Of Conversion

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
~ Psalm 19:7-9

And now, O Lord GOD, thou art that God, and thy words be true, and thou hast promised this goodness unto thy servant:
~ 2 Samuel 7:28

A Psalm of David, when he changed his behaviour before Abimelech; who drove him away, and he departed. I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
~ Psalm 34:1

A Christian Experience, by Archibald Alexander. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “Thoughts on Religious Experience”. 1884.

Religious Conversation

— Stress laid by some on the knowledge of the time and place of conversion

Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth,
— John 17:17

Christian experience of R. C..Narrative of Sir Richard Hill’s experience.

The following extracts, from a narrative of the Christian experience of R. C.,will serve to illustrate some points which have heretofore been treated; particularly the gradual manner in which some people are brought to the knowledge of the truth; and the extreme difficulty of ascertaining, in many cases, where common grace ends and special grace commences.

“I grew up,” says the narrator, “to manhood with very little thought of religion, and without experiencing any serious impressions, except the alarm occasionally produced by the death of a companion or relative. While I habitually cherished a great dislike to strict religion, which frowned upon a life of pleasure and amusement, I entertained a strong prejudice in favor of Christianity in general, and that particular denomination to which my parents and ancestors belonged. I call this a prejudice, for I knew nothing of the evidences of the truth of Christianity, and had only a very vague and confused notion of what the Scriptures contained; except that, when a child, I had read, frequently, many portions of the historical parts of the Bible. In this state of mind, I was exposed to the common objections of infidels, which arose from reading history, and finding that all nations had their respective religions, in which they believed as firmly as we did in ours; and the thought often occurred, ‘Why may they not be in the right, and we in the wrong?’ But about this time, infidelity began to prevail, and its abettors to be bold in declaring their opinions. My mind was so completely unfurnished with arguments in favor of Christianity, that the only thing on which I could fix was that it had come down from my ancestors, and the people with whom I was conversant generally believed in it. But this was far from satisfying my mind. I began to feel uneasy for fear that we were all wrong in our belief; but the thought was never pleasing to my mind. As to books ofevidences, I knew nothing about them, and cannot remember that I had ever heard of such works. And I was so situated that I had no one to whom I could apply for instruction. The only person with whom I had any communication on literary subjects was a gentleman, who, though he said nothing to me on the subject, was deeply imbued with skeptical opinions. Being separated from the companions of my youth, and placed in a secluded situation, where, except on particular occasions, I saw little company, and where there were few opportunities of hearing instructive preaching, I was cast upon my own thoughts, and my reflections were often not very pleasing. One day—it was the Lord’s day—as I was looking over some books which I had in a trunk, my eye caught the words, Internal Evidences of the Christian Religion. I had often seen the same book, and never so much as thought what the subject of it was; but in my present perplexity I seized it with avidity, and began to read. The work was the celebrated treatise of Soame Jenyns. I never removed from where I was sitting until I had finished it, and as I proceeded, the light of evidence poured in upon my mind with such power of demonstration, that at the conclusion I had the idea of the room being full of resplendent light. I enjoyed a pleasure which none can appreciate but those who have been led to the contemplation of the truth in like perplexing circumstances. Not only were all my doubts removed—but I wanted no more evidence. My conviction of the truth of Christianity was complete. I believe it could not have been increased.

“But still I knew scarcely anything of the method of salvation revealed in the gospel. I entertained the common legal notions of thousands of ignorant people, ‘that at a convenient time I would become good’, never doubting for a moment of my ability to do all that was requisite. The only thing which gave me uneasiness was the fear of a sudden death, which would not afford me the opportunity of repenting and making my peace with God. But the hope prevailed that I would die a lingering death, and be in my senses, and then I would do all that was requisite to prepare me for heaven; while at the same time I had no definite idea what that preparation was. During this period I was exposed to few temptations; but still some sins had dominion over me. One day a child brought to me a small book and said that Mrs. T. requested that I would read it and return it soon, as it was borrowed. The title was, Jenks on Submission to the Righteousness of God. I read the book through at a single sitting, and again a new light sprung up in my mind. The author, in the introduction, gives an account of his ignorance of the true method of a sinner’s justification, until he had been for years a preacher. He was a minister of the Church of England. I now found that I likewise had been all my life ignorant of the way of salvation; for I entertained the same legal and unscriptural notions which he proves to be utterly erroneous. Although these new views seem to have been merely intellectual, yet they afforded me a great satisfaction. I had now a distinct knowledge of the gospel method of justification, which I ever afterwards retained. Another copy of this book I have never seen.

