When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness which he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.
We hear a great deal about repentance, and how necessary it is for a man to repent of his sins; for unless a man repent, he cannot be forgiven. But do we all of us really know what repentance means?
I sometimes fear not. I sometimes fear, that though this text stands at the opening of the Church service, and though people hear it as often as any text in the whole Bible, yet they have not really learnt the lesson which God sends them by it.
What, then, does repentance mean?
'Being sorry for what we have done wrong,' say some.
But is that all? I suppose there are few wicked things done upon earth, for which the doers of them are not sorry, sooner or later. A man does a wrong thing, and his conscience pricks him, and makes him uneasy, and he says in his heart, 'I wish after all I had left that alone.' But the next time he is tempted to do the same thing, he does it, and is ashamed of himself afterwards again: but that is not repentance. I suppose that there have been few murders committed in the world, after which sooner or later the murderer did not say in his heart--'Ah, that that man were alive and well again!' But that is not repentance.
For aught I can tell, the very devil is sorry for his sin;-- discontented, angry with himself, ashamed of himself for being a devil. He may be so to all eternity, and yet never repent. For the dark uneasy feeling which comes over every man sooner or later, after doing wrong, is not repentance; it is remorse; the most horrible and miserable of all feelings, when it comes upon a man in its full strength; the feeling of hating oneself, being at war with oneself, and with all the world, and with God who made it.
But that will save no man's soul alive. Repentance will save any and every soul alive, then and there: but remorse will not. Remorse may only kill him. Kill his body, by making him, as many a poor creature has done, put an end to himself in sheer despair: and kill his soul at least, by making him say in his heart, 'Well, if bad I am, bad I must be. I hate myself, and God hates me also. All I can do is, to forget my unhappiness if I can, in business, in pleasure, in drink, and drive remorse out of my head;' and often a man succeeds in so doing. The first time he does a wrong thing, he feels sorry and ashamed after it. Then he takes courage after awhile, and does it again; and feels less sorrow and shame; and so again and again, till the sin becomes easier and easier to him, and his conscience grows more and more dull; till at last perhaps, the feeling of its being wrong quite dies within--and that is the death of his soul.
But of true repentance, it is written, that he who repents shall save his soul ALIVE. And how?
The word for repentance in Scripture means simply a change of mind. To change one's mind is, in Scripture words, to repent.
Now if a man changes his mind, he changes his conduct also. If you set out to go to a place and change your mind, then you do not go there. If as you go on, you begin to have doubts about its being right to go, or to be sorry that you are going, and still walk on in the same road, however slowly or unwillingly, that is not changing your mind about going. If you do change your mind, you will change your steps. You will turn back, or turn off, and go some other road.
This may seem too simple to talk of. But if it be, why do not people act upon it? If a man finds that in his way through life be is on the wrong road, the road which leads to shame, and sorrow, and death and hell, why will he confess that he is on the wrong road, and say that he is very sorry (as perhaps he really may be) that he is going wrong, and yet go on, and persevere on the wrong path? At least, as long as he keeps on the road which leads to ruin, he has not changed his mind, or repented at all. He may find the road unpleasant, full of thorns, and briars, and pit-falls; for believe me, however broad the road is which leads to destruction, it is only the GATE of it which is easy and comfortable; it soon gets darker and rougher, that road of sin; and the further you walk along it, the uglier and more wretched a road it is: but all the misery which it gives to a man is only useless remorse, unless he fairly repents, and turns out of that road into the path which leads to life.
