THE REMOVING OF THE IMPEDIMENTS TO REPENTANCE
Before I lay down the expedients and means conducive to repentance, I shall first remove the impediments. In this great city, when you lack water, you search the cause, whether the pipes are broken or stopped, that the current of water is hindered. Likewise when no water of repentance comes (though we have the conduitpipes of ordinances), see what the cause is. What is the obstruction that these penitential waters do not run?
There are ten impediments to repentance:
1. Men do not apprehend that they need repentance
They thank God that all is well with them, and they know nothing they should repent of: 'thou sayest, I am rich, and have need of nothing' (Rev. 3.I7). He who apprehends not any distemper in his body will not take the physic prescribed. This is the mischief sin has done; it has not only made us sick, but senseless. When the Lord bade the people return to him, they answered stubbornly, 'Wherein shall we return?' (Mal. 3.7). So when God bids men repent, they say, Wherefore should we repent? They know nothing they have done amiss. There is surely no disease worse than that which is apoplectical.
2. People conceive it an easy thing to repent
It is but saying a few prayers: a sigh, or a 'Lord have mercy', and the work is done. This conceit of the easiness of repentance is a great hindrance to it. That which makes a person bold and adventurous in sin must needs obstruct repentance. This opinion makes a person bold in sin. The angler can let out his line as far as he will and then pull it in again. Likewise when a man thinks he can lash out in sin as far as he will and then pull in by repentance when he pleases, this must needs embolden him in wickedness. But to take away this false conceit of the easiness of repentance, consider:
(1) A wicked man has a mountain of guilt upon him, and Is it easy to rise up under such a weight? Is salvation per saltum (obtained with a leap)? Can a man jump out of sin into heaven? Can he leap out of the devil's arms into Abraham's bosom?
(2) If all the power in a sinner be employed against repentance, then repentance is not easy. All the faculties of a natural man join issue with sin: 'I have loved strangers, and after them will I go' (Jer. 2.25). A sinner will rather lose Christ and heaven than his lusts. Death, which parts man and wife, will not part a wicked man and his sins; and is it so easy to repent? The angel rolled away the stone from the sepulchre, but no angel, only God himself, can roll away the stone from the heart.
3. Presuming thoughts of God's mercy
Many suck poison from this sweet flower. Christ who came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1.15) is accidentally the occasion of many a man's perishing. Though to the elect he is the bread of life, yet to the wicked he is 'a stone of stumbling' (1 Pet. 2.8). To some his blood is sweet wine, to others the water of Marah. Some are softened by this Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4.2), others are hardened. Oh, says one, Christ has died; he has done all for me; therefore I may sit still and do nothing. Thus they suck death from the tree of life and perish by a saviour. So I may say of God's mercy. It is accidentally the cause of many a one's ruin. Because of mercy men presume and think they may go on in sin, but should a king's clemency make his subjects rebel? The psalmist says, there is mercy with God, that he may be feared (Ps. 130.4), but not that we may sin. Can men expect mercy by provoking justice? God will hardly show those mercy who sin because mercy abounds.
4. A supine sluggish temper
Repentance is looked upon as a tedious thing and such as requires much industry and men are settled upon their lees and care not to stir. They had rather go sleeping to hell than weeping to heaven. 'A slothful man hideth his hand in his bosom' (Prov. 19.24); he will not be at the labour of smiting on his breast. Many will rather lose heaven than ply the oar and row thither upon the waters of repentance. We cannot have the world citra pulverem (without labour and diligence), and would we have that which is more excellent? Sloth is the cancer of the soul: 'Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep' (Prov. 19.15).
It was a witty fiction of the poets that when Mercury had cast Argus into a sleep and with an enchanted rod closed his eyes, he then killed him. When Satan has by his witcheries lulled men asleep in sloth, then he destroys them. Some report that while the crocodile sleeps with its mouth open, the Indian rat gets into its belly and eats up its entrails. So while men sleep in security they are devoured.
5. The tickling pleasure of sin: 'who had pleasure in unrighteousness' (2 Thess. 2.12)
Sin is a sugared draught, mixed with poison. The sinner thinks there is danger in sin, but there is also delight, and the danger does not terrify him as much as the delight bewitches him. Plato calls love of sin a great devil. Delighting in sin hardens the heart. In true repentance there must be a grieving for sin, but how can one grieve for that which he loves? He who delights in sin can hardly pray against it. His heart is so inveigled with sin that he is afraid of leaving it too soon. Samson doted on Delilah's beauty and her lap proved his grave. When a man rolls iniquity as a sugared lump under his tongue, it infatuates him and is his death at last. Delight in sin is a silken halter. Will it not be bitterness in the latter end (2 Sam.2.26)?
6. An opinion that repentance will take away our joy
But that is a mistake. It does not crucify but clarify our joy, and takes it off from the fulsome lees of sin. What is all earthly joy? It is but hilaris insania (a pleasant frenzy). Falsa inter gaudia noctem egerimus (Virgil). Worldly mirth is but like a feigned laugh. It has sorrow following at the heels. Like the magician's rod, it is instantly turned into a serpent; but divine repentance, like Samson's lion, has a honeycomb in it. God's kingdom consists as well in joy as in righteousness (Rom. 14.17). None are so truly cheerful as penitent ones. Est quaedam flere voluptas (Ovid).
