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“They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

The Need of Repentance

We are inclined to judge that there is a sad lack of depth and seriousness in much of our modern preaching. In our efforts to make the gospel simple, and salvation easy, we sometimes fail to press on the consciences of our hearers the holy claims of truth. Today, if a preacher were to call upon his hearers to “repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance,” he would, by many, be pronounced legal, ignorant, and so on. And yet this was precisely what the blessed apostle Paul did (Acts 26:20). Paul carried with him the full, clear, precious gospel of God—the gospel of grace—but Paul also preached repentance.

Man must take his true place before God, and that is the place of self-judgment. The Holy Ghost will make the sinner feel and own his real condition—it is He alone who can do so. He brings the Word of God to bear on man’s conscience. The Word is His hammer, with which He breaks the rock in pieces; it is His plow, which He uses to break up the uncultivated ground. He makes the furrow, and then casts in the incorruptible seed of the Gospel to germinate and bring forth fruit to the glory of God.

It is not that there is anything meritorious in the sinner’s repentance. Repentance is not a good work whereby the sinner merits the favor of God. True repentance is the discovery and hearty confession of our utter ruin and guilt. It is the finding out that my whole life has been a lie, and that I myself am a liar. This is serious work. There is no flippancy or levity when a soul is brought to repentance

The Joy of Repentance

In Luke 15 we learn that every case of true repentance touches the heart of God: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). It is one thing to see that repentance is required of man, but quite another to see that it is a joy to God. He has said, “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15).

The scribes and Pharisees murmured because Jesus received sinners. How little they understood Him! How little they knew of themselves! It was the “lost” that Jesus came to seek and save (Luke 19:10). But the scribes and Pharisees—like many today—did not think themselves lost. They were thoroughly unbroken, unrepentant, self-confident. All the learning of the scribes, and all the righteousness of the Pharisees, could not awaken a single note of joy in the presence of the angels of God. Every man who is building upon his own righteousness, who talks of his duties, his doings, his sayings, his givings, is really insulting God.

But on the other hand, the man who comes with a broken heart, a contrite spirit, repentant, self-judged—that is the man who gives joy to the heart of God. And why? Simply because such a one feels his need of God. To understand this is to grasp the full truth of the great question of repentance. A God of love desires to make His way to the sinner’s heart, but there is no room for Him so long as that heart is hard and impenitent. But when the sinner is brought to the end of himself, when he sees himself a helpless, hopeless wreck; when like the prodigal he comes to himself and feels the depth and reality of his need, then there is room in his heart for God, and—marvelous truth!—God delights to come and fill it.

The Sinner’s Duty

What is the sinner’s duty? “God … now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). God’s commandment binds them to do it; His goodness leads them to it; His judgment warns them to it; and, above all, and most marvelous of all, He assures us that our repentance gives joy to His heart. No man can meet God on the basis of works or duty; but God can meet any man—even the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)—on the ground of repentance, for that is man’s true place.

How can we look at that accursed tree on which the Son of God bore the judgment of sin, or hear that solemn cry breaking forth from amid the shadows of Calvary, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” and not see the absolute necessity of repentance? Sin is so terrible, so absolutely hateful to God, so perfectly intolerable to His holy nature, that He had to bruise His well beloved and only begotten Son on the cross in order to put it away. Shall we hear the glad tidings of full and free forgiveness of sins—a forgiveness which cost nothing less than the unutterable horrors and agonies of the cross—and be unmoved? If it was absolutely necessary that Christ should suffer for our sins, is it not morally fitting that we should repent of them?

The Believer’s Practice

We must never forget the soul-subduing fact that the basis of our peace was laid in the indescribable sufferings of the Son of God. We avail ourselves of the death of Christ to save us from the consequences of our sins, but often our ways do not exhibit the practical effect of that death in its application to ourselves. We do not walk as those who are dead with Christ—who have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts—who are delivered from this present evil world.

The apostle Paul called upon sinners to judge themselves, and he called upon believers to subdue and deny themselves. He did not preach a gospel that left people at ease in the world, satisfied with themselves, and occupied with earthly things. He did not tell people that they were saved from the flames of hell and were therefore free to enjoy the follies of earth. He preached a gospel which, while it fully met the sinner’s deepest need, also most fully maintained God’s glory—a gospel which, while it came down to the very lowest point of the sinner’s condition, did not leave him there. Paul’s gospel not only set forth a full, unconditional, forgiveness of sins, but also the believer’s entire deliverance from this present evil world and from the present power and rule of sin through the death of Christ.

This is what every earnest spirit must crave. All true-hearted Christians must long for increased personal holiness, more likeness to Christ, more genuine devotedness of heart. May we all have grace to seek after these divine realities! May we diligently cultivate them in our own private life, and seek in every possible way to promote them in all those with whom we come in contact! Thus shall we in some measure stem the tide of hollow profession around us, and be a living testimony against the powerless form of godliness so sadly dominant in this our day.

—Condensed from “The Great Commission” by C.H. Mackintosh.