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THE NECESSITY OF REPENTANCE AND FAITH.
Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.—Acts xx. 21.
TO have seen St. Paul in the pulpit, was one of those three things which St. Augustine thought worth the wishing for. And sure it were very desirable to have seen this glorious instrument of God, who did such wonders in the world, to have heard that plain and powerful eloquence of his, which was so “mighty through God, for the casting down of strong holds, and the subduing of men to the obedience of the gospel;” to have beheld the zeal of this holy man, who was all on tire for God, with what ardency of affection, and earnestness of expression, he persuaded men to come in to Christ, and entertain the gospel. This were very desirable; but seeing it is a thing we cannot hope for, it should be some satisfaction to our curiosity, to know what St. Paul preached, what was the main subject of his sermons, whither he referred all his discourses, and what they tended to. This he tells us in the words that I have read to you, that the main substance of all his sermons was “Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The occasion of the words was briefly this; St. Paul being in his journey to Jerusalem, and intending 242to be there by the day of Pentecost, that he might not be hindered in his journey, he resolves to pass by Ephesus, and only to call to him the elders of the church, to charge them with their duty, and the care of the church; and to engage them hereto, he tells them how he had carried and demeaned himself among them, (ver. 18.) with what diligence and vigilance he had watched over them, with what affection and earnestness he had preached to them, (ver. 19, 20.) And here in the text he tells them what had been the sum of his doctrine, and the substance of those many sermons he had preached among them, and what was the end and design of all his discourses; viz. To persuade men to “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ; testifying both to the Jews and Greeks,” &c.
I shall explain the words a little, and then fix upon the observations which I intend to speak to, because I design this only as a preface to some larger discourses of faith and repentance.
For explication. “Testifying,” the word is διαμαρτυρόμενος, which signifies to testify, to prove a thing by testimony; so it is used, (Heb. ii. 6.) “But one in a certain place testifieth, saying.” In heathen writers the word is often used in a law sense, for contesting by law, and pleading in a cause; and from hence it signifies earnestly to contend or persuade by arguments and threatenings. In the use of the LXX. it signifies to protest, to convince, to press earnestly, to persuade. It is used most frequently by St. Luke in a very intense signification; and is sometimes joined with exhorting, which is an earnest persuading to a thing, (Acts ii. 40.) “And with many other words did he testify and exhort, 243saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation;” and with preaching, (Acts viii. 25.) “And when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord;” and so (Acts xviii. 5.) “Being pressed in spirit, he testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ,” “Being pressed in spirit” signifies intention and vehemency in testifying to them, that he did vehemently endeavour to convince them; it seems to be equivalent to the expression, (ver. 28.) where it is said, “Apollos did mightily convince the Jews that Jesus was the Christ;” that is, did use such persuasions and arguments as were sufficient to convince; and to mention no more, (Acts xxviii. 23.) “He expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus.”
St. Paul, in his Epistle to Timothy, useth this word in a most vehement sense, for giving a solemn charge, (1 Tim. v. 21.) “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ;” the word is διαμαρτύρομαι; and so (2 Tim. ii. 14.) “Charging them before the Lord, that they strive not about words;” and so (2 Tim. iv. 1.) “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ;” and here in the text the word seems to be of a very high and intense signification, because of the circumstances mentioned before and after; he tells us before, that he taught them “at all seasons,” (ver. 18.) “publicly, and from house to house,” (ver. 20.) And afterwards, at the 31st verse, that “he warned them day and night with tears.” So that “testifying to the Jews repentance and faith,” must signify his pressing and persuading of them with the greatest vehemency to turn from their sins, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; his charging on them these things as their duty, his pleading with them the necessity of faith and repentance, 244and earnestly endeavouring to convince then) thereof.
“Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ:” what is the reason of this appropriation of repentance and faith, the one as properly respecting God, and the other our Lord Jesus Christ? I answer: Repentance doth properly respect God, because he is the party offended, and to whom we are to be reconciled; the faith of the gospel doth properly refer to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the chief and principal object of it; so that by “testifying to them repentance toward God,” &c. we are to understand that the apostle did earnestly press and persuade them to repent of their sins, whereby they had offended God, and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as the Messias, the person that was ordained of God, and sent to be the Saviour of the world.
