Piety in Children

Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth? Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me.
~ Isaiah 45:9-11

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
~ Romans 9:20

Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
~ Romans 9:18

And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
~ Romans 11:6

Piety in Children, by Archibald Alexander. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “Thoughts on Religious Experience”. 1844.

When the entrance of light is gradual, the first effect of an awakened conscience is, to attempt to rectify what now appears to have been wrong in the conduct. It is very common for the conscience, at first, to be affected with outward acts of transgression, and especially with some one prominent offence. An external reformation is now begun: for this can be effected by mere legal conviction. To this is added an attention to the external duties of religion, such as prayer, reading the Bible, hearing the Word, etc. Everything, however, is done with a legal spirit; that is, with the wish and expectation of making amends for past offences; and if painful penances should be prescribed to the sinner, he will readily submit to them if he may, by this means, make some atonement for his sins. But as the light increases, he begins to see that his heart is wicked, and to be convinced that his very prayers are polluted for lack of right motives and affections. He, of course, tries to regulate his thoughts and to exercise right affections; but here his efforts prove fruitless. It is much easier to reform the life, than to bring the corrupt heart into a right state.

The case now begins to appear desperate. The sinner knows not which way to turn for relief and, to cap the climax of his distress, he comes at length to be conscious of nothing but unyielding hardness of heart. He fears that the conviction which he seemed to have is gone, and that he is left to total obduracy. In these circumstances he desires to feel keen compunction and overwhelming terror, for his impression is that he is entirely without conviction. The truth is, however, that his convictions are far greater than if he experienced that sensible distress which he so much courts. In this case, he would not think his heart so incurably bad, because it could entertain some right feeling—but as it is, he sees it to be destitute of every good emotion and of all tender relentings. He has got down to the core of iniquity, and finds within his bosom a heart unsusceptible of any good thing. Does he hear that others have obtained relief by hearing such a preacher, reading such a book, conversing with some experienced Christian? He resorts to the same means—but entirely without effect. The heart seems to become more insensible, in proportion to the excellence of the means enjoyed. Though he declares he has no sensibility of any kind, yet his anxiety increases; and perhaps he determines to give himself up solely to prayer and reading the Bible; and if he perishes, to perish seeking for mercy.

But however strong such resolutions may be, they are found to be in vain; for now, when he attempts to pray, he finds his mouth as it were shut. He cannot pray. He cannot read. He cannot meditate. What can he do? Nothing. He has come to the end of his legal efforts; and the result has been the simple—deep conviction that he can do nothing; and if God does not mercifully interpose, he must inevitably perish. During all this process he has some idea of his need of divine help—but until now he was not entirely cut off from all dependence on his own strength and exertions. He still hoped that, by some kind of effort or feeling he could prepare himself for the mercy of God. Now he despairs of this, and not only so—but for a season he despairs, it may be, of salvation—gives himself up for lost. I do not say that this is a necessary feeling, by any means—but I know that it is very natural, and by no means uncommon, in real experience.

But conviction having accomplished all that it is capable of effecting, that is, having emptied the creature of self-dependence and self- righteousness, and brought him to the utmost extremity—even to the borders of despair, it is time for God to work. The proverb says, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” So it is in this case; and at this time, it may reasonably be supposed, the work of regeneration is wrought, for a new state of feeling is now experienced. Upon calm reflection, God appears to have been just and good in all His dispensations; the blame of its perdition the soul fully takes upon itself, acknowledges its ill-desert, and acquits God. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight, that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge.” (Psalm 51:4) The sinner resigns himself into the hands of God, and yet is convinced that if he does perish, he will suffer only what his sins deserve. He does not fully discover the glorious plan according to which God can be just and the Justifier of the ungodly who believe in Jesus Christ.

The above is not given as a course of experience which all real Christians can recognize as their own—but as a train of exercises which is very common. And as I do not consider legal conviction as necessary to precede regeneration—but suppose there are cases in which the first serious impressions may be the effect of regeneration, I cannot, of course, consider any particular train of exercises under the law as essential. It has been admitted, however, that legal conviction does in fact take place in most instances, prior to regeneration; and it is not an unreasonable inquiry—’why is the sinner thus awakened?’ What good purpose does it answer? The reply has been already partially given; but it may be remarked, that God deals with man as an accountable, moral agent, and before he rescues him from the ruin into which he is sunk, he would let him see and feel, in some measure, how wretched his condition is; how helpless he is in himself, and how ineffectual are his most strenuous efforts to deliver himself from his sin and misery. He is therefore permitted to try his own wisdom and strength. And finally, God designs to lead him to the full acknowledgment of his own guilt, and to justify the righteous Judge who condemns him to everlasting torment.

Conviction, then, is no part of a sinner’s salvation—but the clear practical knowledge of the fact that he cannot save himself, and is entirely dependent on the saving grace of God.