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IV. How may it be known when the Spirit of God strives with an individual!
Not by direct perception of His agency, through any of your physical senses; for His presence is not manifested to these organs. Not directly by our consciousness; for the only proper subjects of consciousness are the acts and states of our own minds. But we know the presence and agency of the Spirit by His works. The results He produces are the legitimate proofs of His presence. Thus a person under the Spirit’s influence, finds his attention arrested to the great concerns of his soul. The solemn questions of duty and responsibility to God are continually intruding themselves upon his mind. If he is a student over his lesson, his mind is drawn away continually, ere he is aware, to think of God and of the judgment to come. He turns his attention back to his books, but soon it is off again. How can he neglect these matters of infinite moment to his future well-being?
So with men of every calling; the Spirit of God turns the mind, and draws it to God and the concerns of the soul. When such results take place, you may know that the Spirit of God is the cause. For who does not know that this drawing and inclining of the mind toward God is by no means natural to the human heart? When it does occur, therefore, we may know that the special agency of God is in it.
Again, when a man finds himself convinced of sin, he may know that this is the Spirit’s work. Now it is one thing to know one’s self to be a sinner, and quite another to feel a realizing sense of it, and to have the truth take hold mightily of the deepest sensibilities of the soul. The latter sometimes takes place. You may see the man’s countenance fallen, his eye downcast, his whole aspect is as if he had disgraced himself by some foul crime, or as if be had suddenly lost all the friends he ever had. I have often met with impenitent sinners who looked condemned, as if conscious guilt had taken hold of their inmost soul. They would not be aware that they were revealing in their countenances the deep workings of their hearts, but the observing eye could not help seeing it. I have also seen the same among backslidden professors, resulting from the same cause—the Spirit of God reproving them of sin.
Sometimes this conviction is of a general and sometimes of a more special nature. It may enforce only the general impression, “I am all wrong; I am utterly odious and hateful to God; my whole heart is a sink of abomination in His sight;” or in other cases it may seize upon some particular form of sin, and hold it up before the sinner’s mind, and make him see his infinite odiousness before God for this sin. It may be a sin he has never thought of before, or he may have deemed it a very light matter; but now, through the Spirit, it shall rise up before his mind, in such features of ugliness and loathsomeness, that he will abhor himself. He sees sin in a perfectly new light. Many things are sins now which he never deemed sins before.
Again, the Spirit not only convinces of the fact that such and such things are sins, but convicts the mind of the great guilt and ill-desert of sin. The sinner is made to feel that his sin deserves the direst damnation.
The case of an infidel of my acquaintance may serve to illustrate this. He had lived in succession with two pious wives; had read almost every book then extant on the inspiration of the Scriptures—had disputed, and caviled, and often thought himself to have triumphed over believers in the Bible, and in fact he was the most subtle infidel I ever saw. It was remarkable that in connection with his infidelity he had no just views of sin. He had indeed heard much about some dreadful depravity which had come down in the cur rent of human blood from Adam, and was itself a physical thing; but as usual be had no oppressive consciousness of guilt for having his share of this original taint. His mind consequently was quite easy in respect to the guilt of his own sin.
But at length a change came over him, and his eyes were opened to see the horrible enormity of his guilt. I saw him one day so borne down with sin and shame that he could not look up. He bowed his head upon his knees, covered his face, and groaned in agony. In this state I left him and went to the prayer-meeting. Ere long he came into the meeting as he never came before. As he left the meeting he said to his wife, “You have long known me as a strong-hearted infidel; but my infidelity is all gone. I can not tell you what has become of it—it all seems to me as the merest nonsense, I can not conceive how I could ever have believed and defended it. I seem to myself like a man called to view some glorious and beautiful structure, in order to pass his judgment upon it; but who presumes to judge and condemn it after having caught only a dim glimpse of one obscure comer. just so have I done in condemning the glorious Bible and the glorious government of God.”
Now the secret of all this change in his mind towards the Bible lay in the change of his views as to his own sin. Before, he had not been convicted of sin at all; now he sees it in some of its true light, and really feels that he deserves the deepest hell. Of course he now sees the pertinence and beauty and glory of the Gospel system. He is now in a position in which he can see clearly one of the strongest proofs of the truth of the Bible—namely, its perfect adaptation to meet the wants of a sinning race.
