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Showing What Repentance Is, And The Manner In Which The Sinner Truly Repents; Also, How The Goodness Of God Leads Us To Repentance.
Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.—Joel 2:12, 13.
The Lord, whose mercy is infinite, by no means seeks our destruction, but rather our life and happiness. He best knows the wretched and deplorable condition into which we are fallen by sin; and he is also desirous to reclaim us from that dangerous state, and to preserve us from everlasting ruin. It is for this reason, that he so earnestly invites the soul to repentance, and engages us to the same by many strong and powerful motives.
2. Sometimes God is pleased to stir us up by terrible threatenings. “Behold,” says he, “I will bring evil upon this people; because they have not hearkened unto my words, nor to my law, but rejected it.” Jer. 6:19. Again, “And now, because ye have done all these works, saith the Lord, and I spake unto you, rising up early and speaking, but ye heard not; therefore, will I cast you out of my sight.” Jer. 7:13, 15. This dreadful proclamation of both temporal and eternal calamities, should strike fear and terror into us: for the threatening of God is not an empty voice, nor a sound that vanishes into nothing, but it is accompanied with many terrible effects, and consuming wrath, as will in its time more fully appear, and which we even feel already by sad experience; since miseries and calamities, like a flood, seem to carry all before them. Nay, they will undoubtedly multiply upon us, and exert themselves with the utmost fury and fierceness, except we betimes prevent them by a sincere repentance. Thus the wrath of God shall be poured forth in wars, famines, pestilence, fire, and inundations, till he has at length destroyed our very foundations, as he did once to the city of Jerusalem. Lam. 4:11.
3. But if the proclamation of wrath and judgment cannot prevail upon us, yet ought God's abounding goodness, attended as it is with so many endearing marks of love, to melt our hearts, and to soften them into true and earnest repentance. For thus hath the Lord spoken by the prophet: “Return, thou backsliding Israel, and 194 I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God.” Jer. 3:12, 13. In these words, God makes a free offer of his grace, entreats and adjures us to return to him again, for he is willing to accept our repentance.
4. The passages that have been quoted, are a convincing proof that God, by his grace, mercy, patience, and clemency, strongly invites us to true repentance. There are chiefly three things in those scriptures, which deserve a more particular observation: namely, the nature of repentance, or what it is to repent; that is, to turn unto the Lord:—the manner in which repentance is to be wrought out; that is, by fasting, weeping, and mourning:—the motive to engage us in so holy an exercise, which is the paternal goodness of God; “for I am merciful.”
As to the first, we know that to repent, is nothing else but to be led, through the law of God, to acknowledge the natural blindness of our hearts, and that detestable impurity which lurks within. Next, we ought to regard this as the very source whence all other sins proceed, and whereby we depart from God, the supreme and eternal Good, deserving not only various punishments here, but also his everlasting wrath in hell hereafter. All this ought to awaken in us sorrow and distress, not so much by reason of the threatened punishment, as rather on account of the heinousness of the many provocations offered to a merciful Father, who in his very nature is love and kindness. This being done, we may then raise again our souls by virtue of the Gospel, and with a well-grounded faith, rely on the favor of God, and on the sure remission of sin promised in Christ Jesus. This must necessarily be attended with a serious amendment of life, with a constant purification of the heart by faith, with a mortification of all evil desires, and with a sincere abnegation of our own will, so opposite to that of God. In a word, it will be accompanied with a new life acceptable unto God in Christ, and with fruit worthy of repentance; suitably to what God enjoins by the prophet: “Wash ye, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Isaiah 1:16, 18.
5. But alas! here is the difficulty! These things are much more easily said, than reduced to practice. The reason is, because hardly any will earnestly engage in so weighty a work, or search into the true original cause of the many dreadful disorders that appear in our lives and conduct. Man flatters himself with a confident opinion of his own goodness, and cherishes the affection of the old man. There are few who care to see their hearts in their inward and native depravity; or to be made sensible of that vein of evil nature which runs through all their actions, even the best and most shining. And thus Christ himself, and the grace of God, manifested by him, are wantonly disregarded.
