THE PHILOSOPHICAL NECESSITY OF REPENTANCE.
Luke xiii. 3, 5.—"Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."
The reference in this declaration, twice repeated by the Saviour, is to those Galileans who were put to death by Pilate while offering their sacrifices, and to those persons in Jerusalem on whom the tower of Siloam fell. They were supposed, by those who brought their case before the Saviour, to have been punished in this way for their uncommon guilt. He corrects that misapprehension, and takes occasion to state to those who had addressed him, that unless they repented, they should all likewise perish. The meaning is, not that they would perish in the same manner, but that they would as certainly perish. There was no way of avoiding that which was fairly implied in the word perish, but by repentance. The Saviour has, therefore, in this passage, strongly affirmed the necessity of repentance in order that men may be saved from destruction.
, In the two previous discourses I have considered the nature of repentance, and its relation to pardon in the Christian system. I enter now on a consideration of its necessity as a condition of salvation.
In the Scriptures there are two indispensable conditions of salvation prescribed—repentance and faith. The inquiry is at once suggested to a reflecting mind, why these two things are selected as the essential conditions of salvation, or why the question of eternal life and death is made to turn on the fact that they do or do not exist in the mind. Why has God selected these two states of mind, rather than any other two, as constituting the basis on which we are permitted to hope for his favour? The inquiry has more difficulty, perhaps, in reference to faith than to repentance ; but still, no one can help asking why God has made repentance indispensable to salvation? Is the appointment arbitrary, or is it demanded by some law of our nature ? Is it because he chose to specify some condition, though in a manner immaterial what,—like the selection of one tree out of many trees in Paradise,—as a test of man's obedience ; or will repentance so meet the evils that are in the soul as to make it proper to demand this as a condition of salvation ? Is it the mere appointment of will on the part of God, or is there something existing in our own hearts and lives to be affected by it, which makes it impossible that we should be saved, in any proper sense, without it ?
In connexion with these questions of a philosophical character, there is another class of a somewhat more practical kind. Why, in reference to salvation, and as a condition of it, has God required us to exercise sorrow of heart, rather than insisted on a correct moral character as a condition ? Would it not be more worthy of God to make eternal life depend on virtue and benevolence ; on honesty and truth; on the faithful discharge of our duties in the family and in public life, than on any mere state of the feelings ? And why is it that he requires the man of many years and many virtues, and the youth of great amiableness and purity, to renounce all confidence in these virtues, and all dependence on them, and to approach his throne weeping over the errors of a life ? Can he require feigned sorrow ? Can there be virtue in forced and affected tears ? Can there be that which will commend us to Him when a man of uprightness, a man of honour, a man of truth, shall " bow down his head like a bulrush," and weep like the vilest sinner ? Why has he made the path to heaven a path of sorrow at all ? Why must we go there ■with the head bowed down with grief? Why has he made the road a thorn-heuge, and not planted it with roses? Are there no joyous emotions that might have been made the conditions of salvation ? Is there nothing that would make the eye bright, and the heart cheerful, and the soul glad, that might have been selected, of at least equal value with pensiveness and a heavy heart, with melancholy and tears ?
Such are some of the feelings which spring up in the minds of men when we come to urge on them the duty of repentance. My desire is, if possible, to meet those feelings, and to show that they are not well,founded. I shall aim to prove that the requisition of repentance is not arbitrary, but is based on the nature of things, and that a man Must Repent, or Perish. I shall endeavour to vindicate the character of God, alike from his right as a Sovereign to make this a condition, and from the necessity which there is in the nature of things that we should exercise repentance if we would obtain his favour, or enjoy peace.
I. In the first place, God has a right to appoint terms on which he will bestow his favours on his creatures. I will endeavour to show you that he has this right.
