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The Four Properties Of True Repentance.
I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping, because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down. My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass. But thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever, and thy remembrance unto all generations.—Ps. 102:9, etc.
In these words four properties of true repentance are enjoined on a sinner. The first is, to account himself unworthy of all the mercies of God. This is contained in these words: “I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping:” that is, There is nothing I can take any more delight in, and I account myself unworthy of any good or delicious fare. This, however pleasing it may be to the palate of others, is not more savory to me than mere ashes.—The same regard to our own unworthiness is thus inculcated by the Lord: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Luke 9:23. And, “If any man come to me, and hate not his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26. Herein is expressed a threefold reference which a true Christian ought to have to his own unworthiness.
2. (a) First then, he is commanded to deny himself: that is, to die to self-will, to self-love, and self-honor, esteeming himself utterly unworthy of any of the benefits conferred by God on other men; or judging himself not “worthy of the least of all the mercies” of God (Gen. 32:10); and 202 reputing himself the most inconsiderable, not only of all men, but even of all other creatures; after the words of the Psalm: “I am a worm, and no man.” Ps. 22:6. In this manner, for a man to despise himself, is truly to deny himself.
3. (b) He is commanded, secondly, to hate himself; that is, to condemn in himself whatever is pleasing and acceptable to the flesh; as honor, luxury, revenge, anger, avarice, and whatever else savors of the flesh. He is to crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts, and to abhor in himself its whole offspring, as the work of the devil himself, tending only to increase and nourish the perverse seed of original depravity. And such self-abhorrence in a sinner, will then of necessity be followed by pleading guilty, and by looking upon himself as one worthy of eternal death.
4. (c) The third lesson enjoined in these words, consists in taking up the cross, and in following the Lord: that is, that we, not with a morose and discontented, but with a ready mind, bear all manner of sufferings, and deem ourselves worthy, not only of these, but even of far more grievous afflictions. Thus Christ himself, whose example is set before us, “endured the cross, and despised the shame” (Heb. 12:2), thereby teaching us, that in “quietness and confidence shall be our strength.” Isa. 30:15. And all that is comprehended in the imitation of, or following after, Christ.
5. Upon the whole, these things make it appear, that a soul truly humble and penitent, thinks itself unworthy of all divine benefits, and even of daily food and refreshment. And this accords with the example of Christ himself, who, parched with thirst on the cross, and having vinegar given him mixed with gall, said no more, than, “It is finished.” John 19:30. This was the reason also, that the true penitents under the old law judged themselves entirely unworthy of any good thing. They put sackcloth on their bodies, and sat in ashes. They satisfied their hunger with bread taken from the ashes, and quenched their thirst with water mingled with tears; as a testimony that they did not deserve any cleaner or better food, but merited rather to eat and to drink with their food, the very tears that trickled upon it.
6. Now the cause of this great self-abasement, was that profound sense with which they were affected, that, on account of their sin, they deserved an eternal curse and condemnation. This consideration lays the returning sinner very low. He deems himself utterly unworthy even of the least of the benefits of God. An illustration of this we have in Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. When David was raised to the royal dignity, he called to mind the kindness of his friend Jonathan, who formerly had delivered him out of the hand of his father Saul; and commanding search to be made, whether there remained any of Jonathan's family, to whom he might make a suitable return of thanks; he at last found Mephibosheth, a lame and poor man, who, being ordered by David to eat bread at the king's table, bowed himself, and exclaimed: “What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?” 2 Sam. 9:8. This is a pattern, indeed, of a soul truly contrite in spirit and penitent in heart, and, therefore, sensible of both its own unworthiness, and of all the mercies bestowed on it by the Lord. And truly we may, with far greater reason, make use of 203 the same humble speech, whenever the Lord our God vouchsafes to us, as it were, the food of his own table, and in the Holy Supper gives us his body and blood to eat and drink.
7. In like manner does the Prodigal Son, after his repentance, express his sorrowful mind to his Father: “Father,” says he, “I am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” Luke 15:19. The woman of Canaan was even content to be called a dog, if she were but permitted to “eat of the crumbs falling from the master's table.” Matt. 15:27. Peter says to the Lord: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8); that is, I am not worthy that thou shouldest have any further converse with me. And the centurion of Capernaum was of the same mind: “Lord,” says he, “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof.” Matt. 8:8. So also St. Paul professes himself to be “not meet to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9): and declares, that he “counted not his life dear unto him, so that he might finish his course with joy.” Acts 20:24. This inward sense of self-abasement David expresses when he speaks of “eating ashes like bread, and mingling his drink with weeping.” If the heart of a Christian be brought to a sense of this vileness, then it is truly contrite and humble, and fit to be made a living sacrifice unto the Lord. Ps. 51:19.
