Evangelical Repentance

John Hill, 1711-1746

Jeremiah 31:19, "Surely after I was turned, I repented; and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yes, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth."

These words refer to the children of Israel as a nation, the subject matter of comfort, in their exile state; but they must not be confined to them or to the Jewish dispensation. "Whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). The Old Testament is as much the Word of God as the New Testament, and no part of the inspired writings is of private interpretation, since the whole is left upon record, that it may be "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).

So far therefore as our circumstances, cases, and conditions are like theirs, which are spoken of under that dispensation, so far may we justly apply the word to ourselves, which was delivered by God to them. Applying this general rule to the words before us, they present us with a very just and beautiful account of the difference which there is in man in his converted state, to what he was before the grace of God had changed his heart.

The language of every sincere penitent is the same wherein Ephraim is represented as bemoaning himself in the verse before my text: "You have chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn me, and I shall be turned; for you are the LORD my God." These words are very moving and emphatic, and plainly do they show us how ineffectual is all the moral persuasion in the world to bring a soul to Christ without the powerful operations of the blessed Spirit! We slight His promises, disregard His threatenings, and remain spiritually stupid and secure even under His afflicting hand, until "the dayspring from on high" visits us (Luke 1:78).

"You have chastised me," says Ephraim, "and I was chastised; but I continued, notwithstanding this, an undaunted heifer, and behaved under it as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke—until I was enabled by the blessed Spirit to cry out with my whole heart, 'Turn me, and I shall be turned, for you are the Lord my God! I desire none other but yourself.'" Then follow the words of our text: "Surely after I was turned, I repented," etc.

The easiest method I can take is to divide the text into the three following general heads:

1. We may see in Ephraim's pathetic language the way and manner wherein true grace at first manifests itself in the man that is born of God: "I repented."

2. We are taught the only spring from whence the amazing change always proceeds: "Surely after I was turned, I repented," etc.

3. We have further an account of the progress of the work in the hand of the Spirit, wherein the true nature of repentance unto life is particularly described: "After I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yes, even confounded, because I bore the reproach of my youth."

1. The first thing observable in these words is the constant way and manner wherein true grace manifests itself when once it is implanted in the heart: "I repented," says Ephraim, "Surely I repented."

Agreeable to this is the language of the prodigal: "I will arise and go to my father" (Luke 15:18). Old things are passed away with the man that is born of the Spirit. His change of state, is soon made to appear by his change of temper and action. Sin ceases to be the object of his delight; he cannot contentedly dwell with the workers of iniquity; his face is turned Zionward; and his eager steps show how desirable and delightful are wisdom's ways to his renewed soul. The man, as our Savior expresses it (Luke 15:17), has come to himself. The image of God is stamped upon his soul; His Law is written in his heart; and therefore he cleaves to the Lord with steadfastness, and runs the ways of His commandments (Acts 11:23, compared with Psalm 119:32). Former lusts are lamented over; he is ashamed of the reproach of his youth; and he flies from the temptations of Satan and the corruptions of his own heart, desirous forever to be done with sin, and to keep at perpetual distance from all iniquity.

"What have I to do any more with idols?" are the words not of returning Ephraim only (Hosea 14:8), but of every regenerate man in the world, as soon as ever he receives the welcome news of peace and pardon, and tastes the sweetness of that grand promise of the covenant of grace: "I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Hebrews 8:12).

He repents and would gladly call back again his past actions, had he but a power of mending them. He smites upon his thigh, as being thoroughly sensible that he is gone too far in so wicked a course, continued too long at a distance from God and the ways of righteousness, laying hold, at the same time, of the promises of free grace, which the Spirit, as the glorifier of Jesus, communicates to him, in the day of his espousals. Thus true grace at first manifests itself.

