'REPENT YE, THEREFORE, AND BE CONVERTED, THAT YOUR SINS MAY BE BLOTTED OUT'
Different kinds of repentance. The many exhortations of the Jews to national repentance in the new testament
'Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord,' Acts iii 19. This text has been considered a clear evidence enough for universal invitations and exhortations of all men to repent unto eternal life. But to me this text has never appeared to be an exhortation to repentance unto the eternal life, even of the people addressed; for that while the word repent, with its correspondent repentance, is used in the word of God with various meanings, differing, but not contradicting, I see no reason or divine authority for fixing a certain meaning upon these words, which the apostles never, In no one instance, carried out in their addresses to the unconverted Gentiles; a meaning which would pointedly contradict the plainest and most self-evident meaning of other and fundamental parts of the sacred word of God. On the different meanings with which the word repent is evidently used in the word of God, we will notice two:
Repentance unto life
First, what for clearness of distinction sake, we will call regeneration repentance, which is that vital and renewing penitence that is produced by the new creating power and grace of God in the vessels of mercy, Eph 11 10; Tit ill 4,5; and is that repentance that Christ, in the mediatory order and power of grace, came into the world to call sinners to, Matt ix 13, is now exalted to give with the remission of sins to the Israel of God, Acts v 3 1, and is what the gospel is sent to proclaim in his name, Luke xxiv 47, and which the goodness of God by the word commands and leads the called of God according to his purpose to, Rom 11 4, and which, as a divine grant only, the apostles emphatically call repentance unto life, Acts xi 18; because to it is entailed eternal remission of sins, and in it is developed God's gift of eternal life to the soul. I have never been able to learn, upon any corroborative authority in the word of God, that this is the repentance intended by the apostle in our text; although, to serve their turn, duty faith men would have it to be so.
Repentance on account of particular sins in the church, in the world, and particularly, as the text, in the Jewish nation
The second is, reformation repentance, which is circumstantial, and but natural according to the state and order of circumstances; whether it be:
First. In the churches of Christ, as in Rev ii, iii. Those seven epistles were to the seven churches, and to them they belonged, and not to the world; for the things approved thereby were in the churches; the blessings pronounced thereby were upon the churches; the faults and corruptions in principles, order, and conduct, marked and condemned thereby, were in the churches; the threatenings thereby were upon the churches; and the repentance demanded was accordingly of the churches only. And this repentance was for them to cast out the corruptions, in principles, order, and conduct, which had crept in among them, and for them to return to those principles, and to that order and conduct, from whence they had practically fallen and departed, Rev ii 5. The same as the apostle James, in writing to the 'twelve tribes scattered abroad,' James I 1, or to all those of the twelve tribes who professed the faith of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he wrote to none other, all the way through his epistle complained most heavily of the ungodly abuses of all good order, practice, and principles, which had crept in among those Hebrew professors of the faith, as into the churches above; and he laboured to produce a reformation among them, and for them to cast out the vile corruptions from among them, as becometh them, as professors of the holy, lovely, and kind faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the same as Paul had to complain, in a measure, of the Corinthian church, and so writing to them, 'They sorrowed to repentance, being made sorry after a godly manner,' 2 Cor. vii 9. And as job stood corrected, repented, and renounced the practically wrong course he had adopted, and so reformed, he being a God-fearing man before, Job xl 4,5.
Or, second, in the world, individually or collectively, under extreme cases of wickedness and immorality, for the averting of immediately deserved and to be expected judgments from the hand of the Lord, as the moral governor of the world; as in the case of Simon the sorcerer, who offered to buy the Holy Ghost with money; and to whom Peter said, 'Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee,' Acts viii 22. As in the case of the Ninevites, who repented of their violence, and cried mightily unto God. As Peter exhorted Simon, with reformation, repentance and natural prayer, to do as the case was. 'And God repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not;' and this was their temporal forgiveness, according to the nature of their repentance and prayer, Jonah ill 7,8,10. And as in the case of Ahab, 'Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days,' 1 Kings xxi 29. This was but a natural humbling, and a temporal salvation from immediate judgment And as Daniel said to the king, 'Let my counsel be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquility,' Dan iv 27. And as Lot said unto the men of Sodom, 'I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly,' Gen xix 7.
Or, third, whether in regard to the Jews, on their own peculiar ground, of privileges, laws, and constitution as a nation, that Christ should come of them, of the time of his coming, his having come, and the time being fulfilled to change their times and customs, according to the scriptures; the whole of which they either awfully abused, or spurned from them altogether. As to privileges, natural and moral advantages, as a people and nation, I need not say they were a peculiar people in those respects, above all people on the earth, Rom 11 1,2; ix 4,5. But practically they were extremely wicked, even in wickedness to be, with self-righteousness too, 'contrary to all men,' as the apostles found them, go wherever they might, 1 Thess. 11 15. And they had departed more from the laws of their land, the laws of their temple, Matt xxi 13, and from the God of their fathers, than any nation of the heathen had from the laws of their nation, their temples, and their gods, Jer. 11 11-13. Their own traditions, by which they set the word, laws, and statutes, of the Lord aside, are said to have been as many as would make twelve folio volumes (see Wright's Life of Christ). And when the time was fulfilled, according to their own prophets, whom it was their duty to credit as God's ministers to them on their national constitution, and whom, as such, they professed to receive, for God to change their times and customs, and the order of things, by the coming of Christ the Messiah, whom they professed to look for according to their prophets, they opposed him by every sort of insult and violence, although to the very eyes, ears, and common sense of nature, he demonstrated the truth of his Messiahship, by deeds infinitely surpassing all the power and wisdom of mere creatureship, and of all nature's common laws. And the more he gave this proof, the more they hated him, and pursued him, with murderous hands, to his blood on the tree; and on this awful matter of cry for vengeance on their heads, Peter enlarged in his address to the people in this chapter.
