Genuine Repentance Requires Self-Examination

William Perkins
An Exhortation to Repentance
Works IX, pp. 89-96.

Search yourselves, even search you, O nation, not worthy to be beloved: before the decree come forth, and you be as chaff that passeth on a day. (Zephaniah 2:1-2).

The prophet, in the first chapter of this prophecy, rebukes the Jews for three notable crimes: idolatry, fraud, and cruelty. In this second chapter, he exhorts them to repentance, and withal reproves some of their special sins. In the first three verses, he propounds the doctrine of repentance, and adds some special reasons to move and stir them up to the practice of it. In propounding the doctrine of repentance, he directs it to two sorts of men: first, to the obstinate and impenitent Jews (vv. 1-2); and, second, to the better sort of them (v. 3). So that, the sum and substance of these first two verses is a brief and summary propounding of the doctrine of repentance to the obstinate Jews.

The words contain in them five points touching the doctrine of repentance. (1) The duty to be performed: “search” (v. 1). (2) Who must be searched: “yourselves” (v. 1). (3) Who must do it: “the Jews,” who are further described to be a “nation not worthy to be beloved of God” (v. 1). (4) The time limiting them when to repent: “before the decree come forth” (v. 2); that is, before God puts in execution the judgments which are already decreed and appointed for them. (5) A forcible reason urging them to do it, which lies hid and is necessarily implied in the fourth point; namely, that “there is a decree against them” (v. 2). It wants nothing but execution, which also shall come unless they repent, whereby they shall be fanned. And if they shall be found to be chaff, they shall fly away with the wind of God’s justice. Of all these points in order.

The Duty of Self-Examination.

For the first, the Holy Spirit says, “Search yourselves.” The words are commonly read thus: “Gather yourselves.” Though this is good, for in repentance a man gathers himself and all his wits together, which afore were dispersed and wandered up and down in vanity, yet I rather allow their translation who read thus: “Search (or fan) yourselves.” But either of them may stand because the word in the original does comprehend both significations. Yet it seems that to search (or sift) fits this place better, considering the same manner of speech is afterwards continued in the word “chaff.” So that the meaning of the Holy Spirit seems to be this: “Search, try, and fan yourselves, lest you are found to be light chaff, and so fly away and are consumed before the justice of God.”

Genuine Repentance Requires Self-Examination.

Concerning this duty of searching, let us observe, first, that the Holy Spirit, urging the Jews to repent, uses not the word repentance, but bids them search themselves. Yet He means that He would have them to repent, giving us to understand that no man can have true and sound repentance but he who has first of all searched and examined himself. And this stands with good reason, for no man can repent, who first of all does not know himself and his own wretchedness. But no man can see into himself nor know himself, but he who does diligently search himself. So that the beginning of all grace is for a man to search, try, and fan himself, that thereby he may know what is in himself, so that, upon the search, seeing his fearful and damnable estate, he may forsake himself and his own ways, and turn to the Lord.

The Holy Spirit speaks thus in the hearts of holy men: “Let us search and try our ways” (Lam. 3:40). And mark what follows: “and turn again to the Lord.” As though there were no turning again unto the Lord but after a searching of ourselves. With this testimony of the Holy Spirit agrees the testimony of all holy men’s consciences, who all know that the first beginning of their turning unto the Lord was a searching of themselves. Let any repentant sinner ask his conscience, and call to mind his first calling and conversion, and he will remember that the first thing in his repentance was this: that he searched into himself and looked narrowly into his ways, and, finding his ways dangerous and his case fearful, he did thereupon resolve to take a new course and turn to the Lord for pardon and mercy and for grace to enter into more holy and more comfortable courses.

The First Beginning of Repentance.

