by Charles Hodge
SECTION I. Knowledge of sin. Sense of personal ill-desert
THOUGH men are generally so indifferent to their sinfulness and danger, it often pleases God to arouse their attention, and to produce a deep conviction of the truth of all that the Bible teaches on these subjects. The effects of such conviction are very various, because they are modified by the temperament, the knowledge, the circumstances and concomitant exercises of those who experience it. A sentence of death, if passed upon a hundred men, would probably affect no two of them alike. The mind of one might fasten particularly on the turpitude of his crime; that of another upon the disgrace which he had incurred; that of a third on the sufferings of his friends on his account; that of a fourth upon the horrors of death, or upon the fearfulness of appearing before God. All these and many other views, in endless combination, might operate with different degrees of force on each, and the result be still further modified by their physical and moral temperament, their knowledge and previous history. The endless diversity, therefore, in the experience of men when convinced of sin, is what might be expected; and shows it to be impossible to give any description of such experience that shall be applicable to all cases. It will be sufficient briefly to state, what the Scriptures teach to be necessary on this subject.
There must be some correct knowledge of sin. It is clearly the doctrine of the Scriptures, confirmed by universal experience, that men are naturally exceedingly blind on this subject. They have very inadequate ideas of the nature of this evil. Being ignorant of the holiness of God, they do not regard the opposition of sin to his nature so much as its effects upon themselves, or upon society. They judge of it by a wrong standard, and hence all their judgments respecting it are either erroneous or defective. Its real nature, or the real source of its evil in a great measure escapes their notice. Hence a thousand things which are unquestionably sinful, they in general overlook or disregard. It is not so much the state of the heart towards God, as the temper and deportment of one man towards his fellow men, that they consider. And therefore they often regard themselves and others as really good, though they may be destitute of any one right sentiment towards their maker. Being ignorant of the true nature of sin, they have no conception of the number of their transgressions. They are disposed to estimate them by the number of positive or overt acts of disobedience to the moral law; overlooking the habitual state of the heart, the uniform want of love, faith, and due reverence towards God. Nor have they any adequate idea of the guilt of sin. It is to them, as it exists in themselves, comparatively a trifle. Any great concern about it, they consider unreasonable; and when manifested by others, hypocritical or fanatical. There is a deceitfulness in sin by which men are deluded so as to form wrong judgments as to its nature, its extent, its turpitude and power. This delusion must be dispelled. The eyes must be opened to see sin as it is represented in the word of God, as an exceedingly evil and bitter thing, as extending not merely to overt acts or out-breaks of passion, but as deeply seated in the heart, polluting at the fountain the streams of life; as really deserving the punishment which God has denounced against it; and as having such hold upon the inward principles of our nature, that its power cannot be broken by any ordinary exertion.
This insight into the Scriptural account of sin is attended with a firm conviction of its truth; and this conviction is inseparable from the kind of knowledge of which we are now speaking; because it is in fact nothing but an insight into the nature of the Scriptural doctrine as true, or as accordant with the moral nature which God has given us. Men therefore are not thus convinced either by argument or authority. They see and feel what God has declared concerning the nature and evil of sin to be true. Hence the conviction is irresistible even when most unwelcome. We often see it taking sudden and powerful possession of the soul, when conscience is roused from its torpor and assents to the declarations of God, with a force not to be resisted. When Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, Felix trembled. The truth, externally presented, found such a response in the bosom of the Roman governor that he could not disbelieve. This is in accordance with daily experience. The cavils of men against the unreasonable strictness of the divine law and their objections against the justice of its awful penalty vanish, in a moment, when their eyes are open to see what the law and its violation really are. And so long as the perception lasts, the conviction remains. If they can succeed in shutting out the light, and in quieting conscience roused by its intrusion, they become as skeptical as ever on all these subjects. In many cases they succeed in closing their eyes on what they hate to see; and regain their former unbelief. But often this is found to be impossible, especially on the near approach of death, or when God is about to pluck them as brands from the burning. Probably a day does not pass without some illustration of the truth of these remarks. Men who have long lived in unbelief or carelessness are arrested by an influence which they can neither understand nor resist. There is no new revelation, no novel arguments, no conscious process of reasoning. There is simply a perception of the truth of the declarations of God concerning sin. Against the conviction thence arising, their old cavils, the arguments and assurances of their friends have no effect. They do not reach the point. They are addressed to something quite foreign to the ground of the conviction, and therefore do not affect it. Though this persuasion of the truth of the Scriptural doctrine respecting sin, is often temporary, it forms an essential part of those convictions which are abiding and saving. Men may have this persuasion who never accept the offers of salvation, but those who do accept them cannot be entirely without it.