(1.) It is a common right which all exercise when they have favours to confer on others. A charter for a college or a bank is thus conferred. A grant of land to an institution of learning is thus bestowed. A copyright of a book, or a patent for an invention in the arts, is thus secured. A right of way; a privilege to construct a bridge or a draw; a " permit" to build a house or a factory, is thus secured. The right of citizenship, or the freedom of a city, is thus conferred. All such favours are connected with conditions expressed or implied; and no one doubts that a government has the right to specify the conditions on which the favour may be enjoyed. It is inherent in the very fact, that we have that to confer which will be regarded as a favour or boon by others. The only thing to guard this, or to prevent its being oppressive, is to be found in the character of the government or of the individual who has the power of conferring the favour; and in the fact that the corporation or individual, on whom it is proposed to confer it, is under no obligation to accept it, if it is regarded as unjust; that is, if it is considered that there would be no advantage in accepting it on these terms.
(2.) God has actually dealt thus with his creatures in the . bestowment of his favours. He has never relinquished the right to prescribe to men in everything on what terms his favours may be enjoyed. He has actually appointed conditions, by compliance with which alone his favour can be hoped for—conditions as clear as were ever prescribed in a charter for a college or a bank, or a patent of nobility made out by a sovereign to a feudal baron. Life, health, reputation, success in business, are all his gifts; and he has proffered them to men only on certain conditions, and those conditions are clearly specified. Heatlh, for illustration, is in all cases his bestowment; and he has an absolute right—a right which he is constantly exercising—to state to man on what conditions of temperance, prudence, care, and cleanliness it may be enjoyed; and if the man does not choose to comply with those terms, the blessing will be withheld. There is no way in which he can originate any other conditions on which the blessing may be secured, or by which he can induce God to depart from these terms in his case by special favour, and confer the gift by miracle. Life is his gift, and he has a right to say on what terms it may be possessed and enjoyed. Property is thus also his gift, and he has a right to say how it may be procured and retained. Heaven is his home, and he has a right to say on what terms man may be permitted to dwell there. It is his to bestow a harvest on the husbandman, and equally his to prescribe the conditions on which it may be done, and to specify as the condition that it shall be by industry, and by the cultivation of the earth, in the proper season, and in the proper manner. It is true that man has the power to reject the conditions—just as a company has power to reject a bankcharter ; but it is equally true that if it is done, and the man prefers to spend the time of sowing and ingathering in idleness, the favour will be conferred in no other manner. The only appropriate question to be asked in the case is, whether God has in fact appointed anything as indispensable conditions of his favour. That settled, every question on the subject may be regarded as at rest.
(3.) These remarks are especially true in regard to an offender. He who violates a law, cuts himself off from any claim to favour under that law ; and if he obtains any favour, it must be on such conditions as the one who is injured or wronged shall choose to prescribe. You have wronged a friend or a neighbour. It is clearly not yours now to prescribe the conditions on which he shall forgive the offence, and receive you to his favour, but Ms. A child violates your commands. Do you not feel that you have a right to prescribe the terms on which he may obtain forgiveness ? Do you not feel that it is yours to bestow or withhold pardon as you please ? You have a professed friend who has wronged you. The offence is undeniable; it is admitted. Do you not feel that you have a right to prescribe the terms on which he may enjoy your friendship again ? And if you should require that he should express regret, and confess the wrong, and repair the evil as far as is in his power, would you think that he had a right to complain of you ? And would you think it a sufficient answer to such a demand should he say, that such a requirement is arbitrary, and that you might have selected some easier conditions, and that you might have planted the path of return with flowers rather than with thorns ? How obvious would be the answer, that it is as easy to make the confession as it was to do the wrong: that the one really injured in the case is himself, and not you; and that as to the thorns in the case, he planted them in the path, and not you.
The whole question, therefore, in regard to the necessity of repentance as a condition of salvation, might be left on this ground. We might come and say to men, that God has great favours to bestow on his creatures, but reserves the right to prescribe the conditions on which they may be received; or that as one whose law has been violated, he retains the right which all who are wronged claim, of specifying the conditions on which pardon may be obtained. But the object which I had particularly in view was not to show that he had a right to prescribe some condition of his favour, but to show why repentance is one of those conditions. Is there anything in the nature of the case which made it proper that this should be selected ? This leads me to remark,
II. In the second place, that repentance is in fact an indispensable condition to restoration to favour when one has done wrong. It cannot be otherwise. When an offence is committed, when wrong is done, when a law has been violated, there is no way by which the forfeited favour can be regained in any case but by that which is implied in true repentance;—by a process involving all the elements of grief, regret, confession, confusion of face, and purpose to abandon the evil course, which are included in repentance toward God. The place from which, the offender fell is never regained but by contrition ; the path by which he must ascend to that lost height is a pathway of tears. If this be so, it will be seen that God, by requiring repentance as a condition of his returning favour, is acting in accordance with the great principles on which the world is in fact governed. That it is so, will, I trust, be made plain by a few simple illustrations. I shall vary the illustrations, though with some hazard of repetition, because I wish to show you that this is the way in which the affairs of this world are conducted.