6. And yet Joel (2:12) requires us to “turn unto God with all our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Hereby he intimates that we are turned away from God; have forsaken the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13); and are now unable to attain life and happiness again, unless we “search our ways,” and “return” 195 unto him from whom we are gone astray. Lam. 3:40. It is for this purpose that the Prophet charges “backsliding children” to return, with the promise annexed, that the “Lord will heal their backslidings.” Jer. 3:22. For this verily is the will of God, that we should see and confess our misery, in order that he may compassionately heal it.
7. But since, by nature, we are so blind as to be utterly unable of ourselves sufficiently to discover our own wretchedness; God has been pleased to afford means, with a view to bringing us to a sound knowledge of ourselves. This is done by his holy Word and the Sacraments, which are always accompanied with his grace and Spirit. By these the Father draws, allures, and calls us to himself, as so many lost and wandering sheep. John 6:44. For as a straying sheep cannot of itself return, but must of necessity be sought and brought back to the fold by the shepherd, so we would forever go astray in the wilderness of sin and error, did not God himself carefully seek us; and this the examples of Peter and Paul abundantly confirm. Therefore the prophet says: “Turn thou me, O Lord, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.” Jer. 31:18. “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise.” Jer. 17:14. “For it is God,” says the apostle, “which worketh in us, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.” Phil. 2:13.
8. When, therefore, the Lord graciously awakens us by these means, and invites us to repentance, it is our part, not to withstand his grace and Spirit; (as it is said, “To-day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts”) (Ps. 95:7, 8); but to confess the sin which he thus reproves in us, and by no means make light of the grace offered to us in the Gospel. Then God will assuredly have mercy upon us, as he himself declares: “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.” Isa. 55:7.
9. Upon this account the work of conversion, though it is entirely a work of God's grace, is yet in one respect ascribed to us; namely, as we give up ourselves to the Lord, and to his operations, and do not wantonly resist his Spirit, despise his grace, and cast it from us; or, as the apostle expresses it, do not put his Word from us, nor stop our ears against it, as did the Jews of old. Acts 13:46; 7:57. On the contrary, when the severity of the law has laid open our spiritual diseases, and we have felt the bitterness thereof; let us avail ourselves of the Gospel as a healing remedy, and suffer our heavenly Physician to restore us to health.
10. An image of this we have in a straying sheep. If it but hear at a distance the voice of the shepherd, it starts back immediately, and returns to him. And how willingly would the lost sinner follow the voice of his Shepherd, if sin had not so perverted him, as to reduce him lower than the very beasts in stupidity and dulness! Of this indeed the prophet complains: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Isa. 1:3. “Shall they fall,” asks another prophet, “and not arise? Shall he turn away, and not return? The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times, and the turtle, and 196 the crane, and the swallow, observe the times of their coming: but my people know not the judgment of the Lord.” Jer. 8:4, 7.
11. We ought, therefore, most fervently to implore the Lord, not to withdraw from us his gracious assistance, without which we must certainly go astray. For since sin and the old Adam constantly abide in our corrupt flesh and blood, we have need of daily, yea, hourly supplies of grace, for repressing the tyranny of sin, and for nourishing the life of God within us. The grace of God is the life of our soul, as the soul is the life of the body. And as the life of the body, without the free enjoyment of the air, must soon be extinct; so the vital flame of the inward life will speedily languish, without a daily supply of grace to support it. For this reason Solomon prayed: “The Lord our God be with us; let him not leave us, nor forsake us; that he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways.” 1 Kings 8:57.
12. This is a lesson which ought not to be learned in a light and general manner, but by a close and practical application be brought home to every one in particular. Let, therefore, every one look into his own heart and seek its renewal, that so all may be reformed in time. Let us remember that comfortable exhortation, and the promise annexed thereto: “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near.” Isa. 55:6. “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart, saith the Lord.” Jer. 29:13.