8. A second property of true repentance, is, to grieve at nothing so much as at the offences offered to God himself. This is intimated in these words: “Because of thine indignation and thy wrath, for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down.” That is, Of all my other miseries and griefs, the greatest and most insupportable, is the sense I have of my having so heinously offended the infinitely good, holy, and righteous God.
9. Since God is nothing but love, grace, righteousness, goodness, and mercy, yea, the original source of all virtue, He must of necessity be offended with every sin committed by men; since the nature of sin is directly opposite to the nature of God. Thus by injustice, the justice of God is offended, he being justice itself. By lying, the truth of God is offended, he being truth itself. By hatred the love of God is offended, he being love itself. In a word, since God is the perfection of all virtue, goodness, and love, it can be no other than diabolical malice to offend such infinite goodness, such immense love, nay, Love itself. Had he at any time injured us, it might be no such great wonder, if we hated him, and offended him in our turn: but now, that he gives us nothing but what is good—soul, body, and life itself; that he feeds and clothes us; that he heals our body when it is sick; yea, pardons our sins when we pour out to him our souls; is ready to receive us into favor, as often as we return; now that he has given us his only Son with the Holy Spirit, yea, and Himself too, and adopted us into the number of his children: and having done all this for men, to be yet offended, opposed, and hated by them, is a madness, a malice altogether unaccountable and monstrous. Would it not be most wicked and impious to kill him who gave thee life; to beat and wound him, who kindly embraced and cherished thee in his bosom; to insult and affront him, who heaped honors and dignities upon thee; and to disown and reject him, who had chosen thee for his son? But all these, and far greater indignities, thou offerest to thy heavenly Father, 204 to the supreme, the righteous, the holy God, whom angels adore and fear, and whom seraphim worship with the acclamations of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Isa. 6:3. And thou, who art but dust and ashes, art not afraid to offend him! If a penitent man earnestly calls to mind this monstrous sin, it is impossible but he must be affected with the keenest sorrow of heart, and feel the smart of his wounded conscience to equal and even exceed that of a wounded body. And there is all the reason in the world why it should be so. For hence must necessarily arise a dread and terror, inwardly threatening the conscience with wrath and judgment, and outwardly setting before it the approach of temporal calamities: whence a man, even as Job complains (ch. 6:1, etc.), finds no rest, takes no delight in anything, loathing even his meat and drink. These terrible pangs of conscience are described by David: “Thine arrows,” says he, “stick fast in me: and thy hand presseth me sore.” Ps. 38:2. For as a wound grievously smarts and grows worse whilst the arrow remains fixed in it; so also it is with the conscience, whilst the sting of sin and judgment is not taken away. And these lashes and clamors proceed from nothing but the sentence of divine justice proclaimed in the conscience, and the terrors of hell and death attending it. Therefore, David exclaims, “Thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down:” like one thrown down from a lofty rock into a low valley, who is so bruised and maimed, that not one sound limb remains.
10. But how terrible soever the fear of the judgments of God may prove to an awakened conscience, yet is there some ground of comfort; since the prophet tells us, that these arrows, these threats, these terrors, are the arrows and terrors of God himself. And it is God, who having thereby wounded and broken the heart, heals and restores it again. It is he that killeth, and it is He that maketh alive; He boweth down, and He raiseth again (Ps. 146:8); He bringeth down to the grave, and He bringeth up again. 1 Sam. 2:6.
11. Whosoever, therefore, accounts and feels nothing to be more bitter and grievous, than to have offended God, the infinite Good, and Love itself; he only has experimentally learned the doctrine of contrition, and laid a firm foundation for sound and genuine godliness. This was one of David's acts of repentance: “Against thee,” says he, “Thee only, have I sinned.” Ps. 51:4. As if he had said, “This is my anguish and sorrow, that I have offended thee.” And Daniel thus expresses himself: “Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us, confusion of face,” because we have offended so righteous a God. Dan. 9:7.
