The structure of the remaining argument in this sermon runs as follows:
Proposition: You must stop before you can return. What then is it to stop?
A. What are the basic elements of stopping?
1. There are three general elements of stopping
2. How do I know if I have begun the work of repentance?
a. What is the “frame” of your mind?
b. Has you conduct changed?
c. With whom are you “associated”/
d. Do you treasure heavenly things?
Proposition: Many fail in this task, because they do not turn toward God.
A. Implied issue, why would someone turn to God
1. Some fail to return because they think God is being unjust toward them.
2. Some do not see the blessing of turning to God.
3. Some may fear that they will not gain the blessing of returning to God.
Proposition: Pray for Repentance
An objection answered.
A. A rebuke for those who do not repent.
B. The blame of those who do not repent.
C. Consolation to those who will repent.
To make this stop, then (which is always before returning).
1. There must be examination and consideration whither our ways tend.
What are the reasons to cease a life of sin (as Sibbes writes, “stopping considerations”)?
There be stopping considerations, which both waken a man and likewise put rubs in his way; if a man, upon examination, find his ways displeasing unto God, disagreeing from the rule, and consider what will be the end and issue of them (nothing but death and damnation), and withal consider of the day of judgment, the hour of death, the all-seeing eye of God, and the like.
Sibbes here restates the “stopping considerations” by making reference to the arguments made earlier in Hosea: God has been good to Israel, despite their sin. God will also bring judgment on an erring Israel to bring it to repentance:
So the consideration of a man’s own ways, and of God’s ways towards him, partly when God meets him with goodness;—I have hitherto been a vile wretch, and God hath been good to me, and spared me;—and partly when God stops a wicked man’s ways with thorns, meets him with crosses and afflictions. These will work upon an ingenious* spirit, to make him have better thoughts and deeper considerations of true happiness, and the way unto it. God puts into the heart of a man, whom he intends to save, serious and sad considerations, what estate he is in, whither his course leads; and withal he lets them feel some displeasure of his, towards them, in those ways, by his ways towards them; whereupon they make a stop.
We must have the right affections to turn: a loathing of sin and a desire for reconciliation:
2. There must be humiliation, with displeasure against ourselves, judging and taking revenge of ourselves, working and reflecting on our hearts, taking shame to ourselves for our ways and courses; and withal, there must concur some hope of mercy. For so long as there is hue and cry, as we say, after a traitor, he returns not, but flies still and hastes away; but offer a pardon, and he returneth. So, unless there be hope of pardon, to draw a man again to God, as the prodigal was moved to return by hope of mercy and favour from his father, Luke 15:18, we will not, we dare not else return.
We must the will to return:
3. There must be a resolution to overcome impediments. For when a man thinks or resolves to turn to God, Satan will stir up all his instruments, and labour to kill Christ in his infancy, and to quench good while it is in the purpose only. The dragon stood watching for the birth of the child, Rev. 12:4; so doth Satan observe the birth of every good resolution and purpose, so far as he can know them, to destroy them.
How will I know if I have ceased in sin? What is it to stop and return? Four points.
Use. Let it be thought of by us in all our distresses, and in whatsoever other evidences of God’s anger, whether this means have been taken up by us. It will be thus known.
In these things note that the fruit of repentance, the evidence and outworking of it is “good works”. The good works are not performed so that one may obtain pardon, but they come about as the natural outgrowth of true repentance. We could consider this under the parallel consideration that we are justified by faith in Christ not on the basis of works; but that our faith such faith leads necessarily to good works. Faith without works is dead.
[1.] Turning is a change of the posture of the body; so is this of the frame of the mind. By this we know a man is in a state of turning. The look of his intentions, purposes, the whole bent of his soul is set another way, even upon God; and his word is the star of direction towards which he bends all his thoughts.
[2.] His present actions, also, be contrary to his former. There is not only a change of the disposition of his soul, ‘Behold all things are become new;’ not some things, but all; not only ‘new,’ but with a ‘behold’ new, 2 Cor. 5:17. This change undoubtedly sheweth that there is a true conversion and unfeigned.
[3.] By our association. He that turns to God, turns presently to the company of God’s people. Together with the change of his nature and course of life, there is a change of company; that is, of such as we make choice of for amity and friendship, Isa. 11:10, seq. Other company, by reason of our callings, and occasionally, may be frequented.
This is an interesting point: If we are truly turned from sin that our relationship to all things will be different. While it is not cited here by Sibbes, the argument of Paul in Philippians three seems apt: I forget what is behind, and I press on to what lies ahead: my goal is beyond here and now.