2. I go on now to consider the only spring from whence this amazing change does always proceed: "Surely after I was turned, I repented." Grace first enters the heart before it can be manifested in the life and conversation. The God of all grace first of all draws us; for else we shall never move towards him. "No man can come to me, unless the Father who has sent me, draws him" (John 6:44). We have neither the ability nor will to flee to the blessed Jesus; nor do we see ourselves in need of a Savior until the eyes of our understanding are opened. Great darkness is fallen upon our eyes; a double veil is drawn over our hearts; and who but the mighty God can cause light to arise unto those who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death? This He claims as His peculiar honor, His sole prerogative; and we who believe will readily acknowledge that "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!" (2 Corinthians 4:6).

We would never else have known ourselves, our sins, or Christ Jesus the great atonement. We would never else have been led into our own hearts, or the purity and spirituality of the divine Law, whereby the offence came to abound, and sin to appear in its proper light and colors as exceeding sinful (Romans 7:9, 13).

We may be converted through divine grace, but we cannot convert ourselves, for "the way of man is not in himself" (Jeremiah 10:23). There may be a change in some outward actions where a principle of life and grace is lacking in the heart; there may be legal convictions, and often are, to a very high degree in a sinner where saving faith is not implanted. But the end of these things sufficiently declares the partiality and unsoundness of their first beginning; for as the apostle says in another case: "The end of those things is death!" (Romans 6:21).

Terror and despair on one hand, or presumption and carnal security on the other, are the constant attendants of all legal convictions. That alone is the repentance which is not to be repented of, which begins with a divine change of heart. This the apostle lays down as the ground of our future obedience and the way in which saving grace at first manifests itself in the day of our effectual calling: "And you has He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). Had not the same mighty power which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead been exerted towards us—we would still have continued in the same conduct which we had "in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Ephesians 2:3). Our love of sin would still have remained though we might have abstained, through the influence of some lower motives, from the grosser acts of sin. But quickening grace opens the way to godly sorrow, and this always issues in evangelical repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). "Surely after I was turned, I repented."

3. This leads to a more particular consideration of these words, as containing an account of the progress of this great work in the hand of the Spirit, wherein the true nature of repentance unto life is clearly described.

Here it is necessary to inquire:

A. What are the things in which the soul is instructed by the Spirit, when a principle of grace is wrought in the heart?

This work of the Spirit usually begins with leading the soul into the knowledge of sin, after which he instructs him in the nature of pardoning grace and mercy. Under both OFthese heads a few particulars are necessary.

First, the Spirit begins his work, with leading the soul into the knowledge of sin, and this in three things:

1. The Spirit shows us the nature of sin, as attended with guilt, whereby we are obnoxious to the curse of the law. So long as we are ignorant of God's righteousness, we go about to establish our own righteousness (Romans 10:3). Nothing formidable appears in sin, and nothing faulty appears in our vain attempts to wash it away. Even our own iniquity seems to be only a little transgression, and with Ephraim we conclude that in all our labors, He shall find no iniquity in us that is sin (Hosea 12:8), until the Spirit takes the work into His own hands, and lays down the strait rule of truth to our actions, causing our eyes to behold our errors, until He presents Sinai's covenant to our view, attended with the "blackness, and darkness, and tempest" with which it was at first promulgated (Hebrews 12:18).

Sin will never revive until the commandment comes (Romans 7:9), but then we die at once; our hopes vanish, and all our expectations of pardon and life by our own obedience, fall to the ground. Then we "see that it is an evil and bitter thing" (Jeremiah 2:19), that we have forsaken the Lord our God and know, to our sorrow and amazement, what is the just demerit of our many abominations.

Indignation and wrath then hang over our heads; tribulation and anguish are already begun in our souls. Hell does often-times flash as it were in the face of the awakened sinner; and the terrors of the Lord make him afraid. The curse of the Law is continually sounding in his ears, and the bottomless pit seems ready opened to destroy him. The Spirit leads the soul first into the knowledge of the guilt of sin, as exposing to wrath and punishment!

2. The Spirit shows the sinner the defiling nature of sin, as opposed to the holiness of that God with whom he has to do.
As attended with guilt, sin is the object of our fear; as attended with filth, pollution, and defilement, sin is the object of our shame. An almost Christian sees sin in the first light, but the man who is spiritually is the only person that can behold it in the second. We may dread God's punishment of sin and be afraid of the shame of our sins, should they be known to men. But to hate sin, as offensive to the pure eyes of infinite holiness, to loathe it because it is the abominable thing which His soul hates—this is an attainment which only the renewed soul can arrive at.

