The language of the publican is the language which the church daily puts into the mouths of her members during this season devoted to extraordinary exercises of humiliation and penitence. Not that she considers repentance as only an occasional duty, to be discharged only at a particular period: it is a duty of constant obligation--the paramount business of life. To confess, and to forsake our iniquities, are duties, from which, at no period, we shall be exempt, until the body of sin being destroyed, we shall shine for ever in the garments of holiness, as the angels of God.
But what is thus at all times obligatory upon us, the church enjoins more particularly at certain seasons. The various graces and duties of religion should be exhibited in our uniform character, and in the daily tenour of our lives. But their vigour would abate, and they would be in danger of total decay, did we not, at certain periods, by more than ordinary attention, brighten their lustre and infuse into them new strength.
The emotions and the holy resolutions of repentance demand, therefore, at stated periods, an extraordinary portion of our thoughts and of our [188/189] time. The season which immediately precedes the commemoration of the death of Christ as an atonement for sin, is most judiciously devoted, by our church, to extraordinary acts of humiliation and penitence. Directing our view to those sins which were the cause of those bitter sufferings and death of the Son of God, as the representative of our guilt, to the commemoration of which the present season is designed as a preparation, she enjoins on her ministers to weep, as it were, between the porch and the altar, and to say--"Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, and let not thine heritage be brought to confusion." Calling on her members humbly and faithfully to review the sins which may have corrupted their souls, and involving them in guilt, insulted the majesty of their Almighty Sovereign and Judge, and exposed them to his just displeasure--she warns and entreats them to turn unto the Lord with all their hearts, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and with deep and lively penitence to offer the humble prayer of the publican--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
This should be the language of contrition.
It should be the language of faith.
It should be the language of holy resolution.
Penetrated with contrition for his offences, the penitent should implore mercy.
He must believe that God is merciful, or it would be in vain to utter the petition.
And he should form resolutions of a new and holy life, or his contrition would be feigned, and his faith presumptuous.
Thus, then, the state of penitence is a state of contrition, of faith, of holy resolution.
"God be merciful to me a sinner!" is the [189/190] language of every sincere penitent; and it should be the language of contrition--contrition for having offended his God--for having contemned the mercy of his Saviour--for having corrupted his own soul--for having contributed to corrupt the souls of others.
Contrition for having offended his God--who, infinitely holy and infinitely good, demanded his adoration--who, infinitely just and infinitely powerful, claims his deepest reverence--who, the only source of perfection and felicity, is worthy of the liveliest homage of all intelligent creatures--the Almighty Being who made him; on whom he is dependent; who constantly preserves him, and bestows on him all his enjoyments; and to whom he is to render an account. This God--to whom he is bound by the strongest and the closest ties of duty, of love, of gratitude, and of everlasting interest--he has offended, by transgressing laws, in themselves most reasonable; in their consequences most beneficial; producing purity, peace, unspeakable consolation--laws, to enable him to obey which, the necessary strength was afforded, and which are enforced by the highest sanctions--happiness without end; misery eternal. And he has transgressed not only occasionally, not only by surprise, not only when assailed by powerful temptation, but deliberately, and perhaps in some cases habitually. Ah, brethren! who is there that has not sinned--that has not done the things which he ought not to have done, and left undone the things which he ought to have done? And yet the cares of the world, its business and its pleasures, so occupy men, that there are few who reflect that this is their sinful condition--that there is a God whom [190/191] they are bound to serve, that there is a God whom they have offended, and who will judge them.
But when the hour of reflection arrives--when some dispensation of Providence, some powerful call of God's Spirit, arouses the sinner; should he yield to the warning, and seriously meditate on his sinful condition, the dangerous ease of impenitence will be succeeded by the lively emotions of contrition. He will, in bitterness of spirit, acknowledge that he has violated the laws of his God, laws reasonable and good; that he has sinned against the Author of his being, the Preserver and Benefactor of his life, the merciful Redeemer of his soul; and that, in thus offending the greatest and best of Beings, he has disregarded the strongest dictates of duty, of gratitude, and of interest--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
But the penitent beholds still further aggravations of his guilt: he has neglected the mercy of his Saviour.