Was there ever a people whose wickedness was more extreme? Was there ever a nation by wickedness more exposed to, and who might expect the sudden judgments of God, in the order of his moral government, upon the ground, not of their spiritual, but rational and national accountability, which they had every way so awfully violated? And was there ever a nation who, to avert the impending judgments of God, more needed to be exhorted to a moral repentance of their state unto a moral reformation, and from their constitution as a nation and people, to a moral reception of the Messiah, the gospel dispensation, and that new order of things their prophets had all along foretold, and the time for which being now come? Indeed, I think not.
And if other natural men and people, according to the above several cases, could be morally addressed on their awful condition in their extreme wickedness, and be exhorted to moral repentance unto reformation, and they did so repent unto reformation, and were so temporally forgiven in the averting of the threatening judgments of God, without their ever being exhorted to perform of themselves what is in God's power and gift only for eternal salvation, and without their ever being eternally saved at all that we know of, - Is it impossible? Is it unreasonable?
Or is it any way contrary to the current testimony of the word of God, that the Jews, whose wicked condition was awful to an extreme above all people, should be exhorted to the like reformation repentance, for the like benefit under the moral government of God, without being exhorted to do that for eternal salvation, which is wholly of the power, grace, and gift of God only? I think it not impossible; and that they were so morally exhortable, and were so exhorted as a nation and people, and that such really and properly is the repentance, the conversion, and the blotting out of sins meant and intended by the exhortation in our text, so following the statement of their awful sin of murderously putting Christ to death, and to the moral end that they might be the preserved, and escaping from the sorest judgments in the times hastening. when one should be taken and the other left,' Luke xvii 34-36; times of refreshing to them that escaped.
And this is the meaning, and such is the repentance exhorted to, independent of the things of eternal salvation, in the following passages, saying - 'Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,' Matt ill 2; 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,' iv 17; 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel,' Mark 11 15; 'And they went out,' among the Jews only, Matt x 5, 'and preached that men should repent,' Mark vi 12, 'and believe the gospel to be true, and of God, as they admitted the law that came by Moses was true, and of God.' And our Lord rebuked and passed his woes upon those cities of the Jews where his mighty works were done, for their not so believing and repenting, Matt xi 20-23.
And that nothing more is intended than this moral repentance unto reformation, and the moral reception of Christ as the Messiah, and the gospel as a ministry and dispensation of God, is evident by our Lord's speaking of it collectively, as of whole cities; whereas, the repentance and gathering unto eternal life is individual. 'And ye shall be gathered one by one, O ye hosts of Israel,' Isaiah xxvii 12; 'And I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and bring you to Zion,' Jer.iii 14. And if we say that our Lord meant the repentance that is unto eternal salvation, we must add, what an eternal pity it is, that the works of Christ were not done in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, for 'they would have repented long ago,' and gone for ever to heaven! But no, our Lord means no such thing; for that by such repentance as is intended here, Sodom, as temporally saved, 'would have remained until this day,' Matt xi 23.
This moral repentance unto reformation, therefore, has, in the moral government of God, been a temporal salvation, as in the cases of Nineveh and Ahab, and would have been so of the Jewish nation, and was so of such as did repent unto reformation in their lives and manners, and which our Lord calls being 'forgiven in this world,' as perfectly distinct from that forgiveness that is for sin, or for the world to come, Matt xii 32; while moral quietude in this life will not be punished in the world to come as turbulent immorality will; for 'less tolerable' is more punishment, and 'worse and worse' in character, has the heavier judgment, 2 Tim iii 13.
And while natural repentance unto moral reformation has been a temporal salvation from impending judgments, as in the cases above named, so hardened and extreme immorality has evidently, in the order of the moral government of God, called down provoked and sudden judgments, as in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts v 10; the Egyptians, Sodom, Saul, and Jezebel: and as the Lord threatened Judah, saying, 'For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the judgments thereof, because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked; but I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem,' Amos 114,5; as it did befall Jerusalem, and especially so, the most violent persecutors of our Lord (See Buck's Theological Dictionary, article, 'Judgments of God').
And to produce this moral reformation and natural change in them and their conduct, whereby they might escape those judgments according to the conduct of the moral government of God in all ages, was the design and meaning of the exhortation to repentance in all those texts above set down, evidently so from this fact, that there is not a text in the apostles' writing and speaking, between our text and the end of revelation, wherein a different meaning hereon is in any shape or form carried out or authorized.