The man who passes upon ridges of mountains and sides of hills, or who goes over a narrow bridge or some dangerous and steep rocks, at midnight, fears not because he sees no danger. But bring the same man, in the morning, and let him see the narrow bridge he went over in the night, under which runs a violent stream and a bottomless gulf, and the dangerous mountains and rocks he passed over, and he will wonder at his own boldness and shrink for fear to think of it, and he will by no means venture the same way again. For now he sees the height of the mountains, the steepness of the hills, the cragginess of the rocks, the fearful downfall, and the furious violence of the stream underneath, and thereby sees the extreme danger which afore he saw not. Therefore, he wonders and rejoices that he has escaped so great a danger, and he will by no means be drawn to go that way in the day which he went most carelessly in the darkness of the night, but he seeks another way (though it should be far about). So, a sinner in his first estate, which is natural and corrupt (as we are bred and born), has a veil before his face, so that he sees nothing. He sees not the wrath of God and the curse due for sin (hell and damnation), seeking to devour him, although (living always in sin) he walks in the very jaws of hell itself. And because he sees not this fearful danger, therefore, he refuses no sin at all, but rushes securely into all manner of sin. The night of impenitency and the mist of ignorance so blinds his eyes that he sees not the narrow bridge of this life, from which, if he slides, he falls immediately into the bottomless pit of hell.

But when as God’s Spirit has by the light of God’s Word opened his eyes and touched his heart to consider his estate, then he sees the frail bridge of this narrow life, and how little a step there is between him and damnation. Then he sees hell open, due for his sins, and himself in the highway to it: sin being the craggy rock and hell the gaping gulf under it; this life being the narrow bridge and damnation the stream that runs under it.

Then he wonders at his miserable estate, admires the mercy of God in keeping him from falling into the bottom of hell, wonders at the presumptuous boldness of his corruption, which so securely plodded on toward destruction, and being ashamed of himself and his ways, he turns his heart to the God who saved him from these dangers, and he sets himself into more holy ways and more comfortable courses, and confesses that ignorance made him bold and blindness made him so presumptuous. But now he sees the danger, and will by no means go the same way again. And thus, the searching and seeing into the foulness of sin, and the danger thereof, is the first beginning of repentance and the first step into grace.

This doctrine teaches us what faith and repentance are generally in the world. All men say they believe and have repented long ago; but try it well, and we shall find in the body of our nation but a lip-faith and a lip-repentance. For even when they say so, they are blind and ignorant of their own estate and know not themselves. They say that because they are baptized and live in the church, therefore they are in God’s favor and in very good estate, when as they never yet were reconciled to God, and are so far from it that they never yet saw any sins in themselves whereof they should repent. As a man traveling in the night sees no danger but plods on without fear, so the most part of our common people, in the night of their ignorance, think and presume they love and fear God, and love their neighbor, and that they have ever done so. Nay, it is the common opinion that a man may do so by nature, and that he is not worthy to live who does not love God with all his heart and believe in Jesus Christ. But alas, poor simple souls, they never knew what sin was, they never searched nor saw into their own hearts with the light of God’s law, for if they had, they should have seen such a sea of corruption that then they would confess it to be the hardest thing in the world to love God, to believe in Christ, and to forsake sin. It is, therefore, manifest that they have not yet begun to believe or repent, nor have entered into the first step of grace which leads to repentance, for they have not learned this lesson, which the prophet teaches, that is, to “search themselves.”

Search Diligently For Even Your Lesser Sins.

Furthermore, let us in the second place observe better the signification of the word. It signifies to search narrowly, as a man would do for a piece of gold or a precious jewel which is lost in a great house, or as a man may search for gold in a mine of the earth where is much earth and but very little gold ore.

Here we may learn that in true repentance and conversion we must not search so only as to find the gross and palpable sins of our lives, but so as we may find those sins which the world accounts lesser sins, and espy our secret faults and privy corruptions. Some corruptions seem more near akin of our nature, and therein men hope to be excused when they forsake many other greater sins. But a true penitent sinner must search for such, so as a good magistrate searches for a lurking traitor who is conveyed into some close and secret corner. And he must ransack his heart for such corruptions, as wherein his heart takes special delight, and he must think that no sin can be so small but it is too great to be spared, and that every sin (great or little) must be searched for, as being all traitors to God’s majesty.

Do Not Diminish the Sinfulness of Sin.

But alas, the practice of the world is far otherwise. Great sins are little sins; little sins are no sins. Nay, after a little custom, great sins are also little or nothing, and so at last men make no bones of gross and grievous sins. And for the most part, men search so superficially that they scarce find anything to be sins. Such excuses are made, such distinctions are devised, such mitigations, such qualifications, such colors are cast upon all sins, as now up and down the world gross sins are called into question, whether they are sins or not, and the greater transgressions of the law are counted small matters, necessary evils, or inconveniences, tolerated to avoid other evils. And what is he counted but a curious and precise fool, who stands upon them.

