Joe_2:12-14. Now, saith the Lord, Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments; and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, even a meat-offering and a drink-offering unto the Lord your God?
THE season of Lent has, for many centuries, been set apart in the Church of Christ, for the purpose of promoting in the minds of Christians a deeper humiliation before God, and of preparing them for a more profitable celebration of those mysteries which we commemorate in the Passion-week. The utility of consecrating that season to the end proposed was felt by the fathers of our Church at the time of the Reformation; and they have enjoined on all the members of our community to employ it in a more than ordinary course of penitence and prayer. But, unhappily, the superstitions of the Church of Rome, from which we separated, have excited such disgust in the minds of the generality amongst us, that we have run to a contrary extreme, so that at this day we put scarcely any difference between this season and the other parts of the year. Our Church expresses a regret that she is not able to enforce the rites of penance on offenders, as the custom of earlier ages had sanctioned: and if, in the stead of penance, we put penitence, I can most cordially unite in that sentiment. For, so entirely are the duties of this season neglected, that it will appear to many strange that we take such a subject as that before us, unless indeed on that day with which the season commences, and which is still observed amongst us as a public fast. But, in reality, the exhortation before us is suited to all seasons: and therefore, without apology, I will call your attention to it, and set before you,
All acknowledge, in general terms, the duty of repentance: and here we are led to contemplate it,
In its outward expressions—
[“Fasting, and weeping, and mourning,” are the proper expressions of penitence in the soul. But “fasting” is grievously neglected amongst us; and all are ready to excuse themselves from it, as unprofitable to their souls. But why should it not be as profitable to us as it was to the saints of old? Or why should our blessed Lord have given us directions for the performance of this duty, if it were a matter of indifference whether we performed it or not? The truth is, that we are as far from observing those other duties, of “weeping and mourning,” as we are that of “fasting:” and hence it is that “fasting” is so little in request amongst us. Do but call to mind your state before God, my Brethren; and see how rarely, if ever, you have wept on account of your sins; and how rarely, if ever, you have so “looked on Him whom you have pierced by your sins, as to mourn and be in bitterness, as one that is in bitterness for his first-born [Note: Zec_12:10.]?” — — — Yet these, so to speak, are only the outward expressions of repentance. Let me call your attention to it,]
In the inward experience of the soul—
[“To rend the garments,” however passionately it were done, would be a small matter, if we did not at the same time “rend the heart.” But O! what an idea does this convey! We can easily conceive, and see as it were before our eyes, a garment rent: but who can conceive of a heart torn, and rent as it were to pieces, by distress on account of sin? Yet this is the experience of one who is truly penitent and contrite: this is what God requires of us; and any thing short of this he will utterly despise [Note: Psa_51:17.].
Further than this, God says to us in my text, “Turn ye unto me with all your heart, even turn unto the Lord your God.” And how shall I represent to you this duty? Methinks it would occupy a long space of time to enter particularly into this part of my subject. But I will set it before you, so that you may comprehend it perfectly, and in an instant. Who amongst you has ever seen a river that is affected with the tide? At one time you have seen the waters flowing with majestic force towards the ocean; and a few hours afterwards you have seen them returning with equal copiousness towards their fountain-head. This shews how all the powers of the soul have been engaged in the service of the world; and how they are to be employed in the service of our God. It is no partial change that will suffice; it must be entire: and all our faculties, whether of body or soul, which have been used as instruments of sin, must become instruments of righteousness unto God [Note: Rom_6:13.].”
Now think of this, my Brethren: dismiss from your minds those partial views of repentance with which you have hitherto been satisfied; and address yourselves to this duty in its full extent.]
And that I may prevail with you, let me proceed to set before you,
From the general character of God—
[See God in his own essential perfections: “he is merciful and gracious,” and delights altogether in the exercise of mercy towards sinful men. See him also in his dealings with us: how “slow has he been to anger!” Against whom amongst us might he not have broken forth in anger a thousand times, just as he did against Korah and his company, or against Dathan and Abiram, or Ananias and Sapphira, whom he struck dead upon the spot? View him, also, when ready to execute upon us his wrathful indignation: how often has he, in his answer to the intercession of his dear Son, returned the sword to its scabbard, and “repented of the evil that he thought to do unto us!” And are these no encouragements to repentance? Can you willingly go on to insult so gracious a God, and to provoke him, till his anger break forth without a remedy, and “burn to the lowest hell?” I pray you, Brethren, “run not thus on the thick bosses of his buckler,” and defy him not thus to his face; but fall before him with the deepest self-abasement, and “seek his face whilst yet he may be found [Note: Isa_55:6.].”]
