A Fragment On Repentance

The setting a certain quantity of repentance first (as some men preach), as a preliminary process to believing, I hold to be utterly mischievous and unscriptural. According to such views, repentance must take place without the word of God; for if it be by the word of God, there must be faith in that word, or else repentance is founded on unbelief, which is absurd. That it should be wrought by the preaching of a full gospel—glad tidings of a free and finished salvation—is the desire of my heart.

In some tracts on this subject of repentance, there has been an unhappy mingling up of the means and the effects. Be it that the true means of working repentance now is a full free gospel; be it too that there is a change of mind as to God in repentance. I believe both; yet neither of these is repentance itself.

According to scripture, I cannot admit that believing the gospel is repentance, nor that a change of mind simply is repentance. I admit that the mind must be changed to have it, but it is not simply a change of mind. When the Lord said, “Repent and believe the gospel,” the two things do not mean one and the same thing; nor, here, was the gospel that which we now have consequent upon the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord.

But to turn to a few instances in scripture. First, Acts 2 … Peter charged the people distinctly with their sin, and they were pricked to the heart and said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” The gospel was preached, and, being believed, produced godly sorrow. Then he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you … for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Then came fruits and praise. Here it is not merely presenting the blessed and glorious revelation of God in Christ, nor indeed is this finished work spoken of. The contrast is made between what they had done to Christ, and what God had done to Him. They had crucified Him; God had exalted Him, and the Holy Ghost, whose work they saw, was the proof of it; and they, through grace, were pricked to the heart.

Secondly, again, I may notice Acts 3. Here there is not a word of the gospel. It is an earnest pressing upon them of their sin in rejecting Christ, and promising the blotting out of their sins and the return of Christ on their repentance. In this case we have, however, no record of the effects. For the chief priests and captains of the temple came upon them and stopped the discourse.

Thirdly, Acts 10. Here there is no call for repentance at all. Cornelius was already a godly man; his prayers and his alms had gone up for a memorial before God. It was a revelation that in every nation those who feared God and wrought righteousness were accepted of Him. It was salvation brought to a godly man, though he was a Gentile.

Fourthly, Acts 13 is more to the purpose. It is an announcement of the fulfilment of promise in Christ, His resurrection, and forgiveness of sins and justification to those that believe. But the question of repentance is not raised, though I cannot doubt it was wrought in them that believed.

Fifthly. In Acts 17 repentance is spoken of, but in view of the judgment of this world, and nothing is said of grace.

But now let us see how repentance itself is spoken of in scripture. And I beg you to note that I do not in the least plead for the call to repentance being founded on what it is founded on in the passages which I shall cite. It ought to be founded now on a full free gospel. It is wrong to set it as a preliminary in man, though it may precede man’s enjoyment of peace and solid assurance, and, I believe, must. I quote the texts to shew the ground in scripture for what I said at first about repentance. In scripture it does not mean believing; though man must believe in order to repent. Neither does it mean change of mind as to God, though a man’s mind must be changed as to God in order to true repentance.

But I must add that this change of mind does not in itself give peace or assurance.

The men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonas. Was that belief in the glorious free salvation of the gospel? No; but scripture calls it repentance. I do not say Jonas’s sermon to produce it should be ours. But scripture says these men repented’, and thus repentance does not mean belief in the gospel.

Again, John the Baptist’s ministry was a solemn call to repentance; but it was not the belief of that gospel which we now so rightly preach. The axe, he told them, was laid to the root of the trees. They were to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The effect was, the people feared God, had their hearts broken about their sins, and confessed them; they repented like the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonas.

When the Lord said, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” it was not believing a free gospel, but judging themselves and their sins with a heart turned to God. So when the Lord upbraided the cities where most of His mighty works were done because they repented not. When it is said, If thy brother repent, forgive him, and that seven times a day, it clearly is not believing the gospel, but self-judgment and recognition of his fault in sorrow of heart which is meant.

In passages such as Acts 8:22, we have “repent of this thy wickedness;” a clear proof that repentance does not mean believing, nor a change of mind as to God, for he was to repent of something done. So in Revelation 2:21, “repent of her fornication.” So in 2 Corinthians 12:21, as to the Corinthians’ sins. So, when it is said God by sorrow works repentance never to be regretted, they were already believers; but here the apostle’s reproofs had wrought in them repentance, as regards their allowance of disgraceful evil; and what wrought it was godly sorrow, not the joy of the gospel.

Again, when it is said, repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, we have distinct things: one, a state of mind as regards God; the other, faith and confidence in Christ. And repentance is justly thus applied to God, not ever, I believe, to Christ as the object, as faith is; because it is in the heart and conscience toward God in this our nature and character as such, not faith in the means and power of salvation. So I read in 2 Timothy 2:25, “If God will give them repentance to the acknowledging of die truth,” evidently a breaking down of soul; and will was to bow to God’s word. Now these passages shew to me clearly that though a full and free gospel may be the means of leading to repentance, yet repentance is a state of heart produced by it, and not the belief of it in itself. I repent because I believe; I repent of my sins.

