“Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Such was the awful and tremendous denunciation of our Lord to those Jews who were at that time listening to his discourse. And except you repent, my reader, you will perish; perish body and soul in the bottomless pit, and perish everlastingly. There is a world of misery in that word, perish; it is deep as hell, broad as infinity, and long as eternity. None can comprehend its meaning but lost souls; and they are ever discovering in it some new mystery of torment. This misery will be yours, unless you repent. Tremble at the thought, and pray to Him who was exalted “to give repentance” as well as “remission of sins,” that he would confer this grace upon you.
But what is it to repent? It is more, much more than mere sorrow for sin: this is evident from what the apostle has remarked: “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of” (2 Cor. 7:10). True sorrow for sin is a part of repentance, and only a part; for the scripture just quoted, evidently makes a distinction between them. If sorrow comprised the whole of repentance, Cain, Ahab, and Judas repented; and hell itself is full of penitents, for there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for ever. Many, very many, grieve for their sins, who never repent of them. Men may grieve for the consequences of their sins, without mourning for the sins themselves. The meaning of the word repent, generally used in the Greek Scriptures, is a change of mind. Repentance, therefore, signifies an entire change of men’s views, disposition, and conduct, with respect to sin. It is equivalent in meaning to regeneration. The new birth means a change of heart, and repentance is that same change viewed in reference to sin. The author of repentance is the Holy Ghost; it is the effect of Divine grace working in the heart of man. The following things are included in true repentance.
1. Conviction of sin.
“When he [the Spirit] is come,” said Christ, “he shall reprove [that is, convince] the world of sin” (John 16:8). The true penitent has a clear view of his state before God as a guilty and depraved creature. All men say they are sinners, the penitent knows it; they talk of it, he feels it; they have heard it from others, and taken it up as an opinion; he has learnt it by the teaching of God, who has shown him the purity of the law, and the wickedness of his own conduct and heart, as opposed to the Law. He has looked into the bright and faithful mirror, and has seen his exceeding sinfulness. He perceives that he has lived without God, for he has not loved, and served, and glorified him. This in his view is sin, his not loving and serving God. He may not have been profligate, but he has lived without God; and even if he had been openly vicious, this is the parent vice, his want of love to God. He sees that all his worldly-mindedness, folly, and wickedness, has sprung from a depraved heart; a heart alienated from God.
He formerly thought he was not quite as he ought to be, but now he perceives that he has been altogether what he ought not to be; formerly he knew matters were not quite right, but he now sees they were all wrong; then he was of opinion he had no very strong claim upon God’s justice or even mercy, but now he perceives clearly that he has been so great a sinner, that God would have been just had he cast him into hell. This is now his confession: “Should sudden vengeance seize my breath, I must pronounce Thee just in death; And if my soul were sent to hell, Thy righteous law approves it well.” Can you subscribe to this, reader? If not, you are not yet convinced of sin as you must be. No man knows what sin is, and how sinful he is, who does not clearly see that he has deserved to be cast into “the lake that burneth with fire.”
2. Self-condemnation is implied in true repentance.
As long as a person indulges a self-justifying spirit, and is disposed, if not to defend his sins, yet to excuse them, he is not truly penitent, he is not indeed convinced of sin. To frame excuses for sin, and to take refuge from the voice of accusation and the stings of conscience, in circumstances of palliation, is the besetting infirmity of human nature, which first showed itself in our fallen parents, when the man threw the blame upon the woman, and the woman upon the serpent; and it has since continued to show itself in all their descendants.
We very commonly hear those who have been recently led to see their sins, mitigating their guilt: one by pleading the peculiarity of his situation; another his constitution; a third the strength of the temptation; a fourth imputes his actual sins to his original sin, and endeavours, on this ground, to lessen his sense of guilt. But there is no true repentance while this frame of mind lasts. No, never till the sinner has cast aside all excuses, rejected all pleas of extenuation, and abandoned all desire of self-justification; never till he is brought to take the whole blame upon himself; never till he pronounces his own sentence of condemnation; never is he truly penitent till his mouth is stopped as to excuse, and he is brought unfeignedly and contritely to exclaim, Guilty, guilty.
