However abundant and suitable may be the provision which God has made for the salvation of men, there are many who fail of attaining eternal life. There are those whom Christ shall profit nothing. Nay, there are those whose condemnation will be greatly aggravated, because they have known and rejected the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. It is, therefore, not less necessary that we should know what we must do in order to secure an interest in the redemption of Christ, than that we should understand what he has done for our salvation.
If God has revealed a plan of salvation for sinners, they must, in order to be saved, acquiesce in its provisions. By whatever name it may be called, the thing to be done, is to approve and accept of the terms of salvation presented in the gospel. As the plan of redemption is designed for sinners, the reception of that plan on our part implies an acknowledgment that we are sinners, and justly exposed to the displeasure of God. To those who have no such sense of guilt, it must appear foolishness and an offence. As it proceeds upon the assumption of the insufficiency of any obedience of our own to satisfy the demands of the law, acquiescence in it involves the renunciation of all dependence upon our own righteousness as the ground of our acceptance with God. If salvation is of grace, it must be received as such. To introduce our own merit, in any form or to any degree, is to reject it; because grace and works are essentially opposed; in trusting to the one, we renounce the other.
As justification is pardon and acceptance dispensed on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, acquiescence in the plan of salvation involves the recognition and acceptance of the work of Christ as the only ground of justification before God. However much the child of God may be perplexed with anxious doubts and vain endeavours, he is brought at last to see and admire the perfect simplicity of the plan of mercy; he finds that it requires nothing on his part but the acceptance of what is freely offered; the acceptance of it as free and unmerited. It is under the consciousness of ill desert and helplessness that the soul embraces Jesus Christ as he is presented in the gospel. This it is that God requires of us in order to our justification. As soon as this is done, we are united to Christ: he assumes our responsibilities; he pleads our cause; he secures our pardon and acceptance on the ground of what he has done; so that there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.
The nature of the duty required of us in order to our justification, is made, if possible, still more plain by the account which the Bible gives of those who are condemned. They are described as those who reject Christ, who go about to establish their own righteousness, and refuse to submit to the righteousness of God; as those who look to the law or their own works, instead of relying on the work of Christ. They are those who reject the counsel of God against themselves, who, ignorant of their character and of the requirements of God, refuse to be saved by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
The word by which this acceptance of Christ is commonly expressed in the Bible, is faith. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.—He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already.—He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life." "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." "Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." God is "just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." The Gentiles "have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel hath not attained it, because they sought it not by faith." "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law." "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." "This is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ." "He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself."
Language so plain and so varied as this, cannot be misunderstood. It teaches every serious inquirer after the way of life, that, in order to salvation, he must believe in Jesus Christ. Still, though he knows what it is to believe, as well as anyone can tell him, yet as he reads of a dead as well as of a living faith, a faith of devils and a faith of God's elect; as he reads on one page, that he that believes shall be saved, and on another, that Simon himself believed, and yet remained in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity, he is often greatly perplexed and at a loss to determine what that faith is which is connected with salvation. This is a difficulty which is inseparable from the use of language. The soul of man is so wonderful in its operations; its perceptions, emotions, and affections are so various and so complicated, that it is impossible there should be a different word for every distinct exercise. It is therefore absolutely necessary that the same word should be used to express different states of mind, which have certain prominent characteristics in common. The definite, in distinction from the general or comprehensive meaning of the word, is determined by the context; by explanatory or equivalent expressions; by the nature of the thing spoken of, and by the effects ascribed to it. This is found sufficient for all the purposes of intercourse and instruction. We can speak without being misunderstood, of loving our food, of loving an infant, of loving a parent, of loving God, though in each of these cases the word love represents a state of mind peculiar to itself, and different from all the others. There is in all of them a pleasurable excitement on the perception of certain qualities, and this we call love; though no two states of mind can well be more distinct, than the complacent fondness with which a parent looks upon his infant, and the adoring reverence with which he turns his soul towards God.
We need not be surprised, therefore, that the word faith is used in Scripture to express very different exercises, or states of mind. In its widest sense, faith is an assent to truth upon the exhibition of evidence. It does not seem necessary that this evidence should be of the nature of testimony; for we are commonly and properly said to believe whatever we regard as true. We believe in the existence and attributes of God, though our assent is not founded upon what is strictly called testimony. But if faith means assent to truth, it is obvious that its nature and attendants must vary with the nature of the truth believed, and especially with the nature of the evidence upon which our assent is founded. A man may assent to the proposition, that the earth moves round its axis, that virtue is good, that sin will be punished, that to him, as a believer, God promises salvation: in all these cases there is assent, and therefore faith; but the state of mind expressed by the term, is not always the same. Assent to a speculative or abstract truth is a speculative act; assent to a moral truth, is a moral act; assent to a promise made to ourselves, is an act of trust. Our belief that the earth moves round its axis is a mere assent. Our belief in the excellence of virtue is, in its nature, a moral judgment. Our belief of a promise is an act of trust. Or if any choose to say that trust is the result of assent to the truth of the promise, it may be admitted as a mere matter of analysis; but the distinction is of no consequence, because the two things are inseparable, and because the Scriptures do not make the distinction. In the language of the Bible, faith in the promises of God is a believing reliance, and no blessing is connected with mere assent as distinguished and separated from reliance.
