HISTORICAL EXCERPT

The Repentance of Believers

“Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

It is generally supposed that repentance and faith are only the gate of religion; that they are necessary only at the beginning of our Christian journey, when we are setting out on our way to the kingdom. And this may seem to be confirmed by the great Apostle, where, urging the Hebrew Christians to “go on to perfection,” he teaches them to leave these “first principles of the doctrine of Christ;” “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God,” which must at least mean that they should leave these, which at first consumed all their thoughts, in order to “press forward toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”

It is true that there are a repentance and a faith which are especially necessary at the beginning. This repentance is a conviction of our utter sinfulness, guiltiness, and helplessness; and comes before we receive the kingdom of God.

But there are also a repentance and a faith (taking the words in a sense not quite the same, nor yet entirely different), which are necessary after we have “believed the gospel,” and in every stage of our Christian journey which follows. Otherwise, we cannot “run the race which is set before us.” This repentance and faith are just as necessary for continuing and growing in grace, as the former faith and repentance were for entering into the kingdom of God.

But in what sense are we to repent and believe after we are justified? This is a question worth close attention.

The Sense in Which a Believer Is to Repent

Repentance frequently means an inward change of mind from sin to holiness. But we now speak of it in a very different sense, as a kind of self-knowledge, the knowing of ourselves to be sinners, even guilty, helpless sinners, even though we know we are children of God.

Indeed, when we first know that we are children of God, it is natural to think that we are no longer sinners, that all our sins are not only covered but destroyed. Since we do not feel any evil in our hearts, we easily imagine that none is there. Some well-meaning men have imagined this to be true not only at that time, but for always; having persuaded themselves that when they were justified they were entirely sanctified.  They have established it as a general rule, ignoring Scripture, reason, and experience. They sincerely believe that all sin is destroyed when we are justified; and that there is no sin in the heart of a believer; but that it is completely clean from that moment. Although we readily acknowledge, “he that believeth is born of God,” and “he that is born of God doth not commit sin;” we cannot agree that he does not feel it within. It does not reign, but it does remain. And a conviction of the sin which remains in our heart is one large part of the repentance we are now speaking of.  For it is usually not long before the one who imagined all sin was gone feels that there is still pride in his heart. He is convinced that he has thought of himself too highly, and that he has accepted praise for something he had received, as though it were naturally his; and still he knows he is in the favor of God.  “The Spirit” still “witnesses with” his “spirit, that he is a child of God.”

Nor is it long before he feels self-will in his heart; a will contrary to the will of God. A will is an essential part of human nature. Our Lord had a will as a man; otherwise He would not have been a man. But His human will was invariably subject to the will of His Father. At all times, even in the deepest affliction, He could say, “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” But this is not the case at all times, even with a true believer in Christ. He frequently finds his will more or less exalting itself against the will of God. He wills something because it is pleasing to his nature, which is not pleasing to God; and he is averse to something because it is painful to his nature, which is the will of God concerning him. If he continues in faith, he fights against this tendency; but this very conflict implies that it really exists, and that he is conscious of it.

Now self-will, as well as pride, is a kind of idolatry, and both are directly contrary to the love of God. The same observation may be made concerning the love of the world. Even true believers are liable to feel this in themselves; and every one of them does feel it, more or less, sooner or later, in one way or another. It is true, when he first “passes from death unto life,” he desires nothing but God. He can truly say, “All my desire is unto Thee, and unto the remembrance of Thy name.” “Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee!” But it is not always so. Eventually he will feel again either the desire of the flesh, or the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.

If he does not continually watch and pray, he may find the desire of the flesh, even lust, reviving and attacking him that he may fall, until he has barely any strength left. He may feel a strong tendency to “love the creature more than the Creator;” whether it is a child, a parent, a husband or wife, or a friend. He may feel, in a thousand different ways, a desire for earthly things or pleasures. To the same extent he will forget God, not seeking his happiness in Him, and, consequently, becoming a “lover of pleasure more than a lover of God.”

