« VorigeDoorgaan »
and as some think at a single instant, at a precise and perceivable moment; I answer, that usually, perhaps, it is not. Repentance is the change of the disposition. Few changes are made on a sudden; at least few sudden changes are lasting. If there be constitutional vices of mind and temper, it is equally the work of long reflection and endeavour to beat them down, and keep them down. If there be some old confirmed habit of gratification to contend with, the struggle is commonly tedious, even when it is successful. This I say for the sake of those who, because they do not find their change at once, give up ; who quit the contest, because it continues longer than they were prepared to expect. The duty of such is comprised in one word, perseverance; and a determined perseverance is the very
substance of virtue. Almost every man can be sorry for his sins; every man can deplore and forsake them. Most men, indeed, make some shortlived efforts to become virtuous; but perseverance is what they want, and fail in. Yet in one sense there is one essential change made in every sinner who repents; which change consists in this, that whereas before he was growing worse, he is now growing better. His improvement may be slow, but be it ever so slow, there is still this difference between growing better and growing worse. It resembles to my apprehension, the case of a patient in a fever. We say that his distemper has had a turn; yet take him an hour or a day past the turn, or so much before, and you will observe little alteration; for the alteration is, that whereas he was before growing worse, and weaker, by almost insensible degrees, so now he is growing better and stronger, though by degrees equally slow. And this the physician accounts a great alteration; and so it is, although it be long before he be well, and though he be in perpetual danger of a relapse, during the progress of his recovery. And the physician pronounces expressly, that there has been a turn in the disorder; that the crisis is past, not because his patient is now well, who before was ill, but because he finds him now gradually growing stronger and well, who before was gradually becoming ill.
Thus the sinner may securely, though humbly, hope that he has repented, who observes himself growing continually better ; who is conscious that he is in an amended state, though there be yet much to be done and suffered, before the amendment be complete. And as the patient was far from being out of danger, because he had passed the turn, so is the sinner. As the patient often relapses, so does the sinner. As the relapse
is often more fatal than the first sickness, so is it with the sin
As the patient must still, for a long time, use extraordinary care and caution, so must the sinner.
On the other hand, there may be some few instances of very hasty reformation ; of the libertine, the drunkard, the profane, the swearer, the knave, the thief, the miser, becoming on a sudden modest, sober, serious, honest, charitable; and some, though still fewer, of extraordinary changes of temper; of the proud, the overbearing, the passionate, the envious, the quarrelsome, the malicious, becoming mild, patient, generous, forbearing, and forgiving. And when we do see such instances, we ought to rejoice at them, rather than suspect them. The frame of the mind may receive such a wrench at once, as to give it a happy turn. All I mean to say is, that this is not common; that the sinner must not be surprised and disheartened, because it was not his case. He is not to let go, or leave off, because his old sins and old habits will return. The work is begun at least. It is for his comfort, I say again, that he grows better.
In the same way may be determined, in the third place, the question, Is repentance ever brought about by calamity and affliction, or sickness ? Repentance is the change of the disposition; and if the change be but made, no matter by what cause it is effected. The disposition is still changed, and the repentance is true. Besides which, we have good reason to believe that judgments and visitations, and sore calamities, afflictions and sickness, are sent and permitted by our gracious Governor for this very purpose of bringing us to repentance, and a better sense of things. It must not be made, therefore, an objection to the efficacy of our repentance, that it springs from the root, which God himself hath planted. The sinner need not suspect the sincerity of his repentance, or doubt concerning its being accepted with God, merely because he was first put upon it by some misfortune, sickness, or great affliction.
Repentance we describe to be a change of the heart from an evil to a good disposition. But how are we to know when the change is made? That is the question. In the general state of a christian life, repentance is such a sorrow for sin as produces a change of manners, and an actual aniendment of life. It is that disposition of mind by which • he who stole, steals no more;' by which the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right.' And to the man thus actually reformed, it is expressly promised, that he shall save his soul alive. Of this repentance the proof is
visible, and the sincerity certain, because the new state of mind is discovered, by a new train of outward actions. I say, this is the nature of repentance, in the general state of christian life, where life and opportunity are left to the penitent; and then, to be sure, there is no authority for us to say, that repentance will be effectual without amendment, and that the repentance which is thus proved and followed by actual amendment is not effectual.
