RPM, Volume 13, Number 8, February 20 to February 26, 2011

The Doctrine of Repentance

By Thomas Watson

Reasons which enforce repentance

1. God's sovereign command.

"He commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Repentance is not optional. It is not left to our choice, whether or not we will repent—but it is an indispensable command. God has enacted a law in the High Court of heaven—that no sinner shall be saved, except the repenting sinner—and he will not break his own law. Though all the angels should stand before God and beg for the salvation of an unrepenting person—God would not grant it. "The Lord God, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished" (Ex 34:6-37). Though God is more full of mercy than the sun is of light—yet he will not forgive a sinner while he goes on in his guilt! "He will not leave the guilty unpunished!"

2. The pure nature of God denies communion with an impenitent creature

Until the sinner repents, God and he cannot be friends: "Wash yourselves and be clean! Let me no longer see your evil deeds. Give up your wicked ways." (Isa 1:16). "Go, steep yourselves in the brinish waters of repentance! Then," says God, "I will parley with you!" "Come now, and let us reason together" (Isa 1:18). But otherwise, do not come near me! "What communion has light with darkness?" (2 Cor 6:14). How can the righteous God befriend him who goes on still in his trespasses? "I will not justify the wicked" (Ex 23:7). If God should be at peace with a sinner before he repents—God would seem to accept and approve all that evil he has done. He would go against his own holiness. It is inconsistent with the sanctity of God's nature, to pardon a sinner while he is in the act of rebellion.

3. Sinners continuing in impenitence are out of Christ's commission

See his commission: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted" (Isa 61:1). Christ is a Prince and Savior—but not to save men in an capricious way, whether or not they repent. If ever Christ brings men to heaven, it shall be through the gate of repentance. "Him has God exalted to be a Prince and a Savior—to give repentance" (Acts 5:31). A king pardons rebels if they repent and yield themselves to the mercy of their prince—but not if they persist in open defiance.

4. We have by sin wronged God

There is a great deal of equity in it that we should repent. We have by sin wronged God. We have eclipsed his honor. We have infringed his law, and we should, reasonably, make him some reparation. By repentance we humble and judge ourselves for sin. We set to our seal that God is righteous if he should destroy us, and thus we give glory to God and do what lies in us to repair his honor.

5. If God should save men without repentance,

making no discrimination, then by this rule he must save all, not only all men—but all devils. And so consequently the decrees of election and reprobation must fall to the ground. How diametrically opposed this is to sacred writ—let all judge. There are two kinds of people who will find it harder to repent than others:

(1) Those who have sat a great while under the ministry of God's ordinances—but grow no better. The ground soaks up the rain that falls on it—yet "bears thistles and thorns, it is useless. The farmer will condemn that field and burn it." (Heb 6:8). There is little hope of the metal which has lain long in the fire—but is not melted and refined. When God has sent his ministers one after another, exhorting and persuading men to leave their sins—but they settle upon the lees of external formality and can sit and sleep under a sermon—it will be hard for these ever to be brought to repentance. They may fear lest Christ should say to them as once he said to the fig-tree, "May you never bear fruit again!" (Matt 21:19). (2) Those who have sinned frequently against the convictions of the Word, the checks of conscience, and the motions of the Spirit. Conscience has stood as the angel, with a flaming sword in its hand. It has said, "Do not this great evil!" But sinners regard not the voice of conscience—but march on resolvedly under the devil's colors. These will not find it easy to repent: "They are those who rebel against the light" (Job 24:13). It is one thing to sin for lack of light—and another thing to sin against light. Men begin by sinning against the light of conscience, and proceed gradually to despising the Spirit of grace. This serves sharply to reprove all unrepenting sinners whose hearts seem to be hewn out of a rock, and are like the stony ground which lacked moisture. This disease, I fear, is epidemic: "Is anyone sorry for sin? Does anyone say, 'What a terrible thing I have done?' No! All are running down the path of sin as swiftly as a horse rushing into battle!" (Jer 8:6). Men's hearts are marbled into hardness: "They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the law or the messages that the Lord Almighty had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. That is why the Lord Almighty was so angry with them." (Zech 7:12). They are not at all dissolved into a penitential frame.

It is fabled that witches never weep. I am sure of this—that those who have no grief for sin are spiritually bewitched by Satan! We read that Christ "denounced the cities where he had done most of his miracles, because they hadn't turned from their sins and turned to God" (Matt 11:20). And may he not denounce many now for their impenitence? Though God's heart is broken with their sins—yet their hearts are not broken. They say, as Israel did, "I love foreign gods, and I must go after them!" (Jer 2:25).

The justice of God, like the angel, stands with a drawn sword in its hand, ready to strike—but sinners have not eyes as good as those of Balaam's donkey to see the sword! God smites on men's backs—but they do not, as Ephraim did, smite upon their thigh (Jer 31:19). It was a sad complaint the prophet took up: "you have stricken them—but they have not grieved" (Jer 5:3). That is surely reprobate silver which becomes harder in the furnace. "When trouble came to King Ahaz, he became even more unfaithful to the Lord" (2 Chron 28:22).

A hard heart is a dwelling for Satan. As God has two places he dwells in—heaven and a humble heart; so the devil has two places he dwells in—hell and a hard heart. It is not falling into water which drowns—but lying in it. It is not falling into sin which damns—but lying in it without repentance: "having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim 4:2). Hardness of heart results at last in the conscience being seared. Men have silenced their consciences, and God has seared them. And now he lets them sin and does not punish them, "Why should you be beaten any more?" (Isa 1:5) —as a father stops correcting a child whom he intends to disinherit.

