“the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from untowardness to righteousness.”
“the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from untowardness to righteousness.”
What is a Biblical Christian?
by Albert N. Martin
There are many matters concerning which total ignorance and complete difference are neither tragic nor fatal. I believe many of you are probably totally ignorant of Einstein’s theory of relativity and if you were pressed to explain it to someone you would really be in difficulty. Not only are you ignorant of Einstein’s theory of relativity, you are probably quite indifferent, and that ignorance and indifference is neither fatal nor tragic. I am sure there are few of us who can explain all the processes by which a brown cow eats green grass and gives white milk. It does not keep you from enjoying the milk. But there are some things concerning which ignorance and indifference are both tragic and fatal and one such thing is the Bible’s answer to the question I am about to set before you.
‘What is a biblical Christian?’ In other words, when does a man or woman, a boy or girl, have the right to take to himself or herself the name Christian, according to the Scriptures?
We do not want to make the assumption lightly that you are true Christians. I want to set before you four strands of the Bible’s answer to that question.
1. ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, A CHRISTIAN IS A PERSON WHO HAS FACED REALISTICALLY THE PROBLEM OF HIS OWN PERSONAL SIN
Now one of the many unique things about the Christian faith is this —unlike most of the religions of the world, Christianity is essentially and fundamentally a sinner’s religion. When the angel announced to Joseph he approaching birth of Jesus Christ, he did so in these words, ‘You halt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’ [Matt 1.21]. The apostle Paul wrote in I Timothy 1.15, ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. He came into the world to save sinners. The Lord Jesus Christ himself says in Luke 5.31-32, ‘Those that are healthy do not need a doctor but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’. And the Christian is one who has faced realistically this problem of his own personal sin.
When we turn to the Scripture and seek to take in the whole of its teaching on the subject of sin, right down to its irreducible minimum, we find that the Scripture tells us that each one of us has a two-fold personal problem in relation to sin. On the one hand, we have the problem of a bad record and, on the other, the problem of a bad heart. If we start in Genesis 3 and read that tragic account of man’s rebellion against God and his fall into sin, then trace the biblical doctrine of sin all the way through the Old Testament, and on into the New, right through to the Book of Revelation, we shall see that it is not over-simplification to say that everything that the Bible teaches about the doctrine of sin can be reduced to those two fundamental categories — the problem of a bad record and the problem of a bad heart.
What do I mean by ‘the problem of a bad record’? I am using that terminology to describe what the Scripture sets before us as the doctrine of human guilt because of sin. The Scripture tells us plainly that we obtained a bad record long before we had any personal existence here upon the earth: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’ [Rom 5.12]. When did the ‘all’ sin? We all sinned in Adam. He was appointed by God to represent all of the human race and when he sinned we sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression. That is why the apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 15.22, ‘As in Adam all die’. We passed our age of accountability in the Garden of Eden and from the moment Adam sinned we were charged with guilt. We fell in him in his first transgression and we are part of the race that is under condemnation. Furthermore, the Scripture says, after we come into being at our own conception and subsequent birth additional guilt accrues to us for our own personal, individual transgressions. The Word of God teaches that there is not a just man upon the face of the earth who does good and does not sin [Eccles 7.20], and every single sin incurs additional guilt. Our record in heaven is a marred record. Almighty God measures the totality of our human experience from the moment of our birth by a standard which is absolutely inflexible; a standard that touches not only our external deeds but also our thoughts and the very motions and intentions of our heart; so much so, that the Lord Jesus said that the stirring of unjust anger is the very essence of murder, the look with intention to lust as adultery. And God is keeping ‘a detailed record’. That record is among ‘the books’ Which will be opened in the day of judgment [Rev 20.12]. And there in those books is recorded every thought, every motive, every intention, every deed, every dimension of human experience that is contrary to the standard of God’s holy law, either failing to measure up to its standard or transgressing it. We have the problem of a bad record — a record in which we are charged with guilt; real guilt for real sin committed against the true and the living God. That is why the Scripture tells us that the entire human race stands guilty before Almighty God [Rom 3.19].
Has the problem of your own bad record ever become a burning, pressing personal concern to you? Have you faced the truth that Almighty God judged you guilty when our first father sinned, and holds you guilty for every single word you have spoken contrary to perfect holiness and justice and purity and righteousness? He knows every object you have touched and taken contrary to the sanctity of property and every word spoken contrary to perfect, absolute truth. Has this ever broken in upon you, so that you awakened to the fact that Almighty God has every right to summon you into his presence and to require you to give an account of every single deed contrary to His law, which has brought guilt upon your soul?
Certainly we have the problem of a bad record but we have an additional problem — the problem of a bad heart. We not only are pronounced guilty in the court of heaven for what we have done. The Scripture teaches that the problem of our sin is one that arises not only from what we have done, but from what we are. When Adam sinned he not only became guilty before God, but defiled and polluted in his own nature. The Scripture describes it in Jeremiah 17.9, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?’ Jesus describes it in Mark 7.21, ‘From within, out of the heart of man, proceed…’and then He names all the various sins that can be seen in any newspaper on any day — blasphemies, pride, adulteries, murder. Jesus said that these things rise out of this artesian well of pollution, the human heart. Notice carefully that he did not say, ‘For from without, by the pressure of society and its negative influences, come forth murder and adultery and pride and thievery’. That is what our so-called sociological experts tell us. It is ‘the condition of society’ that produces crime and rebellion. Jesus says it is the condition of the human heart. For from within, out of the heart, proceed these things — lies, selfishness, self-centredness, total pre-occupation with my feelings and my desires and my plans and my perspectives.
