In replying to the inquiries of brother Samuel Rixey, of Culpepper C.H., Va., we will in the onset observe that although we are not very familiar with all the theories of theologians on the subject of repentance, and therefore but poorly qualified to follow them in all their applications, explanations, divisions, and nice distinctions as to the meaning of the word, when applied literally, we nevertheless feel willing to give to our brother, and to our readers generally, such views as we can gather from a close attentive reading of the scriptures. That the word is used in our version of the Bible with a variety of application is certain, from the fact that it is not only applied to good men, and bad men, but also to God himself. And that it does not apply to God in the same sense that it does to man is clear from the declaration that God is not a man that he should repent. That is, God does not repent, yet in the same chapter (I Samuel 15:29,35) we are told "the Lord repented that he made Saul king over Israel." And this he did, simply by deposing him from the throne, and supplying the throne with a better man. Repentance when applied to God does not intend a sorrow for what he had done, a conviction of having done wrong, or even a change in his mind or purpose; but, as we understand, it signifies a change of his outward administration in his dispensations, and all in perfect harmony with his eternal and immutable purpose. Nor does the term when applied to men always mean sorrow, or regret, for what we sometimes denominate evangelic or gospel repentance, which is unto life, is not, but results from a godly sorrow for sins.
In the text referred to by brother Rixey (Mark 1:15), the word is used in the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom by Christ himself, and not in the ministration of the law by Moses; it was not therefore legal repentance, but a repentance preparatory to a cordial reception of the gospel of the kingdom which Christ was preaching. If the term legal be used as an adjective, to signify a repentance demanded or required by the law, we should first inquire whether the law ever did, or could, demand or accept of any kind of repentance. It is not in the nature of any absolute law to require repentance. The law of God does not require that we shall be sorry for having sinned, but it forbids that we should sin. It requires perfect and perpetual obedience, and condemns to death for the first transgression.
"And could our tears forever flow,
And could our grief no respite know,"
It would avail us nothing by way of explanation. "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy." No repentance or mercy can flow to transgressors, from the law.
From the confused theory of Arminians of a legal repentance grows also the doctrine of obligatory repentance. That repentance which is unto life and is connected with godly sorrow is the gift of God; it proceeds from a godly principle implanted in the heart, and which cannot possibly flow from an ungodly source. Any sorrow or repentance that could come from an ungodly sinner's heart, or from any sinner's heart before a godly principle is therein implanted, would be like the fountain from whence it emanates; ungodly. We search the law and gospel both in vain to find this obligatory repentance which is in so great demand among all the legal work-mongrel tribes of the Arminians. We do not wonder that our dear brother's mind has been puzzled and perplexed to bring the obligation of repentance upon unregenerate sinners. We might as well speak of their obligation to remit their own sins as to procure their own repentance, seeing Christ alone is exalted to be a Prince and Savior, for to give, both the one and the other unto Israel. It would be equally as proper and scriptural to speak of their obligation to be saved, to go to heaven, and to make themselves sons and heirs of God. But, does man's inability to repent, or to believe, or even to keep from sinning, relieve him from his obligation to do so? Certainly not, if it can be found that such obligations are upon him. Now the sinner is one that has sinned. Sin is the transgression of the law; but where has the law under which the unregenerate sinner is held, either required him to repent or believe the gospel? The law truly forbids him to transgress, and holds him answerable for every transgression. Sin, not a want of repentance or faith, is what the sinner is condemned for. Without the faith of the Son of God, no sinner ever did or could believe the gospel; for believing the gospel is the assurance of faith, and that is the gift of God. Is there any obligation devolving on a graceless sinner making it his duty that God shall give him either faith or repentance? How absurd! But suppose the sinner could control the convictions of his own carnal mind so far as to make himself believe that he is a Christian, that he was chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that Christ died for him, that he is freely justified through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, would that carnal assurance make it so? Would he not believe an untruth, even if he believed literally just what the Christian believes? Because that which is true in the case of one that is born of the Spirit is not true of him who only possesses a carnal assurance. The heaven-born child believes that God is his Father, and has the witness in himself. The Spirit bearing witness with his spirit that he is born of God. But if the unregenerate sinner without that witness believes himself to be an heir of immortality, he is deceived, and believes a lie. But to believe the gospel is to believe all this. It is precisely so with all that passes for true gospel repentance, if it be not the work of God, and the gift of God, it is all delusive and vain.
But, we shall be asked, did not John the Baptist and our Lord preach to the people saying, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"? All this is admitted. But if we carefully observe when, to whom, and by whom this repentance was preached, it will enable us the more clearly to understand what manner of repentance was called for.
