Repentance and the Preaching of It.

1868 153 From Genesis to Revelation repentance is from time to time brought before us. At one period of the history it is spoken of God, at another it is urged on man. "The Lord repented that he had made man." "He repented that he had made Saul king." "He repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people." These and similar expressions, used of God in the Old Testament, are never found in reference to Him in the New. Twice only in the New Testament is repentance spoken of about God, and both times to express the unchangeableness of what He has done. "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom. 11:29). "The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedec" (Heb. 7:21). With man in the flesh before Him in the Old Testament we can understand such a term used of God. Man's wickedness drew out the expression from the Spirit that God repented He had made him on the earth. His people's miseries, when suffering under His governmental dealings, drew forth the compassion of His heart, and He delivered them; "For it repented the Lord because of their groanings, by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them" (Judges 2:18). With the Second man, the Lord Jesus, before Him in the New, and the fragrance of His merits ever fresh in His sight, no room was there for repentance on His part. The time of man's probation had ended; the day of dealing in grace had followed.

Turning to man, repentance in both Old and New Testaments is enjoined on him. Job repented, and the Ninevites also. To Israel urgent but fruitless exhortations to repent were addressed by the prophet Ezekiel. As we open the New Testament we meet with that call repeated. John the Baptist preached it, and the Lord called men to it. The apostles before His crucifixion went out to insist on it, and after His ascension continued to enforce it. At all times after the fall, and under all dispensations, repentance on the part of fallen man was needful. Dispensational teaching does not do away with it; the fullest grace does not supersede it; for, side by side with the proclamation of forgiveness of sins, the Lord Jesus, when risen, commissioned His apostles to preach it. Thus Peter and Paul alike insist on the necessity of it, whilst the Lord Jesus had previously told of the joy which shall be in heaven, and the joy which is now experienced by the angels when one sinner repents and turns to God. A just person needs no repentance, a sinner does. Hence, in the New Testament, where we have principles set forth, and not the mere external acts, the term used of God's repentance is different from that employed when repentance is insisted on for sinners.

Forming then, as repentance does, so prominent a topic in the preaching of the apostles, it may well be a subject for inquiry, how far this element of apostolic preaching enters into the general evangelical teaching of the present day. Amid the now widely spread proclamation of God's grace to sinners, is not repentance sometimes overlooked? Is there not too with some a jealousy lest the preaching of it should detract from the freeness of that grace? Such clearly was not the case in apostolic times, nor should it be the case now. None contended more earnestly or constantly for the freeness and fulness of grace than Paul, yet none more plainly insisted on repentance. At Ephesus (Acts 20:21), at Athens (Acts 17:30), and when writing to the Romans he spoke of it (Rom. 2:4). It was God's command to all men. At Damascus, at Jerusalem, in all Judea, and wherever he went among the Gentiles men could hear him insist on the importance and necessity of it (Acts 26:20). Repentance and faith he preached, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. It was not repentance as preparatory to faith, nor faith without repentance; but repentance and faith.

But some may ask, What is repentance? Let us turn to scripture to find out. It is not a mere change of mind on certain points (this will confound it with faith); but the Lord preached, "Repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15). It is not simply a conviction of having done wrong; for, when the multitude were pricked to the heart, Peter exhorted them to repentance (Acts 2:38). It is not sorrow for sin, "for godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of" (2 Cor. 7:10). Nor is it synonymous with conversion; for Peter tells the Jews to "repent and be converted" (Acts 3:19). But it is a change of mind, a judgment of self, ways, and sins, which is evidenced by a change of life. It is God's gift (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25) bestowed by the risen and ascended Christ (Acts 5:31). It is fruitful; for there are works meet for (worthy of) repentance (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). It gives God His right place in the conscience of His creature, so it is "towards God" (Acts 20:21); and it is "to life" and "salvation" (Acts 11:18; 2 Cor. 7:10).

But how was this change of mind wrought in the individual? Not by preaching law. The law could show the sinner he had done wrong, but God alone could give repentance. Saints before the giving of the law experienced it, as well as Gentiles who never were under it. Job saw God and repented; the Ninevites heard the preaching of Jonah about a coming judgment and repented. A judgment to come the apostles often announced (Acts 3:23; Acts 10:42; Acts 17:31; Acts 24:25). The Roman saints heard of it (Rom. 1:18), and the Thessalonian believers had escaped it (1 Thess. 1:10). Peter wrote about it, and Jude quoted Enoch's prophecy concerning it. In view of the wrath to come the apostles urged on souls the importance of repentance. But to Israel there was an additional reason for their repentance, viz., that the times of refreshing should come by the return of the Lord Jesus from heaven (Acts 3:19).

