Conviction of Sin Before Conversion

by John Owen

QUESTION. To what extent should I be convicted of my sin and guilt before I may turn to Jesus Christ to find salvation? 

ANSWER. There is one thing only that I shall at present speak to, and that is this: What is the lowest condition that hath the nature of conviction in sincerity, so as that souls may not be discouraged from closing with Christ because they have had no greater convictions of sin? And I shall speak to it on this account,—because, although the things that have already been spoken by others are true, and such as those who have spoken them have found to be true by the word and their own experience; yet, it may be, others have not come up in their experience unto such a distinct observation of the work of conviction as hath been laid down, [so] that they may be discouraged. For, seeing conviction is so indispensably necessary, some may say, "It hath not been thus and thus with me,—according as hath been declared." Therefore, I would only show what I judge to be so necessary, as that without it a soul cannot be supposed sincerely to have closed with Christ. And we having all made our profession of choosing and closing with Christ, as I would be loath to say any thing that might discourage any, lest they should have failed in the very necessary work of conviction; so I would not betray the truth of God, nor the souls of any. 

Therefore, I shall place it upon this: What Jesus Christ doth indispensably call men unto, in order to believing in him, that is indispensably required of them. And this I shall manifest out of two or three places of Scripture:—Mark 2:17, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Now, this calling them unto repentance, is a calling them unto it by the faith which is in him. The apostle saith, 1 Tim. 1:15, "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." What kind of sinners doth Christ call? Whom he calls to repentance, he calls to faith; and whom he calls to faith, that they may truly believe, they are sinners—opposed unto them that are righteous: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." "The righteous!" who are those righteous? The Scriptures tell us of these very men, that there were two sorts of them: First, Such as trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised other men. As long as a man trusteth in himself that he is righteous, Christ doth not call that man to believe. So long as a man is persuaded that his condition is good enough, he shall do well enough, that man hath no warrant to believe. Another description of these very persons, though upon another occasion, is given by the apostle Paul, Rom. 10:3, where he says, they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, and went about to establish their own righteousness. Though they did not come to trust in themselves for righteousness, vet sought righteousness as it were by the works of the law, and went about to establish their own righteousness;—Jesus Christ doth not call these men to believe: these righteous persons have no ground for believing. What is the conclusion? "Lost sinners," saith Christ, "this is that I require of you." So that this is what I assert to be indispensably necessary,—namely, that they are so far convinced that they are sinners as to state and course, that they are not righteous in themselves, and can have no righteousness in themselves. I say, therefore, when a person is not really convinced that he is not righteous, he is not under the call of Jesus Christ; and if he doth believe this, he is under a sovereign dispensation, and let not such despond. 

Another direction of Christ is, "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick," Matt. 9:12. There are, in my apprehension, two things in a sick person that have need of a plrysician: First, He hath an uneasiness. A man who is sick, though he would shift it, yet his uneasiness will cause him to send for a physician. Saith Christ, "I come to such persons who say they can find no rest nor ease in their present condition." It may be they have often tried this and that, and see all will not do,—they are sick still; conscience reflects, and their hearts are burdened, and they must have relief, or they shall not be free. Secondly, There is a fear that it will end in death. This puts the sick person upon sending for a physician. When the soul is made uneasy in its state and condition, can find no rest nor ease, it thinks, "If I abide here, I shall be lost for ever." This soul doth Christ call; this man will be at the charge of a physician, cost what it will. 

There is another word of Christ [which] very remarkably speaks just to the same purpose, Matt. 11:28, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,"—a soul finding itself under want, labouring after something whereby it may be accepted with God. I will not confine this to extraordinary instances, for sometimes he is found of them that sought him not; but the ordinary case of a labouring soul, before closing with Christ, is to abstain from sin, pray more or less, be found in duties, and under strong desires to be accepted with God. And what is the end of these labours and endeavours? They labour and are weary;—that is, they see their labour comes to no effect; they do not find rest, and peace, and acceptance with God. And here is the turning point; Isa. 57:10, "Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope." When the soul hath laboured for acceptance with God, and comes to be weary, saith Christ, "Come unto me." "No," saith the light of nature, "come unto me; trust unto your own endeavours." Saith the soul, "I will try what it will do; I will not say, 'There is no hope.' " Saith another, "I will not say so; I will go unto Christ:"—this is he whom Christ calls. 

Now, these things I do account indispensably necessary, antecedently to believing, as to the substance of them. And this, I hope, hath been found in all our souls. And if we have obtained so far, we need not then question whether our closing with Christ be sincere or not. This is all that I dare assert to be absolutely and indispensably necessary. Many pretend to believe, though they never were convinced thoroughly that they were not righteous,—never were sick in their lives,—never had fears that they should die. These are contrary to the express rule Christ hath given, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners;"—not those that say, "There is hope," but those that say, "There is no hope." 


Source: Several Practical Cases of Conscience Resolved (eBook) by John Owen

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