A PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE
Saint Paul, having been falsely accused of sedition by Tertullus 'we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition' (Acts 24.5) makes an apology for himself before Festus and King Agrippa in Chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.
Paul proves himself an orator. He courts the king (1) by his gesture: he stretched forth his hands, as was the custom of orators; (2) by his manner of speech: 'I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused' (Acts 26.2).
Paul then treats of three things and in so deep a strain of rhetoric as almost to have converted King Agrippa:
(1) He speaks of the manner of his life before his conversion: 'after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee' (v.5). During the time of his unregeneracy he was zealous for traditions, and his false fire of zeal was so hot that it scorched all who stood in his way; 'many of the saints did I shut up in prison' (v.10).
(2) He speaks of the manner of his conversion: 'I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun' (v.13). This light was no other than what shone from Christ's glorified body. 'And I heard a voice speaking unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutes" thou me?' The body being hurt, the head in heaven cried out. At this light and voice Paul was amazed and fell to the earth: 'And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest' (v. 1415). Paul was now taken off from himself. All opinion of selfrighteousness vanished and he grafted his hope of heaven upon the stock of Christ's righteousness.
(3) He speaks of the manner of his life after his conversion. He who had been a persecutor before now became a preacher: 'Arise, for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness of those things which thou hast seen' (v. 16). When Paul, this 'vessel of election', was savingly wrought upon, he laboured to do as much good as previously he had done hurt. He had persecuted saints to death before, now he preached sinners to life. God first sent him to the Jews at Damascus and afterwards enlarged his commission to preach to the Gentiles. And the subject he preached on was this, 'That they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance' (v. 20). A weighty and excellent subject!
I shall not dispute the priority, whether faith or repentance goes first. Doubtless repentance shows itself first in a Christian's life. Yet I am apt to think that the seeds of faith are first wrought in the heart. As when a burning taper is brought into a room the light shows itself first, but the taper was before the light, so we see the fruits of repentance first, but the beginnings of faith were there before.
That which inclines me to think that faith is seminally in the heart before repentance is because repentance, being a grace, must be exercised by one that is living. Now, how does the soul live but by faith? 'The just shall live by his faith' (Heb. 10.38). Therefore there must be first some seeds of faith in the heart of a penitent, otherwise it is a dead repentance and so of no value.
Whether faith or repentance goes first, however, I am sure that repentance is of such importance that there is no being saved without it. After Paul's shipwreck he swam to shore on planks and broken pieces of the ship (Acts 27.44). In Adam we all suffered shipwreck, and repentance is the only plank left us after shipwreck to swim to heaven.
It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn unto God: 'Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matt. 3.2); 'Repent therefore, and be converted that your sins may be blotted out' (Acts 3.19); 'Repent of this thy wickedness' (Acts 8.22). In the mouths of three witnesses this truth is confirmed. Repentance is a foundation grace: 'Not laying again the foundation of repentance' (Heb. 6.1). That religion which is not built upon this foundation must needs fall to the ground.
Repentance is a grace required under the gospel. Some think it legal; but the first sermon that Christ preached, indeed, the first word of his sermon, was 'Repent' (Matt. 4.17). And his farewell that he left when he was going to ascend was that 'repentance should be preached in his name' (Luke 24.47). The apostles did all beat upon this string: 'They went out and preached that men should repent' (Mark 6.12).
Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works admitted no repentance; there it was, sin and die. Repentance came in by the gospel. Christ has purchased in his blood that repenting sinners shall be saved. The law required personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience. It cursed all who could not come up to this: 'Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them' (Gal. 3.10). It does not say, he that obeys not all things, let him repent, but, let him be cursed. Thus repentance is a doctrine that has been brought to light only by the gospel.
How is repentance wrought? The manner in which repentance is wrought is:
1. Partly by the word
'When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart' (Acts 2.37). The word preached is the engine God uses to effect repentance. It is compared to a hammer and to a fire (Jer. 23.29), the one to break, the other to melt the heart. How great a blessing it is to have the word, which is of such virtue, dispensed! And how hard they who put out the lights of heaven will find it to escape hell!
2. By the Spirit
Ministers are but the pipes and organs. It is the Holy Ghost breathing in them that makes their words effectual: 'While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word' (Acts 10.44). The Spirit in the word illuminates and converts. When the Spirit touches a heart it dissolves with tears: 'I will pour upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace . . . and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn' (Zech. 12.10). It is wonderful to consider what different effects the word has upon men. Some at a sermon are like Jonah: their heart is tender and they let fall tears. Others are no more affected with it than a deaf man with music. Some grow better by the word, others worse. The same earth which causes sweetness in the grape causes bitterness in the wormwood. What is the reason the word works so differently? It is because the Spirit of God carries the word to the conscience of one and not another. One has received the divine unction and not the other (1 John 2.20). O pray that the dew may fall with the manna, that the Spirit may go along with the word. The chariot of ordinances will not carry us to heaven unless the Spirit of God join himself to this chariot (Acts 8.29).