Ryle Reprint Series (Church Book Room Press, 1962)
“Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Luke 13, 3.
At first sight, this text seems to be one which is very severe, and some may say “Is this the Gospel? Is this the good news of which ministers speak?” But it must be remembered that these words were spoken by Jesus Christ the Son of God; the one whose love is beyond human knowledge, and who, because of His love, came to earth for our sakes, living humbly and then dying for our sins. Surely any words that come from Him must be words of love.
After all, what greater proof of love is there than to warn a friend of coming danger? It is only indifference which leaves people alone to go their own way. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”, is a statement which may seem severe at first. But they are words of love and may cause many to be delivered from hell.
In considering this subject of repentance, there are three aspects which must be discussed. These are firstly, the nature of repentance, secondly, the necessity for repentance and thirdly the encouragements to repentance. Let us look at each of these in turn.
THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE
It is important to remember that repentance is one of the foundation stones of Christianity. It is mentioned at least sixty times in the New Testament. It was the first doctrine which Christ preached (Mark 1, 15); the disciples preached it when first sent out (Mark 6, 12); it was in Christ’s final charge to them (Luke 24; 47). In the book of Acts we read firstly, that Peter ended his first sermon with a call to repentance (Acts 2, 38; 3, 19); secondly, that it was in Paul’s summary of doctrine to the Ephesian Elders (Acts 20, 21), and that before Agrippa he defended himself by describing his ministry as a call to people to repent (Acts 26, 20); and thirdly that the Jerusalem Christians spoke of the conversion of the Gentiles in terms of repentance (Acts 11,18).
Further, one of the first qualifications demanded of all those who come to the Lord’s Table (according to the Book of Common Prayer), is that they “examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins”. All of these statements should show the importance of this subject, and that it should be stated just what repentance is, for a mistake on this point is most dangerous.
Repentance is a thorough change of man’s natural heart on the subject of sin. It is a fact that, being born in sin, everyone takes naturally to it. No child ever needed schooling in doing wrong! The seeds are naturally in the heart, and the aptitude of children to do wrong is an unanswerable proof of the corruption and fall of man. When the heart is changed by the Holy Spirit and this natural love of sin is cast out, then the change, called in the Bible “repentance”, takes place. A person in whom the change takes place is said to “repent”, and he may be called a penitent man. But, in fact, repentance is far more than this, and we must examine it closely.
a) A knowledge of sin.
Repentance begins with a knowledge of sin. The penitent man realises the length and breadth of God’s law, and the extent of his own transgressions. Far from being a “decent sort of fellow”, he realises that he is, in fact, wicked, guilty, corrupt and bad in the sight of God. To realise that one is nothing more or less than a great sinner is the first step in true repentance.
b) Sorrow for sin.
The next step is a real sorrow for sin. The penitent person is filled with remorse because of past sin, and grieves through remembering time wasted, talents mis-spent, God dishonoured, and his own soul injured. The burden of these sometimes becomes almost unbearable.
c) Confession of sin.
A penitent person realises that he must speak to God against whom he has sinned, and talk with Him concerning the state of his soul. His sins are heavy and he cannot keep quiet. He is willing to plead, “I have sinned against heaven and before Thee; my iniquity is great. God be merciful to me a sinner”. This is the third step in true repentance.
d) Breaking off from sin.
The whole life of a penitent person is altered. With a new King in his heart the “old man” is put away. He seeks to do God’s will and to keep clear of sin. He breaks away from bad ways and companions, and tries to live a new life.
e) Deep hatred of all sin.
True repentance produces a deep hatred of all sin. The penitent person abhors evil and delights in the law of the Lord. Of course, he frequently falls short of his own standards, and is conscious of his shortcomings. But, for all that, his general tendency is towards God and away from evil. With David, he says, “I count all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way” (Ps. 119, 128). This is indeed the crowning step of true repentance.
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But yet this is not a complete picture of repentance. One further thing must be mentioned, for without it, there must be a barrier between men’s souls and heaven. True repentance is never alone; it is always accompanied by lively faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith must go together. It cannot be said which comes first—it may be either. But you cannot have one, without the other—true repentance and lively faith.