Let us return again to the case of a father. Your child violates your law ; offends you ; is guilty of palpable disobedience. He is so old that he can be treated as a moral agent, and is capable of acting under a moral government. He has done much to forfeit your favour, and to incur your displeasure. He has become the companion of the dissipated and the vile; and with such associates has wasted the fruit of your toil. Towards that son you will cherish still the feelings of a father ; but I may appeal to any such unhappy parent to say, whether he could admit him to the same degree of confidence and favour as before, without some evidence of repentance. You demand that ho should express regret for his errors and follies; you require evidence, that will be satisfactory to you, that he does not intend to do the same thing again; you expect proof that he will be disposed by a virtuous life to repair, as far as possible, the injury that he has done your name and your honour as a father; and the moment you hear him sincerely say, " Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am not worthy to be called thy son," that moment you are ready to go out, and to throw your arms round his neck, and to forgive him—And Not TILL THEn. You could not do it consistently with self-respect; with the good of your own family; with the character which you mean to maintain as a father, until then. There is nothing else that can be a substitute for this. He may come back laden with " pearls and barbaric gold;" he may have become eminent in learning; he may have encircled his brow with laurels won in the field of battle,—but these cannot be a substitute for the confession and repentance which you demand as a father. If still proud, and insolent, and disrespectful to you, how can you lay your hand on his head and bestow on him a father's blessing ?
Let us recur to another illustration. You had a friend. You thought him sincere. But he betrayed you; and in feeling, in property, and in character, you have been made to suffer by him. I ask anv man, whether he can receive such a friend again to his bosom, and press him to his heart, without some evidence of regret for what he has done, and some proof that he will not do it again. You cannot do it. You cannot force your nature to do it. The sea might as well break over the iron-bound shore, or the river flow back and again climb up the mountain side down which it had leaped in cascades, as for you to do it. You will satisfy yourself in some way that he regrets what he has done, and that he intends not to do it again, or you can Never receive him with the confidence of a friend. Your nature, though in other respects you may be gentle and pliant as the osier, is as firm on this point as the everlasting hills, and is, in this respect, but the counterpart and the image of God, who does the same thing. Mind can never do otherwise. You cannot make it do otherwise. It would be worth nothing if it could do otherwise.
Let us take another illustration. It may be drawn from the case of one who has committed an offence against the community —the case of a man who has been guilty of theft, burglary, arson, or forgery. The whole community demands evidence that he has repented of his crime, and that ho purposes to do so no more, before it will admit him again to its favour. If you go into his cell and find him alone on his knees before God confessing the sin; if you see evidence in him of regret and sorrow that the deed was done; if you believe that the reformation is entire and sincere, the community will receive him again to its bosom, and will forget and forgive the past, and he may rise again to public confidence, and to affluence and honour. But if none of these things are seen ; if ho spends the years of his sentence sullen, and hardened, and profane, and without one sigh or tear, he is never forgiven. He may have paid the penalty of the law, but he is not forgiven, and the community is not disposed to receive him to favour; and he goes forth to meet still the suspicions and frowns of an indignant world; to be watched with an eagle eye, and to be excluded all his life from the affections and confidence of mankind.
