"God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that He might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel."--Acts 5:31
How wondrous is the revelation of this verse! It unfolds a heavenly scene. In the center Jesus appears, made in position "higher than the heavens," exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and thus advanced by distinct exercise of the Father's power. It specifies two offices which He is thus glorified to discharge. As a PRINCE He shall wield the scepter of universal rule; as a SAVIOR He shall dispense eternal blessedness. It displays Him as, in consequence, bestowing two main gifts--repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Such is an outline of this vast Scripture. On the full expanse, however, gaze must not tarry; the present theme restricts thought to the union of repentance and forgiveness of sins. These are precious blessings from the hand of Jesus--but He does not grant them separately; they co-exist, as flowers of one stem--as songsters from the same nest. Is forgiveness given? Repentance precedes. The heart which has not been thus melted will not rejoice in pardon. If it delightedly basks in this sunshine it has reached the eminence through the low valley of repentance. The rich harvest follows seed sown in tears--the cheering rays shine after previous gloom. Heavenly wisdom places repentance in this station; thus a troop of fallacies is dispersed, and many an ensnaring net of Satan is totally destroyed.
Sometimes the enemy whispers to the awakened conscience, How groundless are all fears! God is love--He will not cast off creatures whom His will has formed--His boundless mercy forbids it. Thus Satan strives to retain souls in undisturbed impenitency, and lulls them to sleep on pillows of false hope.
Here it cannot be too strongly stated that God is rich in mercy, and that His mercy endures forever. But mercy is not the total of His mind. Let not the impenitent be deceived--unconditional forgiveness is a groundless phantom. Let none who neither feel, nor hate, nor shun iniquity, beguile themselves with expectation of immunity. Where is it written that pardons bless irrespective of the recipient's state? Flowers grow not on a rock. If mercy alone can arrest due punishment, none can be lost, and hell becomes a fiction.
Again, Satan is wily to use even the death of Jesus as a means of ruin. He artfully employs the cross so as effectually to check real access to it. He sometimes allays soul-trembling by reminding that there is a fountain ever near, potent to cleanse--he strives to induce ease by insinuating that the precious blood hides all iniquity. Atonement free and boundless is indeed the glory of the Gospel. Let it ever be adoringly maintained that the stream from Jesus' side obliterates the crimson stains. But is it true, that His blood falls, without distinction, on transgressors? Look within the precincts of pardon--a vast multitude appears, all beauteous in purity; but each is marked with the stamp of penitence and faith--each has wept for sin, and fled in contrition to the cross. Such is the Savior's testimony--studiously He frames connecting links. "He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations." (Luke 24:46, 47.) Repentance precedes forgiveness; forgiveness closely follows.
Peter on the day of Pentecost sounds the same note. Full of the Holy Spirit, he had denounced appalling guilt on the consciences of the crowd; he pointed to their hands, stained with the Redeemer's blood; he boldly added, "God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ." (Acts 2:36.) Then instantly he showed repentance as the direct path to obliterate their crimes--"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins." There is pardon through the Crucified, pardon even for His murderers--but it must be sought in the appointed way of penitential grief.
Once more, the same Apostle chides the amazed crowd in Solomon's porch. He cloaks not their frightful deed--he charges them with the sin of sins. "You denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of Life." (Acts 3:14, 15.) But away with despair. There is hope, bright and sure; there is all hope even for such guilt--but it shines only in the pathway of repentance. They who stifle consciousness of the evil, perish; they who confess and bewail it, live. "Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." (Acts 3:19.)
Such is the voice of heavenly truth--such are the inspired tidings. Hence the ambassador of Jesus is privileged to beseech--O you sons of men, loathe your polluted course; let tears of penitence attest your broken spirits. Come, smiting upon your breasts, to the atoning cross, and you shall be welcomed, and your sins all purged away, and no sight of them again appear. Be wise then--"Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up." (James 4:10.) "He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy." (Prov. 28:13.)
But when repentance is thus commended, its essence should be accurately stated. Cheats may assume fair form--all sorrow is not godly sorrow. Many may acknowledge the plague of sin with no true feeling of contrition--even tears may flow without heart-weeping. Weeds have semblance of sweet flowers--tinsel may glitter like the purest gold. Hence it is well that a discriminating glance should survey the features of Gospel-repentance. Let then its properties be tested--thus error's downward slopes may be escaped, and counterfeits be detected. It is possible to perish with a lie in the right hand.
Genuine repentance is a threefold cord. Three ingredients compose the cup--three rays combine to form the picture. The following phases are united.
I. Contrition--which writhes under deep pain. II. Confession--which humbly pours forth the bursting agony. III. Abhorrence--which flees the hated cause of this distress. When these deep feelings meet, repentance lives, a gift from heaven. From these standpoints let this grace be now surveyed.
I. CONTRITION. This is no shallow, superficial, transient emotion. It is not a slender reed, a summer brook, a morning cloud, the early dew. It penetrates the lowest recesses of the heart, and shakes the fabric with a giant hand. It causes a very earthquake in the inward man--it beholds with horror the blackness, filth, and heinousness of sin--its rankling sting is keenest misery. It is not content with reviling sin as injurious to fair fame, as a blight on temporal prospects, and as the parent of reproach and shame--it discerns it, as rebellion against God. It beholds sin's impious hand uplifted against a loving Father--it loathes its character, as dark in ingratitude, treachery, impiety, and heartless hardness. The thought is torment that this monster has been so embraced. Contrition is thus an awakened anguish for indwelling and outbreaking sin--its acts evince its depth.
Is not this prominent on the prophet's picture--"Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on all the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died." (Zech. 12:10.) Here is a melting image! We see the writhing misery of the broken spirit.
