J. W. McGarvey: On Repentance

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.
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In all likelihood, the title of McGarvey’s sermon “Conditions of Forgiveness” would have chaffed against many nineteenth century Christians the way that it would grate on modern ears. No one likes the idea, much less the explicit language, of conditional forgiveness. We prefer to think of salvation in terms of “a free gift,” without delving too deeply into how the offering and the reception of that gift might play out practically. In truth, however, McGarvey’s points are not all that radical and are probably less so by modern standards than nineteenth century ones. His three conditions of forgiveness are faith, repentance, and baptism, and he makes very clear that belief that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” is the bedrock on which the other two rest. He makes clear, both in this sermon and the following sermon (“Faith,” which was treated in the previous entry), that he falls well within the bounds of Protestant sole fide dogma.

McGarvey insists, nevertheless, that faith must be an active faith. Just as in faith, Enoch walked with God, Noah built his ark, and Abraham uprooted his family, the faith of the Christian must be productive or else, in the words of James, it is dead. In view of this, he launches proudly into what amounts to a month long defense of his belief that faith must manifest itself in practice. Even to an audience of Disciples who must have largely shared his beliefs about the necessary outgrowths of faith, McGarvey admits that nothing is more difficult than translating that belief into action:

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 Galilee, 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.

The same is obviously true in our own day, and McGarvey’s specific critiques of America still ring true. The profession of belief continues to be widespread, and many would argue (though with diminishing success) that it is difficult to be a genuine atheist in American culture. There is an abundance of faith in the States, at least faith defined as a profession of belief. What Americans lack—and what perhaps all Christians have struggled with—is manifesting that belief in practice. Looking at Jesus’ critique of the unrepentant Galileans, McGarvey imagines that much the same criticism will be made of America. That is why he concludes “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…Why? Because, if that which has been done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have lived.”

What McGarvey is calling for is not merely proliferation of good works, and any accusation of merit based salvation is either uninformed or malicious. He goes into minute detail, risking the damning accusation of being one who likes “to multiply words,” to explain that good works may be the fruits of repentance and sorrow over sin may be its cause but that the true essence of repentance is a change of disposition. In many ways, his view of repentance mirrors that of his understanding of faith. To come to believe is to shift the mind from confidence in itself about things seen to confidence in God about things unseen. This same transition happens in the will through repentance. It turns from an impulse toward sin to an impulse toward righteousness.

When we take this understanding of repentance as situated less in behavior than in the will, we begin to find grounds on which to approach understanding in Christian ethical discourse. I am by no means one to shy away from the rigorous and frequent examination of moral behavior, and I as often as not disagree stridently with those around who seem to propound a Christian ethos (particularly when it smacks of jingoism, chauvinism, or militarism of any kind). But Christians need to realize that to repent from one’s sins is not to receive an infallible understanding of right and wrong. It is only to commit oneself to pursuing the right instead of the wrong. I will never stop trying to convince my fellow Christians who are politicians or soldiers that their vocations are incompatible with Christian ethics. I will never stop combating the notion that abortion can be morally justified through appeals to exigent circumstances. This is in no sense an appeal for ethical agnosticism. At the same time, we all need to understand that, just as a faith in a common God does not automatically equal a perfect understanding of that one God, our common repentance from evil does not automatically ensure a perfect and common understanding of what the good is to which our will is now directed.

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