From the words thus explained, this is the observation that doth naturally arise,
That repentance and faith are the sum and substance of the gospel; and that ministers ought with all earnestness and vehemency to press people to repent and believe, to charge them with these as their duty, and by all means to endeavour to convince them of the necessity of them.
In the handling of this I shall do these two things:
First, Shew you what is included in repentance and faith, that you may see that they are the sum of the gospel. And,
Secondly, Shew you the necessity of them.
First, What is included in these.
I. Repentance: this properly signifies a change of mind, a conviction that we have done amiss, so as to be truly sorry for what we have done, and 245heartily to wish that we had not done it. To repent, is to alter our mind, to have other apprehensions of things than we had, to look upon that now as evil which we did not before; from whence follows sorrow for what we have done, and a resolution of mind for the future not to do again that which appears now to us to be so evil, that we are ashamed of it, and troubled for it, and wish we had never done it. So that repentance implies a conviction that we have done something that is evil and sinful, contrary to the law we are under, and those obligations of duty and gratitude that lie upon us, whereby God is highly provoked and in censed against us, and we in danger of his wrath, and the sad effects of his displeasure; upon which we are troubled, and grieved, and ashamed for what we have done, and wish we had been wiser, and had done otherwise: hereupon we resolve never to do any thing that is sinful, that is contrary to our duty and obligations to God, and by which we may provoke him against us. These two things are contained in a true repentance, a deep sense of, and sorrow for, the evils that are past, and the sins we have committed; and a firm purpose and resolution of obedience for the future, of abstaining from all sin, and doing whatever is our duty: the true effect of which resolution, is the breaking off the practice of sin, and the course of a wicked life, and a constant course of obedience.
II. Faith in Christ is an effectual believing the revelation of the gospel, the history and the doctrine of it: the history of it—that there was such a person as Jesus Christ; that he was the true Messias, prophesied of and promised in the Old Testament; that he was born, and lived, and preached, and wrought 246the miracles that are recorded; that he was crucified and rose again, and ascended into heaven; that he was the Son of God, and sent by him into the world, by his doctrine to instruct, and by the example of his life to go before us in the way to happiness, and by the merit and satisfaction of his death and sufferings, to appease and reconcile God to us, and to purchase for us the pardon of our sins and eternal life, upon the conditions of faith, and repentance, and sincere obedience; and that to enable us to the performance of these conditions, he promised and afterward sent his Holy Spirit to accompany the preaching of his gospel, and to assist all Christians to the doing of that which God requires of them: this is the history of the gospel.
Now the doctrine of it contains the precepts, and promises, and threatenings of it, and faith in Christ includes a firm belief of all these; of the precepts of the gospel as the matter of our duty, and the rule of our life: and of the promises and threatenings of the gospel, as arguments to our duty, to encourage our obedience, and deter us from sin. So that he that believes the Lord Jesus, believes him to be the great guide and teacher sent from God, to bring and conduct men to eternal happiness, and that therefore we ought to hearken to him and follow him; this is to believe his prophetical office. He believes that he is the author of salvation, and hath purchased for us forgiveness of sins, ransom from hell, and eternal life and blessedness upon the conditions beforementioned, and therefore that we ought to rely upon him only for salvation, to own him for our Saviour, and to beg of him his Holy Spirit, which he hath promised to us, to enable us to perform the conditions required on our part: this is to believe 247his priestly office. And, lastly, he believes that the precepts of the gospel, being delivered to us by the Son of God, ought to have the authority of laws upon us, and that we are bound to be obedient to them; and for our encouragement, if we be so, that there is a glorious and eternal reward promised to us; and for our terror, if we be not, there are terrible and eternal punishments threatened to us; to which rewards, the Lord Jesus Christ, at the day of judgment, will sentence men, as the great Judge of the world: and this is to believe the kingly office of Christ. And this is the sum of that which is meant by “faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ,” which the apostle saith was one subject of his preaching.
And the proper and genuine effect of this faith, is to live as we believe, to conform our lives to the doctrine, to the truth whereof we assent. Hence it is that true Christians, that is, those who fashioned their lives according to the gospel, are called believers; and the whole of Christianity is many times contained in this word believing, which is the great principle of a Christian life. As in the Old Testament all religion is expressed by “the fear of God;” so in the New, by “faith in Christ.”