Nor was it only in view of the future that they preached repentance. They exhorted their hearers to it on the ground of what had taken place. Man had crucified God's Son, and thereby showed his hatred to God. God had replied to man's act by raising up the crucified One, and setting Him at His own right hand in the heavens. By this it was plainly seen who it was that had been crucified, and as clearly demonstrated that all who opposed that crucified One, and persecuted those who followed Him, were really opposed to God. Here was a ground on which repentance might well be enjoined, and Peter insisted on it on the day of Pentecost. But how does he address his hearers? Does he speak of God's anger against the people, and dilate on the terribleness of His wrath, and urge them to propitiate the angry Judge? He brings home to many of them the enormity of their guilt, by showing from scripture who the crucified One really was and is. He was the Christ, the hope of Israel. He was the Lord, the ruler of all. God's faithfulness to His promises had been vindicated in the sending of His Son, and this was the way they had treated their long-looked-for Messiah. Believing what he said, accepting the testimony of the Holy Ghost by the mouth of Peter, they saw what their sin was, and asked what they must do. So in Solomon's porch (Acts 3), and before the council, the apostles tell them plainly who it is they have crucified, and what God has done for Him. They preached Christ, and God's acceptance of Him, witnessed by His resurrection and ascension. The person of the Lord set forth, their sin was manifested in all its enormity. They scrupled not to state it, and the conviction of it on the hearts of their audience necessitated repentance. Paul, too, bore witness of a glorified Christ, and preached the kingdom of God, which, when received, made repentance needful for all who had opposed the truth of God, or had been living to please themselves. It was not the thunders of the law that the apostles resorted to on such occasions. They told of God and of Christ. They preached the Lordship and Christship of Jesus. They began with God and His Son, and thus penetrated to the inmost soul of their hearers. Is not this the way to be successful now? Philip preached Christ to the Samaritans. Paul preached the kingdom of God, and taught those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, in his hired house at Rome. God's gospel he proclaimed, which is the power of God unto salvation.

And here another feature in their preaching may be noticed. They presented the Lord Jesus as God's provision for the need and desires of the soul. In this they followed the example of the great Teacher Himself. "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away," is the Holy Spirit's delineation by the virgin Mary of God's manner of acting amongst men. To the hungry the Lord offered Himself as the true manna, to the thirsty as the giver of living water, to the weary and heavy laden He offered rest, to the blind He could give sight, and to the sheep He was the Shepherd. All in whose souls there was a desire for what the world could not supply found in Him the answer to the craving of their heart.

In a similar manner the apostles presented Him to individuals or congregations. In the house of Cornelius at Caesarea, in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, in the prison at Philippi, Christ was presented as God's remedy, and God's full provision for the fallen children of Adam. The Gentiles heard of forgiveness of sins through faith in Him. The Jews were instructed in the way of procuring a perfect justification, which the law never had provided, and never could. At Philippi, Paul spoke of salvation, but to one who was anxious about it. They ministered God's grace as was suited to exercised souls. If they spoke to an individual of salvation, it was because the heart was exercised about it. If they preached to a congregation, they pointed out it was for a class — for those who wanted it. Take the different sermons in the Acts. At Pentecost, it was the question of the heart-pricked ones which elicited the way of forgiveness. In Solomon's porch, forgiveness is assured to all who repent. The Son of God has been sent first to Israel; but those only who repented would know forgiveness of sins. To Cornelius and his company, the Lord is presented as the object of faith, by whom souls could get forgiveness. At Antioch in Pisidia, forgiveness is preached to all, and a perfect justification through faith in Him. At Lystra, God is proclaimed as the Creator, and the giver of all temporal blessings. At Athens the unknown God was revealed, and the future judgment announced. To Jews and Gentiles God's grace was preached; to the heathen God was revealed. But is it not the case that God's grace was preached as meeting something the heart needed? Faith in Christ is clearly set forth as the way of salvation and forgiveness; but the manner of its announcement supposes an exercised heart, a needy soul. How different is Paul's language to the jailor, from his speech to the careless multitude in the Areopagus! The jailor has his question answered; the Athenians are informed of the unknown God, and warned of the coming judgment. Where there was a need already, the apostles ministered to it; where it did not exist, they attempted to create it by preaching about God and about Christ, The kingdom of God, the gospel of God, the person, the work of Christ and its results, they set before their hearers.

Such a method of preaching did then, and always will, lead to a deep and lasting work. Should faith in Christ be regarded simply as a means of getting to heaven? There is no other way surely. But is not the gospel rather to be regarded as a divine remedy for the fearful results of sin; and God's method of deliverance and relief for souls acted on by His Spirit? A remedy, yet more, far more, than a remedy; for it tells us of more than deliverance from wrath. Still it is God's way of meeting what man needs, and is intended for those who have felt that need. It is not an easy road to heaven, but a way of escape from the deserts of sin. For the cross of Christ tells us what sin is in God's sight; it shows what the deserts of sin are; it manifests what the love of God and of Christ is, and what has been provided for sinners.

That the gospel of God's grace is preached with a fulness and freeness, to which the world has long been a stranger, is a matter for deep thankfulness. All should rejoice that in the nineteenth century the message of the evangelist is again heard in its clearness and simplicity. But in all recovered truth there is a tendency, from man's infirmity, and the desire to give due prominence to the truth recovered, so to magnify it that its relation to other parts of divine revelation is in danger of being overlooked. Has not God's grace been sometimes so preached as almost to overlook the need of repentance; and the offer of salvation been presented as what all may partake of without the conscience being aroused, and the heart exercised as to the need and cause of this rich and wonderful provision of God for the display of His glory, and the deliverance of sinners from the wrath to come?
C. E. Stuart.