PRESCRIBING SOME MEANS FOR REPENTANCE: (1) SERIOUS CONSIDERATION
In the last place I shall prescribe some rules or means conducive to repentance.
The first means conducive to repentance is serious consideration: 'I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies' (Ps. 119.59). The prodigal, when he came to himself, seriously considered his riotous luxuries, and then he repented. Peter, when he thought of Christ's words, wept. There are certain things which, if they were well considered of, would be a means to make us break off a course of sinning.
1. Firstly, consider seriously what sin is, and sure enough there is enough evil in it to make us repent. There are in sin these twenty evils:
(1) Every sin is a recession from God (Jer. 2.5). God is the supreme good, and our blessedness lies in union with him. But sin, like a strong bias, draws away the heart from God. The sinner takes his leave of God. He bids farewell to Christ and mercy. Every step forward in sin is a step backward from God: 'they have forsaken the Lord, they are gone away backward' (Isa. 1.4). The further one goes from the sun, the nearer he approaches to darkness. The further the soul goes from God, the nearer it approaches to misery.
(2) Sin is a walking contrary to God (Lev. 26.27). The same word in the Hebrew signifies both to commit sin and to rebel. Sin is God's opposite. If God be of one mind, sin will be of another. If God says, sanctify the Sabbath, sin says, profane it. Sin strikes at God's very being. If sin could help it, God should be no longer God: 'cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us' (Isa. 30.11). What a horrible thing is this, for a piece of proud dust to rise up in defiance against its Maker!
(3) Sin is an injury to God. It violates his laws. Here is crimen laesue majestatis (grievous high treason). What greater injury can be offered to a prince than to trample upon his royal edicts? A sinner offers contempt to the statutelaws of heaven: 'they cast thy law behind their backs' (Neh. 9.26), as if they scorned to look upon it. Sin robs God of his due. You injure a man when you do not give him his due. The soul belongs to God. He lays a double claim to it: it is his by creation and by purchase. Now sin steals the soul from God and gives the devil that which rightly belongs to God.
(4) Sin is profound ignorance. The Schoolmen say that all sin is founded in ignorance. If men knew God in his purity and justice they would not dare go on in a course of sinning: 'they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord' (Jer. 9.3). Therefore ignorance and lust are joined together (1 Pet. 1.14). Ignorance is the womb of lust. Vapours arise most in the night. The black vapours of sin arise most in a dark ignorant soul. Satan casts a mist before a sinner so that he does not see the flaming sword of God's wrath. The eagle first rolls himself in the sand and then flies at the stag, and by fluttering its wings, so bedusts the stag's eyes that it cannot see, and then it strikes it with its talons. So Satan, that eagle or prince of the air, first blinds men with ignorance and then wounds them with his darts of temptation. Is sin ignorance? There is great cause to repent of ignorance.
(5) Sin is a piece of desperateness. In every transgression a man runs an apparent hazard of his soul. He treads upon the brink of the bottomless pit. Foolish sinner, you never commit a sin but you do that which may undo your soul for ever. He who drinks poison, it is a wonder if it does not cost him his life. One taste of the forbidden tree lost Adam paradise. One sin of the angels lost them heaven. One sin of Saul lost him his kingdom. The next sin you commit God may clap you up prisoner among the damned. You who gallop on in sin, it is a question whether God will spare your life a day longer or give you a heart to repent, so that you are desperate even to frenzy.
(6) Sin besmears with filth. In James 1.21 it is called 'filthiness'. The Greek word signifies the putrid matter of ulcers. Sin is called an abomination (Deut. 7.25), indeed, in the plural, abominations (Dent. 20.18). This filthiness in sin is inward. A spot on the face may easily be wiped off, but to have the liver and lungs tainted is far worse. Such a pollution is sin, it has gotten into mind and conscience (Titus 1.15). It is compared to a menstruous cloth (Isa. 30.22), the most unclean thing under the law. A sinner's heart is like a field spread with dung. Some think sin an ornament; it is rather an excrement. Sin so besmears a person with filth that God cannot abide the sight of him: 'my soul loathed them' (Zech. 11.8).
(7) In sin there is odious ingratitude. God has fed you, O sinner, with angels' food. He has crowned you with a variety of mercies, yet do you go on in sin? As David said of Nabal: 'in vain have I kept this man's sheep' (1 Sam. 25.21). Likewise in vain has God done so much for the sinner. All God's mercies may upbraid, yea, accuse, the ungrateful person. God may say, I gave you wit, health, riches, and you have employed all these against me: 'I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they prepared for Baal' (Hos. 2.8); I sent in provisions and they served their idols with them. The snake in the fable which was frozen stung him that brought it to the fire and gave it warmth. So a sinner goes about to sting God with his own mercies. 'Is this thy kindness to thy friend?' (2 Sam. 16.17). Did God give you life to sin? Did he give you wages to serve the devil?
