Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Penitential Tear

from Sword & Trowel 2002, No.3 by Peter Masters

Some Christians are able to say that the very first time they heard the Gospel they were so overwhelmed by a consciousness of sin and by the wonder of Christ’s love that they immediately repented and believed. They tell us they became instantly certain of their salvation, experiencing a dramatic change in their lives. Such sudden conversions are a gloriously authentic manifestation of the new birth, but outside times of special awakening they are comparatively rare. Straw polls of pastors taken at conferences, by this writer, show that very few (usually only two or three out of every hundred) testify to having had an instantaneous conversion. Most say they made several attempts at repentance before being certain of salvation. Some tell of many frustrated approaches spread over many months before they knew they were saved.

It would seem that the vast majority of genuine and lasting converts have to seek and pray for some days, sometimes even weeks and months, before they find the Lord. They go through a period of struggling and yearning, some almost despairing that they will ever be saved.

In the light of this it is surprising that most popular modern evangelistic techniques are built on the assumption that conversion is typically dramatic and sudden. The simplistic script of modern decisionism has almost nothing to say to seekers struggling to find their way through the wicket gate of salvation, and needing direction.

Certainly we may always hold out the promise of God that the very instant people sincerely repent and trust Christ they will be saved, but we should always qualify that promise by stressing the terms of the Lord, which are – ‘Thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.’ It is an inescapable fact that most people who hear the Gospel do not immediately repent and believe in the right way, but need further direction, exhortation and encouragement before they finally close with the Lord in an acceptable spirit.

This article identifies the wrong attitudes which may spoil a seeker’s repentance, and compromise his expression of faith. How may we help seekers to go to the Lord on the right terms? Advice to safeguard against these defects should be included in evangelistic sermons, and it will also need to be gently rehearsed to individual seekers who say they have repented, but cannot find the Lord.

This does not mean that we ask troubled seekers what specific sins they may have left out of their repentance. A less direct approach is correct, by which we give a summary, in very general terms, of the possible mistakes that they may make. The hearer may select in his own mind any portion of our counsel which applies to his situation. We want to help, not to pry.

The main reason why we should never attempt to find out the particular sins (or idols) which seekers may be leaving out of their repentance, is that by telling us, they engage in a form of unconscious ‘confession’, which releases and relieves the painfulness of conviction (by a catharsis), so that the seeker loses the burden to repent before God. If seekers begin to tell us the details of their sin we should discourage them, urging them to go directly to the Lord for cleansing. As a general rule we should never need to hear the particulars of any seeker’s sin. Our message is that seekers must go to Christ as the only High Priest.

Sensitive admissions

Some Christian workers have admitted that they have derived a sense of spiritual importance from hearing people speak of their shame. However, not only is repentance to God deflected, but people may be driven away. Those who have divulged their sins to a preacher or counsellor are quite likely to regret it, and feel too embarrassed to return to church. We know of people who have wandered in a spiritual wilderness for years because unwise workers drew sensitive personal admissions from them.

The following list of possible defects in repentance runs the risk of making repentance sound complex and even meritorious, which it is not. Repentance is not a ‘work’ and we do not want to make it one. It may be expressed in the simplest prayer, such as that of the dying thief, who said, ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.’ Nevertheless, as physicians of souls we must possess a realistic ‘anatomy’ of repentance, and this will add considerable realism and edge to our preaching, as well as enrich our personal counselling.

This topic is emphasised because superficial repentance is probably the major feature and fault in so much contemporary evangelism. We begin with a summary table (right) of problems, and then amplify these a little.

General problem no. 1
The seeker has too superficial a view of sin

(a) Repentance is much too vague and general

It may be that a seeker still has too small a view of the ugliness and seriousness of sin. Sometimes the preacher describes sin only in very general terms, and this does not help people to realise just how guilty they are before God. While God does not demand from the seeker a detailed inventory of all his sin, yet He does require a sorrowful acknowledgement that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, along with sincere repentance of his most obvious sins. A cool, detached and general assent to one’s faults is no kind of repentance. True repentance is more precise, as we see in David’s model prayer of repentance where three distinct aspects of sin are mentioned.

‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (Psalm 51.1-4).

The three ‘faces’ of sin lamented by David are transgression, iniquity and sin. We elaborate on these because, as we have noted, shallow treatment of sin is the most common fault in modern evangelism.

