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J.W. McGarvey

I will read in the seventeenth chapter of Acts of Apostles, two verses in Paul’s celebrated speech on Mars’ Hill, addressed to heathen philosophers:

“The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent: inasmuch as he hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

The greatest obstacle to the salvation of men is the obstinacy of the human will. It is not very difficult, in this country particularly, to induce men to believe the Gospel–to plant faith within the soul. Indeed, we may say it is difficult in our blessed land for a man to be an unbeliever. Multitudes of men try to be, and fail; and some women do the same. And even when they think that they have succeeded in persuading themselves that there is no truth in the Gospel or in the Bible, often, when they come to face death, their unbelief vanishes, and they find themselves among the number who believe and tremble. Neither is it very difficult to persuade men to be baptized, when they become penitent believers. I have never yet met with a person, who was a genuine believer and sincerely penitent, that raised any question about being baptized. They are ready to go where they are led.

The difficulty is to induce them to repent. I have often, in my preaching experience, studied and prayed and reflected and read, to find some way by which I could have more power in inducing people to repent. I would rather have that power than all the other powers and gifts that could be bestowed upon me as a preacher. But we modern preachers need not be discouraged, I think, on account of our weakness here, because we find, on reading the Gospels, that our Saviour experienced the same difficulty. When He was bidding farewell, or about to bid farewell, to Gallilee, where the most of His mighty works were done, and upbraided the cities whose people had heard Him most, it was not because they did not believe; it was not because they refused to be baptized by John; but it was because they did not repent. With all the tremendous efforts that He had put forth to bring them to repentance, He had failed. Not surprising, then, that there should be found the same difficulty in the way of modern preachers. Seeing that it is difficult to bring men to repentance, and yet that without repentance there is no salvation for the human soul, how important a matter it is to know all about repentance that we can learn; to know, in the first place, what repentance is, so that we may not be mistaken about that; and to know, in the second place, how repentance is brought about. I propose to devote the time that I shall address you this morning to these two inquiries.


I think if I were to ask you individually, What is repentance, I would probably get, from the large majority, the answer that it is godly sorrow for sin. That would be a very imperfect definition. There is no repentance without sorrow for sin, and I presume to say that it is utterly impossible for any man to sorrow for them too deeply. But that is not the exact thing that in the Bible is called repentance. We know this from a single statement, to go no further, of the Apostle Paul, when, addressing certain men in the Church of Corinth, he said: “Though I made you sorry with my epistle, I do not regret it, though I did regret; for I see that the epistle made you sorry after a godly sort; for godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation not to be regretted.” He had awakened a very keen sorrow in their hearts. He pitied them when he learned how deeply distressed they were; but when he learned that this godly sorrow worked repentance, then he was glad that he had made them sorry; and this remark shows that repentance is a result of godly sorrow, not that sorrow itself. This fact being discovered, some scholars have concluded that repentance is reformation of life. But this is another mistake. Of course, every man who sincerely repents, reforms his life. But we learn from John the Baptist that reformation of life, instead of being repentance, is the fruit of repentance. He “said to the people who came to be baptized by him, and were not sincere in the matter, being Pharisees and Sadducees, “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance;” and some of the people said, “Master, what shall we do then?” “Why, you that have two coats, give to him that hath none; you that have food, do likewise.” Be liberal and kind. The publicans said, “Master, what shall we do?”–that is, to bring forth these fruits that you require. “Exact no more than is appointed you.” They were in the habit of exacting more and putting the surplus in their pockets. Quit your wicked conduct. The soldiers say, “What shall we do?” “Do violence to no man, and be content with your wages.” And thus in calling on them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, he explained that he meant better conduct–a change, or reformation, in their lives. So then, a change of life for the better is a result, or an effect, of repentance. It is not repentance itself. Repentance, then, is something that stands in between sorrow for sin and the change of the life in which sins are abandoned and a better course of conduct begun. Well, then, is it? Not to multiply words, you will agree with me when I state that it is a change of that stubborn will which is the seat of all rebellion and all sin against God. When a man is so thoroughly filled with sorrow and mourning and self-reproach on account of his sins that his will is subdued to the will of God, and he says, I will sin no more, I will hereafter submit to the will of my God, this results in a change of his life, and it is repentance–a change of will in regard to sin.


