Forty Days: 5. Repentance and Forgiveness

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 7
“The word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
“Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.
“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey; and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
“So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
“Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not (Jonah 3).”
“And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.
Before entering on my present subject, I would note how the well-spring of God’s living grace rises up, and bursts forth at times, and under circumstances, even when the dispensation is dealing with other things. In the OT, grace was not flowing out dispensationally, as now, to the Gentiles — “to all men everywhere.” Yet God was God; and His grace is seen here, in sending a mission to the Gentiles, even in those days of dealing with Israel alone, “of all the nations of the earth.” It was a bright foretaste of the overflowings of His heart, to be fully made known when Jesus had accomplished His work on the cross, when God’s heart was free to flow forth in grace through righteousness.
Now it would appear that Jonah really understood, in some measure, this truth: God had sent him on a special mission to the Gentile city of Nineveh. He was to go and announce the judgment of God against it. God had said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me (Jonah 1:22Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1:2)).” But Jonah feared that if he announced this judgment, and that the people repented, God would forgive and spare them; and thus his self-importance would be compromised. And so Jonah fled to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
Now let us look for a moment at Nineveh. At this time of the earth’s history it was the greatest city in the world. It was “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey,” that is, it was about twenty miles across: far larger than London. It was one of those enormous cities of ancient days, whose ruins, when discovered, seem almost fabulous to behold. It was the Capital of the Assyrian Empire: surrounded by walls, we are told, one hundred feet in height; with twelve hundred towers. All the “entourage” of Eastern splendor was there. It stood alone in its greatness — a city that seemed to be unconquerable. But its sins cried aloud to God for Judgment.
The striking narrative of Jonah himself unfolds God’s preparation of His messenger for this mission; the discipline, too, through which He passes him, until the vessel is prepared according to His mind, and ready to His hand. First, he flees by ship from God, to escape this duty; then the storm overtakes him, finding him asleep in the ship: the cry of the mariners awakes him; the lot singles Jonah out as the man for whose sake the storm was sent. Conscience now convicts him, owning that he is the man. The sea receives him. The fish swallows him up: and in the “Belly of Hell (Sheol),” as he calls his prison house, he passes through those deep and agonizing exercises of soul, detailed in chapter 2, until he owns that “salvation “was “of the Lord,” and then only does he stand on the dry ground — a man prepared for his work.
In all this he was eminently a type of the Lord Jesus Christ. The sign, too, that would be given to the Jews, as the Lord told them. A sign that would be no use for them — as they should have received a living Messiah. A dead and risen Savior, who would go away to the Gentiles; it would be too late for them to know when they had slain Him. Of course I thus look upon them as the people of God. Individuals He would bless at any time.
Jonah then goes his way. He enters Nineveh, a day’s journey”; and he proclaims the solemn message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This was the “preaching of Jonas.” Doubtless he told them his own strange history: a more striking text could hardly have been chosen. A man just emerging from a living tomb, and standing now on the ground of resurrection in figure, could vouch in himself for the truth of what God had done.
It will not be out of place here to say a word on the great truth of repentance. I trust it is becoming more generally known in its real meaning and power than hitherto; but still I feel there are many who are quite astray on this all-important subject. I say “all-important,” because you will find that it is one of the great leading doctrines of the New Testament.
The disciples when they went forth, being sent by the Lord, “preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:1212And they went out, and preached that men should repent. (Mark 6:12)). The Lord Himself, when John was cast into prison, came to Galilee, and preached “the gospel of the kingdom of God,” saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
When He sent His disciples forth, after His resurrection, His commission to them was — “That repentance and remission of sins, should be preached in his name. among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24).” Paul, too, announces, amidst the learning and heathenism of Athens, how God “now commandeth all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:3030And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: (Acts 17:30)).
“Repentance,” then, is an integral part of the gospel on man’s side, while “forgiveness” belongs to God, and is accorded by Him to every repentant soul.
Some, doubtless finding it such an important element, have lost the balance of the divine meaning of it, and, supposing it to be a prefatory preparation towards the reception of forgiveness, have construed it into a certain amount of meritorious sorrow for sin; which, when sufficient, is met by forgiveness from God. Others have taken different views, but it is not my purpose to enter now upon what it is not; but in some measure to illustrate what it is, the Lord so guiding me.
Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh affords a most instructive and striking illustration of its true meaning: for “they repented at the preaching of Jonas.”
Now suppose he had gone to Nineveh and said to that great city, “Repent”; as one might suppose a case even now of a man going to the center of Africa and calling upon the heathen there to “Repent” — what would be thought of such? Nay; the first thing Jonah presented to the Ninevites was a certain truth from God, well calculated to inspire great searchings of heart amongst them. He announces God’s judgment being, as we might say, at the doors. Now what was the effect of this? The very first initiatory effect was, that the announcement was received in faith; and we read, “So the men of Nineveh believed God.” Here faith at once in the testimony was seen. This was necessary in order to produce what so eminently shone in these people — true full, and godly repentance: both as to the past, in the present, and for the time to come.
1st. They put them on sackcloth for the past.
2nd. They amended their ways in the present.
3rd. They purposed a turning from their sins for the future.
