by Joseph P. Duggan
It is a well known and certainly valid dictum of psychology that men strongly tend to remember those things which are pleasant – happy – and good, whereas (on the other hand) they – or should I say “we” – tend to forget and subconsciously erase from our memories that which is unpleasant.
Similarly, we tend to seek for those things which bring pleasure – happiness – and contentment and conversely shun those situations which produce grief or sorrow or humiliation or discontent.
This is only natural. It is quite proper to seek the good and shun the evil in life. On the other hand, however, a truly normal and well-adjusted person will realize that life is not a bed of roses. Further, we must acknowledge the fact that the highest good is often achieved through processes which involve and contain elements and stages which are highly unpleasant and discomforting.
Thus, for example, as Christians we properly view death as something evil – yea! as something most terrible – and hardly something to be sought after. Yet, on the other hand, we must and we do see it also as the means by which God’s people are eternally ushered into the presence of their Lord for a new and neverending life – purified from all sin and comprising joy and blessedness unknown in this present life – “Where there shall be no more…sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Similarly, when we are chastised with afflictions and torments and pains and humiliation this is hardly something pleasant, nor something which we normally desire (there is no doubt that the chastisements of the Lord are unpleasant). But on the other hand, we must and do see in the Lord’s chastening the means by which God’s people are blessed – for it is part (admittedly an unpleasant part) of that whole glorious process of sanctification through which God’s people are conformed more and more unto the image of God’s own Son. We must remember that instruction found in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the Lord chasteneth not.” (Hebrews 12:6,7). Similarly, the Lord spoke through John in Revelation: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore and repent.” (Revelation 3:19)
Now I would like to direct your attentions to another matter which is itself unpleasant – but which is also an essential part of a process which brings men to he highest good and blessedness. I refer to sorrow – Godly sorrow – the true sorrow for sin which is the heart of the act of repentance. I refer to repentance – that which entails grief, humiliation, the crushing of the human spirit. Let me read again from the seventh chapter of II Corintians, verses 8:11: “For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. 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! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”
Now Paul was not a perverse individual. He did not have an unnatural desire to bring grief and woe and sorrow to those whom he loved. But at the same time he realized that life is not a bed of roses – certainly not the Christian life! He realized that blessing comes through tribulation, that peace with God comes through discomfiture, that life is born in travail and anguish. Paul loved the Corinthians…he longed that salvation should be achieved and perfected in them…and he knew that this salvation could not come but through the godly sorrow which worketh repentance. Thus he wrote harsh words, unpleasant words to the Corinthians. He wrote a letter which made them sorrow and grieve. He hurt their feelings! He humiliated! He rebuked them! And in the last analysis he says he does not repent (or regret) doing this. Indeed, he can finally say “Now I rejoice (not that they were made sorrowful) but that they sorrowed to repentance.” The sorrow in itself was nothing to rejoice in. It was not a good achievement in itself, but as part of the glorious work of God it was truly good, wonderfully good, something in which Paul could delight for as Paul says “For ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.
Now in our study of repentance, let us notice first the while it is an act of the individual man, it is at the same time the gift of God – for it is the sorrow which God works in repentance to salvation. It must be the work of God. By this we mean that no man can achieve or come to the penitential state by his own will or inclination but rather that God must lead him to repentance, that God must change him and make him repent.
Now this is obvious to anyone who has knowledge of the teaching of the word of God concerning the depravity of man and the abilities of the will of the natural man. For we know that repentance is a good and a commendable thing (indeed it is that which God commands) and we know also that they which are accustomed to do evil, have no ability or power to do good. And we know further that the natural man is dead in trespasses and sins and certainly the dead cannot take steps and move and have the experiences which are characteristic of the living. We must then remember that again and again the testimony of God’s own word is to the effect that the natural man – the man without God – is utterly insensible to, unresponding towards, the commands of God, the requirements of the law as well as the obligations of the gospel. Thus it is , with a knowledge of the general principles of God’s revelation, we can be sure that repentance, while truly man’s act, is nevertheless the gift of God, even if God had said nothing specifically or explicitly, concerning the true cause or motivating force which brings repentance.
The word of God, however, is not silent here. Indeed it very explicitly traces the source of repentance to the operations of God’s sovereign and gracious purposes. Let me read Romans 2:4 “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” II Timothy 2:24, 25: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;” and negatively, indicating the inability of man in this regard: Hebrews 12:16, 17: “Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”
Thus repentance is truly the gift of God. But – on the other hand – we must remember that it is still and must be the act of experience of man. God does not repent for us, or in our behalf. But rather He gives us the gift of repentance, where we are ourselves enabled, and cause to repent. In this regard it is like faith, which is also the gift of God.
Concerning faith, you will recall the words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourself, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8). Similarly, (while repentance does not sustain the same relationship to salvation as does faith) our salvation cannot come to pass without repentance which is also God’s gift.
Concerning faith, we know that God gives it to his elect and thus it becomes part of them and they themselves put their faith in Christ to trust in the Lord’s grace. Faith is an act of the individual. Similarly, concerning repentance, we know that God gives it to his elect and that they therefore repent. Because it originates with God does not mean that it does not and must not become vitally and thoroughly incorporated into the heart of the individual. Indeed it must! True repentance is the gift of God – but it must also be (in every sense) a part, an inseparable part, of the intellects, emotions, and will of the man who truly receives God’s gift.