It is, however, of more consequence to remark, that the nature of the act by which we assent to truth, is modified by the kind of evidence upon which our assent is founded. The blind may believe, on the testimony of others, in the existence of colours, and the deaf in the harmony of sounds; but their faith is very different from the faith of those who enjoy the exercise of the sense of sight or hearing. The universal reputation of such men as Bacon and Newton, and the acknowledged influence of their writings, may be the foundation of a very rational conviction of their intellectual superiority. But a conviction, founded upon the perusal and appreciation of their own works, is of an essentially different character. We may believe on the testimony of those in whose veracity and judgment we confide, that a man of whom we know nothing has great moral excellence. But if we see for ourselves the exhibition of his excellence, we believe for other reasons, and in a different way. The state of mind, therefore, which, in the language of common life, and in that of the sacred Scriptures, is expressed by the word faith, varies essentially with the nature of the evidence upon which our belief rests.
One man believes the Bible to be the word of God, and the facts and doctrines therein contained to be true, simply on the testimony of others. Born in a Christian land, and taught by his parents to regard the Scriptures as a revelation from God, he yields a general assent to the truth, without troubling himself with any personal examination into the evidence upon which it rests. Another believes because he has investigated the subject. He sees that there is no rational way of accounting for the miracles, the accomplishment of predictions, the success and influence of the gospel, except upon the assumption of its Divine origin. Others, again, believe because the truths of the Bible commend themselves to their reason and conscience, and accord with their inward experience. Those, whose faith rests upon this foundation, often receive the word with joy, they do many things, and have much of the appearance of true Christians; or, like Felix, they believe and tremble. This is the foundation of the faith which often surprises the wicked in their last hours. Men who all their lives have neglected or reviled the truth, and who may have accumulated a treasury of objections to the authority of the Scriptures, are often brought to believe by a power which they cannot resist. An awakened conscience affirms the truth with an authority before which they quail. Their doubts and sophistries flee affrighted before the majesty of this new revealed witness for the truth. To disbelieve is now impossible. That there is a God, that he is holy and just, and that there is a hell, they would give the world to doubt, but cannot. Here is a faith very different in its origin, nature, and effects from that which rests upon the authority of men, or upon external evidence and argument. Though the faith just described is generally most strikingly exhibited at the approach of death, it often happens that men who are habitually careless are suddenly arrested in their career. Their conscience is aroused and enlightened. They feel those things to be true, which before they either denied or disregarded. The truth, therefore, has great power over them. It destroys their former peace. It forces them to self-denial and the performance of religious duties. Sometimes this influence soon wears off, as conscience subsides into its accustomed slumber. At others, it continues long, even to the end of life. It then constitutes that spirit of bondage and fear under which its unhappy subjects endeavour to work out a way to heaven, without embracing the gospel of the grace of God. The effects produced by a faith of this kind, though specifically different from the fruits of the Spirit, are not always easily detected by the eye of man. And hence many who appear outwardly as the children of God, are inwardly under the dominion of a spirit the opposite of the loving, confiding, filial temper of the gospel.
There is a faith different from any of those forms of belief which have yet been mentioned. It is a faith which rests upon the manifestation by the Holy Spirit of the excellence, beauty, and suitableness of the truth. This is what Peter calls the precious faith of God's elect. It arises from a spiritual apprehension of the truth, or from the testimony of the Spirit with and by the truth in our hearts. Of this faith the Scriptures make frequent mention. Christ said, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." The external revelation was made equally to the wise and to the babes. To the latter, however, was granted an inward illumination, which enabled them to see the excellence of the truth, which commanded their joyful assent. Our Saviour therefore added, "No man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him." When Peter made his confession of faith in Christ, our Saviour said to him, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." Paul was a persecutor of the church; but when it pleased God to reveal his Son in him, he at once preached the faith which he before destroyed. He had an external knowledge of Christ before; but this internal revelation he experienced on his way to Damascus, and it effected an instant change in his whole character. There was nothing miraculous or peculiar in the conversion of the apostle, except in the mere incidental circumstances of his case. He speaks of all believers as having the same Divine illumination. "God," he says, "who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." On the other hand, he speaks of those whose minds "the god of this world hath blinded—lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them." In the second chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, he dwells much upon this subject, and teaches not only that the true Divine wisdom of the gospel was undiscoverable by human wisdom, but that when externally revealed, we need the Spirit that we may know the things freely given to us of God. For "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." Hence the apostle prays for his readers, that the eyes of their understandings (hearts) might be opened, that they might know the hope of their calling, the riches of their inheritance, and the greatness of the Divine power of which they were the subjects. And in another place, that they might be filled with the knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. By spiritual understanding is meant, that insight into the nature of the truth which is the result of the influence of the Spirit upon the heart. Since faith is founded on this spiritual apprehension, Paul says he preached not with the enticing words of man's wisdom, because a faith which resulted from such preaching could be at best a rational conviction; but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that the faith of his hearers might stand, not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Hence faith is said to be one of the fruits of the Spirit, the gift of God, the result of his operation. These representations of the Scriptures accord with the experience of the people of God. They know that their faith is not founded upon the testimony of others, or exclusively or mainly upon external evidence. They believe because the truth appears to them both true and good; because they feel its power and experience its consolations.
