[Table of Contents]
|Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)
REPENTANCE UNTO LIFE.
"He is exalted a PRINCE and a SAVIOUR, to grant repentance to Israel and remission of sins."--Acts v. 31.
"Then hath God also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life."--Acts xi. 18.
In 1846, page 181, Mr. Campbell presents a tract on "Repentance unto Life."
In the Christian Institution faith and repentance are essentially and inseparably connected. As to the nature of that connection there has, indeed, been some debate amongst the learned theorists; but as to the fact itself, there is no controversy amongst intelligent Christians of any denomination.
What that connection is, as well as the nature and importance of evangelical repentance, will best appear from an induction and examination of the more prominent portion of the Christian Scriptures which treat upon that subject. The book of God, in all matters of vital importance, is its own best interpreter. As, then, the import of the term repentance has sometimes been a matter of doubt with some sincere inquirers, we shall hastily glance at its history, as found in the apostolic writings.
The English verb repent, and the noun repentance, are together found no less than sixty-four times in the common New Testament. Of the forty times we find the verb repent in the version commonly read by authority, we have two very different words representing it in the Greek original. It is generally more or less unfortunate to have two words of very different etymology uniformly translated by one and the same term. It sometimes creates considerable ambiguity as found in connection with faith, or any of the gospel facts reported is, indeed, in this case a very fortunate circumstance, which throws much light upon the whole subject of repentance. It is this:--One of these terms,1 which etymologically and in common usage, intimates mere regret or concern for something done, without respect to a change of the affections or of the conduct of an individual, is never found in connection with faith, or any of the gospel facts reported  in the Christian records. In the case of Judas it is found, but in such a connection of things as clearly intimates its proper sense. In that case, all agree that it indicated neither change of heart nor change of life. Nor is it in all the Christian Scriptures ever found in the imperative mood. God never commanded any person to repent in the style of Judas, of whom it is said, he repented and afterwards hung himself.
Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, so uses this term as to indicate that he himself repented of a good action--and that there was a repentance to be repented of, and "a repentance not to be repented of." All this ambiguity is the fault of translators. The words used by the Apostle are different, and in all reason ought to have been translated by different words. Then all would have understood him on the subject of evangelical repentance much better. Every one knows that a person may sometimes regret, or be sorry for, a good action; especially when, on conferring a benefit on any one, that benefit is abused to the injury of him that receives it. Paul, indeed, regretted that he had written a very good letter to the Corinthians, because it had produced excessive grief and sorrow among them. But seeing that it had resulted in a "repentance to salvation," he ceased to regret that he had written it.2
God himself is said "to repent" and "not to repent;" but as there is no change of his affections, no reformation in his repentance, the term used is not that connected with the gospel. "I have sworn," said he, "and will not repent."3 "Thou art an eternal priest." Does he not here mean that he will never regret nor recall this appointment?
While, then, we are sometimes bewildered by having these two words, so radically different in sense, translated by one and the same representative on every occasion, when the special import of one of them is understood, we may, perhaps, gain a more distinct view f the proper import of the other, or of that repentance which is to life and to salvation. It being already shown that one of these words does not indicate any change in the affections, any transformation at character, any real reformation of life, and is, therefore, never found in the imperative mood in the sacred Scriptures, and that the other term  is exclusively used in commanding and setting forth that change of heart and life connected with salvation, we have in the force and meaning of the word selected a very strong intimation of that which constitutes that repentance to life which is now the subject of our present inquiry. It is not, then, without good reason that we conclude from the history of this term, so far as already traced, that neither remorse nor regret for the past, neither sorrow for evils done, nor purpose of amendment of life, fill up the meaning or exhaust the force of the word selected by the Apostles.
But in tracing inductively the history of a word chosen by the Holy Spirit to reveal his will to us, which occurs not less than fifty-eight times in the New Institution, we may, certainly, arrive at a very clear comprehension of its meaning. A few specifications shall suffice for our present purpose.
It is specially worthy of notice in this investigation that in the first and last communications of the Messiah we find an imperative repent. His harbinger, also, introduced his personal advent with the command, "Repent, for the reign of heaven approaches." In the commencement of his own personal ministry, his first discourse was, "Repent, for the reign of heaven approaches." His twelve Apostles, under their first commission, we are informed by Mark, went abroad proclaiming repentance to the people. The same proclamation was made by the seventy evangelists sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Indeed, the ministry of John is characterized as the proclamation of "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." So that during the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus, and that of his harbinger, repentance was the burthen of every discourse to the people.