A Serious Exhortation to Repentance

Let me in the next place persuade you to this great duty of repentance. Sorrow is not good for anything—except for sin. If you shed tears for outward losses, it will not advantage you. Water for the garden, if poured in the sink—does no good. Medicine for the eye, if applied to the arm, is of no benefit. Sorrow is medicinal for the sinful soul—but if you apply it to worldly things it does no good. Oh that our tears may run in the right channel—and our hearts burst with sorrow for sin! That I may the more successfully press this exhortation, I shall show you that repentance is necessary, and that it is necessary for all people and for all sins.

1. Repentance is necessary

Repentance is necessary: "except you repent—you shall all likewise perish!" (Luke 13:5). There is no rowing to paradise—except upon the stream of repenting tears. Repentance is required as a qualification. It is not so much to endear us to Christ—as to endear Christ to us. Until sin be bitter—Christ will not be sweet.

2. Repentance is necessary for all people

Thus God commands all men: "now God commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30).

(1) Repentance is necessary for GREAT people: "Say unto the king and to the queen, Humble yourselves" (Jer. 13:18). The king of Nineveh and his nobles changed their robes for sackcloth ( Jon. 3:6). Great men's sins do more hurt than the sins of others. The sins of leaders are leading sins, therefore they of all others have need to repent. If such as hold the scepter repent not, God has appointed a day to judge them—and a fire to burn them! (Isaiah 30:33).

(2) Repentance is necessary for the FLAGITIOUS sinners in the nation. England needs to put itself in mourning and be humbled by solemn repentance. What horrible impieties are chargeable upon the nation! We see people daily listing themselves under Satan. Not only the banks of religion—but those of civility, are broken down. Men seem to contend, as the Jews of old, who should be most wicked. "It is the filth and corruption of your lewdness and idolatry. And now, because I tried to cleanse you but you refused, you will remain filthy until my fury against you has been satisfied" (Ezek. 24:13). If oaths and drunkenness, if perjury and luxury will make a people guilty, then it is to be feared that England is in God's black book. Men have cancelled their vow in baptism and made a private contract with the devil! Instead of crying to mercy to save them, they cry, "God damn us!" Never was there such riding posthaste to hell—as if men despaired of getting there in time. They have boasted how many they have debauched and made drunk. Thus "they declare their sin as Sodom" (Isaiah 3:9). Indeed, men's sins are grown daring, as if they would hang out their flag of defiance against God—like the Thracians who, when it thunders, gather together in a body and shoot their arrows against heaven. "For they have clenched their fists against God, defying the Almighty. Holding their strong shields, they defiantly charge against him." (Job 15:25-26). They are desperate in sin—and run furiously against God.

Oh to what a height is sin boiled up! Men count it a shame not to be impudent. May it not be said of us, as Josephus speaks of the Jews. Such was the excessive wickedness of those times, that if the Romans had not come and sacked their city, Jerusalem would have been swallowed up with some earthquake, or drowned with a flood, or consumed with fire from heaven. And is it not high time then for England to enter into a course of remedy, and take this pill of repentance, which has so many vile sins spreading in her? England is an island encompassed by two oceans, an ocean of water—and an ocean of wickedness. O that it might be encompassed with a third ocean—that of repenting tears!

If the book of the law chances to fall upon the ground, the Jews have a custom presently to proclaim a fast. England has let both law and gospel fall to the ground, therefore needs to fast and mourn before the Lord. The ephah of wickedness seems to be full. There is good reason for tears to fall apace, when sin fills so fast! Why then, are the wells of repentance stopped up? Do not the sinners of the land know that they should repent? Have they no warning? Have not God's faithful messengers lifted up their voice as a trumpet—and cried to them to repent? But many of these tools in the ministry have been spent and worn out upon rocky hearts. Has not God blessed us with many preachers to call men to repentance—but still they are settled on their lees (Zeph. 1:12)? Do we think that God will always put up with our affronts? Will he endure thus to have his name and glory trampled upon? The Lord has usually been more swift in the process of his justice, against the sins of a professing people. I say therefore with Bradford, "Repent, O England!" You have belepered yourself with sin, and must needs go and wash in the spiritual Jordan. You have kindled God's anger against you. Throw away your weapons, and bring your holy tears of repentance, that God may be appeased in the blood of Christ. Let your tears run—or God's scroll of curses will fly (Zech. 5:2). Either men must turn—or God will overturn. Either the fallow ground of their hearts must be broken up—or the land broken down. If no words will prevail with sinners, it is because God has a purpose to slay them (1 Sam. 2:25). Those who, by their prodigious sins have so far incensed the God of heaven that he denies them the tears of repentance, may look upon themselves as condemned people.

(3) Repentance is necessary for the CHEATING crew. "They are wise to do evil" ( Jer. 4:22), making use of their invention only for circumvention. Instead of living by their faith, they live by their shifts. These are those who make themselves poor so that by this artifice they may grow rich. I would not be misunderstood. I do not mean such as the providence of God has brought low, whose estates have failed, but not their honesty—but rather such as feign a break, that they may cheat their creditors. There are some who get more by breaking than others can by trading. These are like beggars that discolor and blister their arms—that they may move others to charity. As they live by their sores, so these live by their breaking. When the frost breaks, the streets are more full of water. Likewise, many tradesmen, when they break, are fuller of money. These make as if they had nothing—but out of this nothing great estates are created. Remember, the kingdom of heaven is taken by force, not by fraud.

Let men know that after this golden sop, the devil enters. They squeeze a curse into their estates. They must repent quickly. Though the bread of falsehood is sweet (Proverbs 20:17)—yet many vomit up their sweet morsels in hell!

