Conversion, and God's Responsibility of It
by Jonathan Dickinson
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ. By grace ye are saved. –Ephesians 2:4, 5
HAVING, understood from scripture, somewhat distinctly the considered the sad effects of our original apostasy…
…I am now led by the words before us, to take notice of the methods of our recovery from the misery, death, and ruin, which the fall has brought upon us. In the text we have,
- A representation of our state of nature in these words, “When we were dead in sins.” We are, by our apostasy from God, dead as to all the powers and faculties of our souls in their moral consideration: they are wholly pollution and sin, and naturally incapable of anything that is spiritually good. We are dead by a just sentence of the law of God. We are condemned already, and the wrath of God abideth on us. And we are not only spiritually but eternally dead, by the execution of that terrible sentence upon our souls, if infinite mercy doth not step in to our rescue and deliverance, as I have observed in a former discourse.
- Here is set before us the great change, which by conversion is wrought on the soul; in that expression, Hath quickened us; or, as it is elsewhere expressed, hath made us alive from the dead. The blessed Spirit of God, when he pleaseth, renews our nature, sanctifies our affections, and fulfils in us the whole good pleasure of his goodness. By his gracious operations upon our souls, he mortifies our corruptions, brings our sinful appetites and passions into subjection, and creates us anew in Christ Jesus unto good works, that we may walk in them. This makes a great change in the soul, such as may very aptly be compared to a quickening, or resurrection from the dead.
- Here is intimated the powerful efficiency, by which this change is wrought, in those words, “together with Christ.” As the almighty power of God was gloriously exerted and displayed, in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, so is the same Almighty power manifested and magnified in the resurrection of sinners from their spiritual death. Thus they are quickened together with Christ; as truly quickened as he was, and by the same divine efficiency.
- We have the motive unto, or the impulsive cause of this change, suggested in these words, “God who is rich in mercy, for his great love, wherewith he loved us. By grace are ye saved.” There could be no motive out of himself, nothing but his own infinite mercy, love, and grace, to excite his kind regard to such poor guilty, hell-deserving rebels as we are. Should he leave us all under the guilt of our sins and the damning power of our lusts, unto inevitable and remediless perdition, he would be most just, and we most justly miserable. We should have no cause of complaint, if he should bestow no mercy upon any of us, for he owes us none, we have nothing to claim but his just displeasure. What then but sovereign distinguishing grace, looks upon any of the fallen race of mankind while in their blood, and says unto them, LIVE? Why is one, more than another, partaker of these quickening influences, but from the mere good pleasure of God’s goodness?
But that I may more distinctly explain the words before us, I shall endeavor to consider, In what manner the Spirit of God quickens dead sinners, and brings them into a state of spiritual life.
To this I shall in general observe that,
1. the principal method by which this great change is wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit of God, is his giving him a realizing view of the great truths revealed in the word of God, and enabling him to see things as they are. It may be some prejudice against the doctrine of our sanctification by the special influences of the Spirit of God upon our hearts, that men may imagine, there is thereby intended the infusion of some new faculty into the soul, which it had not before; and that the new creation implies our becoming a new sort of being, with respect to the natural powers and properties of the soul, which we were not before. But let it be considered, that the Spirit of God does no more in the conversion of a sinner, than bring him to the right exercise of those rational powers with which he was born, give him a just view of his greatest concerns, and enable him to act worthy of a reasonable being. Observe this, and all the prejudices against the doctrine before us are obviated, and vanish away. Now that this is the case, I shall endeavor to show, by taking some particular notice of the usual progressive steps by which a sinner is brought out of a state of carnal security, to the possession and exercise of the divine life [Though I have, on another occasion, formerly endeavored to represent the methods of the blessed Spirit’s operations in the conversion and sanctification of a sinner, in a discourse published on that subject, the reader will see the necessity of considering these things over again in another view, in order to clear up the case before me.]. And I think it will appear that the whole change is wrought in him by spiritual illumination, by impressing a right view of things upon his mind, or by enabling him to act reasonably.
