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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

Body of Divinity
Contained in
Sermons upon the Assembly's Catechism
by the
Rev. Thomas Watson


Repentance

Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life. Acts 11:18.


REPENTANCE seems to be a bitter pill to take, but it is to purge out the bad humour of sin. By some Antinomian spirits it is cried down as a legal doctrine; but Christ himself preached it. 'From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent,' &c. Matt 4:17. In his last farewell, when he was ascending to heaven, he commanded that 'Repentance should be preached in his name.' Luke 24:47. Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works would not admit of repentance; it cursed all that could not perform perfect and personal obedience. Gal 3:10. Repentance comes in by the gospel; it is the fruit of Christ's purchase that repenting sinners shall be saved. It is wrought by the ministry of the gospel, while it sets before our eyes Christ crucified. It is not arbitrary, but necessary; there is no being saved without it. 'Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.' Luke 13:3. We may be thankful to God that he has left us this plank after shipwreck.

I. I shall show first the counterfeits of repentance.

[1] Natural softness and tenderness of spirit. Some have a tender affection, arising from their constitution, whereby they are apt to weep and relent when they see any object of pity. These are not repenting tears: for many weep to see another's misery, who cannot weep at their own sin.

[2] Legal terrors. A man who has lived in a course of sin, at last is made sensible; he sees hell ready to devour him, and is filled with anguish and horror; but after a while the tempest of conscience is blown over, and he is quiet. He then concludes he is a true penitent, because he has felt some bitterness in sin, but this is not repentance. Judas had some trouble of mind. If anguish and trouble were sufficient for repentance, then the damned would be most penitent, for they are most in anguish of mind. There may be trouble of mind where there is no grieving for the offence against God.

[3] A slight superficial sorrow. When God's hand lies heavy upon a man, as when he is sick or lame, he may vent a sigh or tear, and say, 'Lord, have mercy;' yet this is not true repentance. Ahab did more than all this. 'He rent his clothes, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.' I Kings 21:27. His clothes were rent, but not his heart. The eye may be watery, and the heart flinty. An apricot may be soft without, but it has a hard stone within.

[4] God motions rising in the heart. Every good motion is not repentance. Some think if they have motions in their hearts to break off their sins, and become religious, it is repentance. As the devil may stir up bad motions in the godly, so the Spirit of God may stir up good motions in the wicked. Herod had many good thoughts and inclinations stirred up in him by John Baptist's preaching, yet he did not truly repent, for he still lived in incest.

[5] Vows and resolutions. What vows and solemn protestations do some make in their sickness, that if God should recover them they will be new men, but afterwards they are as bad as ever! 'Thou saidst, I will not transgress;' here was a resolution: but for all this, she ran after her idols. 'Under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot.' Jer 2:20.

[6] Leaving off some gross sin. (1) A man may leave off some sins, and keep others. Herod reformed many things that were amiss, but kept his Herodias. (2) An old sin may be left to entertain a new one. A man may leave off riot and prodigality, and turn covetous; which is merely to exchange one sin for another.

These are the counterfeits of repentance. Now, if you find that yours is a counterfeit repentance, and you have not repented aright, mend what you have done amiss. As in the body, if a bone be set wrong, the surgeon has no way but to break it again, and set it aright; so you must do by repentance; if you have not repented aright, you must have your heart broken again in a godly manner, and be more deeply afflicted for sin than ever.

II. This brings me to show wherein repentance consists. It consists in two things: humiliation and transformation.

[1] Humiliation. 'If their uncircumcised hearts be humbled.' Lev 26:41. There is, as the schoolmen say, a twofold humiliation, or breaking of the heart. (1) Attrition; as when a rock is broken in pieces. This is done by the law, which is a hammer to break the heart. (2) Contrition; as when ice is melted into water. This is done by the gospel, which is as a fire to 'melt the heart.' Jer 23:9. The sense of abused kindness causes contrition.

[2] Transformation, or change. 'Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.' Rom 12:2. Repentance works a change in the whole man. As when wine is put into a glass of water, it runs into every part of the water, and changes its colour and taste; so true repentance does not rest in one part, but diffuses and spreads itself into every part.

(1) Repentance causes a change in the mind. Before, a man liked sin well, and said in defence of it, as Jonah, 'I do well to be angry;' chap 4:9; or I did well to swear, and break the Sabbath. When he becomes penitent, his judgement is changed, he looks upon sin as the greatest evil. The Greek word for repentance signifies after-wisdom; when, having seen how deformed and damnable a thing sin is, we change our mind. Paul, before conversion, verily thought he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus (Acts 26:9); but, when he became a penitent, he was of another mind. 'I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus.' Phil 3:8. Repentance causes a change of judgement.