(4) Repentance is necessary for MORAL people. These have no visible spots on them. They are free from gross sin, and one would think they had nothing to do with the business of repentance. They are so good, that they scorn God's offer of mercy. Indeed these are often in the worst condition: these are they who think they need no repentance (Luke 15:7). Their morality undoes them. They make a "savior" of it, and so on this rock they suffer shipwreck. Morality shoots short of heaven. It is only nature refined. A moral man is but old Adam dressed in fine clothes. The king's image counterfeited and stamped upon brass will not go current. The moral person seems to have the image of God—but he is only brass metal, which will never pass for current. Morality is insufficient for salvation. Though the life is moralized, the lust may be unmortified. The heart may be full of pride and atheism. Under the fair leaves of a tree, there may be a worm.

I am not saying, repent that you are moral—but that you are no more than moral. Satan entered into the house that had just been swept and garnished (Luke 11:26). This is the emblem of a moral man, who is swept by civility and garnished with common gifts—but is not washed by true repentance. The unclean spirit enters into such a one. If morality were sufficient to salvation, Christ need not have died. The moral man has a fair lamp—but it lacks the oil of grace.

(5) Repentance is needful for HYPOCRITES. I mean such as allow themselves in the sin. Hypocrisy is the counterfeiting of sanctity. The hypocrite or stage-player has gone a step beyond the moralist, and dressed himself in the garb of religion. He pretends to a form of godliness, but denies the power (2 Tim. 3:5). The hypocrite is a saint in disquise. He makes a magnificent show, like an ape clothed in fine purple. The hypocrite is like a house with a beautiful facade—but every room within is dark. He is a rotten post, which is beautifully pointed over. Under his mask of profession, he hides his plague-sores.

The hypocrite is against painting of faces—but he has but painted holiness. He is seemingly good—so that he may be really bad. In Samuel's mantle, he plays the devil. Therefore the same word in the original signifies to use hypocrisy—and to be profane. The hypocrite appears to have his eyes lifted to heaven—but his heart is full of impure lustings. He lives in secret sin against his conscience. He can be as his company is, and act both the dove and the vulture. He hears the word—but is all ear. He is for temple-devotion, where others may look upon him and admire him—but he neglects family and closet prayer. Indeed, if prayer does not make a man leave sin—sin will make him leave prayer. The hypocrite feigns humility—but it is that he may rise in the world. He is a pretender to faith—but he makes use of it rather for a cloak than a shield. He carries his Bible under his arm—but not in his heart! His whole religion is a sly lie (Hos 11:12).

But is there such a generation of men to be found? The Lord forgive them their painted holiness! Hypocrites are "in the gall of bitterness" (Acts 8:23). O how they need to humble themselves in the dust! They are far gone with their disease, and if anything can cure them, it must be feeding upon the salt marshes of repentance. Let me speak my mind freely. None will find it more difficult to repent—than hypocrites. They have so juggled in religion, that their treacherous hearts know not how to repent. Hypocrisy is harder to cure than insanity. The hypocrite's abscess in his heart, seldom breaks.

Such as are guilty of prevailing hypocrisy, let them fear and tremble. Their condition is sinful and sad. It is sinful because they do not embrace religion out of choice but design; they do not love it, only pretend it. It is sad upon a double account.

Firstly, because this art of deceit cannot hold long; he who hangs out a sign of holiness—but has not the commodity of grace in his heart—must needs break at last!

Secondly, because God's anger will fall heavier upon hypocrites. They dishonor God more and take away the gospel's good name. Therefore the Lord reserves the most deadly arrows in his quiver to shoot at them. If heathen are damned, hypocrites shall be double-damned. Hell is called the place of hypocrites (Matt. 24:51), as if it were chiefly prepared for them.

(6) Repentance is necessary for God's own people, who have a real work of grace. They must offer up a daily sacrifice of tears. The Antinomians hold that when any come to be believers, they have a writ of ease, and there remains nothing for them now to do but to rejoice. Yes, they have something else to do, and that is to repent. Repentance is a continuous act. The outlet of godly sorrow, must not be quite stopped until death. Jerome, writing in a letter to Laeta, tells her that her life must be a life of repentance. Repentance is called crucifying the flesh (Gal. 5:24), which is not done on all at once—but continuously, all our life. And are there not many reasons why God's own people should go into the weeping bath? "Are there not with you, even with you—sins against the Lord?" (2 Chron. 28:10). Have not you sins of daily living? Though you are diamonds, you still have flaws. Do we not read of the 'spot of God's children" (Deut. 32:5). Search with the candle of the Word into your hearts—and see if you can find no matter for repentance there!

(a) Repent of your rash censuring. Instead of praying for others, you are ready to pass a verdict upon them. It is true that the saints snail judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2)—but wait your time; remember the apostle's caution in 1 Corinthians 4:5: "judge nothing before the time, wait until the Lord comes".

(b) Repent of your vain thoughts. These swarm in your minds as the flies did in Pharaoh's court (Exod. 8:24). What bewilderings there are in the imagination! If Satan does not possess your bodies, he does your imaginations. "How long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you?" (Jer. 4:14). A man may think himself into hell. O you saints, be humbled for this lightness in your head.

(c) Repent of your vain fashions. It is strange that the garments which God has given to cover shame—should reveal pride! The godly are bid not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). People of the world are garish and mirthful in their dresses. It is in fashion nowadays—to go to hell. But whatever others do—yet let not Judah offend (Hos. 4:15). The apostle Paul has set down what outer garment Christians must wear: "modest apparel" (1 Tim. 2:9); and what undergarment: "be clothed with humility" (1 Pet. 5:5).

(d) Repent of your decays in grace. "You have left your first love" (Rev. 2:4). Christians, how often is it low water in your souls! How often does coldness of heart come upon you! Where are those flames of affection, those sweet meltings of spirit—which you once had? I fear they are melted away. Oh repent for leaving your first love!

