(Continuing from yesterday…)
The diligent and faithful use of the word of God, as the rule of judgment, would have an influence peculiarly important in regard to those who have just begun to attend to the subject of religion.
Take the case of a sudden conversion. One who has long lived in thoughtless security, and has perhaps been an opposer of religion, is to-day awakened from his slumbers; and in a very short time he thinks himself a Christian. He is surprised and delighted at the sudden change which has taken place in his feelings; is full of gratitude, and rejoices in hope. Now adhering conscientiously to the word of God as our rule, how are we to proceed in regard to such a case?
I reply: so far as the person referred to, gives evidence of right views and feelings, though for only a few hours or minutes, we are to regard him in a favorable light, and to indulge a hope that the sovereign grace of God has visited his soul. And there may perhaps be as much evidence of this, as the shortness of the time will permit. But may we unhesitatingly and confidently pronounce him to be converted?
Suppose we do this; and then suppose, what too often takes place, that in a few days, or a few months, he loses his religious impressions, returns to his sins, and is in all essential points as he was before, except perhaps that his proud, selfish heart shows itself in different ways. What do we think now? Do we still pronounce him a convert? No. We begin to doubt. The favorable opinion we had of his character, we fear wag a mistake; and we regret that we expressed so unqualified an opinion in his favor, especially as our opinion may have led him to think well of himself, and helped to confirm his delusion.
Let us then go back, and see what the mistake was. It is evident that our great mistake lay in our neglecting to make the word of God our rule. A faithful adherence to this, was all that was necessary. Shall we then go over the subject again, with a strict regard to the rule? The person shows a sudden alteration in his mind, and says, he repents, and believes. What shall we think of such a case? And how shall we treat it?
I reply: If he truly repents, and believes, he is a Christian, renewed, pardoned, and entitled to heaven. But his saying that he does this, can be no certain proof that he really does it; because he may say it insincerely. Nor is it a certain proof that he truly repents and believes; that he really thinks he repents and believes; because the heart is deceitful above all things, even more deceitful than the deceitful tongue—and by such a heart he may be led to judge erroneously respecting himself.
It is clear then, that if we would exercise a sober mind, and keep on scripture ground, we must not undertake to judge any farther than evidence will warrant; that is, we must avoid a hasty judgment. And a judgment which rests on a person’s expressions or appearance for a short time, must in ordinary cases, be hasty; because ordinarily, a short time is not sufficient to exhibit such evidence, as may safely be made the ground of judgment. The feelings, and words, and actions of a professed convert may be owing to other causes than the renewing of the Holy Spirit. We must wait then, patiently wait, to see whether he brings forth fruit meet for repentance.
Look at the passages of scripture, which exhibit the prominent traits of Christian character, and you will see that it is utterly impossible to judge in an hour, or a day, whether those traits belong to a particular person. How can he show that he repents and believes, before he has time to show the operations and fruits of repentance and faith? — or that he has the law of God within his heart, before he shows by his actions that he is obedient?
In order to make it manifest that he is humble, contrite, poor in spirit, meek, patient, forgiving, diligent in doing good, and fervent in prayer; he must have time, opportunities, occasions, trials. From the nature of the case, the evidence of piety must be gradual. A small degree may be exhibited the first day, or hour of a man’s religious life; and we may have a small degree of hope, — a hope proportionate to the degree of evidence.
But it is contrary to scripture, contrary to reason and sober judgment, and a sign of rashness, for us to make up our minds confidently respecting a person’s conversion, or to speak confidently of it to others, when he has had opportunity to give but slight and dubious evidence of conversion. We must therefore check the spirit of impatience and haste, must guard against all excitements inconsistent with enlightened reason, and must suspend our opinion, till the person makes it appear by his life, whether he has the marks of a Christian. Nothing can be more obvious than that men will ordinarily be liable to mistake, if they take upon them to speak decisively as to the conversion of others, or to judge decisively of their own, on the ground of what takes place in a short time.
A man is suddenly waked up to the importance of religion. Seeing himself to be a sinner, under condemnation, he is distressed and agitated. But on hearing the messages of divine mercy, and the offers of free pardon, he is filled with inexpressible rapture, resolves to be a Christian, cries glory to God, and exults in the hope of heaven. Now many Christians at the present day look upon such appearances as good evidence of a saving change, and without any qualification, speak of the person who exhibits them, as converted.
But is this according to truth? Is it the dictate of Christian wisdom? What real evidence is there, that the person described, has been savingly converted? Does the evidence consist in the sudden waking up of the mind to the things of religion? in a consciousness of guilt? in fear, and distress, and agitation? We learn from the scriptures, that these things afford no satisfactory evidence of conversion. Is evidence found in the rapturous joy which is excited by the offer of pardon, and by the hope of happiness in heaven? The slightest acquaintance with the nature of man teaches, and the word of God teaches more fully, that such joy is altogether equivocal, as it has in ten thousand instances sprung from a selfish and deluded heart, and may spring from the same source in the case before us. There is nothing of more dubious import than the feeling and utterance of such rapturous joy.
(Leonard Wood’s introduction to William Sprague’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, pp. xviii-xxi).