If he does not keep himself every moment, he will again feel the desire of the eye; the desire of gratifying his imagination with something great, or beautiful, or uncommon. This desire assaults the soul in many ways, and often regarding the things of least significance, such as dress, or furniture; things never designed to satisfy the appetite of an immortal spirit. And yet, how natural is it for us, even after we have “tasted of the powers of the world to come,” to sink again into these foolish, low desires for things that perish as we use them! How hard it is, even for those who know in whom they have believed, not to desire anything simply because it is new!

And how hard it is even for the children of God to fully conquer the pride of life! This is a desire for, and delight in, the praise that comes from men; and, always joined to it, is a proportionate fear of dispraise. Closely related to this is evil shame, or being ashamed of that in which we ought to glory. And this is seldom separate from the fear of man, which can easily entangle the soul. Now where is he, even among those that seem strong in faith, who does not find in himself a degree of all these evil tempers? So that even these are only partly “crucified to the world;” for the evil root still remains in their heart.

And do we not feel other tempers, which are as contrary to loving our neighbor as these are to loving God? Love for our neighbor “thinketh no evil.” Do we never find any jealousies, any evil speculations, any groundless or unreasonable suspicions? He that is innocent in these respects, let him throw the first stone at his neighbor. Who does not sometimes feel other tempers or inward motions which he knows are contrary to brotherly love? If we find no malice, hatred, or bitterness, what about envy of those who enjoy something which we desire but cannot attain? Do we never find any degree of resentment, when we are injured or offended; especially by those whom we dearly loved, and worked the hardest to help? Does injustice or ingratitude never cause in us any desire for revenge? Any desire to return evil for evil, instead of “overcoming evil with good?” This also shows how much is still in our hearts which is contrary to loving our neighbor.

Covetousness of any kind or amount is certainly contrary to the love of God; whether the love of money, which is too frequently “the root of all evil;” or a desire of having more. And how few, even of the real children of God, are entirely free from both! One great man, Martin Luther, used to say he “never had any covetousness in him since he was born.” But, even if it were true, I would say he was the only man (except Him that was God as well as man) who was born without it.  I believe that there was never one born of God, that lived any length of time afterward, who did not feel more or less of it often, especially in the latter sense. We may consider it an undoubted truth that covetousness, along with pride, self-will, and anger, remains in the hearts even of them that are justified.

It is experiencing this that has inclined so many to interpret the latter part of the seventh chapter to the Romans, to speak not of those who are “under the law,” that are convicted of sin, which is undoubtedly the meaning of the Apostle, but of those who are “under grace;” that are “justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ.” And they are right to a point. There does remain, even in them that are justified, a mind which is to some degree carnal (so the Apostle tells the believers at Corinth, “Ye are carnal”); a heart bent to backsliding, always ready to “depart from the living God;” a tendency toward pride, self-will, anger, revenge, love of the world; and a root of bitterness, which, if the restraints were taken off for a moment, would instantly spring up.  And a conviction of all this sin remaining in their hearts is the repentance which belongs to those who are justified.

But we should also be convinced, that just as sin remains in our hearts, it clings to all our words and actions as well. I fear that many of our words are more than mixed with sin; that they are entirely sinful; for this is all uncharitable conversation; all which does not arise from brotherly love; all which does not agree with that golden rule, “What ye would that others should do to you, even so do unto them.” This includes all backbiting, all tale-bearing, all evil-speaking, that is, telling the faults of absent persons; for no one would want others to tell his faults when he is absent. Now how few are there, even among believers, who are innocent of this?  And do they avoid unprofitable conversation? Yet all this is unquestionably sinful, and “grieves the Holy Spirit of God.” And “for every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account in the day of judgment.”

