What Saith the Scripture?
Repentance Before Prayer for Forgiveness
by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College
from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
November 19, 1851
Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart
Text.--Acts 8:22, 23: "Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bonds of iniquity."
These words were addressed to Simon Magus. A revival of religion was in progress
in Samaria, under the labors of Peter and Philip; many were converted to God, and
among them Simon Magus also professed conversion. He had been a great man in that
place and had deceived many by his magic arts. Seeing the greater wonders wrought
by these Christian apostles, he was struck with surprise, and his ambitious spirit
caught at the idea of augmenting his own power over men by obtaining this new secret.
Hence he offers the apostles money to buy this new power. Peter saw his heart at
once and nobly replies--"Thy money perish with thee; thou hast neither part
nor lot in this matter, for thy heart is not right in the sight of God." He
then gives him directions as in our text: "Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness,
and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee."
Following the order of thought as in the text, I will
I. Notice the principle here developed, in the light of which Peter saw this man yet in his sins;
II. Show what repentance is;
III. What is implied in repentance;
IV. Show why sinners are exhorted first to repent, and then to pray for pardon;
V. Dwell on the importance of following this example in all our dealings with men.
I. Notice the principle here developed, in the light of which Peter saw this man yet in his sins.
Peter did not profess to learn Simon Magus' character by inspiration. He had no such omniscience. Inspiration he doubtless had, but inspiration taught general truth, not individual character. Peter saw his heart to be selfish, and not at all in harmony with the gospel spirit. Simon still had his old spirit, and wanted power to give the Holy Ghost to whom he pleased for the same reason that he had before sought and valued his magic powers. Hence he offered money, as if the apostles were as sordid as himself. Peter saw that he was selfish and therefore blind, far indeed from understanding the subject of Christianity.
II. Hence Peter exhorted him to repent. What is repentance?
III. What is implied in repentance?
I cannot enter now into those discriminations which should be made on this subject. But obviously where restitution cannot be made without confession, as for example, where character is injured, there you persist in the wrong unless you confess. You have deceived many in respect to your neighbor, to his hurt, and this wrong which you have done him, you must undo, or you cannot suppose yourself to be really penitent.
When I speak of abandoning sin, I do not imply that the penitent man never for even a moment relapses into it; but I imply that he sets himself against it in real honesty and earnestness.
IV. What is implied in the consecutive order of duties, as enjoined by Peter--repentance before prayer for pardon?
Yet many direct the sinner to pray for repentance! Ah, do you want the sinner to mock God? Peter did not direct Simon to pray for repentance, for he knew that this would be only mocking God until he should himself be willing to repent; and he could not invite him to insult Jehovah.
"Trying to repent" always implies two things--a willingness to repent, and a want of power to do it. Trying is making an effort to accomplish that on which the mind is set, and, if unsuccessful, implies that the failure results from lack of power.
Now Peter understood this whole subject. Peter knew that this man had free will enough and ability enough to repent if he would. Therefore he directs him first to repent, and then ask pardon. Asking forgiveness before repenting would only blaspheme God, and Peter could not advise him to do that.
V. It is of the utmost importance to follow this inspired example. For,
For what are the facts? Simply these. The sinner is a free-acting, voluntary agent. In this capacity he sets himself selfishly against the demands of God's law of love. Now what shall God require him to do? Change his course to be sure--in other words repent. Nothing can be plainer than that a voluntary agent who is voluntarily doing wrong should turn about and voluntarily do right. This, and this only, is consistent with the facts and with the right of the case.
But suppose you undertake to give direction to a sinner who is still selfish, that is, devoted to self-pleasing. First of all you set him to praying. Praying for what? That God would give him the desire of his heart? Of course if he prays without first changing the purpose of his heart, he will pray for what he desires--that is, he will pray that God would grant him the selfish desires of his heart. His prayer would be--O Lord, let me have heaven without holiness: Lord, pardon my sins, and yet let me live on in sinning, for I have no heart to repent!
Now can such mocking of God be of any use? Would you suppose it probable that the Bible would give such directions to awakened sinners?
If men are really willing to repent and forsake all sin, God asks no more of them, for the willing is essentially the doing; but there can be no greater mistake in this world than to assume that sinners are willing to repent and want to repent, before they actually do it.
Peter did not say to Simon--Pray for the Holy Ghost to strive with you, or to repent for you, or to make you repent, or even to help you repent; but simply, Repent yourself--repent first of all, and then ask forgiveness.