It is remarkable to see what power there is in conviction for sin to break up and annihilate the delusions of error. For instance, no man can once thoroughly see his own sin, and remain an Universalist, and deem it unjust for God to send him to hell. When I hear a man talking in defence of Universalism, I know be does not understand anything about sin. He has not begun to see his own guilt in its true light. It is the blindest of all mental infatuations to think that the little inconveniences of this life are all that sin deserves. Let a man once see his own guilt, and he will be amazed to think that he ever held such a notion. The Spirit of God, pouring light upon the sinner’s mind, will soon use up Universalism.
I once labored in a village in the State of New York where Universalism prevailed extensively. The leading man among them had a sick wife who sympathized with him in sentiment. She being near death, I called to see her, and endeavored to expose the utter fallacy of her delusion. After I had left, her husband returned, and his wife, her eyes being now opened, cried out to him as he entered, “O my dear husband, you are in the way to hell—your Universalism will ruin your soul forever!” He was greatly enraged, and learning that I had been talking with her, his rage was kindled against me. “Where is he now?” said be. “Gone to the meeting,” was the reply. “I’ll go there and shoot him,” he cried; and seizing his loaded pistol, as I was informed, he started off When he came in I was preaching, I think, from the text” Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” I knew at the time nothing about his purpose—nothing about his pistol. He listened awhile, and then all at once, in the midst of the meeting, he fell back on his seat, and cried out, “O I am sinking to hell! O, God, have mercy on me.” Away went his Universalism in a twinkling; he sees his sin, and now he is sinking to hell. This change in him was not my work, for I could produce no such effects as these. I was indeed trying to show from my text what sinners deserve; but the Spirit of God, and nothing less, could set home conviction of sin after this sort.
Again, another fruit of the Spirit is developed in the case of those persons who are conscious of great hardness and insensibility. It not infrequently happens that men suppose themselves to be Christians because they have so much sensibility on religious subjects, To undeceive them, the Spirit directs their attention to some truth that dries up all their sensibility, and leaves their hopes stranded on the sea-beach. Now they are in great agony. “The more I hear,” say they, “the less I feel. I was never in the world so far from being convicted of sin. I shall certainly go to hell. I have not a particle of feeling. I can not feel if I die.”
Now the explanation of this singular state is usually this: The Spirit of God sees their danger—sees them deceiving themselves by relying on their feelings, and therefore brings some truths before their minds which array the opposition of their hearts against God and dry up the fountains of their sensibility. Then they see how perfectly callous their hearts are toward God. This is the work of the Spirit.
Again, the Spirit convicts the soul of the guilt of unbelief. Sinners are very apt to suppose that they do believe the Gospel. They confound faith with a merely intellectual assent, and so blind themselves as to suppose that they believe God in the sense of Gospel faith.
But let the Spirit once reveal their own hearts to them and they will see that they do not believe in God as they believe in their fellow-men, and that instead of having confidence in God and resting on His words of promise as they do on men’s promises, they do not rest on God at all, but are full of anxiety lest God should fail to fulfill His own words. They see that instead of being childlike and trustful, they are full of trouble, and solicitude, and in fact of unbelief. And they see, also, that this is a horribly guilty state of heart. They see the guilt of not resting in His promises—the horrible guilt of not believing with the heart every word God ever uttered.
Now this change is the work of the Spirit. Our Saviour mentions it as one of the effects wrought by the Spirit, that He shall “reprove the world of sin, because they believe not on me.” And in fact we find that this is one of the characteristic works of the Spirit. In conversing recently with a man who has been for many years a professor of religion, but living in the seventh chapter to the Romans, he remarked “I have been thinking of this truth, that God cares for me and loves me, and has through Jesus Christ offered me eternal life; and now I deserve to be damned if I do not believe.” Stretching out his pale hand, he said with great energy, “I ought to go to hell if I will not believe.” Now all this is the work of the Spirit—this making a man see the guilt and hello desert of unbelief—this making a sinner see that everything else is only straw compared with the eternal rock of God’s truth.
