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2 COR. VII. 10.
For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation,
not to be repented of.
The piety of good men in good times having appointed this season of Lent for a more particular attention to the concerns of religion, and especially that momentous part of religion, inward penitence and contrition; I know not how I can employ the beginning of this season better than by setting before you the nature of repentance; so far, at least, as to point out the marks and rules by which we may judge of its truth, and its sincerity.
And when I talk of judging of the sincerity of repentance, I do not mean other men's repentance, but our own.
Under these words I shall apply myself to consider the rules and tokens, whereby we may judge of the sincerity of repentance; not of other men's repentance, with which we have nothing to do, but of our own. Repentance is a change of the heart, from an evil to a good disposition. When that change is made, repentance is true.
This is a short definition of repentance; but it will of itself
teach us many truths concerning the subject. As 1st, that sorrow for our past sins, however earnest and contrite it be, is not alone repentance. Repentance is the change of the disposition. Sorrow for the past is likely to produce that change, which always accompanies it; but still it is not the change itself, nor indeed does it, as experience testifies, always and certainly work that change.
Sorrow for the past must necessarily be a part of repentance : for why should we repent, or wish to repent, of that for which we are not sorry ? but still it is only a part; and it is extremely material that we do not mistake a part of our duty for the whole. When the change, as I said, is made, repentance is complete, and not till then. Sorrow or contrition are the instruments and means towards that change; but if the instrument does not perform its office, and if the means do not produce the end, still all the instruments and means then
go for nothing. 2dly. If you ask whether repentance be in its nature a sudden and hasty thing, to be brought about at once, and as some think at a single instant, at a precise and perceivable moment: I answer, that usually, perhaps, it is not. Repentance is the change of the disposition. Few changes are made on a sudden; at least few sudden changes are lasting. If there be constitutional vices of mind and temper, it is equally the work of long reflection and endeavour to beat them down, and keep them down. If there be some old confirmed habit of gratification to contend with,
the struggle is commonly tedious, even when it is successful. This I say for the sake of those who because they do not find their change at once, give up; who quit the contest, because it continues longer than they were prepared to expect. The duty of such is comprised in one word-perseverance, and a determined perseverance, is the very substance of virtue.
Almost every man can be sorry for his sins : every man can deplore and forsake them. Most men, indeed, make some short-lived efforts to become virtuous; but perseverance is what they want, and fail in. Yet in one sense there is one essential change made in every sinner who repents; which change consists in this, that whereas before he was growing worse, he is now growing better. His improvement may be slow, but be it ever so slow, there is still this difference between growing better and growing
It resembles, to my apprehension, the case of a patient in a fever. We say that his distemper has had a turn ; yet take him an hour or a day past the turn, or so much before, and you will observe little alteration : for the alteration is, that whereas he was before growing worse, and weaker, by almost insensible degrees, so now he is growing better and stronger, though by degrees equally slow. And this the physician accounts a great alteration ; and so it is, although it be long before he be well ; and though he be in perpetual danger of a relapse, during the progress of his recovery.
And the physician pro
nounces expressly, that there has been a turn in the disorder ; that the crisis is past, not because his patient is now well, who before was ill; but because he finds him now gradually growing stronger and well, who before was gradually becoming ill.
Thus the sinner may securely, though humbly, hope that he has repented, who observes himself growing continually better; who is conscious that he is in an amended state, though there be yet much to be done and suffered, before the amendment be complete. And as the patient was far from being out of danger, because he had passed the turn, so is the sinner. As the patient often relapses, so does the sinner. As the relapse is often more fatal than the first sickness; so is it with the sinner: as the patient must still, for a long time, use extraordinary care and caution, so must the sinner.
On the other hand, there may be some few instances of very hasty reformation ; of the libertine, the drunkard, the profane, the swearer, the knave, the thief, the miser, becoming on a sudden modest, sober, serious, honest, charitable : and some, though still fewer, of extraordinary changes of temper; of the proud, the overbearing, the passionate, the envious, the quarrelsome, the malicious, becoming mild, patient, generous, forbearing, and forgiving. And when we do see such instances, we ought to rejoice at them, rather than suspect them. The frame of the mind may receive such a wrench at once, as to give it a happy turn. All I mean to say is, that this
is not common; that the sinner must not be surprised and disheartened, because it was not his case. He is not to let go, or leave off, because his old sins and old habits will return. The work is begun at least. It is for his comfort, I say again, that he
In the same way may be determined, in the third place, the question-Is repentance ever brought about by calamity and affliction, or sickness ? Repentance is the change of the disposition ; and if the change be but made, no matter by what
ause it is effected. The disposition is still changed, and the repentance is true. Besides which, we have good reason to believe that judgments and visitations, and sore calamities, afflictions and sickness, are sent and permitted by our gracious Governor for this very purpose of bringing us to repentance, and a better sense of things. It must not be made, therefore, an objection to the efficacy of our repentance, that it springs from the root, which God himself hath planted. The sinner need not suspect the sincerity of his repentance, or doubt concerning its being accepted with God, merely because he was first put upon it by some misfortune, sickness, or great affliction.
Repentance we describe to be a change of the heart, from an evil. to a good disposition. But how are we to know when the change is made ? That is the question. In the general state of a christian life, repentance is such a sorrow for sin as produces a change of manners, and an actual amendment of life. It is that disposition of mind by which “he