THE FOUNDATION OF THE COMMAND TO REPENT LAID IN THE CHARACTER OF MAN.
Acts xvii. 30.—"God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent."
A Command addressed to all men requiring repentance, supposes that all men are personally guilty, or that there is some wrongdoing in the life of each individual, which makes it proper that he should be required to repent. God does not demand hypocritical or affected sorrow. He does not require his creatures to repent of that which is right; or which could in no sense have been avoided; or which has been done by another. There can be no repentance where there has been no wrong—no guilt.
The inquiry before us now is, whether it is true that every man is guilty in such a sense that it is proper to command him to repent. This is everywhere assumed in the Bible ; it is assumed in my text; it is assumed by every one who preaches the gospel, whether in a Christian or a heathen land. Yet the command is not extensively obeyed. It is addressed to thousands who give themselves no trouble about it, and who do not feel themselves particularly called upon to obey it. The reasons why they do not may be many ; but among them it may be presumed that one of the most prominent is that which I propose now to notice—that they do not suppose themselves to be guilty in any such sense as to make the command in their case proper.
In prosecuting, therefore, the general subject of repentance, I propose to call your attention to the simple inquiry, whether it is true that every one is guilty in such a sense that it is needful to call on him to repent ? In order to bring this fairly before you, I shall have to consider two points :—I. The estimate which men form of themselves on this question; and, II. What there is in their character and lives which makes it proper to call on them to Tepent.
I. The estimate which men form on the question of their own guilt. When we call on men to repent, we are at once met with certain classes of feelings in regard to their own lives and conduct, which it is necessary to remove or correct before the command will be felt to have any force. A few feel and admit that they are sinners,—suchsinners as to make the command appropriate in regard to themselves. But this is by no means the feeling of the mass of those to whom the command of repentance comes ; and before that command can be seen to have any weight, it is necessary that there should be produced in their minds in some way the conviction that they are guilty. In order to do as much justice as possible at the same time to the character of my readers and to my subject, I shall, under this head, attempt to describe the views which are commonly entertained on this point, and shall concede what I deem to be correct in regard to those views. The gospel of Christ does not require me to do injustice to any man.
The views, then, which are entertained may be described as comprising the following particulars:—
(1.) You allege that you are not gross and open sinners. You are not idolaters. You are not profane. You are not scoffers. You are not inebriates. You are not debased by sensuality. Many of the heathen were; many in every community now are; and you would readily concede that it would in every way be proper to call on them to repent. It was eminently so in the times of the apostles ; it is so now in heathen lands ; it is so among the debased and sunken portions of every community. But this, it would be alleged, is not the character of the mass of those to whom the gospel is preached.
This, I admit, is true. No one can deny it; no one should desire to deny it. In declaring the gospel, I am not required or expected to do injustice to any man, or class of men. I am to withhold from none of them the fair praise for what they have and are. I am not to attempt to group and blend all men together, and to represent them as in all respects on the same level. I am to do wrong to no man's amiableness, or integrity, or purity of morals. If I meet a young man amiable and upright, like him whom the Saviour met, I am to " love" him as he did, and not to attempt to rank him with Judas Iscnriot; if I see a pure and virtuous female, I am not to represent her as a Mary Magdalene. I am neither to maintain that one man is as bad as another; nor that any man is as bad as he can be ;—and if I were required to do this, I should despair of bringing men to repentance.
(2.) You allege that you are not habitually a wrong-doer. You aim to do right. You mean faithfully to discharge your duties. Your purpose is to be honest, upright, true. You do not mean to do wrong to your wife, or children, or neighbour, or client, or customer, or the stranger that comes into your dwelling, or that you may meet in your travels. You mean to pay your debts ; you mean to tell the truth ; you mean to be faithful to your promises. If you fail in regard to any of these things, it is not by design, but it is to be traced to infirmity, inadvertence, want of full information, or circumstances wholly beyond your control. You are conscious to yourself that in the main this has been your character. If, in the course of a life, we will now suppose a life somewhat protracted, you have ever been guilty of a falsehood, it has been perhaps but in a single instance—an instance which you have a thousand times regretted—while the characteristic by which you are best known is that of a man of unimpeachable veracity. If in the course of such a long life, you have ever done injustice to another man in dealing with him; have taken advantage of him by your superior knowledge; have wronged him out of what was due to him; have overreached him in a bargain,—it has been in perhaps not more than a single instance, when you were younger, and you have a thousand times regretted it; and your prevailing character has been that of an honest man. If, at some time in your life, you have done wrong to the character of another, it was when you were misinformed, or were excited by passion, or were led to suppose that he had injured you. Upon calmer reflection you have a thousand times regretted it, and if he is dead you feel the bi tterest compunction that it was done ; if he is living, there is nothing which you would not do for his welfare—and your prevailing character has not been that of a calumniator and slanderer.—If at times you have indulged in passion, under sudden provocation, or a nervous temperament, or when off your guard, you have as often regretted it, and you are conscious that it is not your habitual aim to do so, and that your deliberate purpose is not to wound the feelings or pain the heart of another. You cherish the hope also that the world will do you justice in this, and that in spite of these sudden and temporary ebullitions you will be regarded as having a kind heart, and as ready to do good to others.