[4.] It is a sign that one is not only turned, but hath gone backwards from sin a great way, when the things of heaven only are great things in his eyes. For, as the further a man goeth from a place, the lesser the things behind him seem, so the greater the things before, he being nearer to them. The more sublime and high thoughts a man hath of the ways of God, and the meaner thoughts of the world and worldly matters he esteemed so highly of in the days of his vanity, the more he is turned unto God.
Note the insistence: it is not beginning but ending the piligrim which is decisive:
This returning is further enforced, saying, ‘Return unto the Lord thy God.’
It is very emphatical and significant in the original. Return, usque ad Jehovam, even to Jehovah, as though he should say, Do not only begin to return towards Jehovah, but so return as you never cease coming till you come to Jehovah.
‘Even unto the Lord thy God.’
Proposition: Many fail in this task, because they do not turn toward God. Four points: (a) the example of the prodigal son; (b) the example of Pentecost; (c ) the offer of Christ; and (d) we must be turned to Christ if we are ever to leave off sin.
It is not enough to make a stop, and forbear the practising of our former sins; but we must come home, even unto the Lord our God, to be pardoned and healed of him.
a. The prodigal son had been never a whit the better to see his sin and misery, and to be grieved for his wicked life past, unless he had come unto his father for pardon and comfort, Luke 15:20.
b. And when those were pricked in their hearts at Peter’s sermon, asking Peter ‘what they should do?’ he exhorted them, ‘To repent, every one to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and so they should receive the Holy Ghost,’ Acts 2:38.
c. And when Christ invites all those who ‘are weary and heavy laden to come unto him,’ Mat. 11:28, he bids them not now be further humbled and grieved for their sins, but by faith to come unto him to be healed, and so they should find rest and peace to their souls.
d. It is not sufficient for a wounded man to be sorry for his brawling and fighting, and to say, he will fight no more; but he must come to the surgeon to have his wounds stopped, dressed, and healed, or else it may cost him his life. So it is not enough to be humbled and grieved for sin, and to resolve against it. We shall relapse again, do what we can, unless we come under the wing of Christ, to be healed by his blood.
A. Implied issue, why would someone turn to God
Use. Many think they have repented, and are deceived upon this false ground. They are and have been grieved for their sins and offences; are determined to leave and forsake them, and that is all they do. They never lay hold on Christ, and come home to God.
‘For thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.’
Here divers points might be insisted on.
1. That where there is a falling into sin, there will be a falling into misery and judgment.
This is made good in the experience of all times, ages, persons, and states. Still the more sinful any were, the more fearful judgments fell upon them; and as soon as any man came into a sinful state, he entered into a declining state; as Jacob said of his son Reuben, who had defiled his bed, ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed,’ Gen. 49:4. So sin still debaseth a man. So much sin, so much loss of excellency.
The use hereof is,
Some may not turn to Christ, because they do not believe God has been fair to them.
First, against those that complain of their troubles and miseries, as though God and men had dealt hardly with them; whereas their own ways, indeed, have brought all these evils upon them, Lam. 3:39.
We are not adequate judges of God’s conduct. God is wiser than we are and always does right:
God is a sufficient, wise, and holy disposer and orderer of all the ways of men, and rewarder of good and evil doings. God being wise and just in his disposing of all things, it must needs follow, that it shall go well with those that are good; as the prophet speaks, ‘Say unto the just, that it shall be well with them, for the reward of their works shall be given them,’ Isa. 3:10. And if it fall out otherwise than well with men, the blame must be laid on their own sin. As the church confesseth, and therefore resolveth, ‘I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me; he will bring me forth in the light, and I shall see his righteousness,’ Micah 7:9. If Adam sin, he shall find a hell in a paradise. If Paul return, and return to God, he shall find a heaven in a dungeon.
Some do not repent, because they do not realize the damage of unrepentant sin.
Secondly, It should move us therefore to seek unto God by unfeigned repentance, to have our sins taken away and pardoned; or else, however we may change our plagues, yet they shall not be taken away; nay, we shall still, like Pharoah, change for the worst; who, though he had his judgments changed, yet sin, the cause, remaining, he was never a whit the better, but the worse, for changing, until his final ruin came.
‘The wages of sin is death,’ Rom. 6:23. Sin will cry till it hath its wages. Where iniquity is, there cannot but be falling into judgment.
Therefore they are cruel to their own souls that walk in evil ways; for undoubtedly God will turn their own ways upon their own heads.
We should not therefore envy any man, be he what he will, who goeth on in ill courses, seeing some judgment is owing him first or last, unless he stop the current of God’s wrath by repentance. God, in much mercy, hath set up a court in our hearts to this end, that, if we judge ourselves in this inferior court, we may escape, and not be brought up into the higher.
