On Repentance

J. N. Darby.

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Allow me to present to you my thoughts on repentance, as I believe scripture presents it to us. I have already once, I think, sent you a small paper on it, but I think the character of the gospel now commonly preached, calls for a distinct scriptural statement of what it is.

It is not conversion, as even the Lausanne translators of the New Testament have rendered it. That is in no way the meaning of the word. Conversion is the turning of the heart and will to God through grace. It is not faith; that, in its true force, is the divinely given perception of what is seen through the revelation of it to the soul by testimony in the power of the Holy Ghost.

It is literally an after or changed thought, a judgment formed by the mind on reflection, after it has had another or previous one; habitually, in its use in scripture, the judgment I form in God's sight of my own previous conduct and sentiments, consequent on the reception of God's testimony, in contrast with my previous natural course of feeling. Of course this may be more or less deep. It is not the sorrow itself: that works repentance if it is godly sorrow. Not the regret or remorse: that is μεταμέλεια not μετάνοια;" words used sometimes one for another, but not in scripture. Judas had remorse and hanged himself, not repentance. Godly sorrow works repentance never to be regretted. Repentance is the judgment we form, under the effect of God's testimony, of all in ourselves to which that testimony applies. Hence it is always founded on faith: I do not say the faith of the gospel. That may be its source; but we may repent through the testimony of God to the soul, and afterwards receive those glad tidings. Conversion itself may follow repentance; that is, conversion as the full deliberate turning of the heart to God. "Repent," says Peter, "and be converted." (Acts 3:19.) Conversion is the turning of the will to God. Repentance (μετάνοια) is the changed thought, or judgment, we have of things, bringing in with it often, when it concerns self, the sense of a change of feeling. The use of it in classical writers will shew us the meaning of the word in itself; Scripture, the scriptural use of it.

I select a few cases of the former, and then shall cite scripture, which alone can give its own use of it, and does so amply. Thus as to μετανοέω, "ἐχ τούτου δὴ ἠναγχαζόμεθα μετανοεῖν." ("From this we were obliged to change our mind.") — Xenophon Cyr. "Καὶ αὐτὸν μέντοι φαρὶν ἀνανήψαντα οὔτω μετανοῆσαι ἐφ᾽ οῖς ἐποίησεν." ("And he, indeed, they say, having thus come to his senses, repented of what he had done.") — Lucian. I might cite others. The first is change of mind; the second, repentance or regret. So, μετάνοιαν: "ὁ μὲν ἐλέγχῳ χαὶ ψόλῳ δηγμὸν ἐμποιῶν ξαὶ μετάνοιαν ἐξθρὸς δοχεῖ χαὶ χατήγορος, here coupled with δηγμὸς, a bite or sting, it is evidently pain itself on conviction. In no sense is it conversion, for the convicter is counted an enemy, but the guilty man is forced to see his fault in another light by the reproof. So, μετάνοια δεινὴ τοὺς Ἀθηναίους χαὶ πόθος ἔσχε τοῦ Κίμωνος. Here again we have sorrow and regret as the form of the change of mind. These from Plutarch. Any dictionary with quotations will give others. Thus, with the original meaning of an afterthought and change of mind, it came specifically to mean sorrow and self-condemnation, and regret at what had previously pleased. I quote yet another example from Kypke (2 Pet. 3:9): Plutarch has "εἰς μετάνοιαν ἐπὶ τοῖς πραχθεῖσι χωρήσας" — "Had recourse to repentance for what was done. So, "γαμεῖν ὂς ἐθέλει εἰς μετάνοιαν ἒχετα '' — "He who has a mind to marry will come to regret [repent] it."

222 I will now turn to scripture, which it is more especially important of course to search into. In the LXX it is, save in the Proverbs, used for God's not changing His mind. In the Proverbs, it is said, "Vow not hastily, for afterwards a man will repent of it." And in another case it is said, "The simple believeth every word, but the prudent uses (μετάνοιαν) reflection, afterthought."

In the New Testament, we have John the Baptist's well-known testimony. He preached the baptism of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Christ's first testimony is the same: Matthew 3:2, 4:7; 3:8, 11; Mark 1:4, 15; Luke 3:3, 8. The effect was, that they went out confessing their sins. Surely this was a judgment of themselves and of their sins produced through the testimony of the word. There was a change of mind, an afterthought on reflection — the definition given of μετάνοια — light being let into their conscience as to their state: and fruits were looked for suited to this change of mind as evidence of its reality.

Again, this force of the word is clearly seen by contrast, "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine that need no repentance." Luke 15:7, 10. Where there is nothing to judge, repentance has no place; where sin is, this judgment of one's own state is called for. So the Lord came to call sinners to repentance, Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32. Again, the Lord upbraids the cities where most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not. Tyre and Sidon would have repented if they had seen them. Is it not a practical change and self-judgment on the testimony before them? Matthew 11:20, 21. Again, the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonas. Matthew 12:41. We cannot say they were converted. Fear caused it, but they believed the testimony, judged themselves, fasted and put on sackcloth. Again, if a brother wrong me, and seven times a day come, saying "I repent," I am to forgive him. Luke 17:4. Here there is no question of conversion, he is not converted seven times a day. Again, we see by many of these passages it refers to their previous state of sin. So Acts 8:22, "Repent of this thy wickedness." So Revelation 9:30, 31; 2:21, 22. The same principle is contained in Matthew 18:2, 5: so, in its fruit in 2 Corinthians 7:9, 10, they sorrowed to repentance; godly sorrow worked repentance. Here they were converted long ago, and had believed long ago. But they had been in a bad state, and had repented. How it shewed itself may be seen in verse 11: "For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge." Now these I admit are the proofs and fruits of repentance, how it shewed itself. Still they teach us what it is. So Hebrews 6:1, we have repentance from dead works.