Now the one great business of foolish man in all times has been to save his soul (as he calls it) without doing right; to go to heaven (as he calls it) without walking the road which leads to heaven. It is a folly and a dream. For no man can get to heaven, unless he be heavenly; and being heavenly is simply being good, and neither more or less. And sin is death, and no man can save his soul alive, while it is dead in sin. Still men have been trying to do it in all ages and countries; and as soon as one plan has failed, they have tried some new one; and have invented some false repentance which was to serve instead of the true one. The old Jews seem to have thought that the repentance which God required was burnt-offerings and sacrifices: that if they could only offer bullocks and goats enough on God's altar, he would forgive them their sins. But David, and Isaiah after him, and Ezekiel after him, found out that THAT was but a dream; that that sort of repentance would save no man's soul; that God did not require burnt-offerings and sacrifice for sin: but simply that a man should do right and not wrong. 'When ye come before me,' saith the Lord, 'who has required this at your hand, to tread my courts?' They were to bring no more vain offerings: but to put away the evil of their doings; to cease to do evil, to learn to do well; to seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow; and then, and then only, though their sins were as scarlet, they should be white as snow. For God would take them for what they were--as good, if they were good; as bad, if they were bad. And this agrees exactly with the text. 'When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness which he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.'
The Papists again, thought that the repentance which God required, was for a man to punish himself bitterly for his sins; to starve and torture himself, to give up all that makes life pleasant, and so to atone. And good and pious men and women, with a real hatred and horror of sin, tried this: but they found that making themselves miserable took away their sins no more than burnt-offerings and sacrifices would do it. Their consciences were not relieved; they gained no feeling of comfort, no assurance of God's love. Then they said, 'I have not punished myself enough. I have not made myself miserable enough. I will try whether more torture and misery will not wipe out my sins.' And so they tried again, and failed again, and then tried harder still, till many a noble man and woman in old times killed themselves piecemeal by slow torments, in trying to atone for their sins, and wash out in their own blood what was already washed out in the blood of Jesus Christ. But on the whole, that was found to be a failure. And now the great mass of the Papists have fallen back on the wretched notion that repentance merely means confessing their sins to a priest, and receiving absolution from him, and doing some little penance too childish to speak of here.
But is there no false repentance among us English, too, my friends? No paltry substitute for the only true repentance which God will accept, which is, turning round and doing right? How many there are, who feel--'I am very wrong. I am very sinful. I am on the road to hell. I am quarrelling and losing my temper, and using bad language.--Or--I am cheating my neighbour. Or--I am living in adultery and drunkenness: I must repent before it is too late.' But what do they mean by repenting? Coming as often as they can to church or chapel, and reading all the religious books which they can get hold of: till they come, from often reading and hearing about the Gospel promises, to some confused notion that their sins are washed away in Christ's blood; or perhaps, on the strength of some violent feelings, believe that they are converted all on a sudden, and clothed with the robe of Christ's righteousness, and renewed by God's Spirit, and that now they belong to the number of believers, and are among God's elect.
Now, my dear friends, I complain of no one going to hear all the good they can; I complain of no one reading all the religious books they can: but I think--and more, I know--that hearing sermons and reading tracts may be, and is often, turned into a complete snare of the devil by people who do not wish to give up their sins and do right, but only want to be comfortable in their sins.
Hear sermons if you will; read good books if you will: but bear in mind, that you know already quite enough to lead you to REPENTANCE. You need neither book nor sermon to teach you those ten commandments which hang here over the communion table: all that books and tracts and sermons can do is to teach you how to KEEP those commandments in spirit and in truth: but I am sure I have seen people read books, and run about to sermons, in order to enable them to forget those ten commandments; in order to find excuses for not keeping them; and to find doctrines which tell them, that because Christ has done all, they need do nothing;--only FEEL a little thankfulness, and a little sorrow for sin, and a little liking to hear about religion: and call that repentance, and conversion, and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.
