True repentance is sorrow for sin

Watson WednesdaysWednesdays with Watson is a weekly reading taken from my favorite Puritan writer, Thomas Watson.  This week’s selection is taken from The Doctrine of Repentance.

Ingredient 2: Sorrow for Sin

I will be sorry for my sin (Psalm 38.18)

Ambrose calls sorrow the embittering of the soul. The Hebrew word ‘to be sorrowful’ signifies ‘to have the soul, as it were, crucified’. This must be in true repentance: ‘They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn’ (Zech. 12.10), as if they did feel the nails of the cross sticking in their sides. A woman may as well expect to have a child without pangs as one can have repentance without sorrow. He that can believe without doubting, suspect his faith; and he that can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance.

Martyrs shed blood for Christ, and penitents shed tears for sin: ‘she stood at Jesus’ feet weeping’ (Luke 7.38). See how this limbeck [a distilling apparatus for refining liquids] dropped. The sorrow of her heart ran out at her eye. The brazen laver for the priests to wash in (Exod. 30.18) typified a double laver: the laver of Christ’s blood we must wash in by faith, and the laver of tears we must wash in by repentance. A true penitent labours to work his heart into a sorrowing frame. He blesses God when he can weep; he is glad of a rainy day, for he knows that it is a repentance he will have no cause to repent of. Though the bread of sorrow be bitter to the taste, yet it strengthens the heart (Ps. 104.15; 2 Cor. 7.10).

This sorrow for sin is not superficial: it is a holy agony. It is called in scripture a breaking of the heart: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken and a contrite heart’ (Ps. 51.17); and a rending of the heart: ‘Rend your heart’ (Joel 2.13 ). The expressions of smiting on the thigh (Jer. 31.19), beating on the breast (Luke 18.13 ), putting on of sackcloth (Isa. 22.12), plucking off the hair (Ezra 9.3), all these are but outward signs of inward sorrow. This sorrow is:

(1) To make Christ precious. O how desirable is a Saviour to a troubled soul! Now Christ is Christ indeed, and mercy is mercy indeed. Until the heart is full of compunction it is not fit for Christ. How welcome is a surgeon to a man who is bleeding from his wounds!

(2) To drive out sin. Sin breeds sorrow, and sorrow kills sin. Holy sorrow is the rhubarb to purge out the ill humours of the soul. It is said that the tears of vine-branches are good to cure the leprosy. Certainly the tears that drop from the penitent are good to cure the leprosy of sin. The salt water of tears kills the worm of conscience.

(3) To make way for solid comfort: ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’ (Ps. 126.5). The penitent has a wet seed-time but a delicious harvest. Repentance breaks the abscess of sin, and then the soul is at ease. Hannah, after weeping, went away and was no more sad (1 Sam. 1.18). God’s troubling of the soul for sin is like the angel’s troubling of the pool (John 5.4), which made way for healing.

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