Taken and adapted from, “The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit”
Written by, James Buchanan
IT is part of the Spirit’s work to convince the soul of its sinfulness.
1 There is, indeed, a conscience in man, which fulfills alike the functions of a law, by prescribing the path of duty, and the functions of a judge, in pronouncing sentence against transgression, a conscience which impresses every man with a sense of right and wrong, and which often visits the sinner with the inward pangs of conviction and remorse.
But conscience, while it exists, and while it serves many useful purposes, is not sufficient in its present state to awaken the soul to a full sense of its real condition, although it be amply sufficient to render it responsible to God as a judge, and to make it a fit subject for the convincing operations of his Spirit.
That in its present state the conscience is not sufficient of itself, nor even when it is surrounded with the outward light of the Gospel, to awaken the soul to a due sense of its own sinfulness, appears from various considerations.
2 It is manifest that conscience has shared, like every other faculty of our nature, in the ruinous effects of the fall; and the natural darkness of the soul prevents it from seeing its own corruption. It must be so, indeed, if by the fall we have lost the perception of God’s glory, or can no longer discern the excellency of his holiness; for our views of sin stand connected with, and must be affected by our views of God, one vivid view of his glorious character being sufficient to make the sinner tremble at the sight of his own vileness, and to exclaim with job, ‘I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ In as far, then, as the fall has ‘alienated us from the life of God through the ignorance that was in us, because of the blindness of our hearts,’ in the same proportion must it have weakened that power of moral perception, or that principle of conscience, which should convince the soul of its own sinfulness; and never, till it is restored to a spiritual acquaintance with God, will it come to see its guilt in all its loathsomeness and aggravations.
3 That natural conscience, unaided by the Spirit of God, is not sufficient of itself to bring a man to a right sense of his own sinfulness appears further from the tendency of habitual sin to sear and deaden the conscience, whereby it comes to pass, according to the sovereign appointment of God, that conscience becomes weaker in proportion as sin grows stronger in the soul, till the sinner may arrive at a point of degeneracy at which he is wholly given over to a reprobate mind, and so far from being condemned by his conscience, he may dare to justify his wickedness by ‘calling good evil, and evil good.’ Instead of being ashamed of his guilt, he may even ‘glory in his shame.’ We read of some whose ‘mind and conscience is defiled;’ and of others ‘having their conscience seared with a hot iron,’ the habitual practice of sin having a deadening influence over that principle by which alone sin is checked or condemned. This natural provision is in accordance with the great law of moral retribution which is laid down in Scripture, a law which ensures the progressive improvement of those who make a right use of the imperfect light they have, and the rapid degeneracy of those who corrupt or abuse it; ‘for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have’ (or thinketh that he hath). Now, if this be the natural law of conscience, that its moral perceptions become dead, and its condemning power weak, in proportion as the power of sin becomes habitual and inveterate; it follows that the more need there is for a thorough work of conviction, the less is it to be expected from the mere operation of natural conscience, and that, if the Spirit of God do not interpose, the case of such a soul is hopeless.
4 But lest it should be thought that this second proof applies only to the case of gross and hardened transgressors of the divine law, let me observe further, that the experience of the more decent members of society, and even of many formal members of the church, affords ample evidence that natural conscience, unenlightened by the Spirit of God, is not sufficient to convince the soul of its sinfulness; for of many such it may be said with truth, that they have no just idea of sin as in its own nature, and in all its manifestations, an odious and hateful thing. Natural conscience in such men takes cognizance chiefly of gross outward transgressions, and of these, too, mainly as they stand connected with the peace and order of society, or with the decencies and proprieties of social life; it is a mere prudential reason; but of sin as it appears in the sight of God it thinks little, and still less of those heart-sins and that radical depravity from which all actual transgressions proceed. It condemns murder, but does it equally condemn pride? It condemns filial ingratitude and disobedience to an earthly parent, but does it equally condemn ungodliness, which is the natural element of every unrenewed mind, and which implies filial ingratitude and disobedience to our Father in heaven? How can it discern the inherent turpitude of sin, unless it be taught the inherent loveliness of what is spiritual and divine? and whence can this be learned but from the teaching of the Spirit? In fact, the work of conviction implies a work of illumination, and is based upon it. It is by enlightening the mind to discern the truth that the Spirit quickens the conscience; and so long as the mind remains in darkness, the conscience is prone to sleep. It is when the light of God shines into the heart that his vicegerent there starts from his slumbers, and lifts a responsive voice to the call of his Master. And hence it is that we read of an enlightened conscience, a conscience that pronounces truly when it is rightly informed.
5 The necessity of a convincing work of the Spirit further appears from the fact, that it is the most difficult of all things to fix the mind of any man on a due consideration of sin. Try to fix your own mind for any length of time on a steady consideration of sin, or endeavor to fix the mind of any child, or servant, or friend you have on this exercise, and you will at once find that it is all but impossible to succeed. The mind recoils from it. It will dwell on the sins of others, especially if they have provoked its resentment by a sense of wrong done to itself; but on sin in its own nature, and especially on its own sins, it cannot dwell; it flies off to some other and more inviting subject; or, instead of seeking to know the real state of the case, it busies itself in devising plausible excuses, and in putting blinds, as it were, on its own eyes. And so is it even when the subject is forced on its attention, and the ear is compelled to listen to a full exposition of it. The most searching sermon fails to convince, unless it be carried home with demonstration of the Spirit and with power. How often does the sinner hear that ‘every sin deserveth the wrath and curse of God,’ that it is ‘an abominable thing which the Lord hateth,’ that it is a ‘great wickedness,’ a loathsome disease, a hell-deserving crime? and yet, either attaching no definite meaning to the plainest language that can be employed, or shifting the charge away from himself to others, or inwardly deceiving himself by some plausible pretext or other, he sits unawed, unmoved, and rises and retires to his home without one salutary conviction on his conscience, without one impression deep enough to trouble his peace. And hence the free proclamation of a free salvation passes unheeded, because as yet he feels no need of a Savior, and has no concern for his soul. If any sinner, then, is to be brought to such real heart concern about the state of his soul as is necessary for his thorough conversion, he must be convinced of sin by a power above that of mere natural conscience, even by the power of the Spirit of God.
6 In convincing of sin, the Spirit of God, acting agreeably to the moral constitution of our nature, takes the conscience as the subject of his operations, and seeks to enlighten, quicken, and invigorate it by the light and power of divine truth.
It is the conscience that is the subject of his operations. It is the moral faculty, the faculty of discriminating betwixt right and wrong, which makes us fit subjects for the convincing work of the Spirit. Had we no conscience, we should be incapable of moral convictions, as are the living but irresponsible beasts of the field and fowls of the air. But under the ashes of our ruined nature there are certain ‘sparks of celestial fire,’ the lights of conscience, which, dim and decayed, are yet not extinguished, and which render us responsible on the one hand, and susceptible of being renewed on the other. And just as natural reason is capable of discerning spiritual things when it is enlightened by the Spirit; so natural conscience is capable of discerning the evil of sin when it is rectified and strengthened by the Spirit.
