Sermon X. On Repentance. [A Sermon for Lent.] Romans ii. 4. The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.
NO duty which it is attempted to enforce upon the consciences of men, is regarded with a more reluctant ear than that of repentance. To be reminded of the demerit of a life of disobedience, to be called upon to review repeated acts of transgression, and long habits of sins, negligences, and ignorances, is a requirement in itself sufficiently odious. But to be called upon to hate, to renounce, to forsake, sins which are cherished, passions which are congenial, and evil habits and desires which have been long and ardently pursued, is an admonition too unwelcome to be received with any thing but impatience and aversion.
It is impossible even for the most hardened to look back without uneasiness upon a wicked life. To look forward to its consequences is still more [133/134] dreadful. And so far from being willing to be reminded of the past or the future, the generality of men are happy to find something in the present to relieve them from reflections upon both.
There are two considerations, however, which deserve to be well weighed, in order to induce an attentive and favourable hearing to the nature and requisitions of repentance. These are, first, that repentance is important to ourselves, as involving our own interest; secondly, that we owe it to God as a matter of duty and of gratitude.
There are no persons whom one or other of these considerations ought not to influence. They who regard only what affects themselves, and have followed sinful lives from the expectation of promoting their own pleasure or advantage, if they have not yet found their error, will, in the end, discover it; and if even self be allowed all its influence, should be induced to seek their lasting happiness and true pleasures in a new course of life. And they of more generous minds, upon whom reflections on the beneficence and mercy of God have any power, ought to compare their courses of folly and ingratitude with the riches of God's goodness; to consider their returns of unkindness to him, who has been ever kind to them; and to be humbled and abased for having repaid the tenderness of a Benefactor with forgetfulness, and of a Father with disobedience. A few remarks on each of these motives, will, [134/135] perhaps, better dispose us for what I chiefly intend in this discourse, the consideration of the duty of repentance.
That it is our interest to repent, arises from this, that all our sin is actual opposition to God, and they who indulge in it are his enemies. But to live in opposition to God, to be the enemy of him who is the Almighty Disposer of all things, who has in his hand all the blessings which in time and in eternity can be enjoyed by men; to be an enemy to this great and powerful Being, is to be the enemy of our own peace, of our own happiness. But besides that sin is opposed to God, there is a certain and established connexion between virtue and happiness, and between vice and misery. From which it necessarily results, that he who pursues virtue, pursues, at the same time, his own best advantage and his highest felicity; and on the other hand, he who yields himself the slave of sin, who opposes the pure, and holy, and just will of God, hates his own soul, and is the wretched, though perhaps, unconscious destroyer of his own welfare. As long as this mutual connexion and fitness of things exist (and they are inherent in the very frame and organization of God's moral creation,) so long must the wicked man be miserable, so long must "the way of the transgressor be hard."
But the evil of disobedience is not confined to the present fleeting life, nor are its consequences [135/136] fully manifested here. Its wretched subjects may even now discover that "there is no peace to the wicked;" but there is a day coming when they must perceive, that "sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." "For the wrath of God is declared from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." "For behold! the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be as stubble, and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts." From a catastrophe so dreadful, nothing but repentance can save the wicked. God willeth not their death. As he lives, he has sworn that he willeth it not. He has provided a way of escape. A great salvation is offered to all men. But repentance is the first step in the path of safety. It is his own words, "Unless they repent they shall perish." Sin must be given up, overcome, abandoned. With holiness it can never dwell; for "what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? or what concord hath Christ with Belial?" So neither can sin enjoy the favour of God, nor disobedience participate the rewards of virtue.