Suppose that they constantly guard their speech, so that all their “conversation may be in grace, seasoned with salt, and meet to minister grace to the hearers;” but do they not slide into useless discourse every day, in spite of all their caution? And even when they try to speak for God, are their words pure, free from unholy mixtures? Do they find nothing wrong in their motives? Do they speak only to please God, and not partly to please themselves? Is it to do the will of God alone, and not their own will also?  When they are confronting sin, do they feel no anger or unkind temper toward the sinner? When they are instructing the ignorant, do they not find any pride, any self-preference? When they are comforting the afflicted, or encouraging one another to love and to good works, do they never perceive any inward self-commendation: “Now you have spoken well?” Or any vanity, a desire that others should esteem them highly? In some or all of these respects, how much sin clings to the best conversation even of believers! The conviction of this is another part of the repentance which belongs to them that are justified.

And how much sin, if their conscience is fully awake, may they find clinging to their actions also! Are there not many of these which, though they would not be condemned by the world, cannot be commended nor excused, if we judge by the Word of God? Are there not many of their actions which they know are not to the glory of God? Many times they did not even aim at this; their works were not undertaken with an eye toward God. And of those that were, are there not many in which their eye was not fixed on God alone; in which they were doing their own will at least as much as His; and seeking to please themselves as much as, if not more than, God? And while they are trying to do good to their neighbor, do they not feel wrong tempers of various kinds? Therefore, their so-called good actions are far from being strictly such, being polluted with such a mixture of evil. And is there not the same mixture in their works of piety? While they are hearing the word which is able to save their souls, do they not often find thoughts which make them afraid, should they lead to their condemnation, rather than their salvation? Is it not the same when they are trying to pray, whether in public or private? As a result, they are now more ashamed of their best duties than they once were of their worst sins.

How many sins of omission are they guilty of? We know the words of the Apostle: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” But are they not aware of a thousand instances in which they might have done good to enemies, to strangers, to their brothers, for either their bodies or their souls, and they did not do it? How many omissions have they been guilty of in their duty toward God! How many opportunities of taking communion, of hearing His Word, of public or private prayer, they have neglected! After all his labors for God, Archbishop Usher, that holy man, had so great a reason to cry out, almost with his dying breath, “Lord, forgive me my sins of omission!”

But, besides these outward omissions, may they not find many inward defects in themselves?  They do not have the love, the fear, the confidence they ought to have toward God. They do not have the love which is due every child of man; or even that which is due every child of God. They have no holy temper in the degree they should; they are defective in everything; and deeply aware of this they are ready to cry out, with M. De Renty, “I am a ground all overrun with thorns;” or, with Job, “I am vile: I abhor myself, and repent as in dust and ashes.”

A conviction of their guiltiness is another part of that repentance which belongs to the children of God. But this is to be understood in a special sense. For it is certain, “there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus,” that believe in Him, and in the power of that faith, “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” However, they can no more bear the strict justice of God now, than before they believed. This pronounces them to be still worthy of death on all the preceding counts. And it would condemn them absolutely, if it were not for the atoning blood. Therefore they are thoroughly convinced that they still deserve punishment, even though it is turned aside from them. But most men either think they are condemned when they are not, or think they deserve to be acquitted. The truth lies somewhere in between. They still deserve, strictly speaking, only the damnation of hell. But what they deserve does not happen to them because they “have an advocate with the Father.” His life, and death, and intercession still stand between them and condemnation.

A conviction of their utter helplessness is still another part of this repentance. By this I mean two things: first, that they are, in and of themselves, no more able now to think one good thought, to form one good desire, to speak one good word, or do one good work, than before they were justified.  They still have no strength of their own; no power either to do good or resist evil; no ability to conquer, or even withstand the world, the devil, or their own evil nature. They can do all these things, but not by their own strength. They have power to overcome all these enemies; for “sin hath no more dominion over them:” But it is not from nature, it is the gift of God. Nor is it given all at once, as if they had some hidden supply, but rather from moment to moment.

Second, by this helplessness I mean an absolute inability to save ourselves from that guilt or deserved punishment of which we are still conscious; and an inability to remove, by all the grace we have (to say nothing of our natural powers), either the pride, self-will, love of the world, anger, and that general proneness to run from God, which we know, by experience, remains in the hearts even of those who are justified; or the evil which, in spite of all our efforts, clings to all our words and actions. Add to this an inability to avoid uncharitable and unprofitable conversation; and an inability to avoid sins of omission, or to make up for our countless defects; especially the lack of love both to God and man.

