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THE RELATION OF REPENTANCE TO PARDON IN THE CHRIS
Acts iii. 19.--" Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may
be blotted out."
In the prosecution of the subject of repentance, I proceed now to consider the question how repentance is of avail in the procuring of pardon; or the relation of repentance to pardon in the Christian system.
It seems to be admitted on all hands, that repentance under the Divine administration is connected with the pardon of sin. Lord Herbert, the leading British Deist, laid down the necessity of repentance as one of the ten fundamental truths taught by natural religion ; and held it to be indisputable that repentance would be effectual in securing forgiveness. This is probably the sentiment of the great mass of mankind, whether they embrace the Christian system or not. As every child feels that if he has done wrong towards a father he ought to repent of it--and argues, and in general argues justly, that if he truly repents his father will forgive him,--so men seem to reason about their Great Father in heaven. This opinion is held by the Christian in connexion with his belief in the merits of the sacrifice of the Redeemer ; in what sense I will endeavour to explain in the sequel of this discourse. By others----by avowed Deists, and by infidels in every form, and by the mass of men,—the reference to that sacrifice is excluded ; and it is held that mere repentance without respect to that will be accepted by God, and will secure the pardon of sin.
The form in which the doctrine is held by those who do not practically embrace Christianity, probably comprises the two following particulars: first, that repentance for a wrong done is, under the Divine administration, enough; that is, that the Divine government is equitable and mild ; that God is disposed to pardon; that when one becomes sensible of a wrong done, it is all that the Universal Parent will or can require; and that repentance, therefore, will secure the restoration to Divine favour ; --and, secondly, that in fact they themselves do exercise repentance---all the repentance that can reasonably be demanded.
When they have done wrong, they say, they always regret it. They are pained at heart. They are ready to make confession and restitution as far as is in their power for the wrong doneeven though it was unintentional. They do not recollect an instance, perhaps, in which this has not been done; and if such an instance could be referred to in their past lives, they would lay down their book or their pen, or leave their plough standing in the furrow, and go at once and repair the evil. Thus, they trust, the account between them and justice is kept substantially balanced, and they entertain the hope that the Divine mercy will not be withheld from them in the great day.
These are the principles which prevail where the Christian doctrine of seeking forgiveness through the merits of Christ is laid out of view; and the question now is, whether these are sound principles or in other words, what is the true relation of repentance to pardon? Let us examine the system now referred to, in which there is undoubtedly some mixture of truth, and see what is the correct doctrine on the subject. The inquiry will be conducted by laying down a few connected propositions.
1. It will be agreed on all hands, that under the Divine administration there is no pardon, in the proper sense of the term, where there is no repentance. Indeed, if the term pardon, or its equivalent forgiveness, is ever used, without the correlative repentance, it is probably employed in a somewhat lax significanot in its strict and proper sense.
When a man who is in the penitentiary, or who is under sentence of death for murder, is pardoned by the executive, the term means merely that the penalty is remitted, or is not executed. There has been in the bosom of the executive no such feeling exactly as is implied in the word forgiveness. His feeling in the case is distinct from that which he would have had if he had been personally wronged, and he who had wronged him had come and made penitent confession, and he had forgiven him. So when in your heart you exercise forgiveness towards those who have injured you when they manifest no repentance--as the Saviour prayed for his murderers, “ Father, forgive them," the feeling is distinct from what it is when you see them truly penitent, and when in view of their repentance you declare them forgiven. You use the term in a somewhat lax and indefinite sense, as meaning that you do not harbour malice against them ; that you will take no revenge for what they have done ; that you will be ready actually to pardon them if they will apply to you for forgiveness.
Repentance and forgiveness, in the proper sense of the terms, have, in the common apprehensions of men, a very close con
nexion. It is a point on which we will all start together in our inquiry, that there can be no pardon under the Divine government where there is no true repentance. There is no one point probably about which men would be better agreed than this. The Deist supposes this; all men suppose it. The hardened man; the man who never felt one pang of regret that he has done wrong; the man who wholly justifies his own course; the man who knows that he has done evil, and who intends to persevere in it, cannot obtain forgiveness in any proper sense of that term. He may remain for a long time unpunished, the sentence of the law may be suspended over him, he may have many comforts and blessings, and his life may be filled with hilarity and joy; but it would be an abuse of language to say that he was forgiven or pardoned. If he ever obtains pardon, in the proper sense of that term, it must be somehow in connexion with his exercising sorrow for what he has done. This, then, is a fundamental principle in all religions. It is a point on which Christians and all other men must agree. Wherever it leads us, we here start together.
II. My second proposition is, that mere repentance of itself will not repair an evil which you have done, and on account of which you feel compunction. Sin, or wrong done, produces evils which no mere regret on the part of him who has done it can repair. It is not an universal truth that regret or compunction on the part of the offender will put away the evil, and restore matters to the condition in which they were before the wrong was done.