If we believe these truths, founded in the very nature of things, declared on the authority of God, and assured to us by our own conscience, is it not our interest to abandon our sins? Is it [136/137] not our interest to turn to God by sincere and unreserved repentance? Is it not our interest to supplicate the grace of his Holy Spirit, "that we may amend our lives according to his holy word." But if any should object that the disobedient and careless, alike with the righteous, enjoy the temporal mercies of God; that there is no sufficient evidence here that punishment follows transgression; and therefore that our happiness cannot be considered as depending upon the character of our lives; I answer, This objection is true only in part. For although the present state be one of probation, not of retribution, and though in God's outward dealings with men his favour or disfavour is not now fully manifested; yet even here the sense of that favour or disfavour is felt in the inward experience of his love, or the inward apprehension of his wrath. Our hopes and our fears unite in declaring that the whole scene of his government is not at present spread before us. Our own minds carry us forward to the future, for the completion of his plans. We are, therefore, sustained by his promises, or cast down by his threatenings. Our minds, then, bear witness to the truth, that light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart; that punishments are prepared for the wicked, though suspended for a time; during which they are permitted to enjoy without interruption the abundance of his mercies.
 The kindness and beneficence of God in permitting these mercies to be enjoyed, and the gracious purpose he has in view, are the second consideration, which, besides a regard to our own interest, should excite us to repentance. When we reflect upon the goodness of God towards us, we must be devoid of sensibility, if we do not perceive it to be undeserved. Sin we know is hateful to him, and we, alas! are often guilty of its commission. And yet when a human governor would at once withdraw his favours, God continues to spread around us the fulness and abundance of his blessing. For what purpose does he act thus beneficently towards us? To encourage us to sin? To blind us to his hatred of it? In our inmost conscience, we feel and know that he cannot look upon it with approbation; for we are assured that sin alienates God from us, and us from God. But he is a gracious and merciful Being. He presents himself to our view in the generous character of a friend--a friend whom we have injured indeed, but who still will not withdraw his mercy, until we have evinced that all sense of gratitude, all feeling of generosity, all desire to be reclaimed, are banished from our bosoms. Therefore does he shower his kindness upon those who abuse his mercy. Therefore is he good even to the unthankful and the evil.
My brethren, are we capable of appreciating this goodness which the character of God only [138/139] could make credible? And knowing that his punishments are delayed, that we may escape his wrath; that his mercy is extended for. the trial of our duty, and of our love; can we be so unwise, can we be so thankless and so base, as to despise the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering? Let us shrink from pursuing any farther a course of conduct so unworthy. If a sense of interest cannot move us, let a feeling of gratitude constrain us to turn to God; to examine the particulars wherein we have offended him; and to humble ourselves before him, in such a repentance as will procure for us his favour. Nay, let both these considerations influence our minds; that whether we regard ourselves, our repentance may be effectual in averting God's anger; or whether we regard his goodness, we may ever hereafter render an obedience and a homage more suitable to his excellence and majesty.
With these motives in view, let us now proceed to consider what this duty of repentance implies. The original term expresses an act of pure intelligence, an act of the mind; reviewing, conning over, pondering, the past. This, which is in the power of every individual, may be improved into a religious act by virtue of that grace which is given to all men. And this is the beginning of repentance. To look back upon our past lives, to see how far we have gone in the paths of error, [139/140] wandering like lost sheep from the ways of God; to consider how much we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts, regardless of the commands of our Sovereign and our Judge; and to reflect how little it has availed us; all this every one may do. If we deal faithfully and sincerely with ourselves, and perform this duty in humble prayer to God for the further aids of his Spirit, we shall perceive, that in forsaking God we have forsaken the fountain of living waters, the origin and source of all good; and knowing that in us there is no health, we shall confess our errors, we shall acknowledge our transgressions, and be sorry for our sins; we shall implore from our gracious Father mercy and forgiveness; we shall beseech him to "spare those who confess their faults," to "restore those who are penitent;" and in the assurance of faith and of hope, we shall plead his "promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord." In all this, what is there which we ought not to do? What is there which our best understanding does not approve, and to which our best feelings, realizing God's goodness and forbearance, do not constrain us"? But repentance also implies a deep sense of guilt, and a true sorrow for it, as committed against God. This constitutes a godly sorrow, in opposition to the sorrow of the world. The latter is a superficial regret for evils in which we find ourselves involved. It is a compunction arising [140/141] from the temporal or personal disadvantages consequent upon our imprudence or transgression. It is a transient recollection of follies and of crimes of which we feel the inconvenient effects, and for which, therefore, we reproach ourselves. It originates in our love of the world, and our fear of losing its advantages; and the favour of the world can again change this sorrow into joy. It is therefore justly called a sorrow of this world, and as it has no reference to God, it only worketh death. But if our repentance be true, we shall perceive that our crimes have offended God, as well as injured ourselves. Whether we look upon his justice, it will make us afraid; or upon his goodness, it will make us "heartily sorry for our misdoings." Our ingratitude will touch our hearts as deeply as our danger, and from an ingenuous feeling that our sins are at variance with our duty to our heavenly Father, "the remembrance of them will be grievous to us, and the burden of them intolerable."
