THE REASONS ENFORCING REPENTANCE, WITH A WARNING TO THE IMPENITENT
I proceed next to the reasons which enforce repentance.
1. God's sovereign command
'He commandeth all men every where to repent' (Acts 17.30). Repentance is not arbitrary. It is not left to our choice whether or not we will repent, but it is an indispensable command. God has enacted a law in the High Court of heaven that no sinner shall be saved except the repenting sinner, and he will not break his own law Though all the angels should stand before God and beg the life of an unrepenting person, God would not grant it 'The Lord God, merciful and gracious, keeping mercy for thousands, and that will by no means clear the guilty' (Exod. 34.67). Though God is more full of mercy than the sun is of light, yet he will not forgive a sinner while he goes on in his guilt: 'He will by no means clear the guilty'!
2. The pure nature of God denies communion with an impenitent creature
Till the sinner repents, God and he cannot be friends: 'Wash you, make you clean' (Isa. 1.16); go, steep yourselves in the brinish waters of repentance. Then, says God, I will parley with you: 'Come now, and let us reason together' (Isa. 1.18); but otherwise, come not near me: 'What communion hath light with darkness?' (2 Cor. 6.14). How can the righteous God indulge him that goes on still in his trespasses? 'I will not justify the wicked' (Exod. 23.7). If God should be at peace with a sinner before he repents, God would seem to like and approve all that he has done. He would go against his own holiness. It is inconsistent with the sanctity of God's nature to pardon a sinner while he is in the act of rebellion.
3. Sinners continuing in impenitence are out of Christ's commission
See his commission: 'The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted' (Isa. 61.1). Christ is a Prince and Saviour, but not to save men in an absolute way, whether or not they repent. If ever Christ brings men to heaven, it shall be through the gates of hell: 'Him hath God exalted to be a Prince and a Saviour to give repentance' (Acts 5.31); as a king pardons rebels if they repent and yield themselves to the mercy of their prince, but not if they persist in open defiance.
4. We have by sin wronged God
There is a great deal of equity in it that we should repent. We have by sin wronged God. We have eclipsed his honour. We have infringed his law, and we should, reasonably, make him some reparation. By repentance we humble and judge ourselves for sin. We set to our seal that God is righteous if he should destroy us, and thus we give glory to God and do what lies in us to repair his honour.
5. If God should save men without repentance, making no discrimination, then by this rule he must save all,
not only men, but devils, as Origen once held; and so consequently the decrees of election and reprobation must fall to the ground. How diametrically opposed this is to sacred writ, let all judge.
There are two sorts of persons who will find it harder to resent than others:
(1) Those who have sat a great while under the ministry of God's ordinances but grow no better. The earth which drinks in the rain, yet 'beareth thorns and briars, is nigh unto cursing' (Heb. 6.8). There is little hope of the metal which has lain long in the fire but is not melted and refined. When God has sent his ministers one after another, exhorting and persuading men to leave their sins, but they settle upon the lees of formality and can sit and sleep under a sermon, it will be hard for these ever to be brought to repentance. They may fear lest Christ should say to them as once he said to the figtree, 'Never fruit grow on thee more' (Matt. 21.19).
(2) Those who have sinned frequently against the convictions of the word, the checks of conscience, and the motions of the Spirit. Conscience has stood as the angel with a flaming sword in its hand. It has said, Do not this great evil, but sinners regard not the voice of conscience, but march on resolvedly under the devil's colours. These will not find it easy to repent: 'They are of those that rebel against the light' (Job 74.13). It is one thing to sin for want of light and another thing to sin against light. Here the unpardonable sin takes its rise. Men begin by sinning against the light of conscience, and proceed gradually to despiting the Spirit of grace.
Firstly, it serves sharply to reprove all unrepenting sinners whose hearts seem to be hewn out of a rock and are like the stony ground in the parable which lacked moisture. This disease, I fear, is epidemical: 'No man repented him of his wickedness' (Jer. 8.6). Men's hearts are marbled into hardness: 'they made their hearts as an adamant stone' (Zech. 7.12). They are not at all dissolved into a penitential frame. It is a received opinion that witches never weep. I am sure that those who have no grief for sin are spiritually bewitched by Satan. We read that when Christ came to Jerusalem he 'upbraided the cities because they repented not' (Matt. 11.20). And may he not upbraid many now for their impenitence? Though God's heart be broken with their sins, yet their hearts are not broken. They say, as Israel did, 'I have loved strangers, and after them will I go' ( Jer. 2. 25). The justice of God, like the angel, stands with a drawn sword in its hand, ready to strike, but sinners have not eyes as good as those of Balaam's ass to see the sword. God smites on men's backs, but they do not, as Ephraim did, smite upon their thigh (Jer. 31.19). It was a sad complaint the prophet took up: 'thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved' (Jer. 5.3). That is surely reprobate silver which contracts hardness in the furnace. 'In the time of his distress did he trespass yet more against the Lord: this is that king Ahaz' (2 Chron. 28.22). A hard heart is a receptacle for Satan. As God has two places he dwells in, heaven and a humble heart, so the devil has two places he dwells in, hell and a hard heart. It is not falling into water that drowns, but lying in it. It is not falling into sin that damns, but lying in it without repentance: 'having their conscience seared with a hot iron' (1 Tim. 4.2). Hardness of heart results at last in the conscience being seared. Men have silenced their consciences, and God has seared them. And now he lets them sin and does not punish 'Why should ye be stricken any more?' (Isa. 1.5) as a father gives over correcting a child whom he intends to disinherit.