“The preaching to which I had access was mostly of a wild, fanatical kind, and the way in which I heard the new birth described, tended to prejudice me against the doctrine of regeneration. I had never before heard anything about this change, and yet I was sure that I knew some very good and religious people. I began to be troubled to know whether sober, intelligent Christians believed in this doctrine. It also became a subject of discussion in the little circle with which I was conversant, and I found that one person in the company professed to have experienced this change; another was convinced of its reality—but professed to be merely an inquirer; a third was of opinion that it related to the conversion of Jews and infidels, and that there was no other regeneration, except in baptism; and the fourth was the skeptical gentleman, already mentioned, who was incredulous about the whole matter. In these conversations, I, being young and ignorant, took no part—but I listened to them with intense interest. I had recourse to such books as I had access to—but could find nothing that was satisfactory; for my range of religious books was very narrow, and few of these of an evangelical cast. The person of my acquaintance who professed conversion, one day gave me a narrative of the various steps and changes experienced in this transition from darkness to light. As I entertained a favorable opinion of the veracity and sincerity of the individual, I began to think there might be something in it.

“Although I had experienced no remarkable change thus far, I knew that the subject of religion had become one of much more frequent thought, and excited much more interest in my mind than formerly. One evidence of this was that I commenced secret prayer, a duty utterly neglected until this time, except when some one of the family was dangerously sick. I had selected a retired spot, surrounded by a thick growth of trees and bushes, on the margin of a brook. Here I made a kind of arbor, over a little plat of green grass, and in the summer evenings I would resort to this sequestered spot. It was on the afternoon of a Sunday, I was reading a sermon on the longsuffering and patience of God, in waiting with delaying sinners; and so many things applied so exactly to my own case, that I became so much affected with a sense of the divine goodness and forbearance in sparing me and waiting so long with me, while I was living in neglect of Him, that I felt impelled to go out and weep. I was reading the sermon aloud to the family, by request. I laid down the book abruptly and hastened to my retirement, where I poured out a flood of tears in prayer. And suddenly I was overwhelmed with a flood of joy. It was ecstatic beyond anything which I had ever conceived; for though I thought religion a necessary thing, I never had an idea that there was any positive pleasure in its exercises. Whence this joy originated, I knew not. The only thing which had been on my mind was the goodness and patience of God, and my own ingratitude. Neither can I now say how long it continued; but the impression left was that I was in the favor of God and should certainly be happy forever. When the tumult of feeling had subsided, I began to think that this was conversion—this was the great change, of which I had recently heard so much.

“It occurred to me, when walking home, that if this was indeed the change called the new birth, it would be evinced by my forsaking all my sins. This suggestion appeared right, and I determined to make this the test of its reality. All the evening, my mind was in a delightful calm; but the next day my feelings had returned into their old channel. I was grieved at this, and resorted to the same place where I had experienced such a delightful frame, in hopes that by some kind of association the same scene would be renewed; but though there was the place and all the objects of yesterday, the soul-ravishing vision was not there; and after a feeble attempt at prayer, and lingering for some time, I returned without meeting with anything which I sought and desired.
“It was not long before I was subjected to the test which I had fixed; a temptation to a besetting sin was presented, and I had no strength to resist—but was instantly overcome. This failure gave me inexpressible pain, on reflection. I did not know how dear were my cherished hopes until they were wrested from me. I never felt a keener regret at any loss which I ever experienced.

