by Dr. William S. Plumer
Repentance belongs exclusively to the religion of sinners. It has no place in the exercises of unfallen creatures. He who has never done a sinful act nor had a sinful nature needs neither forgiven. But sinners need all these blessings. To them they are indispensable. The wickedness of the human heart makes it necessary.
Under all dispensations, since our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God has insisted on repentance. Among the patriarchs, Job said, "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6 ). Under the Law, David wrote the thirty-second and fifty-first psalms. John the Baptist cried, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2 ). Christ's account of Himself is that He "came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Mark 2:17 ). Just before His ascension, Christ commanded "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47 ). And the Apostles taught the same doctrine "testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21 ). So that any system of religion among men which should not include repentance, would upon its very face be false….This doctrine will not be amiss while the world stands.
Though repentance is an obvious and oft-commanded duty, yet it cannot be truly and acceptably performed except by the grace of God. It is a gift from heaven. Paul directs Timothy in meekness to instruct those that oppose themselves: "If God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25 ). Christ is exalted a Prince and a Savior "to give repentance" (Acts 5:31 ). So when the heathen were brought in, the church glorified God, saying, "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18 ). All this is according to the tenor of the Old Testament promises. There God says He will do this work for us and in us. Listen to His gracious words: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them" (Ezekiel 36:26 , 27 ). So that true repentance is a special mercy from God. He gives it. It comes from none other. It is impossible for poor fallen nature so far to recover herself by her own strength as truly to repent. The heart is wedded to its own ways and justifies its own sinful courses with incurable obstinacy, until divine grace makes the change. No motives to good are strong enough to overcome depravity in the natural heart of man. If ever we attain this grace, it must be through the great love of God to perishing men.
Yet repentance is most reasonable. No man acts wisely till he repents. When the prodigal came to himself, he went straightway to his father. It is so obviously proper that he who has done wrong should be heartily sorry for it and never do so any more, that some infidels have asserted that repentance was sufficiently taught by natural religion without the Bible. But this is a mistake. The true doctrine of repentance is understood nowhere but in Christian countries, and not even there by infidels. Besides, that which is required of us may be very reasonable, and yet be very repugnant to men's hearts. When called to duties which we are reluctant to perform, we are easily persuaded that they are unreasonably exacted of us. It is therefore always helpful to us to have a command of God binding our consciences in any case. It is truly benevolent in God to speak to us so authoritatively in this matter. God "now commandeth all men every where to repent" (Acts 17:30 ). The ground of the command is that all men everywhere are sinners. Our blessed Savior was without sin, and of course He could not repent. With that solitary exception, since the Fall there has not been found any just person who needed no repentance. And none are more to be pitied than those poor deluded men who see in their hearts and lives nothing to repent of.
But what is true repentance? This is a question of the highest importance. It deserves our closest attention. The following is probably as good a definition as has yet been given. "Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace… [whereby] a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous Law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments." That this definition is sound and Scriptural will appear more and more clearly the more thoroughly it is examined. True repentance is sorrow for sin, ending in reformation. Mere regret is not repentance, neither is mere outward reformation. It is not an imitation of virtue, it is virtue itself…
He, who truly repents, is chiefly sorry for his sins. He, whose repentance is spurious, is chiefly concerned for their consequences. The former chiefly regrets that he has done evil; the latter that he has incurred evil. One sorely laments that he deserves punishment; the other that he must suffer punishment. One approves of the Law which condemns him; the other thinks he is hardly treated, and that the Law is rigorous. To the sincere penitent, sin appears exceeding sinful; to him who sorrows after a worldly sort, sin, in some form, appears pleasant. He regrets that it is forbidden. One says it is an evil and bitter thing to sin against God, even if no punishment followed. The other sees little evil in transgression if there were no painful consequences sure to follow. If there were no hell, the one would still wish to be delivered from sin. If there were no retribution, the other would sin with increased greediness. The true penitent is chiefly averse to sin as it is an offence against God. This embraces all sins of every description. But it has often been observed that two classes of sins seem to rest with great weight on the conscience of those whose repentance is of a godly sort. These are secret sins and sins of omission. On the other hand, in a spurious repentance, the mind is much inclined to dwell on open sins and on sins of commission. The true penitent knows the plague of an evil heart and a fruitless life. The spurious penitent is not much troubled about the real state of heart, but grieves that appearances are so much against him.