The Hebrew word for transgression points to acts of rebellion against God. We spurn His rule, steal our lives for ourselves, spit upon His authority and break His laws. Every moment of self-seeking and self-will is an extension of rebellion, so David prays for it all to be blotted out. Has a frustrated seeker realised the extent of his wilful rebellion? To present the problem of sin adequately should not lead a preacher into negative, carping, hostile preaching. We can be clear and faithful without sliding into an unrelenting diatribe, unrelieved by warmth, kindness and humour.

The second ‘face’ of sin is termed iniquity. The Hebrew word means crookedness. We have become perverted or ‘bent’, and incapable of being, for example, consistently truthful and unselfish. David prays that his iniquity shall be thoroughly washed, using a very robust word for wash – not the Hebrew word for washing the body, which is a gentle word, but the word reserved for the washing of clothes, which pictures the heavy pummelling given to deeply stained garments. Iniquity is deep-seated disfigurement. Does the seeker acknowledge that there is perversion in him, and long for cleansing?

The third ‘face’ of sin is called, simply, sin, meaning – missing the mark. It points to all actual offences of thought, word or deed by which the sinner has missed the mark of God’s standards.

David additionally acknowledges that these deeds are evil, a word which means (in the Hebrew) destructive or damaging. Sins smash God’s law, spoil His universe, pollute the individual’s life, break all links with God, and hurt and injure others. David longs to be forgiven these deeds, both from the guilt and the memory of them. Does the seeker feel something of the extent of the harm and hurt brought about by his sin?

(b) The seeker sees only ‘outward’ sins

Often people seem unaware of their heart sins, and think only of outward deeds. Is a seeker aware of his inward sins, such as pride, selfishness, self-seeking, deceitfulness, covetousness, capacity for hate, spite and ill-temper? Does he recognise his deep inner depravity and realise that he cannot improve this, and that it is getting worse as the years go by?

(c) Only one or two faults are acknowledged

It may be that the seeker is feeling conscious and ashamed of one particular sin, but has never been horrified at his total condition. In order for him to go to God in true and meaningful repentance he must see his complete need of forgiveness and renewal. His preoccupation with one or two sins may mean that he thinks the rest of his conduct needs no repentance. Judas became filled with remorse over one sin – his betrayal of the Lord – but he never came under conviction on account of all his sin, and so never repented in an acceptable way (Matthew 27.3-5).

(d) The seeker is still proud of his ‘good points’

Perhaps the seeker imagines that God will be pleased with some parts of his life or some of his deeds. He may say to himself, ‘I need forgiveness for my temper and my pride, but God will be glad to have me for my kindness and generosity.’ If the seeker is still pleased with himself in any respect he has missed the point and cannot meaningfully repent. He must realise that his whole life has so offended God that there is no hope of blessing or Heaven for him unless he applies for a free and comprehensive pardon as a totally lost sinner. In his present attitude he is like a convicted mass-murderer pleading that he has always been polite to his mother. Any imagined goodness is an absurd triviality in the light of a sinner’s immense and numerous crimes against God.

(e) Sin is regarded as sickness

It may be that the seeker sees sin as a sickness. Instead of acknowledging personal responsibility and guilt, he says to God – ‘O God, deliver me from this disease of sin which has ruined my life.’ Some preachers actually encourage this attitude by portraying the sinner as a sad and wretched victim of a painful disease. If suffering people (they say) will only put their hand in the hand of the Saviour, then He will deliver them from its tragic power. This is a false picture of sin, which is highly attractive to people who do not wish to feel guilty. We are responsible for our sins, and must repent as guilty sinners.

(f) Excuses are made for sin

Some seekers avoid taking full responsibility for their sin by making excuses. They stole because they were in bad company, or they lied because there was no way out. They have beaten their children because they themselves had received a rough, loveless upbringing, and they have drunk heavily and fallen into carnal indulgence because their circumstances have been so depressing. One sinner blames his bad marriage for his moral failure, while another blames the pressures of business for his temper, and so on. But when we come before God we must leave all excuses behind and say like David, ‘I acknowledge my transgressions . . . Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.’

Unless the sinner accepts entire responsibility for his sin he cannot be forgiven. A truly repentant person cries, ‘O Lord, I have sinned!’ Paul looked back on his repentance and exclaimed – ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.’ True repentance takes the blame, and then the Lord takes away the guilt.

