The Doctrine of
By Thomas Watson, 1668
The two great graces essential to a saint in this life, are faith and
repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven. Faith
and repentance preserve the spiritual life—as heat and water preserve the
physical life. The grace which I am going to discuss is repentance.
Chrysostom thought that repentance was the fittest subject for him to preach
upon before the Emperor. Augustine kept the penitential psalms with him as
he lay upon his bed, and he often perused them with tears. Repentance is
never out of season; it is of as frequent use as the artificer's tool
or the soldier's weapon. If I am not mistaken, practical
points are more needful in this age than controversial and
Repentance is purgative—do not fear the working of this
pill. "Smite your soul," said Chrysostom, "smite it; it will escape death by
that stroke!" How happy it would be, if we were more deeply affected with
sin, and our eyes did swim in tears of repentance. We may clearly see the
Spirit of God moving in the waters of repentance, which though troubled, are
yet pure. Moist tears of repentance dry up sin—and quench the wrath of God.
Repentance is the nourisher of piety, the procurer of mercy. The more regret
and trouble of spirit we have first at our conversion, the less we shall
Christians, do you have a sad regret of other things—and
not of sin? Worldly tears fall to the earth—but godly tears of
repentance are kept in a bottle. "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have
collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your
book." (Psalm 56:8). Do not judge holy weeping to be wasted.
Tertullian thought he was born for no other end—but to repent. Either sin
must drown in the tears of repentance—or the soul must burn in hell.
Let it not be said that repentance is difficult.
Things that are excellent deserve labor. Will not a man dig for gold—though
it makes him sweat? It is better to go with difficulty to heaven—than
with ease to hell! What would the damned give, that they might have a
herald sent to them from God, to proclaim forgiveness upon their repentance?
What volleys of sighs and groans of repentance, would they send up to
heaven? What floods of tears would their eyes pour forth? But it is now too
late! They may keep their tears to lament their folly—sooner than to procure
God's pity. O that we would therefore, while we are on this side of the
grave, make our peace with God! Tomorrow may be our dying day; let
this be our repenting day. How we should imitate the saints of old, who
embittered their souls and sacrificed their lusts, and put on sackcloth in
the hope of white robes. Peter baptized himself with tears; and that devout
lady Paula, like a bird of paradise, bemoaned herself and humbled herself to
the dust for sin.
Besides our own personal sins, the deplorable condition
of the land calls for a contribution of tears. Have we not lost much of our
pristine fame and renown? The time was when we sat as princes among
the provinces (Lam. 1:1), and God made the sheaves of other nations do
obeisance to our sheaf (Gen. 37:7) But has not our glory fled away as a bird
(Hos. 9:11)? And what severe dispensations are yet ahead, we cannot tell.
Our black and hideous vapors having ascended, we may fear loud thunder-claps
should follow. And will not all this bring us to our senses and excite in us
a spirit of humiliation? Shall we sleep on the top of the mast when the
winds are blowing from all the quarters of heaven? "Cry aloud before the
Lord! Let your tears flow like a river. Give yourselves no rest from weeping
day or night!" (Lam. 2:18)
I will not launch forth any further in a prefatory
discourse—but that God would add a blessing to this work and so direct this
arrow, that though shot at random—it may hit the mark, and that some sin may
be shot to death—shall be the ardent prayer of him who is the well-wisher of
your soul's happiness,
Thomas Watson, May 25, 1668
Paul, having been falsely accused of sedition by
Tertullus—"we have him to be a troublemaker, a man who is constantly
inciting the Jews throughout the world to riots and rebellions against the
Roman government" (Acts 24:5) —makes an apology for himself before Festus
and King Agrippa in Chapter 26 of the Book of Acts. Paul treats of three
things with such conviction, as almost to have converted King Agrippa:
(1.) He speaks of the manner of his life before
his conversion. "I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect
of our religion." During the time of his unregeneracy he was zealous for
religious traditions, and his false fire of zeal was so hot, that it
scorched all who stood in his way; "I did everything I could to oppose the
followers of Jesus of Nazareth. I caused many of the believers in Jerusalem
to be sent to prison!"