If first they be judged rightly in the inferior court, then there needs no review. But otherwise, if we by repentance take not up the matter, sin must be judged somewhere, either in the tribunal of the heart and conscience, or else afterwards there must be a reckoning for it.
Some do not repent, because they do not believe that they will obtain the blessing of repentance.
Thirdly, Hence we learn, since the cause of every man’s misery is his own sin, that therefore all the power of the world, and of hell, cannot keep a man in misery, nor hinder him from comfort and happiness, if he will part with his sins by true and unfeigned repentance.
To prove this point he begins with the most notorious King of Judah: Manasseh.
As we know, Manasseh, as soon as he put away sin, the Lord had mercy upon him, and turned his captivity, 2 Chron. 33:12, 13. So the people of Israel, in the Judges. Look how often they were humbled and returned to God, still he forgave them all their sins. As soon as they put away sin, God and they met again. So that, if we come to Christ by true repentance, neither sin nor punishment can cleave to us, Ps. 106:43, 44; 107:1, 9.
What could possibly cause someone to not see the goodness of God in repentance? Because sin makes one blind:
‘Thou hast fallen,’ &c. Fallen blindly, as it were. Thou couldst not see which way thou wentest, or to what end thy courses did tend. Therefore thou art come into misery before thou knowest where thou art. A sinner is blind, ‘The god of this world hath put out his eyes,’ 2 Cor. 4:4. They see not their way, nor foresee their success. The devil is ever for our falling. That we fall into sin, and then fall into misery, and so fall into despair, and into hell, this pleaseth him. ‘Cast thyself down,’ saith he to Christ, Mat. 4:6. ‘Down with it, down with it,’ saith Edom, Ps. 137:7. Hell is beneath. The devil drives all that way.
Proposition: Pray for Repentance
Use. Take heed of sin! take heed of blindness! Ponder the path of your feet! keep your thoughts heavenward! stop the beginnings, the first stumblings! pray to God to make our way plain before us, and not to lead us into temptation!
He derives a command to pray from the clause, “take words with you.”
‘Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him,’ &c., ver. 2.
These Israelites were but a rude people, and had not so good means to thrive in grace as Judah had. Therefore he prompts them here with such words as they might use to God in their returning.
This instruction to pray is a gracious act of God:
‘Take with you words,’ whereby we see how gracious God is unto us in using such helps for our recovery, and pitying us more than we pity ourselves. Is not this a sufficient warrant and invitation to return, when the party offended, who is the superior, desires, entreats, and sues unto the offending, guilty inferior, to be reconciled?’ 2 Cor. 5:5.
God not merely gives instruction in prayer, but he also gives help to pray:
But this is not all. He further sheweth his willingness in teaching us, who are ignorant of the way, in what manner and with what expressions we should return to the Lord. He giveth us not only words, and tells us what we shall say, but also giveth his Spirit so effectually therewith, as that they shall not be lifeless and dead words, but ‘with unexpressible sighs and groans unto God,’ Rom. 8:26, who heareth the requests of his own Spirit. Christ likewise teacheth us how to pray. We have words dictated, and a spirit of prayer poured upon us; as if a great person should dictate and frame a petition for one who were afraid to speak unto him. Such is God’s graciousness; and so ready is he in Jesus Christ to receive sinners unto mercy.
Our prayer of repentance is our offering to God:
‘Take unto you words.’ None were to appear empty before the Lord at Jerusalem, but were to bring something. So it is with us. We must not appear empty before our God. If we can bring nothing else, let us bring words; yea, though broken words, yet if out of a broken and contrite heart, it will be a sacrifice acceptable.
Since God has prescribed the remedy of prayer, it must be effective:
This same taking of words or petitions, in all our troubles and afflictions, must needs be a special remedy, it being of God’s own prescription, who is so infinite in knowledge and skill.
Having made these observations, he draws the following conclusion:
Whence we observe, that
They who would have help and comfort against all sins and sorrows, must come to God with words of prayer.
He gives five examples to prove the point: (a) Jonah, (b) the prodigal son, (c) Hezekiah, (d) Jehoshaphat, (e) Elijah
As we see in Jonah’s case, in a matchless distress, words were inforcive [That is, ‘prevailing, or invested with a power of enforcing.’] and did him more good than all the world besides could. For after that he had been humbled, and prayed out of the whale’s belly, the whale was forced to cast him out again, Jonah 2:10.
So the prodigal son being undone, having neither credit nor coin, but all in a manner against him, yet he had words left him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants,’ Luke 15:18, seq. After which, his father had compassion on him.
