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ON THE NATURE OF TRUE REPENTANCE.
It is a truth fully revealed in Scripture, that without repentance no one can enter into life. But too often it happens that those who are convinced of this, deceive themselves by calling something by the name of repentance, which bears only a superficial worthless resemblance of it: and then flatter themselves with the vain imagination that this base counterfeit shall be entitled to the blessings promised to the divine original.
To compare therefore, and distinguish the true repentance from the false; to shew why every one, ere he can be saved, must experience the change it implies, and to discover the way to attain it, is a point of great importance. It will tend, through the blessing of God, to discover prevailing errors which lie at the root of all careless and profane living, and to awaken every reader to selfexamination on this important point.
First, then, let it be observed, that false repentance flows only from a sense of danger, and a fear of impending wrath. When the conscience of a sinner is alarmed with a sense of his dreadful guilt and danger, it must of necessity loudly remonstrate against those sins which threaten him with eternal destruction: hence those alarms and terrors which are frequently found amongst men under apprehensions of death. At such times their sins, some grosser enormities especially, confront them, and all their aggravations are remembered with bitterness; conscience draws
the indictment, and sets home the charge against them; the law passes the sentence, and condemns them without mercy. And what have they now in prospect but a feaful looking-for of fiery indignation to consume them? Now, with distress they cry out and howl upon their beds for the greatness of their sin!
With amazement they expect the dreadful issue of their sinful practices. How ready are they now to make resolutions of beginning an humble, watchful, holy life! In this
their terror, conscience, like a flaming sword, keeps them from their former course of impiety and sensuality.
But what is this repentance more than the fear of the worm that never dieth, and of the fire that never shall be quenched? Let but conscience be pacified, and the tempest of the troubled mind allayed, and this false penitent will return with the dog to his vomit again, till some new alarm revive his convictions of sin and danger, and with them the same process of repentance. Thus too many will sin and repent, and repent and sin, all their lives.
In some instances, indeed, distress of conscience makes a deeper impression, and fixes such an abiding dread of particular gross sins, that there appears a visible reformation. Yet in this case the sinner's lusts may be only dammed up by his fears: and, were the dam broken down, they would immediately run again in their former channel with renewed force. It is true, this terror is often a preparative to true repentance; but if it proceed no further, it is still a fallacious sign of safety.
Here however it is necessary to observe, that though there may
be much terror and external reformation without true repentance, yet it is somewhat to be thus far affected. The greater part of true penitents have been at first under similar distress, and perhaps begun out of mere selfishness to flee from the wrath to come. Instead therefore of construing what is said against false repentance, as if all was lost because your repentance is not yet of the right kind; let it work more reasonably, and excite you to prayer, that those terrors and checks, which are in themselves no certain proofs of the sincerity of your repentance, may finally issue in what undoubtedly are such proofs.
False repentance then flows merely from a sense of danger, and a fear of impending wrath. The character of true repentance is quite opposite. Here sin itself becomes the greatest burden and object of aversion; sorrow springs from an affecting humbling sense of the dishonour and injury which the penitent feels he has done unto God; not only from a selfish concern for his own safety, but from a regard to God, to which he was before a stranger;
- from a conviction that his whole deportment and the ruling tempers of his heart have been evil and desperately
wicked. The language of a true Scripture penitent is such as this; “I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me: mine iniquities are gone over my head as an heavy burden; they are too heavy for me. Deliver me from all mny transgressions; let not my sins have dominion over me.
Innumerable evils have compassed me about, mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up: they are more than the hairs of mine head, therefore my heart faileth
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me. The true penitent mourns on account of all his lusts, and hates them all; he is not willing that any should be spared, though they were dear as a right hand, or a right eye.
How great and apparent is the difference between being struck with fear, restrained by terror, or driven from a course of sinning by the lashes of an awakened conscience:- between this, I say, and loathing ourselves in our own sight for all our iniquities, vehemently desiring grace and strength to conquer and mortify corruption, and to be delivered from the tyrannous rule of sin! The former is merely the sordid fruit of self-love, which compels the soul to fee from danger; the latter, the exercise of a vital principle, which separates the soul from sin, and engages the whole man in a persevering opposition to it.
