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The true, and false, Notions of Repentance, considered.
Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your Sins say be blotted out.
THE great Concern of all Christians is, so to pass through Things Temporal, that they finally lose not the Things Eternal: And the most important Enquiry in order to this, is that which leads us to the certain Knowledge of those Terms upon which God will pardon, and accept us. But though this be a Point of infinitely the greatest Importance of any that can some within the Thoughts of a Christian: yet there is no Point, in which Christians act a more careless, and surprizing, Part than in this; and none in which they more willingly contribute to their own Deceit, and Ruin. Nor in any thing is this more visible, than in those false Notions which many give themselves leave to entertain concerning the Nature of that Repentance, to which they find the Promise of Forgiveness to be annexed in the Gospel. As it is our Duty, therefore, to put a Stop, as much as we are able, to such mistaken Apprehensions; as may endanger the Eternal Happiness of Men; so, I shall now endeavour it, in this Particular, in Pursuance of what I have, in some former Discourses attempted, in order to establish in our Minds the true Notion of those Terms which are required of us, in order to our final Acceptance with God. And,
I. I shall endeavour to shew you the true Nature of that Repentance, which is of Force for Remission of Sins. And,
II. FROM hence, I shall make appear the great Weakness of those mistaken Notions of it, by which many Christians have been deceived,
I. IN order to shew the true Nature of that Repentance which is spoken of in the New Testament, I shall premise Two or Three Observations, Viz:
1. THAT our blessed Lord, and his Apostles, preaching to a World of Men, grown up in Heathen Impieties, and arrived at full Age, without such bright Light and Conviction, as the Gospel brought along with it, constantly speak of Repentance in their discourses to them; as the first Step towards their Acceptance with God. This We may see in the Gospels, and all thro’ the Acts of the Apostles; that, when Heathens, or wicked Jews, are spoken to, and instructed what to do, in order to Salvation, the first Word generally is; Repent: is here, in the Text, St. Peter calls upon the Jews who had hitherto rejected the Lord of Life, to repent; and that in order to their Being converted; as it follows. For the first Step that a vicious Man can take towards a Change of his Life, is to be truly sensible of the Unreasonableness of that Course of Sin and Iniquity, in which he hath formerly lived; and to have due Sentiments of his past Behaviour: because, without this due inward Sense of it; He can never heartily consent to forsake; and amend it; or, in the Expression used in the Text, to be converted, or turned, from it Thus in the Second Chapter of the Acts, the same St. Peter exhorts the unbelieving Jews, Repent and be baptized. Repentance is the first Step: because, as I have already observed, without a Sense of the Unreasonableness and Wickedness of their former State, they could not possibly, with Sincerity, think it worth their while to believe in Jesus Christ; and to be baptized, and entered, into his Religion, so different from their former Condition.
AND this being the first Step that could be taken by an unbelieving, or wicked Man; no wonder that this is pointed out as the first, in order to Salvation, or Remission of Sins. Upon this first Repentance of Unbelievers, they were baptized, and by Baptism put into a State of Salvation; and a Capacity of being happy upon the Conditions of Jesus Christ: and therefore this may well be spoken of; as the Road to Salvation, and Happiness; because without it there could be no entering into the Christian Dispensation. This, then, is that Condition of Acceptance; which is chiefly spoken of thro’ the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles; which give us an account of what was said to Unbelievers, and wicked Jews, or Gentiles. But,
2. THE next Observation I have to make is, that, as soon as this first Condition was complied with, and Men were persuaded by the Apostle’s Preaching into a due Sense of their past evil Courses, and into a thorough Renunciation of them; that, as soon as they were, in consequence of this, entered into the Christian Religion by Baptism, and were professed Members of Christ’s body, the Church: that then, I say, all the Exhortations of the Apostles, and all their Persuasions, ran perpetually upon Newness of Life; upon working out their own Salvation with Fear and Trembling; upon the Danger of falling back into their former State; and upon the Perfection of Virtue required of them. This is plain from the Epistles, written by the Apostles to professed Christians: which are full of the most pathetic Exhortations to all Virtue; and of the most severe Reprehensions of all Vice; and of the plainest Condemnations of Christians, who am wilful Sinners, to the greatest Degrees of God’s Displeasure.