It is obvious, that a faith founded upon the spiritual apprehension of the truth, as it differs in its origin, must also differ in its effects, from every other kind of belief. Of the multitudes who believe the Scriptures upon authority, or on the ground of external evidence, how large a portion disregard their precepts and warnings. To say that such persons do not believe, though true in one sense, is not true in another. They do believe; and to assert the contrary, is to contradict their consciousness. The state of mind which they exhibit, is in the Bible called faith, though it is dead. This rational conviction, in other cases, combined with other causes, produces that decorous attention to the duties of religion, and that general propriety of conduct, which are so often exhibited by the hearers of the gospel. The faith which is founded on the power of conscience produces still more marked effects: either temporary obedience and joy, or the despair and opposition manifested by the convinced, the dying, and the lost; or that laborious slavery of religion of which we have already spoken. But that faith which is the gift of God, which arises from his opening our eyes to see the excellence of the truth, is attended with joy and love. These feelings are as immediately and necessarily attendant on this kind of faith, as pleasure is on the perception of beauty. Hence faith is said to work by love. And as all revealed truth is the object of the faith of which we now speak, every truth must, in proportion to the strength of our faith, produce its appropriate effect upon the heart. A belief of the being and perfections of God, founded upon the apprehension of his glory, must produce love, reverence, and confidence, with a desire to be conformed to his image. Hence the apostle says, "We all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." Faith in his threatenings, founded upon a perception of their justice, their harmony with his perfections, and the ill desert of sin, must produce fear and trembling. His people, therefore, are described as those who tremble at his word. Faith in his promises, founded upon the apprehension of his faithfulness and power, their harmony with all his revealed purposes, their suitableness to our nature and necessities, must produce confidence, joy, and hope. This was the faith which made Abraham leave his own country, to go to a strange land; which led Moses to esteem the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. This was the faith of David also, of Samuel, and of all the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. This is the faith which leads all the people of God to confess that they are strangers and pilgrims upon earth, and that they look for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. This is the faith which overcomes the world, which leads the believer to set his affections on things above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God; which enables him to glory even in tribulation, while he looks not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.
And what shall we say of a faith in Jesus Christ founded upon the apprehension of the glory of God, as it shines in him; which beholds that glory as the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth; which contemplates the Redeemer as clothed in our nature; the firstborn of many brethren; as dying for our sins, rising again for our justification, ascending into heaven, and as now seated at the right hand of God, where he ever liveth to make intercession for us? Such a faith, the apostle tells us, must produce love; for he says, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." The soul gladly receives him as a Saviour in all the characters and for all the purposes for which he is revealed; and naturally desires to be conformed to his will, and to make known the unsearchable riches of his grace to others.
It is no less obvious, that no one can believe the representations given in the Scriptures respecting the character of man and the ill desert of sin, with a faith founded upon right apprehension of the holiness of God and the evil of his own heart, without experiencing self-condemnation, self-abhorrence, and a constant hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Thus, of all the truths in the word of God, it may be said, that so far as they are believed in virtue of this spiritual apprehension, they will exert their appropriate influence upon the heart, and consequently upon the life. That such a faith should not produce good fruits, is as impossible as that the sun should give light without heat. This faith is the living head of all affections and of all holy living; without it all religion is a dull formality, a slavish drudgery, or at best a rationalistic homage. Hence we are said to live by faith, to walk by faith, to be sanctified by faith, to overcome by faith, to be saved by faith. And the grand characteristic of the people of God is, that they are believers.
What has been said hitherto is designed to illustrate the nature of saving faith, as it is represented in the Scriptures. It differs from all other acts of the mind to which the term faith is applied, mainly on account of the nature of the evidence on which it is founded. The Bible, however, is more definite in its instructions on this subject. Besides teaching us that there is a faith which receives as true all the declarations of God, in virtue of an evidence exhibited and applied by the Holy Spirit, it tells us what those particular acts of faith are, which secure our justification before God. It plainly teaches that we are justified by those acts of faith which have a special reference to Christ and his mediatorial work. Thus we are said to be justified by faith in his blood. The righteousness of God is said to be by faith of Jesus Christ; that is, by faith of which he is the object. This expression occurs frequently: "Knowing," says the apostle, "that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ." "Not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ." In all these passages, and in many others of a similar kind, it is expressly stated that Christ is the object of justifying faith. The same doctrine is taught in those numerous passages, in which justification or salvation is connected with believing in Christ. Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life." "Whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins." "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." The same truth is involved in all the representations of the method of justification given in the word of God. We are said to be justified by the death of Christ, by the blood of his cross, by the redemption that is in him, by the sacrifice of himself, by his bearing our sins, by his obedience, or righteousness. All these representations imply that Christ, in his mediatorial character, is the special object of justifying faith. It is indeed impossible that any man should believe the record which God has given of his Son, without believing every other record which he has given, so far as it is known and apprehended: still, the special act of faith, which is connected with our justification, is belief in Jesus Christ as the Saviour from sin. And when we are commanded to believe in Jesus Christ, the scriptural meaning of the expression is, that we should trust, or confide in him. It does not express mere assent to the proposition that Jesus is the Christ, which angels and devils exercise; but it expresses trust, which involves knowledge and assent. To believe in Christ as a propitiation for sin, is to receive and confide in him as such.
From this representation it is clear what we must do to be saved. When the mind is perplexed and anxious from a sense of sin and the accusations of conscience, when the troubled spirit looks round for some way of escape from the just displeasure of God, the voice of mercy from the lips of the Son of God is, Come unto me, believe upon me, submit to be saved by me. Till this is done, nothing is done. And when this cordial act of faith in Christ is exercised, we are accepted for his sake, and he undertakes to save us from the dominion and condemnation of our sins. The experience of the people of God, when they are made the recipients of that Divine illumination which reveals to them the glory of God, their own unworthiness, and the plan of salvation by Jesus Christ, is no doubt very various. It is modified by their previous knowledge, by their peculiar state of mind, by the particular truth which happens to attract their attention, by the clearness of the manifestation, and by many other circumstances. This diversity is readily admitted; yet since no man can come unto the Father but by the Son, since without faith in him there is no forgiveness and no access to God, it must still be true, that, with greater or less distinctness of apprehension, Christ and his mediatorial work constitute the object of the first gracious exercises of the renewed soul. Any approach to God, any hope of his favour, any peace of conscience or confidence of pardon, not founded upon him, must be delusive. Having (that is, because we have) such an High Priest, we come with boldness to the throne of grace; and this is the only ground on which we can venture to draw near. The whole plan of redemption shows that there is no pardon, no access to God, no peace or reconciliation, except through Jesus Christ. And this idea is so constantly presented in the Bible, that all genuine religious experience must be in accordance with it.