2. Then, if we consider the first change wrought in a sinner by the Spirit of God, it will appear to be no more than his bringing him to realize his own miserable condition, and see it as it is. It is awfully certain from the word of God, that every impenitent sinner is an enemy to God, under a sentence of condemnation, and an heir of hell and eternal misery. And it is equally certain, that the most of the world are easy and quiet, careless and secure in this dreadful state. No means that can possibly be used, will put the most of mankind upon a proper solicitude about their eternal welfare. The most awakening addresses, that can be made them in the name of the Lord, the most surprising alarms of God’s providence, the most pathetic and compassionate entreaties of their godly friends, have no effect upon them, to stop their career for hell and damnation. They will yet sleep upon the brink of the pit. They will yet run upon the thick bosses of God’s buckler. They will yet indulge their lusts, though they perish for ever. And what is the source of this indolence, thoughtlessness, and security, but their want of a just view of their state and danger? Could they but realize these things, and see them as they are, they would sooner rush upon a drawn sword, or leap into a burning furnace, than further incense the eternal Majesty against their souls, and venture upon everlasting damnation. But their misery is, that they have no feeling apprehension of these things. They consider them but as the rumbling of remote thunder, and as affairs of no special consequence to them; and thus they will consider them, unless the Spirit of God set home the important concern upon their minds, and give them a lively sense of what they are doing, and whither they are going. But if once the blessed Spirit undertakes the work, he will make the long neglected and slighted means of grace effectual to open their eyes, that they may see their state as it is. Though they could before sit under the most powerful ministry from year to year, without care, fear, or sensible apprehension of their danger; yet now an ordinary sermon, or a particular passage in a sermon, which perhaps they had heard hundreds of times before without concern, shall awaken their sleepy consciences, and make them with trembling and astonishment cry out, “What shall I do to be saved?” Why, what is the matter now? Whence is this wonderful change? Why cannot the poor sinner do now as he was wont to do? Why cannot he go on in his mirth and jollity, in his worldly pursuits and sensual gratifications? What means this darkness and distress, this melancholy countenance and solemn concern? Is this the man that lately laughed at preciseness; that bantered serious godliness, and ridiculed vital piety, as enthusiasm, or a heated imagination? Whence is he now as much an enthusiast, as any of those whom he lately derided and scoffed at? Whence is he now so afraid of hell and damnation, that could lately “mock at fear, and laugh at the shaking of God’s spear?” This wonderful alteration is wholly wrought by the Almighty Spirit’s impressing a lively view of what the secure sinner could have no feeling sense of before. Now he sees his sins, in their number, nature and aggravations. Now he sees his danger, and thence feels that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” He sees in such a view, that he can be no longer quiet and easy, in such a state of guilt and misery. But this, though open to every one’s observation, and plainly visible from the word of God and the nature of things, is what he never would have seen to purpose, unless the Comforter had been sent to “convince him of sin.” And the reason is assigned, 2 Cor. 4:4. “The God of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not;” and Isa. 1:3, “Israel doth not know; my people doth not consider.”
3. If we consider the case with respect to a sinner’s humiliation, the Spirit of God works this also in the soul, by showing him his state as it is; and by giving him a realizing sight of his unworthiness of divine mercy, of his spiritual impotency, and utter inability to help himself. These are indeed truths plainly revealed in Scripture, as well as necessary deductions from the light of nature. By both of these it is clearly manifest, that we are guilty creatures, and thereby obnoxious to the wrath of God; that we are imperfect creatures, and therefore cannot fulfil the demands of the law of nature; much less can we make satisfaction for our past offences. But though these things are in themselves evident as the light, they have no impression upon the minds of the generality of mankind. Though deserving nothing but destruction and death, they are as easy and secure, as though they had a title to God’s favor, and a claim to eternal happiness. Though utterly incapable to change their own hearts, or to deserve that God should do it for them, they are yet attempting their salvation in their own strength, if they attempt it at all; and being ignorant of God’s righteousness, they go about to establish their own righteousness, not submitting themselves to the righteousness of God. Even those who are convinced of their guilt and danger, are usually struggling after deliverance in their own strength, and betaking themselves to some self-righteous refuge or other. And thus in their highest attainments, will they continue to “compass themselves about with sparks of their own kindling,” till the Spirit of grace by his powerful influences humble them at God’s feet; and show them that they are “poor, and miserable, and wretched, and blind, and naked.” And how is this done, but by giving them a sight of their case as it is? They had a doctrinal knowledge before, that they were sinful, guilty, helpless, and hopeless in themselves. But this had no special influence upon their affections, or their conduct. But when they have a feeling sense of this, it must bring them low. They now see their sin and guilt, that there is no resting in their present condition. They see the defects of their duties, that these cannot recommend them to God’s favor. They see their own impotency, that they cannot take away the heart of stone out of their flesh, and give themselves a heart of flesh. They see the strict demands of God’s law, that it is impossible to come up to them. They see the purity and holiness of God’s nature, that he cannot look upon sin and sinners with approbation. They see that they have no capacity to help themselves, though they are utterly undone in their present condition. And what is the necessary result of a realizing sight of such a lost, helpless, perishing condition, but that, Psalms 130:3. “If thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquity, O Lord, who should stand?” Or that, Neh. 9:15. “Behold, we are before thee in our trespasses; for we cannot stand before thee, because of this!” What should be the result of this prospect, but that they lie at God’s footstool, as condemned malefactors, having nothing to plead, save unmerited and forfeited mercy, why sentence should not be executed upon them, to their eternal confusion!