“Although I was constrained to admit that I was not a regenerated person, I was sensible of a considerable change in my views and feelings on the subject of religion. I had no longer any doubt of the necessity of regeneration, and entertained some consistent notions of what its effects must be. I had, as before stated, acquired evangelical views of the way in which a sinner must be justified, and entertained different feelings from what I had formerly towards religious people. Formerly they were objects of dread and aversion, now I felt a sincere regard and high respect for the same characters; and was pleased when I heard of any of my friends becoming religious, or more serious than before. I had now an opportunity of hearing an able minister preach an evangelical sermon on the text, ‘For our righteousnesses are as filthy rags’, (Isa 64:6) etc., and I cannot tell the gratification I experienced, in hearing the doctrine of justification, which I had fully embraced, preached distinctly and luminously from the pulpit: but when I looked around on the audience, I had the impression that they were all, or nearly all, ignorant of what he was saying, and were still trusting to their own works. It now gave me pleasure, also, to converse on the doctrines of religion; and I felt a real abhorrence of wicked courses.

“This was my state of mind when Providence cast my lot where a powerful revival had been in progress for some time. I had witnessed something of this kind in a wild, fanatical sect, where bodily agitations were common and violent; but this was a different scene. The principal conductor and preacher was a man of learning and eloquence; and his views of experimental religion, as I think, most correct and scriptural. If he erred, it was on the safe side, in believing in the thorough conversion of but a small number of those who appeared impressed. In entering into this scene, I experienced various new and conflicting feelings. The young converts spoke freely, in my presence, of their conviction and conversion; but often with a degree of levity which surprised me. In their conversations I could take no part, and although my general purpose was to consider myself an unawakened, unconverted sinner, yet when I heard the marks of true religion laid down, and especially by the distinguished preacher before mentioned, I could not prevent the thought arising continually, ‘If this is religion, then you have experienced it.’ This seemed to me to be the suggestion of a false hope, by the enemy, to prevent my falling under conviction. Still the idea was continually presented to my mind, and with the appearance of truth. I took occasion to state the matter to the clergyman above alluded to, as soon as I could gain access to him; for I was diffident and timid, and had never opened my case to anyone freely. I told him all my former exercises, and stated distinctly that they had not been sufficient to break the habit of sinning to which I was addicted. As soon as I mentioned this part, he said in a peremptory tone, ‘Then surely your exercises were not of the nature of true religion; you must seek a better hope or you will never be admitted into heaven.’ This decisive answer drove away, from that moment, every idea of my being in a state of grace; and I felt relieved from what I had myself considered a temptation to entertain a false hope.

“Now I began to seek conviction as a necessary preliminary to conversion; and hoped that every sermon which I heard would be the means of striking terror into my soul. I read the most awakening discourses, went to hear the most arousing preachers; endeavored to work on my own mind by imagining the solemn realities of the judgment, and the torments of the damned. I strove to draw the covering off from the pit, that I might behold the lake of fire, and hear the wailings of the damned. But the more I sought these solemn feelings of conviction, the further they seemed to fly from me. My heart seemed to grow harder every day. I was sensible of nothing but insensibility. I became discouraged; and the more, because I was obliged to remove from the scene of the revival, to a place where there was no concern about religion in the people generally, and where I expected the preaching to be cold and lifeless. I spent a day before my departure, in secret, and in solemn reflection on my deplorable and hopeless case. I ran over all the kind dispensations of God’s providence towards me, and reflected on the many precious means of grace, which I had recently enjoyed, without effect.

“The conclusion which seemed now to be forced on my mind was that God had given me up to a hard heart and that I never would be so happy as to obtain religion. This conclusion had, to my mind, all the force of a certainty; and I began to think about the justice of God in my condemnation: and no truth ever appeared with more lucid evidence to my mind. I fully justified God in sending me to hell. I saw that it was not only right—but I did not see how a just God could do otherwise. And I seemed to acquiesce in it, as a righteous and necessary thing. At this moment, my mind became more calm than it had been for a long time. All striving and effort on my part ceased, and being in the woods I recollected that it was time for me to return to the house, where I expected to meet some friends. Here I found a minister waiting for me, whom I had seen but never spoken to. He took me aside, and began to represent the many privileges which I had enjoyed, and expressed a hope that I had received some good impressions. I told him that it was true, that I had been highly favored; but that I had now come to a fixed conclusion that I would certainly be forever lost; for under all these means I had not received the slightest conviction, without which my conversion was impossible. He replied by saying, ‘that no certain degree of conviction was necessary—that the only use of conviction was to make us feel our need of Christ as a Savior; and appealed to me whether I did not feel that I stood in need of a Savior’. He then went on to say, ‘Christ is an advocate at the right hand of God, and stands ready to receive any case which is committed to His hands, and however desperate your case may now appear to be, only commit it to Him and He will bring you off safely, for He is able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him.’