The opposite course--that is, the reverse order, which puts prayer before repentance, virtually casts the blame of continued impenitence upon God. If you direct the sinner to pray first instead of repent first, you virtually imply that the difficulty in the sinner's way is one that God must remove--that the reason why he has not repented lies in God, not in himself. If the sinner follows your direction, he prays before he repents, and then having prayed, he says, Why am I not converted and saved? I have prayed;--God does not convert me;--the blame be on God and not on me! How horrible must the influence of this course be on the sinner's mind!
This is the only rational course--the only course which is based upon scripture, upon reason, and upon the true science of mind. Every sinner knows that he is a sinner. You no more need the Holy Ghost to make you see yourself a sinner than to make you see that you exist. This shows why the Bible always faces the sinner down with the assumption--You are a sinner, and the fact needs no proof. Every sinner knows it.
So with every sinner. Tell him to pray for conviction. O yes, he will pray for conviction, but he will resist conviction, until he repents. Tell him to pray for the Holy Ghost. O yes, he will pray for the Holy Ghost, but still he will perhaps resist the Holy Ghost continually. He is ready to do the outside work, but not the heart-work; he will readily cleanse the outside of the cup and platter, but the turning of his own heart from his sins and selfishness, that is the hard thing--the thing which of all others he is reluctant to do.
Sinners are wont to assume in self-vindication that it is impossible for them to control their own hearts. They admit they can control their muscles; if Jesus were on earth, they could come to him and bow their knees before him; but they cannot come with their hearts and bow their hearts to him. But what is the heart that you cannot control it? You are controlling your own hearts all the time, and the very thing God complains of is that you control it too stubbornly, so that his truth and his Spirit cannot move you--that you control it wrong and with so much obstinacy as to baffle all his efforts to save you. Therefore He cries--"Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die?"
1. But you ask--Should not a sinner pray? The answer depends upon what the question means and implies. If it means--Shall a sinner mock God? I answer, No. If you mean--Shall he truly pray, in sincerity and honesty? Yes. Shall he lie to the Holy Ghost? No. Shall he turn to God? Yes.
But the sum of all that need be said on this point is that the sinner should be told to repent and pray--not pray and repent. Let him observe the scriptural order--an order founded in reason and in the nature of the case.
2. This order of duties is eminently reasonable.
Suppose a sinner had stolen money. He knows that God is greatly displeased with him for this, and he is also afraid of being detected and disgraced. Now he says--What shall I do? Shall I repent and then pray God to forgive me, or shall I pray first? Greatly disliking to confess, repent and restore, he says--I will do the other thing; I will pray. I will go alone and pray about it, and then perhaps I will repent. See him. He takes not his stolen money. He passes it from one hand to the other; I am greatly distressed he says, what shall I do? Shall I put it in my pocket and go and pray? No, sinner, no. Carry it back--repent first, and then go and pray. Don't go and pray for the Holy Ghost first: there is no need of that; the Holy Ghost is already convicting you of your great sin. Don't insult Him by refusing to yield to his persuasions, and by pretending to pray for his guidance and help!
Let this represent all sin. Stealing money is only one form of sin; let it represent all forms of sin. You, sinner, are fully committed to living for yourself. You have robbed God by wresting yourself away from his service. God says--Restore. Give yourself back to me and to my service. But you reply--What shall I do? Shall I not go and pray? God says--Restore first; give back the stolen goods first; then you may pray. What should you pray for--until you have restored what you have stolen? You surely will not insult God by praying for pardon before you have restored what you have stolen. You need not pray for the Holy Ghost unless you restore, for to pray and not restore is only resisting and mocking the Spirit of God.
But the sinner says--You talk as if I could repent. Yes, and so does God. God in his word always speaks as if you could repent, and as if you ought to know that you can. What if Simon Magus had said--But you don't expect me to repent, do you? You will observe he did not say any such thing. His own conscience neither suggested nor allowed such a defense, nor did the preaching of the Apostles encourage it.
But you say, Does the Bible always assume that I can repent? Yes, everywhere--in all its commands--by every prophet, every Apostle--by the lips of every fore-runner of Christ--by the lips of Christ Himself. Every inspired command--every inspired direction, holds the same language and makes the same implication. You can repent and you ought to do it immediately!
3. When the sinner says, I can't repent, he virtually charges God with being a tyrant. For what can be tyranny if charging God with requiring you to do impossibilities is not?