We have hearts that the Scripture describes as ‘desperately wicked’ — the fountain of all forms of iniquity. To change the biblical imagery, Romans 8.7 reads, ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be’. Paul says that the carnal mind, that is, the mind that has never been regenerated by God, is not reflective of some enmity; he calls it enmity itself. ‘The carnal mind is enmity against God’. The disposition of every human heart by nature can be visually pictured as a clenched fist raised against the living God. This is the inward problem of a bad heart — a heart that loves sin, a heart that is lie fountain of sin, a heart that is at enmity with God. And such is the problem that every one of us has by nature.
Has the problem of your bad heart ever become a pressing personal concern to you? I am not asking whether you believe in human sinfulness in theory. Oh, there is such a thing as a sinful nature and a sinful heart. My question is: Have your bad record and your bad heart ever become a matter of deep, inward, personal, pressing concern to you? Have you known anything of real, personal, inward consciousness of the awfulness of your guilt in the presence of a holy God? — the horribleness of a heart that is ‘deceitful above all things and desperately wicked’?
A Bible Christian is a person who has in all seriousness taken to heart us own personal problem of sin.
Now the degree to which we may feel the awful weight of sin differs from one person to another. The length of time over which a person is brought to the consciousness of his bad record and his bad heart differs. There are many variables, but Jesus Christ as the Great Physician never brought his healing virtue to any who did not know themselves to be sinners. He said, ‘I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ [Matt 9.13]. Are you a Bible Christian, one who has taken seriously your personal problem of sin?
2. A BIBLE CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO HAS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED THE ONE DIVINE REMEDY FOR SIN
In the Bible we are told again and again that Almighty God has taken the initiative in doing something for man the sinner. The verses some of us learned in our infancy underscore divine initiative in providing a remedy or sinful man: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .’; ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent us Son to be the propitiation for our sins’; ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us. . .’ [John 3.16; 1 John 10; Eph 2.41. You see, the unique feature of the Christian faith is that it not a kind of religious self-help where you patch yourself up with the aid of God. Just as surely as it is a unique tenet of the Christian faith that Christ is a Savior for sinners, so it is also a unique tenet of the Christian faith that all of our true help comes down from above and meets us where we are. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own boot-strings. God in mercy breaks in upon the human situation and does something which we could never do for ourselves. Now when we turn to the Scriptures we find that the divine remedy has at least three simple but profoundly wonderful focal points:
(a) First of all, that divine remedy is bound up in a Person. Anyone who begins to take seriously the divine remedy for human sin will notice in the Scriptures that the remedy is not in a set of ideas, as though it were just another philosophy, nor is it found in an institution, it is bound up in a Person. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son’. ‘Thou shall call his name Jesus for he shall save. . .’ He, himself, said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me’ [John 14.6]. That one divine remedy is bound up in a Person and that Person is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ — the eternal Word who became man, uniting to his Godhead a true human nature. Here is God’s provision for man with his bad record and his bad heart, a Saviour who is both God and man, the two natures joined in the one Person for ever. And your personal problem of sin, and mine, if it is ever to be remedied in a biblical way will be remedied only as we have personal dealings with that Person. Such is the unique strand of the Christian faith — the sinner in all his need united to the Saviour in all the plenitude of his grace, the sinner in his naked need and the Saviour in his almighty power, brought directly together in the Gospel. That is the glory of the Gospel!
(b) It is centred in the cross upon which that Person died. A cross that leads to an empty tomb, yes! And a cross preceded by a life of perfect obedience, yes! And when we turn to the Scriptures we find that the divine remedy in a unique way is centred in the cross of Jesus Christ. When he is formally announced by John the Baptist, John points to him and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who is bearing away the sin of the world’ [John 1.29]. Jesus himself said, ‘I did not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give my life a ransom for many’ [Matt 20.28], and true preaching of the Gospel is so much centered in the cross that Paul says it is the word, or the message of the cross. The preaching of the cross is ‘to them who are perishing foolishness, but unto us who are being saved it is the power of God’ [1 Cor 1.18], and this same apostle went on to say that when he came to Corinth — that bastion of intellectualism and pagan Greek philosophy with its set patterns of rhetorical expertise — ‘I came amongst you determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ and him as crucified’ [1 Cor 2.2].
