Repentance – Natural, Legal, or Evangelical?
The Lord Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. True repentance, accordingly, forms a part of the religion, not of an innocent person, but of a sinner. It is produced by the Spirit of Christ in the regeneration and sanctification of a sinner, and is absolutely essential to the character of a true Christian. As the Christian is daily sinning, he ought to be daily repenting of sin. Tertullian says, ‘I was born for nothing but repentance.’
Repentance is natural, or legal, or evangelical.
Natural repentance is that natural feeling of sorrow and self-condemnation, of which a man is conscious for having done that which he sees he ought not to have done, and which arises from a discovery of the impropriety of it, or from reflecting on the disagreeable consequences of it to others, and especially to himself. This feeling of regret frequently occurs. When a man, especially a proud and vain man, is convinced of his having been guilty of some glaring instance of improper conduct, either against, or in the presence of a fellow-creature, it is sometimes very keen and painful.
Legal repentance is a feeling of regret produced in a legalist by the fear that his violations of the Divine law and especially his gross sins do expose him to eternal punishment. This regret is increased by his desire to be exempted on the ground of it from the dreadful punishment to which he knows he is condemned for them. He is extremely sorry, not that he has transgressed the law, but that the law and the justice of God are so very strict that they cannot leave him at liberty to sin with impunity. His love of sin and his hatred of holiness continue in all their vigour. And yet under the dominion of his legal temper he presumes to expect that such repentance as this will in some measure atone for all his crimes against the infinite Majesty of heaven.
Evangelical repentance is altogether different from either of these. It is a gracious principle and habit implanted in the soul by the Spirit of Christ, in the exercise of which a regenerate and believing sinner, deeply sensible of the exceeding sinfulness and just demerit of his innumerable sins, is truly humbled and grieved before the Lord on account of the sinfulness and hurtfulness of them. He feels bitter remorse, unfeigned sorrow, and deep self-abhorrence for the aggravated transgressions of his life, and the deep depravity of his nature; chiefly, because by all his innumerable provocations he has dishonoured an infinitely holy and gracious God, transgressed a law which is ‘holy, and just, and good’, and defiled, deformed, and even destroyed his own precious soul. This godly sorrow for sin and this holy abhorrence of it arise from a spiritual discovery of pardoning mercy with God in Christ, and from the exercise of trusting in his mercy. And these feelings and exercises are always accompanied by an unfeigned love of universal holiness, and by fixed resolutions and endeavours to turn from all iniquity to God and to walk before him in newness of life. Such, in general, is the nature of that evangelical repentance, to the habit and exercise of which the Lord Jesus calls sinners who hear the gospel.
Distinguishing the counterfeit from the genuine is absolutely vital!
To understand spiritually and distinctly the proper place of true repentance in the covenant of grace, as well as the duty and necessity, the grace and exercise of it, is of inexpressible importance to the faith, holiness, and comfort of the Christian. It is due in a higher degree than is commonly believed, to their want of such views of it that multitudes in the visible church mistake a counterfeit for a true repentance and so flatter themselves that they are true penitents and their salvation is sure. It is because many convinced sinners have not a distinct discernment of its place in the new covenant that they apprehend that Christ will receive none but the true penitent, or that none else is warranted to trust in him for salvation. Hence, they dare not attempt coming to the gracious Redeemer till they are first satisfied that their repentance is of the true kind, until they can bring it as a price in their hand to procure their welcome. Instead of this, they ought without a moment’s delay to come to Christ for true repentance. It is no less owing to their ignorance of its due place among the other blessings of salvation that many believe it to be the federal condition of the pardon of sin in justification, and persuade themselves that in the gospel this pardon is offered only to the penitent. And is it not because of their gross ignorance of the nature and use of true repentance that many can persuade themselves that their repentance will even atone for their crimes, that it will make satisfaction to the insulted justice of the Most High, and reinstate them in his favour? It is in a high degree owing to their ignorance of the nature and design of evangelical repentance and of its place in the new covenant that many true converts do, even for years, make their exercise of repentance a part of their warrant to renew the acting of their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. And doubtless if others who appear to be real Christians had attained correct and distinct views of the grace, duty, and necessity of true repentance, they would not have imagined, as they seem to have done, that the exercise of it was over with their first conversion; nor would they have presumed to look back on that exercise as a ground of right to apply to themselves the unlimited offers and absolute promises of the glorious gospel.
As it is then of the utmost consequence both to sinners and to saints that they attain just and distinct views of the nature and the place of true repentance, and that they be deeply affected with the high importance and absolute necessity of it to their eternal welfare, I shall endeavour, in humble dependence on the Spirit of truth, to assist such of them as will read this treatise to attain those views. And in order the more effectually to do this, I shall consider first, the sources of true repentance; secondly, the nature and import of it; thirdly, the necessity of it; fourthly, the difference between a true and a counterfeit repentance; fifthly, the fruits or evidences of true repentance; sixthly, the priority of the acting of genuine faith to the exercise of evangelical repentance; seventhly, the priority of justification to the first exercise of true repentance; and in the last place, I shall answer some objections.