The questions propounded to the preachers by the more conscientious portions of their hearers, clearly intimate what was their understanding of the precept "repent." The question, "What shall we do?" generally propounded by those who first heard them, intimated that personal reformation, and not mere change of views or feelings, was implied in the precept itself. The profession of repentance without reformation, or fruits worthy of it, they were clearly informed would avail nothing. So evident it is that their contemporaries understood by the precept "repent" what we associate with the word "reform." Nor was it different under the last commission given to the twelve Apostles. It is true, the word repent is not found in the version of it by Matthew or Mark, but when expounded by the Apostles themselves, and when reported by Luke, it is evident that they understood the preaching of the gospel to be the preaching of repentance, with new arguments and motives. According to Luke, the Messiah, immediately before his ascension, said that "repentance and remission of sins should  be preached in his name amongst all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." So that with great propriety, the first precept given by Peter in his opening speech on the memorable Pentecost, to his inquiring audience, was "repent and be baptized every one of you."
Not to multiply quotations, it may suffice to add, that Paul not only represented his whole ministry of the word as "the preaching of repentance towards God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ," but also assured the Athenians that, under the new constitution of grace as ministered by Jesus, "God commands all men, everywhere, to repent." Even Christians, when they grow cold or worldly in their profession, are, in the last epistles, addressed by the Saviour, through his servant John, to the churches of Asia, commanded to repent and do their works. Truly, then, we may say with Peter, that "Jesus is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to grant repentance to Israel and the remission of sins."
It must, we think, appear obvious to all upon a little reflection, that the proclamation of repentance is a proclamation of mercy--hence the connection between repentance and remission of sins. If God had not intended to forgive all men on repentance, to what purpose could he have commanded all men to repent? Repentance was never preached to fallen angels or apostate spirits, because there could be offered to them no motive to repent. Mercy, then, is always preached when repentance is preached. Hence the necessity of faith as "the foundation of repentance from dead works." This single consideration--that the proclamation of repentance is a proclamation of mercy, and that mercy propounds motives in the gospel to induce to repentance, methinks ought to satisfy every reflecting mind that the connection between faith and repentance is that of cause and effect, or of means and end. Unless the motives are accredited, the arguments of mercy are impotent and unavailing. Nay, indeed, they are as though they were not. So true is it that "he that cometh to God" must not only "believe that he exists," but also, "that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." But how could any one believe that God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him, unless God had so promised in the gospel?
Repentance, indeed, antecedent to faith, to me appears impossible; for how could any one repent of sin against God, if he did not believe that he had sinned against God? And how could the mercy of God afford any encouragement to repentance unless that mercy is reported to us and believed? So, then, repentance cometh by faith, as faith cometh by hearing, as hearing comes by the word of God. As no one could hear God unless he had first spoken, and as no one could believe a message that he has never heard, so no one could repent of sin, as respects God, who has not first believed in his mercy. 
Notwithstanding these very obvious reflections, and almost primary and self-evident truths, there are a few learned men who, by reason of the fallacies of their own metaphysics, argue that repentance, or a change of heart, must precede faith; and thus faith, instead of purifying the heart, is itself the offspring of a pure heart. They quote a saying of the Messiah reported by Mark--"Repent and believe the gospel"--in proof of their theory. The argument, thence deduced, is, that in the collocation of these words, repentance precedes faith. But is this a sound argument? Is the order of words in a sentence the necessary order of things or of effects? Did not Peter command those who believed his first discourse, on asking what they should do, to repent and to be baptized? Their propounding this question was upon the admission of his testimony; and therefore, his commanding them not to believe, but to repent, is a clear intimation of the relation between faith and repentance. One fact is enough in this case:--the persons addressed already believed in God, and are now commanded to repent of their sins against God, and to believe the gospel. "You believe in God," said the Messiah, "believe also in me." Paul did preach repentance to the Jew and to the Greek, who admitted theme was a God, and then preached also faith in Jesus Christ, and a corresponding repentance.
