise that He has us in His power and will bring us swiftly into His arms. As with all analogies, best not take them too far, so I’ll leave that one there.


1 Works of Isaac Penington,” Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At” (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995, 2:336-8).

2 Works, “There Is a Three-fold State of Man,” 2:258-9.

Rembrandt Christ with Arms Folded, 1657-61, Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York
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