“Here a new view broke in on my mind. I saw that Christ was able to save even me, and I felt willing to give my cause into His hands. This discovery of the bare possibility of salvation was one of the greatest deliverances I ever experienced. I was affected exceedingly with the view which I had of this truth, so as to be unable to speak. Hope now sprung up in my desolate soul—not that I was pardoned or accepted. Such a thought did not occur—but that it was yet possible that I might be hereafter, and I was resolved never to give over seeking until I obtained the blessing. All that evening I was sweetly composed, and precious promises and declarations of the Word of God came dropping successively into my mind, as if they had been whispered to me. I never could have believed, unless I had experienced it, that the mere possibility of salvation would produce such comfort.

“About this time, next morning probably, when I retired to the woods where my secret devotions were usually performed, I experienced such a melting of heart from a sense of God’s goodness to me, as I never felt before or since. It seemed as if my eyes—so hard to weep commonly— were now a fountain of tears. The very earth was watered with their abundance. Indeed, my heart itself seemed to be dissolved, just as a piece of ice is dissolved by the heat of the sun. Of the particular exercises of this melting season, my memory does not retain a distinct recollection.

“For some months I attended to religious duties, with various fluctuations of feeling. Sometimes I entertained a pleasing hope that I was indeed a Christian—a renewed person; but at other times I was not only distressed with doubts—but came to the conclusion that I was still in my sins. The only thing which I deem it important to mention during this period was a deeper discovery of the wickedness of my own heart. This conviction of deep-rooted, inherent depravity distressed me much; but I obtained considerable relief from reading Owen on Indwelling Sin. This book exhibited the state of my heart much better than I could have done myself. Still, however, I was much dissatisfied with myself, because after so long a time I had made so little progress. On one occasion, at the close of the exercises of the Sabbath, I was so deeply sensible that my soul was still in imminent danger of perdition, that I solemnly resolved to begin a new and more vigorous course of engagedness to secure my salvation. I had spent much time in reading accounts of Christian experience, and those which lay down the marks and evidences of true religion, such as Owen on Spiritual Mindedness, Edwards on Religious Affections, Guthrie’s Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ, Newton’s Letters, Pike and Hayward’s Cases of Conscience, etc. I also conversed much with old and experienced Christians, as well as with those of my own age. But all these having, as it then seemed to me, very little facilitated my progress, and the evils of my heart seeming rather to increase, I hastily resolved to lay aside all books except the Bible, and to devote my whole time to prayer and reading, until I experienced a favorable change.

“In pursuance of this purpose, I withdrew into a deeply retired spot, where I knew I should be free from all intrusion from mortals, and began my course of exertion with fasting and strong resolution never to relinquish my efforts, until I found relief. For five or six hours I was engaged alternately in reading the Scriptures and attempting to pray; but the longer I continued these exercises, the harder did my heart become, and the more wretched my feelings, until at length I was exhausted and discouraged, and began to despair of help, and was about to leave my chosen retirement in gloomy despondence, when it occurred to me with peculiar force, that if I found I could do nothing to help myself, yet I might call upon God for mercy. Accordingly, I fell down before Him, and said little more than is contained in the publican’s prayer, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’; (Luke 18:13) but this I uttered with a deep and feeling conviction of my utter helplessness. The words were scarcely out of my mouth, when God was pleased to give me such a manifestation of His love in the plan of redemption through Christ, as filled me with wonder, love, and joy. Christ did indeed appear to me as altogether lovely, and I was enabled to view Him as my Savior, and to see that His sufferings were endured for me. At no time before had I the full assurance of being in the favor of God; but now every doubt of this was dissipated. I could say for the first time with unwavering confidence, ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his.’ (Song 2:16) And this assurance of God’s favor arose not from any suggestion or impulse directly made to my mind—but from the clear view that Christ as a Savior was freely offered, and from a conscious assurance that I did truly accept the offer. I now opened my Bible and began to read at John 18 and onward. Every word and sentiment appeared glorious. I seemed to be reading a book which was perfectly new, and truly, the sacred pages seemed to be illuminated with celestial light. And I rejoiced to think that the Sacred Scriptures would always be read in the same manner. How little did I know of the spiritual warfare! After my feelings had a little subsided—but while the glorious truths of the Gospel were still in full view, I made a formal and solemn dedication of myself to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and having writing materials with me, I wrote down the substance of this covenant, and subscribed it with my hand.