12. The third property of repentance is contained in these words: “My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass.” That is, a heart truly penitent, is deeply sensible of its own weakness. It entirely despairs of its own strength and ability, knowing itself to be as destitute of life and power, as the very shadow; and as empty of spirit and moisture, as the grass that fadeth away. The same is affirmed in another Psalm: “Behold, thou hast made my days as a handbreadth, and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity.” Ps. 39:5.205
13. O! how noble a step would it be toward the attainment of substantial wisdom, were man but sensible of his own nothingness! Man is nothing, as a shadow is nothing. As a shadow is without life, and without substance of itself, and vanishes at the departure of the sun; so is the condition of man, whenever the Lord withdraws the light of life from him! And it is worthy of observation, that, the nearer the sun is, the less are the shadows observed to be; and on the contrary, the farther the sun removes from us, the larger the shadows appear. The same happens to man: the more of God and his gifts is present with a good man, the less he esteems himself, the less he boasts of himself, and of what he calls his. On the contrary, the farther a man is removed from God, the greater he is in his own eyes; the more he is puffed up with his parts and abilities, the more he extends the bounds of his pride, and the less he knows how to keep within proper compass. Again, as shadows at the setting of the sun are greatest, though then just ready to disappear and vanish away; their greatness being but a forerunner of their approaching end; so it is with the shadows of this world, and the whole train of vain pomps and pleasures. They pass away suddenly when we are most lifted up by them. As the shadows vanish upon the withdrawing of the sun; so when an empty man becomes great in his own eyes, the divine sun sets upon him unexpectedly, and he returns to be nothing, even when he thought to be something. Moreover, as the shadow has no life of itself, but entirely moves with the motion of the sun, upon which it depends: so man of his own nature, is nothing but a body destitute of life and motion; and it is God alone who is able to put life and motion in it. The shadow of a tall and goodly tree moves not, except as the tree itself is moved; so man only liveth and moveth in God (Acts 17:28), of whom he is a shadow and reflected image. The hour of death will at length fully declare, that man's “days on the earth are as a shadow” (1 Chron. 29:15; Job 8:9), as a vain shew or image (Ps. 39:5); nay, as grass which grows up, but soon withereth when it is mown down: so fades our life away immediately, when it is cut down by the fatal scythe of death. Ps. 102:3, 11; Ps. 103:15. Lo! thus are our days consumed like smoke, and we are “gone like the shadow when it declineth.” Ps. 109:23.
14. Now when a man by true humility is thoroughly persuaded of all this, and is convinced that he is nothing in the sight of God but a lifeless shadow, then, verily, his repentance is unfeigned, and his heart right before the Lord. And as it is appointed unto all men once to undergo a natural death, so ought all daily to die unto sin, that they may live unto God, and depart happily out of this mortal life, when all the shadows disappear. This daily dying to the world, as it is the best exercise, so it is also the best preparation for the hour of death; and if we earnestly practise the former, we shall then be fitted for undergoing the latter. That which we most frequently practise, becomes most perfect to us.
15. The fourth property of true repentance, is union with God, implied in these words: But thou, O Lord, shalt endure forever, and thy remembrance unto all generations. As if the prophet had said: “Though I am persuaded, that I am a perishing shadow, and wither like grass (Ps. 102:11), yet I am no less certain, that in thee I shall abide for ever; for thou thyself art eternal.” 206 As by sin a man is divorced from God, so by true conversion, he is again united to him. Even as the Person of Christ is indivisible, and as the eternal Deity united the human nature in Christ Jesus with itself in so firm a bond, as is not to be dissolved by death itself (the humanity of Christ remaining in perpetual union with the Divinity, and with the glory therein residing): so, in the work of true conversion to God, penitent and believing souls are so closely and intimately united to God, that neither life nor death can separate them from him (Rom. 8:38): for “he that is joined to the Lord, is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17), God betrothing us unto himself forever. Hosea 2:19. In a word, Christ himself is our only Witness; and he is the Book of Life wherein we are plainly taught, that as his human nature abides eternally united with the divine, so all believers shall be eternally united with their Lord and Head, being one spirit with him. Now, as God is eternal, and Christ eternal; so the promises of God in Christ are also eternal and inviolable, he having made with us a covenant of everlasting grace. Ps. 111:5. Therefore, though a true Christian be forsaken of the world; be vexed and tormented by sin, death, hell, and the devil himself; nay, though even his own flesh and heart fail at last, and be wholly consumed, yet is God “the strength of his heart, and his portion for ever.” Ps. 73:26.
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