We will take another instance of the operation of this law. It is that of a man who has wasted his health and property by intemperance. He was once in prosperous circumstances; saw around him a happy family ; was respected and beloved; enjoyed health, and was rising to honour and ■affluence. He yielded to temptation, and all was swept away. Peace fled from his dwelling, and his wife sits in poverty and tears, and his children are glowing up in idleness and vice, and he himself is fast hastening to a drunkard's grave. Is there any way now by which health, and domestic peace, and property, and respectability can be regained ? There is, if he has not gone too far—if he has not come too near the end of life. But how ? By this course:— He will reflect on his sin and folly. He will feel deeply pained in view of the evil that he has done. He will lament the course of life which has driven comfort and peace from his dwelling. He will resolve to forsake the ways of sin, and will abandon for ever the intoxicating howl. He will reform his life, and will become sober, industrious, and kind, will labour to pay his debts, and to establish his credit again ; and, if he does these things, health will again revisit his frame, and peace his family, and his farm will again be fenced, and ploughed, and sown, and the rich harvest will again wave in his fields. But this is the very way in which God requires the sinner to come back to himself— the path of repentance. He requires him to reflect on the past ; to feel that he has pursued a guilty course ; to break off his transgressions, and to lead a different life. Why should it be thought more strange in religion than in the actual course of events ?
The same is true, to take one more instance, in the case of a gambler. He has been led on by the arts of temptation till he has lost his all. He had received an inheritance from a wealthy father. Now it is entirely gone. From one step to another he has been drawn into temptation, till he is stripped of all, and is penniless, and is ready to give himself up to despair. Is there now any way by which he can emerge from this depth of woes, and become a man of respectability and of property again ? There is one, and but one. It is a strait and a narrow path, like that which leads to heaven. He will reflect on the sin and folly of his course. He will feel pain and sorrow at the remembrance of that hour when he yielded to temptation. He will mourn in the bitterness of his soul over that sad day. He will resolve that lie will never enter a gambling-room again; that he will seek to repair his fortune, not in that way, but in a better way; > that he will devote his life to a course of steady industry and virtue; and if he will do all these things, he may regain the confidence of his fellow-men, and God will bestow on him wealth and respectability. But this is substantially the way in which a sinner is to return to God. This is repentance.
So in respect to indolence, vice, dissipation, crime in all forms. If men ever turn back the evils which result from these sins and follies ; if they ever escape from the withering and blighting curse which pursues the wicked, it must be in connexion with repentance. If there is no evidence of repentance and reform, that withering and blighting influence will pursue the transgressor over sea and land, to the end of the world, and to the end of life. He can never escape the curse of violating the laws of heaven until he gives evidence of sincere sorrow for his offence. But the moment that is done, the avenger ceases to pursue him ; his friends come again around him; he finds peace again in his own bosom; and the winds and the waves, the sunshine and the dew, the sky, the clouds, and the earth, man and his Maker, join to bless him.
III. My third general argument is, that from the nature of the mind itself, when one has done wrong, there can he no security for permanent peace but hy repentance and forgiveness. I say permanent peace. I do not deny that temporary peace may be obtained. I do not deny that men may seem to be happy when wrong has been done. But the question now before us is, whether the guilty can find permanent and substantial happiness, happiness that may be relied on, and that may be made the basis of calculation in regard to the future, without all that is essentially involved in true repentance ? Is not this the way which the God of nature has appointed by which the guilty mind is to obtain relief? Is not the certainty of this fact one of the means by which he designs to lead the sinner to the exercise of true repentance ?
When a man has done wrong, one of the questions which must occupy his attention is, in what way he can be happy though he has done the wrong. How can he avoid the usual effects of guilt in the soul in producing trouble ? He has wronged another in dealing with him; he has concealed the defects of an article in trade; he has made a false representation; he has made a wrong entry on his books; he has robbed his employer; he has forged his name to a check; he has left his father's house at night, and visited a scene of revelry and sin. One of the ques,
tions which the mind cannot practically evade in such cases is, • how can this wrong be done, and yet the wrong-doer be calm and happy ? And here is the question which is now before us. Can the mind find permanent happiness without repentance? Or is that the way which nature lias provided in order to obtain permanent peace ?
