Thomas Brooks on the Nature of True Repentance

I know this is a bit lengthy, but I just could not post a portion of it.  The whole thing is worth reading in its entirety.  This is extracted from his excellent book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (available here online):

DEVICE 6. By persuading the soul that the work of repentance is an easy work; and that therefore the soul need not make such a matter of sin. Why! Suppose you do sin, says Satan, it is no such difficult thing to return, and confess, and be sorrowful, and beg pardon, and cry, ‘Lord, have mercy upon me!’ and if you do but this, God will forgive your debt, and pardon your sins, and save your souls.

By this device Satan draws many a soul to sin, and makes many millions of souls servants of sin, or rather slaves to sin.

Remedy (1). The first remedy is, seriously to consider, That repentance is a mighty work, a difficult work, a work that is above our power. There is no power below that power which raised Christ from the dead, and which made the world—which can break the heart of a sinner, or turn the heart of a sinner! You are as well able to melt adamant, as to melt your own heart; to turn a flint into flesh, as to turn your own heart to the Lord; to raise the dead and to make a world, as to repent. Repentance is a flower wich does not grow in nature’s garden! ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.’ (Jer. 13:23). Repentance is a gift that comes down from above. Men are not born with repentance in their hearts, as they are born with tongues in their mouths: (Acts 5:31): ‘Him has God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior—to give repentance.’ Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25-26) It is not in the power of any mortal to repent at pleasure. Some ignorant deluded souls vainly conceit that these five words, ‘Lord! have mercy upon me,’ are efficacious to send them to heaven; but as many are undone by buying a counterfeit jewel, so many are in hell by mistake of their repentance. Many rest in their repentance, which caused on to say, ‘Repentance damns more than sin!’ It was a vain brag of king Cyrus, that caused it to be written upon his tombstone, ‘I can do all things!’ So could Paul, too—but it was ‘through Christ, who strengthened him.’

Remedy (2). The second remedy against this device of Satan is, solemnly to consider of the nature of true repentance. Repentance is some other thing, than what vain men conceive. The Hebrew word for repentance signifies to return, implying a going back from what a man had done. It denotes a turning or converting from one thing to another, from sin to God. The Greeks have two words by which they express the nature of repentance, one signifies to be careful, anxious, solicitous, after a thing is done; the other word denotes after-wisdom, the mind’s recovering of wisdom, or growing wiser after our folly. True repentance is a thorough change both of the mind and life. Repentance for sin is nothing worth without repentance from sin. “If you repent with a contradiction,” says Tertullian, “God will pardon you with a contradiction; if you repent and yet continue in your sin, God will pardon you, and yet send you to hell—there is a pardon with a contradiction. Negative goodness serves no man’s turn, to save him from the axe.”

Repentance is sometimes taken, in a more strict and narrow sense, for godly sorrow; sometimes repentance is taken, in a large sense, for amendment of life. Repentance has in it three things, namely, the act, subject, and terms.

(1) The formal ACT of repentance is a changing and converting. It is often set forth in Scripture by turning. ‘Turn me, and I shall be turned,’ says Ephraim; ‘after I was turned, I repented,’ says he (Jer. 31:18, 19). It is a turning from darkness to light.

(2) The SUBJECT changed and converted is the whole man; it is both the sinner’s heart and life: first his heart, then his life; first his person, then his practice and lifestyle. ‘Wash, be clean,’ there is the change of their persons; ‘Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well’ (Is. 1:16, 17); there is the change of their practices. ‘Cast away,’ says Ezekiel, ‘all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed;’ there is the change of the life; ‘and make you a new heart and a new spirit’ (18:31); there is the change of the heart.

(3) The TERMS of this change and conversion, from which and to which both heart and life must be changed; from sin to God. The heart must changed from the state and power of sin, the life from the acts of sin—but both unto God; the heart to be under his power in a state of grace, the life to be under his rule in all new obedience; and the apostle speaks, ‘To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’ (Acts 26:18). So the prophet Isaiah says, ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord’ (55:7).

Thus much of the nature of evangelical repentance. Now, souls, tell me whether it be such an easy thing to repent, as Satan does suggest. Besides what has been spoken, I desire that you will take notice, that repentance does include turning from the most darling sin. Ephraim shall say, ‘What have I to do any more with idols?’ (Hosea 14:8). Yes, it is a turning from all sin to God (Ezek. 18:30): ‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, says the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.’