This knowledge of sin, which enters so essentially into the nature of true conviction, is derived from the law, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. I had not known sin, said the apostle, but by the law. For without the law, sin was dead. I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came sin revived and I died. It is clearly taught in these and similar passages, that the apostle was at one time ignorant of the extent and spirituality of the law, and consequently ignorant of sin. He thought himself to be as good as could be reasonably expected. He was contented and at ease. But when the law was revealed to him in its true character, his views of sin were at once changed. He came to know what it was, and to feel its power over him. A thousand things which before had appeared indifferent or trivial, he now saw to be aggravated offences; and especially the secret, deep-seated evil of his heart, which had escaped his knowledge or regard, was detected as the great source of all other sin.
The law is the means of communicating this knowledge, because it is an expression of the perfect holiness of God. So long as men judge themselves by themselves, and compare themselves among themselves, they will be in the dark as to their true character. It is not until they judge themselves by the perfect standard of duty contained in the law of God, that they can have any proper knowledge of their real character. It is in his light that we see light. It is only when we look away from the sinful beings by whom we are surrounded, and feel ourselves in the presence of the perfect purity of God, that we are sensible of the extent of our departure from the standard of excellence. It is therefore both the doctrine of the Bible and the experience of the people of God, that the knowledge of sin arises from the apprehension of the divine excellence as revealed in the law.
There is no doubt great diversity in the experience of Christians as to the clearness of their views on this subject. In some cases every thing is seen as through a glass, darkly; in others there is such a discovery of the infinite excellence of God and of his law, as to fill the mind with the greatest reverence and self-abasement. Sometimes this knowledge steals upon the mind as imperceptibly as the opening day; at others, in a moment, the truth stands disclosed in all its awful purity. The man who one hour was unconcerned, the next is full of astonishment at his former blindness. He wonders how it was possible he could be so ignorant of the excellence of God and the perfection of his law. He is amazed at his infatuation in thinking that he was to be judged by the common standard of man's judgment, by the low demands of the world or of his associates. He now sees that the rule by which he is to be tried is infinitely pure, and cannot overlook the least transgression. We are no where taught what degree of clearness of this knowledge is necessary to salvation. We only know that men must have such a knowledge of sin as to bring their judgments respecting it into accordance with the declarations of God; that instead of that perpetual opposition to the doctrine of the Scriptures respecting the evil and extent of sin, which men so generally evince, they must be brought to acquiesce in the truth and justice of all God's representations on the subject.
Besides this knowledge of sin and assent to the Scriptural doctrine on the subject, there is, in genuine conviction, a sense of personal unworthiness. This perhaps has been in a measure anticipated, but it deserves particular consideration. Holy beings may have a clear perception of the truth as presented in the word of God respecting the nature of sin, but they can have no sense of moral turpitude. And among men there is often a clear understanding of the doctrine on this subject, and a general assent to its truth, without any adequate conviction that what the Bible says of sinners is applicable to us. It is not enough therefore that we should know and believe what the Scriptures teach respecting sin, we must feel that it is all true as it regards ourselves. There must be an assent of our own consciousness to the declaration that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; that in us, that is, in our flesh, there dwelleth no good thing. This sense of personal unworthiness is the principal part of conviction of sin. It is the opposite of that false notion of our own excellence, which we are so prone to indulge. It destroys our self-complacency and eradicates the disposition to justify ourselves, or extenuate our guilt.