It is, however, of such vital importance for the sinner distinctly to understand what it is that is required of him, that God has graciously so illustrated the nature of saving faith, that the most illiterate reader of the Scriptures may learn the way of life. It is not merely by the term faith, or believing, that this act of the soul is expressed, but by many others of equivalent import. The consideration of a few of these will serve to explain more distinctly the plan of salvation, by showing at once the nature, object, and office of justifying faith.
One of the most comprehensive and intelligible of these equivalent terms is that of receiving. "To as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God." "As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him." Believers are therefore described as those who receive the gift of righteousness; as those who gladly receive the word. To receive Jesus Christ, is to accept and recognize him in the character in which he presents himself, as the Son of God, the Saviour of sinners, as a propitiation for our sins, as a ransom for our souls, as the Lord our Righteousness. He came to his own, and his own received him not. The Jews would not recognize him as the Messiah, the only Mediator between God and man, as the end of the law for righteousness. They denied the Holy One, and put far from them the offer of life through him. Could the nature, the object, or office of faith be presented more clearly than they are by this representation? Can the soul, anxious about salvation, doubt what it has to do? Jesus Christ is presented to him in the gospel as the Son of God, clothed in our nature, sent by the Father to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to redeem us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us. All that we have to do, is to receive him in this character; and those who thus receive him he makes the sons of God—that is, the objects of his favour, the subjects of his grace, and the heirs of his kingdom.
A still more simple illustration of the nature of faith is contained in those passages in which we are commanded to look unto God. "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." Our Saviour avails himself of this figure, when he says, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." The dying Israelite, who was commanded to turn his feeble eye on the brazen serpent, was surely at no loss to know the nature of the duty required of him. He knew there was no virtue in the act of looking. He might look in vain all round the wide horizon. He was healed, not for looking, but because the serpent was placed there by the command of God, and salvation made to depend upon submitting to the appointed method of relief. Why then should the soul, convinced of sin and misery, be in doubt as to what it has to do? Christ has been set forth as crucified; and we are commanded to look to him, and be saved. Can anything be more simple? Must not every attempt to render more intelligible the Saviour's beautiful illustration, serve only to darken counsel by words without wisdom?
Another striking illustration of this subject may be found in Heb. 6:18, where believers are described as those who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before them. As of old, the manslayer, when pursued by the avenger of blood, fled to the city of refuge, whose gates were open night and day, and whose highways were always unencumbered; so the soul, under the sense of its guilt, and convinced that it must perish if it remains where it is, flees to Jesus Christ, as the appointed refuge, and finds peace and security in him. There the avenger cannot touch him; there the law, which before denounced vengeance, spreads its ample shield around him, and gives him the assurance of safety.
A still more common method of expressing the act of saving faith, is to be found in such passages as John 6:35: "He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." Here coming and believing are interchanged as expressing the same idea. So also in the following chapter, where our Saviour says, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living waters." Hence the invitations and commands of the gospel are often expressed by this word. "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." And in the closing invitation of the sacred volume—"The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."
Though this language is so plain that nothing but the illumination of the Spirit can render it plainer, yet the troubled soul perplexes itself with the inquiry, What is it to come to Christ? Though assured that he is not far from any one of us, we are often forced to cry out, "Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat!—Behold, I go forward, but he is not there: and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him." It is often the very simplicity of the requirement that deceives us. We think we must do some great thing, which shall bear a certain proportion to the blessing connected with it. We cannot believe that it is merely looking, merely receiving, merely coming as the prodigal came to his father, or as the Israelite came to the high priest who was appointed to make atonement for the sins of the people. Yet is it even thus that we must come to the High Priest of our profession, with confession of sin, and submit to the application of his blood as the appointed means of pardon, and rejoice in the assurance of the Divine favour. Or still more impressively, as the Hebrew believer came to the altar, laid his hand with confession upon the head of the victim, and saw it die in his stead, so does the trembling soul come to Christ as its propitiatory sacrifice, and confiding in the efficacy of his death, looks up to God and says, My Father! Coming to Christ, therefore, is the confiding reception of him in the offices and for the purposes for which he is presented in the word of God, as our Mediator and Priest, as our Advocate with the Father, as our Redeemer and Lord.
Another term by which faith is expressed is, submitting. This is not to be understood as meaning a submission to the will of God as a sovereign Ruler, a giving up all our controversy with him, and resigning ourselves into his hands. All this is duty, but it is not saving faith. The submission required is, submission to the revealed plan of salvation; it is the giving up all excuses for our sins, all dependence upon our own righteousness, and submitting to the righteousness which God has provided for our justification. This is what the Jews refused to do, and perished in unbelief. This is what we must do, in order to be saved. Men, when sensible of their guilt and danger, are perplexed and anxious about many things. But there is only one thing for them to do. They must submit to be saved as ungodly, as sinners, as entirely undeserving, solely for Christ's sake. They must consent to allow the robe of his righteousness to be cast over all their nakedness and blood, that they may be found in him, not having their own righteousness, but the righteousness which is by faith in Jesus Christ. Then will they be prepared to join that great multitude which stand "before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands"; crying with a loud voice, "Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.—For thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests."