(b) And good Hezekiah, being desperately sick of a desperate disease, yet when he set his faith a-work, and took with him words, which comfort only now was left unto him, we know how after he had turned his face towards the wall, and prayed with words, God not only healed him of that dangerous disease, but also wrought a great miracle for his sake, causing the sun to come back ten degrees, Isa. 38:2, 8.
(c) Thus, when life seemed impossible, yet words, prayers, and tears prevailed with God. Jehoshaphat, also, going to war with Ahab, against God’s commandment, and in the battle, being encompassed with enemies, yet had words with him ready, and after prayer found deliverance, 1 Kings 22:32.
(d) Elijah, likewise, after a great drowth and famine, when rain had been three years wanting, and all in a manner out of frame for a long time, ‘took with him words,’ James 5:18; and God sent rain abundantly upon the earth again.
(e) The reason is, because prayer sets God on work; and God, who is able and willing to go through with his works, sets all the creatures on work, Hos. 2:21, 22. As we heard of Elijah, when he prayed for rain, the creatures were set a-work to effect it, 1 Kings 18:45, seq.
He then addresses an objection someone might have to the examples: The implied issue is “what if I repent too late?” I have heard evangelistic sermons which say there is a fit time of repentance, and that if you do not repent right now a future repentance may be ineffective. Sibbes rejects that argument: a true repentance is always timely.
Obj. Where it may be objected, Oh, but rain might come too late in that hot country, where all the roots and herbs might be withered and dried up in three years’ space.
Ans. Yet all was well again. The land brought forth her increase as formerly. For faithful prayer never comes too late, because God can never come too late. If our prayers come to him, we shall find him come to us. Jehoshaphat, we read, was in great distress when three kings came against him; yet when he went to God by unfeigned and hearty fasting and prayer, God heard him, fought for him, and destroyed all his enemies, 2 Chron. 20:3. seq. The Scripture sheweth, also, how after Hezekiah’s prayer against Sennacherib’s blasphemies and threatenings, the Lord sent forth his angel, and destroyed in one night a hundred fourscore and five thousand of the Assyrians, 2 Chron. 32:21, seq.
Use 1. This is, first, for reproof of those who, in their distresses, set their wit, wealth, friends, and all a-work, but never set God a-work,
Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, If with his love he befriend thee. Examples from Hezekiah and Asa:
as Hezekiah did in Sennacherib’s case. The first time he turned him off to his cost, with enduring a heavy taxation, and yet was never a whit the better for it, 2 Kings 18:15, seq.; for Sennacherib came shortly after and besieged Jerusalem, until Hezekiah had humbled himself and prayed; and then God chased all away and destroyed them. He had better have done so at first, and so saved his money and pains, too.
The like weakness we have a proof of in Asa, who, when a greater army came against him of ten hundred thousand men, laid about him, prayed and trusted in God, and so was delivered, with the destruction of his enemies, 2 Chron. 14:11, yet in a lesser danger, 2 Chron. 16:2, against Baasha, king of Israel, distrusted God, and sent out the treasures of the house of God and of his own house unto Benhadad, king of Syria, to have help of him, by a diverting war against Baasha, king of Israel, which his plot, though it prospered, yet was he reproved by the prophet Hanani, and wars thenceforth denounced against him, 2 Chron. 16:7. This Asa, notwithstanding this experiment, afterwards sought unto the physician, before he sought unto God, 2 Chron. 16:12.
To note repent is blameworthy:
Use 2. Secondly. This blameth that barrenness and want of words to go unto God, which, for want of hearts, we often find in ourselves. It were a strange thing to see a wife have words enough for her maids and servants, and yet not to be able to speak to her husband. We all profess to be the spouse of Christ. What a strange thing, then, is it to be full when we speak to men, yet be so empty and want words to speak to him!
Can’t we at least have the words of a beggar?
A beggar, we know, wants no words, nay, he aboundeth with variety of expressions; and what makes him thus fruitful in words? His necessity, and, in part, his hope of obtaining.
These two make beggars so earnest. So would it be with us. If we found sufficiently our great need of Christ, and therewith had hope, it would embolden us so to go to God in Christ, that we should not want words. But we want this hope, and the feeling of our necessities, which makes us so barren in prayer.
Prepare thyself, therefore, to prayer, by getting unto thee a true sense of thy need, acquaintance with God, and hope to obtain, and it will make thee fervent in prayer, and copious in thy requests.
Finally a consolation and encouragement: a prayer of true repentance will be heard and honored.
* That is, ‘ingenuous.’—G.