Again, the Spirit makes men see the danger of dying in their sins. Said a young man, “I am afraid to go to sleep at night, lest I should awake in hell.” Sinners often know what this feeling is. I recollect having this thought once impressed upon my mind, and so much agonized was I, that I almost thought myself to be dying on the spot! O, I can never express the terror and the agony of my soul in that hour! Sinner, if you have these feelings, it is a solemn time with you.
Moreover, the Spirit makes sinners feel the danger of being given up of God. Often does it happen that sinners, convicted by the Spirit, are made to feel that if they are not given up already, they are in the most imminent peril of it, and must rush for the gate of life now or never. They see that they have so sinned and have done so much to provoke God to give them over, that their last hope of being accepted is fast dying away. Sinners, have any of you ever felt thus? Have you ever trembled in your very soul lest you should be given over to a reprobate mind before another Sabbath, or perhaps before another morning? If so, you may ascribe this to the Spirit of God.
Yet further: the Spirit often convicts sinners of the great blindness of their minds. it seems to them that their minds are full of solid darkness, as it were a darkness that may be felt.
Now this is really the natural state of the sinner, but he is not sensible of it until enlightened by the Spirit of God. When thus enlightened, he begins to appreciate his own exceeding great blindness. He now becomes aware that the Bible is a sealed book to him—for he finds that though he reads it, its meaning is involved in impenetrable darkness.
Have not some of you been conscious of such an experience as this? Have you not read the Bible with the distressing consciousness that your mind was by no means suitably affected by its truth—indeed, with the conviction that you did not get hold of its truth to any good purpose at all? Thus are men enlightened by the Spirit to see the real state of their case.
Again, the Spirit shows sinners their total alienation from God. I have seen sinners so strongly convicted of this, that they would say right out: “I know that I have not the least disposition to return to God—I am conscious that I don’t care whether I have any religion or not.”
Often have I seen professed Christians in this state, conscious that their hearts are utterly alienated from God and from all sympathy with His character or government. Their deep backslidings, or their utter want of all religion, has been so revealed to their minds by the Spirit, as to become a matter of most distinct and impressive consciousness.
Sinners thus made to see themselves by the Spirit, often find that when they pour out their words before God for prayer, their heart won’t go. I once said to a sinner, “Come, now, give up your heart to God.” “I will,” said he; but in a moment he broke out, ”My heart won’t go.” Have not some of you been compelled to say the same, ”My heart won’t go?” Then you know by experience one of the fruits of the Spirit’s convicting power.
When the Spirit of God is not with men, they can dole out their long prayers before God and never think or seem to care how prayerless their hearts are all the time, and how utterly far from God. But when the Spirit sheds His light on the soul, the sinner sees how black a hypocrite he is. Oh, then he cannot pray so smoothly, so loosely, so self-complacently.
Again, the Spirit of God often convinces men that they are ashamed of Christ, and that in truth they do not wish for religion. It sometimes happens that sinners do not feel ashamed of being thought seriously disposed, until they come to be convicted. Such was the case with myself. I bought my first Bible as a law-book, and laid it by the side of my Blackstone. I studied it as I would any other law-book, my sole object being to find in it the great principles of law. Then I never once thought of being ashamed of reading it. I read it as freely and as openly as I read any other book. But as soon as I became awakened to the concerns of my soul, I put my Bible out of sight. If it were lying on my table when persons came into my office, I was careful to throw a newspaper over it. Ere long, however, the conviction that I was ashamed of God and of His word came over me with overwhelming force, and served to show me the horrible state of my mind toward God. And I suppose that the general course of my experience is by no means uncommon among impenitent sinners.
The Spirit also convicts men of worldly-mindedness. Sinners are always in this state of mind; but are often not fully aware of the fact until the Spirit of God makes them see it. I have often seen men pushing their worldly projects most intensely, but when addressed on the subject they would say, “I don’t care much about the world; I am pursuing this business just now chiefly because I want to be doing something;” but when the Spirit shows them their own hearts, they are in agony lest they should never be able to break away from the dreadful power of the world upon their souls. Now they see that they have been the veriest slaves on earth-slaves to the passion for worldly good.