Now I admit that there is much truth also in all this. I admit it because it is undeniable, and because religion does not require us to do injustice to the character of any human being. I think that those of us who trust that we have exercised true repentance, deep as may be *our conviction of the depravity of the heart, believe this to have been true in regard to ourselves. I think that we can all look over our lives and see that the instances were very few and far between in which we intentionally did a wrong thing;—in which we were guilty of falsehood, or fraud, or dishonesty. This will meet the eye of many such men—men who from day to day are not conscious of an intention to do a wrong thiug; who are conscious that they would not cheat a man for the brightest diadem that ever a monarch wore, and who go into their office, into the bank, into their counting-rooms, intending to do right to all men, and who, when Saturday night comes, whatever sense of imperfection they may have, lie down on their pillows with the reflection, that through the week they have not done intentional wrong to any human being.
* In what sense, then, you would ask me, are such men called on to repent ? Why is the command addressed to all human beings? What is there in their character and life that makes it proper in their case 1 These are fair questions. They are questions which men cannot help asking. They are questions which the ministers of religion are bound to answer.
II. My second object was to show what there is in the character and lives of such men which makes it proper to call on thtm to repent. My aim will be to state that only of which you are conscious, and to show that there is that in the case of every one which makes it proper for his Maker, through the gospel, to address him in the language of the text.
(1.) I begin with this thought, that with all your conscious integrity and purity, there has not been a day of your life in which you would be willing to have all your thoughts, and plans, and desires, and imaginings for that day made known to the world, or even to your best friends. I mean that you would not be willing to have all these things written down by some attending amanuensis, or by some invention resembling the magnetic telegraph, and made known instantly to those who are around you. In the purest day of your life, you would not be willing to have all these thoughts written in letters of light in some conspicuous place, to be read by every passer-by. The very thoughts which you have had this day, you would not have thus permanently transcribed for all the diamonds of the East. If you were certain that this were to be done, if you should see the mysterious finger coming forth and beginning to make the record, shame would begin at the same time to cover you, and you would rush from the spot, or cover your face with your hands, and hide it in confusion.
Now there are three reasons why a man would not wish such a revelation of his secret thoughts and feelings. One is, because he has plans which, though not wrong or improper in themselves, he would not desire others to know. They are his plans of business, of study, of inventions; his views of a case in law entrusted to him; his methods of practising the healing art; his tact in his calling, which he would not desire to have every one ltnow, for his living may depend on it, though he may feel that if it were known it would he in a high degree creditable to himself. But every man has his own secrets; and they constitute no inconsiderable part of his capital in business. At any rate, many of his prospects would he blasted if his views and plans were in the possession of others. A second reason is, that many of our thoughts and imaginings are merely foolish, and trifling, and unprofitable — and we could not desire others to know that our minds could be employed on so barren subjects, and in a way so little befitting our dignity and character. We allow the imagination to roam quite at its ease; we amuse ourselves in building up splendid castles, and then in seeing them tumble into gorgeous fragments or vanish:—as children set up bricks, or build houses of blocks to see them fall over; or as the Arabian, in his tales, paints a gorgeous vision, and sees it vanish away. Now we should not feel that in this employment of the mind there was absolutely anything corrupting or wrong; but we should not care to have the world suppose that we are quite so unprofitably employed as we are. There is yet a third reason, of a much more serious character, and extending to many more things. We should he unwilling that our plans and thoughts should be disclosed, because we feel that they are wrong. They are the fruits of an evil, a proud, a vain, a sensual, an envious, a corrupt heart. We are dwelling with delight on some sinful pleasures in the past, and trying to live them over again, when they should be forgotten:—thus polluting the mind as much by the memory as by the act. We are dwelling in imagination on some forbidden pleasures, and arranging them to our fancy:—thus corrupting the soul as really as the act itself would do. We are indulging in hateful pride of beauty, or dress, or attainments, or wealth; and suffering a whole deluge of evil thoughts to come in upon the soul in regard to our superiority over others. We are looking on the dress, or the person, or the house, or the equipage of another with envious feelings, and allowing the mind to be filled with hatred of them on account of their possessions, and with repining and dissatisfaction at our own lot. We are coveting, it may be, our " neighbour's house, or his wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass," or something else that is our neighbour's. We are remembering the injury that some one has done us, and thinking how sweet revenge would be. We are maturing some plan for the indulgence of a guilty passion, and are increasingly impatient as it begins to ripen towards its accomplishment. We are running over trains of thought which we know are not pure, and which we feel are polluting—for " the very passage of an impure thought through the mind leaves pollution behind it:"—and if a cherub should approach ns in our reverie in the most sylph-like form, and on wings as pure as the northern snows, and with the gentlest whisper of the zephyr, should breathe into our ears that it was linown—how would it startle us from our reverie, and cover us with confusion! It is probable that either in respect to the desires and plans of the present, or the doings of the past, it would be in the power of such a messenger, by the gentlest whisper in the ear, " That thing is known!" to startle us from our seats in wild confusion and horror.