Let us return again to Paul, I Corinthians 7:10a: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of”. We have already noticed that this “godly sorrow” is that which God sovereignly bestows upon men. Notice further that godly sorrow is that sorrow which has those characteristics and that nature which God has decreed – that is: it is patterned after God’s holy and beneficent will for His people. Perhaps shortly in the future we will have opportunity to consider the various aspects of and the nature of godly sorrow which worketh repentance, especially as it is contrasted to the so-called repentance of the unregenerate, or as Paul says, the sorrow of the world which worketh death. At the present, however, let us observe further that the godly sorrow of repentance is not only from God’s hand, and in accordance with God’s will, but also that it is designed to bring to fruition God’s salvation for his people.
We have already briefly observed the importance, yea, the necessity of repentance in the salvation of men and by this we do not of course imply that salvation’s ground or basis is to be found in the activity or experience of man. This is obviously not so, for all Christians must know and acknowledge that the ground of salvation is to be found only in God’s sovereign act of grace namely, the slaying of the Lamb of God for the sins of His people. But what we do firmly believe is that this experience of man, this gift of God, the godly sorrow of repentance is part of God’s holy plan and that it is itself the fruit of God’s sovereign act of grace which serves as part of the means or instrumentality by which salvation is applied (though certainly not as the basis or ground of salvation).
Again, when we see, understand, realize the importance and necessity of repentance in salvation, we must not with this tend to minimize the other primary fruit of regeneration, namely faith. For we must remember that faith must ever accompany and mingle with the infuse repentance. For a repentance that is not so controlled by confidence and trust in the Almighty’s mercy can be nothing more than a deadly grief with no hope, a sterile attempt at self-improvement, nothing more than the terror of punishment which cannot be averted except there be a clinging to Jesus Christ in faith. We cannot exalt repentance over faith any more than we can be so foolish as to suppose that faith without whole-hearted sorrow for and turning from sin is anything more than presumption.
God implants within those to whom he gives new life both faith and repentance, both of which are vital to and are used to the bringing about of salvation. Thus, repentance is not only given by God and designed by God, but also it is to the end that God’s salvation for his people might be brought to fruition or completion. Thus Paul refers to repentance to salvation. This functions in two ways: first, in its role during the exercise of saving faith. For as we have observed the faith which appropriates and receives Christ and His righteousness must not be mere presumption, but it must also be infused with the thorough-going attitude of sorrow for sin which includes the knowledge that we have grieved our heavenly Father. For how can anyone exercise a proper faith in the Almighty when he is so blind that he cannot also see that he has grievously offended and insulted the Almighty? And moreover, how can anyone exercise a proper faith in God if he does not at the same time see that he has sinned and deserves only death. For if he sees not this, is it not psychologically and indeed logically impossible for him to exercise faith that God will graciously deliver him from his well-deserved fate – for if he sees not that he deserves and is headed for eternal punishment, it is meaningless to speak of him crying to God in faith for deliverance from that which he cannot acknowledge exists. And if he does not truly see that he stands unjustified and defiled before God and that God graciously offers pardon this will mean that his fleeing to God cannot be without utterly humiliating sorrow. Thus true repentance is as Paul says, “repentance to salvation”, for it gives the necessary sobriety to the faith through the instrumentality of which the elect are saved.
We have asserted that repentance functions in two ways in salvation, notice also the second: salvation is not only the snatching of the coals from the burning of God’s wrath but also as a process it continues throughout our lives. Oh, it is achieved once and for all at the inception of the Christian life but it is improved and developed and perfected throughout our lives. This is God’s work of sanctification in his people. Here too, repentance functions. Repentances assists in the perfection of salvation, for it is not a momentary twitching of the conscience, but rather a never-ending sorrow for rebelliousness and a continuous forsaking of the paths of wickedness. This grief for sin and turning from iniquity certainly plays a most vital role in the life of the Christian. Just as faith cannot die, so also the attitude of contrition and the turning from sin to God cannot cease. It is thus – it is through sincere repentance that we are transformed to the image of God’s own Son.
Thus repentance is to salvation. It is vital to and inseparable from justifying faith and it is necessarily instrumental in the process of working out of salvation in fear and trembling.
Repentance, according to our catechism means that the “penitent…so grieves for, and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience. Let us admit freely that it is not the easiest thing to so purpose and endeavor constantly. It is far easier to become slothful, lax and lazy. Let us realistically recognize that it is unpleasant and very uncomfortable to be consumed by sorrow and grief. It is far more pleasant to stay reclined upon our soul’s bed of roses. Let us face the fact that it is not very enjoyable to hate the sins which become a part of us. The natural man would far rather minimize and rationalize, or explain away, that which is in reality the cancer of death. But in the last analysis, let us see that repentance is the gift of God and that God desires only good and blessing for His people. Let us remember that here is the one supremely true example of the principle that the highest good is achieved often through processes which involve elements which are highly unpleasant and discomforting.
God has decreed life, yea, glorious and joyful life, for His people and repentance is an integral and vital part of the application of this life to them. Therefore, in conclusion, in this life let tears be never dried upon the cheeks of our souls and let resolve be ever in our hearts. But even in this resolve let us seek and find the rest and peace which God gives and even in our weeping let joy (the joy of the redeemed) well up within us.