Now, I need not pause to detail the ways which men adopt in these cases. They are almost as numerous as the individuals concerned, and as the offences which they commit. There is, of course, in all cases, an attempt to conceal the offence, and this calls into requisition all the varied talent and skill with which the guilty may be endowed, and is often done with consummate art. In other cases, there is an effort made to turn away the mind from the recollection of the offence; and thousands of our sins of word, and thought, and deed, are in fact forgotten. In other cases there is an attempt to satisfy the mind, by a process of reasoning, of the correctness of what has been done ; and in some sophistical and Jesuitical maxim the mind finds temporary peace. In some cases the conscience becomes gradually insensible, until it is " seared as with a hot iron." In other eases there is an attempt to obliterate the natural marks of guilt in the frame, until the brow is made brass, and a deed of depravity may be performed with an eye and a hand as steady as when one performs the noblest deed of virtue.
Yet there is defect in all this. It does not answer the purpose. It does not meet the demands of the human mind in the case. It does not secure permanent peace. For it furnishes no security in those respects in which security is desirable, (a) It furnishes no guarantee that the mind will remain in this condition in which you succeed in putting it. What is your security that the offence will always be forgotten by yourself? What is your security that your conscience will always remain untroubled? What is your security that the false and pernicious reasoning will always appear as plausible as it does now ? What is your security that some secret power may not undertake a work with your soul; that your memory may not do its office better than you intend; that in the dark night, or when far away, or when on a bed of sickness, you will not think of what you will wish not to think of ? (6) But again : this furnishes no assurance that the sin will not be detected, and that all your attempts to conceal it may not be brushed away by some invisible hand, like cobwebs. What are bolts, and locks, and false entries, and all the arts of concealment, when God means that a thing shall be revealed ? What murderer was ever safe when He meant that he should be known ? What act of fraud in a bank; what scheme of iniquity in robbing poor pensioners of their due ; what well-executed forgery; what crime of any kind, was ever concealed when He meant that it should be " proclaimed on the house-tops ?" In how many ways may an offence be divulged ? What a trifle may be a clue to the whole development ? No man ever does a wrong thing, however artful may be his attempts to conceal it, who is not apprehensive that it may be revealed. Some eye may have witnessed it, of which he knew nothing; some combination of circumstances may disclose it which he cannot control; some accomplice may prove faithless, though sworn to secrecy; some "bird of the air" may tell a tale that you would not have told in the ear of another for worlds:—and the way to make the mind peaceful, when wrong has been done, is not by concealment.
The way which God and nature prescribes is by repentance and confession. For, (1,) there is relief in repentance itself. Sorrow for the wrong is that which nature seeks and struggles for; and you do wrong to your own soul when you refuse to indulge it. Ever)r one knows that there is relief in repentance— that the mind throws off a burden when the eyes run down with tears on account of wrong which has been done; that that is what nature demands, and must have, before the soul is happy. We have all been children. Now, when we had done wrong to a parent or a playmate, did not all the better feelings of our nature urge us to go and confess the wrong ? And what violence did we do to all our gentle and pure sensibilities when under the influence of pride and false notions of boyish honour we refused to do it, and braced ourselves in an effort to find happiness without it! But, (2,) there is relief in the act of confession, and in forgiveness. The very act of confession furnishes relief to a guilty mind; and when we hear the word forgiveness, it diffuses peace through the soul. It was with a knowledge of the deepest principles of our nature that the Saviour said to the weeping, guilty female, who washed his feet with her tears, " Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace." Go in peace she would—for in the tears she poured forth on the feet of the Saviour, and in the words of forgiveness which fell from his lips, she had found relief for her guilty conscience—a peace which nothing thenceforward could disturb.
TV. My fourth general argument is, that in a return to God from a course of sin, repentance would folloio as a matter of course, even if it were not prescribed and demanded as a condition of favour. It would be impossible to come back from a course of depravity to the ways of virtue,—to form and express the intention to lead a virtuous and holy life,—without experiencing in fact all that is essentially involved in repentance. If this be so, then the requirement of repentance as a condition of salvation is not an arbitrary demand, but is in fact a mere statement of what must occur in all cases in order that a sinner may be saved.
