In the very nature of the case, people do not repent of their sins until they are conscious and convicted of their sins. Jesus said, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Until a man knows he is sick, he does not feel the need of a physician. A preacher friend said, “You have to get people lost before you can get them saved.”
It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save men, we are told. Preaching what? “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine” (II Timothy 4:2). Just preceding that, II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” The two passages of Scripture here quoted are separated only by a verse or two, though they are in different chapters. The clear Bible teaching is that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and that we should preach the whole Word of God in order to teach God’s people and to save souls.
One of the principal works of the Holy Spirit is to reprove. John 16:8-11: “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of the world is judged.” You see, the Holy Spirit’s business is to reprove the world concerning sin and concerning righteousness and concerning judgment. If the work of the Holy Spirit is reproof, then the work of every Spirit-filled preacher is reproof.
The Word of God and the Holy Spirit are connected in this work of reproving sin. Preachers are to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine” when they preach the Word, says II Timothy 4:2. The Word of God is “the Sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). No sinner can repent of his sins and trust Christ until the Holy Spirit calls him, and the Holy Spirit calls him by reproving him of sin, making him consciously guilty.
Likewise, a lost sinner cannot be saved without repentance. It is true that “he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36). It is true, as Paul and Silas promised the jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). One who puts his trust in Christ as Saviour is saved, forgiven, has everlasting life. But actually a certain attitude of heart is absolutely necessary before one can trust Christ for salvation. It is impossible to trust Christ for salvation while deliberately, consciously holding on to one’s sin. One cannot turn to Christ without turning away from sin. One cannot love God without hating the devil. One cannot hunger and thirst after righteousness without in some sense renouncing wickedness. You see, there is a great moral issue involved when one turns to Christ. So repentance is a part of the same turning, a part of the same believing, a part of the same coming to Christ.
Let us illustrate it simply. When a man goes from one room to another, you may speak of his leaving the first room or of his entering the second room. Actually, he does both at the same time. Leaving the old room is repentance; entering the new room is faith. Turning the heart from sin is repentance; turning the heart to Christ is faith. These are the two sides of the same truth, two views of the same transaction in the heart.
When I say that one cannot be saved without repenting of sin, I am not thinking so much about individual action as I am about a heart attitude. I do not say that no one is ever saved until he has conquered every temptation and won the victory over every habit of sin. No, that would not be true. People are genuinely saved oftentimes who yet find they must resist and overcome and break down the habits of evil that still tempt them. But in the heart one who turns to Christ certainly turns away from the love of sin, consciously rejects his sin to receive Jesus.
This doctrine of repentance was preached by John the Baptist. It was preached by Jesus in Matthew 4:17. It was preached by the Lord Jesus also in Luke 13:3, 5. It was preached by Paul the apostle at Athens in Acts 17:30. No one is ever saved without repentance. To say the same truth another way, no one is ever saved without hating his sin and consciously turning his heart away from sin, toward Christ and righteousness.
Some very shallow Christians, some preachers who ride the doctrine of grace as a hobby, do not believe that God now commands sinners to repent. They leave the impression that accepting Christ and trusting Him is merely an abstract matter of saying, yes, without any fundamental change in heart attitude. Actually, the heart attitude in repentance is as revolutionary as a divorce, and the acceptance of Christ, in faith, is as revolutionary as a marriage. Let us say that repentance represents a divorce from the devil, and faith represents a marriage to Christ. But the divorce and remarriage both take place in the heart in an instant when one repents of his sins and turns to Christ.
Why would a sinner want Christ if he was not conscious of his sin, if he did not feel the need of a Saviour? Why would a sinner do anything to get to Heaven if he does not believe there is a Hell? A sinner who does not hear that “the wages of sin is death” will not be interested to hear that “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” A sinner who is taught, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts,” will not be interested in the command, “And let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). God’s plan is: preach on sin to show the hatefulness, the wickedness of sin; to show its horrible results and its inevitable end. Then preach on salvation by the blood to show God’s remedy for sin.
I do not mean that salvation involves a long period of mourning. I know better than that. The instant a sinner turns to Christ in faith he is already saved, and has everlasting life. I do not mean that necessarily a sinner must be on his knees or be shedding tears when he is saved. A sinner certainly needs to be on his knees in his heart, and the penitence which tears may outwardly represent certainly has to be in the heart when one turns to Christ. I say unto you that unless there is preaching against sin, there will be little of genuine repentance and few people will be saved. Until sin is made hateful, Christ is not made loveable and desirable. Until a man sees himself a great sinner, he does not see Christ as a great Saviour. Until a man learns to fear Hell, he does not learn to long for Heaven.