223 The only place in the New Testament in which I believe it means simply change of mind, without reference to the judgment of ourselves and our sins, is in Hebrews 12:17. He found no place for repentance — for going back from his previous way of taking up the matter, though he sought it — the blessing, not the repentance — bitterly with tears. The blessing and taking back his previous act, and unbelieving self-gratification go together; but here it has nothing to do with repenting of sin, but the first ordinary sense, changing his mind. It is not necessary, nor, I believe, just, to refer it to Jacob.

One text remains which gives its character and full force to repentance, "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 20:21.) He looked, not merely that crimes and wickedness should be judged, but that a man should judge all his state in the light of God's own presence, and in reference to His divine character and authority over him, and in the thought of His goodness. This is true repentance; man judged and judging himself in the presence of God, to whom he belongs and to whose nature he has to refer with mercy before him. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ meets this; because there God has judged sin according to His own nature and authority, and His love is perfect, and we are reconciled to God according to that nature and righteous claim. But this requires a word of explanation. It is not that repentance comes first by itself and then in an absolute way faith. But that repentance, the judgment of what we are before God and in God's sight, is one great effect of the truth; it refers to God as God with whom we have to do; whereas faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is faith in that sovereign intervention of God in which in grace He has met our state in the gift of His Son. Repentance is not change of mind as to God, though this may produce it, but self-judgment before Him, the soul referring to Him who is over us, with whom we have to do. It is not that repentance precedes faith. We shall see that it is not so: but it is first the heart returned into divine light, and then faith in the blessed intervention of God that fitted the state it finds itself in.

224 Practical repentance then is the estimate a man forms of sin, of his own ways as a sinner, on reflection, through the light of God penetrating into his soul, with some sense of goodness in Him, and setting up withal divine authority there. This may be through divine warnings as in the case of Jonah, or the lamenting of a John Baptist announcing that the axe is laid to the root of the trees. It is always mercy. He gives repentance to Israel, grants repentance unto life: His goodness leads us to it. That is, instead of visiting sins according to man's desert, He opens the door to return to light and grace through grace. Hence, when grace is fully announced, when the truth is there, repentance is on the footing of God's perfect revelation of Himself in grace, in Christ. I Repentance was to be preached in His name, and remission of sins. In coming to God it is always the first effect in the soul when it is real, and the turning of the will to God, and faith in the redemption and forgiveness the gospel announces comes after. Hence it is said, "Repent and be converted," "Repent and believe the gospel." But this just shews us how faith is the only and necessary source of repentance. It is by the testimony of the word it is wrought. Be it prophets, or Jonas, or John, or the Lord Himself, or the apostles, who taught that men should repent and turn to God, it was wrought by a testimony of God, and a testimony believed. Now, this testimony is the testimony to Christ Himself. Repentance, as well as remission of sins, was to be preached in His name. It is by the revelation of God, whether in judgment or in grace, grace in any case working in the heart, that repentance is wrought. When the prodigal came to himself he repented; he is converted when he said, "I will arise and go to my Father;" the gospel is realized when he meets his Father and gets the best robe. But he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and there is always in true repentance some sense of goodness. "How many servants of my Father's have bread enough and to spare." There would be no returning if there was not hope, it may be very vague, but still a hope of being received, and goodness trusted to. Even the Ninevites say, "who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" In the gospel the full grace of God is made the very ground of a call to repentance, still in view of judgment. "Now he calls all men everywhere to repent, seeing he hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained." Goodness leads to it, the door to flee is open, but to flee from the wrath to come, to flee to God, who assures of forgiveness in coming through the perfect work of Christ.

225 My object was to give a scriptural statement of what repentance is. I add a practical word.

In practice, the true working of the gospel in the heart is to bring first of all to repentance. As we have seen, warnings such as Jonah's may lead men to repent, or a John Baptist ministry. But the fullest gospel does the same. It brings into the light though it tells of love, for God is both, and that love makes us judge ourselves when God is really revealed. It cannot be otherwise. If men have been already exercised, the preaching of a simple and clear redemption will, through grace, give peace. It answers the soul's need, which, having already looked to itself, is now enabled to look to God through Christ, learns that God is for it, and learns divine righteousness. If a man has not been previously exercised, wherever there is a true work, the effect of the fullest grace is to reach the conscience, to lead to repentance. Not to give peace as the first thing, but to bring the soul into that light, in which it discovers that state which makes it need a peacemaking for it. It has lived without God, perhaps openly flown in His face, and it does not merely discover He is holy and good, that is, change its mind as to God and learn to love Him, but it casts its eye on itself, on its past ways, has a reflective afterthought in which it judges itself in the presence of God so known, judging sin by the great work which has put it away. It repents. The soul feels it has to do with God responsibly, has failed, been evil, corrupt, without God, is humbled, has a horror of itself and its state; may fear, will surely hope, and eventually, if simple, very soon find peace. But it will say, "Now mine eye seeth thee, wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes." If there is not this — though the degrees of it may be various, as the form it takes in the soul — there is no true work wrought. If revivals (so called) be examined into, it will be found that previously exercised souls have got happy if a plain gospel has been preached. Those who have not and rush into peace are found after all to have no root at all. And if there be a superficial work and hasty peace, the work has to be done afterwards of reaching the springs and foundation of the conscience, and often through much sorrow. We cannot preach the gospel too clearly or too fully, grace abounding where sin has, grace reigning through righteousness; but the effect of this when fully received, the effect we ought to look for in souls, is repentance — I mean the present first effect. It will be a deepening one all through our course.