But while conscience is the subject of true conviction, the Spirit of God is the author of it. He works in and by the conscience; so that while the Spirit reproves and convicts the sinner, the sinner is self-reproved and self-condemned. The conscience is quickened by the Spirit out of that lethargy into which it had fallen, through the benumbing influence of sin; it is invigorated and reinforced with new energy by the Spirit, having fresh life and power infused into it; it is called into action on its appropriate objects by the Spirit, and enabled steadily to view the sins with which the transgressor is chargeable; and, above all, it is enlightened by the Spirit, so as to discern sin in the light of truth. Thus conscience, once darkened and inert and powerless, acquires prodigious energy, and becomes one of the most active and powerful principles of the soul, prescribing the law, and pronouncing the sentence of judgment in that inner chamber of judicature from which there lies no appeal but to God himself. Conscience, once awakened by a ray of spiritual light, is an awful thing; and what tremendous power it may acquire when it is quickened by the Spirit may be inferred from the energy which it puts forth when it is called into action by the reproofs of mere human faithfulness. Let a man commit a secret sin, and so long as no human eye was supposed to be privy to his guilt he may contrive to lull his conscience to sleep; but let a friend charge him with the fact, or even hint a suspicion of it; and the mantling cheek, the agitated look, the trembling frame, will at once evince how one’s conscience may be quickened into tremendous action by a ray of light passing to it from another mind; and, successful as he may have been in quelling his own remorseful thoughts by devising palliations of his guilt, he will no longer attempt to deny the sinfulness of the fact, but try to disprove the fact itself, as the only possible way of escaping from the sure decision of another man’s conscience on his case. This instructive and familiar example shows that all along conscience is alive in the sinner’s breast – not dead, but asleep – and how easily it may be awakened into vigorous conviction by a single ray of heaven’s light piercing through the veil of nature’s darkness, by the power of the Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God thus quickens the conscience by the light and power of divine truth. The truth is the instrument by which this change is wrought. He reproves by enlightening. He reaches the conscience through the medium of the understanding. It is not a mere physical change, or a change wrought out in a way that is contrary to the laws of our moral nature; but a moral change accomplished by moral means, adapted to that nature, and fitted for the purpose for which they are employed. He finds entrance for the light of truth, and the conscience once enlightened acts its appropriate part, and pronounces its unerring sentence.
The truths of God’s Word are the means of conviction, and almost every one of these truths may be employed for this end. The principal means of conviction is the law, the law of God in its purity, spirituality, and power; for ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin,’ and ‘the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.’ The law in its holy commandment, the law in its awful curse, the law in its spiritual nature, as reaching to the heart, and in all its length and breadth as extending over every department of human life, the law in its condemning power, whereby ‘every mouth must be stopped, and all the world must become guilty before God’ – this law is unfolded to the understanding and applied to the conscience by the Holy Spirit, and immediately, by its own self-evidencing light, it convinces; the conscience is constrained to do homage to the law, and to acknowledge that ‘the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good;’ while, self-convicted and self-condemned, the sinner exclaims, ‘But I am carnal, sold under sin.’ And yet it is not a new law, nor one of which the sinner had heretofore been entirely ignorant, that becomes the means of his conviction; he may have read and repeated the ten commandments a hundred times, and may be familiar with the letter of God’s requirements, and yet some one of these very commandments may now become as an arrow in his conscience, the very sword of the Spirit. A notional acquaintance with the law is one thing, a spiritual experience of its power is another. Witness the case of the apostle Paul, an educated man, brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, walking from his youth upwards according to the straitest sect of the law, a Pharisee; who can doubt that he was familiar with the letter of God’s law? yet, being destitute of any spiritual experience of its power, he regarded himself as having been without any clue knowledge of the law till he was taught by the Spirit of God; for, says he, ‘I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.’ Previously he had only that notional and common knowledge which he elsewhere describes as ‘the form of knowledge, and of the truth in the law.’ And what was it that converted the form into substance? It was one of those very commandments which he had often read and repeated without perceiving its spiritual import or feeling its convicting power: ‘I had not known sin but by the law, for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.’ He seizes the tenth commandment, a commandment which directly refers to the state of a man’s heart, and finding that his heart cannot stand the test of a law so pure and spiritual, he is inwardly convinced of sin, as well as made conscious of its power; and so every sinner who obtains a glimpse of the real nature of the divine law, which, like its heart-searching Author, is heart-searching too, must on the instant feel, that if this law be the rule of judgment, then, by the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified; for ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’
But when it is said that the law is the principal means by which the Spirit of God convinces the conscience of a sinner, that term must be understood in an enlarged sense, as including under it every principle which has any relation or affinity to the conscience, and every fact in which any such principle is involved. It is not the bare law, as it stands declared in the Ten Commandments, that is the sole instrument of conviction, but the moral principle of that law, whether as it is displayed in the retributions of a righteous Providence, or illustrated by the afflictions of human life, or exemplified in the conduct of believers and the perfect pattern of Christ, or as unfolded in the parables, or as embodied in the Gospel and shining forth in the cross. The law is a schoolmaster that brings the sinner to Christ; but Christ is a teacher that brings the sinner to know the law as he never knew it before. The law points the eye of a convinced sinner to the cross; but the cross throws in upon his conscience a flood of light, which sheds a reflex lustre on the law. Hence we believe that the Gospel of Christ, and especially the doctrine of the cross of Christ, is the most powerful instrument for impressing the conscience of a sinner, and for turning his convictions into genuine contrition of heart. And this because the Gospel, and especially the doctrine of the cross, contains in it the spirit and essence of the law; it recognizes and proceeds upon the moral principles of God’s government, and affords a new and most impressive manifestation of the holiness of the Lawgiver, and the turpitude of sin; while, at the same time, it unfolds such a proof of the compassion and love of God as is peculiarly fitted to melt and subdue the heart, which the mere terrors of the law might only turn into a more hardened and unrelenting obduracy. Let the sinner who makes light of sin turn his eye to the cross of Christ, and he will see there, as well as amidst the thundering and the lightnings of Sinai, that the Lord is a jealous God, that sin is the abominable thing which he hates, and that he is resolved, at all hazards, and notwithstanding whatever suffering it may occasion, to visit it with condign punishment; let him look to the cross, and behold there, suspended on that accursed tree, the Son of God himself; let him listen to the words which fell from that illustrious sufferer in the midst of his agony and passion, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? and let him then inquire, why was it that he, of whom it had been once and again proclaimed from the highest heavens, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,’ and of whom it is recorded, that once and again, on his bedded knees, and with all the earnestness of importunate supplication, he had prayed in the garden, ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’ – why was it that he, who was thus affectionately spoken as of God’s beloved Son, and who, as a Son, so submissively poured out his heart into a Father’s ear, was nevertheless subjected to the agony and death of the cross? And when, in reply to all his inquiries, the Bible declares, that the Son of God suffered because he had consented to become chargeable with sin; that he ‘who knew no sin was made sin for us,’ and that, therefore, ‘it pleased the Lord to bruise him, and to put him to grief;’ that ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities;’ and that he died, because the wages of sin is death: – oh! does not the sinner now feel in his inmost soul, that if Sinai be dreadful, Calvary has its terrors too; that if ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin,’ the Gospel adds its sublime and harmonious commentary; that the cross of Christ is the most awful monument of Heaven’s justice, the most solemn memorial of the sinner’s danger; and does he not infer, with all the quickness of intuition, that if sin was not spared, nor left unpunished, but visited with condemnation and death, when it was imputed to his own, his only, his well-beloved Son, much less will sin, unexpiated and unforgiven, be spared, or left unpunished, when, after this solemn work of atonement, God will arise to plead with those who cleave to that accursed thing which nailed the Saviour to the tree? The cross, – the cross of a crucified Saviour – is the most powerful, the most impressive demonstration of sin, and righteousness, and judgment. The cross may well alarm every sleeping sinner, and awaken every slumbering conscience, and stir into agitation and tumult every listless and impenitent heart. It is the law by which we obtain the knowledge of sin; but the law is magnified in the cross; and it is the law in the cross that carries home to every awakened conscience the most alarming convictions of guilt. Can I hope to be spared, may one say, when ‘God spared not his own Son? Are my sins venial, or light? These sins of mine were enough, when transferred to the Son of God, to nail him to the tree! May I venture into eternity in the hope that my sins may be forgotten there? And why were they remembered here, when God’s Son ascended the hill of Calvary? May not the strictness of God’s law be relaxed in my favour? But why, oh! why was it not relaxed in favour of Christ? No; that one fact, that awful cross which was erected on the hill beside Jerusalem, annihilates every ground of careless security, tears from me every rag by which I would seek to cover my shame, drives me from every refuge to which I would repair; – that one fact, that Christ died for sin, shuts me up to the conviction, that as a sinner I stand exposed to the wrath and curse of an offended God, and rat the outraged law must receive a full and final vindication. But must it be by my personal and everlasting punishment? Yes, assuredly, if I stand on the footing of law; for ‘the soul that sins, it shall die.’ But look again to that mysterious cross: amidst the darkness which surrounds it, and the awful manifestations of God’s wrath which the sufferer felt, there breaks forth a light, glorious as the sun shining in its strength, unlike the lightnings which flashed around Sinai; this is the Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in its beams, the effulgent light of God’s love, the glorious manifestation of God’s grace and mercy; for ‘God so loved the world as to give his Son.’ Look once more; for the same cross which wounds will also heal; the same conscience which is pierced by the arrows of conviction may be pacified by the Gospel of peace; and thus all rat is terrible in the cross, when combined with the tenderness of God’s mercy, and the amazing, the self-denying, the self-sacrificing love of the Savior, will then only awaken convictions in the conscience, to melt and change them into sweet contrition of heart.