Ignorance after thirty-five years of preaching is counted no sin; blind devotion in God’s service is no sin; lip-labor in praying, vain and customable swearing, mocking of religion and the professors thereof, no sin; profaning of the Sabbath, condemning of preachers, abusing of parents, no sin; pride in apparel, superfluity in meats, beastly and ordinary drunkenness, fornication, no sins. Nay, deceits, cozenages, oppressing usury, notorious bribery, and covetousness (that mother sin), are counted no sins: These beams are made but motes by profane men. And they are so minced and carved, or there is some such necessity of them or some such other flourish or varnish must be cast upon them, as that they are little or none at all. Alas, alas, is not that a simple and a silly search where such blocks (as these are) lie unspied? What are mole-hills when such mountains are not seen? Motes will be little regarded where such beams are not discerned.

But it is clear that, therefore, there is no true trial nor diligent search made. For a true convert will search his heart for all and he will spare none. He deals in searching his own heart as a good justice of the peace in searching for traitors or seminary priests. He seeks not superficially but most exactly, and leaves never a corner unsought; and he thinks great sins to be infinite and little sins to be great, and judges no sin so small but that it deserves the anger of God. And, therefore, he wonders at the mercy of God, who throws us not all down to hell in a moment. And he cries out with holy Jeremiah: “It is the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed” (Lam. 3:22). Away then with this superficial and hypocritical search, where so many sins are spared and not found out. It is pharisaical, for even so the Pharisee, when he came into the temple to reckon with God, and to tell what traitors he had found (that is, what sins upon good search he had espied), he returns his precept, all is well, he has found never a one, but he begins to thank God that he was so good, and so good, and not so ill, and so ill, nor yet like the publican. The world is full of Pharisees; not only the Popish church, but even our church swarms with these superficial searchers who cannot (because they will not) find any sin to present unto God.

Men think, in the country, a church officer hazards his oath if he presents all well, and finds no fault in his parish to present as punishable to the ordinary. For men think it impossible that there should be none in a whole parish. Then how does that man hazard his own soul, who, being made overseer and searcher of his heart, finds nothing in it to present to the Lord. For it is not easier to espy outward and actual transgressions in a whole parish than it is to find a heap of corruptions in a man’s heart, if a man will search into the bottom of it with the light of God’s law. Therefore, when the Lord comes and keeps His visitation, what shall become of such a man but to undergo the strict and severe search of the Almighty, because he would not search himself?

Erect An Inquisition For Your Sins.

Our bodies and lives are free from Spanish inquisition (which is one of the last props which Satan has lent the Pope, wherewith to uphold his declining kingdom), and the Lord grant we may be ever free from it. But in the meantime, it might put us in mind how to deal with our corrupt hearts and unmortified affections, even to erect an inquisition over them, to lay in wait for them, to search them narrowly, and to use them roughly; yea, to set our hearts upon the rack of God’s law, so that it may confess the secret wickedness of it. For the Papists do not think us Protestants greater enemies to their superstitions than the inward corruptions of our hearts are to our salvation.

Therefore, it may be a godly policy for every man even to erect an inquisition over his own heart and conscience, and not to spare his most secret and dearest sins, and such as are nearest allied to his own nature. For that is the true search here commanded by the prophet and practiced by all godly and holy men: when a man purposes to find all that are, and to espy even all his sins. For a godly man is never satisfied in his search, but still, the more he finds, he suspects the more are still behind. And, therefore, he continues searching his own heart all his life long. Therefore, let every professor look to it between God and his conscience, that he dallies not with himself in this case. For if he does, then when God comes with His privy search, his hypocrisy shall be discovered, and his nakedness shall be laid open in the view of men and angels, to his eternal confusion.

The Urgent Necessity of Self-Examination.

Third, “search,” says the prophet, but, not so content, he forces it again, “even search you.” In this repeating and urging this exhortation, the Holy Spirit gives them and us to understand that the true searching of a man’s heart and life is a duty of great moment and special necessity. Therefore, he leaves it not after once naming it, but enforces it the second time, as being no matter of indifferency but of great necessity, thereby showing that it is a principal duty in repentance, even the beginning and foundation of all true grace.