(2) Repentance causes a change in the affections, which move under the will as the commander-in-chief. It metamorphoses the affections. It turns rejoicing in sin into sorrowing for sin; it turns boldness in sin into holy shame; it turns the love of sin into hatred. As Ammon hated Tamar more than ever he loved her (2 Sam 13:15), so the true penitent hates sin more than ever he loved it. 'I hate every false way.' Psa 119:104.

(3) Repentance works a change in the life. Though repentance begins at the heart, it does rest there, but goes into the life. It begins at the heart. 'O Jerusalem, wash thy heart.' Jer 4:14. If the spring be corrupt, no pure stream can run from it. But though repentance begins at the heart, it does not rest there, but changes the life. What a change did repentance make in Paul! It changed a persecutor into a preacher. What a change did it make in the jailer! Acts 16:33. He took Paul and Silas, and washed their stripes, and set meat before them. What a change did it make in Mary Magdalene! She who before kissed her lovers with wanton embraces, now kisses Christ's feet; she that used to curl her hair, and dress it with costly jewels, now makes it a towel to wipe Christ's feet; her eyes that used to sparkle with lust, and with impure glances to entice her lovers, now become fountains of tears to wash her Saviour's feet; her tongue that used to speak vainly and loosely, now is an instrument set in tune to praise God. This change of life has two things in it: -

[1] The terminus a quo, a breaking off sin. 'Break off thy sins by righteousness.' Dan 4:27. This breaking off sin must have three qualifications. (1) It must be universal, a breaking off all sin. One disease may kill as well as more. One sin lived in, may damn as well as more. The real penitent breaks off secret, gainful, habitual sins; he takes the sacrificing knife of mortification, and runs it through the heart of his dearest lusts. (2) Breaking off sin must be sincere; it must not be out of fear, but upon spiritual grounds; as from antipathy and disgust, and a principle of love to God. If sin had not such evil effects, a true penitent would forsake it out of love to God. The best way to separate things that are frozen, is by fire. When sin and the heart are frozen together, the best way to separate them is by the fire of love. Shall I sin against a gracious Father, and abuse that love which pardons me? (3) The breaking off sin must be perpetual, so as never to have to do with sin any more. 'What have I to do any more with idols?' Hos 14:8. Repentance is a spiritual divorce, which must be till death.

[2] Change of life has in it terminus ad quem, a returning unto the Lord. It is called 'Repentance towards God.' Acts 20:21. It is not enough, when we repent, to leave old sins; but we must engage in God's service; as when the wind leaves the west, it turns into a contrary corner. The repenting prodigal not only left his harlots, but arose and went to his father. Luke 15:18. In true repentance the heart points directly to God, as the needle to the north pole.

Use. Let us all set upon this great work of repentance; let us repent sincerely and speedily: let us repent of all our sins, our pride, rash anger, and unbelief. 'Without repentance, no remission.' It is not consistent with the holiness of God's nature to pardon a sinner while he is in the act of rebellion. O meet God, not with weapons, but tears in your eyes. To stir you up to a melting penitent frame: -

(1) Consider what there is in sin, that you should continue in the practice of it. It is the 'accursed thing.' Josh 7:11. It is the spirits of mischief distilled. It defiles the soul's glory; it is like a stain to beauty. It is compared to a plague-sore. I Kings 8:38. Nothing so changes one's glory into shame as sin. Without repentance sin tends to final damnation. Peccatum transit actu, manet reatu [The moment of sin passes, the guilt remains]. Sin at first shows its colour in the glass, but afterwards it bites like a serpent. Those locusts in Rev 9:7, are an emblem of sin: 'On their heads were crowns like gold, and they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions, and there were stings in their tails.' Sin unrepented of ends in a tragedy. It has the devil for its father, shame for its companion, and death for its wages. Rom 6:23. What is there in sin then, that men should continue in it? Say not it is sweet. Who would desire the pleasure which kills?