(e) Repent of your non-improvement of talents. Health is a talent; estate is a talent; wit and abilities are talents; and these God has entrusted you with, to improve for his glory. He has sent you into the world as a merchant sends his steward beyond the seas to trade for his advantage—but you have not done the good you might. Can you say, "Master, your talent has earned five more talents" (Luke 19:18)? O mourn at the burial of your talents! Let it grieve you that so much of your life has not been time lived but time lost; that you have filled up your golden hours more with froth than with devotion.

(f) Repent of your forgetfulness of sacred vows. A vow is a binding one's soul to God (Num. 30:2). Christians, have you not served for common uses after you have been the Lord's by solemn dedication? Thus, by breach of vows, you have made a breach in your peace. Surely this calls for a fresh laver of tears.

(g) Repent of your unanswerableness to blessings received. You have lived all your life upon free grace. You have been bemiracled with mercy. But where are your returns of love to God? The Athenians would have ungrateful people sued at law. Christians, may not God sue you at law—for your unthankfulness? "I will recover my wool and my flax" (Hos. 2:9); I will recover them by law.

(h) Repent of your worldliness. By your profession you seem to resemble the birds of paradise—which soar aloft and live upon the dew of heaven. Yet as serpents you lick the dust! Baruch, a good man, was taxed with this: "do you seek great things for yourself?" (Jer. 45:5).

(i) Repent of your divisions. These are a blot in your coat of armor, and make others stand aloof from true religion. Indeed, to separate from the wicked, resembles Christ, who was "separate from sinners" (Heb. 63 7:26). But for the godly to divide among themselves, and look askew one upon another—had we as many eyes as there are stars, they were few enough to weep for this! Divisions eclipse the church's beauty and weaken her strength. God's Spirit brought in cloven tongues among the saints (Acts 2:3)—but the devil has brought in cloven hearts. Surely this deserves a shower of tears!

(j) Repent for the iniquity of your holy things. How often have the services of God's worship been frozen with formality and soured with pride? There have been more of the peacock's plumes—than the moans of the dove. It is sad that pious duties should be made a stage for vainglory to act upon. O Christians, there is such a thick crust upon your duties, that it is to be feared there is but little substance left in them for God to feed upon. Behold here repenting work, cut out for the best. And that which may make the tide of grief swell higher, is to think that the sins of God's people do more provoke God, than do the sins of others (Deut. 32:19). The sins of the wicked pierce Christ's side. The sins of the godly go to his heart! Peter's sin, being against so much love, was most unkind, which made his cheeks to be furrowed with tears: "When he thought about it, he began to weep" (Mark 14:72).

3. Repentance is necessary for ALL sins.

Let us be deeply humbled and mourn before the Lord for original sin. We have lost that pure frame of soul that once we had. Our nature is vitiated with corruption. Original sin has diffused itself as a poison into the whole man, like the Jerusalem artichoke which, wherever it is planted, soon overruns the ground. There are not worse natures in hell, than we have! The hearts of the best are like Peter's sheet, in which there were a number of unclean creeping things (Acts 10:12). This primitive corruption is bitterly to be bewailed because we are never free from it. It is like a spring underground, which though it is not seen—yet it still runs. We may as well stop the beating of the pulse—as stop the motions to sin! This inbred depravity retards and hinders us in that which is spiritual: "I do not do the good that I want to do" (Romans 7:19).

Original sin may be compared to that fish Pliny speaks of, which cleaves to the keel of the ship and hinders it when it is under sail. Sin hangs weights upon us—so that we move but slowly to heaven. O this adherence of sin! Paul shook the viper which was on his hand into the fire (Acts 28:5)—but we cannot shake off original corruption in this life. Sin does not come as a lodger for a night—but as an indweller: "sin which dwells in me" (Romans 7:17). It is with us as with one who has a cancer in him; though he changes the air—yet still he carries his disease with him. Original sin is inexhaustible. This ocean cannot be emptied. Though we sin much—yet the stock of sin is not at all diminished. The more we sin—the fuller we are of sin. Original corruption is like the widow's oil—which increased by pouring out.

Another wedge to break our hearts, is that original sin mixes with the very habits of grace. Hence it is that our actings towards heaven are so dull and languid. Why does faith act no stronger—but because it is clogged by sin? Why does love to God burn no purer—but because it is hindered with lust? Original sin mixes with our graces. As bad lungs cause shortness of breath—so original sin having infected our heart, our graces breathe now very faintly. Thus we see much in original sin, which may draw forth our tears.

In particular, let us lament the corruption of our will and our affections. Let us mourn for the corruption of our will. The will, not following the dictates of right reason, is biased to evil. The will has a distaste for God, not as he is good—but as he is holy. It contumaciously affronts him: "We will do whatever we want. We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and sacrifice to her just as much as we like!" (Jer. 44:17). The greatest wound has fallen upon our will.

Let us grieve for the corruption of our affections. They are taken off from their proper object. The affections, like faulty arrows, shoot beside the mark. At the beginning, our affections were wings to fly to God; now they are weights to pull us away from him. Let us grieve for the sinful inclination of our affections. Our love is set on sin—our joy on the creature. Our affections, like the lapwing, feed on dung. How justly may the corruption of our affections bear a part in the scene of our grief? We of ourselves are falling into hell, and our affections would thrust us there.

Let us lay to heart actual sins. Of these I may say, "Who can understand his errors?" (Psalm 19:12). They are like sparks of a furnace. We have sinned in our eyes; they have been conduits to let in vanity. We have sinned in our tongues; they have been fired with passion. What action proceeds from us—wherein we do not betray some sin? To compute all these, would outnumber the drops in the ocean. Let actual sins be solemnly repented of, before the Lord.