The most certain concomitant of this sense of moral turpitude in the sight of God, is shame. O my God, cried Ezra under a sense of sin, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee my God, for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens. And Daniel said: O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of face as at this day. I have heard of thee, said Job, with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye seeth thee, and I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes. And in another place he says: Behold I am vile, what shall I answer thee? I will lay my hand upon my mouth. The same feeling is expressed by the Psalmist, when he says, Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I cannot look up; they are more than the hairs of my head, therefore, my heart faileth me. The same emotion filled the bosom of the Publican, when he would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast and said, God be merciful to me a sinner.
With this sense of unworthiness are mingled, in a greater or less degree, the feelings of contrition and remorse; sorrow for our innumerable offences, and bitter self-condemnation. To these are often added perplexity and fear of the wrath of God; a dread lest our sins never can be forgiven, lest our defilement never can be washed away. No suffering in this world can exceed what the soul often endures under the pressure of these feelings. It cries out with Paul, O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? Or it is forced to say with Job, The arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirits; and the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me. Or with David, While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted; thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.
With the inspired record of the experience of God's people on this subject, we find the language of his more eminent servants in later times remarkably coincident. The confessions of Augustin are full of similar expressions of humiliation and anguish under a sense of sin. And even the stout heart of Luther was so broken by his inward sufferings, that his life was long a burden almost too heavy for him to bear. But while it is no doubt true that it is the natural tendency of correct apprehensions of our real character in the sight of God to produce these strong emotions of humiliation and sorrow; and while it is no less true that those who have made the most eminent attainments in holiness, have generally had the largest share of these inward trials, it is not to be supposed that they are necessary to the character of a Christian. On the contrary a believing apprehension of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, while it would not prevent humiliation and penitential sorrow on account of sin, would effectually extract the bitterness of remorse and fear from the cup of repentance. There is no true religion in these terrors and fearful apprehensions. The death-bed of the impenitent often exhibits this sense of guilt, humiliation, remorse, dread of punishment and other indications of an enlightened and awakened conscience. And in many cases those who have suffered all this distress, lose their serious impressions and sink into their former carelessness. Though, therefore, the pain of remorse and dread of the wrath of God often attend conviction of sin, they do not constitute it. In many cases there is little of this agitation of feeling. Perhaps the most frequent form of religious experience on this subject is a deep distress on account of the want of an excitement of feeling corresponding with the judgment of the understanding and conscience. The common complaint with many is that they cannot feel; that their hearts are like ice; that the knowledge and perception of their ingratitude and disobedience produce little or no emotion. Such persons would gladly exchange their insensibility for the keenest anguish; their constant prayer is that God would take from them their heart of stone, and give them a heart of flesh. This form of experience is just as consistent with the nature of conviction of sin as the other. All that is necessary is the testimony of conscience to the justice of the divine representations of our character and conduct; the consciousness and acknowledgment that we are what God declares us to be. Where this judgment of the conscience, or this sense of personal unworthiness exists, leading the sinner to lay his hand upon his mouth in the presence of God, and to bow at his feet as undeserving of mercy, there, as far as this point is concerned, is genuine conviction.
This state of mind may be produced in very different ways. Sometimes it is the result of a calm review of life and a comparison of the habitual state of the heart and general course of our conduct with the law of God. Sometimes, some one offence more than commonly aggravated seizes upon the conscience; some broken vow, some neglected call, some open sin, is made the means of revealing the man to himself. Whatever may be the particular occasion, the mind is led to fix itself on its responsibility to God and the conviction of its guilt becomes settled and confirmed. This is necessary to the sinner's return to God. So long as he thinks himself whole, he will not apply to the physician. So long as he regards his sins as either few or trivial, he will feel no concern for pardon or sanctification. But when his eyes are opened and his conscience aroused, he feels that his case demands immediate and earnest attention; he knows himself to be unprepared to meet his God, that his sins are so great that they cannot be forgiven, unless he obtains an interest in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Every true Christian is in some way brought to this conviction and acknowledgment of personal ill-desert in the sight of God.