You see, God’s gracious remedy for sin is not only bound up in a Person, it is centred in the cross of that Person — not the cross as an abstract idea, nor as a religious symbol, but the cross in terms of what God declares it to mean. The cross was the place where God heaped upon his Son, by imputation, the sins of his people. On that cross there was substitutionary curse-bearing. In the language of Galatians 3.13, ‘God made him to be a curse for us’; ‘God made him to be sin for us’ [2 Cor 5.2] — the one who knew no sin. It is not the cross as some nebulous, indefinable symbol of self-giving love, it is the cross as the monumental display of how God can be just and still pardon guilty sinners; the cross where God, having imputed the sins of his people to Christ, pronounces judgment upon his Son as the representative of his people. There on the cross God pours out the vials of his wrath, unmixed with mercy, until his Son cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? why have you forsaken me?’ [Psa 22.1; Matt 27.46]. There in the visible world at Calvary, God, as it were, was demonstrating what was happening in the invisible spiritual world. He shrouds the heavens in total darkness to let all mankind know that he is plunging his Son into the outer darkness of the hell which your sins and my sins deserved. Jesus hangs on the cross in the place of an undefended guilty criminal; he is in the posture of one for whom society has but one option, ‘Away with him’, ‘Crucify him’, ‘Hand him over to death’, and God does not intervene. There in the theatre of what men can see, God is demonstrating what he is doing in the realm where we cannot see. He is treating his Son as a criminal, he is causing him to feel in the depths of his own soul all of the fury of the wrath that should have been vented upon us.
(c) A remedy that is adequate for and offered to all without discrimination. Before we have any felt consciousness of our sin, about the easiest thing in the world is to think that God can forgive sinners. But when you and I begin to have any idea at all of what sin is — we, little worms of the dust, we creatures whose very life and breath is held in the hands of the God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ [Acts 17.28] — when we begin, I say, to take seriously that we have dared to defy Almighty God who holds our breath in his hands, the God who, when angels rebelled against him, did not wait to show mercy but consigned them to everlasting chains of darkness with no way of mercy ever planned or revealed to them, then our thoughts are changed. Once we take seriously the truth that it is this holy God who sees the effusions of the foul, corrupt human hearts which are yours and mine, then we say, ‘O God, how can you be anything other than just; and if you give me what my sins deserve, there is nothing for me but wrath and judgment! How can you forgive me and still be just? How can you be a righteous God and do anything other than consign me to everlasting punishment with those angels that rebelled’. When you begin to take your sin seriously, forgiveness becomes the most knotty problem with which your mind has ever wrestled. It is then that we need to know that God has provided in a Person, and that Person crucified, a remedy that is adequate for and offered to all without discrimination. When God begins to make us feel the reality of our sin, if there were any conditions placed on the availability of Christ we would say, ‘Surely I don’t meet the conditions, surely I don’t qualify’, but the wonder of God’s provision is that it comes in these unfettered terms: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; he who has no money, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you labor for that which does not satisfy’ [Isa 55.1 -2]. ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Him that comes unto me I will in no wise cast out’ [Matt 11.28; John 6.37].
Oh, the beauty of the unfettered offers of mercy in Jesus Christ! We do not need to have God step out of heaven and tell us that we, by name, are warranted to come; we have the unfettered offers of mercy in the words of his own Son, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’.
3. A BIBLE CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO HAS WHOLEHEARTEDLY COMPLIED WITH THE DIVINE TERMS FOR APPROPRIATING THE DIVINE PROVISION
The divine terms are two — repent and believe. That is what Jesus preached, ‘At that time Jesus came preaching, Repent and believe the gospel’ [Mark 1.15, 16]. It is what Paul preached. He says, ‘I testified to Jews and Greeks wherever I went, repentance toward God, faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Acts 20.21]. This is the Gospel that Jesus told his own to preach [Luke 24.45, 46]. He opened their minds to understand the Scripture and told them it was necessary for Christ to die, and to be raised again from the dead the third day, that repentance unto remission of sins should be preached in his name among all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
What are the divine terms for obtaining the divine provision? We must repent, we must believe. Now because we have to speak in terms of one word following another, or preceding another, we must not think that this repentance is ever divorced from faith or that this faith is ever divorced from repentance. True faith is permeated with repentance, true repentance is permeated with faith. They inter-penetrate one another so that, whenever there is a true appropriation of the divine provision, there you will find a believing penitent and a penitent believer. The one will never be divorced from the other.
What is repentance? The definition of the Shorter Catechism is an excellent one: ‘Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of (that is, a laying hold of) the mercy of God in Christ, does with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience’.
Repentance is the prodigal down in the far country coming to his senses. He left his father’s home because he could not stand his father’s government. Everything about his father’s will and ways irritated him. It was a constant block to following the desires of his own foul, wretched, sin-loving heart. The day came when he said he wanted what was due to him. He went into the far country. When he left he had a notion of his father, of his government and of his ways, which was entirely negative, but the Scripture tells us in Luke 15 that down in the far country he came to himself: ‘And when he came to himself he said, 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. Make me as one of your hired servants’. And then the Scripture says he did not sit there and think about it, and write poetry about it and send telegrams home to his Dad. It says, ‘He rose up and came to his father’. He left all those companions who were his friends in sin; he loathed and abominated and abhorred everything that belonged to that life-style. He turned his back on it. And what was it that drew him home? It was the confidence that there was a gracious father with a large heart and with the righteous rule for his happy, loving home. And he said, ‘I will arise and go to my father’. He did not send a telegram saying, ‘Dad, things are getting rough down here; my conscience is giving me fits at night; won’t you send me some money to help me out and come and pay me a visit and make me feel good?’ Not at all! He did not need just to feel good, he needed to become good. And he left the far country. It is a beautiful stroke in our Lord’s picture when he says, ‘While he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and threw his arms around him and kissed him’. The prodigal did not come strutting up to his father, talking about making a decision to come home. There is a notion that people can come strutting into enquiry rooms and pray their little prayer and so do God a favour by making their decision. This has no more to do with conversion than my name is ‘Abraham Lincoln’. True repentance involves recognizing that I have sinned against the God of heaven, who is great and gracious, holy and loving, and that I am not worthy to be called his son. And yet, when I am prepared to leave my sin, to turn my back upon it and to come back haltingly, wondering if indeed there can be mercy for me, then — wonder of wonders! — the Father meets me, and throws the arms of reconciling love and mercy about me. I say it, not in a sentimental way but in all truth, he smothers repenting sinners in forgiving and redemptive love.