4. In the same manner, is a convinced sinner brought to a solicitous inquiry after an interest in Christ. This also is wrought in him, by a lively view of his case as it is. We an all indeed from our earliest age, indoctrinated in this essential article of the Christian faith, that there is not salvation in any other but Christ, and that there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. And yet the most of the world, are whole, and need not the physician. They are more concerned about anything else, than about an interest in Christ. It is beyond human art and means, to make them at all solicitous about this great salvation, though they know that their eternal welfare depends upon it. And what can be the reason, that this madness is in the hearts of men? Can condemned perishing sinners be unconcerned, about the only method of escape from eternal damnation? Can they set more value on their lusts and pleasures, on the world and its vanities, and even on the merest trifles imaginable, than on Christ and his saving benefits? Can they rather choose to perish eternally, and to lose all the glories of the heavenly world, than to come to Christ, that they might have life? How astonishing this conduct appears, it is visibly the case of the world of mankind in general. And what reason can possibly be imagined of such unparalleled stupidity, but this, that they have not, they cannot have, while under the power of a blind and carnal mind, any realizing view of this great concern? Could they but see their case as it is, a condemned malefactor could as easily set light by a pardon, or a drowning man by deliverance, as these perishing sinners by an offered Savior. We accordingly find, that when the Spirit of God comes upon them with his illuminations, and opens their eyes to see their misery and impotency, they can be no longer careless about an interest in Christ, They can no longer make excuses; and go their way, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise. They can no longer amuse themselves with different lusts and pleasures; and forget their necessity of Christ and his salvation. No! They have now nothing so much at heart, as the securing an interest in this blessed Savior. Now this thought lies down and rises with them, “What must I do to be saved? How shall I obtain an interest in Christ?” Now their distressed souls are groaning out these pathetic desires—O for an interest in Christ! Let me have Christ, whatever I want!—The world now with all its blandishments, all its riches and glory, dwindles to nothing in the eyes of such a humbled sinner, when compared with this excellent and needed Savior. I may appeal to everyone that has been truly converted to God, at an age of observation, whether they have not experienced these things in their own hearts. And indeed these operations of the mind are so rational, that it would be in the nature of things impossible we should neglect a most active concern about an interest in Christ, if the eyes of our understanding were enlightened. But alas! “The light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehends it not.” We see by experience, that men never do, never will show themselves thoroughly in earnest about this everlasting concern, till the Spirit of God open their eyes, and turn them from darkness to light; and that when they are thus illuminated, they cannot do otherwise. This wonderful change in men’s desires and pursuits, is a necessary consequence of divine illumination, and of a just and reasonable view of things. Without this, they cannot attain it; with this they cannot fail of it. To this therefore the apostle ascribes it. 2 Cor. 4:6, “For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.”
5. In the same manner also is the actual conversion of a sinner accomplished. In order to this, the Spirit of God gives him a realizing sight of the fullness and sufficiency that there is in Christ; and of his willingness and readiness to save him: the attainments before described, do not necessarily imply a saving conversion to God. Though these are the influences of the blessed Spirit, they are not his special and saving operations. The sinner is not brought into a state of favor with God, till he accepts a tendered Savior upon his own terms. It is by receiving him, that we have power to become the sons of God. The first act of saving faith is that conversion, by which the sinner effectually turns from sin to God, passes from death to life, and becomes interested in Christ and all his saving benefits. Now, which way is the sinner brought to this, but by an impressed lively discovery of things as they are?—By a lively sight of his sin and danger, powerfully applied to his mind and conscience, and appearing as it is, he is awakened to an earnest inquiry after the way of salvation. By a clear discovery of his unworthiness and impotence, he is brought to the footstool of God’s sovereignty, and to an earnest desire of an interest in Christ; as I observed before. But here the soul is often plunged into greatest darkness and distress: his guilt stares him in the face; he sees he has no claim to mercy, nothing that can entitle him to it; he has been struggling in vain, to mortify his corruptions, to enliven his affections, and to do something to recommend himself to God’s favor; and is now perhaps ready to give up the case, as helpless and hopeless; he cannot see how God can have mercy upon such a guilty, polluted, hard-hearted, hellish sinner, as he is. Propose to him the only remedy for such lost sinners; and how many objections will lie in the way! How many arguments will he bring against believing in Christ: from his own unworthiness and want of qualifications to come to him; from the decrees of God; from his having sinned away the day of grace, and the like; even till he runs into despair, unless the Spirit of God disperse the dark cloud, and give him a right view of redeeming mercy! But when once such a distressed soul sees this as it is, when once he has an impressed sense of gospel grace, and is brought to see indeed, that he is invited to come to Christ, notwithstanding all his guilt, and unworthiness; and that this precious Savior is able and willing to bestow all that salvation upon him, which he stands in need of, then his objections are silenced; and he cannot refrain from heartily complying with the offer. Then he can commit his soul to him; for he sees that there is the utmost safety in doing it. Then he can depend upon him as the author of his eternal salvation; for he sees that he has no whither else to go, and that Christ has the words of eternal life.