In the third place, conviction of sin includes a conviction of our condemnation before God. A sense of sin is a sense of unworthiness and a sense of unworthiness involves a sense of just exposure to the divine displeasure. It may be proper to notice three very distinct states of mind in reference to this subject. It is very obvious that our views of the punishment due to sin, must depend upon our views of sin itself. If we have inadequate apprehensions of the evil of sin, we shall have inadequate apprehensions of the punishment which it deserves. Hence in the great majority of men there is a secret disbelief of the Scriptural representations on this subject. They cannot reconcile the declarations of God respecting the doom of the impenitent with their views of his justice and mercy, and, therefore, they cannot believe them. And it very often happens that the sense of sin which serious people experience is insufficient to overcome this unbelief, or at least, the strong opposition of the heart to what the Bible teaches on this subject. They feel that they are sinners, they feel that they deserve the displeasure of God, but they still experience a secret revolting against the dreadful denunciations of the Scriptures against all sin. "To submit to the condemning power of the holy law of God," says Dr. Milner, "is a hard matter, a very hard matter indeed to do this thoroughly. My understanding has shown me, for many years, that this was the touchstone of a sound conversion; and I have been busy enough in noting the defect of it in others; but as to myself, if I have got on at all in this respect, it is very lately indeed. The heart is sadly deceitful here; for, with Christ's salvation before one's eye, one may easily fancy that God is just and equitable in condemning sinners; when if you put the case, only for a moment, to your own heart seriously, as a thing likely to happen, the heart will rise against such a dispensation; perhaps indeed with a smothered sort of opposition and dislike, but which is very steady and determined. Nothing less than the Holy Ghost himself can cure this, by showing us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."* That the soul should revolt at the idea of its own misery, is the law of our nature, aud never can be eradicated. This is not the sentiment which it is intended to condemn, but the opposition of the heart to the truth and justice of God's declarations respecting the punishment due to sin. It is this opposition, this disposition to criminate God, to regard him as unjustly severe, which ought to be subdued; because it shows that our hearts are not in harmony with his word; that we regard as unjust what he pronounces just. All experience shows that this is a very common state of mind. And its existence proves that our views of the ill-desert of sin have not been sufficiently clear to bring us to submit to the plan which God has revealed for our redemption from deserved condemnation.
The opposite extreme to this is the feeling that our sins are so great that they cannot be forgiven. This is no uncommon persuasion. When there is a clear discovery of the evil of sin, with no concomitant apprehension of the true plan of salvation, despair is the natural result. The judgment of conscience is known to be true when it pronounces our sins to be deserving of death. And unless the soul sees how God can be just and yet justify the sinner, it cannot hope for mercy. Nothing can be more pitiable than a soul in this condition. Its views of the justice of God and of the evil of sin, are neither false nor exaggerated. It is their truth which gives them power, and which renders futile the soothing assurances of friends that God will not be so strict in marking iniquity, or that the sinner's guilt is not so great as he imagines. An enlightened conscience cannot be thus appeased, and if such be the only sources of consolation to which it has access, it must despair.
In a Christian country, however, the knowledge of the plan of salvation is so generally diffused, that it seldom fails, even when imperfectly understood, to calm or restrain the apprehensions of God's displeasure. It is known that God can pardon sin, that there is salvation at least for some, for some have been saved. And although the sinner is often disposed to think that his is an excepted case, or that there is some peculiar aggravation in his guilt, which puts him beyond the reach of mercy, yet he cannot be sure that this is the case. And in his darkest hours the belief in the possibility of salvation is not entirely destroyed.