In his state of careless impenitence, this consideration would not have affected him. Perhaps, indeed, he had never doubted the divine mission of Jesus Christ, and always acknowledged his spotless character, and the benevolent object for which he came into the world. But as to the deep concern which he had in the great salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ; as to the necessity of his securing an interest in the merits of this Saviour, in order to avert the just displeasure of the Almighty Being whom he had offended; as to the divine and exalted offices of Christ, as his Instructor, his Intercessor and Saviour, and his Almighty King, so powerfully demanding homage, gratitude, and love--on these points the impenitent sinner has been [191/192] wholly insensible. Alas! he has daily renewed those offences which rendered it necessary that the Son of God should suffer; thus crucifying him afresh, and putting him to an open shame. The invitations of this Saviour, proclaimed by the word, the ministry, and the ordinances of the church, he has daily heard, but he has daily neglected them. No real, no permanent sentiments of gratitude for that infinite love which purchased the favour of God and the glories of heaven for him who was the servant of sin and the heir of perdition, have been cherished in his bosom. Swayed only by his sinful passions, and occupied solely by his sensual pursuits, he is insensible to the guilt which he incurs, in neglecting and despising the riches of God's mercy in Jesus Christ.
But when he is awakened from this criminal insensibility, and is convinced of his lost and dangerous condition as a sinner, his contrition is heightened by the reflection that he has so long neglected the Saviour whose love has been so long exercised upon him, and he has despised it; who, by his agony and bloody sweat, by his cross and passion, besought him to turn from his sins; but he continued in them, trampling under foot the Son of God, counting the blood of the covenant an unholy thing--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
But the awakened penitent perceives that he has also corrupted his own soul.
Formed to contemplate and to imitate the divine perfections, and to obey those laws which are the transcript of divine holiness and purity, the soul cannot violate this law of her nature without being disgraced and corrupted. Every violation of the love, the duty, the gratitude which man owes to [192/193] the holy and gracious Author of his being, corrupts the heart, weakens its sensibility to goodness, and at length confirms it in the service, in the habits, and in the love of sin. Every violation of the virtues required by the relations of life or the ties of society, weakens some amiable sentiment of our nature, strengthens some criminal or unworthy passion, and finally extinguishing in cold selfishness every benevolent affection, fits man to be the scourge and the curse of his' fellow-man. Every departure from those laws of self-government--of temperance, of purity, of contentment--which reason and the command of God impose, disorders the soul, and finally enslaves her to those passions which degrade the high nature of man to a level with the brute creation. Thus corrupting is sin, transforming the soul, created in the image of God, into the image of the fallen angel whom God has cursed; making the soul, instead of the abode of purity and peace, like "the troubled sea which cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." While the sinner, deluded by the phantoms of false pleasure, and ruled only by his passions, eagerly followed the path of sensual indulgence, he had neither the leisure nor the inclination to contemplate the odious nature of sin. But when, yielding to some merciful call of God's providence, and to the awakening and enlightening influences of his Holy Spirit, he is led to sober reflection, he strips sin of the false charms with which his imagination and his passions had decked her: he contemplates her in the light of reason, of conscience, and of the word of God; and he is overwhelmed with shame [193/194] and confusion for having cherished an object so corrupting, so dishonourable and base. Not only have I offended and contemned my God and Saviour, (is his sorrowing language,) by my iniquities, but I have deeply corrupted, by them, my own soul, and have rendered her tributary to passions disgraceful and degrading. Miserable man! I have rendered my immortal spirit, destined to live for ever in the presence of God, fit only to dwell with the devil and his angels--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
But the aggravations of his guilt rest not here. He has contributed to corrupt the souls of others. How many have his solicitations or his counsel allured from the paths of virtue! How many, who had just entered on the ways of iniquity, has he confirmed in the course that leadeth to destruction! The early glow of piety has been chilled by his sneers. The resolutions of more mature virtue have been checked by his ridicule or persecution. The timid he has discouraged, the feeble he has ensnared, and even the strong in virtue have not been unmoved by his assaults.
But, admitting that he has not been thus engaged in the impious work of making proselytes to wickedness, how pernicious has been that influence of his example, which must have been increased with the elevation of his talents, his character, or his station! In this view, the corrupting effects of sin are incalculable. The vicious example of one individual extends to thousands, each of whom becomes a centre, from which corruption spreads in every direction, multiplying its victims without number, and without end.
When the sinner, then, is awakened to [194/195] reflection, how heavy does the guilt of having corrupted others rest upon his soul! How many have been induced to blaspheme their God, to neglect his ordinances and worship, to violate his laws, to indulge in sensuality and sin, through his solicitation, or through his example! He sees that he has not only corrupted his own soul, but the souls of others; and the burden of their iniquities lies heavy upon his conscience--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
These are the views which excite and heighten the contrition of the penitent: he has offended his God--he has neglected and contemned his Saviour--he has corrupted his own soul--he has contributed to corrupt the souls of others. Under the penetrating conviction of guilt, his awakened conscience would lead him to despair, were not his contrition enlivened by views of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. So that the language of contrition is also the language of faith.