Powerful Motives to Repentance

That the exhortation to repentance may be more quickened, I shall lay down some powerful motives to excite repentance.

1. Sorrow and melting of heart fits us for every holy duty.

A piece of lead, while it is in the lump, can be put to no use—but melt it, and you may then cast it into any mold, and it is made useful. So a heart that is hardened into a lump of sin is good for nothing—but when it is dissolved by repentance, it is useful. A melting heart is fit to pray. When Paul's heart was humbled and melted, then "behold, he prays" (Acts 9:11). It is fit to hear the Word. Now the Word works kindly. When Josiah's heart was tender, he humbled himself and rent his clothes at the hearing of the words of the law (2 Chron. 34:19). His heart, like melting wax, was ready to take any seal of the Word. A melting heart is fit to obey. When the heart is like metal in the furnace, it is facile and malleable to anything: "Lord, what will you have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). A repenting soul subscribes to God's will and answers to his call—as the echo answers to the voice.

2. Repentance is highly acceptable to God.

When a spiritual river runs to water this garden, then our hearts are a garden of Eden, delightful to God. I have read that doves delight to be about the waters. And surely God's Spirit, who descended in the likeness of a dove, takes great delight in the waters of repentance. The Lord esteems no heart sound, but the broken heart: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit" (Psalm 51:17). Mary stood at Jesus' feet weeping (Luke 7:38). She brought two things to Christ, ointment and tears. Her tears were better than her ointment. Tears are powerful orators for mercy. They are silent—yet they have a voice: "the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping" (Psalm 6:8).

3. Repentance commends all our services to God.

That which is seasoned with the bitter herbs of godly sorrow, is God's savory meat. Hearing of the Word is then good, when we are pricked at the heart (Acts 2:37). Prayer is delightful to God when it ascends from the altar of a broken heart. The publican smote upon his breast saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner". This prayer pierced heaven: "he went away justified rather than the other" (Luke 18:14). No prayer touches God's ear—but what comes from a heart touched with the sense of sin.

4. Without repentance nothing will avail us.

Some bless themselves that they have a stock of knowledge—but what is knowledge good for, without repentance? It is better to mortify one sin, than to understand all mysteries. Impure notionalists do but resemble Satan transformed into an angel of light. Learning and a bad heart—is like a fair face with a cancer in the breast. Knowledge without repentance, will be but a torch to light men to hell.

5. Repenting tears are delicious.

They may be compared to myrrh, which though it is bitter in taste, has a sweet smell and refreshes the spirits. So repentance, though it is bitter in itself—yet it is sweet in the effects. It brings inward peace. The soul is never more enlarged and inwardly delighted—than when it can kindly melt. How oft do the saints fall aweeping for joy! The Hebrew word for "repent" signifies "to take comfort". None so joyful as the penitent!

They say that tears have four qualities: they are hot, moist, salty, and bitter. It is true of repenting tears. They are hot, to warm a frozen conscience; moist, to soften a hard heart; salty, to season a soul putrefying in sin; bitter, to wean us from the love of the world. And I will add a fifth. They are sweet, in that they make the heart inwardly rejoice "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy!" (John 16:20). "Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing." (2 Corinthians 6:10)

"Let a man," said Augustine, "grieve for his sin and rejoice for his grief." Tears are the best sweetmeats. David, who was the great weeper in Israel, was the sweet singer of Israel. The sorrows of the penitent are like the sorrows of a woman giving birth: "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world" (John 16:21). So the sorrows of humbled sinners bring forth grace, and what joy there is when this child is born!

6. Great sins repented of, shall find mercy.

Mary Magdalene, a great sinner, obtained pardon when she washed Christ's feet with her tears. For some of the Jews who had a hand in crucifying Christ, upon their repentance, the very blood they shed was a sovereign balm to heal them! "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:18). Scarlet in the Greek is called "dibasson", because it is "twice dipped", and the arts of man cannot wash out the dye again. But though our sins are of a scarlet color, God's mercy can wash them away. This may comfort those whom the heinousness of their sin discourages, as if there were no hope for them. Yes, upon their serious turning to God, their sins shall be expunged and done away with!

"Oh—but my sins are sinful beyond measure!" Do not make them greater, by not repenting. Repentance unravels sin and makes it as if it had never been. "Oh—but I have relapsed into sin after pardon, and surely there is no mercy for me!" The children of God have relapsed into the same sin: Abraham did twice equivocate; Lot committed incest twice; Asa, a good king—yet sinned twice by creature-confidence, and Peter twice by carnal fear (Matt. 26:70; Gal. 2:12). But for the comfort of such as have relapsed into sin more than once, if they solemnly repent, a white flag of mercy shall be held forth to them.

Christ commands us to forgive our trespassing brother seventy times seven in one day, if he repents (Matt. 18:22). If the Lord bids us do it, will not he be much more ready to forgive upon our repentance? What is our forgiving mercy, compared to his? This I speak not to encourage any impenitent sinner—but to comfort a despondent sinner that thinks it is in vain for him to repent and that he is excluded from mercy.

