THE RELATION OF rEPENTANCE TO PARDON IN THE CHRISTIAN SYSTEM.
Acts iii. 19.—" Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."
In the prosecution of the subject of repentance, I proceed now to consider the question how repentance is of avail in the procuring of pardon ; or the relation of repentance to pardon in the Christian system.
It seems to be admitted on all hands, that repentance under the Divine administration is connected with the pardon of sin. Lord Herbert, the leading British Deist, laid down the necessity of repentance as one of the ten fundamental truths taught by natural religion; and held it to be indisputable that repentance would be effectual in securing forgiveness. This is probably the sentiment of the great mass of mankind, whether they embrace the Christian system or not. As every child feels that if he has done wrong towards a father he ought to repent of it,—and argues, and in general argues justly, that if he truly repents his father will forgive him,—so men seem to reason about their Great Father in heaven. This opinion is held by the Christian in connexion with his belief in the merits of the sacrifice of the liedeemer; in what sense I will endeavour to explain in the sequel of this discourse. By others,—by avowed Deists, and by. infidels in every form, and by the mass of men,—the reference to that sacrifice is excluded; and it is held that mere repentance without respect to that will be accepted by God, and will secure the pardon of sin.
The form in which the doctrine is held by those who do not practically embrace Christianity, probably comprises the two following particulars: first, that repentance for a wrong done is, under the Divine administration, enough; that is, that the Divine government is equitable and mild; that God is disposed to pardon; that when one becomes sensible of a wrong done, it is all that the Universal Parent will or can require ; and that repentance, therefore, will secure the restoration to Divine favour ; —and, secondly, that in fact they themselves do exercise repentance—all the repentance that can reasonably be demanded. When they have done wrong, they say, they always regret it. They are pained at heart. They are ready to make confession and restitution as far as is in their power for the wrong done— even though it was unintentional. They do not recollect an instance, perhaps, in which this has not been done; and if such an instance could be referred to in their past lives, they would lay down their book or their pen, or leave their plough standing in the furrow, and go at once and repair the evil. Thus, they trust, the account between them and justice is kept substantially balanced, and they entertain the hope that the Divine mercy will not be withheld from them in the great day.
These are the principles which prevail■ where the Christian doctrine of seeking forgiveness through the merits of Christ is laid out of view; and the question now is, whether these are sound principles—or in other words, what is the true relation of repentance to pardon ? Let us examine the system now referred to, in which there is undoubtedly some mixture of truth, and see what is the correct doctrine on the subject. The inquiry will be conducted by laying down a few connected propositions.
I. It will be agreed on all hands, that under the Divine administration there is no pardon, in the proper sense of the term, where there is no repentance. Indeed, if the term pardon, or its equivalent forgiveness, is ever used, without the correlative repentance, it is probably employed in a somewhat lax signification ; not in its strict and proper sense. When a man who is in the penitentiary, or who is under sentence of death for murder, is pardoned by the executive, the term means merely that the penalty is remitted, or is not executed. There has been in the bosom of the executive no such feeling exactly as is implied in the word forgiveness. His feeling in the case is distinct from that which he would have had if he had been personally wronged, and he who had wronged him had come and made penitent confession, and he had forgiven him. So when in your heart you exercise forgiveness towards those who have injured you when they manifest no repentance—as the Saviour prayed for his murderers, " Father, forgive them," the feeling is distinct from what it is when you see them truly penitent, and when in view of their repentance you declare them forgiven. You use the term in a somewhat lax and indefinite sense, as meaning that you do not harbour malice against them; that you will take no revenge for what they have done ; that you will be ready actually to pardon them if they will apply to you for forgiveness.
