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Colquhoun’s Repentance – A Review by Brian Garrard

Category Book Reviews
Date October 21, 2011

John Colquhoun, the author of Repentance was born in 1748 and after his conversion felt called to the ministry. He was eventually ordained in 1781 and became minister of the New Church in South Leith, Edinburgh, remaining there until a year before his death in 1827. Thomas Boston’s writings were to be a very great influence in the preaching and literary output of Colquhoun (JC) and this is ably demonstrated in his Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (1818). His interest was no doubt aroused in Boston shortly after being converted when he walked approximately fifty miles to buy a copy of his Human Nature in its Fourfold State. As in JC’s other writings, Repentance reflects Boston’s teaching to a large degree, therefore the reader is on safe and biblical ground. The book was originally entitled, ‘A View of Evangelical Repentance from the Sacred Records’ and published in 1826. Although theological in nature, it is not dry and academic but is very practical and full of application. After reading it, is not hard to see why there were those prepared to walk about a 100 miles in order to hear JC’s preaching. May God grant such power to his Word again today, and the hunger and thirst for it, especially when many seem not able to walk even a 100 yards to a service!

Repentance has eight chapters, plus an introduction, and although not a lengthy volume, still deals with this biblical subject in a comprehensive way. The chapter headings themselves reveal this when JC explains the sources, nature, import and necessity of true repentance. He also outlines the differences between genuine and counterfeit repentance, explains the evidences and fruit of it, and possible difficulties in understanding. The latter may be considered as rather technical by some, but nonetheless necessary, as we shall see. What is repentance? JC defines it as ‘a deep humiliation of soul before the Lord . . . a godly sorrow . . . hatred of all sin, accompanied by self-loathing . . . shame and confusion of face before the Lord . . . true confession of sin . . . turning from all sin to God in Christ’ (pages 28 to 43, but see all of chapter 2). Of the necessity of true repentance, JC leaves the reader in no doubt, insisting that it is necessary because God requires it, and then gives a further nine reasons why it is indispensable (see chapter 3). Yet throughout, the author is careful to avoid conveying the impression that repentance is some kind of a legal work. In Reason 6 (page 54) he makes clear that ‘true repentance is needful as an evidence of saving and justifying faith in the heart.’ The exercise of it, then, is one of the fruits and confirmation of a genuine faith.

Is there such a thing as counterfeit repentance? JC affirms that there is, and in chapter 4 (pages 71 to 92) advances eight differences between a true and false repentance. All are important but note number 6, which says that true repentance springs from love to God and his holy Law. The counterfeit, however, comes from hatred of God and the Moral Law. In an age that hurries over the necessity for genuine repentance, if it does not ignore it altogether, such an emphasis is vital. To that end, chapter 5 (pages 93 to 104) needs prayerful reading. This takes up the theme of the ‘fruits and evidences of true repentance’ and includes a carefulness or vigilance not to sin, a reverential fear of God and a zeal for holiness and godly living.

Some (possibly) difficult and technical problems in understanding have already been alluded to, and these are taken up in detail in chapters 6 and 7. The first concerns the ‘priority of the acting of saving faith to the exercise of true repentance’ (pages 105 to 118). That saving faith is the leading grace, especially when it enables true repentance to be exercised, ought not to be contested or doubted. Yet it is necessary to understand that at the moment of regeneration, the Holy Spirit places all saving graces in the heart. Amongst these are saving faith and repentance. Both these graces come ‘together and at once in respect of time; and therefore, though in our conception of them, they are to be distinguished, yet they are never to be separated from each other’ (page 105). Again, JC states, ‘the principle of saving faith does not in respect of time precede that of true repentance, yet in order of nature, the acting of that faith precedes the exercise of this repentance’ (Zech. 12:10), see page 105. Eight arguments are then given which undergird the truth expressed on page 54 that ‘the exercise of faith in the order of nature, goes before the exercise of true repentance.’

The other ‘difficulty’ concerns what JC terms, ‘the priority of justification to the first exercise of true repentance’ (pages 119 to 140). JC commences here by defining his terms. He is not referring to what theologians have called ‘active justification’ with respect to the decree of God but ‘passive.’ JC is considering the latter in these pages when repentance takes root in the soul after regeneration, and repentance is actually exercised by the believing sinner. All this may appear to be over-scrupulous to some but the truth is that, in matters of Christian theology, it is necessary to grasp fine distinctions in order to be kept from serious error. The author’s concern is obviously to guard against legalism and justification by works. Thus he asserts that the first exercise of repentance is not before justification in the sight of God, and consequently, good works follow after justifiaction and do not come before it. This premise is then supported by careful reasoning and concludes here with eight objections carefully answered. JC acknowledges his indebtedness to the writings of Boston especially at this point.

The volume is an indispensable one for a preacher’s bookshelf and for any student of God’s Word who desires better acquaintance with the doctrine of repentance. It continues to sit well alongside other worthy and notable treatments of the subject. Its pages present a rich, powerful and simple presentation of this great truth, and enables us to avoid the theological pitfalls. May we know the grace of repentance in our hearts, in all its fruitfulness, to the glory and praise of God.


    • Repentance
      price $9.90


      John Colquhoun, the author of Repentance was born in 1748 and after his conversion felt called to the ministry. He was eventually ordained in 1781 and became minister of the New Church in South Leith, Edinburgh, remaining there until a year before his death in 1827. Thomas Boston’s writings were to be a very great […]

Taken with permission from Bible League Quarterly, October-December 2011.

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