This truth is perhaps sufficiently plain in itself without any further illustration ; but as it is the dividing point between Christianity and other systems; as it is very material in understanding the relation of repentance to pardon; and as it is an important fact in the character of the Divine administration,it is of moment that it should be further illustrated.
It is an essential position in the view which one takes who rejects the doctrine of the atonement, and who denies its necessity in order that repentance can be of avail, that " when men have transgressed the Divine commands, repentance and amendment of life will place them in the same situation as if they had never offended.”
Now, is this so? Is it a correct principle in regard to the Divine administration ? Is it one that is sustained by the course of events? Will repentance and reformation of themselves arrest the course of things consequent on transgression, and prevent
* Magee on the Atonement, p. 19.
any further suffering or punishment on account of it? Let us look a moment at facts in the case, and see what repentance will and will not do.
(a) In the common occurrences of life, does the man who by intemperance and voluptuousness has injured his character, his fortune, and his health, find himself instantly restored to the enjoyment of those blessings, on repenting of his past conduct, and resolving on future amendment? The answer plainly is, he does not. Repentance, even the bitterest remorse, will not do it. It will not at once bring back the fortune that has been lost by gambling; nor will it at once restore the bloated and diseased frame of the voluptuary. to “ the freshness of a child's.” Nor will it arrest at once the pain and anguish of body and mind, and the disgrace which may have been engendered by the evil
These travel on beyond the moments of repentance, and meet a man perhaps far on his way beyond the period when he penitently forsook the path of transgression. It is true, indeed, that repentance is one of the indispensable ways by which these evils are to be arrested, and that, as a consequence of that, a man may be restored to prosperity, to the possession of property, and to honour. But this does not occur at once. It is to be a gradual process. It will be by slow and toilsome steps. Not one cent of lost property will repentance at once bring back; not one pang of disease produced by voluptuous living will it at once arrest. By sober and persevering toil, the man of wrecked and ruined fortune may become rich again ; by the proper care of his health, the ravages of disease may be arrested, and he may yet be blessed with length of days, but not by any miraculous or sudden effect of repentance.
(6) Will repentance repair the wrong that you have done to others, and place things in the same situation in which they were before ? In some respects it may. The property which you stole, you may restore; the trespass which you committed may be paid for by a full equivalent. But will it recall a murdered man from the grave? Will it restore innocence to the ruined victim of hellish arts ? Will it undo the wrong's which you have done to a mother and her children by making their father an inebriate ?
(c) Will repentance at once arrest the evils of a youth wasted in folly and vice? It may indeed make you industrious and plodding and virtuous at twenty-one, and ever onward. But will it recall the hours which you have wasted at the card-table, or in the company of the idle and the worthless, or in absolute indolence, or in building castles in the air, or in following after wild and illusive vagaries of the mind ? It may enable you to do something hereafter ; but it will not repair the past, and through the longest life you will suffer disadvantage from the want of what you might have acquired in the wasted days of your youth.
(d) Will repentance obliterate the pain which you have caused others by your misconduct ? It may do much in many cases to effect this; perhaps in some cases it may remove it all. A frank and full confession, the expression of deep and genuine sorrow, may in some instances wholly arrest and remove the anguish of heart felt by a father or a mother in view of your ingratitude and disobedience. But will it always do this? Is it the universal law ? Alas, that father's locks may have been turned prematurely grey by your misconduct; and no penitence of yours can make one hair black again. Or the broken-hearted parent may be now in the grave, crushed to the earth and consigned to the tomb by the ingratitude and follies of a son; and no penitence of yours can bring him up again to the cheerful light of the living. Look over the past. How small a part of those to whom you have done wrong, who have been injured or pained by you, are now within your reach! To how few of them could you make confession and reparation if you should try! Part are in their graves. Part are in distant lands. Part scattered over your own country. Here, the wrong struck a parent's heart; there, the heart of a sister ; there, the heart of a wife--all now dead. Here, it planted a poisoned arrow in the bosom of a friend, and he is now far away. There, it reached a benefactor, and he is gone, you know not where. And there, the memorial of it is seen in the bowed form of a father, and how can you make his frame erect again, and restore to him the lustre of his earlier years ?
These are plain principles; and they show us that repentance, however genuine and bitter, will not at once arrest the consequences of an evil course, and restore things to the condition in which they were before. There are things which remain to be adjusted under the operation of God's moral government, which are not affected by the mere fact of repentance. The relation of repentance to pardon, therefore, is not that it necessarily arrests the il, and prevents all future suffering on the account of sin in this world. And how can he who rejects revelation, and the evidence there furnished of pardon, prove that it will arrest all these evils at any period of his existence? What will it do to repair the evils done to a murdered man; to an injured father, mother, or sister; to those inveigled into error or crime who may now be in their graves ? The grand principle which I seek