7. Repentance is the inlet to spiritual blessings.

It helps to enrich us with grace. It causes the desert to blossom as the rose. It makes the soul as the Egyptian fields after the overflowing of the Nile, flourishing and fruitful. Never do the flowers of grace grow more, than after a shower of repentant tears! Repentance causes knowledge: "When their heart shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away" (2 Cor. 3:16). The veil of ignorance which was drawn over the Jews" eyes shall by repentance be taken away. Repentance inflames love. Weeping Mary Magdalene loved much (Luke 7:47). God preserves these springs of sorrow in the soul—to water the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

8. Repentance ushers in temporal blessings.

The prophet Joel, persuading the people to repentance, brings in the promise of secular good things: "rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord . . . the Lord will answer and say to his people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil" (Joel 2:13,19). When we put water into the pump, it fetches up only water—but when we put the water of tears into God's bottle, this fetches up wine: "I will send you wine, and oil". Sin blasts the fruits of the earth: "You have sown much, and bring in little" (Hag. 1:6). But repentance makes the pomegranate bud and the vine flourish with full clusters. Fill God's bottle—and he will fill your basket! "If you return to the Almighty, you shall lay up gold as dust" (Job 22:2324). Repenting is a returning to God, and this brings a golden harvest.

9. Repentance staves off judgments from a land.

When God is going to destroy a nation, the penitent sinner stays his hand, as the angel did Abraham's (Gen. 22:12). The Ninevites repentance caused God to repent: "God saw that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not" (Jonah 3:10). An outward repentance has adjourned and kept off wrath. Ahab sold himself to work wickedness; yet upon his fasting and rending his garments, God said to Elijah, "I will not bring the evil in his days" (1 Kings 21:29). If the rending of the clothes kept off judgment from the nation, what will the rending of the heart do!

10. Repentance makes joy in heaven.

The angels do, as it were, keep festive day: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents" (Luke 15:10). As praise is the music of heaven, so repentance is the joy of heaven. When men neglect the offer of salvation and freeze in sin, this delights the devils—but when a soul is brought home to Christ by repentance, this makes joy among the angels.

11. Consider how dearly our sins cost Christ.

To consider how dearly our sins cost Christ, may cause tears to distill from our eyes. Christ is called the Rock (1 Cor. 10:4). When his hands were pierced with nails, and the spear thrust in his side, then was this Rock smitten, and there came out water and blood. And all this Christ endured for us: "the Messiah shall be cut off—but not for himself" (Dan. 9:26). We tasted the apple—and he drank the vinegar and gall. We sinned in every faculty—and he bled in every vein! Can we look upon a suffering Savior with dry eyes? Shall we not be sorry for those sins—which made Christ a man of sorrow? Shall not our enormities, which drew blood from Christ—draw tears from us? Shall we sport any more with sin and so rake in Christ's wounds? Oh that by repentance we could crucify our sins afresh! The Jews said to Pilate, "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12). Likewise, if we let our sins go and do not crucify them—we are not Christ's friends.

12. This is the end of all afflictions which God sends,

whether it is sickness in our bodies or losses in our estates—that he may awaken us out of our sins and make the waters of repentance flow. Why did God lead Israel in that march in the wilderness among fiery serpents, but that he might humble them (Deut:8:2)? Why did he bring Manasseh so low, changing his crown of gold into fetters of iron—but that he might learn repentance? "He humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God" (2 Chron. 33:12,13). One of the best ways to cure a man of his lethargy—is to cast him into a fever. Likewise when a person is stupified and his conscience grown lethargic—God, to cure him of this distemper, puts him to extremity and brings one burning calamity or another, that he may startle him out of his security and make him return to him by repentance.

13. The days of our mourning will soon be ended.

After a few showers that fall from our eyes—we shall have perpetual sunshine! Christ will provide a handkerchief to wipe off his people's tears: "God shall wipe away all tears" (Rev. 7:17). Christians, you will shortly put on your garments of praise. You will exchange your sackcloth for white robes. Instead of sighs—you will have triumphs; instead of groans—anthems; instead of the water of tears—the water of life! The mourning of the dove will be past—and the time of the singing of birds will come. This brings me to the next point.

14. The happy and glorious reward which follows upon repentance.

"But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life!" (Romans 6:22). The leaves and root of the fig-tree are bitter—but the fruit is sweet. Repentance to the fleshy part seems bitter—but behold sweet fruit—everlasting life. The Turks imagine that after this life is a paradise of pleasure, where dainty dishes will be served in, and they will have gold in abundance, silken and purple apparel, and angels will bring them red wine in silver cups, and golden plates. Here is an epicure's heaven. But in the true paradise of God there are astonishing delights and rare viands served in. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor. 2:9). God will lead his penitents from the house of mourning—to the banqueting house. There will be no sight there—but of glory; no sound there—but of music; no sickness—unless of love. There shall be unspotted holiness—and unspeakable joy. Then the saints shall forget their solitary hours and be sweetly solacing themselves in God—and bathing in the rivers of divine pleasure!

O Christian, what are your duties—compared to the recompense of reward? What an infinite disproportion is there between repentance enjoined—and glory prepared? There was a feast-day at Rome, when they used to crown their fountains. God will crown those heads which have been fountains of tears. Who would not be willing to be a while in the house of mourning—who shall be possessed of such glory as put Peter and John into an ecstasy to see it even darkly shadowed and portrayed in the transfiguration! (Matt. 17) This reward which free grace gives, is so transcendently great that could we have but a glimpse of glory revealed to us here, we would need patience to be content to live any longer. O blessed repentance, that has such a great light side—with the small dark side; and has so much sugar—at the bottom of the bitter cup!

15. The next motive to repentance is to consider the evil of impenitence.

A hard heart is the worst heart. It is called a heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26). If it were iron—it might be mollified in the furnace—but a stone put in the fire will not melt; it will sooner fly in your face. Impenitence is a sin which grieves Christ: "being grieved for the hardness of their hearts" (Mark 3:5). It is not so much the disease which offends the physician—as the contempt of his remedy. It is not so much the sins we have committed which so provoke and grieve Christ—as that we refuse the remedy of repentance which he prescribes. This aggravated Jezebel's sin: "I gave her space to repent, and she repented not" (Rev. 2:21 ).