13. But in order to true repentance, it is not enough to refrain only from gross sins, and foul visible transgressions; but the heart, whence all those evils proceed, is to be changed and purified; that so inward pride, covetousness, and lust, with all sinful affections, may be mortified at last. For whilst the heart is unchanged, unreformed, and unrenewed; that is, whilst our own corrupt temper, our inward malice, wrath, hatred, enmity, revenge, lying, and deceit, are quietly suffered within us; all our boasts of, and pretences to, and formalities in, religion, are but mere show and hypocrisy. God requires no less than a new heart, and “a new creature in Christ Jesus.” 2 Cor. 5:17. No one is so holy, so good, and so thoroughly cleansed, but he will still find something in his own heart to be thrown out, or to be amended and rectified. “As a fountain casteth out her waters, so Jerusalem casteth out her wickedness.” Jer. 6:7. This is the first head, relating to the nature of repentance, of which more has been said in Book I.
14. Let us now consider, in the second place, the manner of our returning to God: “with all the heart,” says the prophet, “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Wretched mortals can weep floods of tears for empty and perishing goods, whilst they stand unmoved at the miserable state of their souls, and at the loss of an eternal and incorruptible inheritance! In this they are altogether unlike David, who, by his example, sets a most shining pattern of sincere and unfeigned repentance before us. See Ps. 6, and Ps. 38. “For the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7), and “trieth the heart and reins.” Ps. 7:9.
15. What the prophet says of fasting, is to be understood of a general fast enjoined by the prophet to all the people. In such a fast the whole body of a nation were wont to be concerned. 197 They publicly confessed their sins; they deplored and bewailed them; and thus humbling themselves before God, fasted both inwardly and outwardly. And in this order they begged remission of sin, and deprecated the judgments of God gathering over them. Such a general fast and public repentance as this, such sincere conversion, prayer, faith, confession, and supplication, are the most effectual means to appease the wrath of an offended God, and to avert his judgments from whole kingdoms and nations. This plainly appears from the history of the defeat of the other tribes of Israel, by that of Benjamin; in which the former having in two battles lost forty thousand men, all went up and came before the Lord, with weeping and mourning, and there fasted the whole day, from morning to night. Judges 20:26. A similar illustrious example is recorded of the fast of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:5, 10): and of the children of Israel, who, being beaten by the Philistines, kept a fast for seven days together, after Saul and Jonathan were slain in the battle. 1 Chron. 10:12.
16. Such solemn penitential fasts were also in use in the primitive Church, when the Christians met together, and in any great public calamity humbled themselves before the Lord. Not, surely, to obtain remission of sin by such performances, as so many meritorious acts of devotion; but by a contrite, sober, and humble heart, to deprecate the judgments that were ready to break in upon them. And such fasts might with propriety still be observed.
17. Fasts such as these, accompanied with true repentance, would prove an impregnable wall and fortification against all our enemies; a sovereign medicine in all pestilential diseases; and a safeguard about all our estates and possessions. An example of this we have in Job, who, whenever his children had spent any day in mirth and feasting, “offered up unto God prayers and sacrifices for them” (Job 1:4, 5); and thus, as it were, fortified his house by prayer against the insults of wicked men and devils.
18. In great public calamities the Lord looks out for such men as may, like a bulwark, oppose his wrath when ready to make a breach. “I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them, I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord God.” Ezek. 22:30, 31. We may also remember, on this occasion, the intercession of Abraham. Gen. 18:23.
19. Thus the prophet Daniel was a wall of defence when he made confession to God of the sins of all the people. Dan. 9:4, 5, etc. And the prophet Joel, in very moving terms, describes such a penitential fast: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people; sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, and those that suck the breasts; let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach.” Joel 2:15-17.
