Most of this article is not actually about repentance.
Repentance is that feeling of heartache and sorrow for offenses committed against God that fills a person with the firm intention to avoid the sins and injustices they have committed and to change their entire way of life. Repentance is a doctrine that aims only for humility, brings refinement as its consequence, and strives only to strip the faithful of pride and arrogance and to bring them to the foot of the cross where the stream of grace flows so that they may be washed clean of their guilt and their defilements. Repentance is in fact like the physician’s (1) medicine, which is unpleasant to taste but beneficial to the health of the body.
To be sure, the worldly-minded person does not like to slacken in his striving for prosperity and greatness, nor does the man of pleasure wish to part with those enchanting delights that almost everywhere and in different forms and guises try to divert his steps from the path of virtue and piety. The rich man will also find it difficult to donate his goods generously to the poor, and the proud and arrogant have no desire to walk in the valley of humility.
We may often in fact find the names of such persons engraved on stone within a church; but if the words of Jesus count as reliable truth, know that their names are not recorded on the list of those who have been sanctified to shine in honorable memory on that day when those who have gone through great tribulation and have washed their garments clean and white in the blood of the Lamb will be crowned with immortal honors at the right hand of their Lord and King.
During the course of my life, I have wandered through different areas and met people of different stages. I saw the rich man rolling in his splendor, radiant with gold and diamonds, as if he had wrapped the broad folds of the starry sky around himself. I saw the poor man also! Some were so miserable that to them, life seemed only a burden that was given to them to perpetuate their misery so that the cup of their tribulations would be filled already here on this Earth.
But what my eye turned to with greatest interest was to see the strong arm of political power stretch a golden canopy over the church. It is not fitting for me to condemn everything that I cannot harmonize with my feelings; yet I have seriously deliberated about the truth of a church under such circumstances that is able to accommodate in its bosom principles and modes of practice that are contrary to pure and unsullied religion. The hand of winter spreads a white mantle over the face of Earth and for moments hides its malformations; but when the sun comes and pours out its warming rays again over the Earth, her snowy veil melts away and every coarse and unsuitable place appears to the eye. So too the time is now drawing near when the concealing veil that has been cast over all nations will be rent in two, like the veil of the temple at the crucifixion of Christ; and everything that is secret will be brought to light, and “then shall every man’s work be tried of what sort it is.” (2)
Whoever will look back with unprejudiced mind at the beginning of Christianity must confess that a great difference prevails between the state of the earlier church and the present one. For the great founder of the Christian faith could in truth say: “The foxes have their dens and the birds their nests, but the Son of Man alone has no place to lay His head.” He also said “that the servant is not above his master, nor the disciple above his master”; and as for me, I would like to add that it is most unnatural for a stream to rise against its source; but modern Christianity has risen up against its ancient source and has drawn clouds of worldly honor (3) around itself. Should I pass judgment on this order of things? No! My master has not authorized me to do this. But He has authorized me to say “that the day will come that will burn like an oven, and that all the proud and those who practice injustice will be like stubble. And the day will come when it will burn away, root and branch (4), says the Lord!” If then all the proud and all those who practice injustice will be burned away, who can be saved? If I had the eloquence of an angel, and if I had as many tongues as Hydra (5), I would use them all to preach repentance to this generation.
But a man asks me how he should go about the work of repentance. Sober observation and consideration must be his first steps. He might consider that it is a virtuous being against whom he has sinned and whose laws he has transgressed — a being who has always acted only for his benefit, not refusing even His Son to die for him — a being who wanted to lift him into the other world and make him shine with a glory like the Sun in the firmament. The next step is that he might often visit the place of secret prayer to pour out his soul before God. Let him banish every vain thought from his mind and make a firm decision to devote himself to service and the worship of the Lord; and I can tell him with certainty that he need not wait long on this path until a ray of divine compassion warms him and his icy heart melts into tears of joy that testify of a humble spirit. And then let him bring thankful praise to his Lord and God.
If a person has advanced so far in his striving for eternal life, he is a suitable object for the baptism of water, for he already believes and has sincerely repented of his sins.
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(1) The word Physiker means “physicist,” but there are also nineteenth-century examples of it being used as “physician.”
(2) The citation here is 1 Cor 3:13.
(3) The original phrase, Wolken weltlicher Ehre, occurs only here. Interestingly, the unmodified phrase Wolken der Ehre, “clouds of honor,” is itself quite uncommon but turns up in German Jewish sources connected to the feast of Sukkot.
(4) For “root and branch,” the German text has Wurzel und Ast, which Folsom (15) sees as Hyde’s translation and unlikely to have been written by a native German, as German Bible translations use different phrases. Today we’re not smarter, but we do have Google, and we can find several native German uses of the phrase. There are nineteenth-century German Jewish attestations in the context of the same Bible verse in this case as well.
Also, I feel like Orson Hyde is maybe getting a little judgy here, even though he says he isn’t passing judgment.
(5) Having as many tongues as Hydra seems like quite a strange metaphor for a discussion of repentance, but the few parallels I find are from the U.S.