(8) Sin is a debasing thing. It degrades a person of his honour: 'I will make thy grave; for thou art vile' (Nah. 1.14). This was spoken of a king. He was not vile by birth but by sin. Sin blots our name, taints our blood. Nothing so changes a man's glory into shame as sin. It is said of Naaman, 'He was a great man and honourable, but he was a leper' (2 Kings 5.1). Let a man be never so great with worldly pomp, yet if he be wicked he is a leper in God's eye. To boast of sin is to boast of that which is our infamy; as if a prisoner should boast of his fetters or be proud of his halter.
(9) Sin is a damage. In every sin there is infinite loss. Never did any thrive by grazing on this common. What does one lose? He loses God; he loses his peace; he loses his soul. The soul is a divine spark lighted from heaven; it is the glory of creation. And what can countervail this loss (Matt. 16.26)? If the soul be gone, the treasure is gone; therefore in sin there is infinite loss. Sin is such a trade that whoever follows it is sure to be ruined.
(10) Sin is a burden: 'mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me' (Ps. 38.4). The sinner goes with his weights and fetters on him. The burden of sin is always worst when it is least felt. Sin is a burden wherever it comes. Sin burdens God: 'I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves' (Amos 2.13). Sin burdens the soul. What a weight did Spiral feel? How was the conscience of Judas burdened, so much so that he hanged himself to quiet his conscience! They that know what sin is will repent that they carry such a burden.
(11) Sin is a debt. It is compared to a debt of ten thousand talents (Matt. 18.24). Of all the debts we owe, our sins are the worst. With other debts a sinner may flee to foreign parts, but with sin he cannot. 'Whither shall I flee from thy presence?' (Ps. 139.7). God knows where to find out all his debtors. Death frees a man from other debts but it will not free him from this. It is not the death of the debtor but of the creditor that discharges this debt.
(12) There is deceitfulness in sin (Heb. 3.13). 'The wicked worketh a deceitful work' (Prov. 11.18). Sin is a mere cheat. While it pretends to please us, it beguiles us! Sin does as Jael did. First she brought the milk and butter to Sisera, then she struck the nail through his temples so that he died (Judg. 5.26). Sin first courts, and then kills. It is first a fox and then a lion. Whoever sin kills it betrays. Those locusts in the Revelation are the perfect hieroglyphics and emblems of sin: 'on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions, and there were stings in their tails' (Rev. 9.710). Sin is like the usurer who feeds a man with money and then makes him mortgage his land. Sin feeds the sinner with delightful objects and then makes him mortgage his soul. Judas pleased himself with the thirty pieces of silver, but they proved deceitful riches. Ask him now how he likes his bargain.
(13) Sin is a spiritual sickness. One man is sick of pride, another of lust, another of malice. It is with a sinner as it is with a sick patient: his palate is distempered, and the sweetest things taste bitter to him. So the word of God, which is sweeter than the honeycomb, tastes bitter to a sinner: 'They put sweet for bitter' (Isa. 5.20). And if sin be a disease it is not to be cherished, but rather cured by repentance.
(14) Sin is a bondage. It binds a man apprentice to the devil. Of all conditions, servitude is the worst. Every man is held with the cords of his own sin. I was held before conversion, said Augustine, not with an iron chain, but with the obstinacy of my will. Sin is imperious and tyrannical. It is called a law (Rom. 8.2) because it has such a binding power over a man. The sinner must do as sin will have him. He does not so much enjoy his lusts as serve them, and he will have work enough to do to gratify them all. 'I have seen princes going on foot' (Eccles. 10.7); the soul, that princely thing, which did once sit in a chair of state and was crowned with knowledge and holiness, is now made a lackey to sin and runs the devil's errand.
(15) Sin has a spreading malignity in it. It does hurt not only to a man's self, but to others. One man's sin may occasion many to sin, as one beacon being lighted may occasion all the beacons in the country to be lighted. One man may help to defile many. A person who has the plague, going into company, does not know how many will be infected with the plague by him. You who are guilty of open sins know not how many have been infected by you. There may be many, for ought you know, now in hell, crying out that they would never have come thither if it had not been for your bad example.
(16) Sin is a vexatious thing. It brings trouble with it. The curse which God laid upon the woman is most truly laid upon every sinner: 'in sorrow thou shalt bring forth' (Gen. 3.16). A man vexes his thoughts with plotting sin, and when sin has conceived, in sorrow he brings forth. Like one who takes a great deal of pain to open a floodgate, when he has opened it, the flood comes in upon him and drowns him. So a man beats his brains to contrive sin, and then it vexes his conscience, brings crosses to his estate, rots the wall and timber of his house (Zech. 5.4).