The same theorists who place repentance before faith, annihilate the grace of God which appears in the gracious proclamation of mercy announced by Peter to the council of the Jewish nation, assembled to intimidate the Apostles in the work of their ministry. Peter affirmed that Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God to be a Prince and a Saviour, to grant repentance to Israel. This they interpret as indicating that God works repentance in the hearts of the elect. "Israel represents the chosen race;" and "granting repentance" is, with them, "giving it into their hearts." We have no business with their theory--to prove it true or to prove it false. Our business is to show that such would be a misconstruction of a very sublime and gracious declaration, and would certainly neutralize, if not stultify, the word ALSO in the declaration of the brotherhood in Jerusalem, made to Peter, some seven years after this time:--"Then hath God ALSO granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life." What candid mind does not perceive that, if Israel represents the elect in the one passage, the term Gentiles must represent the non-elect in this passage; and if the words "granting repentance" mean specially working it in the hearts of the elect, in the one passage, in the other it must mean that he works it in the heart of the non-elect? This is still farther corroborated by the word ALSO; for in the similarity of the words "granting repentance to Israel," and "granting repentance to the Gentiles," ALSO, superadded to the latter, must refer to the former, and affirm  that in whatever sense he granted repentance to Israel he has granted it to the Gentiles.
Having, as we conceive, now rescued this passage from the theoretic doctors, we shall next endeavor to appreciate it in its Apostolic value and evangelical importance. It is, as we must think, a very sublime and exhilarating annunciation of a very grand scheme of mercy and deliverance to the whole world, Jew and Gentile, consequent upon the coronation of a new King of the Universe. This is the rudimental conception which, in the Apostle's speech, preceded the gracious development. As if he had said--"You, the sanhedrim, in council assembled, condemned to death and slew the Lord Jesus, hanging him upon a tree. But God condemned your sentence by raising him from the dead, and exalting him to his own right hand to be a PRINCE and a SAVIOUR; not, indeed, exalting him to pronounce upon you an irreversible doom of perdition and ruin for this your unparalleled crime, but for the purpose of tendering repentance as a foundation of remission of sins to his own nation and people--the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--his ancient friends." To "grant repentance" is, then, to make room for the advantage of a change of views concerning him--a change of feeling or of heart to him--and a change of conduct towards him. It is to make possible a plenary remission of sins to all who are truly sorry for their sins, and forsaking them, turn to the Lord. "To grant repentance" is, then, a most sublime indication of the mercy of God and of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a very sententious and summary annunciation, that a system of grace and mercy is now adopted to lead man to repentance, that he "may obtain remission of sins, and an inheritance amongst them that are sanctified."
This magnificent display of the glory of Divine grace was first tendered to the Jews--to those persons whose hearts were full of murder, and whose hands were full of blood. This was superlatively kind and divinely great; for certainly, if there was yet room in the bosom of God to allow repentance to Israel, no other nation or people should ever after despair. To confine the first publications of the gospel to the Jews, and to press it upon the acceptance of that hardened, disobedient, and wicked race, was laying a broad, and deep, and solid basis of hope in the mercy of God to all other people to whom it might afterwards be tendered. To them it was first sent, as was the Messiah himself, in person. But now, the Lord be praised and glorified forever! it is most cordially and most importunately granted--tendered to all the nations of the earth, with the assurance that Jesus has not only become the propitiation for the sins of the Jews, but also for the sins of the whole world; so that faith, repentance, and baptism, are, by the commandment of the everlasting God,  now announced to all the world for the remission of sins. Repentance, then, is a divinely chartered right, vouchsafed to every nation under heaven, through the mediation of the Lord Messiah. Hence Paul, the ambassador of the Messiah to the Gentiles, assured the idolatrous Athenians, that "God commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent."
The universality of this promulgation of repentance still farther merits our special attention. Its universality proves the universality of man's sin, the universality of God's grace, and the universality of human misery and ruin without it. If God commanded all men, everywhere, to repent, it certainly intimates that all men, everywhere, need repentance--that all men are guilty before God. This is not merely the weakness and frailty of human nature, so often complained of and lamented; it is not the mere imputation to us of the sin of our common ancestor and representative; but it is our voluntary ignorance of God--our voluntary ignorance of his will--or our mere indifference to the whole subject of the being, character, and will of God. It is, in other cases, our rebellion against his precepts, our disregard of a sense of duty, of the dictates of conscience, the known and often repeated violations of his law. A mere want of that perfection which he necessarily and kindly would require of us, alone renders all the world guilty before God. But more especially the present and most fearful condemnation that now presses upon that world to which we belong, is, "that light has come into the world"--not natural light, nor legal light, but evangelical light--the light of life eternal, and men choose darkness--prefer ignorance, lust, and passion, to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God radiating from the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence the oft-repeated and awful oracle--"Unless you repent, you shall all perish." God, then, justly commands all men, everywhere, to repent.