And further, it is a means also to prevent God’s judgments. For when men search not themselves, then God sends the fire of afflictions and crosses to try and search them. But when they search themselves, then God spares to search them by His just judgments.

Now in that this duty of searching is both the beginning of all true grace and the means to stay God’s judgments, and therefore is so pithily and forcibly urged by the Holy Spirit, it must teach us all a necessary lesson; namely, to make great conscience of searching ourselves. First, because God has so commanded, and we are to make conscience of obedience to every commandment. Second, because we shall reap two so great commodities thereby: (1) we shall lay a sure foundation for the good work of grace in us; and (2) we shall stay the hand of God and His judgments from being executed upon us.

Winnow Your Own Heart Like Wheat.

Let us, therefore, hearken to this counsel of the Holy Spirit. Let us take the fan of the law, and therewith search and winnow our hearts and lives: our hearts for secret and hidden corruptions; and our lives for committing of evil and omitting of good. Do with your hearts as men do with their wheat; they will not suffer their corn to lie long in the chaff lest the chaff hurt it, but they commit it to the fan so that the wind may separate them. So, the graces of God in our hearts are but corn, our sins and corruptions are chaff. Look well, and you shall find in yourself much chaff, and but little corn. Let not then the chaff lie too long mingled with the corn, lest it corrupt the corn. Let not your sins lie mingled with the grace of God in you. If you do, they will choke it in the end, and so deprive you of all grace. Therefore, rip up your heart, and look into your life, and when you have sinned, enter into yourself, ask your conscience what you have done, and be not quiet till you have found out your sin and the foulness of it. And never think that you know anything in religion till you know what is in your own heart and what are in your special and priviest corruptions. And look into your own faults, not with a partial eye, but with a censorious and strait judgment. Spare sin in no man, but especially condemn it in yourself.

But alas, these times of ours cry out of another state, for even Jeremiah’s case is ours. We may complain as he did, “No man repents him of his wickedness, saying, what have I done?” (Jer. 8:6). The same is the sore of our people, and the sickness of all nations, that every man runs on in his sins, from sin to sin carelessly, even as the bard horse into the battle. But how rare a thing is it to find a man who daily searches himself, and examines how he lives and how the case stands between God and himself, and that when he has done amiss enters into the closet of his heart and strikes himself upon the breast and disputes the case with himself, saying; “What have I done?” Oh, what is this, that I have done against God, against His church, and against my own soul?

The want of this is that which the prophet complains of in that place, not as though it were sufficient thus to do in a man’s own conscience, but because it is a good beginning and a step to further grace. For if a man did thus seriously deal with his conscience after his sin, his conscience would shape him such an answer, and would tell him so roundly what he had done, that he would take heed how he did the same again, and look more narrowly and warily to himself all the days of his life. Seeing, therefore, it is so necessary a duty, let every one of us endeavor the practice of it, namely, to rip and ransack our hearts, and to search our ways unto the bottom.

Test Yourself By the Mirror of God’s Law.

Now for our better instruction and furtherance in the performance hereof, you must know that this search is to be made by the law of God, for nothing else but God’s law can help us. And let us see that which we must search for, for if we search by any means, we may seek and search long enough ere we find anything that will be matter of repentance.

Ask the devil, he will tell you all is well, you are in an excellent estate, God loves you, and you are sure of heaven. The devil always sings this song for the most part till a man comes to die, for then he appears in his colors, but till then he labors to sing and lull all men to sleep in the cradle of security.

Ask your own flesh, and your own hearts and natures, and they will answer and say that all is well and safe, and that we have believed and loved and feared God all our days.

Ask the world and men in the world, and they will answer that all is well. And they will say further that you are a right good fellow and are worth twenty of these curious fools who stick upon points and stand upon circumstances, as swearing, drinking, good fellowship, and gaming, and such other nice and circumstantial points. Thus will worldly men answer, for your profane course is acceptable to them because thereby you approve the same in them.

Nay, go further, and ask all human learning in the world, and it cannot tell you what one sin is nor what it is to offend God.

So that, there remains only the law of God, the light whereof will disclose the darkness of our hearts, and the justice whereof will reveal the unrighteousness and the perverseness of our natures. Therefore, to the law of God we must fly to help us in this search.


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