Secret Service Theologian



PAGAN mythology had a three-headed monster at the door of hell, but modern Christianity has its Cerberus at the gate of heaven. Faith, repentance, and the Spirit's work, by God intended to bring salvation to our very door, are turned by men into a threefold hindrance on the way to life. Or, to change the figure, faith is a rugged mountain on the pilgrim's path, and repentance a dreary slough beyond it. The mountain and the marsh are passed in safety, only to find perplexities more hopeless still ; for the fickle phantom of the Spirit's work must then be grasped and made his own, before the pilgrim can cross the threshold of the pearly gate. What a burlesque upon the gospel!

From the twilight days of prophetic testimony a divine voice still vibrates in our air, "As I LIVE, saith the Lord God, I HAVE NO PLEASURE IN THE DEATH OF THE WICKED." And turning to the clearer light and surer word of Him who came to give a ghastly but most blessed proof of the deep meaning of God's great oath, we gaze on Calvary, and as we gaze and worship, the words seem written there in judgment fire and redeeming blood: "GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY- BEGOTTEN SON." Every fact and testimony of the gospel assures, and is intended to convince us, that God is on the sinner's side, and "will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth."' Is the case so hopeless that man can do absolutely nothing for himself? Then righteousness is "to him that worketh not but believeth" "It is of faith that it may be by grace." Is man so utterly at enmity that even this would not suffice? The Holy Ghost has come down from heaven to turn our hearts to God and to secure to us every blessing Christ has won.

But here I have spoken only of faith and the Spirit's work: what then about repentance? Are faith and the Spirit's work enough? or is not repentance no less a necessity, if men are to be saved? I meet this question boldly and at once by denouncing it as based, not so much on ignorance as on deep-seated and systematic error. The repentance which thus obtrudes itself and claims notice in every sermon is not the friend of the gospel, but an enemy. It is like the officious guide who forces himself upon the traveller only to mislead him. Faith and repentance are not successive stages on the road to life; they are not independent guides to direct the pilgrim's path; they are not separate acts to be successively accomplished by the sinner as a condition of his salvation. But, in different phases of it, they represent the same Godward attitude of soul, which the truth of God, believed, produces.

Salvation there cannot be without repentance, any more than without faith; but the soundest and fullest gospel-preaching need not include any mention of the word. Neither as verb nor noun does it occur in the Epistle to the Romans - God's great doctrinal treatise on redemption and righteousness - save in the warnings of the 2nd chapter. And the Gospel of John - pre-eminently the gospel book of the Bible - will be searched in vain for a single mention of it. The beloved disciple wrote his Gospel, that men might believe and live, and his Epistle followed, to confirm believers in the simplicity and certainty of their faith; but yet, from end to end of them, the word "repent" or "repentance" never once occurs. It is to these writings, before all others, that men have turned in every age to find words of peace and life ; and yet some who profess to hold them as inspired will cavil at a gospel sermon because repentance is not mentioned in it: a fault, if fault it be, that marks the testimony of the Apostle John, and the preaching of our Lord Himself, as recorded by the Fourth Evangelist. The repentance of the gospel is to be found in the Nicodemus sermon, and in the gracious testimony to the woman at the well. And, I may add, any repentance that limits or jars upon those sacred words, is wholly against the truth.

What then is repentance? The question, bear in mind, concerns the truth of God and our own salvation. It is not a problem in etymology. Etymologically, metanola in Greek, and repentance in English, have exactly the same significance - an after-mind, the result of second thoughts or reflection. Moreover, the word in Greek is often used in this its primary sense. But second thoughts too often involve regret, and not unfrequently remorse; and it will not seem strange to any who have studied the history of words that nietanoia should have come to cover the entire range of meaning, from mere change of mind to sorrow and remorse. Our task is therefore to turn to Holy Writ, and, comparing Scripture with Scripture, to discover what God means when He calls men to repentance.

And here we do well to bear in mind a canon of interpretation, given specially regarding prophecy, but true of revelation as a whole. No passage of Scripture is to be isolated, and explained apart from other Scriptures. The words are to be interpreted consistently with what the Holy Spirit has elsewhere revealed. Taking heed then to the two rival errors, toward one or other of which our creeds are always tending, we can clear the ground at once by deciding that repentance does not mean penitence or sorrow, or any condition of soul or change of heart that makes the sinner acceptable to God, or has merit of its own. The Romanist view of repentance we reject at once, as opposed to the doctrinal teaching of the Epistle to the Romans, and the plain testimony of the Fourth Evangelist. Whatever repentance means, it must be something consistent with grace, and something implied in the Gospel of John.

