The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character
Gardiner Spring, 1829
9. REPENTANCE FOR SIN
A mere glance at the ruin and recovery of man is enough to convince us that of the religion of fallen beings, repentance forms an essential part. It is alike significant of the character and indispensable to the happiness of a converted sinner, to be penitent.
In the order of gracious exercises, repentance follows love to God. An affectionate view of God prepares the mind to take a just view of sin. As it is impossible to repent of having sinned against a God that we hate, so it is impossible not to repent of having sinned against a God that we love. When the heart has been renewed, and the soul has been enlightened by the Divine Spirit so that it sees the beauty and the loveliness of the Divine character—it cannot seriously reflect upon a life of sin without sincere grief. True repentance is "to abhor sin as committed against God; to abhor ourselves for sin, and to reform."
Repentance, like every other grace, is the gift of God and the reasonable and indispensable duty of men. There are considerations which the mind of man perceives, and which the Spirit of God makes use of, in the production and exercise of this grace which give it a peculiar character.
The leading thought which influences the soul in all godly sorrow is the intrinsic vileness of sin. It is not enough to feel and acknowledge that we are sinners; the mind must be imbued with a deep and settled conviction of the great evil of sin as committed against God, and as a wanton and wicked violation of His most holy law. The very definition of sin is that it is a "transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4).
In this you discover its true nature, and appropriate malignity. It is a violation of all law; a willful disregard of all authority; and a consequent hostility to all the holiness and happiness which a conformity to God's law would necessarily secure.
We cannot now speak of the pernicious consequences of sin, and tell how a view of these opens the sources of godly sorrow in the soul.
The main thought that affects the mind of the penitent is that he has sinned against God! Sin is contrary to every attribute of the divine nature, and is the abominable thing which God's soul hates. And the penitent sinner feels that he is the perpetrator of this foul deed! He has been sinning against the great God; he has been rising up in rebellion against His legitimate authority; he has done what he could to pour contempt upon His infinite majesty and excellence, to trample upon His goodness and forbearance, to despise His grace, and to diminish and destroy His influence in the world. He has not only done this, but he has done it with a calm and deliberate purpose, and in defiance to the strongest inducements to an opposite course of conduct.
He sees also that he has sinned always; that he has been cherishing a totally depraved heart, which has never intermitted its iniquity, and never ceased from its unprovoked and ungrateful disobedience.
Now when a mind that has been renewed by the Spirit of God makes these internal discoveries, it is not surprising that it should be filled with utter abhorrence of all iniquity. To such a mind sin appears in its native odiousness: it is vile, it is utterly detestable, it is exceedingly sinful. He abhors it as committed against God. The thought which most deeply affects him is "Against you, you only have I sinned!" (Psalm 51:4).
Nor is it enough that he abhors his sins; he abhors himself for sin. He is sensible that he is a vile transgressor; that he has no excuse for his iniquity, and is altogether criminal; that the evil of his transgression is chargeable upon himself alone; that he deserves to be blamed rather than pitied; that he might well bear the blame as well as endure the curse of his iniquities to all eternity.
There are seasons when his views of sin are comparatively languid; and there are also seasons when they are deep and thorough—when they pierce and rend the heart and fill it with the bitterness of sincere sorrow. O, he feels that his transgressions are multiplied, and that his iniquities testify against him! His laughter is heavy and he goes bowed down to the earth. He is abased before God. He loathes himself in his own sight for his iniquities and abominations. It breaks his spirit to look back and survey the multitude of his transgressions. If you could follow him to his prayer closet, I doubt not you would often hear him cry with the bemoaning servant of God, "Oh, my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to you, my God; for my iniquities are increased over my head, and my trespass has reached up into the heavens" (Ezra 9:6).
An essential part of true repentance also consists in actual reformation. It exhibits itself in real life. The penitent feels the force of considerations which restrain from sin. He is afraid of sin and dreads its aggravated guilt. "How shall I commit this great wickedness against God!"
