S E R M O N ,
MARK vi. 12.
And they went out, and preached that men should repent.
IT is remarkable, that whatever different notions men have of religion, they all believe that repentance is necessary to salvation. But it may be feared, that many mistake its true nature, and take the shadow for the substance. There are also many, who, though they think it necessary, delay their repentance to some future period; and more than a few die without it, and perish in their sins. It is therefore of great importance that we should know wherein true repentance consists; and that we should be urged ourselves to repent, that we perish not. That repentance, then, which is true and genuine, and "needeth not to be repented of," will be found to include the four following things:
I. Conviction of sin.
II. Contrition for sin.
III. Confession of sin.
IV. Conversion from sin.
I . The first thing that belongs to true repentance is a conviction of sin, or a clear sight and feeling sense of our sinfulness; without this, there is no repentance, no religion; for the gospel may be justly called, "the religion of a sinner;" none but sinners can need mercy or repentance; and Jesus Christ expressly declares, "he came not to call the righteous," that is such as the Pharisees, who thought themselves righteous, "but sinners to repentance." Now all men are sinners; not the most profane and openly wicked only, but the most moral, religious, and blameless people among us; for "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
The word repentance signifies a change of mind, or after thought; a great change in the mind and disposition of a person, especially about himself as a sinner. For this purpose the Holy Spirit opens his eyes to see the holy law of God, as contained in the Ten Commandments. This law requires of every person, love to God, and love to man. It requires us to love God supremely, and our neighbours as ourselves. It requires perfect, constant, unsinning obedience, all our lives long. It does not demand only sincere obedience, doing as well as we can, but doing all, and doing it always; so that if a man fail only in one point he is thereby made a sinner; the law is broken; the curse follows; and if he be not pardoned through the blood of Christ, hell must be his portion.
In general, the repenting sinner is first alarmed on account of some great and open sin, if he has committed such; as, the woman of Samaria, when Christ charged her with adultery; or as Paul was, when convinced of his murderous persecution of the saints. But conviction will not stop here; it will trace the streams of sin to the spring, namely, that corrupt nature we brought into the world with us. We shall freely confess with David, that "we were born in sin, and in iniquity did our mothers conceive us," Psalm li, 5. We shall acknowledge with Paul, that "in us, that is, in our flesh," our corrupt nature, "there is no good thing;" but that "every imagination of the thought of our hearts is only evil continually," Gen. vi. 5. The penitent will readily own he has been a rebel against God all his life; that he has indeed "left undone those things which he ought to have done; and done those things which he ought not to have done."
The law of God is spiritual; it reaches to the most secret thoughts, desires, wishes, and purposes of the mind. It forbids and condemns the sins of the heart, as well as those of the lip and the life. A convinced sinner is sensible of heart-sins, thousands and millions of them. He sees that his best duties and services are mingled with sin; even his prayers, and all his religious exercises. He sees that he has, all his life, lived without God in the world, and paid no regard to his will and glory; that he has loved himself, the world, and the creature, far more than God; and that be has been doing all this contrary to light and knowledge; notwithstanding the checks of his conscience and many resolutions to the contrary, and notwithstanding the mercies and the judgments which God had sent to reclaim him. Wherever there is this conviction, it will be accompanied with contrition.
II. Contrition, or a genuine sorrow for sin, and pain of heart on account of it. This is that "soft heart," or "heart of flesh," which God has promised to give his people; instead of that "heart of stone,” with which we are born, and which has no spiritual feeling.
"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." Psalm li. 17. Men despise broken things. So the Pharisee despised the broken-hearted publican in the temple; but God did not despise him. So far from it, that he accounts the sorrow and shame of a penitent sinner more valuable than many costly sacrifices of rams and bullocks. A heart that trembles at the word of God; a heart breaking, not in despair, but in humiliation; a heart breaking with itself, and breaking away from sin. So Peter when duly affected with the sin of denying his Master, "went out and wept bitterly:" and Mary Magdalene, sensible of former iniquities, “washed her Saviour's feet with her tears."
There is indeed a false sorrow, which many mistake for the true. When a person is sick, and fears he shall die, it is not uncommon to hear him say he is sorry for sin; and if God will spare his life, he will amend his ways. But too often, such an one is only sorry that God is so holy, that the law is so strict, and that he is in danger of being damned for his sins. He is not grieved that he has offended God, his best friend and benefactor, who has followed him with goodness and mercy all his life. But the rottenness of this repentance often appears when the sick person recovers; when the fright is over he returns to the same carnal course as before. The sorrow is no better than that of some criminals at the gallows; very sorry they are that they have forfeited their lives; but they are not affected with the criminality of their actions. Felix trembled, but did not repent; and Judas was sorry for what he had done, but not in a godly manner. And this shews how very uncertain, for the most part, is the repentance of a dying bed. God forbid we should delay our repentance to that season!
