Brethren Archive

Repentance And Faith

by John Dickie

THE light, which shows us so consolingly the glory of God's grace in Christ Jesus, reveals to us also more distinctly than ever our own sinfulness. And while the one half of the Bible breaks the believing heart to pieces, the other half sweetly comforts and heals the broken heart. And this is not a mere act completed once for all, but a lifelong process, the breaking going on, and the healing also still going on.

I have been struck with the dissimilarity of the Gospel, as stated by Paul, and that stated by some of our modern preachers. Paul preached two things: repentance towards God, and faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ (see Acts 20:21), while many in modern times quietly suppress repentance altogether. You may also read many gospel tracts, and you will find the same thing—while you read a call to faith on every page, perhaps you will not once notice repentance hinted at.

Now, why is this? Not so did the Baptist preach (Matt. 3:2,11). Not so did the Lord Jesus preach (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 9:13; Luke 13:3,5). Not so did the twelve preach during their Master's lifetime (Mark 4:12). Neither were they so to preach after His ascension (Luke 24:47). And they preached as He told them (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 20:21; 26:20). Why then is repentance so little named to sinner or to saint nowadays? Oh, it is included in faith, someone says. No, not at all; it is a state of mind that has reference to God, while faith has reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. The one is distinct from the other, and neither includes its companion. I grant that the one implies the other; but that does not warrant that we drop the repentance, and testify to the faith alone, any more than it would warrant us to drop the faith, and testify simply to the repentance. We cannot truly repent towards God without also believing in the Lord Jesus; and as little can we truly believe in the Lord Jesus without also repenting towards God. How perilous, then, that experience which has so much to do with believing in Christ, but which, from beginning to end, knows so little about repentance towards God. And how unsatisfactory that mode of stating Gospel truth must be, which is so different from the mode in which Christ and His apostles taught it.

We have sinned, fearfully sinned, and that we may be delivered from it and its consequences, two things are needed—two and not one. The sinner must make atonement to God's outraged law for his sin, and make such sufficient atonement that it will be a righteous thing for God to accept the satisfaction in lieu of the sinners actual punishment. And secondly, the sinner must also repent of his sin, confess it, bewail it, abhor it, and forsake it; and unless he does this, he still, of course, retains his sin. The first, namely, atonement, the sinner could not do, could not even help to do; so God sent forth His Son to be made sin for us, to accomplish full atonement by His precious blood. And FAITH lays hold on Him, and rests sweetly ON Him, and finds in His person and finished work all that it needs to put away the guilt of sin by making atonement for it. But there is the second thing, the actual putting away of the sin itself and the being suitably exercised about it before God; and this is done by the sinner's REPENTANCE. This repentance, unlike the atonement, cannot be done for him, but must be done by himself and in his own bosom; and as fallen nature cannot of itself repent, the same Son of God who has on the Cross and without ourselves made full atonement for us, has also procured for us, and supplies to us, the Holy Spirit, who, within us works genuine repentance towards God. By REPENTANCE, we return to the God whom we forsook; by FAITH we come to Him, through Christ the one and only way. The two cannot be separated, though they are quite distinct. Rome separates them, and preaches repentance without faith, but her repentance is not true repentance; and an extravagant Antinomian form of Protestantism also separates them, and preaches faith without even naming repentance—but this faith is not Bible faith at all. By repentance the sinner's heart is broken, by faith the broken heart is sweetly healed by Christ. The Holy Spirit works both, and works them simultaneously, and not one before the other.

We have got in our day into a miserable way of showing our faith by our words; and because our words are very good words, we account our faith to be well authenticated by them, as good and true. And we have got also into a way of comparing ourselves with ourselves, and with one another, and because we are not worse than our fellows—perhaps to appearance a little better—we are pretty well satisfied. It is not by our good words, but by our good works, that our faith is to be shown (James 2:20-26). And we are to compare ourselves, not with each other, but with the only standard, the lofty requirements of God's most Holy Word. And this is illustrated for us in the example which Christ gave us in the life which He lived, in order to furnish us with a model. And the works which authenticate faith are not merely the common decencies and moralities of life—the negative goodness which consists in the absence of scandals; even heathen virtue, unbelieving virtue, infidel virtue can rise above this. Our works are to be works which NOTHING BUT FAITH can accomplish, and which are therefore infallible proofs that the man who works them is IN LIVING FELLOWSHIP with the living Christ. I do not mean to say that the FORM of the works done will always be extraordinary; no, the outward form will generally be very commonplace, but then these commonplace, ordinary works shall be performed in a very extraordinary spirit—a spirit that is Christ-like and unearthly.

And then, whatever we discover within us that does not come up to the high level of God's holy requirements and our blessed Lord's perfect example, we should meet at once with a fresh act of repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.