It is thus that, under the Gospel dispensation, the Spirit of God convinces the conscience by pressing home the eternal and unchangeable principles of the law, as these are embodied, illustrated, and displayed in a new and better dispensation. It is not the naked law, but the law in all its forms and manifestations, and especially the law in the facts and truths of the Gospel, which is thus used. For the Spirit reproves the world of sin – why? because they believe not on me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged-all having reference to Christ and his cross.
7 The work of conviction, of which the conscience is the subject, the Spirit the author, and the light of truth the means, consists in impressing the soul with a sense of its own sinfulness, and exciting in it some suitable feelings of fear, and shame, and self-condemnation.
Sin, when presented to the mind in the light of conscience, and especially in the light of God’s truth unfolded and applied by the Spirit, is discerned to be a vile and odious thing; and in order to this a principal part of the Spirit’s work in conviction is to set before the sinner’s mind a discovery of sin in its own nature, and to fix him on a due consideration of it. This, as we have already seen, is an exercise in which every sinner is very unwilling to be engaged; he shrinks from the subject would willingly forget it, and even when it is presented to his mind, is prone to take partial views of it and especially to excuse and exculpate himself. But God is often pleased to take the sinner into his own hands, and to press him with ‘line upon line, and precept upon precept,’ until he is made to see sin in its true character, and especially to see his own sinfulness. He brings his sins before him, and presses them on his attention. ‘These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself; but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.’ ‘Now consider this, ye that forget God; lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.’ Formerly he thought seldom of sin; now he might say with David, ‘My sin is ever before me.’ There are many different ways in which the mind may thus be awakened to a sense of its guilt. Sometimes it is occasioned, in the first instance, by some gross outward sin, too flagrant to pass altogether unreproved by the most sluggish conscience, and which may lead the sinner to reflect what must be the state of his heart, and what his desert at the hand of God; sometimes by a growing sense of his inherent depravity, strengthened every day by his experience of the instability of his best resolutions, and the weakness of his highest efforts after amendment; sometimes by a faithful reproof from a friend, which conveys to his conscience the startling intimation that his character is not so highly esteemed by others as it is by himself, which sets it on inquiry, and awakens self-distrust; sometimes by a searching sermon, an awakening providence, by the judgments which God executes on others, or by distress sent into his own family, or by his being brought himself to the borders of the grave, and when, in spite of himself, he is compelled to rink of God, and sin, and judgment to come. In short, almost any text in the Bible, and almost any event in life, may be the occasion of calling the conscience into action, and pressing his own sinfulness home upon his attention; and the Spirit of God arrests and fixes it, till he makes such a discovery of sin as is suited to his case. In the quaint, but striking and comprehensive words of an eminent commentator, ‘The Spirit convinces of the fact of sin, rat we have done so and so; of re, fault of sin, rat we have done ill in doing so; of the folly of sin, that we have acted against right reason and our true interest; of the filth of sin, that by it we are become odious to God; of the fountain of sin, the corrupt nature; and lastly, of the fruit of sin, rat the end thereof is death.’
Sin, thus presented to the mind, and discovered in somewhat of its native deformity, is applied to the conscience so as to excite some suitable feelings of fear, and shame, and self-condemnation.
No such feelings can be awakened until the sinner has some sight of the evil of sin, and some conviction of his own sinfulness. All the thunders of Sinai, and all the threatenings of the law, and all the curses that are written in this book, and all the terrors of a judgment to come, may fall upon his ear without awakening any serious concern, until conscience is roused within, and responds to the voice of God above. An unconvinced conscience is utterly insensible: blinded by sin, it cannot see; and hardened by sin, it cannot feel. This deep insensibility, this stupid lethargy, this deadness of the conscience to all sense of fear and shame, arises from ignorance of God’s character and law, or from unbelief, which, in spite of all testimonies to the contrary, refuses to acknowledge God as a righteous Governor and judge who will assuredly bring every sinner to judgment, and punish every sin; or self-delusion, by which many a sinner flatters himself, that however it may fare with others, he has no reason to fear; or some false persuasion in religion, which acts as an opiate to all conviction, such as the persuasion that God is too merciful to punish, or too great to mark a commission of sin; or that an orthodox profession, a correct exterior, or a regular attendance on ordinances will secure his safety. Alas! how is many a conscience lulled to sleep by such mere delusions; and how often do these delusions serve, like so many shields, to ward off and repel the sharpest arrows of the Spirit! Under their fatal influence, the conscience may remain insensible till the sinner’s dying hour; nay, death itself will not arouse it, nor will it feel its own guilt and danger, till the realities of eternity are disclosed. Hence you hear of the calm and unruffled indifference with which many a wicked man meets his death, the apathy and unconcern with which he can look back on a life of sin, even when he stands on the brink of the grave; and you may often wonder at this, and be ready to exclaim, How comes it that ‘the wicked have no bands in their death,’ if there be a judge above, and a living conscience within? I answer, that here in this very spectacle, in this very insensibility, this deathlike apathy of the sinner’s conscience at that solemn hour, you have just one of the most affecting manifestations of the righteous retribution of God, the manifest effect of that great law of conscience, whereby it is ordained that one who has long resisted the light shall be left in darkness, and that, by stifling his conscience, ‘he is given over to a reprobate mind.’ He has no sight of his own sin, no shame, no fear, just because his conscience has been blinded or stifled, or because he is deceiving himself with some false persuasion of his safety. Oh! let it not be said that a hardened conscience, which is insensible alike to the fear and the shame of guilt, is an enviable thing, or that it may not be the worst, the last stage of man’s degeneracy. For the loss of shame is the crowning proof of long-continued sin. Mark, I pray you, the course of a wicked man. Behold him first ass an infant, clinging fondly to a mother’s breast, and gladly returning a mother’s smile; behold him as a boy, in all the buoyancy of youthful health, with a heart as yet unscathed by the habits of sin, and alive to every generous impulse, and so sensitive to praise or blame, that a word, a look, will elevate or deject them: follow him onwards for a few years, when, yielding to the current of this world’s wickedness, he plunges into its deadly waters: see him when he returns from the haunts of vice to his once happy hearth. Now, instead of being touched with a mother’s love, or awed by a father’s look, the sternest reproof falls unheeded on his ear, and his whole bearing shows that he is beyond the strongest of all influences – the influence of home. Still he is alive, it may be, to the opinion of others, and especially would he stand well in the estimation of his companions, if not for temperance, and chastity, and religion, yet for truth, and honour, and kindness of heart; but as he advances in the fatal path, truth, and honour, and kindness of heart, are all sacrificed on the shrine of self-indulgence; he is separated by his own vices from the companionship of equals; and now, descending rapidly, he loses all regard for God and man, and becomes utterly reckless. And when, urged by want or passion, he commits some fatal crime, he feels perhaps less compunction for shedding the blood of man, than he felt in other days for a youthful folly; and when charged, convicted, and condemned, he may enter his cell, and walk to the gibbet, amidst crowds of awe-struck spectators, with no other feeling than the mere shrinking of the flesh from suffering, with neither shame, nor fear, nor self-condemnation in his heart of stone!
