My Dear Brother Beebe: – I some time ago received a letter from my esteemed friend and brother, John Mesamore, of Fayette County, Ohio, in which he says:
"As this is a day of cavil and differences, no marvel if there should be a slight difference among the children of God, and that on every important subject, too. We, as a church, at Waterloo, have been favored in regard to differences as much as any church in Ohio. Brother N. Loofbourrow has come to the conclusion that he would make a judge of brother Johnson, if he would be so good as to give his views through the "Signs of the Times." The difference is in respect to the command set forth by Paul to the Athenians, Acts 17:30, latter clause: 'But now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.' We wish you to be particular on the 'all men everywhere to repent.'"
I hope my brethren will excuse me for respectfully declining to be a judge in the case. I am willing, however, to do the best I can with my limited capacity in aiding them to recognize the conclusion arrived at in relation to this and all other subjects by the King who reigns in righteousness and the princes who rule in judgment, those who were seated upon twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel; "For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our King," etc. It may not be amiss to observe:
First, that the apostle was addressing the "too superstitious" Athenians, exhibiting to them the unknown god (whom they ignorantly worshiped) as the God of providence, not of salvation by grace, knowing that it was Him only that could "give grace and glory," and that grace and salvation were never designed to be taught by man to men who were not "born of the Spirit," as grace and all things that pertain to salvation are spiritual gifts, which natural men receive not, and can not know. He presented God, therefore, to them as the Creator and Preserver of all things, the providential Benefactor of all men; and that he is not worshiped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, as he gives to all life and breath and all things; that he has made of one blood all the nations, and appointed their times and the bounds of their habitation. "That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us." There is a marked difference in this language of the apostle to those who "ignorantly worship," and that used to those who "worship in spirit and in truth;" but here it is, "If haply they might," etc. This word haply signified, "by chance, perhaps it may be." Paul could not say as it is said to Christ's disciples, Seek, and ye shall find, nor yet as work-mongers do, that all may or can find the Lord by seeking after him, for he knew that none by seeking could find him out; but he uses the word haply because it was not known to him whether they were to find him or not. And then this other expression, "feel after him," seems to represent to me something like one groping or feeling in the dark, or without light. He then informs them that he is not far from every one of us; for in him we live and move and have our being, as certain of their own poets had said, For we are all his offspring. And as that fact had been admitted by them, they ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art and man's device. "And the times of this ignorance God winked at." While he had not made any special revelation of himself as the God of providence to any nation save the Jews, he winked at their ignorance and superstition, as though he did not see it, (for to wink is "to close the eyes, to seem not to see;") or in other words, he withheld his judgments, and did not punish the heathen for their sacrilege, as he did the Jews for theirs, to whom he had by so many outward demonstrations made known himself as their divine Superintendent, and upon whom he so frequently sent his judgments and just retribution for their idolatry. But as he had now made so many visible displays of his eternal power and Godhead to all nations by numerous miracles, signs and mighty wonders, by relieving the demoniac, healing the sick, raising the dead, magnifying or multiplying a few loaves and fishes to feed thousands, calming the raging tempest, allaying the high rolling billows, with many other open and outward manifestations of his Deity, he "now commands all men everywhere to repent," turn away, or cease from serving those dumb idols. Now, as before intimated, I do not understand the apostle here to be treating upon or undertaking to teach those idolaters the way of life and salvation, of presenting the Lord to them in the relation of a Savior of sinners, nor of speaking of that repentance is a command, that is always spoken of in the scripture as a gift. Hence we read in Acts 5:31, "Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance unto life." Thus the scriptures clearly distinguish between the repentance that is a command and that which is a gift. Idolatry is a most fruitful source of evil, and the Lord in this particular case, as well as in many others, commanded the nations, or all men everywhere, to repent, turn away from or cease from their sacrilegious services. He has certainly the undisputed right to command his rational creatures to cease from their outward acts of rebellion against him – he has in many instances forbidden such rebellion, and often have the nations writhed under his sore chastisements, by disregarding his authority and bowing down to idols. How often did he command the Jews, as a nation, (not as Christians, nor to make them such) to abstain from their idolatry, and how often did he visit them with righteous retribution for their disobedience! And now that he has so conspicuously portrayed his divine power as the wise and provident God of the universe, showing that he gives to all life and breath and all things, no nations need expect to escape his rod when they look to idols, and worship them instead of him. It matters not whether they are made of gold, silver, wood or stone, or whether those set up in the imaginations of men. If we pay adoration to a god that cannot save without men as means or instruments, or one that is desiring very much to save everybody, but cannot, because they will not repent, believe, etc., or one that cannot reach the case of the heathen without Missionary Boards, men and money, or in short, one who does not work all things after the counsel of his own will, cause his counsel to stand, and do all his pleasure, we are, to all intents and purposes, worshiping an idol, and ought, as rational beings, to repent of our wickedness, and turn away from it. When such commands are given, and we obey them to the letter, we reap the fruits of our obedience amply in this world, but that has nothing to do with preparing us for another. Let us not forget, then, that a command to repent, and a gift of repentance, are very different. A command is not a gift, neither is a gift a command; and these two are diverse in their nature, operation, tendencies and effects. When a crime has been committed, a command from an authoritative source, given to repent, and that command obeyed strictly, it does not place the individual or nation in any better condition than he or it occupied before the commission of the crime, or repentance occurred. When the Lord had placed the children of Israel in the land of Canaan, blessed them with the plenitude of its fruits, and the high privileges they enjoyed, when they went after idols, and he commanded them to repent, and they disobeyed, he punished them rigorously for their sacrilege. If they did repent, he simply restored them to their former prosperity and privileges. They were not enhanced thereby, but set back rather to their previous condition. Not so, however, with that repentance which is a gift. It manifests an outward and upward tendency. The possessor is developing a more exalted position than was occupied before the gift was bestowed, and, therefore, it is said to be "repentance unto life," and "not to be repented of." There is nothing more loquacious than the argument that arminians attempt to sustain by this text, that the Lord is commanding all graceless men to repent and turn to God, that they may be saved. "Salvation is of the Lord," etc., and all that pertains to that eternal life to which his people are saved is from the same source, as Peter has declared, "According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue."