Cain was afraid lest ever one that met him should take vengeance upon him for his sin. "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Genesis 4:13), was his constant complaint, and his only concern.

But David says, "Wash me throughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!" (Psalm 51:2). And Job breaks forth, "I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes!" (Job 42:6). And to whom God gives a new heart and a right spirit, it is said, they shall remember their own evil ways and their doings which were not good and shall loathe themselves in their own sight, for their iniquities, and for their abominations! (Ezekiel 36:31).

We never take a view of the holiness of God with a spiritual eye, but we always immediately reflect upon ourselves with shame and confusion of face. Thus it was with the prophet Isaiah: "Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). The Spirit leads us by the Word into a thorough sight of the defiling nature of sin.

3. The Spirit shows the sinner the many heinous aggravations with which his sins in particular have been attended.
The Word of the Lord "is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart!" (Hebrews 4:12). It searches "all the inward parts of the mind" (Proverbs 20:27), and exposes the many secret cavities wherein our abominations have been concealed, as well as the brooding-place of sin, where all our vileness has been hatched and every lust conceived. And "You are the man!" is the solemn sentence which every convinced sinner hears and feels, (2 Samuel 12:7) before he turns to the stronghold as a prisoner of hope.

The Spirit thus shows us the plague of our own hearts—and how sad is the sight! How affecting is the prospect when we have no view of the blood of Jesus or that atoning sacrifice which He has made for the sins of His people! But praised be His name and adored be the exceeding riches of His grace! The Spirit does not leave the soul here in this forlorn bewildered state—no, He takes him further and instructs him.

Secondly, the Spirit instructs the soul in the nature of pardoning grace and mercy, which is the sweetest sound that an awakened conscience can ever hear, the most agreeable message a self-condemning sinner can ever receive.

1. The Spirit instructs the sinner, that the privilege is attainable; that there is forgiveness with God, that He may be feared! To some promise the soul is directed to; some example of sovereign grace appears in his view; or He makes all His goodness to pass before him, proclaiming in the most reviving language, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin..." (Exodus 34:6-7).

2. The Spirit instructs the sinner in the only way through which His grace and mercy is to be attained, lets him know that an absolute God is a consuming fire, and directs him to Christ Jesus, Who is the way, the truth, and the life! The Spirit is, for this reason, said to glorify Christ (John 16:14), because He takes of Christ's things, and shows them unto those for whom He died. Of Him He always testifies (John 15:26), and to Him He ever leads the returning sinner. It is "through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins" (Act 13:38). The righteousness we need is already wrought out; our pardon is bought; our reconciliation is procured; Christ is our peace. This the Spirit shows when we are led to the Father by Him.

3. The Spirit instructs the sinner into the way through which pardon is communicated to him: that it was obtained by Christ; that it is received by faith; and that whoever will may take of the waters of life freely! (Revelation 22:17). This is the use of those many and exceeding precious promises which are upon record in the gospel. They are all designed for the encouragement of faith. And let me tell you, poor soul, that be your faith but as a grain of mustard-seed, which, says the Lord, is the least of all seeds (Matthew 13:32), it shall in nowise be despised; for says God himself by the prophet Zechariah, "Who has despised the day of small things?" (Zechariah 4:10).

Weak faith may lay hold of a strong Savior! A trembling hand often receives a whole Christ and pardoning grace and mercy from Him. "These things", says the beloved disciple, "are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name" (John 20:31).

4. The Spirit further instructs the sinner, who are the persons to whom this pardoning grace and mercy are to be given. This He teaches by the absolute promises of the Word which reach the case of the most rebellious criminals. When the Redeemer ascended up on high, He led captivity captive: He "received gifts for men; yes, for the rebellious also" (Psalm 68:18). What an emphasis does the Spirit lay upon that word, "yes, for the rebellious also"; but not a greater than the poor sinner may pronounce it with. May the good Lord help some poor soul at this time to lay hold of it, to put in for a share in so great mercy, so invaluable a blessing!