But when the sinner obtains a sight of the evil of sin, and especially of his own sinfulness, his convictions are attended with some suitable feelings or emotions, such as fear, shame, and self-condemnation. These feelings are the suitable, and, in one sense, the natural attendants of conviction. When sin stands disclosed, especially in the light of God’s truth, it throws a dark shadow in upon the sinner’s soul, which overawes, and agitates, and terrifies him. Conviction produces shame: for sin is seen to be a vile and loathsome thing; and the soul, which is covered with sin, is felt to be vile and loathsome too. Conviction produces fear: for a sense of guilt is inseparably connected, through conscience, with a sense of danger. And conviction produces self-condemnation: for it is not in the reproof of another, not even the reproof of God himself, but such reproof so applied as to become his own decision upon his own case, that conviction for sin consists.
Now, these feelings, in a greater or less degree, are the appropriate and natural concomitants of conviction, by whatever means the conscience may come to be convinced. Let the conscience, whether acting by its own energy, or as quickened by the Spirit of God, obtain a realizing conviction of sin, and forthwith it pronounces a condemning sentence, and awakens shame and fear; and that, too, when the sinner’s personal habits, and his known opinions, and general circumstances in the world, would seem to make such a visitation the most unlikely. Take a few familiar but striking illustrations from the Word of God.
Fear and shame were alike unknown in a state of conscious innocency; but our first parents sinned, and immediately conscience called forth into action these latent feelings of their souls: ‘The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked;’ there was shame the first-fruit of sin. ‘And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself;’- there was shame mingled with fear.
The Scribes and Pharisees brought an adulterous woman to Christ, demanding to know what sentence should be pronounced against her. Jesus answered, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her;’ and immediately they which heard it, the self-righteous Pharisees, ‘being convicted by their own conscience, went out, one by one, beginning at the eldest even unto the last; and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.’ Here we see conscience breaking through all the fences of self-righteous security, and compelling the guilty to retire in self confusion from the presence of the Lord.
A lawyer came to Christ, and ‘stood up and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered, ‘What is written in the law? how readest thou? And when he had given his own account of the law, and in his own words, Jesus said, ‘Thou hast answered right; this do and thou shalt live.’ But, it is added, he, not content with this sentence of approbation, waswilling to justify himself – Why, but that while Christ pronounced an approving sentence on the law which he had explained, conscience pronounced another, a condemning sentence on himself, as a conscious transgressor of that law? and his seeking to justify himself when Christ had brought no charge against him, nay, when Christ had expressly said, ‘Thou hast answered right; this do and thou shalt live,’ proves that every sinner, however self-righteous, carries about with him an inward witness, which no sooner sees the pure light of God’s law than it becomes an accuser; and, in spite of all the sophistry of self-deceit, forces him at least to excuse, exculpate, and extenuate his guilt, if he would ward off or escape from a sentence of self-condemnation!
Herod the Tetrarch belonged to the family party or sect of Herodians who were opposed to the Pharisees in many respects, and in religious matters seem to have been associated with the sceptical Sadducees, who believed neither in angel, nor spirit, nor the resurrection from the dead; yet no sooner did he hear of the miracles of Jesus, than his guilty conscience, bursting the flimsy covering of unbelief, forced him to exclaim, ‘It is John whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead;’ ‘John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him.’ Mark the power of conscience, how it starts from its sleep and fastens on the guilty sinner, and raises up around him imaginary terrors, and makes him believe, against his professed creed, in the reappearance and resurrection of that faithful messenger, whose head he had severed from his body, but whose holy form still haunted his presence and scared his peace!
‘A band of men and officers,’ with lanterns, and torches, and weapons, came to the garden of Gethsemane by night for the purpose of apprehending Jesus. ‘Whom seek ye? said the meek and lowly Saviour. ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ was the reply. ‘I am he,’ answered the same calm voice; but it was a voice of power, that spoke like thunder to their consciences; for ‘as soon as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.’ Behold the power of conscience, awakening fear, and agitation, and awe, and casting a band of officers and armed men to the ground before a defenceless and unresisting captive!
Judas was with the band of soldiers on that fearful night Judas, who had associated with the Lord for years, who had covenanted with his persecutors to betray him for money, who now marked him out by the preconcerted sign, Hail, Master, and kissed him. Oh! it might be thought that a conscience which had for years resisted the light of the Saviour’s teaching, and witnessed the blessed example of his. holy life, and stood firm against the melting tenderness of his love, that a conscience which left him free to form his unhallowed purpose, and to plan the mode of its execution, and to take the price of blood, and to kiss the Saviour in Gethsemane, that a conscience so steeped in guilt might have acquired an obduracy which no subsequent reflection could overcome, and that, if it troubled him not now in the act of treachery, it might never trouble him more; but even in the breast of Judas conscience was not dead, but asleep, and it awoke with terrific power when his purpose had been safely carried into effect. And if you would see the self-condemning power of God’s vicegerent in the guiltiest heart, look at that traitor and apostate, who, when the eyes were now sealed in death whose mild look of reproof might have withered his soul within him, when the tongue which spake as never man spake was silent as the grave, felt a new power rising within his own bosom which condemned him, and under the burden of his own remorse, and shame, and fear, ‘he repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver, and said, I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.’
I have referred to these scriptural examples of conviction, for the purpose of showing that fear, shame, and self-condemnation are its appropriate and suitable attendants, and that these harrowing feelings are immediately produced in the soul, when at any time, and by any means, it obtains a view of its own sinfulness. There may be no sense of sin, and then there will be no sense of fear, or shame, or self-condemnation; but let a sense of sin be awakened, and these emotions will spring up instantaneously along with it. Now, this sight and sense of his own sinfulness may be awakened at any time; it may be awakened suddenly, and when it is least expected. A single text of Scripture, a faithful sermon, an awakening providence, a vivid view of God’s justice, a solemn thought of eternity – any one of these may break up the false security of a sinner, while the Spirit of God has at all times access to his conscience, and can disturb, and trouble, and arouse it. The unbeliever has really no security for one hour’s continuance in peace; thoughtless and unconcerned as he is, unawed either by the rebukes of conscience, or the authority of God, or the terrors of a judgment to come, he may at any time be made to feel a power rising up within, a power long dormant, but now roused into tremendous action, a power which troubles his soul, and brings over it a horror of thick darkness and a cloud of appalling terrors, which overwhelms him now with shame under a sense of his vileness, and now with fear, under a sense of his danger; a power which gives to every long-forgotten sin a new place in his memory, and brings the whole train of his sins to pass in dark array before him, and imparts to each of them a scorpion’s sting; a power from whose presence he cannot flee, for it is within him, and go where he will he must carry it along with him; and which has this mysterious prerogative that, while it asserts a supremacy over every other faculty of his nature, and a right to judge and condemn every violation of its authority, it makes him to feel that lie is not dealing with himself only, but with God, the Judge of all. Willingly would he make light of sin as before, but now sin has become a burden too heavy for him to bear; he would laugh at his fears as the phantoms of superstition, but something within tells him they are too real to be scorned; he would brave it out as formerly amongst his gay companions, and show no touch of shame, but his soul sinks in the effort, and loathes itself and every thing it once loved. ‘A wounded spirit who can bear? The intolerable anguish of conviction, when an awakened conscience rages unpacified within, no tongue of man can utter, no heart of man conceive. What must it be with the conscience of an unbeliever, when from the lips of God’s own people, while they lay under a passing cloud of conviction, such words as these were extorted by its power: ‘When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.’ ‘O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure; for thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore: there is no soundness in my flesh, because of thine anger, neither is there any rest in my bones, because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me! ‘I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all the day long.’ ‘I am feeble and sore broken I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.’ On another occasion: ‘I remembered God and was troubled, I complained and my spirit was overwhelmed. Thou boldest mine eyes waking; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.’ ‘Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever, doth his promise fail for evermore? hath God forgotten to be gracious, hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? And so job in a like case: ‘The arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit; the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me. For thou writest bitter things against me, and makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth.’ If conscience have power to awaken such feelings of shame, and dread, and self-condemnation in the case even of righteous men when visited with a temporary withdrawment of the light of God’s countenance, oh! what must its power be when it is awakened in the case of impenitent and unpardoned sinners. And awakened it must be, sooner or later; and if not sooner, certainly not later than the hour when, leaving this world, and entering into the world of spirits, the realities of eternity will burst at once on their view.