A hard heart receives no impression. Oh the plague of an obdurate heart! Pharaoh's heart turned into stone—was worse than his waters turned into blood. David had his choice of three judgments plague, sword, and famine—but he would have chosen them all rather than a hard heart. An impenitent sinner is neither allured by entreaties nor affrighted by menaces. Such as will not weep with Peter—shall weep like Judas! A hard heart is the anvil—on which the hammer of God's justice will be striking to all eternity!

16. The last motive to repentance, is that the day of judgment is coming

This is the apostle's own argument: "God commands all men everywhere to repent; because he has appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world" (Acts 17:3031). There is that in the day of judgment, which may make a stony heart bleed. Will a man go on thieving—when the the Judge is looking upon him! Will the sinner go on sinning—when the day of judgment is so near? You can no more conceal your sin—than you can defend it. And what will you do when all your sins shall be written in God's book—and engraved on your forehead! O direful day, when Jesus Christ clothed in his judge's robe shall say to the sinner, "Stand forth; answer to the indictment brought against you. What can you say for all your oaths, adulteries, and your desperate impenitence?" O how amazed and stricken with terror will the sinner be! And after his conviction he must hear the sad sentence, "Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!" Then, he who would not repent of his sins—shall repent of his folly! If there is such a time coming, wherein God will judge men for their impieties—what a spur should this be to repentance! The penitent soul shall at the last day lift up his head with comfort and have a discharge to show—written by the Judge's own hand!

Exhortations to Speedy Repentance

The second branch of the exhortation is to press people to speedy repentance: "God now commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). The Lord would not have any of the late autumn fruits offered to him. God loves early penitents, who consecrate the spring and flower of their age to him. Early tears, like pearls bred of the morning dew, are more orient and beautiful. O do not reserve the dregs of your old age for God, lest he reserve the dregs of his cup of wrath for you! Be as speedy in your repentance as you would have God speedy in his mercies: "the King's business required haste" (1 Sam. 21:8). Therefore repentance requires haste.

It is natural to us to procrastinate and put off repentance. We say, as Haggai did, "The time is not yet come" (Hag. 1:2). No man is so bad, but he purposes and intends to repent—but he procrastinates so long, until at last all his purposes and intentions prove abortive. Many are now in hell—who purposed and intended to repent!

Satan does what he can to keep men from repentance. When he sees that they begin to take up serious thoughts of repentance, he bids them "wait a little longer." "If this traitor, sin, must die" (says Satan), "let it not die yet." So the devil gets a reprieve for sin; it shall not die at present. At last men put off repentance so long—that death seizes on them, and their work is not done! Let me therefore lay down some effective arguments to persuade to speedy repentance:

1. Now is the season of repentance—and everything is best done in its season. "Now is the accepted time" (2 Cor. 6:2); now God has a mind to show mercy to the penitent. He is on the giving hand. Kings set apart days for healing. Now is the healing day for our souls. Now God hangs forth the white flag and is willing to parley with sinners. A prince at his coronation, as an act of royalty—gives money, proclaims pardons, fills the conduits with wine. Now God promises pardons to penitent sinners. Now the conduit of the gospel runs wine. Now is the accepted time. Therefore come in now and make your peace with God. Break off your iniquities now by repentance. It is wisdom to take the season. The farmer takes the season for sowing his seed. Now is the seedtime for our souls.

2. The sooner you repent—the fewer sins you will have to answer for. At the deathbed of an old sinner, where conscience begins to be awakened, you will hear him crying out: "Here are all my old sins come about me, haunting my deathbed as so many evil spirits—and I have no forgiveness! Here is Satan, who was once my tempter, now become an accuser—and I have no advocate; I am now going to be dragged before God's judgment seat where I must receive my final doom!" O how dismal is the case of this man. He is in hell—before his time! But you who repent early of your sinful courses, this is your privilege—you will have the less to answer for. Indeed, let me tell you, you will have nothing to answer for. Christ will answer for you. Your judge will be your advocate (1 John 2:1). "Father," Christ will say, "here is one that has been a great sinner—yet a broken-hearted sinner; if he owes anything to your justice, charge it to my account!"

3. The sooner we repent, the more glory we may bring to God. It is the purpose of our living—to be useful in our generation. Better lose our lives—than the purpose of our living. Late converts who have for many years taken pay on the devil's side, are not in a capacity of doing so much work in the vineyard. The thief on the cross could not do that service for God—as Paul did. But when we turn early from sin, then we give God the first fruits of our lives. We spend and are spent for Christ. The more work we do for God—the more willing we shall be to die—and the sweeter death will be. He who has wrought hard at his labor is willing to go to rest at night. Such as have been honoring God all their lives, how sweetly will they sleep in the grave! The more work we do for God—the greater will our reward be. He whose pound had gained ten pounds, Christ did not only commend him—but advance him: "you will be governor of ten cities as your reward" (Luke 19:17). By late repentance, though we do not lose our crown—yet we make it lighter.

4. It is of dangerous consequence to put off repentance longer. It is dangerous, if we consider what sin is. Sin is a poison—it is dangerous to let poison lie long in the body. Sin is a bruise. If a bruise is not soon cured, it gangrenes and kills. Just so, if sin is not soon cured by repentance, it festers the conscience and damns! Why should any love to dwell in the tents of wickedness? They are under the power of Satan (Acts 26:18), and it is dangerous to stay long in the enemy's quarters.

