The discussion of the doctrine of faith leads us in course to the subject of repentance. There has been some difference of opinion among Christians as to which precedes–faith or repentance. I do not esteem the question one of much importance, and therefore shall not detain the reader with an investigation. My own views of the subject preclude the necessity of determining the priority of these graces. They, with all other gracious exercises of the mind, are immediate fruits of the Spirit; and when God gives us His Spirit, every grace of the Spirit is virtually included in that one gift. But I think we may safely conclude, that where there is no love to God there is no spiritual repentance towards God. I chose to discuss the subject of faith first, not because of the order of time in which these graces are first exercised, but for reasons which I deemed of greater importance.
It is, however, a matter of great importance to distinguish, if we can, between true evangelical repentance and other exercises of the mind which have nothing truly spiritual in them. On this rock thousands have split, and thousands more are in danger. The question, therefore, has strong claims on our earnest consideration. With a view to lend the reader some little assistance in judging between that which is true and that which is spurious, we will say that the mind may be in a state of great perturbation, and the natural affections wrought up to a high pitch of excitement, produced by a powerful exhortation, or some providential visitation–many tears may flow, and strong resolves may be formed–and all this without the work of the Holy Spirit. In many instances this turbulence and pungent distress do not last much longer than the occasion which produced them; and when they do survive the occasion, they subside by degrees and leave the heart no better than it was before. It was a natural, not a spiritual, operation. Some persons, in time of sickness, and under apprehension of approaching death, become greatly alarmed, and, reflecting on a past life of sin, and careless indifference about their future destiny, endure the most bitter regret, and set many firm resolutions, that, if their lives should be spared, they will never more return to their former sinful course of life, but become religious and try to serve the Lord. Under these impressions they will pray, and request the prayers of others. But when restored to health they give clear evidence that the love of sin is not subdued. In these strong sensations there is more love of life than love of holiness. It is remorse, not repentance. I can assign no reason why the Holy Spirit may not visit a person with His life-giving power in a time of sickness as well as in health; but, when He does, it will eventually bring forth fruit unto God, and not be like seed sown upon stony ground.
I have also known persons to fall into a state of mental dejection, and remain so for months. They seem to be deeply engaged in serious thought, and to have no relish for worldly pleasures; rather inclined to solitude, and more disposed to shun than to seek cheerful company. In their general deportment they are agreeable, sedate, and blameless. Such cases are always thought to be quite hopeful–and, indeed, ought to be judged favorably; but too often it all passes away, and leaves but little evidence that the Holy Spirit was the author of these rather unusual sensations. I can not account for these exercises of the mind, but I think the solution of the problem belongs to philosophy, and not to theology. The real fruits of true repentance are not manifest.
Once more: We occasionally meet with persons who, when quite young, while their hearts were tender, were the subjects of very serious religious impressions; and these feelings would continue for a length of time–perhaps for years; and possibly, at times, they would be almost ready to hope they were truly reconciled to God. Some such have made a public profession; but whether they have or not, when they have gone thus far, their friends entertain very favorable hopes of them–and they have not been altogether without hope themselves. It is not easy to form a satisfactory judgment of such persons. Time will commonly reveal the truth. Some such persons, as they increase in years, are drawn off by the spirit of the world, and their true character becomes more doubtful, giving too much ground for unfavorable inferences. But it is not so with all; and it is seldom that such persons make a sudden and violent transition from a hopeful path into the broad road of open wickedness. They do not forsake the house of God and the means of grace, but manifest more indifference, and are occasionally betrayed into sin. Their religious sensibilities are not paralyzed, but somewhat stupefied; their religious impressions will frequently be revived, but remain undetermined. Whether such persons are the subjects of true spiritual repentance, I will not take upon myself to decide; but if these pages should ever fall under the eye of such a character, I would earnestly entreat his regard. Your situation is one of extreme peril; you are poised, as it were, on a pinnacle; you have been vibrating on this balance long enough, and a mere circumstance may turn the scale against you, and leave you in an abyss of darkness, out of which you may never emerge. Whether you are young or old, your danger is near, for there is but a step between you and death. If you judge the world to come to be of any importance, you should not remain an hour longer in your present state of uncertainty and indecision; and whether you are converted or unconverted, let me urge you by all the solemnity with which eternity can invest your danger, that you give yourself no rest till you find security in the blood that cleanses from all sin.