Herod turned from many—but turned not from his Herodias, which was his ruin. Judas turned from all visible wickedness, yet he would not cast out that golden devil ‘covetousness’, and therefore was cast into the hottest place in hell. He who turns not from every sin, turns not aright from any one sin. Every sin strikes at the honor of God, the being of God, the glory of God, the heart of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, and the peace of a man’s conscience; and therefore a soul truly penitent strikes at all, hates all, conflicts with all, and will labor to draw strength from a crucified Christ to crucify all sins. A true penitent knows neither father nor mother, neither right eye nor right hand—but will pluck out the one and cut off the other. Saul spared but one Agag, and that cost him his soul and his kingdom (1 Sam. 15:9).

Besides, repentance is not only a turning from all sin—but also a turning to all good; to a love of all good, to a prizing of all good, and to a following after all good (Ezek. 18:21): ‘But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.’ Mere negative righteousness and holiness is neither true righteousness nor true holiness. The evil servant did not use his one talent in debauchery (Matt. 25:18). Those reprobates (Matt. 25:41-45), did not rob the saints—but merely did not help them. For this they must eternally perish.

David fulfilled all the will of God, and had respect unto all his commandments, and so had Zacharias and Elizabeth. It is not enough that the tree does not bear bad fruit; but it must bring forth good fruit, else it must be ‘cut down and cast into the fire’ (Luke 13:7). So it is not enough that you are not thus and thus wicked—but you must be thus and thus gracious and godly, else divine justice will put the axe of divine vengeance to the root of your souls, and cut you off forever. ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Matt. 3:10). Besides, repentance does include a sensibleness of sin’s sinfulness—how opposite and contrary sin is to the blessed God. God is light, sin is darkness; God is life, sin is death; God is heaven, sin is hell; God is beauty, sin is deformity.

Also true repentance includes a sensibleness of sin’s destructiveness; how it cast angels out of heaven, and Adam out of paradise; how it laid the first cornerstone in hell, and brought in all the curses, crosses, and miseries, that are in the world; and how it makes men liable to all temporal, spiritual and eternal wrath; how it has made men Godless, Christless, hopeless and heavenless.

Further, true repentance includes sorrow for sin, contrition of heart. It breaks the heart with sighs, and sobs, and groans—that by sin—a loving God and Father is offended; a blessed Savior afresh crucified, and the sweet Comforter, the Spirit, grieved and vexed.

Again, repentance does include, not only a loathing of sin—but also a loathing of ourselves for sin. As a man does not only loathe poison—but he loathes the very dish or vessel that has the smell of the poison; so a true penitent does not only loathe his sin—but he loathes himself, the vessel that smells of it; so Ezek. 20:43: ‘And there shall you remember your ways and all your doings, wherein you have been defiled; and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that you have committed.’ True repentance will work your hearts, not only to loathe your sins—but to loathe yourselves.

True repentance is a sorrowing for sin, as it is an offence to God and against God. Repentance both comes from God, and drives a man to God, as it did the church in the Canticles, and the prodigal.

Again, true repentance does not only work a man to loathe himself for his sins—but it makes him ashamed of his sin also: ‘What fruit had you in those things whereof you are now ashamed?’ says the apostle (Rom. 6:21). So Ezekiel: ‘And you shall be confounded, and never open your mouth any more, because of your shame, when I am pacified toward you for all that you have done, says the Lord God’ (16:63). When a penitent soul sees his sins pardoned, the anger of God pacified, the divine justice satisfied, then he sits down and blushes, as one ashamed. ‘So much the more God has been displeased with the blackness of sin, the more will he be pleased with the blushing of the sinner’ (Bernard). Those who do not burn now in zeal against sin must before long burn in hell for sin.

Yes, true repentance makes a man to deny his sinful self, and to walk contrary to sinful self, to take a holy revenge upon sin, as you may see in Paul, the jailor, Mary Magdalene, and Manasseh. This the apostle shows in 2 Cor. 7:10, 11: ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.’

Now souls, sum up all these things together, and tell me whether it would be such an easy thing to repent as Satan would make the soul to believe, and I am confident your heart will answer that it is as hard a thing to repent as it is to make a world, or raise the dead!

I shall conclude this second remedy with a worthy saying of a precious holy man: ‘Repentance,’ says he, ‘strips us stark naked of all the garments of the old Adam, and leaves not so much as a shirt behind.’ In this rotten building it leaves not a stone upon a stone. As the flood drowned Noah’s own friends and servants, so must the flood of repenting tears drown our sweetest and most darling sins.