Repentance and forgiveness, in the proper sense of the terms, have, in the common apprehensions of men. a very close connexion. It is a point on which we will all start together in our inquiry, that there can he no pardon under the Divine government where there is no true repentance. There is no one point probahly about which men would be better agreed than this. The Deist supposes this ; all men suppose it. The hardened man ; the man who never felt one pang of regret that he has done wrong ; the man who wholly justifies his own course; the man who knows that he has done evil, and who intends to persevere in it, cannot obtain forgiveness in any proper sense of that term. He may remain for a long time unpunished, the sentence of the law may be suspended over him, he may have many comforts and blessings, and his life may be filled with hilarity and joy; but it would be an abuse of language to say that he was forgiven or pardoned. If he ever obtains pardon, in the proper sense of that term, it must be somehow in connexion with his exercising sorrow for what he has done. This, then, is a fundamental principle in all religions. It is a point on which Christians and all other men must agree. Wherever it leads us, we here start together.
II. My second proposition is, that mere repentance of itself will not repair an evil which you have done, and on account of which you feel compunction. Sin, or wrong done, produces evils which no mere regret on the part of him who has done it can repair. It is not an universal truth that regret or compunction on the part of the offender will put away the evil, and restore matters to the condition in which they were before the wrong was done.
This truth is perhaps sufficiently plain in itself without any further illustration; but as it is the dividing point between Christianity and other systems ; as it is very material in understanding the relation of repentance to pardon; and as it is an important fact in the character of the Divine administration,— it is of moment that it should be further illustrated.
It is an essential position in the view which one takes who rejects the doctrine of the atonement, and who denies its necessity in order that repentance can he of avail, that " when men have transgressed the Divine commands, repentance and amendment of life will place them in the same situation as if they had never offended."*
Now, is this so? Is it a correct principle in regard to the Divine administration ? Is it one that is sustained by the course of events ? Will repentance and reformation of themselves arrest the course of things consequent on transgression, and prevent * Magee on the Atonement, p. 19.
any further suffering or punishment on account of it ? Let us look a moment at facts in the case, and see what repentance will and will not do.
(a) In the common occurrences of life, does the man who by intemperance and voluptuousness has injured his character, his fortune, and his health, find himself instantly restored to the enjoyment of those blessings, on repenting of his past conduct, and resolving on future amendment ? The answer plainly is, he does not. Repentance, even the bitterest remorse, will not do it. It will not at once bring back the fortune that has been lost by gambling; nor will it at once restore the bloated and diseased frame of the voluptuary to " the freshness of a child's." Nor will it arrest at once the pain and anguish of bod}' and mind, and the disgrace which may have been engendered by the evil course. These travel on beyond the moments of repentance, and meet a man perhaps far on his way beyond the period when he penitently forsook the path of transgression. It is true, indeed, that repentance is one of the indispensable ways by which these evils are to be arrested, and that, as a consequence of that, a man may be restored to prosperity, to the possession of property, and to honour. But this does not occur at once. It is to be a gradual process. It will be by slow and toilsome steps. Not one cent of lost property will repentance at once bring back; not one pang of disease produced by voluptuous living will it at once arrest. By sober and persevering toil, the man of wrecked and ruined fortune may become rich again; by the proper care of his health, the ravages of disease may be arrested, and he may yet be blessed with length of days, but not by any miraculous or sudden effect of repentance.
(b) Will repentance repair the wrong that you have done to others, and place things in the same situation in which they were before ? In some respects it may. The property which you stole, you may restore; the trespass which you committed may be paid for by a full equivalent. But will it recall a murdered man from the grave ? Will it restore innocence to the ruined victim of hellish arts? Will it undo the wrongs which you have done to a mother and her children by making their father an inebriate ?
(c) Will repentapce at once arrest the evils of a youth wasted in folly and vice ? It may indeed make you industrious and plodding and virtuous at twenty-one, and ever onward. I3ut will it recall the hours which you have wasted at the card-table, or in the company of the idle and the worthless, or in absolute indolence, or in building castles in the air, or in following after wild and illusive vagaries of the mind ? It may enable you to do something hereafter ; hut it will not repair the past, and through the longest life you will suffer disadvantage from the want of what you might have acquired in the wasted days of your youth.
