When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying…
I. I begin with THE BLESSING OR BENEFIT HERE SAID TO BE BESTOWED. "Repentance unto life." Repentance is the infinite and inestimable gospel privilege, which the grace of God does, in and through Jesus Christ, allow to sinful men, and the happy consequence of this being no less than eternal life, it is therefore styled repentance unto life. As to the import of the word "repentance," the expression in the Greek plainly signifies a change of mind; and the Scripture sense of the word implies somewhat more than that, and takes in besides a thing which naturally follows it, or is caused by it, viz., an alteration likewise of practice or behaviour, a changing or turning from one course or custom of life to another. By "life" here some indeed understand that present most blessed and desirable state and condition in which sinners are placed by repentance; whereas before this they were in a state of wretched darkness, no better than spiritually dead. And this is undoubtedly a true and good notion of repentance unto life, viz., that repentance is that which brings men to live like themselves, i.e., happily and at ease and with comfort; which it was not possible for them to do, so long as they continued in their former course, For that was irregular and disorderly and unnatural; and whatsoever is so is a certain enemy to quiet, and utterly destructive of true satisfaction. I see no inconvenience in considering life in this place in both acceptations, viz., the rational and religious life which repentance brings men to here, and that blessed and immortal life to which, upon their true repentance, they are to be advanced hereafter. For they are of very near affinity to each other. Life considered in the former sense is the certain forerunner of life considered in the latter, and the latter is the undoubted effect of the former, and a greater benefit or blessing than both of them together cannot be desired or imagined. And happy is it for us, happy for the whole race of mankind, that God has dealt out so great a blessing with so liberal a hand. For —
II. THE PERSONS IT IS BESTOWED UPON. "The Gentiles." We find that this favour was not confined, as the Jews, upon the first promulgation of the gospel, imagined it to be, to one people and nation, so that none besides themselves were to be partakers of it. By the term Gentiles the Jews understood all that were not of their own people and country and religion.. Heathens and nations and Gentiles are synonymous expressions in Holy Scripture, as may be seen by the following texts: 1 Samuel 8:20; Psalm 44:2, and Psalms 79:1, and by many other places. These were the people whom the Jews, in comparison of themselves, greatly scorned. "Stand by thyself, come not near to me, for I am holier than thou" (Isaiah 65:5), was the scornful language of the Jew to the poor neglected Gentile. And this distinction between the Jews and the other nations, or Gentiles, was also mightily kept up even in the time of our Saviour; nay, perhaps never was at a greater height than then. So little aware were they, at the time of the appearance of the Son of God, of the gracious errand upon which He was sent, which was to break down the partition wall that was betwixt Jews and Gentiles, and to make both one, imply two things considerable.
1. I say, here is implied the wide and universal extent of this blessing, which seemed to the Jews very strange and wonderful.
2. Here was likewise a great difficulty and stumbling block in their way, and that was, that the people on whom this favour was conferred seemed to them, on other accounts, so utterly unfit for it, besides their not being of their stock and country. The Gentiles were persons that wholly set themselves against God, and were addicted to all manner of idolatry, but as for themselves they were a holy and a peculiar people. Nay, St. Peter himself, till convinced by the fore-mentioned miracle, was of this mind. He was for keeping up the distinction of clean and unclean till God Himself commanded him to the contrary.
III. THE AGREEABLENESS OF THIS METHOD OF PROCEEDING WITH THE NATURE AND ATTRIBUTES OF GOD AND WITH THE SEVERAL DECLARATIONS HE HAD MADE TO THIS PURPOSE BY HIS PROPHETS. Now they had great reason to think it highly probable that even to the Gentiles God would grant repentance unto life, from the three following considerations.