20. Such public fasts ought to be celebrated by the whole multitude, without hypocrisy, with ardent zeal 198 and devotion; for it is the will of God, that every one readily confess his sins. He requires true humility, sincere repentance, and a turning to him with our whole heart. Hence the prophet commands the “heart, and not the garments,” to be rent. The Jews, at the hearing of any sad or terrible evil, were accustomed to rend their clothes, in order to evidence thereby the inward sorrow with which they were affected. This, however, like their fasting, was often a mere formality, and their grief was only pretended. Wherefore, the prophet reproves them, saying, “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” Isa. 58:5-7.
21. These words explain the nature of a true fast; which is then only kept, when, on the one hand, we abstain from sin, subdue the wanton lusts of the flesh, and keep the old man, with all his members, under constant restraint and subjection: and, on the other, when we are fervent in works of charity, in the practice of patience and mercy, and of the other virtues springing up from a contrite, sincere, and penitent heart. And it is with regard to these inward acts of humiliation, that the prophet bids us rend our hearts. For as the wounds of the heart must necessarily be very painful; so the grief occasioned by our sins should affect us, as if our very hearts were bruised and crushed. And this “broken spirit,” this “contrite heart,” is that sacrifice which is so highly acceptable to God. Ps. 51:17. Such a heart has, by faith, obtained a due fitness to receive the influence of the grace of God, the consolations of the Holy Spirit, and the merit and blood of Jesus Christ. As a hard and massive stone cannot be penetrated by the oil or water poured upon it, until it be broken to pieces; so the sovereign balm of God's grace and consolation cannot comfort and quicken the heart, except it be first broken and softened into humility, that so by faith it may partake of the merit of Christ. “Not the whole, but the sick, have need of a physician.” Matt. 9: 12. Let no one think that he belongs to Christ, unless he has first “crucified the flesh, with its affections and lusts.” Gal. 5:24. The blood of Christ will be of no profit to any except to those who embrace it with a contrite, afflicted, penitent, humble and believing heart.
22. As for the motives to repentance, which make up the third head, they are thus expressed by the prophet: “Turn unto the Lord, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” Joel 2:12, 13. He lays down in these words, a gradual display of the manifold mercies offered to returning sinners. As if he had said, “If you think it a small thing that I am gracious, then know that I am merciful also: if this be not enough, I am likewise patient and slow to anger: if this will not yet suffice, then I am, moreover, of great kindness. If, after 199 all, you still require something more, then understand, that I easily repent of intended punishments; yea, even when my avenging hand is lifting up, I am ready to let fall the rod, upon your serious repentance.”
23. First, then, the prophet calls God gracious (Ps. 103:8); that is, ready to be entreated and reconciled. God is easy to be prevailed with, forgives offences, deals not in strict justice and the rigor of the law, according to what we have deserved. And all these marks of mercy should lead us to repentance. There are many admirable promises, all tending to the same end. “If thou afflict them, they will cry unto me, and I will surely hear; for I am gracious.” Ex. 22:23, 27. “Therefore will the Lord wait that he may be gracious unto you. Thou shalt weep no more; he will be very gracious unto thee, at the voice of thy cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer thee.” Isa. 30:18. That is, the Most High is so rich in grace, that he waits for you. In him there is expecting grace, by which he readily receives those that truly return: prevenient grace, expressed by the Psalmist—“Let thy tender mercies speedily prevent (that is, meet, or anticipate) us” (Ps. 79:8): protecting grace, noticed by the same prophet; “He that trusteth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about” (Ps. 32:10): preserving grace; “Surely,” says David, “mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Ps. 23:6. Of this we have given examples in the preceding chapter. With this agree also the words of Scripture: “With the Lord there is mercy; and with him is plenteous redemption.” Ps. 130:7. Wherefore, let the divine clemency and grace move thee to sincere and unfeigned repentance.
