"The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance." Romans 2:4
The Cross of Christ is much more than a refuge from the repentance produced by God's holy law—it is the great and constant source of the truest repentance we can know. As the Cross retires from religion it becomes a religion more and more emptied of repentance.
... Culture, even moral culture, ousts theology, and its retreat goes with the abeyance of repentance. A humanist Christianity brings no repentance, or but a sentimental at most. There is a great phrase of Luther's which says "Theology makes sinners." Theology does. Orthodoxy does not, and philosophy does not, and litterae humaniores do not, nor does social reform. But theology does. It makes—not pedants (it is too near life), and not saints (it is too near the burning bush)—but it makes sinners, for God's love there makes repentance.
False culture says "No repentance. Sin is a superstition, a nightmare, the fancy of moral neurotics, the fiction of moral rigorists." False religion says "No more repentance. With your conversion, and your forgiveness, and your new sense that God is love, repentance has done its part. It is a frost to the blossom of Christian trust if it come again. Beware, for the sake of your healthy Christian growth, beware of a habit of repentance. Because some need grace, you may not. Or you may not need it all your life."
But you do not think that the prodigal settled in at home to a life of enjoyable religious interests; that he became a cheery and delightful optimist, of the sympathetic kind, which can be so devoid of any moral insight or measure of guilt. You do not think that he settled into his new spiritual place as dully as he found his brother settled in his social place. You do not think he was prepared to love everybody who was interesting enough to be loved, or important enough for him to wish to love, even if they laughed at the moral regulations of the old man's home or the costly passion of his grace. You do not think that he would settle down to hold his brother's view of their father to be as right in its way as his own, and as deserving of publication to the world.
When was his repentance deepest—on the way back, or in the new home? Was it while he expected his father's word of rebuke, or when he was overwhelmed by having no word of rebuke? Was it under the fear of condemnation, or under the experience of "no condemnation"? Was it in bracing himself for the penalty, or in his shock and bewilderment to find that there was none? Was it not, then, when he was taken aback by the absence of all censure, that he knew what guilt really was—when love was given him liberally, without upbraiding, without parade, or even indication, of its cost?
That is the word of the Cross. "I have seen to the judgment. I can provide for my own holiness. Let us not dwell on that now. That has been seen to. Thy sins are forgiven thee. Abide in My peace."
God says little of what His mercy cost Him—what it cost Him not to make it mercy, but because it was mercy. And in our wicked hours we say that if it had cost Him so much as some believe, He would not have been silent about it. How ignoble! If you did a fine thing which you paid for heavily, how would you regard the person who rasped out that if it had cost you so much we should soon all have heard of it? God is too great and royal to parade what it cost Him to save, and thrust His outlay in our face with His gift. But we cannot let it alone—the full mercy, the dreadful cost. His confessors, apostles, martyrs, say it for Him. The immeasurable love becomes the measure of our guilt. The prayer in an agony means the cost. The love which could find no utterance but the healing heartbreak of the Cross becomes an awful mercy. It is the goodness of God, His holy love, as it sinks in, that brings home to us what Schiller teaches, that "the greatest bane of life is guilt"; because it makes us first know and feel that the greatest boon of life is grace. Only the good know how bad they were. There are no pessimists like those who read the old ruin in the regenerating light. "Repent, for the kingdom of God is here." "Be confounded, for your Holy One is your Redeemer." Our greatest hope is our greatest humiliation. And where grace abounds there does sin abound. The Christian life is repentant praise; if much praise, much grief; if much good labour, also much deep sorrow; if much confidence, much amazement. And sin is always the more deeply confessed for ourselves and our world, because we confess much more than sin—a Saviour to our own worst depths and to the wide ends of the earth.
I found a verse of a foreign poetess once, just one verse quoted, and it set me thinking how the rest could have gone. I have translated the verse, and then gone on to continue the note.
"I was able to laugh, my heart was light,
When I stiffened to Thy displeasure;
But it broke me down to be forgiven
Without rebuke or measure."
I had set my face for a grudging grace,
My rags I was half parading;
But I never did look for the crushing rebuke—
To be taken without upbraiding.
To be stopped with a kiss in upbraiding myself,
To be stript of the rags I clung to;
To be treated as more than servant or son,
To be feted and fed, and sung to.
And of cost to Thee, as of wrath for me,
Thou wert dumb, in Thy lordly way;
Of Thyself unspared while thou sparedst me,
Of the ransom Thyself didst pay.
But can I sit mute in my Father's house?
Or remember without amaze?
Can I ever live but to bless Thee and serve,
And the deeper to grieve in praise?
Do I dream? Can I sleep under mercy deep?
'Twas a whole world's guilt I shared.
And my Saviour feels in me anew
The wound we all prepared.
P.T. Forsyth, "The Goodness of God," Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses by P.T. Forsyth, edited by John Huxtable (London: Independent Press, 1962) [A College Communion address, as reported in The British Congregationalist, 10th August, 1911]. Full address at Paul Moser's Idolaters Anonymous page here.