We repeat, that where there is no love to God there can be no true repentance towards God. The natural man being dead in trespasses and sins, having in his heart no love to God, and destitute of the spirit of life, is morally incapable of repentance; and, in fact, he is equally incapable of every spiritual affection. But when the Lord gives him His spirit, he has spiritual life, and possesses the full capacity and all the susceptibilities of the new man; and the question as to which precedes, whether faith or repentance, is to be referred rather to the time when they are first brought into sensible exercise. For all purposes of edification, the question of priority may well be dispensed with. Some men (even learned divines) say that every man has faith, and every man has repentance. If no more were intended by such assertions, than that every man believes something, and every man regrets some of his actions, no one would dispute it; but it would be very silly talk, for who needs such information? But if it is meant (and such I suppose to be their meaning) that every man has repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ, it is a flat contradiction of the word of God. In any other sense than this, the language would be mere quibbling. If a man has adopted a religious creed that necessarily involves such unscriptural doctrines, he may very reasonably suspect its soundness.
True spiritual repentance is a holy exercise of the heart; but the mere fear of future punishment is slavish, and may be as strong in devils as in men; and, as I have said before, these fears are sinful, and have nothing of a holy character in them. It would, therefore, be a good work, if I were able to perform it, to exhibit the distinction between the two in so clear a manner that it could be well understood; but to succeed in such exact discrimination, would require abilities above what I claim to possess. But if I can throw any light on the general subject, it is incumbent upon me to do so. And if I could know that these pages would never be seen by any person whose duty it may be to make a public use of any hint he might receive from the perusal, I would relieve myself of a portion of the present effort.
In accordance with what I have been saying, holiness is an essential attribute of true repentance. Any thing called repentance which does not possess this characteristic, is not repentance in the evangelical sense of the term. We say, then, that the holiness of repentance must have, and does have, respect to the holiness of God. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is by the light of the Spirit that the soul is brought to see the holiness of the Divine character; and contrasting this with the sinfulness of his heart and life, it produces in his soul a sincere sorrow that he has sinned against a holy God, and a desire after holiness in himself. This desire of holiness proves that there is in his heart a love of holiness; for if he did not love holiness, it is not possible that he could desire it. By this we see that the love of God is the life of repentance. Wherever there is a love of holiness, there is a corresponding abhorrence of sin, and a consequent desire to avoid it; for it is the same affection exercised in relation to the two different objects. The principle is the same. And he that earnestly desires holiness, need not doubt that he loves God, for these affections can not be separated. Moreover, they will abide with us through life. Sorrow for our sins may cease with us when we are perfectly delivered from the power of sin, but the love of holiness will continue forever.
Hating sin and desiring holiness, we have said, are virtually the same thing, and are the essential element of spiritual repentance. Without a portion of this element there is no acceptable repentance. Hence it is evident that holiness is that attribute of the Divine nature to which repentance has particular respect. And our obligation to be holy arises from the relation in which we stand to this attribute: “Be ye holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This attribute requires perfect holiness of every intelligent creature. God has this attribute in infinite perfection; and in Him it is immutable, and never can change–it never can be increased or diminished. And as the obligation upon us to be holy, has its foundation in the holiness of God, this obligation can never be changed or relaxed. The holiness of God is commensurate with the whole of His infinite nature; and, in like manner, our obligation to be holy is commensurate with the whole of our nature. To fulfill this obligation by attaining to this degree of holiness, should be our highest ambition and our constant endeavor; and although we may never, in this life, reach this high attainment, yet we should press toward this mark, that we may gain the prize of our high calling. And never for a moment should we be satisfied with what we have gained, nor cease our efforts till we are crowned with the object of our earnest aspirations.
We will now consider the subject of repentance more especially in its relation to the Divine law. Of course we have already anticipated this aspect of the subject to a considerable extent. The moral law is an expression of the obligation we are under to be holy; and the commandment before quoted, “Be ye holy, for I the Lord thy God am holy,” comprehends the whole obligation of the moral law. It has been said that this law is a transcript of the moral perfections of the Lawgiver; and it is with great propriety so called, for in it we see the moral nature of that God to whom we are accountable. The holiness and justice of God are the two attributes which are most prominently set forth to us in the Divine law, and hence holiness and justice, are the two attributes of the law, which more immediately bear upon us. “The law is holy, and just, and good;” and it is its holiness and justice which constitute its goodness. The holiness of the law devolves upon us the obligation to be holy; hence it has special respect to obedience, and the penitent sinner feels the obligation. The justice of the law prescribes and inflicts the appropriate penalty; hence it has special respect to disobedience. The obligation to obey the precept, or holy commandment, refers to God acting in His office as the Supreme Lawgiver. The administration of the penalty refers to God as acting in His office as the Supreme Judge.