When one begins to think of this subject, its lengths and breadths are so immense that one knows not how to say merely a few words. Before saying a word further, I would like to premise two remarks. First, That repentance is not a certain feeling, or set of feelings, that we are called on to work up in our own hearts. Ah, no! of ourselves we cannot repent aright; we can do nothing (John 15:5). The repentance which comes from me merely, is like myself, selfish and sinful, and needs to be repented of. Christ GIVES repentance, as He gives forgiveness (Acts 5:31), and we accept both at His hands.

Second, We must never think of God as reluctant to meet the returning sinner with His overflowing love. God's love is HOLY LOVE, and His joyous readiness to meet and to welcome the returning sinner, even at the beginning of his return, is inconceivable (Luke 15:20). There is no particle then of a legal feeling in the repentance of the New Testament.

Repentance is one grand theme of the Bible. Every Old Testament prophet, every one, calls to IT. The Baptist had for his main work to call to repentance; when imprisoned, the Lord Jesus took up his cry, and urged men to repent (Matt. 4:17). When He sent out the twelve He summed up in two most comprehensive words the entire burden of this testimony (see Luke 24:47). In the one word—"REMISSION" He includes all the blessedness which is freely bestowed by God on man through Christ Jesus; in the word "REPENTANCE"—He includes everything which on man's part constitutes a due response to God's call in the Gospel, and on these instructions the Apostles acted (see Peter, Acts 2:37, 38; see Paul in the summary of his work, Acts 20:21).

Nor is this repentance obsolete. Seven letters were dictated by our Lord after His ascension to heaven, and in these repentance is as urgently pressed as ever (see Rev. 2:5,16, and 3:3,19).

Perhaps we might try to glance at one invariable aspect of a true evangelical repentance, remembering that it is only one of the many forms in which a genuine repentance manifests itself. For this special form of repentance, as it works in the heart of every true penitent, read carefully Ezek. 16:63. What a loathsome picture of sin, of all sin, as God sees it, we have it set before us under a similitude in the preceding parts of the chapter. It is overwhelming when we take it home. We see sin—our own sin—to be infinitely loathsome, and are filled with a hatred of it, and a humiliation because of it, that defy expression (1 Tim. 1:15; Job 42:6).

In spite of Israel's inconceivable wickedness, God remembered His covenant (verse 60). For His grace ABOUNDS even beyond men's sin (Rom. 5:20). This covenant is spoken of in verse 8. The sinner's only hope lies here. OUR covenant is in Christ.

When God remembers His covenant, she "remembers" her sin (verse 61). She had never done this in the depth of her wickedness, and this remembrance of her sins makes her ashamed (verse 61). In the days of her wickedness, so proud was she in her self-righteousness that she could not endure to name Sodom and Samaria (verses 56, 57). For the sinner, though he sees the sinfulness of others (in part), never sees his own utter loathsomeness. But Israel, now penitent, sees that she had been far worse than despised Sodom and Samaria, and is ashamed of herself, when they are given to her as her daughters in grace. For she now learns (verse 62) what God is, not through His holy judgments, but through His holy mercy.

And the result—the designed result of the whole—is that she is confounded (stronger than ashamed in verse 61). She was ashamed to he made superior in blessing (mother and daughters) to Sodom and Samaria. She who was really so much worse than Sodom—though she had fancied herself to be so much better (verses 48, 56)—but she is confounded when God goes on to add to her the infinite blessings of the NEW and BETTER covenant.

She cannot "open her mouth" in view of so much mercy (verse 63). Not one word of excuse—no penitent ever has. He has not even begun to repent who palliates his enormous wickedness (Rom. 3:19). Not one word, but lowly confession and fervent praise.

And all this while enjoying to the full God's utmost favour. He is now "PACIFIED towards her;" and she has the joy of knowing it. Her sins are not only forgiven but forgotten (Heb. 10:17). But like every true penitent, she cannot forgive herself—her sin is "ever before" her (Ps. 51:3), not to distress or even disturb, but to deepen her adoring joy IN GOD. This is, I do believe, the characteristic attitude of a gracious soul towards the forgiving God, and towards the forgiven sin. Towards the one it turns with unutterable joy, and love, and trust, wondering at the riches of a grace that can deal with such a sinner; from the other it turns away with shame and grief confounded at its own wickedness, that it could so wantonly abuse the mercy of such a Father (2 Cor. 7:11).