[d) Will repentance obliterate the pain which you have caused others by your misconduct ? It may do much in many cases to effect this ; perhaps in some cases it may remove it all. A frank and full confession, the expression of deep and genuine sorrow, may in some instances wholly arrest and remove the anguish of heart felt by a father or a mother in view of your ingratitude and disobedience. But will it always do this ? Is it the universal law? Alas, that father's locks may have been turned prematurely grey by your misconduct; and no penitence of yours can make one hair black again. Or the broken-hearted parent may be now in the grave, crushed to the earth and consigned to the tomb by the ingratitude and follies of a son; and no penitence of yours can bring him up again to the cheerful light of the living. Look over the past. How small a part of those to whom you have done wrong, who have been injured or pained by you, are now within your reach! To how few of them could you make confession and reparation if you should try! Part are in their graves. Part are in distant lands. Part scattered over your own country. Here, the wrong struck a parent's heart ; there, the heart of a sister; there, the heart of a wife—all now dead. Here, it planted a poisoned arrow in the bosom of a friend, and he is now far away. There, it reached a benefactor, and he is gone, you know not where. And there, the memorial of it is seen in the bowed form of a father, and how can you make his frame erect again, and restore to him the lustre of his earlier years ?
These are plain principles ; and they show us that repentance, however genuine and bitter, will not at once arrest the consequences of an evil course, and restore things to the condition in which they were before. There are things which remain to be adjusted under the operation of God's moral government, which are not affected by the mere fact of repentance. The relation of repentance to pardon, therefore, is not that it necessarily arrests the evil, and prevents all future suffering on the account of sin in this world. And how can he who rejects , revelation, and the evidence there furnished of pardon, prove that it will arrest all these evils at any period of his existence ? What will it do to repair the evils done to a murdered man ; to an injured father, mother, or sister; to those inveigled into error or crime who may now be in their graves ? The grand principle which I seek to lay down here is, that repentance does not of itself repair the wrong done; and that " indemnity is not a consequence of repentance here." * Can a rejector of revelation prove that it will be hereafter ? What would be the basis of such an argument? What " counter-facts" to those which have been stated are there to show that it is probable it will be so ?
III. My third proposition is, that when wrong has heen done, repentance will not do anything to restore to favour, without some act on the part of him who is offended and injured. The whole matter lies in his bosom, in his will; in that which no power, or wealth, or influence, or tears, can of necessity control.
Repentance is always in view of a wrong done. But a wrong necessarily contemplates two or more persons ; for even when there seems to be but one, by a species of fiction of language we show that it is essentially supposed there are two. We sometimes, indeed, speak pf a man's wronging himself; doing injustice to himself, as if there were two persons concerned, the one acting against the other—the man's baser passions acting against his higher nature:—as when it is often remarked of a man that " the only enemy he has is himself." And so we retain the same fiction of language when we speak of our own follies and faults, and say that " we cannot forgive ourselves for what we have done." Even here we keep up the notion, that as a wrong it pertains to two. There must be an act of penitence in the one, and of pardon in the other, before it can be adjusted.
In all other instances, it is clear that wrong pertains to two or more parties. A wrong is something done to another—to his feelings, character, property, government, family, health, limb, life, or soul. There are two parties—the injurer and the injured ; the wrong-doer, and the individual, or the corporation, or the government that has suffered. When a wrong is done, therefore, it becomes at once an affair pertaining to two or more parties.
It follows, therefore, that when a wrong is done, it is not the mere act of the one party that will heal it. There must be a common or joint action in the case. The friend who has been injured must act, as well as he who has injured him ; the parent as well as the child ; the government as well as the subject.