Grace and glory were purchased for the chief of sinners—for "this is a faithful saying [a truth that may be depended upon], and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to those who should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting" (1 Timothy 1:15-16). Is this a saying worthy of all acceptance? Then carry this saying and this example of grace, both of them, to the throne of grace and give Him who sits thereon no rest, until He afresh verifies the one, and confirms the other.

These things the Spirit never fails to instruct the man in, when once a principle of grace is wrought in the heart. These particulars I have had opportunity only to hint at; I trust the Spirit, Who is the best teacher, will bring them to your remembrance, in your private thoughts, with double sweetness and enlargement. I am now to inquire:

B. What are the various actings of the soul in consequence of these instructions.

These lie all of them very plain in the text before me, "After that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yes even confounded, because I bore the reproach of my youth."

First, the soul thus instructed, sorrows after a godly sort.

This is the first thing in which gospel repentance manifests itself to be genuine and of the right kind; of which smiting upon the thigh, is very expressive. The phrase is used in another place, by which this passage may be justly explained: "Cry and howl, son of man: for it [that is the sword of God's anger] shall be upon my people, it shall be upon all the princes of Israel: terrors by reason of the sword shall be upon my people: smite therefore upon your thigh" (Ezekiel 21:12). That is, give a sign of your sorrow, a token of your grief, that it may appear to others, that you, above all men, are affected with the judgment of the Lord, which is denounced against Jerusalem.

Sin wounds the conscience.

Mercy and grace melts the heart.

No sooner does the poor creature become sensible of the one as well as the other, but he becomes like new bottles, ready to burst (Job 32:19). Permit me to call over the former times wherein you were enlightened. How was it with you:

When the dayspring from on high visited you?

When the Spirit first spoke peace and pardon to the guilty and rebellious?

When the Lord addressed you in the language following my text, "Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him," declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 31:20).

Look into your hearts, while I am giving you a description of mine own heart. Did you not then seek a corner, wherein you might hide yourselves from everyone, but the great God to whom you made supplication? And how did you act before your offended but gracious judge? Did not you smite upon your thigh, standing amazed at the riches of His goodness, long-suffering and forbearance, and astonished at your ungrateful conduct, your most unworthy behavior towards Him? Say, poor hearts! whether you did not sorrow after a godly sort (2 Corinthians 7:9). It may be that your tears drowned your voice; but it was impossible they should spoil your prayers. Look but to the ninth verse of Jeremiah 31, and you may see your own picture, when you were thus prostrate at the throne of grace: "they shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born." There was the grand occasion of Ephraim's bemoaning himself afterwards, because, says the Lord, "there is hope in your end" (Jeremiah 31:17). The first act of the soul after the Spirit's instruction, is his smiting upon his thigh, or sorrowing after a godly manner.

Secondly, the soul thus instructed, is filled with shame and confusion of face, attended with an utter hatred of the sins he has been guilty of!

"I was ashamed, yes even confounded, because I bore the reproach of my youth." Shame is begotten in the soul, but it is of an sincere nature. The oftener and more intensely he looks upon the long and black score which grace has forgiven him, the more is he ashamed, and the higher does his just indignation against sin arise—an indignation against himself for what is past, and a vehement desire to keep clear of the like offences in his future course. "For behold, this selfsame thing, that you sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you—yes, what clearing of yourselves, yes, what indignation, yes, what fear, yes, what vehement desire, yes, what zeal, yes, what revenge!" (2 Corinthians 7:11).

Loathing of ourselves always follows admiring thoughts of the sovereign, matchless, and distinguishing grace of God! The blood of Jesus is the best looking-glass wherein to see the filth and defilement of sin! And that man can never be said in a gospel manner to repent, who is unaffected with the love of a dying Savior, or unconcerned for the purity and holiness of a sin-hating God! We shall never indeed smite upon our thighs, until God shows us, together with our sins, His own pardoning grace and mercy! There may be fear, but there will be no love until we hear Him saying, "I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn you" (Jeremiah 31:3).