(17) Sin is an absurd thing. What greater indiscretion is there than to gratify an enemy? Sin gratifies Satan. When lust or anger burn in the soul, Satan warms himself at the fire. Men's sins feast the devil. Samson was called out to make the lords of the Philistines sport (Judg. 16.25). Likewise the sinner makes the devil sport. It is meat and drink to him to see men sin. How he laughs to see them venturing their souls for the world, as if one should venture diamonds for straws, or should fish for gudgeons with golden hooks. Every wicked man shall be indicted for a fool at the day of judgment.
(18) There is cruelty in every sin. With every sin you commit, you give a stab to your soul. While you are kind to sin you are cruel to yourself, like the man in the Gospel who cut himself with stones till the blood came (Mark 5.5). The sinner is like the jailer who drew a sword to kill himself (Acts 16.27). The soul may cry out, I am murdering. Naturalists say the hawk chooses to drink blood rather than water. So sin drinks the blood of souls.
(19) Sin is a spiritual death: 'dead in trespasses and sins' (Eph. 2.1). Augustine said that before his conversion, reading of the death of Dido, he could not refrain from weeping. But wretch that I was, said he, I bewailed the death of Dido forsaken of Aeneas and did not bewail the death of my soul forsaken of God. The life of sin is the death of the soul.
A dead man has no sense. So an unregenerate person has no sense of God in him (Eph. 4.19). Persuade him to mind his salvation? To what purpose do you make orations to a dead man? Go to reprove him for vice? To what purpose do you strike a dead man?
He who is dead has no taste. Set a banquet before him, and he does not relish it. Likewise a sinner tastes no sweetness in Christ or a promise. They are but as cordials in a dead man's mouth.
The dead putrify; and if Martha said of Lazarus, 'Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days' (John 11.39), how much more may we say of a wicked man, who has been dead in sin for thirty or forty years, 'by this time he stinketh'!
(20) Sin without repentance tends to final damnation. As the rose perishes by the canker bred in itself, so do men by the corruptions which breed in their souls. What was once said to the Grecians of the Trojan horse, This engine is made to be the destruction of your city, the same may be said to every impenitent person, 'This engine of sin will be the destruction of your soul'. Sin's last scene is always tragic. Diagoras Florentinus would drink poison in a frolic, but it cost him his life. Men drink the poison of sin in a merriment, but it costs them their souls: 'the wages of sin is death' (Rom. 6.23 ). What Solomon said of wine may also be said of sin: at first 'it giveth his colour in the cup. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder' (Prov. 23.3132). Christ tell us of the worm and the fire (Mark 9.48). Sin is like oil, and God's wrath is like fire. As long as the damned continue sinning, so the fire will continue scorching, and 'who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?' (Isa. 33.14). But men question the truth of this and are like impious Devonax who, being threatened with hell for his villainies, mocked at it and said, I will believe there is a hell when I come there, and not before. We cannot make hell enter into men till they enter into hell.
Thus we have seen the deadly evil in sin which, seriously considered, may make us repent and turn to God. If, for all this, men will persist in sin and are resolved upon a voyage to hell, who can help it? They have been told what a souldamning rock sin is, but if they will voluntarily run upon it and split themselves, their blood be upon their own head.
2. The second serious consideration to work repentance is to consider the mercies of God.
A stone is soonest broken upon a soft pillow, and a heart of stone is soonest broken upon the soft pillow of God's mercies: 'the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance' (Rom. 2.4). The clemency of a prince sooner causes relenting in a malefactor. While God has been storming others by his judgments he has been wooing you by his mercies.
(1) What private mercies have we had? What mischiefs have been prevented, what fears blown over? When our foot has been slipping, God's mercy has held us up (Ps. 94.18). Mercy has always been a screen between us and danger. When enemies like lions have risen up against us to devour us, free grace has snatched us out of the mouth of these lions. In the deepest waves the arm of mercy has been under and has kept our head above water. And will not this privative mercy lead us to repentance?
(2) What positive mercies have we had! Firstly, in supplying mercy. God has been a bountiful benefactor: 'the God which fed me all my life long unto this day' (Gen. 48.15). What man will spread a table for his enemy? We have been enemies, yet God has fed us. He has given us the horn of oil. He has made the honeycomb of mercy drop on us. God has been as kind to us as if we had been his best servants. And will not this supplying mercy lead us to repentance? Secondly, in delivering mercy. When we have been at the gates of the grave, God has miraculously spun out our lives. He has turned the shadow of death into morning and has put a song of deliverance into our mouth. And will not delivering mercy lead us to repentance? The Lord has laboured to break our hearts with his mercies. In Judges, chapter 2, we read that when the angel (which was a prophet) had preached a sermon of mercy, 'the people lifted up their voice, and wept' (v. 4). If anything will move tears, it should be the mercy of God. He is an obstinate sinner indeed whom these great cableropes of God's mercy will not draw to repentance.