SO that from your Observation of what you read in the Acts of the Apostles; and of what you find in their Epistles; you cannot but make these Two Conclusions: That Repentance is the Subject of their Sermons, when they are preaching to unbelieving, or wicked, Jews and Gentiles; in order to persuade them to leave off their former Behaviour, and come over to the Christian Religion: and that, after they are Christians, they are with the same Earnestness pressing upon them the absolute, indispensable, Necessity of Holiness and Virtue; as they were before inculcating the Necessity of their renouncing their former State of Infidelity, and Vice. The frequent mention of Repentance is made to those who were not already Christians: but to Christians, the Practice of all Virtue, and the positive Improvement in all that is good and Praise-worthy, is vehemently recommended. But,
3. THO’ this be so in fact; as will appear to any one who will compare the Preaching of the Apostles to Unbelievers, with the Moral Rules and Instructions given to Believers; yet I must observe that there was place found for Repentance, in favour of such professed Christians as wilfull sinned, upon their giving evident Tokens of the Sincerity of it. But then, there was no other Token of it supposed to be sincere but actual Amendment, and Reformation; without which it is evident, from the Tenor of all the Apostles Declarations, in their Epistles, that there was no Hope of Acquittance at the last Day of Accounts. Thus the sinful Corinthian was restored to Peace; not till He was in danger of being swallowed up with over-much sorrow, 2 Cor. ii. 7; and after much more Difficulty, and Severity of Discipline, than was used in admitting the Repentance of one who had not before professed himself a Christian. If any one who was called a Brother, i. e. a Christian, was a habitual Sinner; His Company was to be avoided by other Christians, as one whom they were not to own for a Christian, in those Days when it could be done, 1 Cor. v. 11But this was upon Supposition of the Person’s not amending his Life: for it is evident that, upon the Tokens of a sincere Amendment, He was admitted again to Hopes of Happiness. Let him that stole steal no more,. was the Method which St. Paul prescribed in the Case of the Sin of Theft: Ephes. iv. 28. which implies in it, that Amendment is the Sum of the Repentance of a Christian, and that upon that Amendment, He is in a safe Condition.
I COULD give more Evidence of this from the first Records of Christianity: but this one Argument is sufficient, which I have heretofore enlarged upon; viz. that the Gospel would in vain profess to bring Salvation to mortal Men, if every wilful Deviation from the Rules of Virtue were so unpardonable, that no future Amendment were sufficient to entitle the Sinner to the Forgiveness of what was past. For, as to forgive Sinners without actual Amendment and Reformation, would be to encourage them to continue in Sin: so, absolutely to deny Forgiveness to every wilful Sin, tho’ sincerely repented of, and forsaken, would be to drive Men by Despair into the same State of Sin; and to defeat the Designs of the Gospel. And therefore, we may be sure that, as nothing but Amendment, and future Holiness, can entitle a Christian to Forgiveness of his past Sins; so these most certainly will do it.
THUS then the Case stands. The unbelieving World of Jews and Gentiles, were supposed by the Apostles to be great and wilful Sinners: and therefore, Repentance was the first thing spoken of, to them. Believers, or Christians, entered into, and solemnly engaged in, the holiest of all Institutions, were not supposed by them to be Wilful Sinners; or to continue in those Sins which they had renounced at Baptism: as the Apostle himself argues, Rom. vi. And therefore little mention is made to them expresly of Repentance; but much of living worthy of their Profession, and of fulfilling all the Laws of Morality, and Virtue, in the highest degree possible. But if any of them were overcome by Sin, and tempted to transgress the Rules of their Institution; Amendment was required and accepted, for the sake of that Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
WHAT, therefore, remains for us, who are professed Christians, to do, in this Matter? Certainly, We are to look merely to that which was recommended to Jews and Gentiles, as the first Step only towards Happiness: but to those Injunctions laid upon such as became professed Christians; and to the Methods prescribed to Them. And then, we can never mistake in this great and Important Affair: because we can never think out selves at liberty to dispense with that Holiness, and Perfection of Virtue, which is constantly press’d upon Christians. If therefore, we take in the whole of this Matter; and consider Repentance; with relation to professed Christians, who have been Sinners; as something which will entitle them to God’s Favour; it must certainly equally suppose and imply in it these following Parts:
1. AN hearty Sorrow and deep Concern, for all past Transgressions of the Laws of God.
2. AN unfeigned Disposition of Mind, opposite to that of Sin and Wickedness, and tending to fulfil his Will. And,
3. AN actual avoiding, or resisting, those Temptations, by which they have been formerly over-powered; and an actual Practice of the contrary Virtues.