Now, how is this change of will to be brought about? It is so difficult of accomplishment that many have imagined it to be a product of the direct power of God acting within the soul. I have wondered how such persons could reconcile their theory with the fact that only a small number of us repent. Why does not God, if He employs His Almighty power to inspire the soul with repentance, exert that power upon all the wicked, and stop all sin at once? I am sure He would if that were His way of bringing men to repentance.

It was said by the apostles and their brethren assembled together at Jerusalem, that repentance is a gift of God; for when they heard of the turning of Cornelius and his family, and their baptism, they praised God and said, “Then hath God given to the Gentiles repentance unto life.” In some proper sense of the word, then, it is true that repentance is a gift from God to the man who repents; and yet repentance is a duty that is enjoined upon men in the form of a command. “Repent,” was the cry of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and of all the apostles. It is something that the man himself must do. Now it is not easy always to explain how a thing may be a gift from God, and yet be something that we ourselves me to do; but this will be made clear as we proceed.


Let me press the inquiry, then, in the light of the word of God, How are men brought to repentance? How is that stubborn will broken down, so that a man who was once in rebellion against his God, is ready and willing to say, and does say, “Oh Lord, not my will, but Thine be done?” The Savior, in trying to bring men to repentance, as you saw in the speech addressed to Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, which I read you at the beginning, pointed them to the judgment. He upbraided them for their want of repentance, and said: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin; woe unto thee, Bethsaida; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes, but it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, in the day of judgment than for you.” And so he said to Capernaum. He appealed then to the terrors of the judgment in order to induce these men to repent. There was a preacher of repentance who lived a long time before the Savior, and was led by the Spirit of God. When Jonah went into the great city of Nineveh to preach to them, and brought the whole city to repentance in sackcloth and ashes, what was the means by which he did it? “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The terrors of the just judgment of God upon them for their iniquity, he employed, and it had the desired effect. And when Paul stood here among these philosophers on Mars’ Hill in Athens, and addressed to them this matchless speech in regard to the true and living God, he called on them to repent. He says, in the language which I read to you, “God hath now commanded men that they should all, everywhere, repent;” and what motive did he lay before them to induce them to do it? “For he hath appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness.” If God is going to judge in righteousness, every unrighteous man will be condemned, and only those who are righteous will be saved.

Now then, if we will be guided by those who were moved by the Spirit of infinite wisdom in their efforts to bring men to repentance, even our Savior included, one way to do it, is to tell them of the fearful consequences of continuing in sin. Is that calculated to have the effect? All we have to do in answer to this question is to look within our own souls. I would ask any impenitent sinner here this morning: Did you ever in your life sit down calmly and thoughtfully to consider the consequence of your sinful life–the consequences upon your conscience and your heart while you live; the terror that it will force upon you in the hour of death; the judgment, and all that is revealed in the Bible as to the fate of the impenitent sinner, without feeling that stubborn will of yours beginning to bend? I do not believe you ever did. I did not when I was living in sin, and I don’t believe that any Christian here ever did. Well, why didn’t that will of yours bow completely down in subjection to the will of God when you indulged in these reflections? Oh! you shook them off. You got up and ran away. You closed the book. You resorted to something that would dissipate those thoughts. You shook off the power that God was exercising over your soul, and which would have brought you to repentance, if you had only continued to reflect a little longer. That is proof enough that there is power in this great motive to bring men to repentance, if only they can be induced to reflect upon it sufficiently.