It is dangerous to procrastinate repentance because the longer any go on in sin the harder they will find the work of repentance. Delay strengthens sin—and hardens the heart—and gives the devil fuller possession. A tree at first may be easily plucked up—but when it has spread its roots deep in the earth, a whole team cannot remove it. It is hard to remove sin when once it comes to be rooted. The longer the ice freezes—the harder it is to be broken. The longer a man freezes in sin—the harder it will be to have his heart broken. The longer any travail with iniquity—the sharper pangs they must expect in the new birth. When sin has long been fastened in the heart—it is not easily shaken off. Sin comes to a sinner as the elder brother came to his father: "I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders" (Luke 15:29), and will you cast me off now? What, in my old age, after you have had so much pleasure by me? See how sin pleads custom, and that is a leopard's spot (Jer. 13:23 ). It is dangerous to procrastinate and delay repentance because there are three days which may soon expire:

(1) The day of the GOSPEL may expire. This is a sunshiny day. It is sweet, but swift. Jerusalem had a day but lost it: "but now they are hidden from your eyes" (Luke 19:42). The Asian churches had a gospel day—but at last the golden candlestick was removed. It would be a sad time in England to see the glory departed. With what hearts could we follow the gospel to the grave? To lose the gospel were far worse than to have our freedom taken from us. "Gray hairs are here and there" (Hos. 7:9). I will not say the sun of the gospel has set in England—but I am sure it is under a cloud. That was a sad speech, "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you" (Matt. 21:43). Therefore it is dangerous to delay repentance, lest the market of the gospel should depart, and the vision cease.

(2) A man's personal day of GRACE may expire. What if that time should come, when God should say the means of grace shall do no good: that ordinances shall have "a miscarrying womb and dry breasts" (Hos. 9:14)? Were it not sad to adjourn repentance until such a decree came forth? It is true, no man can justly tell that his day of grace is past—but there are two helpful signs by which he may fear it:

(a) When conscience has done preaching. Conscience is a bosom-preacher. Sometimes it convinces, sometimes it reproves. It says, as Nathan to David, "You are the man!" (2 Sam. 12:7). But men imprison this preacher, and God says to conscience, "Preach no more! He who is filthy, let him be filthy still!" (Rev. 22:11). This is a fatal sign that a man's day of grace is past.

(b) When a person is in such a spiritual lethargy that nothing will work upon him or make him sensible. There is "the spirit of deep sleep poured out upon you" (Isaiah 29:10). This is a sad presage that his day of grace is past. How dangerous then is it to delay repentance when the day of grace may so soon expire!

(3) The day of LIFE may expire. What security have we—that we shall live another day? We are marching rapidly out of the world. We are going off the stage. Our life is a candle, which is soon blown out. Man's life is compared to the flower of the field, which withers sooner than the grass (Psalm 103:15). "Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro." (Psalm 39:4-6). Life is but a flying shadow. The body is like a vessel filled with a little breath. Sickness broaches this vessel; death draws it out. O how soon may the scene alter! Many a virgin has been dressed the same day in her bride-apparel, and her winding-sheet! How dangerous then is it to adjourn repenting when death may so suddenly make a thrust at us.

Say not that you will repent tomorrow. Remember that speech of Aquinas: "God who pardons him who repents—has not promised to give him tomorrow to repent in." I have read of Archias, who was feasting among his cups, when one delivered him a letter and desired him to read the letter immediately, for it was of serious business. He replied, "I will mind serious things tomorrow"; and that day he was slain. Thus while men think to spin out their silver thread, death cuts it. Olaus Magnus observes of the birds of Norway, that they fly faster than the birds of any other country. Not that their wings are swifter than others—but by an instinct of nature they, knowing the days in that climate to be very short, not above three hours long, do therefore make the more haste to their nests. So we, knowing the shortness of our lives and how quickly we may be called away by death—should fly so much the faster on the wing of repentance to heaven!

But some will say that they do not fear a sudden death; they will repent upon their deathbed. I do not much like a deathbed repentance. He who will venture his salvation within the circle of a few short minutes, runs a desperate hazard. You who put off repentance until your deathbed, answer me to these four queries:

(a) How do you know that you shall have a time of sickness? Death does not always give its warning, by a lingering illness. Some it arrests suddenly. What if God should presently send you a summons to surrender your life?

(b) Suppose you should have a time of sickness, how do you know that you shall have the use of your senses? Most are demented, on their deathbed.

(c) Suppose you should have your senses—yet how do you know your mind will be in a frame for such a work as repentance? Sickness does so discompose body and mind, that one is in no condition, at such a time, to take care for his soul. In sickness a man is scarcely fit to make his will, much less to make his peace with God! The apostle said, "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church" (James 5:14). He does not say, let him pray—but let him call for the elders, that they may pray over him. A sick man is very unfit to pray or repent; he is likely to make but sick work of it. When the body is out of tune, the soul must needs jar in its devotion. Upon a sick bed a person is more fit to exercise impatience than repentance. We read that at the pouring out of the fourth vial, when God did smite the inhabitants and scorched them with fire, that "they blasphemed the name of God, and repented not" (Rev. 16:9). So when the Lord pours out his vial and scorches the body with a fever—the sinner is fitter to blaspheme than to repent!

(d) How do you who put off all to a deathbed, know that God will give you in that very juncture of time, grace to repent? The Lord usually punishes neglect of repentance in time of health—with hardness of heart in time of sickness. You have in your lifetime repulsed the Spirit of God, and are you sure that he will come at your call? You have not taken the first season, and perhaps you shall never see another springtide of the Spirit again. All this considered may hasten our repentance. Do not lay too much weight upon a deathbed. "Do your best to come before winter" (2 Tim. 4:21). There is a winter of sickness and death a-coming. Therefore make haste to repent. Let your work be ready before winter. "Today, if you hear his voice--do not harden your hearts" (Heb. 3:7-8).

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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