“I now believed assuredly that I was reconciled to God through Jesus Christ; but being naturally inclined to be suspicious of myself, I resolved to make the Holy Scriptures the test of the genuineness of my exercises, and to leave the final determination to the fruits produced, as our Lord says, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ (Matt 7:20) I remembered that it was written that faith works by love and purifies the heart. I hoped, therefore, that I should now be delivered from those evils of the heart with which I had been lately so much affected. But, alas! in a few days I found that the ‘old man’ was not dead—but had power to struggle in a fearful manner. I must acknowledge, therefore, that after a few weeks I was in much the same spiritual condition in which I was before this remarkable manifestation.”

Here the narration breaks off abruptly. It may be remarked, in the first place, on this narrative, that sometimes people are brought along very gradually in their acquisition of the knowledge of the truth. One discovery is made at one time, and another truth is revealed at another time; and between these steps there may be a long interval. It may again be remarked, that commonly before a person comes to the knowledge of a truth, the need of information is sensibly felt; and the appropriate means of communicating it are provided. A book, a sermon, a casual conversation, may be intimately connected with our salvation. Those who commence a pious life, though they may appear sincere, should always be urged to go forward; there is much before them which they have not yet experienced. If they are not yet in the right way they may arrive at it. In looking over the various exercises here detailed, I am utterly at a loss to say when the work of grace commenced. Perhaps scarcely any two people, taken at random, would agree in this point; for while some would scarcely admit that there was any exercising of saving faith until the last manifestation here described, others would be for carrying it back to the very beginning of the exercised soul’s serious attention to religion.

However this matter may be decided, one thing, I think, is evident, that it is a great practical error to suppose that nothing connected essentially with the sinner’s conversion is experienced or done until the moment of his conversion. He may have to unlearn many erroneous opinions taken up through prejudice or inclination. He must learn the truth of the Christian religion, if unhappily he has adopted skeptical notions. He must learn to know what the Bible teaches as to man’s duty and the true method of salvation. God’s methods of bringing His chosen into the paths of truth and holiness are often astonishing. They are, at every step, led in a way which they knew not. How remarkably true is this, as it relates to conviction of sin! When the sinner is most convinced, he thinks he has no conviction at all. And in regard to conversion, what a different thing does it turn out to be in experience, from what it was conceived to be beforehand! While the anxious soul was expecting something miraculous, or entirely out of the way, he experiences a new train of thought, new and pleasing views of truth, with corresponding emotions, by which the mind is so occupied, that it has no time nor inclination to scrutinize the nature or cause of these pleasing exercises. He believes and hopes without asking himself whether these are the views and feelings of a renewed soul. Afterwards he can look back and see that faith was exercised in these very acts, and that the peace which he then enjoyed was the peace of reconciliation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

But when the love of God is shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit, as described in the last part of this narrative, the distressed soul is made sensible at once of its happy state, and is made to rejoice in the smiles of the divine favor. Then he can no more doubt that God is reconciled and has lifted upon him the light of His countenance, than that the sun is shining at midday. All Christians, however, are not favored with these bright discoveries. Some always walk in a degree of darkness, or at best in a mere dusky light; yet they fear the Lord and obey of His voice. I have known instances of some people changing their opinion of the time of their own conversion several times, and fixing it at different periods of their experience, as their sentiments became more correct and mature; and those converts who shine forth more brightly at first are not always they who appear best after the lapse of years.