Remedy (3). The third remedy against this device of Satan is seriously to consider, That repentance is a continued act. The word repent implies the continuation of it. Anselm confesses, that all his life was either damnable for sin committed, or unprofitable for good omitted; and at last concludes, “Oh, what then remains, but in our whole life—but to lament the sins of our whole life.” True repentance inclines a man’s heart to perform God’s statutes always, even unto the end. A true penitent must go on from faith to faith, from strength to strength; he must never stand still nor turn back. Repentance is a grace, and must have its daily operation as well as other graces. True repentance is a continued spring, where the waters of godly sorrow are always flowing: ‘My sin is ever before me’ (Psalm 51:3). A true penitent is often casting his eyes back to the days of his former vanity, and this makes him morning and evening to ‘water his couch with his tears.’ ‘Remember not against me the sins of my youth,’ says one blessed penitent; and ‘I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man,’ says another penitent.

Repentance is a continued act of turning, a repentance never to be repented of, a turning never to turn again to folly. A true penitent has ever something within him to turn from; he can never get near enough to God; no, not so near him as once he was; and therefore he is still turning and turning that he may get nearer and nearer to him, who is his chief good and his only happiness, optimum maximum, the best and the greatest. They are every day a-crying out, ‘O wretched men that we are, who shall deliver us from this body of death!’ (Rom. 7:24). They are still sensible of sin, and still conflicting with sin, and still sorrowing for sin, and still loathing of themselves for sin. Repentance is no transient act—but a continued act of the soul.

And tell me, O tempted soul, whether it be such an easy thing as Satan would make you believe, to be every day a-turning more and more from sin, and a-turning nearer and nearer to God, your choicest blessedness. A true penitent can as easily content himself with one act of faith, or one act of love, as he can content himself with one act of repentance.

A Jewish Rabbi, pressing the practice of repentance upon his disciples, and exhorting them to be sure to repent the day before they died, one of them replied, that the day of any man’s death was very uncertain. ‘Repent, therefore, every day,’ said the Rabbi, ‘and then you shall be sure to repent the day before you die.’ You are wise, and know how to apply it to your own advantage.

Remedy (4). The fourth remedy against this device of Satan is solemnly to consider, That if the work of repentance were such an easy work as Satan would make it to be, then certainly so many would not lie roaring and crying out of wrath and eternal ruin under the horrors and terrors of conscience, for not repenting! Yes, doubtless, so many millions would not go to hell for not repenting, if it were such an easy thing to repent. Ah, do not poor souls under horror of conscience cry out and say, Were all this world a lump of gold, and in our hand to dispose of—we would give it for the least particle of true repentance! And will you say it is an easy thing to repent?

When a poor sinner, whose conscience is awakened, shall judge the exchange of all the world for the least particle of repentance to be the happiest exchange that ever a sinner made; tell me, O soul, is it good going to hell? Is it good dwelling with the devouring fire, with everlasting burnings? Is it good to be forever separated from the blessed and glorious presence of God, and saints, and to be forever shut out from those good things of eternal life, which are so many, that they exceed number; so great, that they exceed measure; so precious, that they exceed all estimation? We know it is the greatest misery that can befall the sons of men; and would they not prevent this by repentance, if it were such an easy thing to repent as Satan would have it?

Well, then, do not run the hazard of losing God, Christ, heaven, and your soul forever, by hearkening to this device of Satan—that is, that it is an easy thing to repent. If it be so easy, why, then, do wicked men’s hearts so rise against those who press the doctrine of repentance upon them in the sweetest way, and by the strongest and the choicest arguments that the Scriptures afford? And why do they kill two at once: the faithful laborer’s name and their own souls, by their wicked words and actings, because they are put upon repenting, which Satan tells them is so easy a thing? Surely, were repentance so easy, wicked men would not be so much enraged when that doctrine is, by evangelical considerations, pressed upon them.

“If you be backward in the thoughts of repentance, be forward in the thoughts of hell, the flames whereof only the streams of the penitent eye can extinguish” (Tertullian). “Oh, how shall you tear and rend yourself! how shall you lament fruitless repenting! What will you say? Woe is me, that I have not cast off the burden of sin; woe is me, that I have not washed away my spots—but am now pierced with my iniquities; now have I lost the surpassing joy of angels!” (Basil).

Remedy (5). The fifth remedy against this device of Satan is seriously to consider, That to repent of sin is as great a work of grace, as not to sin. (Yet it is better to be kept from sin than cured of sin by repentance; as it is better for a man to be preserved from a disease than to be cured of the disease.) By our sinful falls—the powers of the soul are weakened; the strength of grace is decayed; our evidences for heaven are blotted; fears and doubts in the soul are raised (will God once more pardon this scarlet sin, and show mercy to this wretched soul?); the corruptions in the heart are more advantaged and confirmed; and the conscience of a man after falls is the more enraged or the more benumbed. Now for a soul, notwithstanding all this, to repent of his falls—this shows that it is as great a work of grace to repent of sin as it is not to sin.