Though a sinner still, he cannot remain a sinner in the sense in which he was a sinner once. He manifests a desire to honor the God he has so long dishonored; to undo what he has done against the interest of His Kingdom, and repair the injury he has caused to the souls of men. There is no genuine repentance where there is no forsaking of sin. Still to go on in sin, to practice iniquity with greediness, with constancy, and with perseverance, is incompatible with the nature of that sorrow which is unto salvation. Such is true repentance. This is that "godly sorrow" of which the Scriptures speak "that works repentance to salvation, not to be repented of" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
But before you apply these thoughts in the examination of your own character, allow me to advise you that there is a false and spurious repentance, a "sorrow of the world that works death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Saul and Esau, Ahithophel and Judas were penitents, but their repentance needed to be repented of.
The damned in Hell are weeping and mourning and must weep and mourn without end; but they are not the subjects of godly sorrow.
A child will weep under the rod and often grieve and afflict his heart because he expects to be punished, while he is at a great way off from sincere sorrow for his fault.
There is a great amount of repentance which arises from the fear of punishment, without hating sin. It is one thing to mourn for sin because it exposes us to Hell, and another to mourn for it because it is an infinite evil. It is one thing to mourn for it because it is injurious to ourselves, another to mourn for it because it is offensive to God. It is one thing to be terrified, another to be humbled.
A man may tremble at the apprehension of Divine wrath, while he has no sense of the intrinsic vileness of sin and no true contrition of soul on account of it. There is also the sorrow which arises merely from the hope of forgiveness. Such is the mercenary repentance of the hypocrite and the self-deceived. Many it is to be feared have eagerly cherished the expectation of eternal life, and here begun and ended their religion. Many it is to be feared have eagerly cherished the hope of mercy and here begun their repentance who have mourned at the last. In all this there is nothing that is truly virtuous, no godly sorrow arising from a sense of the intrinsic turpitude of sin. With this illustration of the nature of true repentance, we think you may decide the point as to your own good estate.
Those who are true penitents are born of God. Allow me to inquire, do you know anything of genuine godly sorrow for sin? Retire into your own bosom and ask yourself questions like these:
Do I possess any settled conviction of the evil of sin?
Does sin appear to me as the evil and bitter thing?
Does conviction of the evil of it increase?
There are moments when Heaven and Hell lie out of sight—how does sin appear then?
Do you hate sin merely because it is ruinous to your soul, or because it is offensive to God!
Do you hate it because it is sin? I
s your repentance deep and sincere?
Is sin your greatest grief?
Which grieves you most, your sins or your misfortunes?
What sacrifices are you willing to make to be delivered from your sins?
Do your sins appear many and aggravated?
Do you discover sin in a thousand forms and new expressions which you never discovered before?
Do you mourn over the sins of the heart?
Do you abase yourself for your innate depravity as one that was shaped in iniquity and conceived in sin?
Do you mourn over your vain thoughts and carnal affections, over a life of sin, ingratitude, and profligacy; over your unprofitableness and unfaithfulness?
Does it grieve you that you are worldly, proud, and selfish, that you have lifted up your soul unto vanity and panted after the dust of the earth?
Does it grieve you to the heart to call to mind that you have sinned against God?
When your eyes behold the King, the Lord Almighty, are you constrained to exclaim, "Woe is me!"
When you look on Him Whom you have pierced, are you constrained to cry out, "I am undone!"
The degree of godly sorrow is by no means to be overlooked in your self-examination. When God touches, He breaks the heart. Where He pours out the spirit of grace, there are many sincere sighs that agitate the bosom—there are heart-rending pangs of sorrow.
Is the reader experimentally acquainted with such godly sorrow?
Can no solitary hour, no sequestered spot bear testimony to the bitterness of your grief?
Does anything grieve you more than that you have ten thousand times pierced the heart of redeeming love?
Do you abhor sin and turn from it?
Are you conscious of being afraid of sin, as well as of an increasing tenderness of conscience whenever you are tempted to go astray?
If so, then you have testimony that the work of grace is begun within you—testimony as infallible as the sincerity of your repentance, "Whoever covers his sins shall not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall find mercy" (Proverbs 28:13).