Without pursuing this line of discrimination any further, we are now prepared to inquire what bearing these two fundamental principles have on the subject of repentance. And each reader may judge of the spiritual character of his own repentance, by comparing it with these two prime characteristics of the Divine law. The proper use of true repentance is to bring the alienated heart back to the holiness of the law; and this will be its effect in so far as it affects any thing in relation to God–at least so far as it affects any thing acceptable to Him. When the Divine Spirit first quickens the dead soul, it is then spiritually alive, and here begins the exercises of repentance. But between this quickening and the time when the subject of it obtains peace and hope, a period of time elapses, longer or shorter, during which the new-born soul is in a state of spiritual infancy–even the first stage of infancy. During this period of darkness, weakness, and comparative spiritual ignorance, the sinner’s thoughts are exercised chiefly by considerations drawn from the law; and in the first stages his mind is directed mostly to the justice of the law and its most awful penalty–Death, which, if once inflicted, is death forever. The mind being enlightened, he is enabled more correctly to appreciate his dangerous condition. This prompts him to action; but in his efforts to escape the punishment due to his sins, he resorts to ineffectual, and indeed impossible expedients, for he seeks to obtain the favor of God by various observances and performances, which it is not necessary to detail in this place.
But we will turn to the other branch of the subject. The sinner now, for the first time, is able to discover, in some degree, the beauty and excellency of holiness, for this may be seen in the perfect holiness of the law; and though his attention may be occupied more with reflections on the justice and righteous curse of the law, yet holiness becomes an object of desire, and he sees that it is desirable for its own sake. He strives for it, for his heart is drawn in that direction. He is now in the right path–the way that leads to holiness. This is repentance–true repentance. But during this season of trial and anxiety, the mind is in a state of confusion and darkness. There is a mixture of those feelings of terror and slavish fear which his view of the justice of the law produces on the one hand; and on the other hand, of those desires of holiness and reconciliation with God, produced by his views of the holiness of the law. And even if the dread of wrath and eternal perdition should engross more of his thoughts than the desire of holiness, yet this desire is there, a living principle in the heart; and though the former is not spiritual, but the fruit of unbelief, the latter is truly spiritual, being the fruit of God’s implanted grace. Contemplating the purity of the Divine character, and in the light of this holiness viewing the sinfulness and vileness of his own heart and actions, he is filled with grief, and the contrast calls forth many a sigh. He can not see how such a holy Being can look upon him with complacency. His whole desire reaches after the holiness of the law; but all his efforts at conformity fall so immeasurably short, that though he will not forego the desire nor cease his efforts, yet he is forced to relinquish all hope of success. These are the exercises of genuine repentance, for holiness is the object in view. But at the same time the justice of the law presses the load of guilt upon his conscience, and seems to demand satisfaction for his sins, and he sees no sure way to avoid the approaching storm. Every expedient to which be resorts is no better than if Lot had left Sodom and run to Gomorrah, for the justice of the law drives him from every false refuge. These distresses are not spiritual, for the object is to satisfy the justice of the law, which he can never do. He resorts to wrong methods to escape the penalty of the law, while there is a right method set before him which he neglects to pursue. Thus these mixed exercises of legal fears and spiritual desires attend the penitent sinner, till he is led to Christ, the Savior of sinners. Here he finds a secure retreat from the curse of the law; and trusting in Him, his conscience is relieved of the burden of guilt–peace finds way into his heart, and hope springs up in his bosom. And now his repentance is purified from those guilty fears and servile labors which polluted it before. But his desire of holiness and abhorrence of sin are more intense than ever, and these are the true characteristics of spiritual repentance. This kind of repentance he desires should exercise his heart while life shall last; and the desire will be realized. The tempest which agitated his soul having passed away, the Sun of Righteousness seems to shed the beams of peace on his heart from a serene sky. But the clouds are apt to return, after the rain; and these alterations of light and darkness, hope and fear, will continue to encumber the progress of repentance, as well as to mar his peace, for a length of time; and in many instances, I think, till the portals of the temple above are so far opened to his faith, as to show him the palm of final victory.
For the true believer who is set free from the condemnation of the law, is not free from sinful doubts and slavish fears. If you ask the reason of this, the answer is to be found by adverting to these same essential properties of the Divine law; for though free from condemnation, he still retains in himself all the original corruptions of the flesh and evil propensities of his depraved nature. He is also still assaulted with the same temptations; and as he is still under the same unchangeable obligation to obey the holy requirement of the law, he finds himself inadequate to the great performance, and by falling short he contracts guilt upon the conscience. With this guilt he brings himself before the justice of the law, which can do nothing but declare the penalty, and inflict it. The guilt, therefore, remains on his conscience, and excites sinful doubts and slavish fears. But he goes to the wrong place. He should never take his guilt to the justice of the law, for that will fasten the guilt more sorely upon the conscience. Let him go with his guilty conscience to the Cross. That, and that only, has power to remove guilt. And he must ultimately come there, if he would obtain a holy peace. Then he can “look upon Him whom be has pierced, and mourn.” This is gospel repentance.