It is remarkable that the Scriptures everywhere annex salvation to faith, and to the belief of the truth; and we are told, 1 John 5:1 “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God.” But what are we to understand by this belief? Will a cold and inactive assent to this truth interest us in Christ and his salvation? No! “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 9:1. In which is more than a bare assent implied.
It implies such a realizing view as makes all the offers of salvation by Christ certain, and his purchased benefits present to the believer. And when a weary and heavy laden soul hath such a sight of the fullness and sufficiency, of the kindness and compassion of Christ; and of his willingness to save him upon his coming to him, as makes this comfortable truth as it were personally present to his mind; when he has such a view that this Savior is offered freely to him, “without money and without price;” it is impossible for him to do otherwise than consent to such reasonable terms of salvation. How can he refuse his consent to these terms, when his distress of soul had before prepared him for a compliance with any terms of obtaining God’s favor? It is impossible for him to do otherwise than set the highest value on such a Savior, when he has this sight, that grace here, and glory hereafter is implied in his interest in Christ. It is impossible for him to do otherwise than have his dependence upon Christ only, when he has this sight, that in him all fullness dwells, and that there is no safety anywhere else. But I hope, if God will, more particularly to describe a true saving faith. I am now only endeavoring to show, that the Spirit of God works this grace in us by illuminating our minds; and giving us a right exercise of our understandings.
6. The Spirit of God does likewise carry on the work of grace in a believer’s sanctification, by continued views of spiritual things as they are. By faith the soul is united to the Lord Jesus Christ; and becomes one spirit with him. By faith, believers have an interest in all the benefits of Christ’s redemption. They have thereby a claim to all the promises of the covenant of grace, and may safely and confidently depend upon the faithfulness of God, that he will give them grace and glory; that they shall be kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation; that he who hath begun a good work in them, will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ; that he who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for them all, will with him also freely give them all things; and that upon their believing in Christ, out of their bellies shall flow rivers of living water. And what way is this glorious work of grace carried on in the soul, but by the continued assistances of the blessed Spirit to act reasonably, and to maintain a lively apprehension and impression of invisible realities? How comes the believer to hate every false way, but by a lively view of the vileness and unreasonableness of sinning against God? What excites him to live in the love of God, but a realizing impression of the excellency of his nature, the infinite value of his favor, and the endearing attractions of his goodness, kindness and compassion? What makes him in love with holiness, but a sensible discovery of its internal beauty and agreeableness to a reasonable being? How comes he weaned from the world, but by a true sight of its vanity and utter insufficiency to satisfy the desires of an immortal nature? How come his affections placed upon the things above, but from a like discovery of the value and importance of things unseen and eternal? What is communion with God, but a just impression of what pertains to God and godliness? And what the evidences of God’s favor, but a realizing sight of the actings of grace in our souls, and of the truth of the invitations and promises of the gospel? The extraordinary influences of the Spirit in his immediate communications of light and joy to the believer, are but still a brighter discovery of things as they are. In a word, in whatever aspect this case is considered, what I am pleading for will, I think, appear to be truth. The whole work of sanctification is carried on by illumination, and by the soul’s being brought, through the influences of God’s Spirit, to the exercise of knowledge and understanding; and to this the Apostle ascribes it. Eph. 1:17, 18, “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercy, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, in the knowledge of him; the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of his calling; and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”
Upon the whole, I cannot see that the Spirit of God does in any other manner, work this wonderful in the change in the hearts of sinners, than by giving them a just view of things as they are, by bringing them to act reasonably, worthy the dignity of their rational nature, and the intellectual powers they are endued with. By this he [the Holy Spirit] conquers the enmity to God there is in their hearts; and brings them from the power of their lusts, of Satan, and the world, into the fear and favor of God. By opening their eyes, he turns them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may have an inheritance among those that are sanctified.
From The True Scripture Doctrine (eBook), by Jonathan Dickinson