But the sorrow of a true penitent is for sin; as committed against a holy and good God. Such was the penitence of David, who says, Psalm li. 4, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." It is true that he had sinned against his fellow-creatures; against Uriah, and Bathsheba, and Joab, and all Israel: doubtless, he lamented this; but what cut him to the heart was, his sin against God; that God who had raised him from the sheep-fold to the throne; who had saved him from the hand of Saul, and given him his master's house; and if that had been too little, would have given him more; (for thus Nathan the prophet aggravated his sin.) "Against thee, O Lord," said this broken hearted penitent, "against thee have I sinned." Thus, "the goodness of God led him to repentance." Observe, likewise, the tone of the returning prodigal. "I will arise and go to my father, and say, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. He might have said, Sir, I have spent my fortune, hurt my health, become a beggar, and am ready to starve; be pleased to relieve me. No; his heart is affected with his sin and his folly. So it is with a repenting sinner. He considers the majesty of that holy being he has offended; the reasonableness of his commands, the obligations he has broken through, and especially the base ingratitude of his conduct. Then he will feel the force of those affecting words, Isaiah i. 2, 3, "Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth, for the Lord hath spoken; I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider."
The goodness of God to a sinner, in the way of providence, may well excite this godly sorrow; but, how much more, the consideration of redeeming love! What! did God "so love the world of rebel men as to send them his only begotten Son !" And did he send his Son, "not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." O love beyond degree, beyond example, beyond expression!
Let the penitent also remember Jesus; the innocent, the amiable, the benevolent Jesus. Jesus, who left his throne of glory, and became a poor and afflicted man. Why was he despised and rejected of men? Why a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Why had he not a place where to lay his blessed head? Why did he endure the contradiction of sinners? Why was he oppressed and afflicted? Why was his visage so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men? I know the reason, may the weeping penitent say. Surely each here may say "he hath born my griefs and carried my sorrows; he was wounded for my transgressions, he was bruised for my iniquities.”
" 'Twere you, my sins, my cruel sins,
His chief tormentors were;
Each of my crimes became a nail,
And unbelief the spear.
" 'Twere you that pull'd the vengeance down
Upon his guiltless head;
Break, break, my heart, O, burst my eyes,
And let my sorrows bleed."
III. Confession of sin will also be made by the true penitent. By nature we are rather disposed to conceal, deny, and excuse our sins; to say, we are no worse than others; that we could not help committing them; and that we see no great harm in them. But it is not so where true repentance is found. We shall take the advice that Joshua gave to Achan. "My son, give glory to the Lord, and make confession to him." To hide or deny our sin, is to dishonour God; as if he did not see, or would not punish it; but to confess our sins, is to honour his holy law, which we have broken; to honour his all-seeing eye, which beheld all our crimes; to honour his justice, which might take vengeance upon them; and to honour his patience, which has forborne to strike the fatal blow. And, indeed, a frank and free confession of our sins, is the best way of finding peace. " While I keep silence," says the Psalmist, "my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long: but I acknowledge my sin to thee, mine iniquity have I not hid; I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." Psalm xxxii. 4, 5.
Secret sins require only secret confession to that God who seeth in secret; but sins that are public and scandalous ought to be more openly acknowledged; that we may undo, as far as we can, the evil committed.
The true penitent is sincere in his public confession. How many call themselves "miserable sinners," declare that "the remembrance of their sins is grievous, and the burden of them intolerable;" and cry, "Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us,"without the least sense of the evil or burden of iniquity. This is abominable hypocrisy, and adding sin to sin. But the renewed soul is truly sincere in his confessions; he finds the words of scripture well adapted to his feelings, and can cordially adopt those of Job, "Behold I am vile; I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes;" or the words of the publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner;" or the words of Paul, who calls himself "the chief of sinners."
We have now considered Conviction, Contrition, and Confession, as three essential ingredients in true repentance; and to these we must add one more.
Let us now consider,
IV. Conversion; which is a forsaking sin, and turning from it to God. John the Baptist, that great preacher of repentance, exhorted his hearers to "bring forth fruits meet for repentance." And thus St. Paul preached both to Jews and Gentiles, "that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance," Acts xxvi. 20. Without this, the most humbling expressions and confessions, the greatest alarms of conscience, or floods of tears, will prove insufficient. Though Cain's terror, Judas's confession, Pharaoh's promises, Ahab's humiliation, Herod's hearing John gladly, and doing many things, were all combined in one man, they would not prove him a real penitent, while the love of one sin remained unmortified in the heart, or the practice of it allowed in his life. True repentance is not content to lop off the branches, but "lays the axe at the root of the tree." The devil may suggest that a beloved sin is but a little one, and may be spared; but grace will know, that as one small leak may sink a ship, so one indulged sin may condemn a soul. However dear therefore a sin may be, or however hard to be parted with, it must be forsaken. So our Lord directs: "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out; if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off;" that is, if thine eye or thine hand cause thee to offend, or incline thee to sin, turn away thine eye from it, as if thou hadst no eye to see it, or hand to practise it; and be as willing to part with a beloved sin, as a man who has a mortified hand or foot is willing to part with it, to preserve his life. "For it is better to enter into life thus maimed, than having two eyes or two hands to be cast into hell, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."
