The true minister, convinced, both by revelation and experience, that Jesus Christ alone is able to recover diseased souls, employs every effort to bring sinners into the presence of this heavenly Physician, that they may obtain of Him spiritual health and salvation. He is fully persuaded that he who is not “weary and heavy laden,” will never apply for relief; that he who is not “poor in spirit,” will constantly despise the riches of the gospel; and that they who are unacquainted with their danger, will turn an inattentive ear to the loudest warnings of a compassionate Saviour. His first care, then, is to press upon his hearers the necessity of an unfeigned repentance, that, by breaking the reed of their confidence, he may constrain them with the “poor,” the “miserable,” the “blind,” and the “naked,” to fall before the throne of divine justice. Whence, after seeing themselves condemned by the law of God, without any ability to deliver their own souls, he is conscious that they will have recourse to the throne of grace, entreating, like the penitent publican, to be “justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:24.
It is this state of humiliation and compunction of heart that sinners are enabled to experience the happy effects of that evangelical repentance, which is displeasure of soul, which is excited in a sinner by the Word and Spirit of God. By this new sensibility, he is first made to discover his natural corruption and his actual transgressions. His heart is pierced with sincere distress. He deplores them before God. He confesses them without reserve. He abhors them with a holy indignation. He seriously resolves, from the present moment, to reform his conduct, and religiously apply himself to the practice of every virtue during the remainder of his life. Such is true repentance. It consists at once in resolutely renouncing the devil, with everything that is sinful, and in sincerely cleaving to God, with everything that is truly good.
As human pride is continually exalting itself against this humiliating doctrine, so the true minister as constantly repeats it, crying out in the language of this great apostle, Paul: “All unregenerate men are under sin, there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God; they are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable. The way of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes. We know that… every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” Rom. 3:9-19. “There is no difference; for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” So all equally need the merits and assistance of Jesus Christ, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:22-25).
But if this doctrine is a savour of life unto some, it is also a savour of death unto others. It gives offense to blinded bigots, while modern infidels strengthen themselves against it, as Pharaoh once strengthened himself against the authority of Jehovah. “Thus saith the Lord,” said Moses to that obstinate monarch, “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exo. 8:1) and the haughty infidel replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go.”
Come up out of mystic Egypt, saith the Son of God to every sinful soul. Follow me in the regeneration (Matt. 19:28). “And who is the Son of God?” replies some petty Pharaoh. “I know neither him nor His Father, nor conceive myself in any wise obliged to obey His commands.”
Impious as this language may appear, the conduct of every irreligious “Christian” must be considered as equivalent to it, according to those words of our Lord. “He that despiseth” my servants and my doctrines “despiseth me, and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me” (Lk. 10:16). He hates both Christ and His Father (John 15:24). His repentance is superficial, his faith is vain, and, sooner or later, his actions or his words will testify that he is an utter enemy to Christ and His members.
An evangelical minister insists upon the fall, the corruption, and the danger of unregenerate man. As the knowledge of our depravity is the source from whence evangelical repentance and Christian humility flow, so it is the only necessary preparation for that living faith, by which we are both justified and sanctified. He who obstinately closes his eyes upon his own wretchedness, shuts himself up in circumstances which will not suffer him to receive any advantage from that glorious Redeemer, whom “God hath anointed to preach the gospel to the poor;” to heal the “broken hearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18).
Reason itself declares that if sinful man is possessed of sufficient ability to secure his own salvation, he needs no other Saviour, and “Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21). In short, so far as we are unacquainted with our degenerate estate, so far the important doctrine of regeneration must necessarily appear superfluous and absurd.
Here we may perceive one grand reason why the ministers of the present day, who are but superficially acquainted with the depravity of the human heart, discourse upon this subject in a slight and unsatisfactory manner.
The true minister, on the contrary, following the example of his great Master, speaks upon this momentous change with affection and power. Observe the terms in which our Lord himself declares this neglected doctrine: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). As though he should say, “The natural man, how beautiful an appearance soever he may make, is possessed of a heart so desperately wicked, that unless it be broken by the repentance which John the Baptist preached, and regenerated by the faith which I declare, he can never become a citizen of heaven. For the doors of my kingdom must remain everlastingly barred against those “ravening wolves” who disguise themselves as sheep (Matt. 7:15), and those painted hypocrites who salute me as their Lord, without embracing my doctrines, and observing my commands. “Verily,” therefore, “I say unto you,” my first disciples and friends, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children,” who are strangers to envious, ambitious, or impure thoughts, “ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Such is the doctrine that is still able to convert every inquiring Nicodemus.
Many pious divines have supposed that by preaching the cross of Christ alone, mankind might be brought to true repentance. But what was spoken by God to Jeremiah, may in some sort be applied to the true minister: “I have set thee to root out and to plant, to pull down and to build.” Jer. 1:10. For before the sacred vine can be planted, the thorns of sin must be rooted up, together with the thistles of counterfeit righteousness. And before the strong tower of salvation can be erected, that spiritual Babel must be overthrown, by which presumptuous men are still exalting themselves against heaven. To lead sinners into a state of evangelical repentance, the true minister discovers to their view the corruption of the heart, with all the melancholy effects it produces in the character and conversation of unregenerate men.
Only those who are brought to this poverty of spirit are properly disposed to receive the riches of divine mercy. As soon, therefore, as the evangelical minister has sufficiently alarmed a sinner with the terrors discovered upon Mount Sinai, he anxiously prepares him for the consolations of the gospel, by a sight of the suffering scene upon Calvary.