The experience of all truly penitent people does not necessarily tally exactly. Nor does any man know, mourn, confess or forsake sin perfectly. But all true Christians will recognise something of these matters, and repentance such as this will be, generally, the experience of every true believer.
It is easy to be mistaken over repentance, for the Devil, knowing its value, always produces spurious imitations. Let everyone examine his own heart and be sure that he is not mistaken, but does know true repentance. It must be a business of your heart and not of outward expression in any form. Ahab, remember, could put on sackcloth and ashes when he felt like it, but he never repented in his heart.
Then repentance must include a turning to God. Felix trembled when Paul preached, but that was not true repentance. Repentance must turn a man to God, and make him go to God as his best friend. There must also be a thorough forsaking of sin. Herod liked to hear John preach, but he continued in sin. Feelings in religion are useless, unless accompanied by practice. God does not approve of mere sentimental excitement.
Lastly, repentance must be closely allied with faith in Christ. Judas Iscariot said “I have sinned”, but he never turned to Christ and so he died in his sins. There must be such conviction of sin that it sends us to Christ. Hearing about the Ten Commandments, looking at hell, and thinking about damnation may make people afraid, and they have their use. But repentance is at Calvary, not Sinai, and such repentance starts from heaven, planted in men’s hearts by the Holy Ghost.
THE NECESSITY FOR REPENTANCE
We must now consider why repentance is necessary; and, in fact, the text at the beginning gives a clear answer, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”. Notice that it says all, without exception, need repentance towards God. Everyone, whoever and whatever they may be, is born in sin and must repent and be converted if they would be saved. But why is such strong language used about this necessity—why is repentance so needful?
a) There is no forgiveness of sins without repentance.
Firstly, it must be clearly understood that repentance itself does not clear sins. That is the work of the blood of Christ. “We are counted righteous before God only for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings”.
But it is no less true that justified people are always penitent people, and that a forgiven sinner will always be a man who loathes his sin. Without repentance there is no forgiveness of sin.
b) There is no happiness in life without repentance.
Secondly, it is impossible to be really happy in this life unless one is repentant. There may be excitement and merriment so long as health is good and money is in the pocket. But these are not solid happiness. Conscience must be satisfied, and so long as conscience feels that sin has not been really forsaken, it will not be quiet.
Conscience—the inner man—unknown to the outside world, has a burden upon it, and until that burden is removed and repentance made, it has no real comfort. No one can be comfortable unless he is in the right position, and man’s right position is facing God with his back to sin. Until God is King in a person’s life, there can be no peace within and no true happiness. There must be true repentance in all who want to be really happy.
c) There is no preparedness for heaven without repentance.
Heaven is a prepared place for prepared people, and in order that we may be in harmony with the inhabitants of heaven, we need to repent now. An unconverted impenitent man just could not be happy in heaven. There is nothing in heaven for a heart that loves sin, and further, such a heart has no faculties for enjoying the blessings of heaven. We must repent if we want to go to heaven (Col. 1, 12).
Everyone ought to think about this matter most seriously. It is true that many things which we have in this world are not absolutely essential; things like wealth, health, decent clothes, friends and education. Many have reached heaven without these. But no one ever got to heaven without “repentance towards God and faith towards Jesus Christ”. Would that professing Christians realised the absolute necessity of true repentance towards God.
Repentance towards God has a most prominent place in the Gospel, and any teaching which does not give it a principle place is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A person may talk as much as he likes about the Gospel, but while he hangs on to his sins, they are not forgiven. It may be said that God is loving and merciful, and that all will be well in the end. But this idea tramples underfoot the blood of atonement. So long as a person does not repent of sin, then the Gospel of Christ is no Gospel to his soul. Christ is a saviour from sin; not a saviour for man in sin. If a man will stick to his sins, then one day that merciful Saviour will say, “Depart from me, thou worker of iniquity” (Matt. 25, 41).
Some may try to say that it is possible to be happy in this world without repentance. You may laugh and joke and say, “There’s a good time coming”, but this is no proof of true happiness. Many carry on like this, but carry a sorrow in their hearts, and they do not like being alone, for then they are low and miserable. They are always looking for new pleasures and new excitements, and since they do not seek happiness in God, they need
greater excitement all the time. Further, the longer they go without repentance, the more unhappy the heart becomes; and in old age the time will come when conscience will speak and bring unhappiness to the soul.