How, then, shall we be pure before God ? For, " if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things," 1 John iii. 20. " Unto me," said an ancient sage, " an oracle was secretly imparted, and mine ear caught a gentle whisper of it. In distracted thoughts among the visions of the night, when profound sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to quake. Then a spirit glided along before my faee; the hair of my flesh stood on end:—it stood, but its form I could not discern; a spectre was before mine eyes :—there was silence, and I heard a voice—Shall feeble man be more just than God ? Shall man be more pure than his Maker f Behold, in his servants he putteth no confidence, and his angels he chargeth with folly : how much more true is this of those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, and who are crushed before the moth-worm?" Job iv. 12—19.
But, if there are thoughts within us all that could not bear such a revelation, then for these thoughts it is proper to call on the sinner to repent. Say, sinner, if you can conceive that Gabriel should cherish for one day in heaven such thoughts as are the habitual inmates of your bosom, would not all heaven demand the expulsion of the archangel, or his lowly contrition before the throne ?
(2.) I refer, secondly, to the sins of which you are conscious in your past life. I have my eye on the concessions which I have made, and shall not depart from them. But with these full in view, it is right to look at the past life, and see whether sins have not been committed which make the demand for repentance proper. There are two classes of these sins to be taken into the account: those which you have carried out and accomplished; and those which you would have committed but for the waut of opportunity, and by some providential restraint.
(a) The first class is made up of those which you have committed, or which have been accomplished by some open deed. These may seem to be few in number, but in the aggregate they may not be Bo few. The question is not how many times you have done one wrong thing, but how many times you have done all wrong things. It is not exactly whether you have been guilty of one falsehood or more ; of one act of dishonesty or more; but it is, how many wrong things aro fairly chargeable on you when they are all reckoned together—:when all your acts of dishonesty, and passion, and deceit, and prevarication, and unkindness, and disobedience, and improper words, and pride and vanity, and corrupt imaginings, and envy, and jealousy, and every other evil thing remembered and forgotten, are taken together. For many of your sins aro forgotten by you, though remembered by Him who has uttered the command in the text. But if such an inventory were taken of our lives, what a catalogue might be made out against us! Who would be willing to be summoned to the bar of bis Maker in a strict and impartial trial of all that he has done on all subjects, and at all times, that he has known to be wrong? In such an honest catalogue, if drawn out before our eyes, it may be that we who think ourselves most virtuous, would be so overwhelmed that we should see that shame and confusion of face become us.
(V) But there is another aspect of the point before us. The sins which we have designed or devised, and which we should have committed, if we had had the opportunity, or if we had not been restrained by some invisible influence, or if we had not been thwarted in the midst of what seemed to promise a successful prosecution of our plans, ought to be taken into the account. For we are answerable before God, not only for what we have actually done, but for what we desired to do, and what we would have done if we had not been prevented. When a man levels a rifle at another with an intent to murder him, the act is not changed to innocence if the weapon misses fire, or if some one strikes it from his hand, or if God interposes and makes his arm unsteady by fear, or powerless by paralysis. When you laid your plan to defraud a creditor, the guilt is not washed away because the laws are so made that you could not evade them. When you contemplated and desired to lead the innocent astray, you are not rendered guiltless because God in some way interposed and saved your intended victim and a circle of friends from the agony of a broken heart. The grand question is, what has been your desire, your aim, your purpose, your wish. For these things you are to answer before God; and when a man looks honestly over his life, and reflects on what he has wished to do, and mould have done, but for some restraint of Providence, who can say that he has no occasion for repentance? Grateful he will be, if he has any just views, that God restrained Lira from the deep disgrace of the outward act; hut he must settle with God yet for the internal plan and desire from the execution of which God so mercifully restrained him.