But while refusing to exalt repentance at the cost of grace, we must guard against the Rationalist extreme of reducing it to a mere mental change. Much of what I have said respecting faith might well be repeated here. God must have reality. If He demands "a change of mind," it is not of the intellectual faculty He speaks, but of the man himself, the real man. So the apostle uses the word in the Epistle to the Romans and elsewhere, "I myself, with the mind, serve the law of God." Repentance is the turning of the mind or heart - the man himself.
It is but natural that the recoil from what I have termed "the Romanist view of repentance" should have carried men into extremes; and at this moment there is some danger of a reaction toward the old error of the Douay Bible, which confounds repentance with penitence. But the true antidote to the prevailing levity of the day is not a return to legality in preaching, but a more just appreciation of the solemnity of grace, and a worthier testimony to the greatness and majesty of the God with whom we have to do

Repentance is not faith, nor faith repentance; but yet they are inseparable. Inseparable, that is, in connection with the gospel. Therefore it is that the word "repent" is so seldom used in the sermons of the New Testament, and also that it sometimes stands alone as the principle on which man receives the blessing. "He that believeth hath," implies repentance; "repent and be converted," involves faith. The hand that clutches the assassin's knife must open ere it can grasp the gift its intended victim proffers; and opening that hand, though a single act, has a double aspect and purpose. Accepting the gift implies a turning from the crime on which the heart was bent, and it was the gift itself that worked the change. Faith is the open hand, relatively to the gift; repentance is the same hand, relatively, not only to the gift, but more especially to the dagger it has flung from it.

The schoolmen would explain that, chronologically, faith comes first, and then, repentance; but that, in their logical order, repentance has precedence. But the question of priority, though an interesting problem in metaphysics, is a profitless study in theology. Practically, they are simultaneous. He who truly believes in the Lord Jesus Christ may rest assured that he has repented; and "repentance toward God" equally implies "faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." That is, under the preaching of the gospel. Judgment-warnings might produce repentance, as Jonah's preaching did at Nineveh; but in the gospel, it is not the wrath, but the goodness of God, that leads to it.

Repentance, as I have said, has a twofold bearing. The characteristic of gospel repentance is repentance to; under the past dispensation, it was repentance from. John the Baptist, for instance, preached repentance in order to faith in One then yet to come. A man is crossing a moor at night; his eye fixed upon a light that marks, as he supposes, the homestead of a friend. Presently he meets another traveller, belated like himself, who tells him that the light he has been pressing towards is nothing but a gipsy's tent. As for the house he seeks, the stranger only knows that it is in a different direction altogether, but where, he cannot say; a shepherd will soon be passing who knows it well. Convinced of his mistake, he turns from the path he has been following, and sits down upon a stone to await the coming of the expected guide. Such was the repentance that the Baptist preached, a repentance from dead works, in order that they should believe in Him which should come after Him. But the full gospel of Christ is like a friend who meets the erring wanderer, and, by the same testimony that convinces him he is on a wrong path, turns him to the destination which he seeks.

According to an ingenious derivation suggested for it, the Greek word for "man" implies a face turned upwards. And such, in a moral sense, is the normal condition of the creature; such was Adam as he came from the hand of God. But sin brought in estrangement; and our race springs, not from Adam in Eden innocence, but from the fallen outcast. By nature man's face is now averted from his God. He needs, therefore, to be turned right round again. There is no difficulty here save such as theology has made. The student of Scripture finds there, in clear and simple language, what every one who has a spiritual history has learned as plainly from his own heart, that man by nature gravitates from God; spiritually "his countenance is fallen," his back is turned upon his Maker. The need, therefore, is not that he should mend his ways, but that he should change his course altogether.

The traveller's gait may be slovenly, and his pace slow; yet little does it matter, if every step is taking him further from his home. His first and great need is to be turned right about; and this turning is conversion, the objective phase of the change which, when considered subjectively, Scripture calls repentance; a change, moreover, which depends upon belief of the gospel. "To the Gentiles hath God granted repentance unto life," we read in the Acts of the Apostles. Referring to the same event, Paul and Barnabas announced at Antioch, that "God had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles"; and elsewhere, again, it is alluded to as "the conversion of the Gentiles." The same event was thus described in various aspects of it; and yet another might have been added, bringing in the fact of the new birth.