Even in the case of men who are never savingly converted, conviction of sin may not be the mere fruit of natural conscience, but the effect of a common work of the Spirit on their minds. Many seem to suppose that the Spirit of God never operates except where he accomplishes the whole work of conversion; but there are not a few passages in Scripture, which seem to imply that souls, which are never converted, may nevertheless be the subjects of his convincing power. They are convinced and reproved, not only by the light of natural conscience, nor only by the outward light of God’s Word, but by the inward application of that truth to their consciences by the power of the Spirit of God. It is surely not unreasonable to believe that the Spirit of God may operate on their minds in the same way and to the same extent, although for a very different end, as Satan does, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience – presenting the truth even as Satan presents falsehood, applying the motives of conversion even as Satan urges the allurements of sin, while the sinner’s mind is left to make its choice. Accordingly, we read of unrenewed men, who, under a common work of the Spirit, were once ‘enlightened, and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,’ who, nevertheless, were not renewed unto repentance, or thoroughly converted to God, of some ‘who sin wilfully after they have received the knowledge of the truth,’ and who, on that account, are described as ‘doing despite unto the Spirit of grace.’ Such persons were not savingly converted, for none who have been renewed and sanctified by the grace of the Spirit will ever fall away or come into condemnation; but they did share, notwithstanding, in that work of the Spirit which is ordinarily preparatory to conversion. They may have had some knowledge, some conviction, some impressions from the Spirit of grace, and these are in their own nature good and useful, having a tendency and fitness as a means to prepare their minds for a greater change; and if they fail to subdue their wills to the obedience of Christ, they will serve, at least, to make it manifest that nothing but their own unwillingness stood in the way of their being saved. When such convictions decay and die without saving fruit, it is because they are not suitably improved or submissively followed; for it is the law of Christ’s kingdom, that one talent suitably improved procures another, while the neglect of it incurs its forfeiture: ‘To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundantly; but from him that hath not shall be taken away that which he hath.’ ‘For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: but that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.’
It appears, then, that the minds of unconverted men may be the subjects of conviction, of which the Spirit of God himself is the author; and that they are responsible, not only for the light of natural conscience, nor only for the light of God’s Word, but for the light and those convictions which the Spirit may awaken in their souls. And if this common operation of the Spirit stops short of conversion, it is not because the same motives are not presented to their minds as to those of other men who are savingly changed, but from their own stubbornness in resisting these motives, and because their will stands out against the work of the Spirit. Here lies the radical difference betwixt the converted and the unconverted: both may be the subjects of a convincing work of the Spirit; but in the one the will is stubborn and refuses to yield, while in the other the will is by God’s sovereign grace effectually subdued, so as to concur with his holy design; so that a real willingness to be renewed and sanctified is the characteristic mark of a new creature. Hence those in whom the conscience is convinced, while the will is unsubdued, are thus described: ‘But they rebelled, and vexed his Holy Spirit; therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.’ ‘Ye stiff-necked, and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.’ And the apostle warns even the professing followers of Christ in these solemn words: ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God’; ‘Quench not the Spirit.’
8 The work of conviction may be carried on in various ways, and may differ greatly in different cases, but in some degree it is necessary in all to a saving work of conversion. It may be commenced and carried on in various ways. Sometimes it comes on a hardened sinner in advanced life-like a sudden flash of lightning from heaven; sometimes it is implanted, like a seed, in the soul of a child, which grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength. Sometimes it is occasioned by one gross actual sin, which overwhelms the mind with a sense of its guilt and danger; at other times, by a calm review of the whole of a man’s experience, which impresses his mind with a sense of the radical corruption of his nature. Sometimes the sins of youth are recalled and set in order before him; at other times his neglect of Gospel grace, his forgetfulness of prayer, his mis-improvement of privileges, his frequent declensions, his broken resolutions, his unfulfilled engagements, his unsanctified Sabbaths, his ingratitude for mercies, his inattention to the voice of judgment or of mercy, a fit of sickness, or the dangerous illness of a wife or friend, or the thought of death, or a vivid view of God’s justice or of the Saviour’s love – in any one or all of these various ways, sound conviction may be wrought in the conscience.
It differs, too, in its degree and duration in different cases. Some are brought through deep waters, others are more gently conducted to the Saviour. Fear, and shame, and self-condemnation, are inseparable from deep conviction, where it exists by itself and without a knowledge of the Saviour; but they may be wrought in a greater or less degree, and in some cases they are immediately swallowed up in a sense of redeeming love.
I mention these diversities in the experience of different men, with the view of removing a stumbling-block which has often given uneasiness, a mistake which has often been injurious to the sincere believer. Many, when they hear that conviction is essential to conversion, and when they further hear or read of the sharp convictions, the deep distress of mind, the fearful terrors which some have experienced, have been ready to question the soundness, or at least the sufficiency of their own convictions, because they find nothing corresponding to it in their own experience. For their relief and comfort let me assure them, that if they be really convinced and humbled on account of sin, it matters little whether their experience corresponds in all respects with the experience of other men or no; nay, that so various are the operations of the same Spirit, ‘who divideth to every man severally as he will,’ that it is impossible their experience can correspond with that of all other believers. God’s Spirit deals with each according to his own necessities, and the work to which he is called. Sometimes he leads a sinner to heaven by the very gates of hell, to strong faith through the fiery furnace of unbelief, 0 to the heights of holy love through the depths of wrath. At other times, conviction is no sooner awakened than it is allayed, at least in its painful agitations and fears, by the healing voice of mercy. You may think, indeed, that your convictions ought to be much deeper, your fears more alarming, your sorrow more intense, your self-reproof more severe; but be it remembered, that mere fear and sorrow ‘belong not to the precept, but to the curse,’ and are not so much ‘required as inflicted on the sinner;’ and if you have a deliberate and abiding conviction of your own sinfulness, accompanied with a persuasion that you are thereby worthy of punishment, and capable of being saved only through the mercy of God, you have the substance of true conviction, and need not perplex yourselves about its mode or form.
But some such conviction of sin is essential, and cannot be dispensed with. The very nature of conversion presupposes it. No sinner will ever receive Christ as a Saviour until he is convinced that he needs to be saved; and this implies a conviction of his guilt, a sense of his danger, and a persuasion of the absolute impossibility of saving himself.