(c) There is still another aspect of the point hefore us. Who can toll what any of us would havo heen, but for some steady and constant restraint ? Others have fallen into deep depravity; why have we not done it? Thoy have wrecked character, and hope, and happiness; what is tho lesson which this fact should teach us about ourselves? Our eyes have seen distinguished clergymen in different denominations fall into gross and open sin; officers in hanks and custom-houses, and high public functionaries abuse their trust, and ruin their character; merchants yield to the power of temptation, and rain themselves and their families. As we heard this, we became alarmed, and trembled for ourselves. We asked, if such men fall, what confidence can we put in other men; what confidence in ourselves ? Why did we allow it to come hack upon our own souls, and fill us with self-distrust? Because we knew and felt that there was that within us which, placed in the same circumstances, would, for aught that we could see, lead to the same result. Then we asked, to what we owed our preservation, and what we should have been if we had been left in a similar manner? Then we felt that there was a deep foundation of evil in our souls—in tho souls of all; and that all that is needful for its development is to throw man into circumstances of temptation without restraint. I admit that the primary effect of this, when others fall, should be to make us grateful to God that Jvc have been preserved, but it should also show us what is in our own hearts. No virtuous man ever yet witnessed the fall of another who did not feel humbled himself, and who did not feel that there was in his own heart a deep foundation of evil.
The truth is, we owe much more of our virtues to external circumstances—to Providential restraints—to secret checks from nn invisible cause—than we are in our pride willing to acknowledge. But how much credit should a man take to himself for these things ? Who can tell what he would have been but for those restraints, and if he had had his birth in another land, or in different circumstances?', And why should not a man, in his estimate of his own character before God, think of himself not merely as he is, but as he would have been without restraint? Why, when he contemplates his virtue and integrity, with the guards and checks which are thrown around him, should he not think of what he might have been, and would have been, but for these guards and checks ? ■
If these are just principles, we can see proper foundation for tlie call to repentance and humiliation before God. Our open deeds of evil scattered along through life, and many of them forgotten; our plans of evil which wo formed and cherished, from the accomplishment of which we were providentially prevented ; onr conscious weakness of principle, which would have made us what others have been if there had been no restraint on us,—all these things show us how we are estimated by Him who knows all things, and who sees all the secrets of the heart, and show us one of the reasons why it is that he has called on all men everywhere to repent.
(3.) I refer, thirdly, to your treatment of your Maker. You have been careful in respect to your conduct towards your fellowmen, but no one can deny that our deportment towards God isvof much more importance in estimating our own character than our treatment of a fellow-creature. It is mainly, I need hardly remind you, on account of our treatment of himself that he calls on us to exercise repentance—for all sin and wrong ultimately terminate on him.
Now what has been your treatment of your God and Saviour ? Has your deportment towards him been such as to satisfy your own conscience; such as to meet his approval ? Or has it been such as to make it proper for him to call on you to exercise true repentance ; to feel and express regret and sorrow f
I by no means intend to say that the feelings of those for whom I write, and whom I would call to repentance, have been alike; or that any general description would accurately represent them all. But the following specifications, I apprehend, will find a counterpart in the bosoms of most of those whom I thus address, and will be recognised as an accurate account of the course of life of which they are conscious :—
(a) You have neglected God.!. You have not lived as if there were a God; you have not rendered to him the homage which is his due. In many cases this neglect has been entire ; has been long-continued—perhaps has lasted through a long life. You are not in the habit of praying to him—of acknowledging him in your closet, your family, your plans of life. There has been nothing in your life which has been a proper recognition of his existence and his claims; of the fact that he is your Creator, and that you are dependent on him, and that you sustain any relation to him whatever. Suppose you had neglected a wife, a mother, a father, a child in this manner! What a wrong is often done by mere neglect! Yet there is no one to whom men sustain important relations who is so much neglected aif God.