3. In the third place, consider God's afflictive providences,
and see if our limbeck will not drop when the fire is put under. God has sent us in recent years to the school of the cross. He has twisted his judgments together. He has made good upon us those two threatenings, 'I will be to Ephraim as a moth' (Hos. 5.12) has not God been so to England in the decay of trading? and 'I will be unto Ephraim as a lion' (Hos. 5.14) has he not been so to England in the devouring plague? All this while God waited for our repentance. But we went on in sin: 'I hearkened and heard, but no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done?' (Jer. 8.6). And of late God has been whipping us with a fiery rod in those tremendous flames in this city,3 which were emblematic of the great conflagration at the last day when 'the elements shall melt with fervent heat' (2 Pet. 3.10). When Joab's corn was on fire, then he went running to Absalom (2 Sam. 14.31). God has set our houses on fire that we may run to him in repentance. 'The Lord's voice crieth unto the city: hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it' (Mic. 6.9). This is the language of the rod, that we should humble ourselves under God's mighty hand and 'break off our sins by righteousness' (Dan. 4.27). Manasseh's affliction ushered in repentance (2 Chron. 33.12). This God uses as the proper medicine for security. 'Their mother hath played the harlot' (Hos. 2.5), by idolatry. What course now will God take with her? 'Therefore I will hedge up thy way with thorns' (Hos. 2.6). This is God's method, to set a thornhedge of affliction in the way. Thus to a proud man contempt is a thorn. To a lustful man sickness is a thorn, both to stop him in his sin and to prick him forward in repentance.
The Lord teaches his people as Gideon did the men of Succoth: 'He took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth' (Judg. 8.16). Here was tearing rhetoric. Likewise God has of late been teaching us humiliation by thorny providences. He has torn our golden fleece from us; he has brought our houses low that he might bring our hearts low. When shall we dissolve into tears if not now? God's judgments are so proper a means to work repentance that the Lord wonders at it, and makes it his complaint that his severity did not break men off from their sins: 'I have withholder the rain from you' (Amos 4.7); 'I have smitten you with blasting and mildew' (Amos 4.9); 'I have sent among you the pestilence' (Amos 4. 10). But still this is the burden of the complaint, 'Yet ye have not returned to me'.
The Lord proceeds gradually in his judgments. Firstly, he sends a lesser cross, and if that will not do, then a greater. He sends upon one a gentle fit of an ague to begin with, and afterwards a burning fever. He sends upon another a loss at sea, then the loss of a child, then of a husband. Thus by degrees he tries to bring men to repentance.
Sometimes God makes his judgments go in circuit, from family to family. The cup of affliction has gone round the nation; all have tasted it. And if we repent not now, we stand in contempt of God, and by implication we bid God do his worst. Such a climax of wickedness will hardly be pardoned. 'In that day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping, and to mourning . . . And behold joy and gladness . . . And it was revealed in mine ears by the Lord of hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till you die' (Isa. 22.1214). That is, this sin shall not be expiated by sacrifice.
If the Romans severely punished a young man who in a time of public calamity was seen sporting in a window with a crown of roses on his head, of how much sorer punishment shall they be thought worthy who strengthen themselves in wickedness and laugh in the very face of God's judgments. The heathen mariners in a storm repented (Jon 1.14). Not to repent now and throw our sins overboard is to be worse than heathens.
4. Fourthly, let us consider how much we shall have to answer for at last if we repent not,
how many prayers, counsels, and admonitions will be put upon the score. Every sermon will come in as an indictment. As for such as have truly repented, Christ will answer for them. His blood will wash away their sins. The mantle of free grace will cover them. 'In those days, saith the Lord, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found' (Jer. 50.20). Those who have judged themselves in the lower court of conscience shall be acquitted in the High Court of heaven. But if we repent not, our sins must be all accounted for at the last day, and we must answer for them in our own persons, with no counsel allowed to plead for us.
O impenitent sinner, think with yourself now how you will be able to look your judge in the face. You have a damned cause to plead and will be sure to be cast at the bard: 'What then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him?' (Job 31.14). Therefore, either repent now, or else provide your answers and see what defence you can make for yourselves when you come before God's tribunal. But when God rises up, how will you answer him?