Is this, poor soul, the real matter of your experience? You may then conclude that Jesus, Whom God has exalted to be a Prince and a Savior, has bestowed upon you repentance, with forgiveness of sins, that He has granted unto you repentance unto life! (Acts 5:31; 11:18).

Thirdly, the soul thus instructed, has an abiding sense of these things.
He is not weary of his filthy rags today, and pleased with them again tomorrow. He is not humbled for sin now, and wallowing in the same mire and dirt soon. No, "I bore," says Ephraim, "the reproach of my youth." "Wherever I went, I carried it along with me. My sin was ever in my eyes, and my iniquity was always before me. I never thought the lighter of my sin, for its being forgiven; it was still as grievous, as hateful, and offensive in mine eyes as ever." Happy the souls whose hatred against sin continues, when the edge of their first desires and the warmth of their first affections are lost! Blessed are those who can say at all times, "Lord, I cannot bear to offend You, however You may deal with me. I love Your law, I love Your ordinances, I love Your ways, though I cannot as often as I wish for find the place where my beloved feeds, and where He causes His flocks to rest at noon (Song 1:7). Sin is my burden, my complaint, and my greatest grievance; though I still find a 'law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members'" (Romans 7:23). This is the fruit of the Spirit's work in your heart, and argues your repentance to be genuine and sincere.

Fourthly, the soul thus instructed is most sensibly affected with those sins to which he has been most addicted.
Heart-sins are bewailed by the sincere Christian, and youthful transgressions are never forgotten by him. Our own iniquity is most carefully watched against, and most frequently confessed before God. This pricked us to the heart when first the law entered, and it wounds to the quick afterwards, both under the smiles of His love, and the hidings of His countenance.

Every regenerate soul may join in Ephraim's confession and prayer, only with a change of circumstance: "Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, You are our gods" (Hosea 14:2-3). Here he confesses and bewails the sin he had been addicted to, in the most particular and affectionate manner. "I was ashamed, yes, even confounded, because I bore the reproach of my youth." This is the time when sins are usually most vigorous and lively. Blessed then are they who in their early part of life are brought to see their own vileness and the need they stand in of a Savior! To be brought to Christ early, oh, how desirable a thing it is! Many sins are hereby prevented, which are often the great burden of old age; and what is still more pleasing, the good ways of God do then sustain no reproach upon our account.

Fifthly, the soul thus instructed always applies to the blood of Christ for pardon.
But this having been in some measure spoken to under a former head, and not expressly contained in the text, I shall wholly wave any enlargement, and conclude with mentioning three or four remarks upon the whole.

Remark 1. Repentance can never be a condition of the covenant of grace, seeing it is itself a blessing of the covenant, and a blessing owing wholly and alone to almighty power and grace. "Surely after I was turned, I repented" (Jeremiah 31:19). It is strange we should be so fond of making conditions for ourselves, when we have not the least warrant from God to do so. But vain man would be wise, and in his natural state he is unwilling to be saved merely upon the footing of grace!

Remark 2. What a mighty change does grace work in the soul! Old things pass away, and all things become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). The ruins of the fall are not only repaired by Christ; but the old foundation is wholly removed, and a new one is laid, in which grace alone bears the glory.

Remark 3. See, believe, what doctrines make most for your encouragement at first and for your comfort and support afterwards. Hope that makes not ashamed (Romans 5:5) can proceed only from Christ Jesus, who is our hope (1 Timothy 1:1). And every doctrine which leads not to Him, either directly or by necessary consequence, always damps our hopes, mars our peace, and spoils our comfort!

Remark 4. We must look to the same power and grace that laid the foundation, to rear the superstructure and finish the building. Repentance is a daily work; and we have as much need to say every day, as we had at our first setting our faces Zionward, "Turn me, and I shall be turned; for you are the LORD my God" (Jeremiah 31:18). The text always holds true; may we be led daily further into the sweetness and comprehensive fullness of it. "Surely after I was turned, I repented; and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yes, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth."

"Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"—and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah" Psalm 32:5