(2) Repentance is very pleasing to God. No sacrifice like a broken heart. 'A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.' Psa 51:17. Augustine caused this sentence to be written over his bed when he was sick. When the widow brought empty vessels to Elisha, the oil was poured into them. 2 Kings 4:6. Bring God the broken vessel of a contrite heart, and he will pour in the oil of mercy. Repenting tears are the joy of God and of angels. Luke 15:7. Doves delight to be about the waters; and surely God's Spirit, who once descended in the likeness of a dove, takes great delight in the waters of repentance. Mary stood at Jesus' feet weeping. Luke 7:38. She brought two things to Christ, tears and ointment; but her tears were more precious to Christ than her ointment.

(3) Repentance ushers in pardon. Therefore they are joined together. 'Repentance and remission.' Luke 24:47. Pardon of sin is the richest blessing; it is enough to make a sick man well. 'The inhabitant shall not say, I am sick; the people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity.' Isa 33:24. Pardon settles upon us the richer charter of the promises. Pardoning mercy is the sauce that makes all other mercies relish the sweeter; it sweetens our health, riches, and honour. David had a crown of pure gold set upon his head. Psa 21:3. That which David most blessed God for, was not that God had set a crown of gold upon his head, but that he had set a crown of mercy upon his head. 'Who crowneth thee with mercies.' Psa 103:4. What was this crown of mercy? You may see in ver 3: 'Who forgiveth all thine iniquities.' David more rejoiced that he was crowned with forgiveness than that he wore a crown of pure gold. Now, what is it that makes way for pardon of sin but repentance? When David's soul was humbled and broken, the prophet Nathan brought him good news. 'The Lord has put away thy sin.' 2 Sam 12:13.

But my sins are so great, that if I should repent, God would not pardon them!

God will not go from his promise. 'Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord, and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you, for I am merciful.' Jer 3:12. If thy sins are as rocks, yet upon thy repentance, the sea of God's mercy can drown them. 'Wash you, make you clean.' Isa 1:16. Wash in the lever of repentance. 'Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;' ver 18. Manasseh was a crimson sinner; but when he humbled himself greatly, the golden sceptre of mercy was held forth. When his head was a fountain to weep for sin, Christ's side was a fountain to wash away sin. It is not the greatness of sin, but impenitence, that destroys. The Jews, who had a hand in crucifying Christ, upon their repentance found the blood they had shed was a sovereign balm to heal them. When the prodigal came home to his father, he had the robe and the ring put upon him, and his 'father kissed him.' Luke 15:20, 22. If you break off your sins, God will become a friend to you; all that is in God shall be yours; his power shall be yours, to help you; his wisdom shall be yours, to counsel you; his Spirit shall be yours, to sanctify you; his promises shall be yours, to comfort you; his angels shall be yours, to guard you; his mercy shall be yours, to save you.

(4) There is much sweetness in repenting tears. The soul is never more enlarged and inwardly delighted than when it can melt kindly for sin. Weeping days are festival days. The Hebrew word to repent, nicham, signifies consolari, 'to take comfort.' 'Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.' John 16:20. Christ turns the water of tears into wine. David, who was the great mourner in Israel, was the sweet singer. And the joy which a true penitent finds, is a pre-libation and foretaste of the joy of paradise. The wicked man's joy turns to sadness: the penitent's sadness turns to joy. Though repentance seems at first to be thorny and bitter, yet of this thorn a Christian gathers grapes. All which considerations may open a vein of godly sorrow in our souls, that we may both weep for sin, and turn from it. If ever God restores comfort, it is to his mourners. Isa 57:18. When we have wept, let us look up to Christ's blood for pardon. Say, as that holy man, lava, Domine, lacrimas meas: 'Lord, wash my tears in thy blood.' We drop sin with our tears, and need Christ's blood to wash them. This repentance must be not for a few days only, like the mourning for a friend, which is soon over, but it must be the work of our lives; the issue of godly sorrow must not be stopped till death. After sin is pardoned, we must repent. We run afresh upon the score, 'we sin daily, therefore must repent daily.' Some shed a few tears for sin; and when, like the widow's oil, they have run awhile, they cease. Many, if the plaister of repentance begin to smart a little, pluck it off; whereas the plaister of repentance must still lie on, and not be plucked off till death, when, as all other tears, so these of godly sorrow shall be wiped away.

What shall we do to obtain a penitential frame of heart?

Seek to God for it. It is his promise to give a 'heart of flesh' (Ezek 36:26); and to pour on us a spirit of mourning. Zech 12:10. Beg God's 'Holy Spirit.' 'He causeth his wind to blow, and the waters flow.' Psa 147:18. When the wind of God's Spirit blows upon us, then the waters of repentant tears will flow from us.

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