Let me now take the rich exhibition of grace in Luke 15. In the first two parables it is sovereign grace, and nothing wrought in the saved one; but the third brings before us the work wrought. The young man comes to himself; and there is the change of mind as to his father, which is always the case when grace works: the hired servants had bread enough there. But the first effect was not joy. “I perish with hunger.” “I will arise and go.” Nor in going was there yet the knowledge of forgiveness. He proposes to say, Make me as one of thy hired servants. Nor had he yet met his father; he met him in his rags. Then he does not say, Make me as one of thy hired servants. He does then know what his father is—does then get the best robe and entrance into the house. But the effect of this, that there was goodness with God, was to find that he was perishing far from him, was to make him arise and go; to change his mind and to turn his face to his father instead of his back, not merely to change his mind as to God, but by that to produce a judgment of himself, and all his ways and state. In a word, the goodness of God led him to repentance. And this repentance was to be preached as well as remission of sins. Faith must be objective, is only objective, and the way of peace and confidence; the judgment of my own state will never be so, nor ought to be. But the faith in the objects presented— God’s free and sovereign love, and the Saviour and His work— produces a subjective state which scripture calls repentance. This is not a preliminary to faith, but its fruit. But there is the subjective fruit. There may have been a faith in Christ’s person and words which has wrought a work in the soul before a free gospel may have been even heard; it may have wrought sorrow and self-judgment, made the soul weary and heavy laden. Then a free gospel will produce outward joy. But when a full and free gospel is preached, and is the first thing heard by a careless soul, it is not a good sign that “they anon with joy receive it.” So the parable, and so ample experience, shews a deep subjective work is a happy and blessed thing produced by the gospel—not man’s work on himself to prepare for it—still produced.

And now, having plentifully quoted scripture, I may appeal to experience, whether he who recalls what has passed in his own mind does not know that he was brought to a subjective state of hatred of sin, self-judgment, confession of sins, with humiliation and self-loathing. In a word, whether repentance was not produced in his soul, if it were through the terrors of the law, with fear and dread perhaps, yet, if real, always with some drawing to God as good, some love of holiness, some sense of responsibility in grace whatever the terror, for mere terror of consequences is not repentance at all. If it be produced by a full display of God’s love and grace, it will be a softer, deeper, fuller work; the humiliation and hatred of sin so much the deeper. If, as I have said, a previous divine exercise of soul has been already there, a full and free gospel will give liberty and peace. But I appeal to every soul that has believed the gospel, if they are not conscious of a subjective work—the fruit of faith; and I ask them, Which, according to scripture, is repentance? That, or the belief of the gospel, or word of God in any shape, which produced it? I do not ask about the form which the repentance took—that depends on the nature of the testimony that wrought it; but whether there was not such a work in them, wrought by the testimony, distinct from faith in it, and distinct from a change of their mind as to God, though produced by that change. I do not want them to attach importance to that work as something they are to bring to God. It would be a mischievous mistake. But the state of soul is in itself important. There is a question of the authority and claim of God in it, never lightly passed over.

But I add here a word more. The forgiveness of sins is something different from the judgment of sin. And I do not believe there is settled peace, in respect of divine righteousness, till the latter work is wrought. A person may be joyous because of the forgiveness of sins, and rightly so, with very little knowledge of self and sin, and yet this has to be learned. If it has been learnt through the law, before forgiveness of sins is known, all the rest is easy; but with a free and clear gospel, specially such as is preached in these days, forgiveness of sins is often known where self is not, and this must be learnt. The Epistle to the Romans treats of sins to the end of chapter 5:11; it then takes up the question of sin, unfolded in connection with the law in chapter 7, the result being, not that Christ was set forth for a propitiation through His blood, but that we are not in the flesh but in Christ. You will find more than one soul rejoicing in forgiveness that could not think of the judgment-seat with peace. They do not know Christ as righteousness. The blood on the door-post was not one and the same thing as being out of Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. It will be said, But they were secure by the blood. Surely: God was for them; but for all that they did not know it as deliverance from the state they were in, and when assailed by Pharaoh at the Red Sea they were afraid. Once past that they were free. Do I for a moment mean that a full, free, finished salvation should not be preached to sinners? God forbid. Do I wish that a certain quantum of repentance should be insisted on as a preliminary? I reject such a thought altogether. I believe the life of Christ was just to win back confidence to God which Satan had destroyed; that this want of confidence preceded, and was the door of, the entrance of lust into Eve’s heart. But all this does not hinder my believing that the faith of that gospel produces in the heart a deep subjective work, in which it is humbled, broken, and subdued; in which it repents towards God; in which God’s claim is owned; in which self, past self, is judged. You will tell me, a man has life when he does this. Be it so. But it is not the less true that the work is wrought and must be wrought. It is wrought before the reception of the Holy Ghost, according to Acts 2, consequently before joy and liberty, though the truth, and growing truth, will remain.

A gospel which makes light of this is a defective gospel. It opens the door to legalism and false views as to repentance. Men put repentance as a human preliminary. I abhor this, and rightly; but if anyone speaks of repentance in a way not borne out by scripture, hundreds of souls, in finding him wrong, will suppose it as a question between his view and the Arminian doctrine, and take the latter to be right. It is because I reject the view such contend for, that I dread the use of the statements not borne out by scripture which I have referred to, and because I think that so speaking of repentance, as if it was itself only believing the gospel of the grace of God, is calculated to give superficiality and self-confidence to newly-converted souls, even if the conversion be real. I believe many souls have been set free from legal apprehensions of repentance and untrue bondage by such erroneous statements; but we are sanctified by the truth, and an error imbibed with it always bears its subsequent fruit.

The Greek word signifies an afterthought, a change of mind on reflection; but the question is, a change of mind as to what? Not, I distinctly say, as to God, though true knowledge of God gives us, on reflection, a just judgment of self, involving, I believe, a sense of God’s claims upon us, and our responsibility, which is a different thing from knowing Him; and thus a true judgment of all our past ways. Godly sorrow is not this, but it works it. In repentance the bent of life is changed by the apprehension of God.