9 The result or issue of this work of conviction, while in some respects it is the same in all, is in others, and these of the highest importance, different in different men.
In some respects it produces similar effects in all who are the subjects of it. Of these we may mention the feelings of fear, shame, and self-condemnation, formerly noticed, which in some degree, greater or less, are experienced by every convinced sinner, and which correspond with ‘the spirit of bondage unto fear’ spoken of by the apostle, and which are the effect of the law applied by the Spirit, and the utmost that the mere law can produce. Besides this there is an inward conflict betwixt sin and the conscience, a conflict which is widely different, and must be carefully distinguished from that other conflict of which the apostle speaks as being carried on in the soul of the true believer, and which is a warfare, not betwixt sin and the conscience, but betwixt sin and the will. Of this latter conflict, the unconverted man may have little or no experience; but of the former, every convinced sinner is conscious; he feels that conscience and sin are at war within him; that while sin enrages and exasperates the conscience, conscience denounces and condemns sin; so that he is torn and rent by two antagonist forces, and his inward peace is destroyed. All this may consist with the prevailing love and power of sin; the will may still be on its side, while conscience stands opposed to it. Remorse and even sorrow may also be felt, that remorse which has no affinity with true repentance, that sorrow of the world which worketh death. Nay, under the influence of conviction, many an unconverted man may form the resolution, and make some efforts after amendment of life, which, being based on a spirit of self-sufficiency, and having no dependence on the sanctifying grace of God, and unaccompanied with earnest prayer for the Spirit, quickly come to nought; and he returns ‘like a dog to his vomit, and like a sow that was washed to his wallowing in the mire.’
Now, at this point, the one stem or stock of conviction divides into two great branches, – one which brings forth the fruit of repentance, and another which ends in the production of final reprobacy. Both may be covered with the buds and blossom of a fair profession; but the fruit is widely different. The contrast betwixt the two is finely exemplified by the opposite effects of the same truth, as declared by Peter and Stephen respectively. When Peter preached, the Jews were ‘pricked in their hearts,’ and began to inquire in earnest, What must we do to be saved? But when Stephen preached, they were ‘cut to the heart,’ yet they only gnashed on him with their teeth.(Acts 2:37; 7:54).
With one class, conviction of sin stops short of thorough conversion. Such conviction was salutary in itself, and had a tendency to lead the sinner onward to a happy change; but its power is resisted, its suggestions stifled, its voice drowned by the clamor of unruly passions. Such convictions are like the startling of a man in sleep, who quickly turns himself back on his pillow, and sinks again into lethargy; or like a sudden flash of lightning, exciting momentary awe and terror, but quickly passing, and leaving all in darkness as before. They may continue for a longer or a shorter period, and may recur at intervals through a long life, but they are ever treated in the same way, and produce no greater effect; they arouse the conscience, but do not conquer the will; they alarm the fears, but do not subdue the heart; they make sin dreadful, but they do not make it hateful to the soul. It loves sin, and hates its convictions; and, therefore, the former is cherished, while the latter are suppressed. Oh! it is a fearful case when God comes so near to the heart, and the heart is thus willfully closed against him! – for such convictions can neither be resisted without incurring guilt, nor stifled without leaving behind them, like a fire that has been kindled and quenched, the black traces of their power, in their withering and hardening influence on the heart.
With another class, conviction works towards conversion, and, under the influence of evangelical motives, issues in true and lasting repentance. The soul, convinced of its guilt, and impressed with a sense of its danger, is prompted to ask, What must I do to be saved? How shall I flee from the wrath to come? Sensible of its vileness, and loathing itself on account of it, it begins to inquire, How may I be cleansed from the pollution of my nature, and the foulness of my sin? If, when the soul is thus convinced and anxious, the glorious scheme of grace and redemption is unfolded to its view; if it be enabled to look to the cross, and to Christ as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world; and if it be penetrated with a lively sense of the love of Christ to sinners, and of God’s mercy through his stern conviction, then the heart will be melted into tender contrition, and the most harrowing remorse into kindly repentance. The heart which trembled, and was perhaps hardened under the ice-cold fetters of conviction, is subdued by the beams of the Sun of Righteousness. The soul, under the horror of darkness, may have been a scene of inward agony; but one ray of heaven’s light, piercing through the gloom, converts it into a scene of peace. In the greatest tumult of conviction, a single word of Gospel comfort may produce inward quiet, when it is spoken by Him who said to the raging sea, ‘Peace, be still, and immediately there was a great calm.’ The convinced sinner, thus apprehending the love of Christ, and the glorious design of his Gospel, is thoroughly changed by means of it; his stubborn will is subdued, and he is made willing in the day of divine power; in a word, he undergoes a change of mind and heart, which is called evangelical repentance, and, in this its largest sense, is the same with being born again. Then legal conviction becomes evangelical contrition. In this there is sorrow, but not the sorrow of the world which worketh death; shame, but such as humbles without depressing the soul; and fear, but not the fear which hath torment, not the fear that is associated with the Spirit of bondage, but filial fear, having respect to the majesty of God, and even to his warnings and threatenings; yet not the servile fear of a condemned malefactor, but the ingenuous fear of a forgiven child.
10 An Address To Convinced Sinners
As there may be some who have already passed, or are now passing through the various stages of conviction, and as their present situation is one of a very critical nature, on the due improvement of which their eternal welfare depends, I would earnestly solicit their attention to a special statement of the duties of convinced sinners.
1 Beware how you deal by your convictions, and remember that you are responsible to God for your treatment of them. Whether they have been produced by the unaided exercise of conscience, or by the natural influence of the Word of God, or by the direct agency of the Holy Spirit applying the truth to yourselves individually, there they are in your bosom, and they will either prove a blessing or a curse. They cannot leave you as they found you; they will subdue or harden every soul in which they have found a place. You cannot rid yourself of them without doing violence to your conscience and despite to the Spirit of grace. You may try to allay them; you may seek, by hurrying into the world, and by mixing with thoughtless companions, and perhaps by having recourse to the soothing opiate, or the intemperate draught, to forget the fears which haunt you; you may even succeed in regaining a temporary security; but so far from diminishing, you are only adding to your guilt, and while you shun fear, you rush into greater danger. If there be one thing for which a man is responsible to God, it must be the manner in which he deals with the convictions of his own conscience. And even in the present world, although it be not a state of strict retribution, there is going on in the experience of every sinner, a process of judicial equity, which proceeds on the principle of aiding every attempt, however feeble, to improve the light he has, and of withdrawing that light from those by whom it is neglected or despised. The same convictions, improved by one man and stifled by another, will issue in results as opposite as light and darkness, or heaven and hell!
2 Instead of stifling your convictions, seek to know more and more of the evil nature of sin, and of your own vileness in particular. Beware of dismissing them as idle, or imaginary, or exaggerated terrors; and rest assured, that as yet you know comparatively nothing, either of the nature of sin, or of your own characters as they appear in the sight of a holy God. That you may know more of it, fix your minds on a serious consideration of sin, place it in the light of God’s Word, look on it as it appears in the cross of Christ, consider it in connection with the curse of the law, the sufferings of life, the agonies of death, and the realities of a coming judgment; and that you may feel as well as know what it is, seek to be suitably affected by a sense of sin, till the conviction be thoroughly inwrought into the very frame of your minds, that you cannot justify nor even excuse it.