It is thus that the Bible answers the question, What must we do to be saved? We are told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; and to set forth the nature, the object, and office of this faith, the Scriptures employ the most significant terms and illustrations, in order that we may learn to renounce ourselves and our works, and to be found in Christ, depending solely upon what He has done and suffered as the ground of our acceptance with God. Those who thus believe, have passed from death unto life; they are no longer under condemnation; they have peace with God, and rejoice in hope of his glory. As this faith unites them with Christ, it makes them not only partakers of his death, but of his life. The Holy Spirit, given without measure to him, is through him given unto them, and works in them the fruits of holiness, which are unto the praise and glory of God.
Clearly as the Scriptures teach that whosoever believes shall be saved, they teach us no less clearly that, except we repent, we shall all perish. Faith and repentance are graces not only alike indispensable, but they cannot exist separately. Repentance is a turning from sin unto God, through Jesus Christ, and faith is the acceptance of Christ in order to our return to God. Repentance is the act of a believer; and faith is the act of a penitent. So that whoever believes repents; and whoever repents believes.
The primary and simple meaning of the word commonly used in the New Testament to express the idea of repentance, is a change of mind, as the result of reflection. In this sense it is said, there is no repentance with God. He is not a man that he should repent. In the same sense it is said, that Esau found no place for repentance, when he was unable to effect a change in the determination of his father. In the ordinary religious sense of the term, it is a turning from sin unto God. This is the account commonly given of it in the word of God. "I thought on my ways," said the psalmist, "and turned my feet unto thy testimonies." "When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." And Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the temple, said, "If they" (the people) "shall bethink themselves in the land whither they were carried captives, and repent, and make supplication unto thee—saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness; and so return unto thee with all their heart, and with all their soul:—then hear thou their prayer and their supplication in heaven thy dwelling place, and maintain their cause." To repent, then, is to turn from sin unto God. But as there is a repentance which has no connexion with salvation, it becomes us to search the Scriptures, that we may learn the characteristics of that repentance which is unto life.
As conviction of sin is an essential part of repentance, and as that point has already been considered, it will not be necessary to dwell long upon this general subject. The pre-eminence, however, given to it in the Scriptures, and the large space which it occupies in the experience of Christians, demand that the nature of this turning from sin, which is so often enjoined, should be carefully studied.
There is one general truth in relation to this point which is clearly taught in the Bible; and that is, that all true repentance springs from right views of God. The language of Job may with more or less confidence be adopted by every Christian: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
The discovery of the justice of God serves to awaken conscience, and often produces a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation. This is the natural and reasonable effect of a clear apprehension of the rectitude of the Divine character, as of a Judge who renders to everyone his due. There are, accordingly, many illustrations of the effects of this apprehension recorded in the Scriptures.
"Fearfulness and trembling," said the psalmist, "are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me." "While I suffer thy terrors, I am distracted. Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off." "There is no rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head; as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me." These fearful forebodings are so common in the experience of the people of God, that the earlier writers make terror of conscience a prominent part of repentance. There are, however, two remarks upon this subject, which should be borne in mind. The first is, that these exercises vary in degree, from the intolerable anguish of despair, to the calm conviction of the judgment that we are justly exposed to the displeasure of God. And, secondly, that there is nothing discriminating in these terrors of conscience. They are experienced by the righteous and the unrighteous. If they occurred in the repentance of David, they did also in that of Judas. Sinners in Zion are often afraid; and fearfulness often surprises the hypocrite. These fearful apprehensions, therefore, are not to be desired for their own sake; since there is nothing good in fear. It is reasonable that those should fear who refuse to repent and to accept of the offers of mercy. But there is nothing reasonable in those fears which arise from unbelief, or distrust of the promises of God. It so often happens, however, in the experience of the people of God, that they are made sensible of their guilt and danger before they have any clear apprehensions of the plan of redemption, that, in fact, fear of the wrath of God enters largely into the feelings which characterize their conversion. The apprehension of the holiness of God produces awe. The angels in heaven are represented as veiling their faces, and bowing with reverence before the Holy One. Something of the same feeling must be excited in the minds of men by the discovery of His infinite purity. It cannot fail, no matter what may be the state of his mind, to excite awe. This, however, may be mingled with love, and express itself in adoration; or it may co-exist with hatred, and express itself in blasphemy. Very often the effect is simply awe (or at least this is the prominent emotion), and the soul is led to prostrate itself in the dust. The moral character of this emotion can only be determined by observing whether it is attended with complacency in the contemplation of infinite purity, and with a desire of larger and more constant discoveries of it; or whether it produces uneasiness, and a desire that the vision may be withdrawn, and we be allowed to remain at ease in our darkness.
In the next place, this discovery of the holiness of God cannot fail to produce a sense of our own unworthiness. It is in his light that we see light. It is by the apprehension of his excellence that we learn our own vileness. And as no man can be aware that he appears vile in the sight of others, without a sense of shame, we find that this emotion is described as being one of the most uniform attendants upon repentance. Thus Ezra, in his penitential prayer, says, "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens." Daniel expresses the same feeling when he says, "O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day." And God, when describing the restoration of his people, even when assuring them of pardon, says, "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."
As the consciousness of unworthiness, when we think of others, produces shame, so, when we think of ourselves, it produces self-abhorrence. This latter feeling, therefore, also enters into the nature of true repentance. In the strong language of the suffering patriarch already quoted, the sinner abhors himself, and repents in dust and ashes. In another passage, the same distinguished servant of God says, "Behold, I am vile: what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth." And the prophet, describing the repentance of the people, says, "Ye shall remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been denied; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed." It is not the strength, but the nature of these feelings, which determines the character of our repentance. Their nature is the same in all true penitents; their strength varies in every particular case. In all, however, the sense of sin destroys that self-complacency with which sinners soothe themselves, thanking God they are not as other men. It humbles them before God, and places them in the position which he would have them occupy. "To this man will I look," saith the Lord, "even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." With such a soul God condescends to take up his abode. "For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones."