The oil of joy is poured chiefly into a broken heart: 'the oil of joy for mourning' (Isa. 61.3). In the fields near Palermo grow a great many reeds in which there is a sweet juice from which sugar is made. Likewise in a penitent heart, which is the bruised reed, grow the sugared joys of God's Spirit. God turns the water of tears into the juice of the grape which exhilarates and makes glad the heart. Who should rejoice if not the repenting soul? He is heir to all the promises, and is not that matter for joy? God dwells in a contrite heart, and must there not needs be joy there? 'I dwell with him that is of a contrite spirit, to revive the heart of the contrite ones' (Isa. 57.15). Repentance does not take away a Christian's music, but raises it a note higher and makes it sweeter.
7. Another obstacle to repentance is despondency of mind
It is a vain thing for me, says the sinner, to set upon repentance; my sins are of that magnitude that there is no hope for me. 'Return ye now every one from his evil way . . . And they said, There is no hope' (Jer. 18.11,12). Our sins are mountains, and how shall these ever be cast into the sea? Where unbelief represents sin in its bloody colours and God in his judge's robes, the soul would sooner fly from him than to him. This is dangerous. Other sins need mercy, but despair rejects mercy. It throws the cordial of Christ's blood on the ground. Judas was not damned only for his treason and murder, but it was his distrust of God's mercy that destroyed him. Why should we entertain such hard thoughts of God? He has bowels of love to repenting sinners (Joel 2.13). Mercy rejoices over justice. God's anger is not so hot but mercy can cool it, nor so sharp but mercy can sweeten it. God counts his mercy his glory (Exod. 33.18,19). We have some drops of mercy ourselves, but God is 'the Father of mercies' (2 Cor. 1.3), who begets all the mercies that are in us. He is the God of tenderness and compassion. No sooner do we mourn than God's heart melts. No sooner do our tears fall than God's repentings kindle (Hos. 11.8). Do not say then that there is no hope. Disband the army of your sins, and God will sound a retreat to his judgments. Remember, great sins have been swallowed up in the sea of God's infinite compassions. Manasseh made the streets run with blood, yet when his head was a fountain of tears, God grew propitious.
8. Hope of impunity
Men flatter themselves in sin and think that God. having spared them all this while, never intends to punish. Because the assizes are put off, therefore, surely there will be no assizes. 'He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face, he will never see it' (Ps. 10.11). The Lord indeed is longsuffering towards sinners and would by his patience bribe them to repentance, but here is their wretchedness; because he forbears to punish they forbear to repent. Know, that the lease of patience will soon run out. There is a time when God will say, 'My Spirit shall not always strive with man' (Gen. 6.3). A creditor may forbear his debtor, but forbearance does not excuse the payment. God takes notice how long the glass of his patience has been running: 'I gave her space to repent; and she repented not' (Rev. 2.21). Jezebel added impenitence to her incontinency, and what followed? 'Behold, I will cast her into a bed' (Rev. 2.22), not a bed of pleasure, but a bed of languishing where she will consume away in her iniquity. The longer God's arrow is drawing, the deeper it will wound. Sins against patience will make a man's hell so much the hotter.
9. The next impediment of repentance is fear of reproach
If I repent I shall expose myself to men's scorns. The heathen could say, when you apply yourself to the study of wisdom, prepare for sarcasms and reproaches. But consider well who they are that reproach you. They are such as are ignorant of God and spiritually frantic. And are you troubled to have them reproach you, who are not well in their wits? Who minds a madman laughing at him?
What do the wicked reproach you for? Is it because you repent? You are doing your duty. Bind their reproaches as a crown about your head. It is better that men should reproach you for repenting than that God should damn you for not repenting.
If you cannot bear a reproach for religion, never call yourself Christian. Luther said, 'Christianus quasi crucianus' (a Christian is as if a crucified one). Suffering is a saint's livery. And alas, what are reproaches? They are but chips off the cross, which are rather to be despised than laid to heart.
10. The last impediment of repentance is immoderate love of the world
No wonder Ezekiel's hearers were hardened into rebellion when their hearts went after covetousness (Ezek. 33.31). The world so engrosses men's time and bewitches their affections that they cannot repent. They had rather put gold in their bag than tears in God's bottle. I have read of the Turks that they give heed to neither churches nor altars, but are diligent in looking after their tillage. Likewise many scarcely ever give heed to repentance; they are more for the plough and breaking of clods than breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts. The thorns choke the word. We read of those who were invited to Christ's supper who put him off with worldly excuses. The first said, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen . . .' (Luke 14. 1819). The farm and the shop so take up people's time that they have no leisure for their souls. Their golden weights hinder their silver tears. There is an herb in the country of Sardinia, like balm, which if they eat much of, will make them die laughing. Such an herb (or rather, weed) is the world, if men eat too immoderately of it. Instead of dying repenting, they will die laughing.
These are the obstructions to repentance which must be removed so that the current may be clearer.