But note, the father did not throw his arms around the Prodigal when he was still in the hogpens and in the arms of harlots. Do I speak to some whose hearts are wedded to the world, who love the world’s ways? Perhaps in your personal life, or in relationship to your parents, or in your social life where you take so lightly the sanctity of the body, you show what you are. Maybe some of you are involved in fornication, in heavy petting, involved in looking at the kind of stuff on television and in the cinema that feeds your lust, and yet you name the name of Christ. You live in the hog-pens and then go to a house of God on Sunday. Shame on you! Leave your hog pens, your haunts of sin. Leave your patterns and practices of fleshly and carnal indulgence. Repentance is being sorry enough to quit your sin. You will never know the forgiving mercy of God while you are still wedded to your sins.
Repentance is the soul’s divorce from sin but it will always be joined to faith. What is faith? Faith is the casting of the soul upon Christ as he is offered to us in the Gospel. Forsaking All I Take Him. That is faith! ‘As many as received him, to them gave he the right to become the sons of God, even to them that believe in his name’ [John 1.12]. Faith is likened to drinking of Christ. In my soul-thirst I drink of him. Faith is likened to looking to Christ. Faith is likened to following Christ, fleeing to Christ. The Bible uses many analogies and the sum of all of them is this, that in the nakedness of my need I cast myself upon the Savior, trusting him to be to me all that he has promised to be to needy sinners.
Faith brings nothing to Christ but an empty hand by which it takes Christ and all that is in him. And what is in him? Full pardon for all my sins! His perfect obedience is put to my account. His death is counted as mine. And the gift of the Spirit is in him. Adoption, sanctification and ultimately glorification are all in him, and faith, in taking Christ, receives all that is in him. ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, whom God has made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption’ [1 Cor 1.30].
What is a biblical Christian? A biblical Christian is a person who has wholeheartedly complied with the divine terms for obtaining the divine provision for sin. Those terms are repentance and faith. I like to think of them as the hinge on which the door of salvation turns. The hinge has two plates. One that is screwed to the door and the other screwed to the door jam. They are held together by a pin and on that hinge the door turns. Christ is that door, but none enter through him who do not repent and believe, and there is no true hinge made up only of repentance. A repentance that is not joined to faith is a legal repentance. It terminates on yourself and on your sin.
A professed faith that is not joined to repentance is a spurious faith, for faith Is faith in Christ to save me, not in but from my sin. Repentance and faith are inseparable and except you repent you will perish. He that believeth not shall be damned.
4. A TRUE CHRISTIAN IS A PERSON WHO MANIFESTS IN HIS LIFE THAT HIS CLAIMS TO REPENTANCE AND FAITH ARE REAL
Paul said that he preached that men should repent and turn to God and do works meet for, answering to, consistent with, repentance [Acts 26.20]. ‘By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God before ordained that we should walk in them’ [Eph 2.8-101. Paul says in Galatians chapter 5, that faith works by love. Wherever there is true faith in Christ there will always be implanted genuine love to Christ and where there is love to Christ there will be obedience to Christ. True faith always works by love, and what does it work? A life of obedience! ‘He who has my commandments, and keeps them, he it is that loves me. He who loves me not, keeps not my sayings’ [John 14.21-24]. We are not saved by loving Christ, we are saved by trusting Christ, but a trust that produces no love is not real. True faith works by love, and that which love works is not the ability to sit out on a beautiful starlight night writing poetry about how exciting it is to be a Christian. It works by causing you to go back into that home and to obey your father and your mother as the Bible tells you to do, or back to that university campus to take a stand for truth and righteousness against all the pressure of your peers. True faith makes you willing and prepared to be counted a fool and crazy, willing to be considered anachronistic, because you believe that there are eternal, unchangeable, moral and ethical standards. You are willing to believe in the sanctity of human life, and to take your stand against pre-marital gender and the murdering of babies in mothers’ wombs. For Jesus said, ‘Whoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ [Mark 8.38]. What is a Bible Christian? Not merely one who says, ‘Oh, yes, I know I am a sinner, with a bad record and a bad heart. I know that God’s provision for sinners is in Christ and in his cross, adequate, freely offered to all, and I know it comes to all who repent and believe’. That is not enough. Do you profess to repent and believe? Then can you make that profession stick, not by a life of perfection but by a life of purposeful obedience to Jesus Christ? ‘Not everyone who says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven’, Jesus said, ‘but he who is doing the will of my Father who is in Heaven’ [Matt 7.21]. In Hebrews 5.8 we read, ‘He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him’ I John 2.4, ‘He who says, I know him, and keeps not his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him.’