If any man is not convinced of this, if anyone believes that whoever is justified is able to remove these sins out of his heart and life, let him see for himself. Let him see if, by the grace he has already received, he can expel pride, self-will, or sin in general. Let him see if he can cleanse his words and actions from every hint of evil; if he can avoid all uncharitable and unprofitable conversation, along with all the sins of omission; and, last, if he can make up for the innumerable defects that he still finds in himself. Let him not be discouraged by one or two attempts, but repeat the trial again and again. The longer he tries, the more deeply he will be convinced of his utter helplessness in all these respects.

This is so evident that nearly all the children of God, despite their differences of opinion in other matters, generally agree in this; that although we may resist and conquer both outward and inward sin; although we may weaken our enemies day by day; we cannot completely drive them out. By all the grace that is given at justification we cannot uproot them. Though we diligently watch and pray, we cannot fully cleanse either our hearts or our hands. We cannot, until it pleases our Lord to speak to our hearts again, to speak for the second time, “Be clean.” Only then is the leprosy cleansed. Only then the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed; and sin no longer remains. But if there is no such second change, if there is no instantaneous deliverance after justification, if there is nothing but a gradual work of God (no one denies that there is at least a gradual work), then we must be content to remain full of sin until we die; and, if so, we must remain guilty until we die, continually deserving punishment. For it is impossible for the guilt, or the punishment we deserve, to be removed from us as long as this sin remains in our hearts and clings to our words and actions. According to strict justice, all we think, speak, and do only increases it.

The New Sense in Which a Believer Is to Believe

In this sense we are to repent after we are justified. And unless we do so, we can go no farther. For until we know of our disease, it cannot be cured. But, if we do repent in this way, then we are called to “believe the gospel.”

And this too is to be understood in a special sense, different from that in which we believed for justification. Believe the good news of great salvation, which God has prepared for all people. Believe that He is “able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God through Him.” He is able to save you from all the sin that still remains in your heart and clings to your words and actions. He is able to save you from sins of omission and to make up for whatever is lacking in you. This is impossible with man, but with God-Man all things are possible. For what can be too hard for Him who has “all power in heaven and in earth?” Of course His power to do this is not a sufficient basis for our belief that He will do it, unless He has promised it first. But He has promised it over and over, and in the strongest terms. He has given us these “exceeding great and precious promises,” both in the Old and the New Testament. We read in the law, in the most ancient part of the oracles of God, “The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 30:6). The Prophet writes, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: From all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. And I will put My Spirit within you, and ye shall keep My judgments and do them. I will also save you from all your uncleannesses” (Ezekiel 36:25, etc.). Likewise in the New Testament, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us, — to perform the oath which He swore to our father Abraham, That He would grant unto us, that we, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, should serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68, etc.).

You have, therefore, good reason to believe that He is not only able, but willing to do this; to cleanse you from all your filthiness of flesh and spirit; to “save you from all your uncleannesses.” This is the thing you now desire; this is the faith you now need, that the Great Physician is willing to make you clean. But is He willing to do this tomorrow or today? Let Him answer for himself: “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” If you put it off until tomorrow, you harden your hearts; you refuse to hear His voice. Believe that He is willing to save you today. He is willing to save you now. “Behold, now is the accepted time.” This very moment He says, “Be thou clean!” Simply believe, and you will immediately find that “all things are possible to him that believeth.”

Continue to believe in Him that loved you, and gave himself for you; that took all your sins on himself and saves you from all condemnation by His blood which is applied continually. So it is that we continue in a justified state. And when we go on “from faith to faith,” when we have faith to be cleansed from the sin that remains in us, to be saved from all our uncleannesses, we are likewise saved from all that guilt which we felt before. For by that faith in His life, death, and intercession for us, renewed from moment to moment, we are entirely clean, and now there is not only no condemnation for us, but also no such deserved punishment as was before, because the Lord is cleansing both our hearts and lives.