1. WITH respect to the first of these, all are willing enough to admit that Repentance must suppose and imply it; because a little Sorrow, and a short-liv’d Passion, will cost them little Pains, and Trouble. The lowest Notion of Repentance takes in that of being sorrowful; and having a tender Disposition of Mind, for the present, whilst that Sorrow lasts. About this, therefore there needs no Debate, because this is the part of Repentance which the weak side of Human Nature is the most pleased with. But,
2. THERE must be a Change of Disposition within. The Word used in the New Testament signifieth an Alteration of the Purpose, and Frame, within.
ST. Paul reckons not Sorrow a part of Repentance; but Repentance an Effect of Sorrow: 2 Cor. vii. 10. For godly Sorrow, (and that is the Sorrow, we are now speaking of) worketh Repentance to Salvation, not to be repented of. It worketh such a Disposition of Mind, as manifestly shews what it is that produceth it. If any Person be concerned, and sorrowful at any thing that hath pass’d him; it never fails to work in Him a Disposition leading to the contrary for the Time to come. And, if you consult the Movements of your own Minds, you must find that a true Concern within, at any past part of your Conduct, is never without a firm Thought, and Disposition, contrary to that which hath caused that Regret, and Concern, in you. If this be so, in all other Cases; we may depend upon it, it is the same in this now before us. If we be truly sorrowful, and heartily concerned, that we have offended God, and sinned against his Laws; this will certainly be accompanied with as sincere, and as hearty, a Disposition to please Him, and obey his whole Will for the Time to come. And it cannot be supposed to be a sincere Sorrow without this. Now is this all; for,
3. THIS Sorrow, and this Change of Mind, if they be sincere, must unavoidably produce a Course of Behaviour contrary to that which caused this Sorrow, and this Disposition: and if this be not the Effect of them, they are of no Account; unless it be to increase the Condemnation of those who pretend to them. Thus St. Paul, in the forecited Seventh Chapter of his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Verse 10. declareth, that godly Sorrow worketh Repentance to Salvation, a Repentance not to be repented of: perhaps the Words more properly signify, such a Repentance as implies in it no occasion for Repentance, afterwards; such a Repentance as implies in it a Conduct and Behaviour, of which there is no reason to repent. And He goes on, in the next Verse, to prove their Sorrow for having offended to be sincere, and genuine; not from their Words., but from their Actions and Behaviour: by which only it was that He judged that they sorrowed after a godly sort.
BUT what need I appeal to Him? We our selves are Judges of this Matter, if we be not foolishly partial to our selves, by our intimate Acquaintance with the Springs, and Frame, of Human Nature. There are none of us all, who, in the Case of other Persons, do not constantly judge of the Bent of their inward Thoughts, and the Sincerity of their outward Professions, by their Actions and Behaviour; and by these only. In any Matters that concern our selves, we never take the Professions of others concerning their inward Dispositions towards us, to be the true Representations of them, unless we see the Fruits and Effects, which, in such Cases we cannot help judging, would follow upon such Dispositions of Mind. How then can we possibly think our selves sincere in our Sorrow, and inward Repentance towards God; whilst we see them void of those good Effects, by which only they are as certainly known amongst Men themselves, as a good Tree is known by the Fruit it produceth?
AND if we proceed in our Enquiries; and examine farther into the Constitution of our own Natures; we shall find that all the Powers and Faculties of our Minds were given us for no other Purpose, but to regulate our Behaviour, and Conduct; and that they are all of no account; but as tending, and employed, that way. We never think any Persons arrived at the use of their inward Faculties, till they are fit to act, and shew themselves in the World: and we never judge any to be prudent, or imprudent; mad, or sober within; but by their outward Conduct and Demeanor. What signify all our inward Powers? Of what Importance is it, to judge and determine, within our own Minds; to reflect and censure our own Actions; unless it be in order to have an Influence upon them? As sure, therefore, as it is, that any Person hath a Power within, to judge which way of Action is best: so sure is it, that this Power could be given for nothing, but to determine his Actions the best Way. As sure as it is that have, all of us, a Conscience, or Reason, to direct us before we act, and to applaud, or condemn us afterwards: so sure is it, that this hath solely a respect to our Actions, and Behaviour. If, therefore; we cannot but reflect with Sorrow, and Concern, upon some part of our Behaviour; which we find contradictory to the Laws of Reason, and of God: it is certain that this very Power of Reflexion was designed to influence our Behaviour for the Time to come. For, to be sorry for any part of our Behaviour, implies in it that it was unbecoming, or sinful; and to account it unbecoming, or sinful, implies in it that it ought never to be practised again: and so it cannot be, but that this inward Affection must be designed for the Alteration of what is amiss in us.
