There are various degrees in the power and exercise of gospel graces, and some may be more eminent in one, and some in another: as Abraham and Peter in faith, David and John in love. And there may be causes and occasions for the greater and higher exercise of some graces and duties at one time than at another; for we are to attend unto duties according to our circumstances, so that we may glorify God in them and advantage our own souls. So the Apostle James directs us: “Is any afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms” (5:13). Several states, and various circumstances in them, call for the peculiar exercise of several graces and the diligent performance of several duties. And this is that which is here intended – namely, a peculiar, constant, prevalent exercise of the grace and duties of repentance in a singular manner.
As unto the persons in whom this is required, and in whom faith will evidence itself by it, they are of various sorts:
(1.) Such as have been, by the power of their corruptions and temptations, surprised into great sins. That some true believers may be so, we have precedents both in the Old Testament and in the New – such, I mean, as uncleanness, drunkenness, gluttony, theft, premeditated lying, oppression in dealing, and failing in profession in the time of persecution; this latter in the primitive Church was never thought recoverable but by faith acting itself in a state of repentance. Such sins will have great sorrows, as we see in Peter, and the incestuous Corinthian, who was in danger to be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor 2:7). Where it hath been thus with any, true faith will immediately work for a recovery, by a thorough humiliation and repentance, as it did in Peter; and in case that any of them shall lie longer under the power of sin, through want of effectual convictions, it will cost them dear in the issue, as it did David. But in this case, for the most part, faith will not rest in the mere jointing again the bone that was broken, or with such a recovery as gives them peace with God and their own consciences, but by a just and due remembrance of the nature of their sin, its circumstances and aggravations, the shameful unkindness towards God that was in it, the grieving of the Holy Spirit and dishonour of Christ by it, it will incline and dispose the soul to a humble, contrite frame, to a mournful walking, and the universal exercise of repentance all its days.
And, indeed, where it doth not so, men’s recovery from great sins is justly to be questioned as to their sincerity. For want hereof it is that we have so many palliated cures of great sins, followed with fearful and dangerous relapses. If a man subject to great corruptions and temptations hath by them been surprised into great actual sins, and been seemingly recovered through humiliation and repentance, if he again break the yoke of this stated repentance whereof we speak, he will quickly again be overcome, and perhaps irrecoverably. Herein, he alone that walketh softly, walketh safely.
(2.) It is necessary for such as have given scandal and offence by their miscarriages; this will stick very close unto any who hath the least spark of saving faith. It is what God is in a peculiar manner provoked with in the sins of His people, as in the case of David (2 Sam 12:14). (So also Ezek 36:20, Rom 2:24.) This keeps alive the remembrance of sin and sets it before men continually, and is a spring, in a gracious soul, of all acts and duties of repentance. It was so in David all his days, and probably in Mary Magdalene also. Where it hath been thus with any, faith will keep the soul in a humble and contrite frame, watchful against pride, elation of mind, carelessness, and sloth. It will recover godly sorrow and shame, with revenge, or self-reflection, in great abasement of mind, all which things belong to the state of repentance intended. They that can easily shake off a sense of scandal given by them, have very little of Christian ingenuity in their minds.
1. Taken from “Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect” in Owen’s Works, vol 5, pp 442-444.