By the same faith we feel the power of Christ in us at every moment, only by which we are what we are; by which we are enabled to continue in spiritual life, and without which, in spite of all our present holiness, we should instantly become devils.  Leaning on Christ, we receive help from Him to think, and speak, and do what is acceptable in His sight. And so He goes before those who believe, in all their doings, and moves them forward with His continual help; so that all their plans, conversations, and actions are begun, continued, and finished in Him. And so he cleanses the thoughts of their hearts, by the inspiration of His Holy Spirit, that they may love Him perfectly, and rightly magnify His holy name.

So it is, that in the children of God, repentance and faith exactly correspond to each other. By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts and clinging to our words and actions. By faith we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands. By repentance we see that we still deserve punishment for all our tempers, words, and actions. By faith we are aware that our Advocate with the Father is continually pleading for us, continually turning aside all condemnation and punishment from us. By repentance we have the conviction that we cannot help ourselves. By faith we receive not only mercy, “but grace to help in time of need.” Repentance rejects even the possibility of any other help. Faith accepts all the help we need from Him that has all power in heaven and earth. Repentance says, “Without Him I can do nothing.” Faith says, “I can do all things through Christ strengthening me.” Through Him I can not only overcome, but drive out, all the enemies of my soul. Through Him I can “love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength;” and “walk in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of my life.”

Conclusion

From what has been said, we may easily learn the harmfulness of the opinion that we are fully sanctified when we are justified; that our hearts are cleansed from all sin at that time. It is true that we are delivered from the dominion of outward sin at that moment; the power of inward sin being broken, so that we no longer need to follow it. But it is not true that inward sin is totally destroyed then; that the root of pride, self-will, anger, and love of the world, is taken out of the heart; or that the carnal mind, and the heart prone to backsliding, are entirely uprooted. And to think wrongly about this is not, as some may think, simply a harmless mistake. It does immense harm: it blocks the way to any further change; for it is obvious, “they that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” If we think we are whole already, there is no room to seek further healing. Based on this assumption it is absurd to expect further deliverance from sin, whether gradual or instantaneous.

On the contrary, a deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is still a “carnal mind” in us which is still, in its nature, “enmity against God;” that a mass of sin remains in our hearts, weakened but not destroyed; shows the absolute necessity of a further change. We agree that we are born again at the moment of justification. In that instant we experience an inward change from “darkness into marvelous light,” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God, from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we changed entirely? Are we transformed completely into the image of Him that created us? Far from it. We still retain a depth of sin, and it is the awareness of this which compels us to groan for full deliverance to Him that is mighty to save. So it is that those believers who are not convinced of the deep corruption of their hearts, or are only mentally convinced, care little about entire sanctification. They may hold the opinion that such a thing will occur, either at death, or at some unknown time before it. But they are not uneasy because they do not have it, and have no great hunger or thirst for it. They cannot until they know themselves better; until they repent in the sense described above, until God unveils the monster within, and shows them the real state of their souls. Only then, when they feel the burden, will they cry out for deliverance from it.

Second, we may learn from this that a deep conviction of our sinfulness, after we are accepted (which in one sense may be called guilt), is absolutely necessary in order for us to see the true value of the atoning blood; in order to feel that we need this as much after we are justified as we did before. Without this conviction we must consider the blood of the covenant something which we hardly need now, since all our past sins are removed. But if both our hearts and lives are unclean, there is a kind of guilt which we are experiencing every moment, which would continually expose us to fresh condemnation, except for the fact that He intercedes for us.

Third, we may see that a deep conviction of our utter helplessness, of our total inability to retain anything we have received, and to deliver ourselves from the world of sin remaining both in our hearts and lives, teaches us to live by faith in Christ, not only as our Priest, but as our King. By this we are brought to make Him a whole Christ, an entire Savior, and to set the crown firmly on His head.  Then, His almighty grace having thrown down “every high thing which exalted itself against Him,” every temper, thought, word, and action “is brought to the obedience of Christ.”

 


This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.