Can you make your claim to be a Christian stick from the Bible? Does your life manifest the fruits of repentance and faith? Do you possess a life of attachment to Christ, of obedience to Christ and confession of Christ? Is your behavior marked by adherence to the ways of Christ? Not perfectly — No! every day you must pray, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us’. But you can also say, ‘For me to live is Christ’, or
Jesus I my cross have taken
All to leave and follow Thee.
The world behind me, the cross before me, I have decided to follow Jesus. That is what a true Christian is. How many of us are real Christians? I leave you to answer in the deep chambers of your own mind and heart. But, remember, answer with an answer that you will be prepared to live with for eternity. Be content with no answer but that which will find you comfortable in death and safe in the day of judgment.
I don’t know anything about this counselor, but I did appreciate the examples given of manipulative repentance.
“The recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. The difficulty is in discerning disingenuous repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught, or a tactic to gain relational leverage”…
By Thomas Brooks, (1608 – 1680)
SATAN’S DEVICES TO DRAW THE SOUL TO SIN
[12 devices and their remedies]
DEVICE 6. By persuading the soul that the work of repentance is an easy work; and that therefore the soul need not make such a matter of sin. Why! Suppose you do sin, says Satan, it is no such difficult thing to return, and confess, and be sorrowful, and beg pardon, and cry, ‘Lord, have mercy upon me!’ and if you do but this, God will forgive your debt, and pardon your sins, and save your souls.
By this device Satan draws many a soul to sin, and makes many millions of souls servants of sin, or rather slaves to sin.
Remedy (1). The first remedy is, seriously to consider, That repentance is a mighty work, a difficult work, a work that is above our power. There is no power below that power which raised Christ from the dead, and which made the world—which can break the heart of a sinner, or turn the heart of a sinner! You are as well able to melt adamant, as to melt your own heart; to turn a flint into flesh, as to turn your own heart to the Lord; to raise the dead and to make a world, as to repent. Repentance is a flower which does not grow in nature’s garden! ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.’ (Jer. 13:23). Repentance is a gift that comes down from above. Men are not born with repentance in their hearts, as they are born with tongues in their mouths: (Acts 5:31): ‘Him has God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior—to give repentance.’ Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25-26) It is not in the power of any mortal to repent at pleasure. Some ignorant deluded souls vainly conceit that these five words, ‘Lord! have mercy upon me,’ are efficacious to send them to heaven; but as many are undone by buying a counterfeit jewel, so many are in hell by mistake of their repentance. Many rest in their repentance, which caused on to say, ‘Repentance damns more than sin!’ It was a vain brag of king Cyrus, that caused it to be written upon his tombstone, ‘I can do all things!’ So could Paul, too—but it was ‘through Christ, who strengthened him.’
Remedy (2). The second remedy against this device of Satan is, solemnly to consider of the nature of true repentance. Repentance is some other thing, than what vain men conceive. The Hebrew word for repentance signifies to return, implying a going back from what a man had done. It denotes a turning or converting from one thing to another, from sin to God. The Greeks have two words by which they express the nature of repentance, one signifies to be careful, anxious, solicitous, after a thing is done; the other word denotes after-wisdom, the mind’s recovering of wisdom, or growing wiser after our folly. True repentance is a thorough change both of the mind and life. Repentance for sin is nothing worth without repentance from sin. “If you repent with a contradiction,” says Tertullian, “God will pardon you with a contradiction; if you repent and yet continue in your sin, God will pardon you, and yet send you to hell—there is a pardon with a contradiction. Negative goodness serves no man’s turn, to save him from the axe.”
Repentance is sometimes taken, in a more strict and narrow sense, for godly sorrow; sometimes repentance is taken, in a large sense, for amendment of life. Repentance has in it three things, namely, the act, subject, and terms.
(1) The formal ACT of repentance is a changing and converting. It is often set forth in Scripture by turning. ‘Turn me, and I shall be turned,’ says Ephraim; ‘after I was turned, I repented,’ says he (Jer. 31:18, 19). It is a turning from darkness to light.
(2) The SUBJECT changed and converted is the whole man; it is both the sinner’s heart and life: first his heart, then his life; first his person, then his practice and lifestyle. ‘Wash, be clean,’ there is the change of their persons; ‘Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well’ (Is. 1:16, 17); there is the change of their practices. ‘Cast away,’ says Ezekiel, ‘all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed;’ there is the change of the life; ‘and make you a new heart and a new spirit’ (18:31); there is the change of the heart.
(3) The TERMS of this change and conversion, from which and to which both heart and life must be changed; from sin to God. The heart must changed from the state and power of sin, the life from the acts of sin—but both unto God; the heart to be under his power in a state of grace, the life to be under his rule in all new obedience; and the apostle speaks, ‘To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’ (Acts 26:18). So the prophet Isaiah says, ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord’ (55:7).
Thus much of the nature of evangelical repentance. Now, souls, tell me whether it be such an easy thing to repent, as Satan does suggest. Besides what has been spoken, I desire that you will take notice, that repentance does include turning from the most darling sin. Ephraim shall say, ‘What have I to do any more with idols?’ (Hosea 14:8). Yes, it is a turning from all sin to God (Ezek. 18:30): ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.’