AND if to this we add a Consideration, or Two, upon the Nature of Almighty God; we shall find it yet more certain. For, his Nature being all Perfection; there cannot be an higher Indignity offered to Him, than to suppose that our Sorrow, or Grief, which is, in the degree of it, Misery it self, is for its own sake acceptable to Him. No, If we think rightly of Him; we cannot but think that bare Sorrow is what He rather dislikes, than likes: but that it is that godly Sorrow only, which worketh Amendment, and Alteration, that is approved of by Him. Can our Grief, or Sorrow, advantage Him? Or, can any thing of ours affect Him? No, But it is only, as our Grief may advantage our selves; and as our Sorrow may lead us to avoid all Occasions of such Sorrow for the Time to come; that it can be well-pleasing in his Eyes.
WILL you then judge from the Nature of Man? You see, all, the inward Movements of his Mind are calculated for nothing but to influence and govern his Behaviour: and so, a Sorrow without an Effect of it upon his Life, must be as insignificant, in his own Account, as the Faculty of Reasoning itself, separated from all Effect upon his Conduct, and Behaviour. Or, will you judge of this Matter from the Nature of God Almighty? cannot take any Pleasure in our Sorrow; but as it tends to our real Joy and Happiness. It can be of no account in his Eyes; but as it makes us better, and wiser, for the future;
OR lastly, will you judge of it from the great Design of Christianity? How unworthy must you think it of God, to send his Son into the World, to live, and dye, in order to lead Men to a bare, pretended, Sorrow, and Grief for their Sins? Is it not the doing his Father’s Will, which He presseth upon his Disciples? Is it not declared that the Grace of God appeared to Men in the Gospel, to teach them to deny Ungodliness and worldly Lusts; and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this World? And is it not to contradict all this, in the most flagrant manner, to imagine that the End of Christ’s coming could be, to lead Men only to a little vain empty Sorrow? That is, to lead Men to what doth, in its own nature, aggravate their Guilt, if they stop at it, without proceeding any farther. Aggravate their Guilt, I say: for when we are sorrowful on Account of our Sins: this Sorrow supposeth in it that we ought not to commit them; and that there is a foul Evil, and Guilt in them: and this tacit Acknowledgment that their Nature is foul, and evil, and makes us guilty before God, cannot but help to condemn us for returning to what we our selves think so Blame-worthy. So that when we have Opportunity to do better, and do not; but return again to the same Sins that we think deserve, and call for, our Sorrow; we are self-condemned. The Sorrow, by which we hope to cover them, must help to make them the more meritorious of Punishment: as it implies in it Self-condemnation, and an Acknowledgment of Guilt. But when it leads to Amendment, and a gradual Increase in Virtue; then only is it the Parent of good Fruit, lovely in the Eyes of God, and pleasing, in the Reflexion of the Man himself. How plain, therefore, is it, if we will but consider Things, as they truly are, in their Nature, and Consequences, that the Repentance of Christians, who have been Sinners, necessarily implies in it, an actual forsaking of their Sins, and an actual Progress in all Virtue, and Godliness of living.
II. HAVING thus given as true, and as plain, an Account, as I could, of the Repentance which alone can avail any professed Christians; I shall now only make Two or Three short Inferences from what I have laid down, with respect to those mistaken Notions, by which many Christians deceive themselves in this Affair. And,
1. FROM what hath been said we see the Vanity, and Misery, of those who place their Hopes of Acceptance with God, upon the Sorrow, and Grief, which they sometimes conceive for their Sins; and call by the Name of Repentance, because, in our Language, when we are sorry for any past part of our Conduct, we are said to repent of it. If a Man, proposing to Himself to travel to a Place at some distance from his present Station, should conclude himself to be arrived at it, when He had set but one step out of his own Home; and there make a full Stop, contented, and satisfied that this would be sufficient: would you not think such a Person distempered in his Brain? Why, just thus it is in the Case we are considering. We pretend to be travelling towards Happiness: and Repentance, in all its Parts, is the Road to this Happiness. The first Step, in this Road, is Sorrow for our Sins. He that stops at this Sorrow, therefore, and rests himself contented with it, stops at the first Step in his Journey: and how likely He is to arrive at his Journeys End, you may easily judge.
2. THUS again, if the second Step be a good Disposition of Mind to go forwards; He that stops, without putting in Execution this Disposition, is still as unlikely to arrive at the End proposed. This is another Mistake of Men in this Affair, that a present good Disposition, and Resolution of Mind, is sufficient for their Purpose. But certainly, it is not going one Step, or two Steps, that will bring us to the End of our spiritual Journey; but the proceeding as far as Time, and Strength, give leave.