Again, the Holy Spirit often makes such a personal application of the truth as to fasten the impression that the preacher is personal and intends to describe the case and character of him who is the subject of his influence. The individual thus convinced of sin may think that the preacher has, in some way, come to a knowledge of his character, and intends to describe it, that the preacher means him, and is preaching to him. He wonders who has told the preacher so much about him. All this often takes place when the preacher perhaps does not know that such an one is in the assembly, and is altogether ignorant of his history. Thus the Holy Spirit who knows his heart and his entire history becomes very personal in the application of truth.
Have any of you this experience? Has it at present or at any other time appeared to you as if the preacher meant you, and that he was describing your case? Then the Spirit of the living God is upon you. I have often seen individuals drop their heads under preaching almost as if they were shot through. They were, perhaps, unable to look up again during the whole service. Afterwards I have often heard that they thought I meant them, and that others thought so too, and perhaps imagined that many eyes were turned on them, and that therefore they did not look up, when in fact neither myself nor any one in the congregation, in all probability, so much as thought of them.
Thus a bow drawn at a venture often lodges an arrow between the joints of the sinner’s coat of mail. Sinner, is it so with you?
Again, the Holy Spirit often convinces sinners of the of their hearts against God. Most impenitent sinners, and perhaps all deceived professors, unless convinced to the contrary by the Holy Spirit, imagine that they are on the whole friendly to God. They are far from believing that this carnal mind is enmity against God. They think they do not hate, but, on the contrary, that they love God. Now this delusion must be torn away or they must be lost. To do this, the Spirit so orders it that some truths are presented which develop their real enmity against God. The moralist who has been the almost Christian, or the deceived professor, begins to cavil, to find fault, finally to rail, to oppose the preaching and the meetings and the measures and the men. The man perhaps who has a pious wife and who has thought himself and has been thought by her to be almost a Christian, begins by caviling at the truth, finds fault with the measures and with the manners; then refuses to go to meeting, and finally forbids his wife and family going, and not infrequently his enmity of heart will boil over in a horrible manner. He perhaps has no thought that this boiling up of hell within him is occasioned by the Holy Spirit revealing to him the true state of his heart. His Christian friends also may mistake his case and be ready to conclude that something is wrong in the matter or manners or measures of the preacher that is doing this man a great injury, But beware what you say or do, In many such cases which have come under my own observation, it has turned out that the Holy Spirit was at work in those hearts, revealing to them their real enmity against God. This He does by presenting truth in such a manner and under such circumstances as to produce these results. He pushes this process until He compels the soul to see that it is filled with enmity to God, and to what is right; that yet it is not man, but God to whom he is opposed; that it is not error, but truth; not the manner, but the matter; not the measures, but the God of truth which it hates.
The Spirit, moreover, often convicts sinners powerfully of the deceitfulness of their own hearts. Sometimes this conviction becomes really appalling. They see they have been deluding themselves in matters too plain to justify any mistake, and too momentous to admit of any apology for willful blindness. They are confounded with what they see in themselves.
The Spirit also not infrequently strips the sinner of his excuses, and shows him clearly their great folly and absurdity. I recollect this was one of the first things in my experience in the process of conviction. I lost all confidence in any of my excuses, for I found them to be so foolish and futile that I could not endure them. This was my state of mind before I had ever heard of the work of the Spirit, or knew at all how to judge whether my own mind was under its influence or not. I found that whereas I had been very strong in my excuses and objections, I was now utterly weak, and it seemed to me that any child could overthrow me. In fact, I did not need to be overthrown by anybody, for my excuses and cavils had sunk to nothing of themselves, and I was deeply ashamed of them. I had effectually worked myself out of all their mazes, so that they could bewilder me no longer. I have since seen multitudes in the same condition—weak as to their excuses, their old defensive armor all torn off, and their hearts laid naked to the shafts of God’s truth.
Now, sinners, have any of you known what this is—to have all your excuses and apologies failing you—to feel that you have no courage and no defensible reasons for pushing forward in a course of sin? If so, then you know what it is to be under the convicting power of the Spirit.