Herod turned from many—but turned not from his Herodias, which was his ruin. Judas turned from all visible wickedness, yet he would not cast out that golden devil ‘covetousness’, and therefore was cast into the hottest place in hell. He who turns not from every sin, turns not aright from any one sin. Every sin strikes at the honor of God, the being of God, the glory of God, the heart of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, and the peace of a man’s conscience; and therefore a soul truly penitent strikes at all, hates all, conflicts with all, and will labor to draw strength from a crucified Christ to crucify all sins. A true penitent knows neither father nor mother, neither right eye nor right hand—but will pluck out the one and cut off the other. Saul spared but one Agag, and that cost him his soul and his kingdom (1 Sam. 15:9).
Besides, repentance is not only a turning from all sin—but also a turning to all good; to a love of all good, to a prizing of all good, and to a following after all good (Ezek. 18:21): ‘But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.’ Mere negative righteousness and holiness is neither true righteousness nor true holiness. The evil servant did not use his one talent in debauchery (Matt. 25:18). Those reprobates (Matt. 25:41-45), did not rob the saints—but merely did not help them. For this they must eternally perish.
David fulfilled all the will of God, and had respect unto all his commandments, and so had Zacharias and Elizabeth. It is not enough that the tree does not bear bad fruit; but it must bring forth good fruit, else it must be ‘cut down and cast into the fire’ (Luke 13:7). So it is not enough that you are not thus and thus wicked—but you must be thus and thus gracious and godly, else divine justice will put the axe of divine vengeance to the root of your souls, and cut you off forever. ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Matt. 3:10). Besides, repentance does include a sensibleness of sin’s sinfulness—how opposite and contrary sin is to the blessed God. God is light, sin is darkness; God is life, sin is death; God is heaven, sin is hell; God is beauty, sin is deformity.
Also true repentance includes a sensibleness of sin’s destructiveness; how it cast angels out of heaven, and Adam out of paradise; how it laid the first cornerstone in hell, and brought in all the curses, crosses, and miseries, that are in the world; and how it makes men liable to all temporal, spiritual and eternal wrath; how it has made men Godless, Christless, hopeless and heavenless.
Further, true repentance includes sorrow for sin, contrition of heart. It breaks the heart with sighs, and sobs, and groans—that by sin—a loving God and Father is offended; a blessed Savior afresh crucified, and the sweet Comforter, the Spirit, grieved and vexed.
Again, repentance does include, not only a loathing of sin—but also a loathing of ourselves for sin. As a man does not only loathe poison—but he loathes the very dish or vessel that has the smell of the poison; so a true penitent does not only loathe his sin—but he loathes himself, the vessel that smells of it; so Ezek. 20:43: ‘And there shall you remember your ways and all your doings, wherein you have been defiled; and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that you have committed.’ True repentance will work your hearts, not only to loathe your sins—but to loathe yourselves.
True repentance is a sorrowing for sin, as it is an offence to God and against God. Repentance both comes from God, and drives a man to God, as it did the church in the Canticles, and the prodigal.
Again, true repentance does not only work a man to loathe himself for his sins—but it makes him ashamed of his sin also: ‘What fruit had you in those things whereof you are now ashamed?’ says the apostle (Rom. 6:21). So Ezekiel: ‘And you shall be confounded, and never open your mouth any more, because of your shame, when I am pacified toward you for all that you have done, says the Lord God’ (16:63). When a penitent soul sees his sins pardoned, the anger of God pacified, the divine justice satisfied, then he sits down and blushes, as one ashamed. ‘So much the more God has been displeased with the blackness of sin, the more will he be pleased with the blushing of the sinner’ (Bernard). Those who do not burn now in zeal against sin must before long burn in hell for sin.
Yes, true repentance makes a man to deny his sinful self, and to walk contrary to sinful self, to take a holy revenge upon sin, as you may see in Paul, the jailor, Mary Magdalene, and Manasseh. This the apostle shows in 2 Cor. 7:10, 11: ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.’
Now souls, sum up all these things together, and tell me whether it would be such an easy thing to repent as Satan would make the soul to believe, and I am confident your heart will answer that it is as hard a thing to repent as it is to make a world, or raise the dead!
I shall conclude this second remedy with a worthy saying of a precious holy man: ‘Repentance,’ says he, ‘strips us stark naked of all the garments of the old Adam, and leaves not so much as a shirt behind.’ In this rotten building it leaves not a stone upon a stone. As the flood drowned Noah’s own friends and servants, so must the flood of repenting tears drown our sweetest and most darling sins.
Remedy (3). The third remedy against this device of Satan is seriously to consider, That repentance is a continued act. The word repent implies the continuation of it. Anselm confesses, that all his life was either damnable for sin committed, or unprofitable for good omitted; and at last concludes, “Oh, what then remains, but in our whole life—but to lament the sins of our whole life.” True repentance inclines a man’s heart to perform God’s statutes always, even unto the end. A true penitent must go on from faith to faith, from strength to strength; he must never stand still nor turn back. Repentance is a grace, and must have its daily operation as well as other graces. True repentance is a continued spring, where the waters of godly sorrow are always flowing: ‘My sin is ever before me’ (Psalm 51:3). A true penitent is often casting his eyes back to the days of his former vanity, and this makes him morning and evening to ‘water his couch with his tears.’ ‘Remember not against me the sins of my youth,’ says one blessed penitent; and ‘I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,’ says another penitent.