From the hope which this character inspires—
[God, in the preceding context, has threatened to send an army that should lay waste the whole land of Israel; and so destroy it, that the very worship of God should be set aside for want of an offering to present to him. At this day, also, he often visits sin with temporal calamities, till he has reduced us to the greatest imaginable distress. And, in reference to these visitations, it is uncertain whether God will remove them from us on our repentance, or not. David, though pardoned as to his soul, was visited with severe trials in his family. And so may we be visited: nor can we be certain, that, “though God forgive us our sins,” he will not “take vengeance of our inventions [Note: Psa_99:8.].” Yet may we hope for the removal even of these judgments: and “who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him,” even such a blessing as shall bring you into a state of sweet communion with your God?
But if the question be put in reference to the remission of sins, and the ultimate enjoyment of heaven, I will undertake, with reverence and humility, to say, “I Know.” Yes, the whole word of God declares that he will return in mercy to the contrite soul; and “blot out our iniquities as a morning cloud,” and “remember them against us no more for ever.” Even though he had given the command for our destruction, yet would he revoke it, even as he did in reference to Nineveh, if he saw us, in penitence and faith, returning to him: and though we had not an hour to live, he would hear our prayer, and take us, like the dying thief, to be with him in Paradise. This hope is founded on his perfections, as set forth in the Holy Scriptures, and on the word of promise which he has given to returning penitents. And therefore I cannot but urge and encourage every one of you to humble yourselves before him, and to “seek at his hands the blessings which he is so ready to bestow.”]
And now let me ask,
Is not this repentance necessary?
[Yes, for every one amongst you. I readily grant, that many of you are free from any thing that comes under the character of gross sin: but who amongst you has not grievously departed from God? Who has not shamefully slighted our blessed Saviour? Who has not resisted the motions of the Holy Spirit? Who has not lived for time, rather than for eternity; and to himself, rather than unto his God? Here, then, is reason enough for every one of you to weep and mourn, and to rend your very souls to pieces before God. I entreat, therefore, you who are young, and you also who are moral, to reflect on these things, and to turn to God without delay; yea, to turn unto him with your whole hearts.]
Are not the considerations with which the duty is enforced sufficient encouragements to the performance of it?
[I might have enforced the duty with far different arguments, and “persuaded you rather by the terrors of the Lord” to turn unto him. But I greatly prefer the views of God, as he is exhibited in the text. It is in this light that he is revealed to us in the Gospel; even as coming down to this earth to seek and save us, and to reconcile us unto himself in the person of his dear Son. And these considerations have a far greater tendency to humble the soul; which, if terrified for a moment by the threatenings of the law, is ready, like fused metal, to return in a little time to its wonted hardness. “Let, then, the riches of his goodness and long-suffering and forbearance be duly regarded by you; and let the goodness of your God lead you to repentance [Note: Rom_2:4.].”]
Will not the mercies offered you amply compensate for all the efforts which you may make to obtain them?
[Truly, if there were but a “peradventure” that you should find mercy, it were worth all the labour of ten thousand years to obtain it. Think only what it must be, to be monuments of God’s righteous indignation to all eternity; and what it must be, on the other hand, to be everlasting monuments of his grace and love. Can you contemplate this alternative, and duly estimate its importance? No: you must go down to hell, and taste the misery of the damned, and be exalted to heaven, to enjoy the blessedness of the saints in glory, before you can form any just idea of what is before you, either to be suffered or enjoyed, according as your state shall be found before God. I pray you not to trifle with your souls; but now, while the opportunity is afforded you, “flee from the wrath to come, and lay hold on eternal life.” Could you ask of Manasseh, or David, or Peter, or any of the saints, whether they wept too much; you can easily conceive the answer that would be returned you by them. To every one amongst you then, I say, “Begin, without delay, to sow in tears; and then expect, without a doubt, to reap in joy.”]