This humbling sense of our unworthiness, which produces true contrition and self-abasement, is essential to repentance. Most men are willing to acknowledge themselves to be sinners; but they are at the same time disposed to extenuate their guilt; to think they are as good as could be reasonably expected; that the law of God demands too much of beings so frail as man, and that it would be unjust to visit their short-comings with any severe punishment.
The change which constitutes repentance destroys this disposition to self-justification. The soul bows down before God under the consciousness of inexcusable guilt. It stands self-condemned, and, instead of regarding God as a hard master, it acknowledges that he is righteous in all his demands, and in all his judgments. Such were the feelings of David, when he said, "I acknowledge my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest." The same feeling is expressed by Ezra: "O Lord God of Israel, thou art righteous:—behold, we are before thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before thee because of this." And Nehemiah uses language to the same effect: "Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly." There can, therefore, be no true repentance without this contrite spirit of self-condemnation and abasement.
The confession of sin, on which the Scriptures lay so much stress, is the outward expression of this inward sense of ill desert. It is not enough that we should secretly condemn ourselves. God requires a full and ingenuous confession of our sins. And this our own hearts will prompt us to make. As there is no desire in the penitent to extenuate his guilt, so there is no disposition to conceal it. On the contrary, the soul is anxious to acknowledge everything, to take shame to itself, and to justify God. We accordingly find that a large part of the penitential portions of the Scriptures is taken up in recording the confessions of the people of God. "When I kept silence," said the psalmist, "my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." So long as he attempted to conceal his guilt, he found no relief; the hand of God continued to press heavily upon him; but when he acknowledged his transgressions, he obtained forgiveness. The wise man therefore says, "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy." The New Testament is equally explicit as to this part of our duty. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
This confession must be made to the person against whom we have sinned. If we have sinned against our fellow men, we must confess to them. If we have sinned against the church, we must confess to the church; and if we have sinned against God, our confession must be made to God. The Old Testament, in commanding restitution in case of injury done to our neighbour, thereby commanded acknowledgment to be made to the injured party. And in the New Testament we are required to confess our faults one to another. As, however, the great majority of our sins are committed against God, it is to him that our confessions are to be principally made. And even in those cases in which we sin against men, we, in a still higher sense, sin against God. Our sense of guilt in his sight, therefore, will prevail over the sense of our injustice to those whom we have offended. Thus David, though he had, in the most grievous manner, sinned against his neighbour, was so affected with the enormity of his sin as committed against God, that he said, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." In the inspired records of penitential sorrow, we accordingly find that confession is constantly made to God. "Let thine ear now," said Nehemiah, "be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father's house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandest they servant Moses." Indeed, the greater portion of the remarkable prayers of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which form the most authentic record of the exercises of genuine repentance, is taken up with confessions of sin; which shows how essential such confession is to the proper discharge of this duty. No man, therefore, whose heart does not lead him freely, fully, and humbly to acknowledge his sin before God, can have any satisfactory evidence that he truly repents.
There is, indeed, a confession which remorse extorts from the lips of those whose hearts know nothing of that godly sorrow which is unto life. Thus Judas went to his accomplices in treachery and said, "I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood"; and then went and hanged himself. This, however, is very different from that ingenuous acknowledgment of sin which flows from a broken spirit, and which is the more full and free, the stronger the assurance of forgiveness.
Though the Scriptures plainly teach that in all true repentance there is a sense of sin, self-loathing, self-condemnation, sorrow, and confession, yet such is the poverty of human language, that these very terms may be, nay, must be employed to express the exercises of those who do not truly repent. It is said of Judas that he repented; and we cannot doubt that his repentance included a conviction of guilt, sorrow, self-abhorrence, and confession. Yet all this was nothing more than the operation of that impenitent remorse which often drives men to despair, and which serves to feed the fire that never shall be quenched. Although we are forced to describe the exercises which attend the sorrow of the world, and those which accompany the sorrow which is of God, by the same terms, they are nevertheless essentially different in their nature. There is a gleam of hope and a glow of love pervading the exercises of the true penitent, which impart to all his exercises a peculiarity of character, and cause them to produce effects specifically different from those which flow from despairing remorse, or the agitations of an awakened conscience. His views of the justice and holiness of God produce, not only a conviction of sin, and sorrow for having committed it; but also an earnest desire to be delivered from it, as the greatest of all evils, and an anxious longing after conformity to the image of God, as the greatest of all blessings. The repentance of the ungodly consists in the operations of conscience combined with fear; the repentance of the godly, of the operations of conscience combined with love. The one is the sorrow of the malefactor; the other, the sorrow of a child. The one tends to despair and opposition to God; the other, to hope and a desire after his favour. Both may lead to obedience; but the obedience in the one case is slavish; in the other, filial. In the one case, it is mere penance; in the other, it is repentance.