But my brother wishes me to be particular in noticing the "All men everywhere to repent." I have no objection to giving this command its widest possible latitude, and admitting it to be obligatory in its true and legitimate sense upon every man that ever did or ever will hear it. But it is evident from the connection with which this text stands, that the apostle was addressing the Athenians in a national and not in an individual capacity. After being encountered by the Epicureans and Stoics, he was taken and brought to Areopagus or Mars' Hill, which was the highest court in Athens, and there publicly addressed them in their national character; and upon the subject of God's creating all nations, sustaining and providing for them, and, therefore, his right to command and require their obedience. How perfectly absurd then is the notion of conditionalists who contend that this is repentance unto life, and that all individuals are thus commanded to repent as a condition of salvation! How many myriads of men have lived and died since the utterance of this mandate, who never heard of this command! Men who thus argue seem to have no general idea of the scriptures, but must particularize every general expression, and confine each to local or individual cases. Thus, in Luke 2:10, it is said, "Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people." Was it and has it been good tidings and great joy to every individual person? What great joy was it to Herod and all Jerusalem with him when they heard the news? (See Matthew 2:3) The truth of the case is, that the Lord was about to transcend the narrow limits of Judea and Palestine with the revelation of himself, and the people of all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews, were to be glad and rejoice in the name of the Savior. Again, in Acts 2:12, it is said, "And they were all amazed and in doubt, saying one to another, what meaneth this?" In the fifth verse of this same chapter it is said, "There were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men out of every nation under heaven," who said, "We do hear in our own tongues the wonderful works of God." Are we to conclude because the word all is used here, that each individual of that immense concourse heard in their own tongues the wonderful works of God, and were amazed and in doubt? If so, why is it said in the very next verse, "Others mocking, said, These men are full of new wine?" The truth is, that the all who heard it and were amazed and in doubt, were those devout characters, and the all people in the former text are simply to be understood as referring to people of different nations, and neither can reasonably be understood to have reference to all Individual persons. The fact is, as before observed, that Paul was addressing the people in their national, not their individual relations, proclaiming God as the sole Ruler and wise disposer of men and things. Those were the subjects of his discourse, and not that of the salvation of sinners. And when he refers to Christ, it is not in the relation of a Savior or Mediator, but that of a judge. He, therefore, bases the command to repent upon the consideration that God will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. This widespread development of the Deity in which the Lord has so extensively made himself known to the different nations, or all men everywhere, leaves them in a condition different from the one in which they stood in the former times of their entire ignorance of him, and in which their superstition is not to be "winked at," as previously, and, therefore, he commands all men everywhere to repent. But, we should remember that the mere repenting in the sense of this text, and abstaining from the worship of idols, beneficial as it may be to nations or individuals here in this world, has nothing to do in preparing them for another, or for the spiritual service of God, for the preparation of the heart for that service is from the Lord. (See Prov. 16:1) It has nothing to do with saving sinners from their sins, for Christ has done that once, effectually and forever; it has nothing to do with giving them eternal life, for that is the Lord's work exclusively. That repentance that God gives to his people, is different, widely different. They are not driven to the exercise of it by a command, but led by the goodness of him. (Rom. 2:4) They are not satisfied merely to cease from sacrilege, but they pant for God as the hunted hart pants for the cooling water brooks; not content with merely forsaking their sins, but they hunger and thirst after righteousness. Not set back to a former state of uprightness, but moving onward and upward in a higher, holier, happier sphere, and finally will be "Raised to a paradise of bliss, where God triumphant reigns." Wide indeed is the contrast between the repentance which is a command, and that which is a gift. But that gift is beyond the extent of mortal arms! beyond the scan of mortal wisdom! and beyond the control of mortal powers to reach, see, or exercise, until God is pleased graciously to bestow it!
I have now tried to comply with the request of my brethren, as well as I can. If what I have written is in accordance with the scriptures, I hope they will be satisfied, notwithstanding its homeliness; if not, I trust that some friend will correct the error.
I freely submit this, brother Beebe, to your disposal, and still continue to be, as I trust, the friend and brother to you, and all the household of faith.
Elder J. F. Johnson
April 25, 1862
A Second Feast