This change then, and the need of it, are indisputable realities. Whether we open the Scriptures, or turn to our own hearts, or look out upon the world around us, we find clear proofs and tokens that man's course by nature leads downwards; that there is a controversy pending between the creature and his God. And from first to last that controversy has been the same in its nature and results; but, as already shown, the ground and subject of it changed when the Son of God was manifested. Repentance and conversion were not less necessary in presence of a rejected Christ, than in view of a broken law; but the whole controvetsy between God and man now became centred in Christ; and therefore, acknowledging Him, believing in Him, implied, and carried with it the great change, the turning of the man to God. Hence the prominence which faith has in the gospel. The word "believe" occurs about a hundred times in the Gospel of John, and, as already stated, "repent" is not found even once. To believe in Christ involves a turning of heart to Him, and that is the only true conversion, the only true repentance.

I have mentioned the Spirit's work as another hindrance to man's efforts after salvation, and in truth it is the crowning difficulty. Faith and repentance; however they be regarded, seem to be within human capacity; but if the Holy Ghost must act, before a sinner can have life, man falls back helplessly in presence of the sovereignty of God.. And here let me say that this is precisely the value of the doctrine of the new birth in connection with the gospel; It is to convince man that salvation is impossible as far as human effort is concerned, and thus to cast him wholly upon God. He who preaches the Spirit's work without regard to the condition of his hearers is like a quack who, because one patient has been cured by a certain remedy, administers it promiscuously to all. "Ye must be born again" was addressed to Nicodemus, but not to the Samaritan woman at the well, nor to the multitude around the pool of Bethesda. It was true, doubtless, for all, but it was not the special truth they needed; and the more the Lord's words are weighed and studied, the more we shall be struck by the wisdom with which truth was ever ministered by Him.

In this view, indeed, the 3d, 4th, and 5th chapters of John demand the earnest and unceasing study of all who preach the gospel. In the 5th chapter, the Lord's hearers are the multitude, brought together by the miracle He has just performed, and further interested by the opposition of the Pharisees. And to such He gives a threefold testimony: first, to His own personal dignity and glory; then, to life for the sinner through His word; and lastly, to judgment coming upon those to whom that word does not bring life. Here we have a general testimony suited to the common need of all; but in each of the other chapters we have special dealing with the intricacies of a special case. In the 4th chapter we are face to face with a sinner living in open immorality, yet without any sense of sin - a case more common than we are apt to think, where a sinful course is not so much the result of a depraved heart or an abandoned will, as of a conscience wholly dead. And here He seeks, first to interest, and then to awaken her, and finally He declares Himself. But in Nicodemus we have a man who is ostensibly in the right path. His coming to Christ is itself a proof that he is a seeker after God. But he comes claiming a position that ousts grace altogether, and the Saviour must bring him to His feet before He can be a Saviour to him. Supposing himself already in the kingdom, he comes to the Lord as a God-sent Teacher; but the Lord "answers" him at once by declaring the need of the Spirit's work. Had the Lord exposed sin in Nicodemus, he wouki earnestly have repented of it. Had He unfolded to him a higher morality than he had ever learned, he would eagerly have pursued it. But, "Ye must be born again" not only put him outside the threshold within which he claimed a place, but seemed withal to shut the door against him.

'The common interpretation of John iii. 5, which connects it with Christian baptism," not only fritters away the meaning of the passage, but involves a very glaring anachronism. It appears from the 12th verse that the doctrine related to the kingdom as known to Israel - it pertained to "earthly things." And from verse 20 we learn that the Lord's word ought to have been understood by a Jewish Rabbi; i.e., that it was truth contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. The well-taught Scribe would at once have turned to Ezekiel's prophecy, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you and ye shall be clean, . . . and I will put My spirit within you." Or if he missed the reference at first, the words that follow, "The wind bloweth where it listeth," etc., might well afford the clew to the passage on which they are so plainly based "Come from the four winds, 0 breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live" (Ezek. xxxvi. 25-27, XXXVII. 9). The "clean water" alludes of course to the rite enjoined in Num. xix. (see p. 127). Nicodemus claimed his place within the kingdom by virtue of his nationality, as Israel might have done had they been faithful. But in the carnal and apostate condition of the nation, this showed thorough ignorance not only of the things of God, but of the plain teaching of the Scriptures. No one could have any part in the kingdom without the cleansing typified by the water of purification, and the regeneration promised in Ezekiel's prophecy. The reference in the Nicodemus sermon is to that rite and to that promise, and not, I need scarcely add, to a dogma which the Church in its apostasy based upon a false interpretation of this very passage. And if without this new birth from God, the Jew, even on his high platform of privilege and covenant, could not receive his promised blessings, how doubly true must be the word to us, "Ye must be born again."