And now you see what is included in repentance and faith, you may easily judge, whether these be not the sum of the gospel, that men should forsake their sins and turn to God, and believe in the revelation of the gospel concerning Jesus Christ; that is, heartily entertain and submit to it. What did Christ preach to the Jews, but that they should repent of their sins, and believe on him as the Messias? And what did the apostles preach, but to the same purpose? When St. Peter preached to the Jews, (Acts ii.) the effect of the sermon and the scope of it was 248to persuade them “to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus, that is, to profess their belief in him, (ver. 38.) And so (Acts iii. 19.) this is the conclusion of his discourse, “Repent therefore and be converted;” and then he propounded Christ to them as the object of their faith, being the great prophet that was prophesied of by Moses, who should “be raised up among them,” (ver. 22.) So, likewise, St. Paul, when he preached to the Jews and gentiles, these were his great subjects, (Acts xvii. 30.) This is the conclusion of his sermon to the Athenians, to persuade them to repent by the consideration of a future judgment, and to persuade them to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was to be the judge of the world, from the miracle of his resurrection: “But now he commands all men every where to repent, because he hath appointed a day, &c. whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” So that you see that these are the great doctrines of the gospel, and were the sum of the apostles preaching; all their sermons were persuasives to these two duties of repentance and faith.
Secondly, For the necessity of these doctrines. They are necessary for the escaping of eternal misery, and attaining of everlasting happiness. And this will appear, by considering the nature of them, and the relation they have to both these.
For the avoiding of eternal punishment, it is necessary that guilt should be removed, which is an obligation to punishment, and that cannot be but by pardon: and sure we cannot imagine that God will ever pardon us without repentance: he will never remit to us the punishment of sin, so long as we tell him we are not at all troubled for what we have 249done, and we are of the same mind still, and will do the same again; and till we repent, we tell God this, and we may be sure God will not cast away his pardons upon those that despise them; so that repentance is necessary to the escaping of hell.
And faith in Christ is necessary to it; for if this be the method of God’s grace, not to pardon sin without satisfaction, and Jesus Christ hath made satisfaction for sin by the merit of his sufferings; and if it be necessary that we should believe this, that the benefit hereof may redound to us; then faith in Christ is necessary to the obtaining of the pardon of sin, by which the guilt of sin is removed; that is, our obligation to eternal punishment.
And then for attaining salvation. Christ having in the gospel revealed to us the way and means to eternal happiness, it is necessary that we should believe this revelation of the gospel by Jesus Christ, in order to this end. So that you see the necessity of faith and repentance: because without these we can neither escape misery, nor attain to happiness.
I should now come to draw some inferences from this discourse, but I will first give satisfaction to a query or two, to which this discourse seems to have given occasion.
1st Query.—You will say, why do I call repentance a doctrine of the gospel? It is a doctrine of nature. Natural religion tells us, that when we have offended God we ought to be sorry for it, and resolve to amend and reform.
Answer.—I do not make the doctrine of repentance proper to the gospel, as if it had not been revealed to the world before; but because it is a doctrine which the gospel very much presseth and persuadeth men to, and because the great motives and enforcements 250of it are peculiar to the gospel. So that the doctrine of repentance, considered with those powerful reasons and arguments to it which the gospel furnisheth us withal, is in this sense proper to the gospel, and not known to the world before.
There are two motives and enforcements to repentance which the gospel furnisheth us with.
1. Assurance of pardon and remission of sins in case of repentance, which is a great encouragement to repentance, and which, before the gospel, the world had never any firm and clear assurance of.
2. Assurance of eternal rewards and punishments after this life, which is a strong argument to persuade men to change their lives, that they may avoid the misery that is threatened to impenitent sinners, and be qualified for the happiness which it promiseth to repentance and obedience. And this, the apostle tells us in the forementioned place (Acts xvii. 30, 31.) is that which doth, as it were, make repentance to be a new doctrine that did come with the gospel into the world, because it was never before enforced with this powerful argument; “The times of that ignorance God winked at; but now he calls upon all men every where to repent; because,” &c. When the world was in ignorance, and had not such assurance of a future state, of eternal rewards and punishments after this life, the arguments to repentance were weak and feeble in comparison to what they now are; the necessity of this duty was not so evident. But now God hath assured us of a future judgment, now exhortations to repentance have a commanding power and influence upon men: so that repentance, both as it is that which is very much pressed and inculcated in the gospel, and as it hath its chief motives and enforcements from the 251gospel, may be said to be one of the great doctrines of the gospel.