But numerous instances occur, in which, from the nature of the case, it is impossible for the sinner to testify the truth of his repentance, either to himself or to the world, by actual reformation. It is so with the repentance of a deathbed. It is so when confinements from sickness, for crimes, or for any other cause, disables men from the duties and vices of active life. It is so where poverty puts it out of men's power to repeat their old sins; when many vices as well as many virtues are become impossible. The shortness of their time, the distress of their situation, the feebleness of their constitution, the narrowness and reduction of their circumstances, leave little power of active virtue, and of themselves, without any merit on their ; part, preclude them from the commission of most vices. Therefore some other measure must be appointed for them ; because, to expect actual reformation, where virtue and vice are equally out of their power, is to require impossibilities. Here then we seem to have authority for saying, that this simple decision is the truth ; namely, that God will consider that life as amended, which would have been amended, if he had spared it, and vouchsafed opportunities. Whether this would take effect, can never be known to the world. It cannot always be known to the penitent himself; but it is known to God. He can see the fruit in the blossom, or the seed. He knows those resolutions that are fixed, and would hold, those conversions which would be permanent; and will receive them who are qualified by these new dispositions and desires for works of righteousness, without exacting from them those outward duties, which the circumstances of their health, their confinement, their inability, or the shortness of their lives, hinder them from performing. Nothing therefore remains to conditions like these, but that the persons in them apply with all their strength to rectify their desires and purify their thoughts; that they set God before them in his goodness, and in his terror ; that they consider him as the father and the judge of all the earth, as a gracious father desirous to save, as a wise judge who cannot, consistently with the rules of good government, pardon unrepented iniquity ; that they excite in themselves an intense detestation of crimes, for if they cannot do this, it is not probable they would forsake them if they retained the power of acting, with vehement and steady resolutions ; that if life and opportunity were granted them, they should be spent hereafter in the practice of their duty; that they pray to the giver of grace to strengthen and impress these holy thoughts, and accept the repentance, though late, and in its beginning violent ; that they improve any good motion by prayer; and lastly, that they deliver themselves into the hands of their faithful Creator.
The promises of acceptance and forgiveness, which are made to repentance in the scriptures, are general ; and we are not authorized to limit by exceptions, what God has not limited. So far, therefore, we may speak comfort to the contrition of a deathbed, or the circumstances relative to a deathbed, by assuring them of our hope, that God will consider that life as amended, which would have been amended, if he had spared it. On the other hand, it is necessary that they, at least that others in different circumstances, should be apprized that their state is precarious, their hazard great; that though it be possible their present sorrow may be productive of amendment, yet experience forces us to declare, that there is nothing farther from certainty ; that they have many disadvantages to contend with, their sins old and obstinate, their faculties of resistance weak, their vision clouded, distempered, distorted; that they can never be assured that their repentance would be effectual to their reformation, and consequently must leave the world, without any well grounded assurance of God's forgiveness ; for it is impossible even to ourselves to distinguish the effects of terror from those of conviction, to decide whether our passions and vices be really subdued by the fear of God, or only arrested and restrained for a while by the temporary force of present calamity. And, lastly, the deliberately and designedly putting off repentance to a deathbed makes even that repentance, morally speaking, impossible to prove ; at least, I will venture to pronounce, that no mere repentance can be effectual in consequence of such previous design.
The last, but not the least, test of recovery, which I shall mention, is restitution. Upon the fullest consideration of the matter, it is my judgment, that where restitution is practicable; repentance cannot be sincere or effectual without it. In truth, it is only mockery to pretend to repent of our sin, while we keep and enjoy the fruits of it. If we have by mistake, from distress, in haste, or in consequence of disposition and conduct which we now see the guilt of, taken any thing, or withheld any thing from any other person, we must restore what we have so unjustly taken and withheld, or an equivalent, or it is in vain to talk of repenting of our sin.
I know this is a hard lesson, besides the expense of restitution, which very much more than we like, or than we can well bear. There is a shame, and confusion, and humiliation in acknowledging our fault, which is one part of the evil. All this I own, and can only say, that if restitution be a duty, it is not less a duty because it is attended with difficulties or disagreeable circumstances.
When once it has been made apparent that a thing is our duty, it is then of no service to prove that it is inconvenient, that it is chargeable, that it is painful. But then restitution may not be practicable. Some injuries are not capable of it. The person entitled to restitution may be dead. We may not have it in our power to make restitution. In such cases we have not this to exercise. Restitution, like everything else, is no longer required than while it can be performed. All I mean is, that if it be practicable, it is our duty. Repentance will not avail us without it, and it is no excuse to say that it is unavoidable. I have only farther to observe, that restitution is not merely giving back the property which we unjustly kept, but it is in general the undoing, as far as remains in our power, what we have done wrong, as well as unsaying what we have said wrong. Therefore when, by confessing our mistakes, recanting our falsehoods, exposing our faults, we can put a stop to any bickerings or quarrels we have excited, remove suspicions and irritations which we have infused, call back the evil reports which we have circulated, or, in short, alleviate anyhow the uneasiness we have occasioned, we are bound to do so. It may produce shame, but it is false shame. It is false shame, but true magnanimity. But whether shame or magnanimity, it is to be, if we would obtain remission from God of our fault through the merits and death of Christ, by means on our part of a hearty, unreserved, unfeigned repentance.