3. FROM what hath been said, we are led not to place any Hopes in what we call a Death-bed Repentance: For this Repentance, extorted from us by the Prospect of Death, can be only a Sorrow for Sin perhaps rendered more passionate by our present Fears. And this being only Sorrow, and Compunction, and perhaps a good Resolution; it is plain that still these are only the first Steps in the Repentance of a Sinner; and not complete Repentance, in all its parts. I confess these are not ill Signs: but it ought plainly to be declared that Sorrow, and good Words, are not the End of the Gospel Institution; but an holy Life and Conversation. Indeed, where a Person hath had no Calls to Repentance and Amendment before; but been inevitably blinded by unhappy Circumstances of Education, and hardly known what the Gospel pretends to: if such a Person be awakened by his Danger into serious Enquiries, and an hearty Conviction of the Truth of the Gospel; and a great Detestation of his former Courses; one might reasonably hope good Things. But in the Case of most professed Christians, who are called, day after day, to Amendment, and have all the Arguments imaginable represented to them; and yet, day after day, shut their Ears; spend all that time and Health, which God allows them, in Vice and Iniquity; and then at last are sorry for this, when God thinks fit to try them no longer: In such Case, I say, all that can be said is, that they are sorrowful for their Sins; and that if that Sorrow be sincere, they are got one Step towards Happiness. But to give greater Hopes; or to say that they are the Christians whom God hath declared, He will accept, in his Gospel, is to render vain all the Threatnings of his Son; to place the Sinner and the Saint upon equal Terms; to put all upon a Man’s having a little longer Sickness than his Neighbour: and to undo the great Design of reforming Men’s Lives, the only End worthy of the Son of God’s Incarnation.
THE Result of the whole, is this. Since Almighty God hath plainly declared, in his Gospel, what it is He expects of those who have been Sinners; I need not tell you, how great a Weakness, and how extreme a Folly, it is, to have recourse to vain, and flattering Hopes of our own. Since we are Christians, and have a Gospel open to us, to have recourse to, upon this Occasion; it is the greatest Weakness imaginable to consult our own Passions and our own Lusts, what it is fit for us to hope for, at the Hands of God. And yet, I am persuaded this is the Case. Were not Men inwardly captivated to some Vice; Covetuousness, or Ambition, or Sensuality; there would not be any thing, in the nature of Things, more evident to themselves, than that Almighty God cannot be supposed to accept any Thing at our Hands, without a sincere Amendment of what we know, and acknowledge, to be amiss in our selves. And yet, such is the Effect of our own evil Habits, and the Prevalence of our beloved Vices; that we first desire, and at last come really to hope, to be accepted for some superficial Circumstance, without a real Reformation of our Lives.
BUT how long will Men thus deceive themselves, in a Case in which all Deceit is the Ruin of Soul and Body for ever; and in which they can impose upon none but themselves? Behold, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to do justly, to love Mercy, and to walk humbly with they God? This was plain under the Law. How much more plain under the Gospel? As we are Christians, we are not so much as supposed to be Sinners. But if, we have transgressed against the plainest Light; God is so merciful as to allow a Place for Reconciliation to his Favour, upon our Amendment. Is this so hard a Condition? Is this so great an Injury to us, that we should turn against it, and abuse the Gospel to our own Destruction? Shall the Goodness, and Long-suffering of God, instead of leading us to true Repentance, only lead us to a false Image of it; and to treasure up Wrath to our selves against the Day of Wrath? Shall we continue in Sin; and pretend that Sorrow for it is sufficient? God forbid! How shall we, Christians, who, by our Profession, are dead to Sin, live any longer therein? Let not such an Use be made of our great Lord’s indulgent Kindness to us in the Gospel: but let all who know what Repentance is, and what it implies in it, live worthy of that Repentance, by which they hope for Salvation; and of that Vocation wherewith they are called.
IN a word: If you will have your Sins blotted out; you must repent, and be converted, in the Words of the Text: that is, actually turned from them. If you have been wilful, habitual Sinners; and think of being saved by Repentance; here is the Line marked out. The first Step is Sorrow for your Sins: but it is but the first. The second is a Disposition to amend your Lives. But there is no stopping here. You cannot think this Sorrow, and this Disposition, sincere, unless they shew themselves in good Effects. There must be an actual amendment; an actual entring upon, and Progress in a virtuous and holy Life; whilst God gives Opportunity. Without this, there is not the least Security of Happiness: and, if you trust to any other Methods, you rely upon other Terms than what are proposed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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