Secondly, False repentance dishonours God, by refusing, under all its distracting fears, to trust to his mercy. It is full of unbelief, though the gospel has provided a glorious relief for every guilty, ruined sinner, and opened a blessed door of hope even for those whose sins are red as scarlet; though pardon and salvation are freely offered to every one that is weary and heavy laden with the guilt and deflement of sin; though the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse from all sins, however circumstanced, however aggravated they may be: the false penitent, alas! sees no safety in this refuge. The law of God challenges his obedience, and condemns his disobedience; conscience concurs both with the precept and sentence of the law. To pacify conscience, to satisfy God's justice, and to lay a foundation of future hope, he has recourse to resolutions, to promises, to attempts of
new and better obedience, to penances, and to a variety of self-righteous schemes. The defect of his endeavours and attainments creates new terrors; these terrors excite new endeavours; and thus the false penitent goes on, notwithstanding the greatness of his sorrow and the pain of his conviction, seeking righteousness by his own works, and afraid to trust in the mercy of God through the blood of his Son. He may, it is true, have some sort of feeble regard to Christ, so as to use his name in his prayers for pardon, though he dare not depend upon the merits of his blood, and upon the love of God manifested in him for the remission of his sins. Yet even this regard itself is built upon the secret hope that his reformation and performances will come in aid to purchase the favour of God, which he cannot confide in as freely promised, for Christ's sake, to every humbled sinner. It is in effect a disparagement of the Redeemer, as if he knew not how to have compassion on him till he was recommended by some attainments in holiness.
Now take a view of true repentance, and you will find the character of it to be directly opposite to that mentioned above. The true penitent approaches God with a deep impression of his guilt, and of his just desert of eternal rejection : but then he comes before a mercy seat, though he acknowledges that if God should mark iniquity, he could not stand before him ; he remembers, that “ with God there is forgiveness that he may be feared ;” and that “ with him there is plenteous redemption.” He looks to the blood of Christ as alone able to cleanse his soul, and take away the curse due to his numerous and aggravated sins, and from this, he takes encouragement to mourn before God, expressing himself in the Psalmist's language, “ Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin ;-purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” This is the prayer which both encourages his cries for mercy, and embitters to him all his sins ; this it is which makes him loathe them all, and long for deliverance from them.
“ Is God infinitely merciful and ready to forgive" (saith the true penitent),
is and have I been so basely ungrateful as to sin against such astonishing goodness, to affront
and abuse such mercy and love? Is sin so hateful to God that he punished it even in the person of his dear Son, when he made him an atonement for sin? How vile and abominable must I appear in the eyes of his holiness and justice, who am nothing but defilement and guilt! Has the blessed Saviour suffered the Father's wrath for my sins? Have they nailed him to the cross, and brought him under the agonies of an accursed death; and shall I be ever reconciled to my lusts any more? Have I dishonoured God so much already, loaded his dear Son with so many horrible indignities, and brought such a weight of guilt upon myself; and is it not now high time to divorce my most beloved lusts, those great enemies to God and my own soul?”
Here you must perceive the great difference, and even contrariety, between a guilty fleeing from God, like that of Adam after his fall, and an humbling self-condemning approach to God's pardoning mercy, like the prodigal's, when returning to his much injured father:- between slavish and proud endeavours to atone for your sins, and make your peace with God by your own righteousness
, and repairing only to the blood of Christ to cleanse you from all sin; between mourning for your guilt and danger, and mourning for your sins as the basest injury to God and Christ, to mercy and love manifested in the most endearing manner:--in a word, between attempting a new life by the strength of your own resolutions and endeavours, and looking only to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for grace and strength, as well as for pardon and i freedom from condemnation.
Thirdly, In false repentance there still remains an aversion to God and his holy law: but in true repentance there is a love to both. The distress and terror which awakened sinnners feel, arise from dreadful apprehensions of God and his justice; they know that they have greatly provoked him; they are afraid of his wrath, and therefore want some covert: they might before, perhaps, have had some pleasing apprehensions of God, while they considered him as altogether mercy, and so long as they could hope for pardon, and yet live in their sins; but now that they have some idea of his holiness and justice, he appears an infinite enemy. They are consult