"The law and the prophets were until John." Since that time, and until these words were spoken by our Lord (see Luke 16:16), the kingdom of God is preached and every man presseth into it. At this particular time John was sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord; to preach that the kingdom of heaven, so long predicted, was at hand; that the Messiah had come; that Jewish rites and ceremonies were now about to be abolished; that their fleshly descent from Abraham was no longer to avail them; for God was able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. John's mission was only to the Jews, to preach repentance to them, and to baptize them with the baptism of repentance. This repentance and baptism both signified a turning away from the works, rites, ceremonies and ordinances of the law, as a ground of acceptance with God; and a coming out from Jerusalem, and a reception of Christ as that Messiah which was to come, and which they professed to be looking for. Their repentance did not signify that they were at that time born of the Spirit, or that they had not been subjects of that spiritual birth for many years. But it did signify that they came out from Judaism, sensible that the works of the law could not purge their consciences from dead works, to serve the living God; and hence they came to John's baptism of repentance, confessing their sins, and professing their faith in and reliance upon that Christ whom John pointed out to them as the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. Remember John was sent to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. His work was stated by the angel of the Lord in Luke 1:13-17. It is also recorded in prophetic declarations of Zacharias in Luke 1:68-79. "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God: whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Now observe, John's commission was to go before the face of the Lord, to announce his coming, and to "give knowledge of salvation" to God's people, by remission of their (God's people's) sins, and to make ready a people, already prepared by grace, for the Lord, by calling them out from the house of bondage, and by baptizing them with the baptism of repentance, or reformation, saying unto them that they should believe on him that was to come, that is on Christ; and that they should receive him as the true Messiah, and look to him alone for salvation. The repentance which John preached, and to which he baptized the people prepared for the Lord, is further defined in its peculiar nature and effects by the rejection of the Pharisees from John's baptism of repentance. "O, generation of vipers! Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance, and think not to say unto yourselves, We have Abraham to our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:7-9)." Had these Pharisees and Sadducees possessed the repentance which John preached, they would have signified it by a turning away from their cherished traditional hopes of being saved by their fleshly relation to Abraham, and by a reliance alone on him whose kingdom was about to be organized. The repentance preached was an abandonment of all confidence in the flesh, and a ready and hearty acknowledgment of Christ. "And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees." They were about to be cut off from Abraham as their root, and scattered among the Gentiles. The wrath to come, of which John spake was that wrath which had long been accumulating and now hung impending over Jerusalem and the Jews as a nation. Every tree in this wilderness of Judea, which God had not by his grace made good and fruitful, was to be cut down. Their confidence in Abraham as their root, and the covenant of circumcision was now to fail them, and only such Jews as God had prepared, and John was commissioned to make ready, should be admitted into the kingdom which was at hand.
The preaching of Christ referred to by brother Rixey was addressed to the same people, and was a continuance of the preaching of John. "Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel (Mark 1:14,15)." This time appointed was Daniel's weeks, or the "fullness of time," when God was to send forth his Son; the time allotted to the legal dispensation, the time for the worldly sanctuary and carnal ordinances was fulfilled. The good news, tidings of great joy to those who could show fruits meet for repentance; the gospel of the kingdom, which the God of heaven was to set up, was now preached, and those who had oil in their vessels were to go into the marriage, and the door was to be shut. This proclamation was made that all such as were prepared for the announcement should abandon their former position under the works and ritual of the law of a carnal commandment, and adhere to the gospel. This proclamation was not a proposition that if they would repent and believe the gospel they should be saved for doing so, for that would suppose that a bad tree could bring forth good fruit, without first being made good, which Christ says is impossible (see Matthew 7:18). We are told that when Jesus thus came to his own (his own people, the Jews) his own received him not. "But unto as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:11-13)." The twelve disciples also which were sent out were in their commission forbidden to go with this message to the Gentiles, for God had not yet granted repentance to the Gentiles. (See Acts 11:18.) Nor were they allowed to bear these gospel tidings to the Samaritans, "But, go ye rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5,6)." The time had not yet come for the gathering in of the other sheep which were afar off among the Gentiles. For this preaching of repentance and remission of sins in Christ's name must begin at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). At the preaching of John, of Christ, of the twelve, and of the seventy, as many as were ordained unto eternal life believed, and came forward, confessing their sins, and professing faith in Christ, renouncing their former hopes of salvation by the deeds of the law, or works of the flesh; and signified the same by being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and not unto Moses.
We have perhaps said enough to signify our views as to the nature of the repentance preached to the lost sheep of the house of Israel by John, by Christ, and by the disciples, before the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God, to satisfy brother Rixey that we do not understand the repentance preached by Christ in our text to be either that, strictly speaking, which results from fear of wrath, nor that which proceeds from godly sorrow for sins, but rather a turning away from their former legal works and adherence to abrogated rites and ceremonies, to receive that promised Messiah, of whom Moses and the prophets had written, and whom they were expecting should come. And although the words were addressed to the Jews generally, they were only applied to a people prepared for the Lord. All such on hearing the proclamation came from Judea, Jerusalem, and from regions about Jordan, to Jordan, and were baptized of John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins, thus fleeing from the wrath which was then about to come upon Jerusalem, and other cities of Judea, and thus by baptism signifying their death to Moses, and resurrection with Christ to newness of life.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
December 15, 1865.
Republished - The Remnant
Volume 12, No. 2