(2.) He speaks of the manner of his conversion.
"About noon, Your Majesty, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone
down on me." This light was no other than what shone from Christ's glorified
body. "And I heard a voice speaking unto me, Saul, Saul, why are you
persecuting me?" The body being hurt, the head in heaven cried
out. At this light and voice—Paul was amazed and fell to the earth: "Then I
asked, "Who are you, Lord?" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," the Lord
replied." All opinion of self-righteousness now vanished, and Paul grafted
his hope of heaven upon the stock of Christ's righteousness.
(3) He speaks of the manner of his life after his
conversion. He who had been a persecutor before—now became a preacher: "Now
get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a
servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show
you." When Paul, this "elect vessel", was savingly wrought upon, he labored
to do as much good—as previously he had done hurt. He had persecuted
saints to death before, now he preached sinners to life. God
first sent him to the Jews at Damascus and afterwards enlarged his
commission to preach to the Gentiles. And the message he preached was this,
"I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their
repentance by their deeds." (verse 20). A weighty and excellent subject!
I shall not dispute whether faith or repentance
comes first into the soul. Doubtless repentance shows itself first in a
Christian's life. Yet I am apt to think that the seeds of faith are first
wrought in the heart. As when a burning candle is brought into a room—the
light shows itself first—but the candle was before the light. Just so, we
see the fruits of repentance first—but the beginnings of faith were there
before. That which inclines me to think that faith is in the heart before
repentance—is because repentance, being a grace, must be exercised by one
who is living. Now, how does the soul live—but by faith? "The just shall
live by his faith" (Heb. 10:38). Therefore there must be first, some seeds
of faith in the heart of a penitent, otherwise it is a dead repentance and
so of no value. Whether faith or repentance goes first—I am sure that
repentance is of such importance, that there is no being saved without it.
After Paul's shipwreck he swam to shore on planks and
broken pieces of the ship (Acts 27:44). In Adam we all suffered shipwreck,
and repentance is the only plank left us after shipwreck—to swim to heaven.
It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn
unto God: "Repent! for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matt. 3:2)
"Repent therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out!"
(Acts 3:19) "Repent of this your wickedness" (Acts 8:22). In the mouths of
three witnesses this truth is confirmed.
Repentance is a foundation grace: "Not laying again the
foundation of repentance" (Heb. 6:1). That religion which is not
built upon this foundation must needs fall to the ground. Repentance is a
grace required under the gospel. Some think it legal; but the first sermon
that Christ preached, indeed, the first word of his sermon, was "Repent!"
(Matt. 4:17) And his farewell that he left when he was going to ascend was
that "repentance should be preached in his name" (Luke 24:47).
The apostles plucked upon this same string: "They went
out and preached that men should repent" (Mark 6:12). Repentance is a pure
gospel grace. The covenant of works admitted no repentance; there it
was, sin and die! Repentance came in by the gospel. Christ has
purchased in his death—that repenting sinners shall be saved. The
Law required personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience. It cursed all
who could not come up to this: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to
do everything written in the Book of the Law" (Gal. 3:10). It does not say,
"he who obeys not all things, let him repent" —but, "let him be
cursed." Thus repentance is a doctrine that has been brought to
light, only by the gospel.
How is repentance wrought? The manner in which
repentance is wrought is:
Partly by the Word. "When they heard
this, they were pierced to the heart!" (Acts 23:7). The Word preached, is
the engine God uses to effect repentance. It is compared to a hammer
and to a fire (Jer. 23:29), the one to break, the other to
melt the heart. "Does not my word burn like fire? Is it not like a
mighty hammer that smashes rock to pieces?" How great a blessing it is to
have the Word, which is of such virtue, when dispensed by the Holy Spirit!
Those who will not be melted into repentance by the fire of the Word, will
never escape hell!
By the Spirit. Ministers are but the pipes and
organs. It is the Holy Spirit breathing in them—which makes their words
effectual: "While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Spirit fell
on all those who heard the Word" (Acts 10:44). The Spirit in the Word
illuminates and converts. When the Spirit touches a heart—it dissolves with
tears: "I will pour upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of
grace—and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they
shall mourn" (Zech. 12:10).
