by John Angell James, 1834
"Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish!" Such was the dreadful 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 as deep as hell, as broad as infinity, and as long as eternity! None can comprehend its meaning but lost souls—and they are ever discovering in it some new mystery of woe! 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 of repentance 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 works repentance to salvation not to be repented of." True sorrow for sin is a part, and only a part, of repentance; for the scripture just quoted evidently makes a distinction between them. If sorrow comprised the whole of repentance, then Cain, Ahab, and Judas all repented; and hell itself is full of penitents, for there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth forever. 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 Scriptures, is a change of mind. Repentance, therefore, signifies an entire change of a man'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 Spirit; it is the effect of Divine grace working in the heart of man. The following things are included in true repentance.
1. True repentance includes CONVICTION OF SIN."When he [the Spirit] has come," said Christ, "he shall convince the world of sin." 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 true 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 learned 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 that bright and faithful mirror, the Word of God, 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 if he has been openly wicked, his lack of love to God has been the parent vice. He sees that all his worldly-mindedness, folly, and wickedness, have 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. He formerly he knew matters were not quite right—but he now sees they were all wrong! 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,
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 which burns with fire and brimstone."
2. True repentance includes SELF-CONDEMNATION.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 rationalizing away sin—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 bias or constitution; a third the strength of the temptation; a fourth imputes his actual sins to his original sin, and endeavors, on this ground, to lessen his sense of guilt. But there is no true repentance while this excuse-making frame of mind lasts. No, never until the sinner has cast aside all excuses, rejected all pleas of extenuation, and abandoned all desire of self-justification; never until he is brought to take the whole blame upon himself; never until he pronounces his own sentence of condemnation; never is he truly penitent until his mouth is stopped as to all excuses, and he is brought unfeignedly and contritely to exclaim, "Guilty! Guilty!"
Some such as the following, is now his sincere confession—"O injured Sovereign, O all-holy God, and all-righteous Judge, I can attempt to excuse myself no longer. I stand before you a convicted, self-condemned sinner. What has my life been but a course of rebellion against you? It is not this or that action alone, I have to lament. My whole soul has been deranged and depraved. All my thoughts, all my affections, all my desires, all my pursuits—have been alienated from you. I have not loved you, O God of holy love. O what a heart have I carried in my bosom—that could love the world, love my friends, love trifles, yes, love sin—but could not love you! Particular sins do not so much oppress me, as this awful, horrid state of my carnal mind at enmity against you. Oh what patience was it that you did not crush the poor feeble creature that had no virtue to love you, and no power to resist you! 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 you, and with no intention to please or to glorify you. Once I thought as little of my sin, as I thought of the 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, wickedly, and presumptuously, did I attempt to stand up in judgment with you, and in proud self-confidence to plead my own cause. Oh with what lying excuses, and with what extenuations, did I make my wickedness more wicked, and tempt your vengeance, and seek to draw your thunderbolts upon my devoted head! Eternal thanks for your marvelous patience, and your 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 you, uttering only that one confession, 'Guilty! Guilty!' and uttering only that one cry, 'Mercy! Mercy!'"
3. True 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 fifty-first psalm. Awakened and concerned 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 your closet; read it as your own prayer; read it until your heart responds a sigh to every groan with which each verse is 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 infinite patience to you. Dwell upon the length of your term of sin, and all the aggravations of that sin arising 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 until 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 the fifty-first psalm, and see how David felt—"Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your 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 you, you holy, holy, holy Lord God, have I sinned. Against you, my Benefactor, who raised me from the sheepfold to be the governor of your 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. You are willing to forgive me, and the thought of your amazing 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, yes, 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. True 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; the two cannot be separated, yes, they are the same thing. Reformation produced by penitence is repentance. A person stung by a serpent will not caress the reptile, while, with the tears of sorrow, he bathes the wounds which that viper has inflicted. 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 brood. The true 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 see how near he can approach the rattle-snake without being stung again? Or will he fondle like reptiles, even though they may be without venom? No! Observe how repentance wrought in the members of the Corinthian church—"
For having sorrow in a godly way results in repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets. But the sorrow of the world produces death. See what great earnestness godly sorrow has produced in you! How ready you are to clear yourselves, how indignant, how alarmed, how full of longing and enthusiasm, how eager to seek justice!" Such is repentance.
But it is important to guard the inquirer against somePERPLEXITIES 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. People in the first stages of religious impression are sometimes cast down and discouraged, because they do not feel those agonizing 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 laboring 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 Savior 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, they 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 need 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 boast in.
This concern 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, conscience, and practical principle. You must recollect that the minds of men are variously constituted as regards susceptibility of emotion. Some people 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 terrors 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 labor 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, and noisy—his principle of attachment is as strong, if his passion is 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 at 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 emotion, where there is not true repentance; and there may be little of it, where there is true repentance.
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 upon 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, the thunders and earthquakes, the 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 of each of them is not so clear or so impressive to some, as it is to others.