It is no longer now "the teacher of Israel" seeking wisdom from "the Teacher come from God," but the sinner in the presence of his Saviour, seeking pardon and life. The declaration of the love of God and of the lifting up of Christ, are not the answer to the difficulty, "How can these things be?" but the answer to the need which that difficulty has awakened in the heart of Nicodemus. The mystery which Nicodemus, "the teacher of Israel," could not fathom, is solved for Nicodemus the sinner, in hearing and believing the word of Christ.

It was thus the Master preached. With the profligate Samaritan, He probed with matchless grace and wisdom the festering but hidden wound of sin. For the ignorant and needy multitude He flung the door of mercy open wide, that all might enter there. But with the Pharisee, who slighted grace, He seemed to change His purpose, and to close that door against him; yet no sooner did he take the sinner's place than Nicodemus found the way as free and open as the power and love of God could make it. So was it again when He declared Himself to be the bread of God come down from heaven to give life unto the world. One and another may have hearkened, and to such the blessing was as full and free as grace itself. But with the rest who kicked against the word, the Lord withdrew behind the sovereignty of God, and rebuked their murmurs by the truth that no one can come to Him except the Father draw him.

Here, then, is the value of the Spirit's work. For the humble penitent it bridges over and conceals the gulf that separates the sinner from his God. For the self-righteous or profane, it serves but to prove that gulf to be impassable. To the one it testifies of sovereign grace, to the other it testifies that grace is sovereign.

The Holy Ghost has come, and now He gives a double testimony. He bears witness against the world's rejection of the Son, and He testifies to the rejected One as now exalted to be a Saviour. It is His mission to convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because the Son of God has been cast out by earth; of righteousness, because the Outcast of earth has been welcomed by the Father in heaven; and of judgment, because Satan, who put forth all his power against Him, has now himself been judged. The presence of the Comforter is proof that Christ has triumphed, and a token of judgment on the world now lying in the wicked one.

But if God testifies to judgment in this day of mercy, it is in order thus to turn men's hearts to grace. And to the sinner who looks up to heaven for pardon, the mission of the Comforter is only to speak of Christ. The Spirit is come down to bear witness to the Saviour. But His is not like the Baptist's testimony, telling of a greater than Himself to follow. His word is itself the power by which dead souls are born again to God. The love of God to man, and the cross of Christ which manifests that love, and the inspired page which contains the record of it, would all be of no avail to save a single sinner, were it not for the Spirit's work.

But men draw strange inferences here. "Preaching the Spirit's work," as it is usually understood, seems based upon the thought that the Holy Ghost has interests and claims peculiar to Himself; and so the sinner must propitiate Him by prayer or worship in order to secure His aid. But all such thoughts are wholly false. Christianity is a great system of mediation. The Son came down to earth, not to supplant the Father, but to reveal Him the words He spoke were not His own, but His that sent Him. The Spirit has come down, not to supplant the Son, but to bear witness to Him. He does not speak from Himself, but receives of Christ for us. "He that hath seen Me hath seen The Father" was the word of Christ. He that has heard the Spirit's voice has received both the Father and the Son. We are not regenerated in order to believe. The Word of God is itself the seed by which we are begotten. Faith comes - not by prayer, for there can be no true prayer without it; nor yet by any work of the Spirit in the soul, apart from the message which He brings - faith comes by hearing, and it is by the hearing of faith that the Spirit is received.

"In maintaining the duty of praying before believing, you cannot surely be asserting that it is your duty to go to God in unbelief? You cannot mean to say that you ought to go to God believing that He is not willing to bless you, in order that, by so praying, you may persuade Him to make you believe that He is"

The prayer of Philip, that Christ would reveal to him the Father, was not more unintelligent and wrong than a prayer for the Spirit to reveal the Saviour. Apart from the Holy Ghost no one can be saved. Therefore He has come that no one need be lost. Christians speak too often of His. work as though it were a limitation upon grace. God intends it as a crowning proof that grace is boundless and triumphant.

It is the sovereignty of God that makes the Spirit's work so insurmountable a barrier on the way to life; but when the sinner comes to know that God's sovereignty is entirely on his side, the mountain which seemed to close heaven against him becomes a plain, nay, rather, it rises now behind him to bar the way to the City of Destruction.

It may be important that the theologian should define these truths; but the work of the preacher is to set forth Christ, and it is thus alone that the need of the true hearer can be met. The burdened sinner who came face to face with Him in the streets of Jerusalem or the village ways of Galilee, and heard words that revealed to him the Christ of God, received, with the revelation, peace and life and the birthright of heaven. He might have been unable to explain faith or to define repentance, and ignorant of the doctrine of the Spirit; but yet he had repented, and believed, and been born again. And the blessing is as near to men now as in the days of the Lord's humiliation, and the way of life is just the same. There is blessing for the sinner as freely, and on the same ground. If then some reader of these pages should be kept from Christ by misgivings based on false thoughts of repentance or the Spirit's work, let him turn away to Him who now speaks from heaven the words which once He uttered upon earth, and, hearing and believing, receive the blessing which the testimony brings "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth My word and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but is passed from death into life" (John v. 24).