Query 2.—Whether the preaching of faith in Christ, among those who are already Christians, be at all necessary? Because it seems very improper to press those to believe in Christ, who are already persuaded that he is the Messias, and do entertain the history and doctrine of the gospel.
Answer.—The faith which the apostle here means, and which he would persuade men to, is an effectual belief of the gospel; such a faith as hath real effects upon men, and makes them to live as they believe; such a faith as persuades them of the need of these blessings that the gospel offers, and makes them to desire to be partakers of them, and in order thereto to be willing to submit to those terms and conditions of holiness and obedience which the gospel requires. This is the faith we would persuade men to, and there is nothing more necessary to be pressed upon the greatest part of Christians than this; for how few are there among those who profess to believe the gospel, who believe it in this effectual manner, so as to conform themselves to it? The faith which most Christians pretend to, is merely negative; they do not disbelieve the gospel, they do not consider it, nor trouble themselves about it; they do not care, nor are concerned whether it be true or not; but they have not a positive belief of it, they are not possessed with a firm persuasion of the truth of those matters which are contained in it; if they were, such a persuasion would produce real and positive effects. Every man naturally desires happiness, and it is impossible that any man that is possessed with this belief, that, in order to happiness, it is necessary for him to do such and such things; 252and that if he omit or neglect them, he is unavoidably miserable, that he should not do them. Men say they believe this or that, but you may see in their lives what it is they believe. So that the preaching of this faith in Christ, which is the only true faith, is still necessary.
I. Inference.—If repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, be the sum and substance of the gospel, then from hence we may infer the excellency of the Christian religion, which insists only upon those things which do tend to our perfection and our happiness. Repentance tends to our recovery, and the bringing of us back as near as may be to innocence. Primus innocentiæ gradus est non peccasse: secundus, pœnitentia: and then faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, though it be very comprehensive, and contains many things in it, yet nothing but what is eminently for our advantage, and doth very much conduce to our happiness. The historical part of the gospel acquaints us with the person and actions of our Saviour, which conduceth very much to our understanding of the author and means of our salvation. The doctrinal part of the gospel contains what God requires on our part, and the encouragements and arguments to our duty, from the consideration of the recompence and rewards of the next life. The precepts of Christ’s doctrine are such as tend exceedingly to the perfection of our nature, being all founded in reason, in the nature of God, and of a reasonable creature; I except only those positive institutions of the Christian religion, the two sacraments, which are not burthensome, and are of excellent use. This is the first.
II. We may learn from hence what is to be the sum and end of our preaching, to bring men to repentance 253and a firm belief of the gospel: but then it is to be considered, that we preach repentance, so often as we preach either against sin in general, or any particular sin or vice; and so often as we persuade to holiness in general, or to the performance of any particular duty of religion, or to the exercise of any particular grace; for repentance includes the forsaking of sin, and a sincere resolution and endeavour of reformation and obedience. And we preach repentance, so often as we insist upon such considerations and arguments, as may be powerful to deter men from sin, and to engage them to holiness. And we preach faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, so often as we declare the grounds of the Christian religion, and insist upon such arguments as tend to make it credible, and are proper to convince men of the truth and reasonableness of it; so often as we explain the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the history of his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, and the proper ends and use of these; so often as we open the method of God’s grace for the salvation of sinners, the nature of the covenant between God and us, and the conditions of it, and the way how a sinner is justified and hath his sins pardoned, the nature and necessity of regeneration and sanctification; so often as we explain the precepts of the gospel, and the promises and threatenings of it, and endeavour to convince men of the equity of Christ’s commands, and to as sure them of the certainty of the eternal happiness which the gospel promises to them that obey it, and of the eternal misery which the gospel threatens to those that are disobedient; all this is preaching faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
III. This may correct the irregular humour and 254itch in many people, who are not contented with this plain and wholesome food, but must be gratified with sublime notions and unintelligible mysteries, with pleasant passages of wit, and artificial strains of rhetoric, with nice and unprofitable disputes, with bold interpretations of dark prophecies, and peremptory determinations of what will happen next year, and a punctual stating of the time when antichrist shall be thrown down, and Babylon shall fall, and who shall be employed in this work. Or, if their humour lies another way, you must apply yourself to it, by making sharp reflections upon matters in present controversy and debate; you must dip your style in gall and vinegar, and be all satire and invective against those that differ from you, and teach people to hate one another, and to fall together by the ears; and this men call gospel preaching, and speaking of seasonable truths.