It is clear, also, that whatever may be the feelings or the action of the one who has done the wrong, there must be some action or expression on the part of the injured before the difficulty is removed. The sacrifice must not only be brought, it must be accepted; the recompense must not only be tendered, it must be received; the confession must not only be made, it must * Magee.
be admitted to be satisfactory. On the part of the injured and the wronged, there must be some arrangement made in the case; some promise ; some expression of a readiness to pardon, and to have the difficulty healed,—and, if he be a moral governor, to have the penalty remitted.—before he who has done the wrong can have evidence that his own arrangement for removing the difficulty will avail. It would not do for a child to disobey a parent, and then to make such an acknowledgment in the case as he himself should please,- and demand that that should be accepted ; and as little would it do for him to do wrong presuming on what he supposed to be the clemency of his father in such a case. Such an arrangement on his own part, and such a presumption, would do nothing to heal the breach, or to relieve the difficulty in the case. It will not do to presume on the character of any one too far. A child is making a most hazardous experiment, when he presumes on the forbearance of even a parent. He is making a most hazardous as well as wicked experiment, who presumes on the kindness and forbearance of a friend, when he provokes or neglects him. A husband is making a most hazardous, as well as wicked experiment, who presumes on the patience and forbearance of the most kind and affectionate wife, by treating her with neglect and want of love. There is a point beyond which, even if it were right at all, it will not be safe to presume on the kindness and forbearance of any one, however kind, or generous, or noble. How far, then, may a man presume on the kindness and forbeaianee of God, about whom he knows so little? How may he know that he would accept an offering for transgression; that he would receive the confessions of the lips for having done wrong ; that he would regard with favour even the tears and sighs that would be the expression of a broken and a contrite heart ?
The real question, then, in all cases where wrong has been done is, whether there is any act or declaration, on the part of him to whom the wrong has been done, to which he who has done it could trust for the certainty of pardon. If you know enough about his character in any case, that might furnish you with some, perhaps with a certain ground of hope. But you want something more even than that. You want some act ou his part; some arrangement; some promise.
Now what does the rejector of revelation pretend to here ? According to him, what arrangement has there been on the part of God to show that repentance will be connected with pardon ? Rejecting as he does, systematically and on principle, all revelation, what does he pretend to rely on that will furnish such assurance ? That it may be so may bo true ; but does he know it? How can he know it ? How can he know anything about it ? The mere fact of repentance is certainly no evidence of pardon ; for millions have repented of a wrong who never have been forgiven ; and the mere fact that a wrong-doer experiences remorse is no evidence that he who has been wronged will be disposed to forgive.
Here then, again, we part with the rejector of revelation. We, who profess to believe in the Christian system, suppose that God has made an arrangement on this very subject, and has made it known to us in his word. We not only profess to know what repentance is, and to presume that the injured and the wronged in the case will be disposed to accept of the expressions of penitence, but we profess to have, what the case demands, a statement from him on this very point, which relieves the whole difficulty, and which assures us that in connexion with repentance our sins will be blotted out. We have, then, what is requisite when two parties are concerned,—as there always are when wrong is done; we have the statement of the one who is injured, that repentance on the part of the other will be followed by forgiveness. There is but one question which remains to be asked on the subject to fill up the argument, and to give us information of all which it is needful for us to know. It is, in what way it is consistent for God to do this; or what is the arrangement by which it is done. This is not indeed absolutely necessary for us to know,—since if we offend another it is sufficient to be assured that he regards it as consistent for him to forgive, and the fact that he will do it is really all we need; but still there would be an advantage in being made acquainted with the method by which it is done if we could. It might give us some enlarged views of his character; it might enable us more to admire the plan.
IV. This leads me, then, to the statement of a fourth proposition, that the exercise of repentance is made available and efficacious in the case, through the atonement made by the Saviour— or in virtue of his death regarded as a sacrifice for sin. The exercise of repentance in connexion with the atonement meets all the necessary conditions of pardon, and is the only plan which does. The meaning is, that the death of Christ as a sacrifice has done so much to repair the wrong done(by sin, that now pardon may consistently follow repentance. Two or three remarks, I trust, will make this clear.