Above all, some may think there is a possibility of reaching heaven without repentance towards God. Everyone wants to go to heaven—only a madman would wish otherwise. But only those prepared by the Holy Ghost ever do go. The Bible flatly contradicts the modern idea that everyone will eventually go to heaven. The inhabitants of heaven are people of one mind—they are God’s people and they do not include the unrepentant. For these, says the Bible, there is only hell.
It is a solemn thought that an impenitent man is unfit for heaven. It would not be merciful to put him there for he just would not be happy. There will be many wonders at the last day. We shall see many enter heaven whom we had thought would never be there. But one thing is certain; there will be not one unrepentant person amongst them. Those who, following the final judgment day of God, go on to enjoy His presence for eternity, will all be of like mind; men and women who have hated, confessed and forsaken sin, who have repented as well as believed; and who will say, “By the grace of God, I am where I am”, as well as “By the grace of God, I am what I am”.
ENCOURAGEMENTS TO REPENTANCE
It is important now to point out that there are many things which will encourage a person to repent. Many difficulties arise when this subject is brought before us, for every man is very slow to give up sin. Most would rather cut off a right hand than give up their sins, for sins begin like cobwebs, but become iron clamps. Then too, there is a dislike of being thought a saint, and one who is concerned about religious matters. There is a fear of being laughed at because of a care for the soul. Further, the Devil himself will never part with those who are his captives, without a fight. He is indeed the “roaring lion that walketh about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5, 8). He will never let a man repent without a struggle.
In the face of all this, men need many encouragements to make them repent. And there are indeed many great and free encouragements. There are things in the Bible which ought to move everyone to repentance, and as these are examined it will be seen that there is hope; that it is possible; that by the grace of God a man may repent.
a) The Lord Jesus Christ is a Gracious Saviour.
Christ Himself is the first and great argument to encourage a man to repent. If any doubt concerning repentance, let them look at Christ. He is one “able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him”. He “came to seek and to save that which is lost”. It is written concerning Him that “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name”. Here is the simple answer to doubt and fears. Consider Christ, and doubt about repentance no more. (Study Heb. 7, 25; Acts 5, 31; Luke 19, 10; Mark 2, 17; Matt. 11, 28; John 6, 37; John 1, 12.)
b) The promises in the Word of God.
The Bible contains many glorious promises concerning repentance. “Whosoever confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall find mercy.” “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of God.” Surely these are encouragements which mean there need be no doubt about repentance. (Study Prov. 28, 13; 1 John 1, 9; Matt. 5, 3, 4, 6.)
c) The declarations in the Word of God.
The Bible contains many gracious declarations which certainly encourage repentance. “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” Surely these words are encouraging and mean there is no need to doubt about repentance any more. (Study Ezek. 18, 27; Ps. 51, 17; II Pet. 3, 9; Ezek. 33, 11; Luke 15, 10.)
d) Christ’s parables on the subject.
I would particularly draw your attention to two parables which Christ spoke on this subject. Firstly, the parable of the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18, 10-14), and secondly, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15, 11-24). Both of these parables show how receptive is the Father to those who come to Him in penitence, and mean that we have no need to doubt concerning repentance.
e) The examples of God’s mercy and kindness to penitent men.
The Bible has many examples of God’s mercy and kindness. David’s sin was great, but when he acknowledged that he had “sinned against the Lord”, the reply came, “The Lord hath put away thy sin”. Manasseh killed his own children and turned his back upon God. He even put idols in the Temple. But when he humbled himself, in prison, the Lord answered and released him.
Peter denied his Master three times; but when he wept over his sin, there was mercy, and he was restored to his Master’s favour. And what case could be more desperate than the penitent thief—a dying man on the brink of hell. But when he called on Christ the answer came immediately. (Study II Sam. 12, 13; II Chron. 33, 1-19; Mark 16, 7; Luke 23, 39-43.)
These cases are recorded for our learning, and no greater encouragement to repentance can be imagined. They are proofs of what God’s grace can do, and are intended to lead men to repentance. God is ready at any time to receive anyone who returns to Him. Any man, no matter what he may have been, will find God willing to receive him, to pardon him and glad to have him “home”.