A return to God is a restoration to love—to obedience—to a purpose to serve him. When one has sinned, can this return occur without the exercise of sorrow for the errors and follies of the past ? Can it occur without regret more or less poignant that God was forsaken? Can it occur without the formation of a purpose to do so no more ? To ask these questions is to answer them—for the answer is at hand in every mind. When an alienated being comes back to God, it will be only by repentance. He will, he must feel regret that his past life has been spent in estrangement from his Maker. He will look with deep feeling on the many mercies his Maker has conferred on him; and with amazement on the fact that to this moment he has abused them all. No man ever yet passed from hatred to love; from alienation to friendship; from disobedience to obedience; from dishonesty to uprightness ; from intemperance to temperance ; from dissipation to soberness of life,—without experiencing regret, remorse, and sorrow at his former course of life, and without passing through a process similar to that which God requires of the returning sinner. No man ever did or can return to that God from whom he has been alienated, without feeling and expressing regret that he has wandered, and without a purpose to do so no more. At the remembrance of his abused mercies; at a view of the goodness which has kept him in all his wanderings, and especially of the mercy which sought him by the gift of a Saviour, he must feel and he must weep; and he cannot return without bitter regrets that he has abused so much love, and slighted so much mercy, and wasted so large a part of his season of probation. Returning love, and a sense of God's goodness, must be attended with sorrow of heart that he ever transgressed, and with a resolution to do so no more:—and this is repentance. This must have occurred in the case of every one who returns to God and virtue; and the demand for repentance, therefore, is not arbitrary, but is laid deep in the laws of the human mind.
If this train of remarks be well-founded, we are conducted to the conclusion which we sought—the philosophical reason why repentance is required in order to salvation.
(1.) It follows from the view which has been taken, that in its primary demand the Christian religion has consulted the laws of our nature, and shown respect to those laws. Its Author has shown that the laws of the mind are understood, and has based his demands on a knowledge of those laws. A system of religion adapted to the condition of sinners could not have been originated which did not demand repentance, nor is it possible for man now to conceive of any plan by which a sinner could be brought to obedience, and raised up to heaven, without passing substantially through the process demanded by repentance.
(2.) It follows that if men refuse to repent, they are sinning against a great law of their nature, as well as against a positive law of religion. They are constantly making war on themselves—on all the finer feelings of their souls—on all that is noble and generous in the human heart—when they refuse ingenuously to acknowledge the wrong; when they attempt to cloak it; when they resolve to persevere in a career of depravity ; when they are unwilling to go and make confession to their Father in heaven. Their whole nature prompts them to do this. It is a course whose propriety is engraven as with the pen of a diamond on their own souls. It is the way which nature prescribes for our relief when we have done wrong. We are to seek it by confession, by tears, and by imploring pardon ; and until this is done, there is a want in our soul which is never met—an unchangeable law of our nature which is never gratified. The only solid and permanent peace which a sinner can ever find is when weeping over his transgressions at the feet of his offended God and Saviour, and when He smiles benignantly on him, and says, " Son, be of good cheer: thy sins are forgiven thee."
(3.) It follows from the train of thought which we have been considering, that if the sinner will not repent HE MUST Perish. This is the thought which is suggested in the text:—" Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." It cannot be otherwise. There is no way conceivable by which a sinner can be saved but by repentance. It is a law of our nature that it must be so— for there are elements in our souls, which, if we have sinned and are impenitent, must sooner or later produce misery; and must work out our ruin. No man can have any security of happiness who has done wrong, but has done nothing, and will do nothing, to confess and to repair the wrong. No child is happy in these circumstances; no man is; no creature of a moral government can be. God bolds a mysterious but absolute power over the soul; and he has only to arrange matters so as to drag your secret sins from their hiding-places, and array them before your minds, to create within you all the elements of hell. There is enough in every man's heart and life to make him miserable for ever and ever, if it be allowed to take its course according to the laws of our nature, and to carry its full desolations through the soul. When a sinner "perishes" it will not be an arbitrary thing; but it will be because, if he will not repent, it cannot be avoided. Then, sinner, in connexion with humble, penitent confession your soul may find permanent and eternal peace; if that is withheld, such peace can never visit your bosom. May God teach you the way of happiness and salvation. Amen.