The circumstance which, perhaps, most perceptibly distinguishes true repentance from mere conviction and remorse, is, that the former flows from the apprehension of the mercy of God. There is no hope in the repentance of the ungodly. They may see by the light of conscience and of the Divine law, that their sins are exceedingly great. They may be filled with terror from the apprehension of Divine justice, and even humbled and confounded under a view of the infinite holiness of God, and of their own vile-ness, but there is no sense of forgiving mercy, no apprehension of the Divine favour. Instead, therefore, of turning towards God, they turn from him. After the example of Adam, they would gladly hide themselves from his presence. And so terrible, at times, is that presence, that they madly seek a refuge from it in the darkness of the grave, or call upon the rocks and the mountains to cover them. This is the sorrow which worketh death. But in every case of real turning unto God, there is more or less distinct apprehension of his mercy. This may be so feeble as only to enable the soul to say, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him"; or, "Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him"; or to adopt the language of David, "If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again:—but if he thus say, I have no delight in thee; behold, here am I, let him do to me as seemeth good unto him." This, however, is sufficient to turn fear into hope, and rebellion into submission.
It may be that the hope which saves the soul from sinking into despair, and which prevents it from turning from God in aggravated opposition, is at times nothing more than a conviction that he is merciful, without any distinct apprehension of the way in which his mercy can be exercised, or any confident persuasion of our own acceptance. Still the soul believes that he is "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth." It has courage to adopt the language of the psalmist: "Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee." In all the records of penitence, therefore, contained in the Scriptures, we find the recognition of the Divine goodness as the great operative principle in turning the soul unto God. Thus Nehemiah says, "Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness." And the prophet presents this consideration as the great motive to those whom he calls to repentance; "Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious—and repenteth him of the evil."
But inasmuch as there can be no confidence of forgiving mercy, which is not founded on the revelation of the purpose of God; and as there is no revelation of a purpose to pardon except through the mediation of Jesus Christ; so, however indistinct may be, at times, the view which the soul takes of the plan of salvation, there must still be a reference to the Saviour in all authorized expectations of mercy. The penitent may not know how God can be just and yet the justifier of sinners, and yet be persuaded not only that he is merciful, but that he has found a ransom, and can consistently save us from going down into the pit. Doubtless, however, under the light of the gospel, it is far more common that the soul sees all that it discovers of the mercy of God and of the possibility of pardon in the face of Jesus Christ. It is in him that God has revealed himself as reconciled unto the world, not imputing unto men their trespasses. It is because he was made sin for us, that we can be made the righteousness of God in him. All evangelical hope rests on the assurance, that though we have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is the propitiation for our sins. This is the hope which is effectual in winning the soul back to God. It is the discovery of the love of God in giving his own Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life, that breaks the hard heart, revealing to it the exceeding turpitude of its sins, and at the same time disclosing the readiness of God freely to forgive those who come to him through Christ. It is therefore not so much the threatenings of the law, as the apprehension of the love of God, which turns the sinner from his rebellion, and draws him back to submission and obedience. All repentance without this is legal and slavish. It is such as that of Pharaoh, or Judas, or of the thousands whom an awakened conscience and fear of wrath drive from their former sins, and force to walk in clanking chains along a mistaken road in search of heaven. This is the only repentance which conscience and the apprehension of Divine justice can produce. A soul cannot approach an unreconciled God, any more than it can embrace a consuming fire. A sense of the favour of God, or a hope in his mercy, is essential to our returning to him with confidence and love.
There is, indeed, a belief in the mercy of God which, instead of leading men to repentance, encourages them to continue in sin. This is a belief which arises out of ignorance. It is founded on a misapprehension of the character of God. It is easy for those who know nothing of the Divine holiness and justice, and who look upon sin as a misfortune or a trifle, to believe that God will not be severe to mark iniquity. To such persons the mercy of God seems a matter of course; restricting its offers to no class of men, but covering with its mantle the sins of the penitent and of the reprobate. As they see no reason why God should not forgive, they easily hope in his mercy. But when their eyes are opened to his immaculate purity, which forbids his looking on sin with allowance; to his justice, which forbids him to spare the guilty; to the strictness of his law and to the fearfulness of its penalty; when conscience is aroused, and adds its sanction to the judgment of God, in a voice whose authority and power can neither be questioned nor evaded, then these hopes of mercy are seen to be as the spider's web. They are swept away in a moment, and the difficulty now is, to believe that pardon, once thought so certain, is even possible. Hence the assurances that God is plenteous in mercy and ready to forgive, are so numerous and earnest in the Scriptures. Hence the way in which mercy can be exercised, consistently with those attributes which are seen to enter into the essential excellence of God, is so clearly set forth. Hence the invitations, the promises, yea, even the oath of God, are given to beget hope in the mind of the convinced and humbled sinner. It is not the whole, but the sick, who need the Physician; and it is not for the careless, who feel no need of pardon, but for the anxious, who fear that there is scarcely room for mercy, that these assurances are given.
It is not, therefore, that hope of mercy which springs from ignorance and indifference, which is operative in the work of repentance, but that which is founded upon the promises of God embraced by faith. It is an enlightened hope. The soul, in entertaining it, knows something of the difficulties in the way of pardon, and something of the method in which mercy can be consistently exercised. Such a hope is not a matter of course; nor is it an easy attainment. The sense of sin, the testimony of conscience, the holiness of God, the honour of his law, are all apparently opposed to any reasonable expectation of forgiveness. And, therefore, although the declarations of Scripture are so explicit on the subject, it often happens that the awakened sinner feels, that though these declarations may be true in reference to others, they cannot be true as it regards himself. And when the goodness of God is revealed to him; when he sees the Divine love surmounting all difficulties, no shipwrecked mariner, surrounded by darkness and tossed by tempests, hails with greater joy the break of day than does such a soul the revelation of Divine mercy. It is not joy merely; it is wonder, gratitude, and love that take possession of his soul, and fill him with the purpose of living devoted to God his Redeemer. It is this hope which gives new life to the soul, and accomplishes its return from the service of sin to the service of God.