It is indeed true that oftentimes some one sin is very prominent in the thoughts of the genuine penitent. Peter wept bitterly for having denied his Lord. David says of the matter of Uriah, "My sin is ever before me" (Psa 51:3 ). On these words Luther says, "That is, my sin plagues me, gives me no rest, no peace; whether I eat or drink, sleep or wake, I am always in terror of God's wrath and judgment." And how often and penitently does Paul refer to the great sin of his life, the murder of the saints….But though one sin may be first or most deeply impressed on the mind, yet in true repentance the mind does not rest there. The Samaritan woman was first convicted of living with a man who was not her husband. But soon she says that Christ had told her all things that ever she did. On the day of Pentecost, Peter labored to convict his hearers of the guilt of Christ's death. He was successful to a great extent. The result was their repentance for all sin, and their conversion unto God. "He that repents of sin as sin, does implicitly repent of all sin." So soon and so clearly as he discovers the sinful nature of any thing, he abhors it. A wicked thought, no less than a vile word or evil deed is for a loathing to the true penitent. The promise runs, "They shall loathe themselves for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations." So that if there were no beings in the universe but God and the true penitent, he would have very much the same emotions of sorrow and humiliation that he has now. And if instead of countless offences he was conscious of comparatively few, the nature of his mental exercises would be the same as now. It is therefore true that he, who ingenuously repents of sin, repents of all sin. To change one sin for another, even though it be less gross or more secret, is but disowning one enemy of God to form an alliance with another.
Nor is a true penitent afraid of humbling himself too much. He does not measure the degrees of his self-abasement before God. He would take the lowest place. He says, "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee?" (Job 40:4 ). "O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee" (Psalm 69:5 ). "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isa 64:6 ). "If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" (Psalm 130:3 ). "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions" (Psalm 51:1 ). It is not of the nature of genuine lowliness of heart before God to be nice and careful not to get too prostrate in the dust. Its great fear is that it will after all be proud and self-sufficient.
True repentance has in it also much shame. This relates not only to open and disreputable crimes, but also to secret sins, to vain thoughts, and evil imaginations: "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God" (Ezra 9:6 ); "Shew the [temple] to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities" (Ezekiel 43:10 ). He who does not blush for his sins has never been truly ashamed of them, has never really and heartily forsaken them.…Nor does this shame cease with the hope of pardon, but is rather thereby increased. So God says, "I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. Then thou shalt remember thy ways, and be ashamed….And I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 16:60b , 61a , 62 , 63 ). On this point, universal Christian experience fully accords with God's Word. Paul never forgave himself for his cruel persecutions. Peter never ceased to be ashamed of his cowardly denial of his Lord. David never ceased to be ashamed of his base conduct.
A true penitent also reforms. A holy life is the invariable fruit of genuine repentance. "If I have done iniquity, I will do no more" (Job 34:32 )….When Ephraim sincerely repented, he utterly renounced idolatry, saying, "What have I to do any more with idols?" (Hosea 14:8 ). He does not really confess sin who does not forsake it. He who hates sin turns from it. It was not the habit of David's life to commit murder and adultery, though he once did both; nor of Peter to deny his Lord, and curse and swear, though he was once guilty of both these. A true penitent is not willing to be always sinning and repenting. We often read of "fruits meet for repentance," or "fruits worthy of repentance." Paul, having said that "godly sorrow worketh repentance not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (2 Corinthians 7:10 ), gives a very lively account of the effects of true repentance: "For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge!" (2 Corinthians 7:11 ).
Genuine repentance also draws its chief motives from the milder aspects of the divine character and the sweet influences of the cross. It is not the severity so much as the mercy of God that melts the heart. "The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance" (Rom 2:4 ). It melts the heart when it sees God's kindness and its own baseness. None but a soul not touched by the finger of God can agree to be bad because God is good, or consent to a career of folly because the Lord is merciful. Repentance unto life invariably looks not merely at the goodness of God in creation and providence, but has a special regard to the work of redemption: "They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness" (Zechariah 12:10 ). This is specially stated to have been the ground of the repentance of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost. It is so still. Nothing breaks the heart like a sight of Christ crucified. This is obtained by faith only. There can be no evangelical repentance without saving faith. Indeed, "the true tears of repentance flow from the eye of faith." To "repent and believe the gospel" are not separate, though they are distinct duties. He who sincerely does one never omits the other. He who lacks one of these graces never attains the other. So that true repentance is always also connected with love.