Between these extremes of inimical opposition to the truth of God as to the just exposure of the sinner to condemnation and the despair of mercy which arises from unbelief, lies genuine conviction of ill-desert. If religious experience is the conformity of our judgments and feelings to the truths that are revealed in the Scriptures and if it is there revealed that the wages of sin is death, our judgment and feeling must assent to that truth; we must admit that such is the just desert of sin and of our sins. There must be no disposition to complain of the extent or severity of the law; but such a sense of ill-desert in the sight of God as shall lead us to lie at his feet, sensible that he can neither do nor threaten wrong and that forgiveness must be a matter entirely of grace. It is obvious that there can be no intelligent acceptance of Christ as a saviour without this conviction of our exposure to condemnation and there can be no conviction of such exposure, without a perception of the justice of the penalty of the law. It is, however, to be remembered that there are many things involved in Christian experience, which may not be the object of distinct attention. It may, therefore, well happen that many pass from death unto life, without any lively apprehension of the wrath of God, or any very distinct impression that all that he has threatened against sin might be justly inflicted upon them. Their attention may have been arrested and their hearts moved by the exhibition of the love of God in Christ, and they may have been conscious, at the time, of little more than a cordial acquiescence in the gospel, and the desire and purpose to live for the service of God. Still, even in such persons, as soon as their attention is directed to the subject, there is a full recognition of ill-desert, a readiness to acknowledge that salvation is a matter of grace, and that they would have no right to complain had they been left to perish in their sins. Diversified, therefore, as may be the experience of God's people on this subject, they agree in acknowledging the justice of God in his demands and his threatenings and in regarding themselves as unworthy of the least of all his favours.
SECTION II. Insufficiency of our own righteousness and of our own strength
Another essential characteristic of genuine conviction is the persuasion that our own good works are entirely insufficient to recommend us to God, or to be the ground of our acceptance before him. Since the Scriptures declare that we are justified freely, not by works, lest any man should boast, but by faith in Jesus Christ, our experience must accord with this declaration. We must have such views of the holiness of God, of the extent of his law and of our own unworthiness as shall make us fully sensible that we cannot by our own works secure either pardon or acceptance. It is easy to profess that we do not trust to our own righteousness, but really to divest ourselves of all reliance upon our supposed excellence, is a difficult task. When a man is roused to a sense of his guilt and danger, his first impulse is almost always to fly to any other refuge than that provided in the gospel. The most natural method of appeasing conscience is the promise of reformation. Particular sins are therefore forsaken, and a struggle, it may be, is maintained against all others. This conflict is often long and painful, but it is always unsuccessful. It is soon found that sin, in one form or other, is constantly getting the mastery, and the soul feels that something more must be done if it is ever to make itself fit for heaven. It is, therefore, ready to do, or to submit to any thing which appears necessary for this purpose. What particular form of works it may be which it endeavours to weave into a robe of righteousness, depends on the degree of knowledge which it possesses, or the kind of religious instruction which it receives. When greatly ignorant of the gospel, it endeavours by painful penances, self-imposed, or prescribed by priestly authority, to make satisfaction for its sins. Experience teaches that there is no extremity of self-denial to which a conscience-stricken man will not gladly submit as a means of satisfying the demands of God. If heaven were really to be gained by such means, we should see the road crowded by the young and old, the rich and poor, the learned and ignorant, in multitudes as countless as those which throng the cruel temples of the Hindoos, or which perish on the burning sands of Arabia. This is the easiest, the pleasantest, the most congenial of all the methods of salvation, taught by the cunning craftiness of men. It is no wonder that those who teach it as the doctrine of the gospel, should find submissive hearers. If men can be allowed to purchase heaven, or make atonement for past transgressions, by present suffering, they will gladly undertake it. This is so congenial to the human heart, that men who are well informed, and who pride themselves on their independence of mind, are scarcely less apt to be caught in the meshes of this net, than their more ignorant brethren. We see, therefore, statesmen and philosophers, as well as peasants, wearing sackcloth, or walking barefoot, at the bidding of their religious teachers.