Let it here be added, that when such godly sorrow rends the soul, relief is near; for a blessed promise closely hastens to console--"In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness." (Zech. 13:1.)
Next the graphic instance of repentant Ephraim gives light. Contrition strains his very heart-strings. God in His sovereign grace had put forth a chastening hand--the agony of the smitten spirit soon wails. Mark the record--"I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus, You have chastised me, and I was chastised as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke." Then prayer goes forth, "Turn me, and I shall be turned--for You are the Lord my God." Let the result be noted. The contrite heart thus mourns--"After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth." (Jer. 31:19.)
Another view of this agony is supplied by Peter. He miserably falls, and Jesus turns and looks upon him. In that piercing eye there was reproach which broke the heart--and love which bound it up. He felt the heinousness of his iniquity. No restraint could cloak his contrition--"He went out and wept bitterly."
It is sweet digression to observe how mercy flies to raise the downcast. The morning of the resurrection comes. At the sepulcher the angel bids the amazed women to be the messengers of glad tidings; but Peter is especially remembered--"Go your way, tell His disciples and Peter, that I am going ahead of you into Galilee." And as that blessed day advances, the risen Savior seeks the trembling disciple in his lonely shame. For when the two hastened back from Emmaus they found the eleven gathered together, and those who were with them, saying, "The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Peter." This contrition is an essential ingredient of repentance, and this godly sorrow ever hastens to nestle in redeeming arms.
II. CONFESSION. Can this beaming cup not overflow? Can the wounded heart thus smart, and out of the abundance no utterance burst forth? The burdened spirit cannot pine in silence--contrition in its lowest depths looks upward to the mercy-seat. It lingers not, but hastens to God's footstool--there in tears it relates its misery. Sorrow gives wings--the very burden quickens speed. It is conscious that God is not ignorant, but it seeks relief in telling its woe. Daniel gives example. Thus he testifies--"So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I wore rough sackcloth and sprinkled myself with ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: 'O Lord, you are a great and awesome God! You always fulfill your promises of unfailing love to those who love you and keep your commands. But we have sinned and done wrong. We have rebelled against you and scorned your commands and regulations.'" (Dan. 9:3, 4, 5.) He opens the sluice of confession, and casts off his load in keeping nothing back. Mercy hears and joys to comfort. "I went on praying and confessing my sin and the sins of my people, pleading with the Lord my God for Jerusalem, his holy mountain. As I was praying, Gabriel, whom I had seen in the earlier vision, came swiftly to me at the time of the evening sacrifice." (Dan. 9:20, 21.)
There is similar instance in the heart-smitten prodigal. He feels his crushing wickedness--his heart is full and must find vent. "I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto Him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before You, and am no more worthy to be called Your son." But pardoning love prevents him--"When he was yet a great way off his Father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him." Contrition must confess, and forgiving tokens are pressed on the confessing lips.
Such, also, is the testimony of David--"I acknowledged my sin unto You, and my iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and You forgave the iniquity of my sin." (Psalm 32:5.)
Let, also, the tender notes from apostolic lips be heard--"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9.) Thus contrition writhes, and confession sobs, and pardoning mercy calms the breast.
III. ABHORRENCE. To compete the lineaments, hatred of and resolute abandonment of sin, must be added. Natural emotions may bewail iniquity; truth may confess its prevalence while the heart remains a stranger to utter loathing, and looks with lingering fondness towards its customary ways. Thus Pharaoh, terrified by appalling judgments, mourns, "I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now therefore forgive, I beg you, my sin only this once." (Ex. 10:16, 17.) But the lament was as a flitting shadow--it swiftly passed away. The heart was unmoved--evil as evil was not hated.
Saul, in momentary relenting, assumes the penitential garb, while his deadly passion was unslain. The fearful picture of the Psalmist is still life-like--"When God killed some of them, the rest finally sought him. They repented and turned to God. Then they remembered that God was their rock, that their redeemer was the Most High. But they followed him only with their words; they lied to him with their tongues. Their hearts were not loyal to him. They did not keep his covenant." (Psalm 78:34-37.)
Seeming repentance then may make unreal show. But when the Spirit implants this grace, loathing abhorrence of sin takes deep root. The whole heart is steeled in stout aversion--its every faculty and power arise in irreconcilable enmity--the whole inward man commences warfare without truce, and tramples it down beneath detesting feet, and hews it to pieces with unsparing severity. It wars not only against some forms of evil; it entirely, absolutely, universally loathes sin's every shape and semblance. It hates it in its very essence, as the enemy of God, as execrable in itself, as the misery of the world, as the viper which drank the life-blood of the Savior. It has been wisely said, "In true repentance every affection of the soul turns away from sin--love says, I will embrace you no more; desire says, I will never long after you more; delight says, I will never take contentment in you any more; hatred says, I will never be reconciled to you any more; fear says, I will watch, lest I be surprised by you any more; grief says, I will mourn and lament because the soul has been beguiled by you; hope says, I will look to Christ, that my poor soul may at length get victory over you." Thus true repentance flees from all sin.
Such is the essence of this grace. They who are wise will anxiously inquire whether it is their established inhabitant.
How much hangs on the decision! It is beyond dispute that without repentance there is no forgiveness, and without forgiveness wrath must abide forever. Perhaps the search leaves some disturbed with doubt. They may sigh--Would that genuine repentance gave indubitable signs! But why this shivering in a cheerless region? Doubtless no human efforts can create a heaven-kindled flame; but what are the offices which Jesus ever lives to execute? "He is exalted to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins." Let prayer plead with Him--He will answer, and pour down this blessing, and carry on the holy work, until in thorough brokenness of heart and humble confession, and firm departure from all evil, the peaceful realms of pardon are attained.