Now, how rare comparatively is the combination of these two feelings. We have any number of professors who have peace, and who never doubt that God is pacified towards them; but they have oh, how slight a consciousness of their enormous guiltiness! They are not "CONFOUNDED" at the wonderful mercy that could forgive sinners like them—nay, they are not even "ASHAMED" when they look at themselves beside other forgiven ones, and remember that their forgiveness needed so much more grace than the forgiveness of others (1 Tim. 1:15). In fact, they are as self-ignorant and self-satisfied as THE CARELESS round about them are, as Israel was when in the depth of her wickedness she never suspected herself to be so wicked (verse 56). There are others, again, who are more or less convicted of exceeding sinfulness, but who little realize that God is pacified towards them for the sake of Christ and His blood, who have too imperfectly learned what God really is—through the freeness and the greatness of His forgiving love towards themselves (Luke 7:47). This is not the Christian's suitable frame of spirit; nevertheless, I take it to be often unspeakably better than the former.

Oh, to be sunk down to the lowest, and every day to be sinking lower and still lower in self-confounded, dumb-stricken self-abasement—while, at the same time, one is raised to the highest pitch of adoring gladness, in the joyous apprehension of that pardoning mercy which, in Christ Jesus, delights to heap its favours on the heads of such sinners. For me, I desire that God may work in me the utmost attainable measure of this penitence.

It is only when these two—the joy and the tender sorrow—are thus combined that either of them is safe for us. The joy alone, without the sorrow, is dangerous, for it tends to pride; the sorrow alone is dangerous, for it comes out of unbelief even so far as to despair; but the two combined make us strong in the Lord. When thus suitably combined, there is not a particle of bitterness in our sorrow; for we rejoice IN GOD as being perfectly pacified towards us; while there is not a particle of self-elevation in our joy, since we are confounded, stricken dumb in view of a mercy that has pardoned EVEN ME. And it is to produce this very blending of the two feelings that God trains us as He does. When He fills the swelling heart full with the joy of His salvation, He never fails to reveal at the same time more of that heart's own vileness; otherwise we would take the glory of it all to ourselves, and would poison ourselves with our very blessedness. At the same time, He never reveals to us our own enormity (in our fleshly selves), except very gradually; for if we were to see it all at once, so great is it, and so appalling would the vision be, that we should be overpowered by sheer despair. But bit by hit, He opens up to us more and more of His fulness of grace and glory in Christ Jesus, and more and more of our own unworthiness; and so we are neither puffed up by the one, nor crushed by the other; but, walking with Himself in joyous love, are more and more confounded at the growing vision of His unbounded goodness and of our own depravity.

It is this too that makes Christ so precious to penitent souls. Nothing in heaven or on earth is so precious as Christ is, to one who has been thus humbled. And nothing is so little cared for as the actual Christ is, by a self-confident unhumbled professor. His joy is in his OWN FAITH, or some one or other of his own exercises; but he never rejoices purely and simply as a naked sinner, as nothing else but only a sinner—FRANKLY FORGIVEN all for Christ's sake only.

The Holy Spirit's first work on every soul is one of conviction (John 16:9). But, as hinted above, this first work of conviction is incomplete, and needs to be carried on from one stage to another. It is deep enough in the sinner s case to answer the end designed, which end is to bring him off from all self-confidence to trust in Christ. And now when the man becomes a saint, the Holy Spirit carries on His work in the soul and reveals CHRIST, and SELF, to the man in ever-growing clearness. And when He does so, we ought never to protect ourselves from the deep wounds which the Holy Spirit gives to our carnal self-sufficiency by our misuse of Gospel truth. The Gospel never was meant to be used in this way. The Gospel itself when received, delivers us from the curse of the broken law, but the faith of it never was meant to deliver us from the shame and the grief (holy and gracious grief) of having wantonly and wickedly broken that law. Nay, rather, if I receive God's wonderful mercy in a proper spirit, I shall use my deepening sense of it to aggravate my sin, but never to excuse it. Shall I think myself less vile because God's goodness is so amazing? The Gospel is meant, as it is fitted, sweetly to comfort us—but it is to comfort us AS HUMBLE, not to comfort us as proud. "Blessed are they that mourn; for THEY shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4).

The Passover supper (Exod. 12) needed the roasted lamb, which typified Christ crucified; but the roasted flesh was to be eaten along with bitter herbs, which (I believe) symbolized the very penitence we are speaking of. And just as it could be no Passover without the lamb, so neither could it be a Passover without the bitter herbs, and the unleavened bread which symbolized perfect sincerity (1 Cor. 5: 8).

But the subject is well-nigh endless; may the Lord teach us more and more about these gracious experiences in the fullest enjoyment of them. Grace, grace, infinite, free, sovereign grace—this alone can meet the need of fallen man. Let me simply add with awe, that the tendency to abuse this grace, and thus to destroy himself by his abuse of it, is about the strongest tendency in the human heart. And in our day this all but irresistible tendency is not sufficiently guarded against.

J. D.

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