THE TRIAL OF OUR REPENTANCE, AND COMFORT FOR THE PENITENT
If any shall say they have repented, let me desire them to try themselves seriously by those seven adjuncts or effects of repentance which the apostle lays down in 2 Corinthians 7.11:
The Greek word signifies a solicitous diligence or careful shunning all temptations to sin. The true penitent flies from sin as Moses did from the serpent.
2. Clearing of ourselves
The Greek word is 'apology'. The sense is this: though we have much care, yet through strength of temptation we may slip into sin. Now in this case the repenting soul will not let sin lie festering in his conscience but judges himself for his sin. He pours out tears before the Lord. He begs mercy in the name of Christ and never leaves till he has gotten his pardon. Here he is cleared of guilt in his conscience and is able to make an apology for himself against Satan.
He that repents of sin, his spirit rises against it, as one's blood rises at the sight of him whom he mortally hates. Indignation is a being fretted at the heart with sin. The penitent is vexed with himself. David calls himself a fool and a beast (Ps. 73.22). God is never better pleased with us than when we fall out with ourselves for sin.
A tender heart is ever a trembling heart. The penitent has felt sin's bitterness. This hornet has stung him and now, having hopes that God is reconciled, he is afraid to come near sin any more. The repenting soul is full of fear. He is afraid to lose God's favour which is better than life. He is afraid he should, for want of diligence, come short of salvation. He is afraid lest, after his heart has been soft, the waters of repentance should freeze and he should harden in sin again. 'Happy is the man that feareth alway' (Prov. 28.14). A sinner is like the leviathan who is made without fear (Job 41.33). A repenting person fears and sins not; a graceless person sins and fears not.
5. Vehement desire
As sour sauce sharpens the appetite, so the bitter herbs of repentance sharpen desire. But what does the penitent desire? He desires more power against sin and to be released from it. It is true, he has got loose from Satan, but he goes as a prisoner that has broken out of prison, with a fetter on his leg. He cannot walk with that freedom and swiftness in the ways of God. He desires therefore to have the fetters of sin taken off. He would be freed from corruption. He cries out with Paul: 'who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' (Rom. 7.24). In short, he desires to be with Christ, as everything desires to be in its centre.
Desire and zeal are fitly put together to show that true desire puts forth itself in zealous endeavour. How does the penitent bestir himself in the business of salvation! How does he take the kingdom of heaven by force (Matt. 11.12)! Zeal quickens the pursuit after glory. Zeal, encountering difficulty, is emboldened by opposition and tramples upon danger. Zeal makes a repenting soul persist in godly sorrow against all discouragements and oppositions whatsoever. Zeal carries a man above himself for God's glory. Paul before conversion was mad against the saints (Acts 26.11), and after conversionhe was judged mad for Christ's sake: 'Paul, thou art beside thyself' (Acts 26.24). But it was zeal, not frenzy. Zeal animates spirit and duty. It causes fervency in religion, which is as fire to the sacrifice (Rom. 12.11). As fear is a bridle to sin, so zeal is a spur to duty.
A true penitent pursues his sins with a holy malice. He seeks the death of them as Samson was avenged on the Philistines for his two eyes. He uses his sins as the Jews used Christ. He gives them gall and vinegar to drink. He crucifies his lusts (Gal. 5.24). A true child of God seeks to be revenged most of those sins which have dishonoured God most. Cranmer, who had with his right hand subscribed the popish articles, was revenged on himself; he put his right hand first into the fire. David did by sin defile his bed; afterwards by repentance he watered his bed with tears. Israel had sinned by idolatry, and afterwards they did offer disgrace to their idols: 'Ye shall defile also the covering of thy graven images of silver' (Isa. 30.22). Mary Magdalene had sinned in her eye by adulterous glances, and now she will be revenged on her eyes. She washes Christ's feet with her tears. She had sinned in her hair. It had entangled her lovers. Now she will be revenged on her hair; she wipes the Lord's feet with it. The Israelite women who had been dressing themselves by the hour and had abused their lookingglasses to pride, afterwards by way of revenge as well as zeal, offered their lookingglasses to the use and service of God's tabernacle (Exod. 38.8). So those conjurers who used curious arts or magic (as it is in the Syriac), when once they repented, brought their books and, by way of revenge, burned them (Acts 19.19).