However deep and painful your convictions may be, you may well believe that you are infinitely more sinful and vile in God’s sight than in your own: first, because of the natural darkness, depravity, and deceitfulness of your hearts, which prevent you from seeing yourselves as God sees you; and secondly, because of God’s essential, infinite, and unsullied purity, of whom it is said, that ‘the heavens are not clean in his sight; that he chargeth his angels with folly;’ ‘that he is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and that he cannot look upon sin.’ And that this solemn thought may be impressed on your mind, dwell much on the contemplation of God’s character, contrasting it with your own; endeavour to realize the thought of God as the omnipotent and omniscient Searcher of hearts, the pure, and holy, and just Governor and Judge, till you are ready to exclaim with Job, ‘I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes;’ or with Isaiah, ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’
3 Having acquired a sight and sense of your own sinfulness, listen with submission to the sentence of God’s law. Apply that sentence to yourselves, and beware of any disposition that may spring up within you, either to quarrel with it as too severe, or to imagine that God cannot or will not enforce it. God’s sentence must be a just one, and cannot be reversed, however it may be questioned, by man. It stands revealed in the Bible; and although conscience may not immediately respond to it when it is first announced, yet the serious and frequent consideration of it will gradually impress and affect the conscience, till in the end you will be constrained to acknowledge that sin deserves God’s wrath and curse. The sentence of the law, duly reflected on in connection with your present experience of the curse that follows on sin, and with your future prospect of a judgment to come, will strengthen the self-condemning power of conscience, and shut you up to the conviction that you are ‘without excuse,’ and that every ‘mouth must be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.’ And then, like David, you will be ready to justify God, and to condemn yourselves, saying, in the language of sincere confession, ‘I acknowledge my transgression; that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.’
We should resist every tendency to question either the equity of God in pronouncing, or the willingness of God to execute this sentence, by such reflections as these:
a) That this sentence is plainly revealed in his Word.
b) That being the sentence of God, it must be just and righteous; for, ‘will not the judge of all the earth do right?
c) That, however it may be questioned, it cannot be reversed by man; it may be disputed or denied, but cannot be disannulled or expunged from the statute-book of heaven.
d) That God is really the only competent judge of what punishment is due on account of sin, and what penalties are needful for the ends of his universal government; and,
e) That as he has unquestionably the power, so he has shown that he has the will to carry that sentence into effect, by the expulsion of the apostate angels, by the universal prevalence of death, and, above all, by the sufferings of Christ on the cross.
4. Beware of having recourse to false grounds of confidence, or unscriptural means of relief. Under the pressure of conviction, the mind is prone to seek rest wherever it can find it, and too frequently it is found in some refuge of lies. Some false doctrine, or some superstitious practice, is often embraced, which serves to lull rather than to pacify the conscience, instead of that pure truth, and that Gospel holiness, which alone can restore it to spiritual life and health. Like the diseased, and feverish, and sleepless patient, who, instead of seeking to remove his distemper and to recruit his health by wholesome diet, has recourse to the soothing draught or the exciting stimulant, which allays the symptoms, while it aggravates the disease; thus false doctrine, or partial and erroneous views of divine truth, may minister temporary relief to an awakened conscience, as when the sinner eagerly grasps at the doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all men, or of God’s mercy as exercised without respect to justice, or of the impossibility, or great unlikelihood of everlasting punishment, or of the power of mere moral amendment to obliterate the stain of guilt, and restore him to the favour of God, or of the efficacy of some external ordinance, or some ecclesiastical privilege, to secure his safety. And so, some superstitious observance, grafted on one or other of these false doctrines, is made the opiate of conviction, as when the poor Papist has recourse to confession, and trusts to the absolution of a priest; or the uninstructed Protestant fancies that by a decent life and regular attendance at church and sacrament his salvation may be secured. Thus it is that many say to themselves, ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace;’ while others seek relief by rushing into the world, and, by endless change of scene, and society, and employment, contrive to forget convictions which they cannot endure. But let it be your inmost persuasion that there is no stable ground of confidence, and no safe means of relief, except such as can bear the light of truth, and stand the test of God’s infallible Word; and that nothing ought to pacify a sinner’s conscience, except that which alone can propitiate and satisfy an offended God. Conscience is God’s vicegerent in the soul, and it can only be surely and permanently satisfied by that which God himself regards as a satisfaction for sin.
5. Beware of the temptations, which are peculiar to your present state, and steadfastly resist them. Every state has its peculiar snares: when convictions are weak we are tempted to indifference in regard to salvation; when consolations abound, we are too prone to fall into spiritual pride; and when consolations are withheld, and convictions strong, we are apt to sink into despair. This is the temptation to which strong convictions tend.
The mind is apt to take a false and exaggerated view of its own sins; for although we can never think too ill of sin, we may charge ourselves unjustly, and make a really false application of Scripture, by regarding every infirmity as a willful sin, and every willful sin as a token of utter reprobation. 0 It is apt also to question whether its sins be pardonable, and its salvation possible, thereby limiting the efficacy of God’s grace and the Savior’s sacrifice, and excluding itself from the means of Gospel consolation; nay, like a diseased stomach, it turns the most wholesome food into poison, extracting nothing from the most precious promises, from the freest invitations, from the richest privileges of the Gospel, but a soul-withering sense of its own wretchedness in having no interest in them; and, penetrated with the unwarranted idea of its own hopeless condition, it first believes in this fiction of its own fancy, and then raises out of it a thousand imaginary terrors, and dark phantoms of evil.
I know that in such cases reasoning can do little, and reproof still less; and that none but God himself can bind up and heal this wound. But while we look to earnest and persevering prayer as the most effectual means of ultimate relief, I may humbly represent what appears to me to be the duty of a convinced sinner in such a case. And I have no hesitation in saying that the convictions of an awakened conscience are good and useful in themselves, and ought to be cherished and yielded to in so far as they tend to humble us; they ought not to be yielded to, but resisted, when they go beyond this their legitimate object, and threaten to plunge us into despair. It is not the conviction of your own sinfulness that you resist in such a case, but a misapplication of conviction, a false inference from it, a fatal error growing out of it, which has no warrant in the Word of God. Repentance, deep humility, and self-abasement, are the lawful and proper effects of conviction, and these are warranted by Scripture; but hopelessness, despondency, or despair, are not warranted by Scripture, and ought therefore to be resisted as an unscriptural error. The Gospel is glad tidings, tidings of great joy to every, even the chief of sinners; and you can have no warrant from the Gospel to cherish that frame of mind. It is true that the Gospel speaks of the sin against the Holy Ghost; but it is spoken of in general terms, and so as to give no divine warrant to any sinner to believe that he has incurred it; and therefore this conviction of your having been guilty of that sin is a mere conclusion or inference of your own understanding, unsupported by express Scripture, unsanctioned by divine authority, and not capable, therefore, of being pled with justice in opposition to the uniform tenor of the Gospel, which, speaking to you as a sinner, nay, as the very chief of sinners – calls, and invites, and entreats you to believe and be saved.
And therefore, I say, cherish conviction of sin so long as it tends to humble you, but so soon as it verges on the border of despair, resist it. God’s truth is then converted by Satan into a strong temptation: resist the devil, and he will flee from you. This gloomy apprehension it may not be in your own power to remove, ‘yet it is your duty to oppose it to the uttermost. When God clothes the heavens with darkness, and makes sackcloth their covering, and shuts up in the prison-house where no light can be perceived, it is natural to take a kind of pleasure in yielding to despondency, and in defending it by many arguments. But to resist this tendency requires self-denial, and is the path of duty, however difficult.! ‘Therefore, when the cloud appears blackest and most impenetrable, and when conscience or imagination are mustering up their heaviest charges and forebodings, endeavour to believe that there is one behind and above the cloud, whose beams of grace will at length break through it, and shine in upon you with a sweeter lustre than ever.’