Now, my dear friends, let me ask you as reasonable beings, Do you think that hearing me or any man preach, can save your souls alive? Do you think that sitting over a book for an hour a day, or all day long, will save your souls alive? Do you think that your sins are washed away in Christ's blood, when they are there still, and you are committing them? Would they be here, and you doing them, if they were put away? Do you think that your sins can be put away out of God's sight, if they are not even put out of your own sight? If you are doing wrong, do you think that God will treat you as if you were doing right? Cannot God see in you what you see in yourselves? Do you think a man can be clothed in Christ's righteousness at the very same time that he is clothed in his own unrighteousness? Can he be good and bad at once? Do you think a man can be converted--that is turned round--when he is going on his old road the whole week? Do you think that a man has repented--that is, changed his mind--when he is in just the same mind as ever as to how he shall behave to his family, his customers, and everybody with whom he has to do? Do you think that a man is renewed by God's Spirit, when except for a few religious phrases, and a little more outside respectability, he is just the old man, the same character at heart he ever was? Do you think that there is any use in a man's belonging to the number of believers, if he does not do what he believes; or any use in thinking that God has elected and chosen him, when he chooses not to do what God has chosen that every man must do, or die?
Be not deceived. God is not mocked. What a man sows, that shall he reap. Let no man deceive you. He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as Christ is righteous, and no one else.
He who tries to do as Christ did, and he only, has Christ's righteousness imputed to him, because he is trying to do what Christ did, that which is lawful and right. He who does righteousness, and he only, has truly repented, changed his mind about what he should do, and turned away from his wickedness which he has committed, and is now doing that which is lawful and right. He who does righteousness, and he only, shall save his soul alive: not by feeling this thing, or believing about that thing, but by doing that which is lawful and right.
We must face it, my dear friends. We cannot deceive God: and God will certainly not deceive himself. He sees us as we are, and takes us for what we are. What is right in us, he accepts for the salvation of Jesus Christ, in whom we are created unto good works. What is wrong in us, he will assuredly punish, and give us the exact reward of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil. Every work of ours shall come into judgment, unless it be repented of, and put away by the only true repentance--not doing the thing any more.
God, I say, will judge righteous judgment, and take us as we are.
For the sake of Jesus the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, there is full, free, and perfect forgiveness for every sin, when we give it up. As soon as a man turns round, and, instead of doing wrong, tries to do right, he need be under no manner of fear or terror any more. He is taken back into his Father's house as freely and graciously as the prodigal son in the parable was. Whatsoever dark score there was against him in God's books is wiped out there and then, and he starts clear, a new man, with a fresh chance of life. And whosoever tells him that the score is not wiped out, lies, and contradicts flatly God's holy word. But as long as a man does NOT give up his sins, the dark score DOES stand against him in God's books; and no praying, reading, devoutness of any kind will wipe it out; and as long as he sins, he is still in his sins, and his sins will be his ruin. Whosoever tells him that they are wiped out, he too lies, and contradicts flatly God's holy word.
For God is just, and true; and therefore God takes us for what we are, and will do so to all eternity; and you will find it so, my dearest friends. In spite of all doctrines which men have invented, and then pretended to find in the Bible, to drug men's consciences, and confuse God's clear light in their hearts, you will find, now and for ever, that if you do right you will be happy even in the midst of sorrow; if you do wrong, you will be miserable even in the midst of pleasure. Oh believe this, my dear friends, and do not rashly count on some sudden magical change happening to you as soon as you die to make you fit for heaven. There is not one word in the Bible which gives us reason to suppose that we shall not be in the next world the same persons which we have made ourselves in this world. If we are unjust here, we shall, for aught we know, or can know, try to be unjust there; if we be filthy here, we shall be so there; if we be proud here, we shall be so there; if we be selfish here, we shall be so there. What we sow here, we shall reap there. And it is good for us to know this, and face this. Anything is good for us, however unpleasant it may be, which drives us from the only real misery, which is sin and selfishness, to the only true happiness, which is the everlasting life of Christ; a pure, loving, just, generous, useful life of goodness, which is the righteousness of Christ, and the glory of Christ, and which will be our righteousness and our glory also for ever: but only if we live it; only if we be useful as Christ was, generous as Christ was, just as Christ was, gentle as Christ was, pure as Christ was, loving as Christ was, and so put on Christ, not in name and in word, but in spirit and in truth, that having worn Christ's likeness in this world, we may share his victory over all evil in the life to come.