Here was true repentance, and this even before they knew anything of God’s forgiving grace. Up to this they only hope in God, with the words, “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3:99Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3:9)).” But let us remember that the first thing was — they “believed God.” Faith was the initial movement in their souls. And I am bold to say there never was true repentance yet, without this being the case. Get up what frames and feelings you may; let sorrow for sin be there as deep as you please; let the soul be prepared for all that is coming as well as possible — faith in God, or in something which He has revealed, must and ever does go before it. I do not say that the soul may yet have entered on peace; rather I would say I do not believe it has: nor has it got hold of forgiveness yet, but the tender root of faith in God and His word, has struck deeply into the heart of that man, which never can be eradicated.
Thus it was with Nineveh. The solemn sound of judgment had burst on their astonished ears from the lips of that strange preacher, and had sunk down on hearts, plowing up the way for that which sprang up at the same moment within — faith in God and His word. True repentance followed; and “God saw their works,” and the golden scepter of forgiveness was at once extended, and Nineveh was spared! Thus it is always. Let a soul be in the true attitude before God, and at once it is forgiven.
There is a passage in Mark 1:1515And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. (Mark 1:15), already alluded to, which may seem to contradict this, as may others also; but, when rightly seen, it will but confirm all we have said. It would seem, then, as if repentance preceded faith: the words are, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” But if we only cast our eyes on the preceding clause, we read, Jesus came... saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” This presentation of something from God — no matter what He uses — produced a work in the soul; faith was there in that word, and such would bring repentance most surely, and belief in the glad tidings, as well as the sad tidings that had first moved their souls, that they were unfit for that kingdom of God.
What magnificent and soul-stirring results we find here from that “one day’s” journey and “preaching of Jonah”! Picture to yourself the king leaving his throne, and, doffing his royal robes, covering himself with sackcloth and sitting in ashes. His courtiers, too, and his people, with their wives and little children — perhaps six hundred thousand souls (for there were, even of that great number, one hundred and twenty thousand who were not able to discern their right hand from their left) “much cattle,” too — all partaking of the soul-humblings of that mighty City.
“One day” was enough for them. What a contrast to the thousands now-a-days who hear, year after year, the message of grace, and never yet have bowed down in true repentance before the Lord!
What does God use now to produce that work in the souls of men? Judgment was what sounded in the ears of Nineveh, and still judgment forms a part of the gospel testimony. It is still the dark background of the picture; while the presentation of Christ, of the “goodness of God” now, “leads” the soul to “repentance.” (See Rom. 2:44Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4).) A loving God beseeches men to be reconciled to Him (2 Cor. 5:2020Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)), while dark and solemn judgment to come looms over the scene as the terrible alternative if men do not hear. “Despisest thou,” says the apostle, “the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” — leads them to that blessed spot where forgiveness is found by a truly repentant heart. Like the woman of the city of old, she was drawn to Him “by the cords of a man, by the bands of love.” True faith in Him had taken root in her soul (Luke 7), and led her to His feet, to shed those tears of self-judgment for her ten thousand sins; this was true repentance, ere she was forgiven. When there her soul was ready for all the rest which was so freely bestowed: “Thy sins be forgiven thee”; “Thy faith hath saved thee”; “Go in peace,” were the blessed words that greeted her ear. The root of repentance and forgiveness was faith, while the fruit of faith was love, and then she learned His whole heart.
Mark how different was the thought in the heart of the king of Nineveh, compared with the certainty of the gospel day, “Who can tell,” said he, “if God will turn and repent”? Now-a-days there is no “Who can tell” in the clear trumpet-sound of grace. “Your sins and iniquities will I remember no more” is now the word. We say, “Well, I forgive that man, but I cannot forget.” With God it is more than this; He remembers our iniquities no more!
Alas, poor Jonah! he was right about God, but it touched the self-importance of the man. God found them bowed to the earth in true repentance, and at once, as always, His forgiveness is extended to souls in such a state. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, O Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth thee of the evil.
“Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:1-31But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. 2And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. 3Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:1‑3)).” Oh the heart of man, what it is! angry and sore displeased because God would not justify his words, and destroy a repentant city! Nay, the soul that would think thus has much to learn of His infinite and tender mercy. Poor messenger of judgment! you could be angry at God sparing the ten thousands of Nineveh but Jesus can, and does, rejoice over one repentant sinner. “Rejoice with me,” is the Savior’s word, “for I have found the sheep that I had lost.” “It was meet,” says the Father, “that we should make merry, and be glad; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; was lost, and is found.”
Repentance, then, is that solemn judgment which I form of, and consciously pronounce about, myself in hearing a testimony from the Lord. I must believe something ere I could possibly repent. It may be that judgment has aroused my conscience; it may be that His goodness has drawn out my heart towards Him; but one thing is certain —faith in that something is there, and by faith the soul lives before God. Faith is the spring of life, the life of Jesus in the soul. That life may express itself in agonizing exercises for a time, but it is a proof that the soul is not dead, but lives. It is judging itself in view of the divine requirements; weighing itself in the balances, and finding itself wanting. The work of repentance, or self-judgment, proceeds, and the deeper the better. This leads to the spot where, hopeless in itself, it turns away, in despair of amendment, and finds its all in Christ. Forgiveness is now known and enjoyed as the result of Christ’s work alone, and the work of repentance was only leading the soul to the place and condition where forgiveness is applied — namely, where we have believed somewhat of our own hopeless ruin in our own sight, as hitherto in the sight of God.
Words of Faith, 1882, pp. 287-294.