Repentance is a continued act of turning, a repentance never to be repented of, a turning never to turn again to folly. A true penitent has ever something within him to turn from; he can never get near enough to God; no, not so near him as once he was; and therefore he is still turning and turning that he may get nearer and nearer to him, who is his chief good and his only happiness, optimum maximum, the best and the greatest. They are every day a-crying out, ‘O wretched men that we are, who shall deliver us from this body of death!’ (Rom. 7:24). They are still sensible of sin, and still conflicting with sin, and still sorrowing for sin, and still loathing of themselves for sin. Repentance is no transient act—but a continued act of the soul.
And tell me, O tempted soul, whether it be such an easy thing as Satan would make you believe, to be every day a-turning more and more from sin, and a-turning nearer and nearer to God, your choicest blessedness. A true penitent can as easily content himself with one act of faith, or one act of love, as he can content himself with one act of repentance.
A Jewish Rabbi, pressing the practice of repentance upon his disciples, and exhorting them to be sure to repent the day before they died, one of them replied, that the day of any man’s death was very uncertain. ‘Repent, therefore, every day,’ said the Rabbi, ‘and then you shall be sure to repent the day before you die.’ You are wise, and know how to apply it to your own advantage.
Remedy (4). The fourth remedy against this device of Satan is solemnly to consider, That if the work of repentance were such an easy work as Satan would make it to be, then certainly so many would not lie roaring and crying out of wrath and eternal ruin under the horrors and terrors of conscience, for not repenting! Yes, doubtless, so many millions would not go to hell for not repenting, if it were such an easy thing to repent. Ah, do not poor souls under horror of conscience cry out and say, Were all this world a lump of gold, and in our hand to dispose of—we would give it for the least particle of true repentance! And will you say it is an easy thing to repent?
When a poor sinner, whose conscience is awakened, shall judge the exchange of all the world for the least particle of repentance to be the happiest exchange that ever a sinner made; tell me, O soul, is it good going to hell? Is it good dwelling with the devouring fire, with everlasting burnings? Is it good to be forever separated from the blessed and glorious presence of God, and saints, and to be forever shut out from those good things of eternal life, which are so many, that they exceed number; so great, that they exceed measure; so precious, that they exceed all estimation? We know it is the greatest misery that can befall the sons of men; and would they not prevent this by repentance, if it were such an easy thing to repent as Satan would have it?
Well, then, do not run the hazard of losing God, Christ, heaven, and your soul forever, by hearkening to this device of Satan—that is, that it is an easy thing to repent. If it be so easy, why, then, do wicked men’s hearts so rise against those who press the doctrine of repentance upon them in the sweetest way, and by the strongest and the choicest arguments that the Scriptures afford? And why do they kill two at once: the faithful laborer’s name and their own souls, by their wicked words and actings, because they are put upon repenting, which Satan tells them is so easy a thing? Surely, were repentance so easy, wicked men would not be so much enraged when that doctrine is, by evangelical considerations, pressed upon them.
“If you be backward in the thoughts of repentance, be forward in the thoughts of hell, the flames whereof only the streams of the penitent eye can extinguish” (Tertullian). “Oh, how shall you tear and rend yourself! how shall you lament fruitless repenting! What will you say? Woe is me, that I have not cast off the burden of sin; woe is me, that I have not washed away my spots—but am now pierced with my iniquities; now have I lost the surpassing joy of angels!” (Basil).
Remedy (5). The fifth remedy against this device of Satan is seriously to consider, That to repent of sin is as great a work of grace, as not to sin. (Yet it is better to be kept from sin than cured of sin by repentance; as it is better for a man to be preserved from a disease than to be cured of the disease.) By our sinful falls—the powers of the soul are weakened; the strength of grace is decayed; our evidences for heaven are blotted; fears and doubts in the soul are raised (will God once more pardon this scarlet sin, and show mercy to this wretched soul?); the corruptions in the heart are more advantaged and confirmed; and the conscience of a man after falls is the more enraged or the more benumbed. Now for a soul, notwithstanding all this, to repent of his falls—this shows that it is as great a work of grace to repent of sin as it is not to sin.
Repentance is the vomit of the soul; and of all purgatives, none so difficult and hard as it is to vomit. The same means that tends to preserve the soul from sin, the same means works the soul to rise by repentance when it is fallen into sin. We know the mercy and loving-kindness of God is one special means to keep the soul from sin; as David spoke, ‘I am constantly aware of your unfailing love, and I have lived according to your truth. I do not spend time with liars or go along with hypocrites. I hate the gatherings of those who do evil, and I refuse to join in with the wicked.’ (Psalm 26:3-5). So by the same means the soul is raised by repentance out of sin, as you may see in Mary Magdalene, who loved much, and wept much, because much was forgiven her (Luke 7:37-39). So those in Hosea: ‘Come, let us return to the LORD! He has torn us in pieces; now he will heal us. He has injured us; now he will bandage our wounds. In just a short time, he will restore us so we can live in his presence.’ (Hos. 6:1, 2); as the Hebrew has it, ‘in his favor’. Confidence in God’s mercy and love, that he would heal them, and bind up their wounds, and revive their dejected spirits, and cause them to live in his favor, was that which worked their hearts to repent and return unto him.