(g) Rejection of Christ is seen as the only sin

It is possible that a seeker may be distracted by the wrong idea that the only sin which really matters in repentance is that of rejecting Christ. Some preachers teach that because Christ has already atoned for every sin that everyone has ever committed, the only sin for which a person can be condemned is that of rejecting His atonement. A seeker who has heard this notion may go to Christ with the feeling that all he needs to do is to ‘receive Christ’, and may not feel burdened to repent of all his other sins. The only repentance in his prayer will be – ‘Lord, I have sinned in rejecting Thee.’

This kind of repentance is easy and may be made by a most superficial and unconvicted person. Obviously if such a prayer were to be accompanied by a heartfelt realisation of all other personal sinfulness, it would be a valid prayer of repentance, but frequently this is not so. The Lord makes plain that people reject Him because their deeds are evil (John 3.19-20). They are condemned not just for rejecting Him, but for all the sins which lead them to do so.

Out of numerous passages of Scripture, one should be sufficient to prove that repentance must focus on the sinner’s overall deeds. In Romans 1 Paul describes a whole range of sins, stating categorically that God will judge people for them. He says also that the goodness, forbearance and longsuffering of God is designed to lead sinners to repent of the specific deeds that he lists.

(h) There is no repentance for unseen sin

True repentance includes a large element of ‘unidentified’ sin. The sinner feels consciously ashamed for much of his sin, but realises that there is far more which he is not aware of. He realises that there is far more wrong than he knows. David showed the way when he repented of both his wilful sins and the countless defects which he had not so far seen in himself, saying,

‘Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults’ (Psalm 19.12).

Has the seeker really been awed by God’s great holiness? Has he grasped that the Lord has eyes as a flame of fire, and that nothing unclean can stand in His presence? Has he said, like Job – ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? . . . now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’?

General problem no. 2
The seeker feels little shame

(a) A benefit is sought rather than forgiveness

For repentance to be genuine the seeker must not chiefly want benefits and blessings. Preaching rightly mentions the benefits of salvation, but if these are emphasised at the expense of repentance, the impression may be given that God will bless even a token acknowledgement of sin.

A classic example of one who repented only for gain is that of King Saul. When Samuel charged him with disobedience to God he replied –

‘Pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord . . . I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel . . . ’ (1 Samuel 15.25-30).

Saul wanted to avoid public humiliation and loss of his kingship, and his acknowledgement of sin was therefore superficial.

Does the seeker merely want the blessings of salvation? Is it possible that he wants to fit in better with his believing friends or family? Does he want to pursue a courtship with a believer? Does he want to be healed of sickness or depression or helped in some other way? What is the motive behind the attempt at repentance? It is legitimate for a seeker to desire the benefits, but there must be a paramount concern over sin. The act of repentance must never be dominated by the hope of benefits such as prosperity, success, health, happiness and Heaven.

(b) The seeker is afraid of judgement rather than ashamed

It is possible for a person with a religious upbringing to be afraid of God, as Luther was throughout his childhood. When a teenager, terrified by a fearful thunderstorm, he vowed to become a monk if God would spare him. A seeker may be afraid of being eternally lost, but not truly ashamed of sin, so that his repentance is no more than an act of desperation. Repentance is more than a cringing attempt to escape trouble; it is a truly sorrowful acceptance of blame, and a dependence upon grace.

Psalm 130.1-4 presents the right approach:

‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord . . . If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.’

(c) A form of passing remorse substitutes for shame

Remorse and regret can produce pseudo-repentance, as the writer once found as a young pastor visiting men in prison, who repented with apparent sincerity, but on release scoffed at what they had done. We think again of Saul, whose violent temper would give way to tender feelings and intense shame for his deeds. One moment he sought the destruction of David, and the next he wept over his actions, but his weeping soon evaporated because it was purely sentimental, and not produced by a genuine sorrow for guilt.

Let us suppose someone has committed a great sin, made a fool of himself, destroyed his good name, hurt his family, and thrown away opportunities, after which he feels intense anguish and remorse. But this remorse could be entirely earthly, rather than spiritual, finding an emotional outlet in repentance. The shame of true repentance is more than self-pitying, transient regret.

If we suspect that someone is repenting only from selfish remorse, we should mention that this is one of the hindrances to conversion. We should not accuse the person of this error, but simply refer to it as a possible factor, and if it is true in his case, he will hopefully focus his mind on his guilt rather than his trouble, because only then will he be able to repent. Has the seeker really looked within? When people truly repent they are ‘pricked in their heart’ (Acts 2.37).