(b) You have withheld your affections from Him, and transferred them to others. You have loved the creature more than the Creator. You have given that place in your affections, which was due to him, to gold, or pleasure, or honour; to your child, or to your houses and lands. Your supreme love you have fixed not on God, hut on these objects; and your strong attachment for them has displaced Him from the heart. But is there no wrong in thus transferring your affections ? Suppose you were to transfer to another the affections due to a wife,—is there no wrong done? Is there less when the affections are all withheld from God, and concentrated on some one other object, or distributed among a thousand ?
(c) You have neglected the Bible. There may be among you some who have never read it through in their lives; some who never read the half of it; some who never read twenty chapters in it; some who are in no regular habit of reading it; some who have not looked into it for years. But suppose this Book to be a real revelation from heaven; to contain the true law of God; to disclose the true plan of salvation; to have been given and preserved with great care and interest on the part of God; and to be full of the wisdom in counsel which man needs,—is there no wrong done to him by neglecting it? Hear a parable. A young man embarked for a distant land. He was an only son, greatly beloved by his father. He was young, and inexperienced, aud was going among strangers, and was likely to be thrown iuto circumstances where he would need a counsellor. The father had himself been over all those lands; had encountered all those, dangers; and he knew well what kind of instructions would be most useful there. With great pains he sat down and wrote out such counsels as became a lather in such circumstances, and gave them to his son. The son, confident of his own wisdom, and regardless of his father, resolved to throw himself on his own resources, and coolly folded up the instructions aud laid them away at the bottom of his trunk—and never read them. When out of his sight he threw them into the deep, and saw them no more. Was no wrong done to that father? Would he have no occasion to regard himself as treated with neglect and scorn ?
(d) You have violated his Sabbath. He asked of you to devote the one-seventh portion of your time wholly to him ; the remainder he gave to you, under a proper recognition of himself, to pursue your worldly plans. That was the time he gave you to plough your fields, aud to do your trading, and to write your letters, and to perform your travelling, and to accomplish your secular reading. But the one portion—the seventh—he deemed not more than a suitable part of your time for the proper recognition of himself in the world, and for securing those spiritual influences on the soul indispensable for your own hest good. You took all the time to yourself. You worked hard all through the week, filling the mind with worldliness, and then took "the Lord's day" to do up a great numher of miscellaneous items that could not be brought into the week, or that the customs of society would not allow you to do. You read novels and newspapers; you wrote letters and adjusted your accounts ; you indulged the worldly thinking which you could not find time for in the week; you made out briefs, and arranged the testimony in a case preparatory for the morrow; you lounged ; you slept; you went abroad for recreation. Is there no wrong in this ? " Will a man," says the prophet, " Rob God V' There is indeed no wrong on the supposition that the Sabbath is to be like all the other days of the week. But suppose it is not. Suppose there is some meaning and binding force in these words, " Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy;" and in the declaration that it belongs to " the Lord thy God," and that " in it thou shalt not do any work." May there not be a robbery of time as well as money? And may not your Maker be robbed as well as man ?
(«) You have cherished hard thoughts of God. You have thought that his character was unlovely. You have thought that his laws were stern and severe. You have thought that he has dealt hardly with you when he has taken away your property, your health, or your child. You have thought that he was partial in saving others, and not saving you. You have complained in your spirit that you were to die, and to be judged ; and that you were exposed to his endless wrath. Is there no wrong in this ? Suppose your child thought thus of you—what would you think of him? Would it be agreeable to you that he should entertain these thoughts of a father?
This catalogue might be indefinitely extended, but I have said enough for my purpose. If these things are so,—if it is true that we have all guilty thoughts and feelings which we would not have disclosed before the world; if we are conscious of many acts of criminality in the past, and admit that there are many more which we may have forgotten, and would have been many more if we had not been restrained ; and if it is true that we have been guilty of long-continued wrongs against our Maker,—then the position which was laid down may be regarded as demonstrated, that it is right for God to call on everv man to exercise true repentance.
I add but one other remark in conclusion. These sins and wrongs with which vou are chargeable—secret and open, remembered and forgotten—must in some way be disposed of. They must either be repented of and forgiven, or they must be recalled to your remembrance hereafter, and enter into the account when you are judged, it is impossible but that they should be noticed in some proper way by your Maker. If they are forgiven, if they are blotted from his book, that ends the matter. But if they are not, they must come into judgment. And who could bear this revelation ? Who is there that would not turn pale, and tremble, and call on the rocks and mountains to cover him, if he knew that all that he has ever thought, and said, and done, were about to be disclosed to assembled worlds ?