I might further show you this truth in many other particulars—but this may suffice: only remember this in the general, that there is as much of the power of God, and love of God, and faith in God, and fear of God, and care to please God, zeal for the glory of God (2 Cor. 7:11) requisite to work a man to repent of sin, as there is to keep a man from sin; by which you may easily judge, that to repent of sin is as great a work as not to sin. And now tell me, O soul, is it an easy thing not to sin? We know then certainly it is not an easy thing to repent of sin.
Remedy (6). The sixth remedy against this device of Satan is, seriously to consider, That he who now tempts you to sin upon this account, that repentance is easy, will, before long, to work you to despair, and forever to break the neck of your soul, present repentance as the most difficult and hardest work in the world; and to this purpose he will set your sins in order before you, and make them to say, ‘We are yours, and we must follow you.’ Bede tells of a certain great man that was admonished in his sickness to repent, who answered that he would not repent yet; for if he should recover, his companions would laugh at him; but growing more and more sick, his friends pressed him again to repent—but then he told them it was too late, for now, said he; I am judged and condemned.
Now, Satan will help to work the soul to look up, and see God angry; and to look inward, and to see conscience accusing and condemning; and to look downwards, and see hell’s mouth open to receive the impenitent soul: and all this to render the work of repentance impossible to the soul. What, says Satan, do you think that that is easy which the whole power of grace cannot conquer while we are in this world? Is it easy, says Satan, to turn from some outward act of sin to which you have been addicted? Do you not remember that you have often complained against such and such particular sins, and resolved to leave them? And yet, to this hour, you have not, you cannot! What will it then be to turn from every sin? Yes, to mortify and cut off those sins, those darling lusts, which are as joints and limbs, which are as right hands and right eyes? Have you not loved your sins above your Savior? Have you not preferred earth before heaven? Have you not all along neglected the means of grace? and despised the offers of grace? and vexed the Spirit of grace? There would be no end, if I would set before you the infinite evils that you have committed, and the innumerable good services that you have omitted, and the frequent checks of your own conscience that you have condemned; and therefore you may well conclude that you can never repent, that you shall never repent.
Now, says Satan, do but a little consider your numberless sins, and the greatness of your sins, the foulness of your sins, the heinousness of your sins, the circumstances of your sins—and you shall easily see that those sins that you thought to be but motes, are indeed mountains; and is it not now in vain to repent of them? Surely, says Satan, if you should seek repentance and grace with tears, as Esau, you shall not find it! Your sand has run through the hour-glass, your sun has set, the door of mercy is shut, the golden scepter is withdrawn; and now you that have despised mercy, shall be forever destroyed by justice. For such a wretch as you are to attempt repentance is to attempt a thing impossible. It is impossible that you, that in all your life could never conquer one sin, should master such a numberless number of sins; which are so near, so dear, so necessary, and so profitable to you, that have so long bedded and boarded with you, that have been old acquaintance and companions with you. Have you not often purposed, promised, vowed, and resolved to enter upon the practice of repentance—but to this day could never attain it? Surely it is in vain to strive against the stream, where it is so impossible to overcome; you are lost and cast off forever; to hell you must go, to hell you shall go! Ah, souls! he who now tempts you to sin, by suggesting to you the easiness of repentance, will at last work you to despair, and present repentance as the hardest work in all the world, and a work as far above man as heaven is above hell, as light is above darkness. Oh that you were wise, to break off your sins by timely repentance. Repentance is a work that must be timely done, or utterly undone forever.
Robert Traill (The Throne of Grace), Works, 1:31:
When you come to the throne of grace, come to receive out of Christ’s fulness, and come not to bring grace with you to add to Christ’s store. He loves to give, and glories in giving; but he scorns to receive grace from you; and in truth you have none but what he gives. Bring your wants to him to supply, but bring not your fulness to brag of. Spread your sins before this throne with shame and sorrow, and plead for a gracious pardon; but take heed you bring not your sorrow, tears, and repentance, nay, nor your faith itself, as a plea for that pardon. How abominable is it to Christians’ ears, and how much more unto Christ’s, to hear a man plead thus for pardon: “Here is my repentance; where is thy pardon? Here is my faith; where is thy justification?” I know men abhor to say so. But take good heed, lest any thought bordering on it enter into thy heart. Faith is the tongue that begs pardon; faith is the hand that receives it, it is the eye that seeth it; but it is no price to buy it.
The manner in which faith and repentance are coupled together in Scripture plainly shows that as faith is implicitly present in repentance, so repentance is implicitly in faith.
— R. L. Dabney
“God will not wink at sin or gloss over evil doing. Whether He be dealing in judgment with an individual or with a nation, that which has displeased Him must be rectified before there can be a return of His favour. It is useless to pray for His blessing while we refuse to put away that which has called down His curse. It is vain to talk about exercising faith in God’s promises until we have exercised repentance for our sins. Our idols must be destroyed before He will accept our worship.”
~ Arthur Pink, “The Life of Elijah”