It is astonishing to consider what different effects the
Word has upon men. Some at a sermon are like Jonah: their heart is tender
and they let tears fall. Others are no more affected with it than a deaf man
with music. Some grow better by the Word—others grow worse.
The same earth which causes sweetness in the grape—causes
bitterness in the wormwood. What is the reason the Word works so
differently? It is because the Spirit of God carries the Word to the
conscience of one—and not another. One has received the divine annointing—and
not the other (1 John 2:20). I pray that the dew may fall with the
manna—that the Spirit may go along with the Word. The
chariot of ordinances will not carry us to heaven unless the Spirit of God
joins himself to this chariot (Acts 8:29).
COUNTERFEITS of Repentance
To discover what true repentance is, I shall first show
what it is not. There are several counterfeits of repentance, which
might occasion that saying of Augustine that "repentance damns many". He
meant a false repentance; a person may delude himself with counterfeit
1. The first counterfeit of repentance, is LEGAL TERROR.
A man has gone on long in sin. At last God arrests him,
shows him what desperate hazard he has run—and he is filled with anguish.
But after a while, the tempest of conscience is blown over, and he is quiet.
Then he concludes that he is a true penitent because he has felt some
bitterness in sin. Do not be deceived! This is not true repentance! Both
Ahab and Judas had great trouble of mind. It is one thing to be a
terrified sinner—and another to be a repenting sinner. Sense
of guilt is enough to breed terror in the conscience. Only infusion of
divine grace, breeds true repentance. If pain and trouble were sufficient to
repentance, then the damned in hell should be most penitent, for they are
most in anguish. "Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of
heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of
what they had done!" Revelation 16:10-11. Repentance depends upon a change
of heart. There may be terror—yet with no change of heart. "I preached that
they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their
deeds." Acts 26:20
2. Another counterfeit about repentance, is RESOLUTION
A person may purpose and make vows—yet be no penitent.
"You said, I will not transgress" (Jer. 2:20). Here was a good
resolution. But see what follows: "but still you would not obey me. On every
hill and under every green tree, you have prostituted yourselves by bowing
down to idols!" Notwithstanding her solemn engagements, they played fast and
loose with God—and ran after their idols!
We see by experience what protestations against sin,
a person will make when he is on his sick-bed, if God should recover him
again. Yet if that person does recover—he is as bad as ever. He shows his
old heart in a new temptation. Resolutions against sin may arise:
(1) From present extremity; not because sin is
sinful—but because it is painful. This kind of resolution will vanish.
(2) From fear of future evil, an apprehension of death
and hell. "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its
rider was named Death, and Hell was following close behind
him!" (Rev. 6:8). What will a sinner not do—what vows will he not make—when
he knows he must die and stand before the God in judgment? Self-love raises
a sickbed repentance. But if he recovers—the love of sin will prevail
against it. Trust not to a such passionate resolution; it is raised in a
storm—and will die in a calm!
3. The third counterfeit about repentance, is the leaving
of many sinful ways.
It is a great matter, I confess, to leave sin. So dear is
sin to a man—that he will rather part with a child than with a lust! "Shall
I give the fruit of my body—for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:7). Sin may be
parted with—yet without repentance.
(1) A man may part with some sins and keep others.
Herod reformed many things which were amiss—but could not leave his beloved
(2) An old sin may be left in order to entertain a
new sin—as you get rid an old servant to take another. This is to
exchange a sin. Sin may be exchanged—and the heart remained
unchanged. He who was a profligate in his youth, turns to be a
miser in his old age. A slave is sold to a Jew; the Jew sells him to a
Turk. Here the master is changed—but he is a slave still. So a man moves
from one vice to another—but remains an unrepentant sinner still.
(3) A sin may be left not so much from strength of
grace—as from reasons of prudence. A man sees that though such a
sin is for his pleasure—yet it is not for his best interest. It will eclipse
his credit, harm his health, or impair his estate. Therefore, for prudential
reasons, he dismisses it. But true leaving of sin, is when the acts of sin
cease from a principle of grace infused into the soul—as the air ceases to
be dark from the infusion of light.