This is the sorrow which avails with God. The child who has transgressed the injunctions of an earthly parent, is not so freely pardoned when he has suffered the inconvenience which that parent foresaw, as when touched with sorrow, and melted with a sense of duty and of shame, he returns, saying, "Father, I have sinned. Father, forgive my fault." It is this contrition of the heart which God approves, for this is a living [141/142] and operative principle, which will not fail to make disobedience odious, and to cause him who feels it, to tremble at God's word, lest at any time he transgresses his commandments. To perfect the idea of repentance, then, we must include in it that which is its object and end, and without which it is but an empty name, the amendment of the life. The true penitent will supplicate his merciful Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, that he may ever "live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of God's holy name;" and to his prayers he will add the whole force of watchfulness and of exertion, to overcome temptation, and to resist evil. He will be supported, and encouraged to persevere, by a scriptural faith; for knowing that his sins are all his own, that God abhors them, and wishes him to be delivered from their influence, he will not doubt of the succour of his grace. And since Jesus Christ shed his blood for those who were yet sinners, he is assured, that he will redeem from the power of sin them who meekly turn unto him, with the purpose of leading a new life, striving to do his will. Hope arises from the conviction that God will cherish his reformation, that he will prosper his efforts, that he will acknowledge and receive him as his child, and make him a partaker of all the blessings of holiness and salvation, which the Saviour of the world, by his precious blood-shedding, hath obtained for his followers. This repentance, [142/143] originating in such a contrition, and inducing the sincere desire evermore to please and obey God, is that which the Gospel requires; and no individual who is in earnest for his eternal welfare, will think it an unreasonable or too difficult a service. On the contrary, when we have thus confessed our sins, and deprecated their punishment, when we have mourned our ingratitude, renounced our errors, and found forgiveness with God, repentance, so far from being irksome, is full of joy, and spreads over the soul a peace which the world knoweth not.
My brethren, how kind and how gracious is that admonitory voice of religion, which calls men to judge themselves, that they be not judged of the Lord, that bids them remember their sins now, that they be not remembered against them at the last day, that invites them now to lay open before the great Physician the corruptions of their own hearts, that the blood of atonement and of healing may be poured in, and they be saved to life eternal. Let us beware that at this solemn season, dedicated by the Church to a careful examination of our spiritual state, we dissemble not with ourselves in this great preparation for duly receiving the Gospel. Let us not make our repentance imperfect by any concealments, excuses, or reservations; or our obedience partial, by omissions on the one hand, or indulgences on the other. Our own is the danger, and our own will be the [143/144] loss, if we do. But if, "with a true penitent heart and lively faith," we resolve to glorify God in a new life, "following his commandments, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways," great will be our advantage. The heart will be lightened of its burden by the humble acknowledgment of its sins. A sense of forgiveness will elevate the soul to God in acts of praise, and thanksgiving, and reverent devotion. And the Most High, who regards with favour the meek and contrite spirit, will come and dwell there with his grace.