Another source is pointed out by the Apostle Paul when he rebuked certain men for treasuring up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, because they were despising the goodness of God; because they were despising the goodness and long suffering and forbearance of God, not knowing that the goodness of God leads men to repentance (Romans 2:4,5). Here is another motive to repentance, the goodness of God. Did ever a sinner who knows God, who is acquainted, in even a general way, with the revelations of the New Testament, sit down and reflect upon the kindness of the God who created him; upon all the tender mercies that God has showered upon him since his earliest recollection; upon the fact that God has provided a way for his salvation; that He is bidding him every day to turn away from his sins and come to peace and rest in Christ; that He is opening the gates of eternity, an eternity of glory and bliss and honor–did one ever thus reflect without despising himself for being a sinner? Without wishing that he were not a sinner, and resolving that he will abandon his sins? And why didn’t you then and there repent? For the same reason as in the other case. If you were reading the Bible at the time, you shut it up and turned to a newspaper or something else. If it were a sermon to which you were listening that made you feel that way, you got away from the church as soon as you could into other associations. You resorted to means by which you could shake off from your soul the spell that God was working upon it; and that is the reason you did not repent. And if you continue to deal with the judgment of God, and with the goodness of God, in this way, the result will be that you will forever shake off their power, and you will find it easier and easier to do so as life goes on. You will go to perdition. You are pursuing the very course that is calculated to take you to hell.

The goodness of God on the one hand, and the awful judgment of God against impenitent sinners on the other hand–these are two mighty motives to bring men to repentance.

We are able now to see how repentance is a gift from God. How did you and I find out the awful consequences of sin? How did we learn about the goodness of God? The heathen, the uncircumcised heathen, in the days of the apostles, could not repent, because God had never yet sent to them the message of his hatred of sin and his goodness and mercy toward the sinner. But, in sending them the Gospel God gave them the power, and the opportunity, and the privilege of repenting, as he gives us our food by sending the sunshine and the shower.


Some people imagine that there ought to be, somehow or other, something from God, something in addition to all this: seeing that men resist this, that God ought to do something more. The rich man in Hades thought so. When he found that there was no possible hope for himself, not even so much as one drop of water to cool his parched tongue, he said, Father Abraham, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers there; oh send him to warn them that they come not to this place of torment. Calmly the voice of the patriarch comes down to him: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” This man thought that this was not enough. No, Father Abraham, but if some one will go to them from the dead, they will repent. Let Lazarus go and tell them where I am, what I am suffering, what I have begged for and cannot obtain. They will not come to this place of torment when they hear that. That is what he thought. But the voice comes to him, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they he persuaded if one should rise from the dead.” That is, if Lazarus should go back into his body, stand as he once was, a living man, and tell those five brothers all that he knew of their departed brother, they would not repent. I am afraid there are some who even now do not believe this–who think that those men certainly would have repented if Lazarus had gone as requested. But I think that Abraham was right, or rather, that Jesus, who quotes these words, was right. Suppose Lazarus had gone back. How do you think his message would have been received by those brothers? What would he have to tell them? When I died, and your brother died, and angels carried me away off into Abraham’s bosom, I saw your brother, and I heard him cry. He called to me to dip my finger up in water to cool his tongue; for he said, “I am tormented in these flames.” I could not go to him, so he asked me to come back and tell you not to come to that place of torment, but to change your lives. What do you suppose those brothers would have said? Well, Lazarus, who are you? You were nothing but a poor diseased beggar, companion for dogs, when you lived here; had no friends. Our brother was a rich man who fared sumptuously every day, and was clothed in purple and fine linen, and everybody was his friend. You tell us that our brother whom we loved so well, who was so good and tender and noble–that he is in the torments of hell? We don’t believe a word of it. My brethren, you will not find many men to-day who are willing to believe that that good, nice, honorable fellow who died recently, is in hell. It is not considered polite to express the opinion that anybody has gone to hell. And who will believe that his brother is in hell? I suppose it would have been a vain mission on the part of Lazarus, So then, we are shut up to it, if a man does not repent under the power that God exerts upon him through the revelation he has made of his righteous wrath against sin, the punishment with which he will visit it, there is no power in heaven, earth, or hell, that can bring him to repentance. He is to be a hopeless outcast forever.