There are some false notions entertained by some persons–probably a great many–with regard to repentance, which I would be glad to remove. This work may not be easily done, because these notions are old and deep-rooted ideas in the natural mind, and they are not so frequently disturbed by the preacher as they ought to be. I can not, therefore, feel quite satisfied to dismiss the present subject without an attempt to eradicate these erroneous conceptions from the mind of the reader, if they have entertainment there. We are told that pardon is promised to the repenting sinner–that if we repent we shall be forgiven. This is true. It is scriptural truth. But if we thence infer that repentance is a condition to be performed by us, by which we obtain a title to the blessing of pardon, the inference is not true, it is not scriptural. It is an error, and a mischievous error. This, my dear reader, puts you upon the task of working out your pardon. Your pardon is not free, which is directly contrary to the truth of the gospel. Or (on the same principle) you may suppose that repentance is a kind of chastisement to which you are required to submit as a prerequisite to your receiving remission of sins. This is not repentance, it is penance. The superstitious devotee of the Romish delusion will scourge himself till the blood runs, or walk barefoot on the frozen and pointed rocks, and do ever so much more by way of punishing himself for his sin. This he calls penance. You say this is absurd and foolish, and withal it is sinful. You speak rightly. But he acts on the self-same principle that influences you, in supposing that repentance is a course of suffering that you must undergo, as a prerequisite to your receiving pardoning mercy.
That repentance is not a task to be performed by us, or a burden laid upon us as a condition upon which we obtain forgiveness, is evident upon another consideration, which, if you have experienced true repentance, will be able to apprehend. If you could certainly know that God had forgiven your sins, you would still desire to repent of them, and you would still repent of them. Your heart would still be exercised with sincere sorrow and pious grief that you had sinned against the Lord. You would look upon Him whom you had pierced, and grieve for your sins. And this is as pure spiritual repentance as is ever experienced by those who love the Lord Jesus.
Repentance effects nothing in the matter of our justification, for it does not belong to juridical proceedings. To suppose that by repenting of our sins we may deliver ourselves from the punishment legally due to our sins, is a great error. The law does not require repentance, and will not accept it; therefore the fear of the penalty of the law can not be repentance. True repentance is not towards hell, but towards God, and is an exercise of our love to Him. Neither the fears of hell, nor yet the fires of hell, can ever implant the love of God in the heart.
Repentance belongs to work of sanctification. As I said before, the use of repentance is to bring the alienated heart of the sinner back to the holiness of the law. It is an essential part of that purifying process carried on in the heart by the Holy Spirit, which we call progressive sanctification. Repentance keeps the conscience of the Christian tender, and makes him watchful to avoid sin: and, particularly in its first exercises, it prepares the heart of the anxious sinner to receive with gratitude and joy the tokens of God’s forgiving grace; for it provokes no real gratitude, and inspires no real joy in the heart of the careless, impenitent sinner, to be told that Christ died for sinners, and that God is ready to forgive sins for His sake; but to the soul that hates sin and grieves in his heart for his sins, it is sweeter than music. To him it is gospel–good tidings. Repentance also keeps in exercise the spirit of prayer. How can we in sincerity go to our Heavenly Father and confess our sins, if we are not sorry that we have sinned against Him? What an empty, heartless confession we should make! Such formal, lifeless confessions are often made, no doubt, when we draw near to Him with our lips, but our hearts are far from Him. And too often the words express much more than the heart feels. But there is a desire in every Christian’s heart to come to God with more in his heart than words can express. As examples of penitential prayer, read the fifty-first Psalm and that elaborate prayer of the prophet Daniel. (See Dan. ix.) These were made on special and extraordinary occasions. But as an example of the exercises of true repentance, suited to every Christian, and at all times, compare your experiences with those of the apostle Paul, recorded in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the church at Rome. Here is a scriptural example which the Holy Spirit has given us, by which we may judge of our spiritual character and condition. It is true, some learned doctors have tried to rob Christians of the edification they may derive from this instructive portion of experimental instruction; but I think it is easy to show that their interpretation can never be made to accord with the word of God. Further, repentance produces a good effect in subduing our pride–both spiritual and natural pride; and thus it keeps in exercise that lovely grace of humility, one of the brightest ornaments of Christian character. All the graces of the Spirit are so intimately connected with each other, that one can not well be in active exercise without promoting the activity of all the others. Our love to God manifests itself in repentance, as well as in joy; hence repentance and spiritual joy are not inconsistent with each other, for both may subsist together at the same time.