Surely St. Paul was a gospel preacher, and such an one as may be a pattern to all others, and yet he did none of these; he preached what men might understand, and what they ought to believe and practise, in a plain, and unaffected, and convincing manner; he taught such things as made for peace, and whereby he might edify and build up men in their holy faith. The doctrines that he preached will never be unseasonable, that men should leave their sins, and believe the gospel, and live accordingly.
And if men must needs be gratified with disputes and controversies, there are these great controversies between God and the sinner to be stated and determined; whether this be religion, to follow our own lusts and inclinations, or to endeavour to be like God, and to be conformed to him, in goodness 255and mercy, and righteousness, and truth, and faithfulness? Whether Jesus Christ be not the Messias and Saviour of the world? Whether faith and repentance and sincere obedience be not the terms of salvation, and the necessary conditions of happiness? Whether there shall be a future judgment, when all men shall be sentenced according to their works? Whether there be a heaven and hell? Whether good men shall be eternally and unspeakably happy, and wicked men extremely and ever lastingly miserable? These are the great controversies of religion, upon which we are to dispute on God’s behalf against sinners. God asserts, and sinners deny these things, not in words, but, which is more emphatical and significant, in their lives and actions. These are practical controversies of faith, and it concerns every man to be resolved and determined about them, that he may frame his life accordingly.
And so for repentance; God says, repentance is a forsaking of sin, and a thorough change and amendment of life; the sinner says, that it is only a formal confession, and a slight asking of God forgiveness: God calls upon us speedily and forthwith to repent; the sinner saith, it is time enough, and it may safely be deferred to sickness or death: these are important controversies, and matters of moment. But men do not affect common truths; whereas these are most necessary: and, indeed, whatever is generally useful and beneficial, ought to be common, and not to be the less valued, but the more esteemed for being so.
And as these doctrines of faith and repentance are never unseasonable, so are they more peculiarly proper when we celebrate the holy sacrament, 256which was instituted for a solemn and standing memorial of the Christian religion, and is one of the most powerful arguments and persuasives to repentance and a good life.
The faith of the gospel doth more particularly respect the death of Christ, and therefore it is called “faith in his blood,” because that is more especially the object of our faith; the blood of Christ, as it was a seal of the truth of his doctrine, so it is also a confirmation of all the blessings and benefits of the new covenant.
And it is one of the greatest arguments in the world to repentance. In the blood of Christ we may see our own guilt, and in the dreadful sufferings of the Son of God, the just desert of our sins; for “he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities:” therefore, the commemoration of his sufferings should call our sins to remembrance, the representation of his body broken should melt our hearts; and so often as we remember that his blood was shed for us, our eyes should “run down with rivers of tears;” so often as we “look upon him whom we have pierced, we should mourn over him.” When the Son of God suffered, “the rocks were rent in sunder;” and shall not the consideration of those sufferings be effectual to break the most stony and obdurate heart?
What can be more proper when we come to this sacrament, than the renewing of our repentance? When we partake of this passover, we should “eat it with bitter herbs.” The most solemn expressions of our repentance fall short of those sufferings which our blessed Saviour underwent for our sins. If “our head were waters, and our eyes fountains 257of tears,” we could never sufficiently lament the cursed effects and consequences of those provocations which were so fatal to the Son of God.
And that our repentance may be real, it must be accompanied with the resolution of a better life; for if we return to our sins again, “we trample under foot the Son of God, and profane the blood of the covenant,” and out of “the cup of salvation we drink our own damnation,” and turn that which should save us into an instrument and seal of our own ruin.258
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