Repentance is the vomit of the soul; and of all purgatives, none so difficult and hard as it is to vomit. The same means that tends to preserve the soul from sin, the same means works the soul to rise by repentance when it is fallen into sin. We know the mercy and loving-kindness of God is one special means to keep the soul from sin; as David spoke, ‘I am constantly aware of your unfailing love, and I have lived according to your truth. I do not spend time with liars or go along with hypocrites. I hate the gatherings of those who do evil, and I refuse to join in with the wicked.’ (Psalm 26:3-5). So by the same means the soul is raised by repentance out of sin, as you may see in Mary Magdalene, who loved much, and wept much, because much was forgiven her (Luke 7:37-39). So those in Hosea: ‘Come, let us return to the LORD! He has torn us in pieces; now he will heal us. He has injured us; now he will bandage our wounds. In just a short time, he will restore us so we can live in his presence.’ (Hos. 6:1, 2); as the Hebrew has it, ‘in his favor’. Confidence in God’s mercy and love, that he would heal them, and bind up their wounds, and revive their dejected spirits, and cause them to live in his favor, was that which worked their hearts to repent and return unto him.

I might further show you this truth in many other particulars—but this may suffice: only remember this in the general, that there is as much of the power of God, and love of God, and faith in God, and fear of God, and care to please God, zeal for the glory of God (2 Cor. 7:11) requisite to work a man to repent of sin, as there is to keep a man from sin; by which you may easily judge, that to repent of sin is as great a work as not to sin. And now tell me, O soul, is it an easy thing not to sin? We know then certainly it is not an easy thing to repent of sin.

Remedy (6). The sixth remedy against this device of Satan is, seriously to consider, That he who now tempts you to sin upon this account, that repentance is easy, will, before long, to work you to despair, and forever to break the neck of your soul, present repentance as the most difficult and hardest work in the world; and to this purpose he will set your sins in order before you, and make them to say, ‘We are yours, and we must follow you.’ Bede tells of a certain great man that was admonished in his sickness to repent, who answered that he would not repent yet; for if he should recover, his companions would laugh at him; but growing more and more sick, his friends pressed him again to repent—but then he told them it was too late, for now, said he; I am judged and condemned.

Now, Satan will help to work the soul to look up, and see God angry; and to look inward, and to see conscience accusing and condemning; and to look downwards, and see hell’s mouth open to receive the impenitent soul: and all this to render the work of repentance impossible to the soul. What, says Satan, do you think that that is easy which the whole power of grace cannot conquer while we are in this world? Is it easy, says Satan, to turn from some outward act of sin to which you have been addicted? Do you not remember that you have often complained against such and such particular sins, and resolved to leave them? And yet, to this hour, you have not, you cannot! What will it then be to turn from every sin? Yes, to mortify and cut off those sins, those darling lusts, which are as joints and limbs, which are as right hands and right eyes? Have you not loved your sins above your Savior? Have you not preferred earth before heaven? Have you not all along neglected the means of grace? and despised the offers of grace? and vexed the Spirit of grace? There would be no end, if I would set before you the infinite evils that you have committed, and the innumerable good services that you have omitted, and the frequent checks of your own conscience that you have condemned; and therefore you may well conclude that you can never repent, that you shall never repent.

Now, says Satan, do but a little consider your numberless sins, and the greatness of your sins, the foulness of your sins, the heinousness of your sins, the circumstances of your sins—and you shall easily see that those sins that you thought to be but motes, are indeed mountains; and is it not now in vain to repent of them? Surely, says Satan, if you should seek repentance and grace with tears, as Esau, you shall not find it! Your sand has run through the hour-glass, your sun has set, the door of mercy is shut, the golden scepter is withdrawn; and now you that have despised mercy, shall be forever destroyed by justice. For such a wretch as you are to attempt repentance is to attempt a thing impossible. It is impossible that you, that in all your life could never conquer one sin, should master such a numberless number of sins; which are so near, so dear, so necessary, and so profitable to you, that have so long bedded and boarded with you, that have been old acquaintance and companions with you. Have you not often purposed, promised, vowed, and resolved to enter upon the practice of repentance—but to this day could never attain it? Surely it is in vain to strive against the stream, where it is so impossible to overcome; you are lost and cast off forever; to hell you must go, to hell you shall go! Ah, souls! he who now tempts you to sin, by suggesting to you the easiness of repentance, will at last work you to despair, and present repentance as the hardest work in all the world, and a work as far above man as heaven is above hell, as light is above darkness. Oh that you were wise, to break off your sins by timely repentance. Repentance is a work that must be timely done, or utterly undone forever.

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