These are the blessed fruits and products of repentance, and if we can find these in our souls we have arrived at that repentance which is never to be repented of (2 Cor. 7.10).
Such as have solemnly repented of their sins, let me speak to them by way of caution. Though repentance be so necessary and excellent, as you have heard, yet take heed that you do not ascribe too much to repentance. The papists are guilty of a double error:
(1) They make repentance a sacrament. Christ never made it so. And who may institute sacraments but he who can give virtue to them? Repentance can be no sacrament because it lacks an outward sign. A sacrament cannot properly be without a sign.
(2) The papists make repentance meritorious. They say it does ex congruo (altogether fittingly) merit pardon. This is a gross error. Indeed repentance fits us for mercy. As the plough, when it breaks up the ground, fits it for the seed, so when the heart is broken up by repentance, it is fitted for remission, but it does not merit it. God will not save us without repentance, nor yet for it. Repentance is a qualification, not a cause. I grant repenting tears are precious. They are, as Gregory said`, the fat of the sacrifice; as Basils said, the medicine of the soul; and as Bernard, the wine of angels. But yet, tears are not satisfactory for sin. We drop sin with our tears, therefore they cannot satisfy. Augustine said well: I have read of Peter's tears, but no man ever read of Peter's satisfaction. Christ's blood only can merit pardon. We please God by repentance but we do not satisfy him by it. To trust to our repentance is to make it a saviour. Though repentance helps to purge out the filth of sin, yet it is Christ's blood that washes away the guilt of sin. Therefore do not idolize repentance. Do not rest upon this, that your heart has been wounded for sin, but rather that your Saviour has been wounded for sin. When you have wept, say with him: Lord Jesus, wash my tears in thy blood.
Let me in the next place speak by way of comfort. Christian, has God given you a repenting heart? Know these three things for your everlasting comfort:
1. Your sins are pardoned
Pardon of sin circumscribes blessedness within it. (Ps. 32.1). Whom God pardons he crowns: 'who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who crowneth thee with lovingkindness' (Ps. 103.34). A repenting condition is a pardoned condition. Christ said to that weeping woman, 'Thy sins, which are many, are forgiven' (Luke 7.47). Pardons are sealed upon soft hearts. O you whose head has been a fountain to weep for sin, Christ's side will be a fountain to wash away sin (Zech. 13.1). Have you repented? God looks upon you as if you had not offended. He becomes a friend, a father. He will now bring forth the best robe and put it on you. God is pacified towards you and will, with the father of the prodigal, fall upon your neck and kiss you. Sin in scripture is compared to a cloud (Is. 44.22). No sooner is this cloud scattered by repentance than pardoning love shines forth. Paul, after his repentance, obtained mercy: 'I was all bestrowed with mercy' (1 Tim. 1.16). When a spring of repentance is open in the heart, a spring of mercy is open in heaven.2. God will pass an act of oblivion
He so forgives sin as he forgets: 'I will remember their sin no more' (Jer. 31.34). Have you been penitentially humbled? The Lord will never upbraid you with your former sins. After Peter wept we never read that Christ upbraided him with his denial of him. God has cast your sins into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7.19). How? Not as cork, but as lead. The Lord will never in a judicial way account for them. When he pardons, God is as a creditor that blots the debt out of his book (Isa. 43.25). Some ask the question, whether the sins of the godly shall be mentioned at the last day. The Lord said he will not remember them, and he is blotting them out, so if their sins are mentioned, it shall not be to their prejudice, for the debtbook is crossed.
3. Conscience will now speak peace
O the music of conscience! Conscience is turned into a paradise, and there a Christian sweetly solaces himself and plucks the flowers of joy (2 Cor. 1.12). The repenting sinner can go to God with boldness in prayer and look upon him not as a judge, but as a father. He is 'born of God' and is heir to a kingdom (Luke 6.20). He is encircled with promises. He no sooner shakes the tree of the promise but some fruit falls.
To conclude, the true penitent may look on death with comfort. His life has been a life of tears, and now at death all tears shall be wiped away. Death shall not be a destruction, but a deliverance from gaol. Thus you see what great comfort remains for repenting sinners. Luther said that before his conversion he could not endure that bitter word 'repentance', but afterwards he found much sweetness in it.