Hope in the mercy of God being thus important, it is the great design of the Bible to reveal the love of God to sinners, in order to bring them back from their apostacy. The sacred volume is full of instruction on this important subject. Every command to repent, implies a readiness on the part of God to forgive. Every institution of Divine worship implies, that God is willing to receive those who return to him. Every instance of pardon mentioned in the Bible is left on record, to show that there is forgiveness with God that he may be feared. With the same view he has given those declarations of his mercy, long-suffering, and love, with which the Scriptures abound. And above all, for this purpose has he set forth his Son as a propitiation for our sins, that we may see not only that he is merciful, but how he can be merciful, and yet just. These offers of mercy are made to all who hear the gospel, even to those whose sins are as scarlet, or red like crimson; and none lose the benefit of them who do not voluntarily and wickedly reject them; either carelessly supposing that they need no forgiveness, or unbelievingly refusing to accept of pardon on the only terms on which it can be granted.
That repentance, therefore, which is unto life, is a turning; not a being driven away from sin by fear and stress of conscience, but a forsaking it as evil and hateful, with sincere sorrow, humility, and confession; and a returning unto God, because he is good and willing to forgive, with a determination to live in obedience to his commandments.
There are but two ways in which we can judge of the genuineness of this change. The one is, the comparison of our inward experience with the word of God; the other, the observation of its effects. As every man is conscious of his own feelings, attention and comparison will generally enable him to ascertain their character. He may tell whether he has had such views of the justice and holiness of God as to produce a conviction of his own sinfulness and ill desert; whether he has been forced to give up his self-complacency, and to feel that disapprobation of his character and conduct which leads the soul to confess with shame and sorrow its guilt and pollution in the sight of God. He may tell whether he has had such apprehensions of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ as to induce him to return to his heavenly Father, with a strong desire after his favour, and with a firm determination to live to his glory. These are the exercises which constitute repentance, and he who is conscious of them may know that he is turned from death unto life.
As, however, true self-knowledge is the most difficult of all attainments; and as the feelings, unless unusually strong, are hard to be detected in their true nature, the surest test of the character of any supposed change of heart is to be found in its permanent effects. "By their fruits ye shall know them," is a declaration as applicable to the right method of judging of ourselves as of others. Whatever, therefore, may have been our inward experience; whatever joy or sorrow we may have felt, unless we bring forth fruits meet for repentance, our experience will profit us nothing. Our repentance needs to be repented of, unless it leads us to confession and restitution in cases of private injury; unless it causes us to forsake not merely outward sins, which attract the notice of others, but those which lie concealed in the heart; unless it makes us choose the service of God, as that which is right and congenial, and causes us to live not for ourselves, but for Him who loved us and gave himself for us.
There is no duty the necessity of which is either more obvious in itself, or more frequently asserted in the word of God, than that of repentance. Nature itself teaches us, that when we have done wrong, we should be sorry for it, and turn away from the evil. Every man feels that this is a reasonable expectation in regard to those who have offended him. Every parent, especially, looks with anxiety for the repentance of a disobedient child; and he considers nothing worthy of the name, but sincere sorrow and a return to affectionate obedience. No man need wonder, therefore, that God, who requires nothing but what is right, and who can require nothing less, commands all men everywhere to repent. The salvation offered in the gospel, though it be a salvation of sinners, is also a salvation from sin. The heaven which it promises is a heaven of holiness. The rivers of pleasure, which flow from the right hand of God, are filled with the pure waters of life. No man, therefore, can be saved who does not, by repentance, forsake his sins. This is itself a great part of salvation. The inward change of heart from the love and service of sin to the love and service of God, is the great end of the death of Christ, who gave himself for his church, "that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." A salvation for sinners, therefore, without repentance, is a contradiction.
Hence it is that repentance is the burden of evangelical preaching. Our Saviour himself, when he began to preach, said, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And when he came into Galilee preaching the gospel, he said, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." The commission which he gave his apostles was, "That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations." In the execution of this commission his disciples went forth and preached, "Repent ye, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." Paul, in the account which he gave Agrippa of his preaching, said that he "showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance." And he called upon the elders at Ephesus to bear witness that he had taught "publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."
Repentance, then, is the great, immediate, and pressing duty of all who hear the gospel. They are called upon to forsake their sins, and to return unto God through Jesus Christ. The neglect of this duty, is the rejection of salvation. For, as we have seen, unless we repent we must perish. It is because repentance is thus indispensably necessary, that God reveals so clearly not only the evil of sin, and the terms of his law, but his infinite compassion and love; that he calls upon us to turn unto him and live, assuring us that he is "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth," This call to repentance commonly follows men from the cradle to the grave. It is one of the first sounds which wakes the infant's ear; it is one of the last which falls on the failing senses of the dying sinner. Everything in this world is vocal with the voice of mercy. All joy and all sorrow are calls to return unto God with whom are the issues of life. Every opening grave, every church, every page of the Bible, is an admonition or an invitation. Every serious thought or anxious foreboding is the voice of God, saying, "Turn ye; for why will ye die?" It is through all these admonitions that men force their way to death. They perish, because they deliberately reject salvation.
It is one of the mysteries of redemption, that, under the economy of mercy, all duties are graces. Though repentance is our duty, it is not less the gift of God. Those who wrest the Scriptures to their own destruction, gladly seize on such truths either as an excuse for delay, under pretence of waiting God's time, or as a palliation of the guilt of a hard and impenitent heart. But those who feel the greatness of the work required of them rejoice in the truth, and rouse themselves with new energy to their duty, no longer a hopeless task, and with all earnestness work out their own salvation, because it is God that worketh in them to will and to do according to his own pleasure.
* From: The Way of Life, chapters 6-7, by Charles Hodge