But the universality of the precept not only proves that all the world is guilty before God, but that "the mercy of God is unto all and upon all" that do repent. It is a promulgation of the universality of God's grace and mercy. He has granted repentance to Jew and Gentile, because he has grace and mercy for every penitent Jew and Gentile on the face of the earth. How real, then, the provisions of almighty love! How vast the benevolence of God. Truly God has inexpressibly loved mankind, when "he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him might not perish, but have everlasting life." "He sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." It is, as the sequel may show, a conviction of this that leads man to reformation of life, that reconciles him to God, and subdues his heart to the obedience of faith. 
But again the universality of the proclamation of repentance renders it universally indispensable to forgiveness. Faith, without it, is dead and unavailing. Works of any sort, without it, are unacceptable to God, and of no salutary influence upon him that performs them. Without repentance there is, therefore, no salvation to any human being; for certainly, if the universality of a precept demonstrates the universality of its objections; if the universality of grace proves that all men may participate of it, so the universality of the precept repent, argues the necessity of repentance on the part of every individual, in order to his personal salvation; and hence the conclusion is as logical as awfully true--no repentance, no salvation.
Still, it is needful to press still farther upon the attention of the reader that faith is as truly "the foundation of repentance from dead works," as testimony is the foundation of faith. But faith receives its character and power from the character of the truth believed. Here arises the difference between what has improperly been contrasted legal and evangelical repentance--terms which define nothing--as useless as unscriptural. True, indeed, there is a repentance which arises from the consideration of the consequences of our actions, sometimes called legal, set forth in the words before defined--a concern and terror on account of the fruit of our doings; and there is also a change of mind arising from the consideration of the principles from which our actions proceed. Neither of these ideas, however, nor the designation of worldly and godly sorrow for our actions, express the view which we desire to communicate. There is a repentance that arises from a discovery of the character and grace of God developed in the gospel, in making provision for the pardon of sin which characterizes that change of mind designated repentance unto life as a "repentance towards God," and there is a repentance which arises merely from the dread of punishment, without any hatred of sin or love of holiness.
An enlightened and genuine convert to the gospel repents of every antecedent repentance; for, in truth, a repentance that merely springs from the shame or penalty of transgression, is such a proof of moral degradation as to call for repentance from every one that knows the grace of God in truth. Hence the discriminating Paul taught the Corinthians that there was a repentance not to be repented of, which clearly implies that there might be, as, in fact, there is, a repentance that needs to "be repented of."
Thus we are led, step by step, up to the apprehension of "repentance unto life." Such a repentance implies, because it requires, an antecedent faith in some proposition having life in it; for the life is not in the repentance, but in that which leads to it. The life is proposed as the end, while repentance is but the means to attain it.  Yet are they inseparably connected; for this life is not without repentance, nor this repentance without life. Views there are, in the faith, and motives inspired by it, which, when perceived and possessed, work this mysterious and sublime change. It is light that makes manifest everything. Yet light is very different from the things manifested by it. It is the truth developed in the great proposition that God is, by Christ, reconciling a world to himself, not imputing to men their trespasses, but beseeching them to be reconciled to him, because he has made his Son a sin-offering for us, that we might be made perfectly righteous through him. Now, all this is comprehended in that cardinal proposition, on the belief of which the Lord promised to build his church; viz.: that "Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God." It is this sublime proposition, apprehended and realized by faith, that works repentance unto life; that subdues, softens, pacifies, and reconciles the heart to God, and prepares it to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.
This is that cardinal element in the gospel which contains in it the principle of eternal life. Christ, indeed, is our life. "Our life is hid with Christ in God." But to us, Christ is first presented in the testimony concerning him; then he is in the faith of him that believes that testimony; then in his heart he becomes "the hope of glory;" and, finally, in his life of righteousness and holiness, he is manifested to the world. This, indeed, constitutes "a reformation not to be repented of."
Now, the preaching of the gospel is the only divinely appointed means of producing this sublimely moral and spiritual renovation of heart. Christ must be revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, in all the fulness of his grace, and in all the attractions of his love. He must be made to stand out before us as "the brightness of his Father's glory"--as the "express image" of his glorious and lovely character. His obedience unto death, his voluntary sacrifice of himself for our sins, the unspeakable value of his blood, as the only means of expiation and personal purification, must be fully set before the mind, as well as the necessity of his death, to honor and justify God in justifying a sinful man.
If, indeed, repentance unto life be a change of our views, of our affections, and of our conduct, as it most certainly is, then that person, in relation to whom our views, affections, and conduct are to be changed, must be developed to our apprehension in such an attitude and character as to be the proper means of accomplishing such a change.