I know no definition of repentance equal to that of the Westminster Divines (Shorter Catechism, Q. 87). But when men begin by confounding conviction with contrition, and go on to insist upon a certain amount of it as a condition precedent to receiving blessing, it is sheer error. Moreover, it is wholly untrue that the convert must be subjectively conscious of the various elements of the change involved in repentance, or even doctrinally acquainted with them. The qualities of the new nature may be latent for a time ;. and In the deepest repentance, all thought of self and sin may be lost in the overwhelming appreciation of present grace.


I think upon the past, and feel
My heart sink hopelessly, and fears
Of judgment seize on me; I kneel
Before my God, and own that years
And years of deep, dark, deadly guilt
Are dragging down my soul to hell.
I know the wretched hopes I've built
Of heaven, if His judgment fell
On me, would vanish as a dream:
Before the dreadful judgment throne,
Such hopes, I know, though they may seem
All fair and right, when by our own
Poor godless hearts surveyed, would all
But serve to prove what godless hearth
We had, to cling to them, at all.
O God, my life no hope imparts,
And yet I scarcely dare to hope
In Thee. My heart is like a stone;
My soul is dead; I blindly grope,
And long for light. And yet I own
It is not Thee, but only rest
And safety for my soul, I seek,
My guilty soul. 0 God, at best
I'm godless, even while I speak
To Thee! Not love but selfish fear
It is that brings me to Thy feet;
My wretched sins are far more dear
To me - but then, Thy judgrnent seat
Ah! yes, I own, were there no hell,
I would not seek Thy heaven, 0 God;
A Father's love is not the spell
That draws me, but Thy judgment rod.

O God, I cannot ask for bread,
For bread, I know, is children's fare,
And I'm a dog; I bow my head,
And own I'm but a dog: nor dare
I seek to claim a higher place;
I have no right to children's meat;
I only cast myself on grace,
I lay me prostrate at Thy feet.
O God, have mercy on my soul:
Before th' eternal night begins,
O save my dark and guilty soul;
Forgive my sins - O God, my sins I
Hast Thou not given Thlne only Son
To bear my sins upon the tree?
And wilt Thou now, when all is done,
Refuse, my God, to pardon me?
And, 0 my God, hast Thou not said,
"He that believeth on the Son
Hath life"? and I believe; though red
Like crimson are my sins, and one
By one they rise before me now,
Sins long forgotten, and they fain
Would make me doubt Thy word: I bow
My head in shame: yet wilt Thou deign
To look on me? If I am lost,
I need a Saviour: 'tis for such
He came to die; and what a cost
To pay I 'tis not for me to touch
That finished work of His, or seek
To add a sigh, or tear, or groan
Of mine to what He bore, or speak
Of aught in me but sin. Alone,
O Christ, Thou hadst to bear my doom
To take my deep dark curse on Thee,
And bear it all; and now theres room
For grace to pardon even me.

Then look on me, my Father. Yes,
I call Thee Father, for I know
Thy word is sure, and humbly bless
The grace that deigned to stoop so low,
That such as I can come to Thee,
And as a sinner reconciled
By His most precious blood, for me
Once shed, can know that I'm Thy child.

'Tis but a moment since I thought
There scarce was hope for one like me;
I heeded not the love that bought
Me with the blood of Calvary.
Yet now I dare to look above
And call Thee Father; though my heart's
Defiled, my lips unclean - Thy love
Has conquered fear - though Satan's darts

Fall thick around me, and within
I dare not look - 'tis like a sea
That cannot rest, and full of sin
I now can look away to Thee,
And find in Thee my peace, nor fear
To rest my trembling sin-stained soul
Upon Thy word, and so draw near.
My Saviour's blood has made me whole.
I'm black and worthless, but I'm Thine;
My God L'm Thine; to Thee I owe
My life, my life to Thee resign.
O teach Thy child in life to show
Thy praises forth. I bless Thy name;
I worship, magnify, adore,
And praise Thy great and glorious name,
O fill my soul yet more and more
With praise to Thee. The miry clay
Still clings to me, and yet I raise
My triumph song and bless the day:
O fill my soul yet more with praise!

Chapter Six - ELECTION

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