6 Let the convinced sinner acquaint himself more fully with the complete remedy that is proposed to him in the Gospel for all that is really evil in his present condition. He may have read the Bible before, and may have acquired a cold, intellectual notion of its leading truths; but never was he so well prepared for entering into its spirit, and feeling the suitableness of its provisions, and the power of its consolations, as he is now. Every sentence will now appear to have a new meaning, every truth a freshness, every encouraging word a sweetness, unperceived before. When the heart is interested when the conscience is seriously impressed, the mind will be awake, and active, and quick to discern what otherwise might escape his notice. The convinced sinner cannot read his Bible without feeling that it is in all respects suited to his condition, and that it proposes a complete remedy for all its evils. There are just two comprehensive objects which an awakened conscience demands; the first is, the pardon of sin; and the second, the purification of the sinner; and the more thoroughly awakened any conscience may be, the more impossible is it to satisfy it on these points by any expedient of mere human origin, while it will all the more certainly respond to the method prescribed in the Gospel by God himself. For there he fords both the great objects of his anxiety inseparably linked together, and each proposed in its greatest fullness, and on principles which satisfy the conscience, as well as relieve its fears. Does he inquire after pardon, and does his conscience suggest that, as sin deserves punishment, and as God is a righteous judge, pardon cannot be indiscriminately bestowed, nor granted without some sufficient ground or reason? The gospel proposes a free pardon so free that the chief of sinners may take it freely; but a pardon not granted without a sufficient ground or reason; for it is a pardon founded on atonement, a pardon not bestowed until divine justice was satisfied, a pardon which exhibits God as the just God and the Saviour, a pardon which, as it depends on principles which satisfied the demands of God’s justice, may well be regarded as sufficient to meet the demands of a sinner’s conscience. The sacrifice of Christ that one sacrifice is the complete remedy for all guilt. Yet sin, sin still strong in the heart, the power of that loathsome thing which makes a sinner vile in his own eyes, this also must be taken away; for, free as the pardoned sinner may be of all the guilt of his past transgressions, every conscience feels instinctively that sin still reigning must be a constant disturber of its peace; but here, too, the gospel provides a remedy; it proposes the Holy Spirit as the sanctifier, by whose agency the principle of a new spiritual life is implanted in the soul, and gradually strengthened and matured, until, after a progressive sanctification, he shall be made ‘meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.’ Look at the whole remedy in all its fullness, and every convinced sinner will see, that it is not only suitable, but that it is adequate to all the exigencies of his case.
7 Let the convinced sinner seek a sure personal interest in that remedy by closing with the free offer of the Gospel. Every sinner to whom the Gospel is preached may be said to have a certain interest in it, as it is presented, exhibited, offered to all, without exception. But a saving personal interest in it depends on its being embraced, accepted, and received. The general interest which every sinner has in it, and of which no man can deprive him – for it is given by God himself – is a sufficient warrant for his seeking this more peculiar and saving interest; in other words, every sinner who is invited to believe, is warranted and encouraged to believe to the saving of his soul. And he who can so far trust God as to take him at his word, and to rest in the assurance of his faithfulness and sincerity in making this offer, need not fear that when he embraces it, it will be withdrawn, or left unfulfilled. But let him not rest in this general persuasion – let him act upon it; and, by a deliberate exercise of mind, and in the most resolute manner, let him take Christ as his own Savior, and give up his soul into Christ’s hands; and, ’emboldened by the free invitation which warrants him to take the waters of life freely, let him put in his claim to take Christ home, in his person, merit, power, and love, as his own.’ This explicit and distinct closing with Christ, by which the sinner takes him in all the fullness of his offices and benefits, and gives himself to Christ, soul, body, and spirit, to be pardoned, sanctified, and saved by him, is the decisive act by which a convinced sinner may secure his safety, and arrive at peace and joy in believing.
8 The convinced sinner should give utterance to his convictions in the language of confession, and to his desires in the language of earnest prayer. Confession relieves the mind of much that is painful in conviction while it is pent up and restrained in the sinner’s heart, and, at the same time, deepens the humility, which ought to be produced by it, by bringing the sinner into immediate converse with a holy God. And these effects will the more surely follow, in proportion, as confession is specific and full: ‘He that confesseth his sin, and forsaketh it, shall find mercy.’ But real conviction produces inward desire; and that desire, expressed before God, is prayer. Let the sinner pour it out before the Lord, nothing doubting that ‘his ear is not heavy that it cannot hear, neither his arm shortened that it cannot save.’ Let him pray in the assurance that he is warranted and encouraged to do so, and that God will fulfil his own promise by granting his request. Yea, though he be kept long at a distance, and may be tempted to retire under a feeling of disappointment, let him persevere, and wait, and seek; let him knock loud and long at heaven’s gate and take no denial; but wait until God himself open the door, and a flood of heaven’s light bursts on his astonished eye: let him pray as fervently as the greatness of his interest demands; and let him pray on until that interest is secured. For never should a sinner leave off the exercise of prayer while the throne of grace is standing, and God, seated on the throne, is waiting to be gracious there!
When we address ourselves to sinners who are labouring under a conviction of sin, there are two classes of men, of very different characters, who may feel as if they had no interest in our message, and who may be in danger of applying it, although in different ways, to the injury of their own souls.
There are some of God’s people who, when they hear of the convincing work of the Spirit, and of the deep convictions which others have experienced, may be unable to discover, in their present state of mind, any thing that corresponds to what they think ought to be the experience of every true Christian, who are not conscious of that deep sorrow, and those alarming fears, which a sense of sin might be expected to inspire, and who may, therefore, be ready to question whether they have yet undergone the great change which is essential to salvation. They complain of their coldness, and apathy, and unconcern, of the hardness of their hearts, the insensibility of their consciences, and the want or weakness of that deep heartfelt contrition which they ought to feel. Now to such I would say, distress of mind is not the substance of true repentance, although it may be its frequent attendant, and that there may be true conviction, and genuine humility of heart, where there is no anguish or sensible remorse. Indeed, contrition is often most genuine, and humility most profound, when all that is painful and alarming in conviction has been removed by a view of the grace and mercy of a forgiving God, and an all-sufficient Savior. All that is terrible in conviction of sin and wrath may be, and often is, prevented, or immediately dispelled by a clear view of the scheme of redemption; and it is enough that you be really humbled, however little you may be distressed; it is enough if you be emptied of all self-righteous dependence, and convinced that you are ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’ Now your very complaints of the want of due humiliation on account of sin may be an evidence that you are one of those of whom our Lord speaks when he says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ It has been truly said, ‘that hardness of heart deeply felt and lamented, is real softness. A stony-ground hearer, and one seriously afraid of remaining such, are two different characters.’
There is, however, another class of men, who, when they hear of deep conviction of sin, are conscious of nothing in themselves which bears the least resemblance to it; and who may, therefore, be ready to conclude that the exhortations which are addressed to such as have experienced it are not applicable to them. They may even suppose that, because sin has given them little or no uneasiness, they need give no heed to the remedy, which is proposed in the Gospel, and continue, as they have been, indifferent to the whole subject. These men differ from the former, in that they cherish their impenitence, and even glory in it. But let them beware: the very indifference the very absence of all concern about repentance is the most alarming symptom in their spiritual condition. For just as in some cases of disease, the utter want of pain is the very worst symptom, and the surest precursor of natural death, so this insensibility of the conscience, this utter recklessness in regard to sin, is the worst symptom, and the surest precursor of death eternal. If they were concerned about their impenitence, if the hardness of their hearts grieved them, if they were humbled because they saw so little, and felt so little, of the evil of sin, these were hopeful symptoms: but utter unconcern, death-like indifference, accompanied with no sense of its sinfulness, and no desire for its removal, this is the characteristic of a ‘hard and impenitent heart,’ which is alike proud and presumptuous in its obstinate resistance to all the truths of the Bible and the teachings of the Spirit.