1. From the contemplation of the boundless mercies and infinite goodness of God. The infinite goodness of God, if the Jews had attended to that consideration, might have rendered it to them highly probable that God would allow to the Gentiles also access to eternal salvation, or, in the words of the text, "repentance unto life." These attributes, though inseparable from the idea of God, the Jews most plainly overlooked, or else they would never have gone 'about to confine God's blessings and engross His favours wholly to themselves, but must have argued after this, or the like manner, with themselves. "God being, as the very natural notions of Him do imply, a God of infinite and unlimited goodness, surely He will not continue to shine upon us only, but will dart the rays of His bounty over all the world. He is not, as Esau suspected of his father Isaac, furnished only with one blessing, but has an unexhausted fountain of blessings, and will therefore undoubtedly visit other nations in His good time with the same. For they likewise are the work of His hands as well as we. They, too, are of the same make, and have enstamped upon them the like Divine and heavenly image with ourselves. They are preserved by the continual care of His providence, and do already enjoy the common blessings of this life, such as health and strength and sunshine and rain."
2. The Jews might have argued the great probability of this, from the extraordinary great need the Gentiles had of the blessing here spoken of, and that whether they considered their number or their condition. As to their number they were vastly the greater part of the world, the inhabitants of Judaea being very few and inconsiderable in comparison of those of all the earth besides; and yet that only, like Goshen in Egypt, was a land of light, whilst other parts were overspread with darkness and ignorance; and this suggests to us also the consideration of their condition. And the more sick the more need had they of a physician. Such sinners as they had the greatest need of all to be called upon to repentance. Their necessities were great, their indigences and wants were pressing and crying out for help; and these were such things as could not but plead strongly for them, with a good and merciful God, that they too might have a share in the blessed redemption effected by the Son of God.
3. This was not an instance of the Divine goodness barely to be hoped for from those lovely attributes of God, His mercy and loving kindness, but it is what God had promised and foretold He would do (Genesis 22:18; Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 5:2; Psalm 98:3; Haggai 2:7).
IV. THE GREAT REASON THAT PERSONS ALREADY ADMITTED TO THE BLESSING OF THE GOSPEL, HAVE TO USE THEIR HEARTY ENDEAVOURS, THAT IT MAY BE ENJOYED BY OTHERS AS WELL AS BY THEMSELVES.
1. In the first place, I say, gratitude to our Lord and Saviour, who hath redeemed us with His most precious blood, should make us not only pray that the kingdom of God may come, but should make us as on the one side, highly delighted to see it flourishing, so, on the other, uneasy whenever we see either any of the subjects of Christ's kingdom in danger of falling away from Him, or others (who might, would we but take the pains to gain them, become subjects of His kingdom), not so much as knowing the Lord that bought them, nor consequently capable of bringing their thoughts and actions to the obedience of Christ.
2. And in the next place, this is the greatest instance of charity to man that is possible (1 John 5:12). If, affirmatively, the belief of the gospel be the way to life, and negatively, there be no other way beside it, how great a blessing, how valuable a privilege do we suffer men to want by letting them continue in unbelief? But to this it may be said, with regard to the infidel part of the world, Ignoti nulla cupido. As they have not heard of the joys of heaven, so it is not to be supposed that want of knowing the gospel can cause in them any uneasiness. But then we are to consider that the rewards of the gospel are a great prize, and to miss of that prize is a great loss for any to sustain, who might, if we so pleased, have had an opportunity of obtaining it. In the meantime, their being at present sensible, or not sensible, of their loss, makes no manner of alteration as to the truth and reality of it. With regard to persons who are in a lethargy, whilst they lie under the power of their distemper, and are utterly insensible of the badness of their own case, it cannot, because they are so, be therefore said of them that they are well. No; bystanders know the contrary, and pity them, and if they have any humanity will endeavour to relieve them. Just so should Christians act with regard to the Gentile world. We know how wretched a state the heathen world was in at the time of the promulgation of the gospel. And what reason have we to think that, at this present time, it can fare better with any people who have not amongst them the gospel of Christ to free them from these evils? Has not the common enemy of mankind, now as formerly, the same frailties and corruptions of fallen man to work upon? Or has he, since the mischief he did to our first parents, abated anything of his inveterate hatred to our race?
(Bishop of St. David's, 1736.)
Parallel VersesKJV: When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.