Every year, thousands of people repent of their sins, but none of these ever regrets his decision. Many repent concerning time misspent and opportunities neglected. But no one has ever declared that he repents of repenting, and turning towards God. No one was ever sorry that he served the Lord. No man ever said, at the end of his days, “I have read my Bible too much, I have thought of God too much, I have prayed too much, I have been too careful about my soul”. Rather, a Christian will say, “Had I my life again, I would walk more closely with God. The way of Christ may have its cross, but it is a pleasant and peaceful path.”
This is a fact which speaks volumes, and shows that it is worth while for a man to repent. The impenitent man is without excuse.
Having seen the nature of, the necessity for, and the encouragements to repentance, it remains to give some practical applications for all who read this paper.
a) A warning.
It cannot really be supposed that all who read this paper are repentant and lively believers in Christ. For those who have not repented, there can be no more solemn warning than the words of Christ Himself, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish”. These words should come powerfully to anyone who is not really at peace with God, and who is undecided in religion. They are a terrible warning and no one can describe fully their meaning. “Shall perish”—perish in body and soul; and in hell. Let it never be forgotten that everyone, of whatever background or education, is travelling towards hell, and unless they repent, they will certainly arrive in hell.
Think for a moment of the danger which you are in, if you have never repented. You are a sinner—you cannot pretend that you have never sinned. And if you have never repented and found pardon through Christ, then hell must be your destination. Remember Christ’s words, “Except thou repent, thou wilt certainly perish”.
Secondly, think of your guilt. It is guilt when a man does not repent, for we are all responsible to God for repentance. It is the express testimony of Christ that anyone who has been called to repentance and refuses to obey, is more guilty than the man who has never been urged to repent.
Thirdly, remember how foolish it is not to repent. Most people spend their time trying to get on in the world, or trying to obtain more money—more wealth. But without the grace of God, and true repentance everyone is a very poor man in the eyes of God. Time will come when everything of this world will have to be left behind—it is of no use in eternity. Only repentance now will be of use then. It is folly to ignore Christ’s words— “Except you repent you will likewise perish”.
b) An invitation.
The second practical application is an invitation to all who feel their sins, and desire to repent, but yet are not sure what to do. There is only one answer; Repent without delay.
The apostle Paul continually commanded the unconverted to repent; I can only do the same. If a person wants to go to heaven, he must act; he must break off from his sins and turn to Christ. Otherwise, he will perish. The best time to do this is now! Repent without delay.
This means pouring out your heart to Christ; tell Him you are a sinner and want to be saved. He will hear you, give you His power and grace and pour out His Spirit on you. He will listen and save you. He died for everyone, so you only need to approach Him humbly and He will grant you pardon, peace and everlasting life.
Then resolve to break away from every known sin. Cease to do evil (Is. 1, 16). Determine that by God’s grace you will have no more to do with your besetting and favourite sins.
Some may be ashamed of the idea of repentance. But there is no need to be. Ashamed of sin, yes; but not of repentance. Never be ashamed of seeking God; nor is there any need to be afraid to repent. No one is so bad that Christ will not have him. There is no need for any intermediary to bring a person to Him. Anyone can come directly to Christ, and He, loving as He is, will give the absolution and peace of mind you need.
c) An exhortation.
Lastly, to all who know repentance by experience, I would give this exhortation. Keep up your repentance. Whenever you feel slack or dull and are careless about even little sins, look to your own heart and take heed that you do not fall. There will always be sins to deplore and confess. Take them daily to Christ and receive His mercy and grace every day.
Let repentance towards God and faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ be the great pillars of our religion. May we, while we repent, believe; and while we believe, repent. May these be uppermost in the creed of our souls.
First published in this edited version 1962
John Charles Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, lived from 1816-1900. He was a prolific writer of both Devotional and Doctrinal books and tracts. This present booklet is an edited version of his pamphlet, originally published as a tract, but later included in his collection of tracts, entitled “Old Paths”, published in 1897. This book was sub-titled, “Plain Statements on some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity.” The preface begins, “This volume consists of a series of papers, systematically arranged, on the leading truths of Christianity which are ‘necessary to salvation’.”