In Protestant countries, where the Bible is generally accessible, it is rare to see any such gross exhibitions of the spirit of self-righteousness. The Scriptures so clearly teach the method of salvation, that almost every one knows that at least mere external works of morality or discipline cannot avail to our justification before God. We must have a finer robe, a robe composed of duties of a higher value. Prayers are multiplied, the house of God is frequented, the whole routine of religious duties is assiduously attended to, under the impression that thus we shall satisfy the demands of God and secure his favour. Multitudes are contented with this routine. Their apprehensions of the character and requirements of God, of the evil of sin, and of their own ill-desert are so low, that this remedy is adequate for all the wounds their consciences feel. The performance of their social and religious duties seems sufficient, in their view, to entitle them to the character of religious men; and they are satisfied. Thus it was with Paul, who considered himself, as touching the righteousness which is of the law to be blameless. But all his strictness of moral duty and religious observance, was discovered to be worthless, so far as satisfying the demands of God is concerned. And every man, who is brought to accept the offer of salvation as presented in the gospel, is made to feel that it is not for any thing which he either does or abstains from doing, that his sins are pardoned and his person accepted before God. Nay, he sees that what men call their good works are so impure, as to be themselves a ground of condemnation. What are cold, wandering, selfish, irreverent prayers, but offences against God, whom we pretend to propitiate, by services which are but a mockery of his holiness? And what is any routine of heartless observances, or if not heartless, at least so imperfect as to fail of securing even our own approbation, in the eyes of him before whom the heavens are unclean? What approach can such services make either towards satisfying the present demands of God, or atoning for years of neglect and sin? It requires but little insight into the state of his own heart, or the real character of the divine law, to convince the sinner that he must have a better righteousness than that which consists of his own duties or observances.
From this foundation of sand the convinced sinner is, therefore, soon driven, but he betakes himself to another refuge nearer the cross, as he supposes, and which seems to require more self-renunciation. He ceases to think of establishing his own righteousness, but he still wishes to be made worthy to receive the righteousness of God. He knows that he can never cancel his debt of guilt, that his best services are unworthy of acceptance, that with all his circumspection he never lives a day in full compliance with the just demands of the law, and consequently that his salvation must be of grace, but he still thinks he must in some way merit that grace, or at least, be prepared by some observance or some experience for its reception. The distressed soul imagines that if it could be more distressed, more humbled, more touched with sorrow or remorse, it might then find acceptance. It sees that its long course of disobedience and ingratitude, its rejection of Christ, its disregard of mercies and warnings, its thousand sins of commission and omission, if forgiven at all, must be gratuitously pardoned, but this hardness of heart, this want of due tenderness and penitence, is a sin which must first be got out of the way, before the others can be remitted. It is, however, only one of the long, black catalogue. It can no more be separately conquered or atoned for, before coming to Christ, than any other sin of heart or life. It is often long before the soul is brought to see this, or to feel that it is really endeavouring to make itself better before applying to the physician; to accomplish at least some preparatory part of salvation for itself, so as not to be entirely indebted to the Redeemer. At last, however, the soul discovers its mistake; it finds that Christ does not save sinners for their tenderness or conviction, that tears are not more worthy of acceptance, than fasting, or almsgiving; that it is the unworthy, the hard-hearted, the ungodly, those who have nothing to recommend them, that Christ came to save, and whom he accepts in order to render them contrite and tenderhearted and obedient. These graces are his gifts, and if we stay away from him until we get them ourselves, we must perish in our sins. To this entire self-renunciation, this absolute rejection of every thing in itself as the ground, or reason of its acceptance, must the soul be brought before it embraces the offers of the gospel.
It is included in what has been said that a consciousness of our own weakness is a necessary ingredient, or consequence of true conviction. There is not only a giving up of our own righteousness, but of our own strength. All that is necessary here as on other points, is that we should feel what is true. If it is the doctrine of the Bible that the sinner can change his own heart, subdue his sins, excite all right affections in his heart, then genuine religious experience requires that this truth should be known, not merely as a matter of speculation, but as a matter of consciousness. But if the Scriptures teach that this change of heart is the work of the Holy Spirit; that we are born not of the will of man but of God; that it is the exceeding greatness of the divine power that operates in them that believe, quickening those who were dead in trespasses and sins, creating them anew in Christ Jesus, so that they are his workmanship, created unto good works; if from one end of the Scriptures to the other, the internal work of salvation is declared to be not by the might, or power of man, but by the Spirit of the Lord, then is this one of the great truths of revelation of which we must be convinced. Our experience must accord with this representation and we must feel that to be true in our case, which God declares to be true universally.