I have heard the question raised among a certain class (I am glad it is a diminishing class) as to how long a man ought to repent before he is prepared for baptism, and for union with the church. That question betrays another mistake on the whole subject of repentance. How long must a man repent? It really means, how long must a man be sorry for his sins? The mistaken idea that sorrow for sin is repentance is involved in that question. Still it is a legitimate question, How long shall a man be sorry for his sins, and mourn over them, before he is ready to take the stand that he ought to take in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ? I do not know any way to answer this question except by facts brought to light in the Scriptures. Among all the persons whose conversions are recorded in the New Testament, there is only one who continued in sorrow and mourning before he was baptized as long as three days. That was the Apostle Paul. The Philippian jailer, who had been a great sinner and a heathen, was baptized the same hour in which he first heard the Gospel preached. You may take these two cases as the extremes. But then, when you come to look into that three days’ mourning of Saul of Tarsus, you find that the reason why he continued so long in sorrow was because no one had yet come to tell him what to do. As soon as Ananias, sent by the Lord, come in and found him in that condition, he said: “Brother Saul, why dost thou tarry? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord:” and he obeyed at once. If Ananias had come two days earlier, would not his command and Saul’s action have been the same?

How long shall a man sorrow for his sins before he repents? Why, the answer is, I think, just as long as he has to sorrow before he is willing to give up his sins; and that may be a long time, or a short time. It ought to be but a very short time. As soon as a man is convinced that he is a sinner against God, he ought that very hour to be sorry, and sorry enough to abandon his sins, and to resolve that he will never sin again, God helping him. Whenever you have gotten to the point that your will is subdued, you have sorrowed long enough; and when you have reached that point, you have sorrowed intensely enough. So that all of this conception of long continued sorrow and mourning and anguish, causing sleep to depart, causing troubled dreams to visit you in the night–all this results from the fact that the will is so stubborn that it takes hours and weeks of anguish to break it down–to make the guilty, stubborn rebel, willing to submit to his God. God takes no delight in the tears, in the pains, in the agonies of the human heart. He takes delight in quick and willing obedience; and all he wants any man to do is to come to him in willing obedience. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest.” That is the sweet and heavenly invitation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think, my friends, that this city, and this State, and this country of ours, are the worst places on this broad earth from which to go to hell. Jesus said to those people around him, believers in God, and men who thought themselves religious, “It shall be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” Why? Because, if that which has been done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have lived; and therefore the men of Sodom shall rise up in the day of judgment and condemn you, showing that you are worse than they and must be punished more severely. He said to another audience on another occasion, “The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, but a greater than Jonah is here.” They repented under the preaching of a prophet. These men refused to repent under the preaching of the Son of God. They repented under the preaching of a prophet who ran away from his God and was caught and sent back. These men refused to repent under the Son of God who had never violated his Father’s will. And oh! how much severer condemnation awaited them! How is it with you and me on this line of comparison? If we do not repent, we can be said to be impenitent under the preaching, not merely of the Son of God who never disobeyed his Father, but of that Son of God laid in the grave, alive from the dead, ascending up into heaven, sitting down on the right hand of God, and speaking from the eternal throne, saying, Repent that you may live. This voice rings in our ears from Lord’s day to Lord’s day, and all through the week. The silent voice of that closed Bible on the stand is ever ringing in our ears, and still we do not repent. If then, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom than for Capernaum in the day of judgment, oh, how will it fare with you and me if we die without repentance?

Will you die that way? You will if you live that way. Will you repent this morning? Will you say to the God who made you, to the Savior who redeemed you and who invites you to come to him, Lord, I come; I yield. Thy goodness, thy mercy, thy love, have subdued my stubborn will; I will cast my sins behind me; I will live hereafter for my God and my Redeemer. If so, then you are a penitent sinner. Will you come with that penitence and cast yourself upon the Savior’s mercy who is ready to receive you? While we sing, we beg you in Jesus’ name to come.

[This was taken from J.W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky (1894). Subtitles were added for reading ease].            

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey



The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”