General problem no. 3
Repentance is not God-centred

(a) The seeker is not sorry toward God

We can tell when shame is merely selfish remorse and passing sentiment, or when it is genuine conviction, because the latter involves sorrow toward God. David showed the difference when he prayed, ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.’ Truly repentant people see that God has made them and given them life, faculties and abilities, which they have stolen for themselves. They see their offensiveness in the sight of God, and the crimes committed towards Him. They feel that God has a just argument against them, and should everlastingly condemn them, for He is an insulted, offended party. True repentance is not merely a desire to be safe spiritually; it is sorrow for having wronged and offended the Holy God.

(b) The seeker is not sufficiently moved by Christ’s sufferings

Repentance ideally includes an element of grief for having necessitated the suffering of the Saviour. If genuine, it should contain some measure of responsibility for the price paid by the Lord. The repentant sinner says – ‘My sin was there!’

Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Perhaps the seeker is somewhat ‘selfish’ in his repentance and has taken for granted the price paid by Christ for salvation. Salvation, though free and simple for us, was so costly to the Lord that human language is not adequate to express His dying agonies. The truly repentant person is usually moved at the realisation that he has caused the Saviour an eternal weight of punishment and woe. Biblical repentance flows out of a feelingful view of Calvary.

The Ethiopian eunuch was drawn to Christ as Philip explained the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.’

The prophet Zechariah looked ahead to how Calvary would affect hearts saying, ‘They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him.’ The seeker, therefore, should be advised to think about the effect of his sin on his Saviour, and to feel indebtedness to Him.

General problem no. 4
Rebellious desires still rule

(a) The seeker hopes to keep some sins

A seeker may be frustrated in obtaining a response from God because he wants to keep some of his sinful habits or selfish ambitions. It is a common hindrance to conversion that seekers leave key matters out of their repentance. There may be a genuine longing for cleansing and forgiveness, but it is spoiled by a reluctance to give up aspects of the ‘old life’. Many a seeker has tried to hide one or two sins beneath his coat and still press on into the kingdom of God.

Nothing neutralises a prayer of repentance more than a divided heart. James says – ‘Let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man [one of divided desires] is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1.7-8). Sincerity and openness before God are essential, and the seeker must examine his heart and renounce all his sinful and selfish pursuits, realising that ‘all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13).

(b) A new life is not greatly desired

Does the seeker really long for a new life, or is he secretly apprehensive about undergoing any process of change wrought by the power of God? Does he really want spiritual life and a new nature? In true repentance the seeker realises that he is ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked’ in God’s sight, and he looks forward to the touch of God upon his life, when old things will pass away, and all things shall become new.

(c) The total lordship of Christ is not accepted

Closely related to the previous paragraphs is the possibility that the seeker is unready to yield over his life to the government of Christ. Repentance is meant to bring to an end a state of rebellion and to commence a state of obedience. It is an act that marks a reversal of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, there can be no genuine repentance if the seeker does not yield to the authority and guidance of the Lord.

The greatest feature of human sin is rebellion, and therefore the chief feature of repentance is an end of past self-determination. The Saviour says – ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ and, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (John 14.15 and Luke 9.23).

The frustrated seeker may need to be asked if he has renounced his past lifestyle and self-seeking ambitions, and yielded his will to the Lord.

The exercise of faith

It may be felt that such an extended treatment of repentance and its possible deficiencies steals from the importance of the ‘positive’ side of a seeker’s approach to God, namely, the exercise of faith. However, it should be remembered that without true repentance there can be no saving faith, because without a sincere yearning for cleansing there is no purpose in laying hold of Calvary.

If there is no deep need, there can be no great dependence. If there is no longing for relief there can be no leaning on Christ. If we are not fleeing from condemnation, we cannot throw ourselves into the arms of Christ. Faith means that I embrace Christ out of urgency as my exclusive and all-sufficient hope.

Repentance of personal sin is the driving purpose of faith in Christ as Saviour and Deliverer, and without it there is no possibility of genuine, urgent, appreciative, and tenacious looking to and holding on to Jesus Christ by faith.

The problem sometimes arises that seekers keep a measure of trust, however small, in their own good conduct or good character. Even if a person has only one percent of good works to subscribe to salvation, his ‘application’ to God will be rejected. If he thinks he deserves grace more than other people – even if only slightly – his attempts to find mercy will fail. Saving faith says to God that Christ is all, and that the seeker has no merit whatsoever. Calvary must wholly accomplish and secure salvation.

Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.