When a man is brought to feel that he is a sinner, that his heart is far from being right in the sight of God, he as naturally turns to his own strength to effect a change and to bring himself up to the standard of the law, as he turns to his own works as a compensation for his sins, or as a ground of confidence towards God. His efforts, therefore, are directed to subdue the power of sin, and to excite religious feelings in his heart. He endeavours to mortify pride, to subdue the influence of the body, to wean himself from the world. He gives up his sinful, or worldly associates; he strengthens his purposes against evil; he forces himself to discharge the most ungrateful duties and exercises himself in self-denial. At the same time he tries to force himself into a right state of mind, to make himself believe, repent, love and exercise all the Christian graces of meekness, humility, brotherly kindness and charity; that is, he tries to make himself religious. He does every thing in his own strength and to save himself. Sometimes this course is pursued to the end of life. At others, it is continued for years and then found to be all in vain. Wesley tells us this was the kind of religion which he had, until his visit to America and his intercourse with the Moravians. This is the religion of ascetics, which may be persevered in, through stress of conscience, or fear of perdition, with great strictness and constancy. Almost every man makes trial of it. He will be his own saviour, if he can. It is found, however, by those who are taught of God, to be a hopeless task. The subtle evil of the heart is not to be subdued by any such efforts. If we force ourselves to forego the pleasures of sin, we cannot destroy the desire of forbidden joys. If we refuse to gratify pride, we cannot prevent its aspirations. If we relinquish the pursuit of worldly things, we still retain the love of the world. If we force ourselves to perform religious duties, we cannot make those duties a delight. If we compel ourselves to think of God, we cannot force ourselves to love him, to desire communion with him, to take pleasure in his service, and to delight in all his requirements. No one can tell the misery arising from these painful and ineffectual struggles; these vain attempts to subdue sin and excite the Christian graces. If any thing could be taken as a substitute for them; if making many prayers, or submitting to any suffering, could be taken as an equivalent, it would be gladly acceded to. But to change the heart, to delight in God, to be really spiritual and holy, is a work the sinner finds to be above his strength and yet absolutely necessary. Repeated failures do not destroy his delusion; he still thinks that this is his work and that he must do it, or be lost. He, therefore, struggles on, he collects all his strength, and at length suddenly discovers it to be perfect weakness. He finds that if he is ever renewed and made holy, it must be the work of God and he cries in the depth of his distress, Lord save me, or I perish. He gives up working in his own strength and sees, what he wonders he never saw before, that the Christian virtues are really graces, i.e. gifts; that they are not excellencies to be wrought out by ourselves; but favours bestowed through Christ and for Christ's sake; that it is the Holy Spirit purchased and sent by Him that is to change the heart and convince of sin, righteousness and judgment; that faith, repentance, joy, peace, humility and meekness are the fruits of that Spirit, and not the products of our own evil hearts; that if we could make ourselves holy we should scarcely need a Saviour; and that it is the greatest of all delusions to suppose that we must be holy before we come to God through Christ, instead of holiness being the result of our reconciliation. While we are under the law, we bring forth fruit unto death. It is not until we are free from the law and reconciled to God by the death of his Son, that we bring forth fruit unto righteousness. This great truth, though written on every page of the Bible, every man has to learn for himself. He cannot be made to understand it by reading it in the Scriptures, or by being told it by others. He must try his own strength until he finds it to be nothing, before he submits to be saved by the grace of God, and bowing at the feet of Jesus, in utter despair of any other helper, says, Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
The man, therefore, whom the Holy Ghost convinces of sin, he causes to understand and believe what God has revealed on this subject. He makes him feel that what He declares to be true of all men, is true of him; that he deserves what God declares all men deserve; that he has no merit to recommend him to God and no strength to change his own heart. This knowledge the Spirit communicates through the law, which by presenting the perfect rule of duty, shows us how far short we come of the glory of God, and how often and justly we have incurred its penalty; which convinces us that we are entirely unable to comply with its righteous demands, and that no mere objective presentation of what is holy, just and good can change the heart, or destroy the power of indwelling sin; since even when we see the excellence of the law we do not conform to it and cannot do the things that we would, but ever find a law in our members warring against the law of our minds and bringing us into subjection to the law of sin. It is thus that the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ; to drive us from every refuge of our own righteousness and strength, to Him who is made of God, unto those that believe, both justification and sanctification.
Source: The Way of Life