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Whence is it that many are but almost Christians when they have gone thus far? What is the cause of this
Answer. I might multiply answers to this question, but I shall instance in two only, which I judge the most material.
First, It is for want of right and sound conviction. If a man be not thoroughly convinced of sin, and his heart truly broken, whatever his profession of godliness may be, yet he will be sure to miscarry. Every work of conviction is not a thorough work: there are convictions that are not only natural and rational, but not from the powerful work of the Spirit of God.
Rational conviction is “that which proceeds from the working of a natural conscience, charging guilt from the light of nature, by the help of those common principles of reason that are in all men.” This is the conviction you read of, Rom. ii. 14, 15. It is said that the Gentiles who had not the law, yet had their consciences bearing witness, and accusing or excusing one another. 160Though they had not the light of Scripture, yet they had convictions from the light of nature. Now, by the help of the Gospel light, these convictions may be much improved, and yet the heart not renewed.
But then there is a spiritual conviction and this is that work of the spirit of God upon the sinner’s heart by the word, whereby the guilt and filth of sin is fully discovered, and the tiro and misery of a natural state distinctly set home upon the conscience, to the dread and terror of the sinner whilst he abides in that state and condition. And this is the conviction that is a sound and thorough work. Many have their convictions, but not this spiritual conviction.
Query. Now you will say, “Suppose I am at any time under conviction, how shall I know whether my convictions be only from a natural conscience, or whether they be from the Spirit of God?”
Answer. I should digress too much to draw out the solution of this question to its just length. I shall, therefore, in five things only, lay down the most considerable difference between the one and the other.
1. Natural convictions reach chiefly to open and scandalous sins. Sins against the light of 161nature; for natural conviction can reach no farther than natural light. But spiritual conviction reaches to secret, inward, and undiscerned sins; such as hypocrisy, formality, lukewarmness, deadness, and hardness of heart, &c.
Observe, then, whether your trouble for sin looks inward as well as outward, and reaches not only to open sins, but to secret lusts, to inward and spiritual sins; and if so, this is a sure sign of the work of the Spirit, because the trouble occasioned by these sins, bears a more immediate relation to the holiness” of God, who only is offended by them; they being such as none else can see or know.
2. Natural convictions deal only with a man’s conversation, not with his state and condition: with sins actual, not original. But spiritual conviction reaches to all sins; to sins of heart, as well as sins of life; to the sin of our nature, as well as the sins of practice; to the sin that is born in us, as well as the sin that is done by us. Where the Spirit of the Lord cometh to work effectually in any soul, he holdeth the glass of the law before the sinner’s eyes, and openeth his eyes to look into the glass, and to see all that deformity and filthiness that is in his heart and nature.
The apostle Paul said, “I had not known sin 162but by the law.” How can this be true, that he had not known sin but by the law, when the light of nature discovers sin? It is said of the Gentiles, that having not the law, they had a law to themselves. This sin, therefore, that the apostle speaks of, is not to be understood of sin actual, but of sin original: “I had not known the pollution of nature, that fountain of sin that is within; this I had not known but by the law.” And, indeed, this is a discovery that natural light cannot make.
It is true, the philosopher could say, “That lust is the first and chief of all sins.” But I cannot think he meant it of original sin, but of the inordinacy of appetite and desire, at most; for I find that the wisest of the philosophers understood nothing of original sin. Hear Seneca: “Sin is not born with thee, but brought in since.”
Quintilian saith, “It is more marvel that any one man sins, than that all men should live honestly; sin is so against the nature of men.”—How blind were they in this point! And so was Paul, till the Spirit of the Lord discovered it to him by the word, and indeed, this is a discovery proper to the Spirit. It is he that makes the sinner see all the deformity and filthiness that is within; it is he that pulleth off all the sinner’s rags, and 163makes him see his naked and wretched condition; it is he that shows us the blindness of the mind, the stubbornness of the will, the disorderedness of the affections, the searedness of the conscience, the plague of our hearts, and the sin of our natures, and therein the desperateness of our state.
3. Natural convictions carry the soul out to look more on the evil that comes by sin, than on the evil that is in sin. So that the soul under this conviction is more troubled at the dread of hell, and wrath, and damnation, than at the vileness and heinous nature of sin. But now spiritual convictions work the soul into a greater sensibleness of the evil that is in sin, than of the evil that conies by sin: the dishonor done to God by walking contrary to his will; the wounds that are made in the heart of Christ; the grief that the holy Spirit of God is put to,—this wounds the soul more than a thousand hells.
4. Natural convictions are not durable, they “are quickly worn out:” they are like a slight cut in the skin, that bleeds a little, and is sore for the present, but is soon healed again, and in a few days not so much as a scar to be seen. But spiritual convictions are durable, they cannot be worn out, they abide in the soul till they 164have reached their end, which is the change of the sinner.
The convictions of the Spirit are like a deep wound in the flesh, that goes to the bone, and seems to endanger the life of the patient, and is not healed but with great skill, and when it is healed leaves a scar behind it, that when the patient is well, yet he can say, “Here is the mark of my wound, which will never wear out.” So a soul that is under spiritual conviction—his wound is deep, and not to be healed, but by the great skill of the heavenly Physician: and when it is healed, there are the tokens of it remaining in the soul, that can never be worn out; so that the soul may say, “Here are the marks and signs of my conviction still in my soul.”