The revelation of the Father, and of the Son, is not made to us through the works of nature or the schemes of providence and moral government. This revelation is exclusively confined to the work of  redemption. Hence the necessity of correct views and a just appreciation of the nature of the death of Christ as an atoning sacrifice. That is the radiating centre of the whole remedial system. It is in that we discover all the divine excellencies. It is there, and only there, that inflexible justice, immaculate purity, inviolate truth, and infinite mercy, appear in perfect harmony with each other, combining all their effulgence and glory in opening for us a way into the holiest of all. Beholding there, as in a reflecting mirror, the purity of God and our own deformity; the majesty of his government, and the dignity of his law; the malignity and hatefulness of sin, in contrast with the beauty and loveliness of holiness, righteousness, and truth, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, by the spirit of the Lord. Thus contemplating him whom our sins have pierced, we begin to mourn over them, and to abhor them; we prostrate ourselves before his throne of mercy, and, with the humble and penitent publican, we say: "God be merciful to me a sinner." Such is that repentance unto life which God, through Jesus Christ, has granted to the Jew and to the Greek.
In the Geneva version of the New Testament, as well as in some other ancient English versions, "amend your life" and "amendment of life" are used for repent and repentance. Reform and reformation, in the judgment of some of our best critics, are to be preferred to repent or amend your lives. But all sound interpreters agree in this, that, while a change of mind, including a change of views and a change of feelings, is, by the etymology and use of the original term, clearly indicated, and essential to the requisitions of the gospel, still the consummation and evidence of "repentance unto life," or of "repentance towards God," is a new and holy life. To which, indeed, a change of views and a change of heart are indispensable. Therefore it is that the phrases "repentance unto life," "reconciliation to God," "reformation," are representatives of the same great radical change contemplated under different forms and figures of speech.
True repentance never fails to manifest itself in all cases of injury to the person, character, or property of our neighbor, by an immediate redress, as far as possible, of any injury we may have done him. The Jewish law of offerings for trespass on the rights of others made a restitution and satisfaction to the injured in all cases in which it was possible, essential to forgiveness. No acknowledgment to the Lord--no offering to the priest, could obtain remission, unless the injury done was redressed to the full amount possible. Zaccheus repented of all his wrongs done to his neighbors in this way, and was honored by the Messiah in a very public and impressive manner. It has reason and law, and the approbation of the Messiah, to enforce it. 
Christians when delinquent in any duty, when backsliding or simply growing cold, are also commanded to repent--to do their first works. Every allusion to repentance unto life indicates that it is no mere change of a creed, a theory, or a profession. It is a real positive change of heart and of life. "Old things are passed away, all things are become new." "Fruits meet for repentance" are always expected to be consequent upon the profession of it. Without these the pretension is idle and deceptions. These fruits are truth, piety, justice, humanity. The crucifixion of the flesh, with all its affections and lusts. "The grace of God which brings salvation, teaches us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present evil world." Such is evangelical repentance, indeed and in truth.
Its connection with faith as its fruit, as its constant concomitant, is, we hope, from the evidences adduced, and the accompanying reflections, sufficiently apparent. Its whole importance in the Christian system, can not be contemplated apart from other precepts and duties very intimately associated with it. We have but in part traced its connection with faith, with the word of truth, with the spirit of God, with the sacrifice of the Messiah. It is intimately associated with Christian baptism. So intimate is this connection, that both by John the Baptist and Peter, and the other Apostles, it is made to precede it as essential to its practical benefit to the subject of that holy ordinance. It will again fall in our path to hear and contemplate the connection between faith, repentance, baptism, and the remission of sins. Meantime, it must suffice to say, that all the links of that golden chain of grace which connects and binds our souls to the throne of God, are most intimately connected with one another; and the institutions and ordinances that call for them as prerequisites, are most happily devised, not only to display that connection, but also to make each one of them contribute in the proper time and place, that amount of blessing to us which our condition and circumstances in life so necessarily require.
The duty of repentance is, indeed, always obligatory on every one that commits any act of impiety or immorality. Without repentance, pardon of sin is impossible. God can not forgive the impenitent. It would be doing the offender a great wrong, and God a great dishonor. There is a state of mind suitable to the reception of the grace of forgiveness. In the absence of that state, it could not be enjoyed. Hence, motives that lead man to this state are indispensable; and according to the motives, so is that state of mind to which the Lord has always been pleased to vouchsafe this gift. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance--thereby indicating that then, and not till then, can any one be saved.
Alexander Campbell. "Tracts for the People.--No. V. Repentance unto Life."
The Millennial Harbinger 17 |
[Table of Contents]
|Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)