Many have laughed at the late Sam Jones, Methodist evangelist, who preached that repentance meant “quit your meanness.” Well, it is true that repentance means more than that. But it does mean that at least! Any Christianity so-called, which does not involve an honest turning away from sin to righteousness will only have the scorn of the unbelieving world. The moral consciences of unconverted men take sides with the preacher who preaches against sin. The Word of God, the warning of the preacher, the Holy Spirit, and the moral law written in the conscience of a sinner, all combine to bring him to repentance when the Word of God is preached against sin, showing Christ as a Saviour.
Down through the centuries, all great revivals have sprung from a deep-seated consciousness of sin.
When the remnant of Israel went back to Jerusalem under Nehemiah and the people gathered in the street that was before the water gate, Ezra the scribe brought the book of the law of Moses before the congregation,“and he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law…So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:3, 8). Nehemiah had to plead with the people not to weep nor mourn, because it was a holy day. But the second day they came again “unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.” Seven days this reading and teaching of the law, the Old Testament, continued. Then “the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.” The children of Israel confessed their sins and iniquities. A fourth part of the day they read in the book of the law and a fourth part of the day they confessed and worshipped the Lord God. What a revival they had! And it came from reading the Old Testament law, the “thou shalt not’s” of the Word of God. That preaching and explaining against sin resulted in repentance and revival.
How many times in the experience of Moses and the children of Israel was the nation saved from destruction at the hand of an angry God because Moses rebuked the people for their sins and punished the sinners, with the result that the remainder of the people were led to repent and seek the Lord for mercy!
The people of Nineveh heard the Word of the Lord as preached by the mouth of Jonah, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”! (Jonah 3:4). The king of Nineveh rose from his throne, put on sackcloth and ashes, made a proclamation throughout all Nineveh, called on nobles and people not to eat nor drink nor to feed nor to water their stock, “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.” That was genuine repentance. It was brought about by warning concerning sin. God heard the cry of the people and repented of the evil that He had planned to do and did it not. That revival was brought about by plain preaching against sin and by repentance on the part of the guilty people. The revival under John the Baptist was a revival of deep conviction of sin. All the people of Judea flocked out to the River Jordan to hear John the Baptist, “and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” Nobody could say when that revival campaign was over that “the converts did not hold out” or “those who professed salvation were not sincere.” For these people came honestly facing the fact of their sins, the ruin that threatened them, the wrath of God that hung over them. They honestly repented and turned to Christ.
We are told that the people of Pentecost, as they heard the sharp preaching of Peter accusing them of the murder of Jesus and the deliberate choosing of evil, “were pricked in their heart” and when they wanted to know what to do, Peter said to them “Repent” (Acts 2:38). It was the remission of sins that they wanted, and remission of sins they got when they honestly repented of their sins. To be sure, they trusted in Christ, but there is no genuine trusting in Christ that does not involve a heart-turning from sin.
All the great soul-winners of history have been men who denounced sin openly and boldly. Huss, Savonarola, and Wycliffe thundered against sin! Oh, the mighty preaching of Martin Luther against sin of every kind, against sin in the decadent Roman Church, and against sin of the grosser kinds among the people! The devil was so very real to Martin Luther that once in his study Luther threw the ink pot at the devil, and for long years the stain on the wall remained to remind us that the leader in the Reformation was a preacher against sin, an opponent of the devil, an outspoken prophet demanding righteousness and condemning evil.
John Wesley, his brother, Charles, and Whitefield, and a host of Methodist preachers who followed them, went up and down England and in the American colonies preaching everywhere against sin and demanding repentance. I have never claimed to attain unto what John Wesley called “Christian perfection,” but as God knows my heart, I believe in holy living. And that involves a holy hatred of sin, a day by day renouncing of sin. I do not believe that anyone this side of the rapture or of the grave becomes sinless and perfect, but I know every real Christian ought to want to be sinless and ought to try to be. And the unsaved world knows that preachers ought to be against sin and ought to say so. John Wesley was, and he did say so. I have no doubt that England was saved from the French Revolution by a revival that really preached righteousness and condemned sin and held up Christ as the hope for such guilty sinners who would repent.