5. Natural convictions make the soul shy of God. Guilt works fear, and fear causes estrangedness. Thus it was with Adam, when he saw his nakedness he ran away and hid himself from God. Now spiritual convictions drive not the soul from God, but unto God. Ephraim’s conviction was spiritual, and he runs to God, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned.” So that there is, you see, a great difference between conviction and conversion: between that which is natural and that which is spiritual; that which is common, 165and that which is saving. Yea, such is the difference, that though a man hath never so much of the former, yet if he be without the latter, he is but almost a Christian, and therefore we have great reason to inquire more after this spiritual conviction. For,
1. Spiritual conviction is an essential part of sound conversion. Conversion begins here; true conversion begins in convictions, and true convictions end in conversion. Till the sinner be convinced of sin, he can never be converted from sin; Christ’s coming was as a Saviour to die for sinners; and the Spirit’s coming is to convince us as sinners, that we may close with Christ as a Saviour: till sin be thoroughly discovered to us, interest in the blood of Christ cannot rightly be claimed by us; nay, so long as sin is unseen, Christ will be unsought. “They that be whole need not the physician, but they that are sick.”
2. Slight and common convictions, when they are but skin-deep, are the cause of much hypocrisy: slight convictions may bring the soul to clasp about Christ, but not to close with Christ; and this is the guise of a hypocrite. I know no other rise and spring of hypocrisy, like this of slight convictions: this hath filled the church of Christ with hypocrites. Nay, it is not only the 166spring of hypocrisy, but it is also the spring of apostasy. What was the cause that the seed was said to wither away? It was because it had no deepness of earth. Where there is thorough conviction, there is a depth of earth in the heart, and there the seed of the word grows; but where convictions are slight and common, there the seed withers for want of depth: so that you see clearly, in this one instance, whence it is that many are but almost Christians, when they have gone so far in religion, to wit, for want of sound convictions.
Secondly, And this hath a near relation to the former: “It is for want of a thorough work of grace first wrought in the heart:” where this is not, all a man’s following profession comes to nothing; that scholar is never like to read well, that will needs be in his Grammar before he is out of his Primer: doth that is not wrought well in the loom, will never wear well, nor wear long, it will do little service; so that Christian that doth not come well off the loom, that hath not a thorough work of grace in his heart, will never wear well; he will shrink in the wetting, and never do much service for God. It is not the pruning of a bad tree that will make it bring 167forth good fruit; but the tree must be made good, before the fruit can be good.
He that takes up a profession of religion with an unbroken heart, will never serve Christ in that profession with his whole heart. If there be not a true change in that man’s heart, that yet goes far, and does much in the ways of God, to be sure he will either die a hypocrite or an apostate.
Look, as in nature, if a man be not well born, but prove crooked or misshapen in the birth, why, he will be crooked as long as he lives; you may bolster or stuff out his clothes to conceal it, but the crookedness, the deformity remains still; you may hide it, but you cannot help it; it may be covered, but it cannot be cured. So it is in this case. If a man come into a profession of religion, but be not right born; if he be not “begotten of God, and born of the Spirit;” if there be not a thorough work of grace in his heart, all his profession of religion will never mend him; he may be bolstered out by a life of duties, but he will be but a hypocrite at last, for want of a thorough work at first; a form of godliness may cover his crookedness, but will never cure it.
A man can never be a true Christian, nor accepted 168of God, though in the highest profession of religion, without a work of grace in the heart. For,
1. There must be an answerableness in the frame of that man’s heart that would be accepted of God, to the duties done by him; the spirit and affections within, must carry a proportion to his profession without; prayer without faith, obedience to the law given, without fear and holy reverence of the lawgiver, God abhors: acts of internal worship must answer the duties of external worship. Now where there is no grace wrought in the heart, there can never be any proportion or answerableness in the frame of that man’s heart, to the duties done by him.
2. Those duties that find acceptance with God, must be done in sincerity. God doth not take our duties by tale, nor judge of us according to the frequency of our performances, but according to the sincerity of our hearts in the performance. It is this that commends both the doer and the duty to God; with sincerity, God accepts the least we do; without sincerity, God rejects the most we do, or can do. This is that temper of spirit which God highly delights in: “They that are of a froward heart are an abomination to the Lord, but such as are upright in the way are his 169delight.” The apostle gives it a great epithet; he calls it, in 2 Cor. i. 12, the sincerity of God; that is, such a sincerity as is his special work upon the soul, setting the heart right and upright before him in all his ways. This is the crown of all our graces, and the condemnation of all our duties. Thousands perish, and go to hell in the midst of all their performances and duties, merely for want of a little sincerity of heart to God.
Now where there is not a change of state, a work of grace in the heart, there can be no sincerity to God-ward; for this is not an herb that grows in nature’s garden: “The heart of man is naturally deceitful and desperately wicked:” more opposite to sincerity than to anything; as things corrupted carry a greater dissimilitude to what they were than to anything else which they never were.
“God made man upright.” Now man voluntarily losing this, is become more unlike himself than anything below himself; he is more like a lion, a wolf, a bear, a serpent, a toad, than to a man in innocency. So that it is impossible to find sincerity in any soul till there be a work of grace wrought there by the Spirit of God; and hence it is that a man is but almost a Christian when he hath done all.170
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