24. Secondly, the prophet declares that God is merciful. To be merciful, is to be easily moved by the miseries of another, and from the very heart to compassionate his case. This is to be seen in parents, who, not only with unfeigned tenderness love their children, but are at the same time so deeply touched with their misery and weakness, as to be willing even to die for them, if that were possible. Thus David, when he lamented the death of his son Absalom, mournfully exclaimed: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 2 Sam. 18:33. But these bowels of mercy, this ardent, cordial, and tender affection, are infinitely more conspicuous in God himself, who, from an abounding sense of love and kindness, has given up his Son to death, and thereby transcended all the affections of earthly parents. This is declared by the prophet: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.” Isa. 49:15. And by another, “Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord.” Jer. 31:20. And again by another, “The Lord thy God is a merciful God; he will not forget the covenant of thy fathers, which he sware unto them.” Deut. 4:31. And David confirms it: “The Lord is merciful and gracious.” Ps. 103:8. And again, calling to mind this mercy, when of three punishments he had it in his power to choose which he pleased, he answered, “Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for 200 his mercies are great.” 2 Sam. 24:14. Would to God that his paternal mercy might also allure us to unfeigned repentance! St. Paul himself refers to this most powerful inducement, when he beseeches us “by the mercies of God, etc.” Rom. 12:1.
25. The third appellation given to God by the prophet is, that he is patient, or slow to anger. He is not easily moved to wrath; he suffers many provocations offered him, and gives time for repentance and conversion. All which he has abundantly evidenced by many real demonstrations, powerful enough to convince us, that even in God himself, “Love beareth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7), even as parents bear with their children. To this purpose says St. Peter, “The Lord is long suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Pet. 3:9. And again, “Account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation.” 2 Pet. 3:15. And Paul wishes, that “the goodness of God may lead us to repentance.” Rom. 2:4. To this long-suffering of God it was entirely due, that he granted the old world a hundred and twenty years in which to repent; bearing all that time with their provocations, and waiting for repentance. Gen. 6:3. And O! how much time hath he given us to repent in, and to work out our salvation! But this divine grace is abused by those who only grow more wanton by mercies, and “turn even the grace of God itself into lasciviousness.” Jude, ver. 4. But by this they only hasten their ruin, and render more grievous the punishment which they deserve. If one, and then another of these many and provoking affronts, with which men offend an omnipotent God, were daily put upon a mere mortal, nothing certainly could be expected but the utmost severity of his resentment. How inconceivably great then must be the patience of God, who not only pardons offences so numerous and so heinous, but also returns all manner of kindness to the offender himself. O! that the inconceivable patience of the Lord might inspire us with a hatred of sin, and lead us all to repentance!
26. Fourthly, God is represented to be of great kindness; so great indeed, that no sin, how great soever, can surpass it. For as God is essentially and wholly good, so is he desirous to communicate himself wholly to men, provided they be willing to receive and admit him. Yea, by his nature he can be and do nothing but good. He takes a pleasure therein, and “rejoiceth over us to do us good.” Jer. 32:41. His mercy is as great as himself, that is, infinite. It extends to all mankind. “Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens.” Ps. 36:5. “As the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.” Ps. 103:11. And we read in the Lamentations: “It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not: they are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” Lam. 3:22. See, therefore, O man! that a goodness so inexpressible be no longer abused, but that it animate thee to sincere repentance.
27. And lastly, the prophet says of the Lord, “It repenteth him of the evil.” This is as if he would say: “It is the nature of God, to punish with reluctance; and when he is even constrained thereto, it is not for our destruction, but salvation, that we be not condemned with the world.” 1 Cor. 11:32. He then doth “his strange 201 work” (of punishment), that he may bring to pass his own work (of mercy). Isa. 28:21. Thus he repented of the evil he had designed against Nineveh. Jonah 3:10. And, therefore, “it is good, that a man should both hope, and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. For the Lord will not cast off for ever: but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” Lam. 3:26, 31-33. Therefore, repent of thy sins.
28. For as soon as thou repentest of sin, and supplicatest the Lord in true faith, God will also repent of the punishment he intended to inflict. The words of the Lord to Jonah are very memorable: “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night: and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons?” Jonah 4:9-11. This boundless mercy is still the same even at this day, and will continue so forever to penitent and returning sinners. Go, therefore, O man, and let this overflowing mercy of God lead thee to repentance!
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