First, as already observed, in all cases where repentance is i proper, a wrong has been done—an injury has been the result of
that which causes repentance ; since if there is no wrong, no injury, there is no occasion of repentance in any case. But mere sorrow or regret on your part, however urgent or protracted, does nothing to remove that wrong, or repair that injury; and the wrong must be in some way repaired before repentance can be satisfactory. A simple ease will make this clear. A father, in moderate circumstances, sends his son to college, away from home. The father has just the means of maintaining him there by meeting the ordinary and necessary expenses—and no more. He gives his son repeated and solemn charges on the subject of economy in his expenditure, assuring■ him that he can only meet term-bills and the expenses of living on a prudent scale. In particular, he charges him not to enter a certain house of entertainment, though entirely respectable, and though kept by a man every way respectable. Solely on the score of necessary economy, he enjoins this duty on him, and makes it a point of absolute command. At the end of the year a large bill, wholly beyond his power to meet, is sent to him from that prohibited house. The son confesses the wrong, expresses regret, and asks for pardon. Is there nothing to be done in the case but simply to forgive him on that confession ? True, it may be that the worthy man who sent the bill had no authority to trust a minor, and that the father might not be legally bound in the matter; but there is the sentiment of honour strong in the father, and equally strong in this respect in the son ;—and what is to be done ? It is out of the question for the father to pay; and the existence of that very debt operates to prevent any arrangement between the father and the son on the question what is to be done for his wilful disobedience. Unless the worthy creditor will forgive the debt, which he cannot afford to do, and cannot well be asked to do, it seems to be a barrier in the way of reconciliation between the father and the son, which cannot be overcome. If, however, some friend of ample means, seeing the difficulty, and hoping that a generous act on his part might have a good effect on the young man himself—obviously in danger of being a spendthrift, and ruining himself by dissipation—should volunteer to pay the bill, that part of the difficulty would be removed, and the way would be entirely open for the negotiation to proceed between the father and the son. If the evidence of repentance were satisfactory, there would then be no other obstacle to his being forgiven— and it might even be hoped that good would come out of the whole affair—perhaps even more good in the end, than if it had not happened at all. At all events, it would be felt and owned
by all parties, that the complete reconciliation consequent on repentance was made effective by the interposition of the friend, and that but for this, there was no way in which it could have occurred so well, if at all. Now it is conceivable that the act of the friend might be known only to the father, and that all that the son might know about it might be the mere declaration of the father that he would forgive him, and that in some way he had arranged the debt. Still, it would have a better moral influence on his mind that he should know all about it—especially if the friend had been himself at some considerable self-denial in doing what he had done. .
Secondly, repentance is connected with pardon, because it is in close connexion with that which is designed to be an expression of the evil of the sin; with that which is done to repair the evil and the wrong. My regret and sorrow show my conviction that the price that was paid, or the suffering that was endured, to repair the wrong, was deserved by me. I express my regret mainly in view of that, and regard that as an exponent of the measure of my ill-desert. The ancient penitent led his victim to the altar, laid his hands on his head, confessed his sin, and the victim was slain—the penitent acknowledging that he deserved to die. We approach by faith■ the Great Victim that was slain for sin; confess our transgressions before him ; lay our hands on his head; and confess that the stroke that descended on him was deserved by us; that his sufferings were an exponent of our guilt.
Thirdly, in such cases, repentance is connected with a promise, an assurance on the part of God, that he will forgive. We have seen in the former part of this discourse, that a wrong pertains to two parties, and that the action of each is necessary in order to forgiveness. The action of the offended and injured party in this case—God—consists in the arrangement which he has made in order that pardon may be consistent with his justice, and in the assurance that it may be obtained by repentance. The Christian religion is the only one that is characterized by a promise or pledge on the part of the Deity ; and there is no promise of pardon made to men except in connexion with repentance, and none even then except in view of the great Sacrifice made on the cross. Every other kind of religion is conjecture—fancy—poetry—or, if it will be more agreeable to have it dignified with a higher term, the deduction of reason. No other system, however, makes pretensions to a promise of the forgiveness of sins. In the Christian scheme, repentance avails to procure pure]on because God has himself made all the arrange, ments on his part to make pardon consistent and proper; and because, in view of these arrangements, he has expressed a willingness to receive the penitent again to his arms.