The Spirit convicts men of the folly of seeking salvation in any other way than through Christ alone. Often, without being aware of it, a sinner will be really seeking salvation in some other way than through Christ, and he will be looking to his good deeds—to his own prayers, or the prayers of some Christian friends; but if the Spirit ever saves him, He will tear away these delusive schemes and show him the utter vanity of every other way than through Christ alone. The Spirit will show him that there is but this one way in which it is naturally possible for a sinner to be saved, and that all attempts toward any other way are forever vain and worse than worthless. All self-righteousness must be rejected entirely, and Christ be sought alone.
Have you ever been made to see this? You, who are professed Christians, is this your experience?
Again, the Spirit convinces men of the great folly and madness of clinging to an unsanctifying hope. The Bible teaches that every one who has the genuine Gospel hope purifies himself, even as Christ is pure. In this passage, the apostle John plainly means to affirm a universal proposition. He states a universal characteristic of the Christian hope. Whoever has a Christian hope should ask—Do I purify myself even as Christ is pure? If not, then mine is not the true Gospel hope.
But let thousands of professed Christians have a most inefficient hope. What is it? Does it really lead them to purify themselves as Christ is pure? Nothing like it. It is not a hope that they shall see Christ as He is, and be forever with Him, and altogether like Him too, but it is mainly a hope that they shall escape hell, and go as an alternative to some unknown heaven.
Such professed Christians can not but know that their experience lacks the witness of their own consciences that they are living for God and bearing His image. If such are ever saved, they must first be convinced of the folly of a hope that leaves them unsanctified.
Ye professors of religion who have lived a worldly life so long, are you not ashamed of your hope? Have you not good reason to be ashamed of a hope that has no more power than yours has had? Are there not many in this house who in the honesty of their hearts must say, “Either there is no power in the Gospel, or I don’t know anything about it? “For the Gospel affirms as a universal fact of all those who are not under the law, but under grace, ”sin shall not have dominion over you.” Now will you go before God and say, “Lord, Thou hast said, `Sin shall not have dominion over you;’ but, Lord, that is all false, for I believe the Gospel and am under grace, but sin still has dominion over me! “No doubt in this case there is a mistake somewhere; and it becomes you to ask solemnly—Shall I charge this mistake and falsehood upon God, or shall I admit that it must be in myself alone?
The apostle Paul has said, “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” Is it so to you?
He has also said, “Being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you know this by your own experience? He adds also that we “rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience. and patience, experience: and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed: because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.”
Is all this in accordance with your experience, professed Christian? Is it true that your hope makes not ashamed? Does it produce such glorious fruits unto holiness as are here described? If you were to try your experience by the word of the living God, and open your heart to be searched by the Spirit, would not you be convinced that you do not embrace the Gospel in reality?
Again, the Spirit convinces men that all their goodness is selfish; and that self is the end of all their efforts, of all their prayers and religious exercises. I once spent a little time in the family of a man who was a leading member in a Presbyterian Church. He said to me, “What should you think of a man who is praying for the Spirit every day, but does not get the blessing?” I answered, “I should presume that he is praying selfishly.” “But suppose,” replied he, “that he is praying for the sake of promoting his own happiness?” “He may be purely selfish in that,” I replied; the “devil might do as much, and would, perhaps, do just the same if he supposed he could make himself happier by it.” I then cited the prayer of David: “Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me: restore unto me the joys of Thy salvation: then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.” This seemed to be new doctrine to him, and he turned away, as I found afterwards, in great anger and trouble. In the first gush of feeling he prayed that God would cut him down and send him to hell, lest he should have to confess his sin and shame before all the people. He saw that, in fact, his past religion had been all selfish; but the dread of confessing this was at first appalling. He saw, however, the possibility of mistake, that his hopes had been all delusive, and that be had been working his self-deceived course fast down toward the depths of hell.
Finally, it is the Spirit’s work to make self-deceived men feel that they are now having their last call from the Spirit. When this impression is made, let it by all means be heeded. It is God’s own voice to the soul. Out of a great multitude of cases under my observation in which God has distinctly made sinners feel that the present was their last call, I do not recollect one in which it did not prove to be so. This is a truth of solemn moment to the sinner, and ought to make the warning voice of God ring in his ear like the forewarning knell of the second death.
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