4. But does not the Bible teach that God gives men repentance? Yes, and in the same sense as He gives you daily bread--which, however, you must yourself provide and yourself eat. God does not give you your daily bread, so long as you persist in starving yourself. So God gives you repentance by persuading you to repent--by drawing you--impressing truth on your heart and conscience. Indeed there is no other possible way in which He can give you repentance. It is only by bringing truth before your mind--impressing it by a thousand ways upon your heart and conscience. For, repentance is a rational, voluntary act--an act done by the sinner, because he sees that truth and reason demand it.
5. Every sinner should see and feel that immediate repentance is what God requires. He should see that he is shut up to this precisely and to nothing else.
Nor is there anything strange or absurd in this. Suppose a man had committed murder, and you should tell him to repent of this great sin. Is there anything mysterious in this? Or if you see a man engaged in any particular form of wickedness, and you exhort him to desist and repent: is there in this course anything strange or unreasonable? How then can there be anything unreasonable in requiring a sinner to repent of all his sins? Or of that which embraces the sum of all wickedness?
6. Some of you are so much afraid you shall repent, that you get a book, even under the most solemn preaching, and try to keep from thinking of your own sins; and even then you will pretend that you cannot repent, and would fain imply that you would repent if you could! Is not this beautifully consistent!
7. Many professors of religion are greatly backslidden from God, yet they pray in form, but don't repent. Many talk about praying as if they made up in prayer what they lack of pleasing God in sinning. I asked a young lady--Do you pray? Yes sir. When? On retiring to rest at night. What for? That God would take me to heaven if I should die before morning. Do you expect God would do so? No. You expect then to so on in sin. Now be so honest as to tell God just the truth. Say to Him--Lord, forgive my sins--give me strength by sleep and food that I may sin a little more; I have sinned all the day past--I don't intend to repent; I only want to be taken to heaven if I die, for I cannot bear to sink down to hell: Lord help me to sin on against thee as long as I live, and then take me up to heaven!!
You are shocked; but what shocks you? Your course, or my language?
There, see the sinner. He gets on his knees to tell God that he wants repentance, but he lies in saying so, every moment until he does in fact repent. And you, backslidden professor, lie to God in every word of your pretended prayer. Do you say--I will not repent--I don't intend to repent? If you say anything else than this you lie to God, for nothing else is true until you do in fact repent. The truth is, so long as you continue in your selfish, impenitent state, you don't mean to repent. Therefore, let him pray as he will, his true meaning is, I have no intention of repenting of my sins. This is always true, until he does repent.
But this praying of sinners in their sins when they do not mean to repent! Hear him, "O Lord, I beseech thee to search my heart." No, you don't mean any such thing; you are covering up your own heart all the time. "O God, come near to me." But you are pushing away from God every moment, and as you strive to get away, you only look back over your shoulder and cry to God to reveal his face and draw near to your soul! Hark, hear what the Bible says. "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination." And what is your course but this?
8. Let me tell you, God is infinitely ready to meet and bless you. He comes with pardons in his hands--pardons all sealed with blood. You need only renounce your sins and come to Him; then all will be well. The very first moment you come before God with a penitent heart, He will meet you with smiles of loving-kindness. His parable of the prodigal son, both illustrates and proves this. See, the wandering son comes to himself. Instead of staying away and trying to live on husks, he turns his face towards home, and comes with a confession on his lips, and tears of penitence on his cheeks. He is coming--and now see the aged father. He spies him in the distance; he recognizes his long-lost son. See how he leaps from his door, and rushes to embrace this returning son. O how ready! O how much more than merely READY!! O how ready is God in your case to meet you with the fullest pardon--and wipe all your tears away, and soothe down that aching sensibility!
Now, dear hearer, don't go away and say I told you not to pray. If I should tell you not to go into your closet, get upon your knees and swear, and blaspheme God, could you say with any truth that I told you not to pray? So I do not teach you not to pray; but I do teach you to be honest. I warn you when you pray not to mock God. I entreat you when you pray to give up your heart to God and repent of all your sin. When I repented first, I did it on my knees and in the act of prayer. I knelt down an impenitent sinner, and rose up a penitent. In the very act of speaking to God, my heart broke; I yielded myself to God. This is the way. And do you ask--Can I believe God? Yes. Can I pray in faith? Yes. Can I give my heart to God in penitence? Yes. Why not you as well as Paul--as well as Peter--as well as any one of the myriads who have done this very thing, and in so doing have found mercy?
of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart
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