Some such as this is now his sincere confession:
O thou injured Sovereign, thou all holy God, and all righteous Judge, I can attempt to excuse myself no longer. I stand before thee a convicted, self-condemned sinner. What has my life been but a course of rebellion against thee? It is not this or that action alone I have to lament. My whole soul has been disordered and depraved. All my thoughts, my affections, my desires, my pursuits, have been alienated from thee. I have not loved thee, thou God of holy love. Oh what a heart have I carried in my bosom, that could love the world, love my friends, love trifles, yea, love sin, but could not love thee! Particular sins do not so much oppress me, as this awful, horrid state of my carnal mind at enmity against thee. Oh what patience was it that thou didst not crush the poor feeble creature that had no virtue to love thee, and no power to resist thee! My whole life has been one continued state of sin; what seemed good was done from no good motive; for it was not done out of obedience or love to thee, and with no intention to please or to glorify thee.
Once I thought as little of my sin, as I thought of that gracious and righteous God against whom it was committed: and even when the knowledge of sin began to glimmer on the dark horizon of my guilty soul, how perversely did I resist the light, and how deceitfully, and wickedly, and presumptuously did I attempt to stand up in judgment with thee, and in proud self-confidence plead my own cause! Oh with what lying excuses, and with what extenuations, did I make my wickedness more wicked, and tempt thy vengeance, and seek to draw thy thunderbolts upon my devoted head! Eternal thanks for thy marvellous long-suffering, and thy matchless grace, in not only bearing with my provocations, but convincing me of my folly. Stripped of all my pleas, silent as to every excuse, I cast myself before thee, uttering only that one confession, Guilty, guilty; and urging only that one plea, Mercy, mercy.
3. Repentance includes sorrow for sin.
If a man does not mourn for sin, he cannot repent of it. The apostle speaks of “godly sorrow,” and the psalmist exemplifies it in the Psalm 51. Awakened and anxious sinner, I commend to your especial attention that affecting and precious effusion of David’s contrition. Read it often; read it upon your knees in thy closet; read it as your own prayer; read it till your heart responds a sigh to every groan with which each verse seems still vocal.
With those melting strains of a broken heart sounding in your ears, review the history of your life, and the dark and winding course of your rebellion against God. Pause and ponder as you trace back your steps, in each scene of your transgression, and God’s patience. Dwell upon the length of your term of sin, and all the aggravations of that sin derived from religious advantages, pious friends, and a reproving conscience. Assail your hard heart with motives to contrition, fetched from every view of God’s mercy and your own ingratitude; nor cease to smite the rock till the waters of penitence gush forth.
Nor let your sorrow be selfish; mourn more for your sins as committed against God, than against yourself. Turn again to Psalm 51, and see how David felt: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” Wonderful language! What views of sin were then in his mind; and oh what views of God! He had seduced Bathsheba into the greatest sin a wife can commit; he had murdered her husband; and had thus committed two of the most enormous evils against the well-being of society, and yet so impressed was he with a sense of his sin as committed against God, that he could now think only upon this.
Against thee, thou holy, holy, holy Lord God, have I sinned. Against thee, my Benefactor, who didst raise me from the sheepfold to be the governor of thy people. Oh, this is the crimson hue of my offence; this is the sting of my remorse; this is the wormwood and the gall of the cup of bitterness I now drink. Thou art willing to forgive me, and the thought of thy mercy blackens my crime, and deepens my self-abhorrence.
This is godly sorrow: a grief for sin as sin, and as committed against so holy and gracious a God, and not merely a grief for the mischief we have done to ourselves. Godly sorrow grieves for those sins which God only knows; for those sins which it knows he will forgive, yea, which it is assured he has forgiven; and this is the test of genuine contrition. Do we mourn for sin as sin, or only for fear of punishment?
4. Repentance includes hatred of sin, forsaking it, and a determination not to repeat it.
No man can truly repent of an act without a feeling of dislike to that act; these two cannot be separated, yea, they are the same thing. Reformation produced by penitence is repentance. A person that has been stung by a serpent, will not caress the reptile while he bathes the wounds he has inflicted with the tears of sorrow. No, he will destroy the viper, or flee from him, and will ever after be inspired with fresh terror and dislike of the whole serpent race. The penitent regards sin as the viper that has stung him, and will ever after hate it, dread it, and watch against it. Practices that before were delighted in, will be abhorred and shunned; and instead of trying how near he may come to them without committing them, or how many things he may do that are like them, without doing the very things, he will try how far he can retire from them, and how entirely he may avoid the very appearance of evil. Will the serpent-bitten man try how near he can approach the rattle-snake without being stung again, or will he fondle reptiles as like the species as they can be, though they are without venom? No. Observe how repentance wrought in the members of the Corinthian church: “For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves; yea, what indignation; yea, what fear; yea, what vehement desire; yea, what zeal; yea, what revenge!” (2 Cor. 7:11).