Between the evangelical graces there is an inseparable connexion; and the state of penitence implies not only the exercise of sorrow for sin, but of faith in God's mercy through Jesus Christ for the pardon of it. Repentance would be hopeless, if there were no mode revealed, by which the righteous Governor of the universe could, consistently with his holiness, his justice, and his divine authority, extend mercy to the sinner. But in every exercise of contrition the truth is present, to cheer and to comfort us, that God is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing unto them their trespasses and sins. The view of God's mercy to sinners, through his only-begotten and well-beloved Son, while it increases the pungency of remorse for having offended that gracious [195/196] Sovereign who withheld not, as the price of our redemption, his only Son, presents also the only unfailing source of consolation. God's holiness accuses even the angels with folly: his justice demands the execution of the sentence--"The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Reason and nature proclaim that God's holiness and justice must be preserved, and demand complete propitiation for man's transgression--a substitute, to endure, in man's stead, the penalty against sin, (the entire remission of which would be incompatible with the veracity, the authority, the justice, and the holiness of God.) The most perfect creature on earth, the most perfect creature in heaven, cannot render this propitiation, or present this substitute: for the most perfect creature, in the highest acts of obedience, only fulfils the law of his nature, and can have no superfluous righteousness with which to atone for the sins of others. It is then a dictate of reason, as well as a declaration of the word of God, that there is salvation in no other but in that only-begotten and well-beloved Son of the Father, who has made a full, free, and sufficient oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Resting with full faith in the gracious assurance, that whosoever cometh unto God through this Saviour, he will in no wise cast out, the penitent, animated, and cheered, and comforted by the hope of forgiveness, can utter the prayer--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
But this is not only the language of faith, but of holy resolution.
Here also the connexion between the evangelical graces is abundantly evident. To suppose that [196/197] sincere sorrow for sin is compatible with a disposition and resolution to cherish it, is in the highest degree absurd; and equally so, to suppose that genuine and lively faith in the merits of Him who came to redeem us from all iniquity, will admit of the indulgence of it. The state of penitence, therefore, is a state of holy resolution. The penitent must aim at renouncing all those sinful passions and pursuits by which he has offended his God, contemned his Saviour, corrupted his own soul, and contributed to corrupt the souls of others. In every form, however alluring--under every guise, however seducing--sin must be his abhorrence; and so strong must be his aversion to it, that he must resolve to avoid even the appearance of evil. Renewed in the spirit of his mind, sanctified in soul and body, his life must exhibit, in bright lustre, "whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely and of good report." To excite and enable him thus to advance in piety, in holiness, and in virtue, he enjoys the most powerful aids, even the influences of God's Spirit--and the most interesting motives, even the hope of eternal rewards, and the fear of everlasting punishment. Thus aided, and thus animated, he resolves to turn from his evil ways, and to love and serve the Author of his being, and the Redeemer of his soul. He resolves that the time past of his life shall suffice to have wrought the will of the flesh, and henceforth he will serve the living God: the time past of his life shall suffice to have walked in darkness--henceforth he will walk in the light of truth. No longer will he live to the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof; [197/198] but to Him who died to redeem him from divine justice, and who rose again to exalt him to the glories of heaven. With these holy resolutions is the prayer of contrition and of faith uttered--"God be merciful to me a sinner."
Brethren, it is the declaration of Him whose truth is as unchanging as his power is resistless, that except we repent, we shall all perish. Let us then humble ourselves in sincere and deep contrition, and let our hopes of pardon be placed only on the mercy of God, promised to mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. Let it be our daily resolution and endeavour, through God's grace, to serve him in newness of life. With this contrition, this faith, this holy resolution, let our souls send forth the supplication of the penitent publican. Let this prayer be offered in secret, in the sanctuary, at all seasons; but with more frequency at those seasons when the church desires to humble her members in extraordinary acts of humiliation and repentance; and especially in that holy supper, where the pledges of pardon and peace, in the symbols of the body and blood of a crucified Redeemer, are extended to the penitent. Thus shall our repentance be accepted by that God who willeth not the death of a sinner; and our mourning and penitence in the church on earth, shall be exchanged for exultation and bliss in the church triumphant.
He who never utters this prayer of the penitent in sincere contrition, in lively faith, in holy resolutions of obedience, must be for ever a stranger to that mercy which he refuses to invoke, and to that peace which he rejects. But to the wicked, "God is a consuming fire." The torments of that [198/199] eternity to which they are hastening, may wring from their souls this prayer for mercy-but it will be too late.
Now then, brethren, in this accepted time, this day of salvation, let us offer it with the deep sincerity of our souls--"God be merciful to us sinners. And let us go to that holy table, and plead the all-sufficient merits of him who is there set forth, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, and God will be merciful to our unrighteousness, and our sins and iniquities will he remember no more.