You have a fine instance of true repentance in Zaccheus, the converted publican. When Christ and salvation came to his house and heart, he, who had probably been a great sinner, stands and says to the Lord: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him four fold." Here was not only confession of sins but forsaking it. He, who had been an extortioner, becomes not only honest but liberal. He makes restitution; and so will every true penitent. He will undo what he has done if possible. Alas, how many evils is it now impossible to undo! Some poor souls are perhaps in torment, to whose destruction our wickedness contributed. But grace will enable us to do what is possible; sin shall not have dominion: and we shall now be as earnest to please and serve God, as once we were to serve Satan.
If this be repentance, the great point is, Have we repented? O, let us not deceive ourselves. Jesus Christ, the faithful and true witness has said, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish:"—not come to nothing, or cease to be, (happy would it be for impenitent sinners were that their case) but they shall "be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." Do not mistake. Repentance is universally necessary, for "all have sinned." If it could be proved, that we never committed but one single sin, repentance would be absolutely necessary. One theft, one murder, proved against a man at a human bar is enough to procure his condemnation; so one sin against God is enough to condemn us to eternal misery. But it is not one, it is not ten thousand sins only that we have to lament; "who can understand his errors?" Listen not to the father of lies; he promised Eve, that eating of the forbidden fruit should do her no harm; but she found, and we all find, the dreadful effects of that first sin. Say not with the wicked man of old, "Who, when he heareth the words of this curse, shall bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart to add drunkenness to thirst." God forbid; for, mark the consequence,—"The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him." Deut. xxix. 19. Repent or perish is the solemn decision of God. He commandeth all men, every where to repent; and what can be more reasonable? The law which we have broken, is "holy, and just, and good." To love him was our most reasonable service; and would have been for our unspeakable benefit. Having then broken it, and by so doing incurred his wrath, and exposed ourselves to ruin, can it be thought unreasonable that we should make a humble submission, and implore his mercy?
Come then, and be encouraged to instant repentance. He might have cut you off in your sins, without a moment's warning; but he has given you time and space for repentance. His very command is encouragement. It implies, that "there is forgiveness with him;" for pardon of sin and repentance are inseparably connected. "Christ is exalted to give repentance and remission of sins." "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." Only do not suppose that repentance deserves or merits pardon. Salvation is all of grace; but this is the order appointed of God; for by penitential sorrow, the heart is prepared to receive the mercy of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let the "goodness of God lead thee to repentance." He delighteth not in the death of a sinner, but rather rejoiceth in his return. And our Saviour assures us, that "there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance." Arise, sinner, for he calleth thee. Does your heart begin to relent? Are you saying, "I will arise and go to my father?" Arise, then, and go at once. He will see thee afar off, and run to meet thee; he waits to be gracious, and there shall be joy in heaven, and joy on earth, upon thy return.
Thousands as vile and base as you have found mercy. Let not Satan say it is too late; the door is open: nor let him say it is too soon. He may say, tomorrow will do. God says, today, "While it is called today;" then hear his voice. Tomorrow may be too late. "This night may thy soul be required of thee." Beware of deferring repentance to a dying bed. Will you not then have enough to do, to bear with patience the pains and agonies of dissolving nature? Why should you plant thorns in your dying pillow? Why should you not then have the peace of God and the joy of the Holy Ghost, to support and comfort your heart? Who can tell but sudden death may be your lot: if not, extreme pain, or a disordered head, may prevent the possibility of repentance. And do not imagine that repentance has any thing in it forbidding. Christ has said, "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." The penitent has more pleasure in his tears than the worldling in all his gaiety. Besides, if the door be strait, it opens into boundless pleasures. Pleasures not confined to time, but which will last to all eternity. God now dwells in the contrite heart; and soon shall every true penitent dwell with him in paradise.
Let those, who know what true repentance is, give thanks to him who has graciously bestowed it. Know, my friends, that repentance is not the work of a day, but of life. The more you know of your own heart, and the more you know of Christ, the more need will you feel of a repenting spirit. "Walk humbly with thy God;" and let the remembrance of forgiven sins keep you low in your own eyes; having received mercy, love much, for much is forgiven; and labour daily to maintain a conscience void of offence toward God and toward all men.
"O, how I hate those sins of mine,
That crucified my God;
Those sins that pierc'd and nail'd his flesh
Fast to the fatal wood!”
"Whilst with a melting broken heart
My murdered Lord I view,
I'll raise revenge against my sins,
And slay the murderers too."