Such is repentance.
But it is important to guard the inquirer against some perplexities with which many are very apt to trouble themselves on this subject.
You are not to suppose that you do not repent, because you have never been the subject of overwhelming terror and excessive grief. Persons in the first stages of religious impression are sometimes cast down and discouraged, because they do not feel those agonising and terrifying convictions, that some, whom they have heard or read of, have experienced. Others, again, are greatly troubled because they do not and cannot shed tears and utter groans, under a sense of sin, as some do. If they could either be wrought up to terror, or melted into weeping, they should then take some comfort, and have some hope that their convictions were genuine. Now it is very probable that you, reader, have these fears, and are labouring under some mistakes as the ground of them.
It may be, that this longing after great terror or deeper grief, may spring from a wrong motive. If you possessed these feelings, you would be comforted, and have hope, you think; yes, and thus by looking to your own feelings for comfort, make a saviour of your experience, instead of Christ, as I fear many do. “Oh!” say some, or if they do not say it, they feel it, “now I have had such deep convictions, and such meltings of heart, I think I may hope.” But is not this putting their feelings in the place of the work of Christ? If you could endure for a while the torments of hell in your conscience, and shed all the tears of all the penitents in the world, these would not save you; and to take comfort and hope from these things, will be resting on a sandy foundation.
But, perhaps, you think this deep experience would be a stronger ground of confidence to go to Christ. Is not his own word, then, a sufficient warrant? Do you want any other warrant, or can you have any other? Is not his invitation and promise enough? What can your feelings add to this?
In some cases, there is pride at the bottom of this longing after terror and distress: the person who covets it, wishes to be distinguished among Christians for his deep experience and great attainments; or he may wish to have something of his own to dwell upon with pleasure, a something that shall embolden him in his approach to God; it is, in fact, a subtle species of self-righteousness, a looking to inward feelings, if not to good works, as something to depend upon, and to glory in before God.
This anxiety may arise also from a partial and incorrect view of the nature of real religion. True religion is not a matter of mere feeling and strong emotion, but a matter of judgment, and conscience, and practical principle. You must recollect that the minds of men are variously constituted as regards susceptibility of emotion. Some persons are possessed of far livelier feelings than others, and are far more easily moved; we see this in the common subjects of life as well as in religion. One man feels as truly the affection of love for his wife and children as another whose love is more vehement, though he may not fondle, caress, and talk of them so much: he may not even suffer those paroxysms of alarm when anything ails them, nor of frantic grief when they are taken from him; but he loves them so as to prefer them to all others, to labour for them, to make sacrifices for their comfort, and really to grieve when they are removed. His love and grief are as sincere and practical, though they are not boisterous, passionate, noisy: his principle of attachment is as strong, if his passion be not so ardent. Passion depends on constitutional temperament, but principle does not.
Mere emotion, therefore, whether in religion or other matters, is no test of the genuineness of affection. Do not then, my reader, be troubled on this matter; your religion is not to be tried by the number of tears you shed, or the degree of terror you feel, or the measure of excitement to which you are wrought up; there may be much of all this where there is not true repentance and there may be little of it where there is. Are you clearly instructed in the knowledge of God’s holy nature and perfect law, so as distinctly to perceive, and really to feel, and frankly to confess, your numberless sins of conduct and deep depravity of heart? Do you truly admit your just desert of that curse which your sins have brought upon you? Do you cast away all excuses, and take the whole blame of your sins upon yourself? Do you really mourn for your sins, although you may shed few tears or utter few broken groans? Do you confess your sins to God without reserve, as well as without excuse? Do you truly hate sin, and abhor yourself on account of sin? Do you feel a repugnance to sin, a watchfulness against it, a dread of it in the least offences? Are you possessed of a new and growing tenderness of conscience with respect to sin? Then you are partakers of true repentance, although you may not be the subjects of those violent emotions, either of terror or of grief, which some have experienced.
I do not for a moment mean to throw suspicion over the experience of those who have been called to pass through a state of conviction, which, on account of its terrific alarms and unutterable anguish, may be called the valley of the shadow of death. By no means. God has led some of his people, not only hard by the clouds, and blackness, and thunders, and earthquakes, and trumpet, and awful words of Sinai, but almost by the very brink of the burning pit, within sight of its flames, and within sound of its wailings. But let no man covet such a road to glory; let no man think he has mistaken the road, because he has not witnessed these dreadful scenes in his way. All must pass by both Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary in the way to heaven, but the view is neither so clear nor so impressive, of either of them, to some as to others.