The conclusions to which we have been conducted by the arguments in this discourse are these:—
(1.) That there is no certainty in regard to the forgiveness of sins in Deism, in Infidelity, in Heathenism. There is no evidence that any promise is made in either of them that sins may be forgiven even on the bitterest repentance ; there is no evidence that they are so pardoned. No voice from heaven announces . the fact that they may be forgiven; no voice declares that they are. The weeping and broken-hearted penitent is greeted with no assurance that his sins are blotted out; nor can he prove that the paternal arms of the Deity are extended to embrace him. All is conjecture; all is uncertainty; all is destitute of that which we need when we feel that we have done wrong— for then our crushed and suffering hearts cry out for evidence that we may be pardoned; for some land, consoling word that we may be, that we are forgiven.
(2.) The hopes of Infidelity are a violation of the principles which the infidel himself is obligo 1 li Itold. He must hold, he does hold, that repentance does not iciuiii (he evils which sin makes in the actual course of events; that it does not restore the property of the drunkard, or the gambler, or the spendthrift ; that it does not give vigour and length of days to the frame enervated by dissipation; that it does not recall the murdered from the grave; that it docs not bring back the hopes of youth wasted in folly; that it does not necessarily secure forgiveness from an injured parent or friend. And yet, in the very face of all these things, he holds that repentance, without anything else, is all that is necessary to turn away the wrath of God, and to arrest the evils caused by the violation of his law. He holds that a sigh, a groan—though on the death-bed—is all that is needful to make it certain that the long, black catalogue will be blotted out, and that his soul will be landed safe in heaven. Why does he hold this ? What promise has he ? Where does the analogy of nature sustain him ? Where—where are the facts on which he builds such a hope ?
(3.) Christianity is the only form of religion that addresses words of consolation to the broken-hearted penitent. It is the only religion that approaches man with a promise from heaven. It accords with the analogy of nature so far as to teach that man must be penitent if he would hope for pardon; and then, when nature leaves us as a guide, it takes up the matter and shows us how and why it may be done. It comes to man with an assurance that God now will accept the confessions and tears of the contrite in heart, and that the offender may be restored to favour.
It meets us just where we want to be met; just at the point where our embarrassment is greatest. We are weeping, suppose, over our sins. We have been led to reflect on them, and to see their evil, and to desire pardon ; we are in that state of mind in which the Heathen are, and which the system of the Deist contemplates. But just here is the point of our greatest perplexity. We stand and weep. We have no doubt of the evil of our wrong-doing—of our ill-desert. We east our eyes around to see what is the effect of repentance; to see what it does to repair evils done, or to arrest the effects of depravity. It does nothing such as we want it to do. It restores no wasted property or health ; recalls none from the grave ; heals no heart that is broken and crushed; raises up no form that has been bowed down by the ingratitude of a child; makes no hair black and glossy that has been whitened by grief. We stand perplexed, and ask, what evidence is there that repentance will arrest the progress of evil at all, and that it will stay the woes that we fear are coming upon us for our crimes ? Just there—where we want it—Christianity approaches us. It tells us that it is true that in the ordinary course of events repentance does not immediately arrest the progress of evil, and repair the ravages which it has made; but that an arrangement has been effected by which this shall be ultimately done, and that the arrangement shall commence at once in regard to us, by the assurance of forgiveness, and by the imparting of peace to the soul—a pledge of the truth of its message. Now this is what we want. It meets us at the very point where we need it. It is a beam of light coming down where all is dark; it sheds peace on a soul where all was perplexity and trouble.
It is in accordance, then, with what he needs, when we exhort the penitent to go to God; to confess his sins; to look up to him through the Great Sacrifice made on the cross for man, for pardon. Such an exhortation meets the obvious wants of our nature, and should lead every guilty man at once up to God ; and in executing mycommission in addressing the guilty and thedying, I would earnestly entreat each one of you in view of what has been said, to go to the God against whom he has sinned, and confess his transgressions, and plead for mercy. "Repent, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."