by James Buchanan
Conversion properly consists in a sinner being brought actually, intelligently, and cordially, to close and comply with God's revealed will on the subject of his salvation.
Some conviction of sin being wrought in the conscience, and some knowledge of God's truth imparted to the understanding, the sinner is, at the time of his conversion, brought to the point; he comes to a final decision, a decision which implies at once a firm assent of the understanding in an act of faith, and a full consent of the will in an act of deliberate choice. He surrenders himself to the power of God's truth. He submits to God's revealed will in the matter of his salvation. Convinced that he is a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour, a Saviour appointed by God himself, qualified alike by the dignity of his divine nature, the tenderness of his human sympathies, and the efficacy of his meritorious work, to save unto the very uttermost all that come unto God by him, a Saviour exhibited and proposed to every sinner in the general doctrine of the Gospel, and declaring his own free and unutterable love in its universal calls and invitations - the sinner, taking that Gospel as his warrant, comes to Christ, closes with him, embraces him in all the fullness of his offices, and surrenders himself without reserve into the Saviour's hands, to be washed, and justified and sanctified according to the terms of the everlasting covenant. This is conversion; this will secure the salvation of the sinner, and nothing short of this can. There must be a decisive closing with the Gospel call, a final determination, first on the part of the understanding; and, secondly, on the part of the will. We must come to a decision; and believing it to be infallibly certain that Jesus is the Christ, the only, but an all-sufficient Saviour, we must close with him as he is revealed to us in the Gospel, and choose him as 'all our salvation and all our desire.' It is not enough that we are visited with occasional convictions of sin; so was Cain, and so was Herod, and so was Judas; nor is it enough that we acquire some speculative knowledge of divine truth; so did Agrippa, who was almost persuaded to be a Christian, and so also did Simon Magus, who made such a profession as was sufficient for his baptism, and who yet remained 'in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity.' Conversion implies much more; it implies an actual, deliberate, and cordial closing with Christ in his revealed character, and a surrender of our souls into his hands. It is a radical heart-change, by which the sinner is brought to close in right earnest with the Saviour. He may have been troubled in his conscience before, and moved in his affections, and, to a certain extent, instructed in the truths of God; but till now, he hesitated, and delayed, and doubted; the bargain was not struck, the covenant was not subscribed, the decisive act was not done; but now he is brought to a point; the business, long in negotiation, is about to be finally settled; he sees the magnitude of impending ruin, the fearful hazard of an hour's delay; and hearing that Christ, and Christ only, can save him, he believes, and he comes to Christ, deliberately and solemnly, to commit his soul into his hands, and to embrace him as his own Saviour.
This decisive act of closing with Christ, and complying with God's revealed will in the matter of our salvation, although it may at first sight appear a very simple and easy process, includes in it, I apprehend, every thing that is essential to saving conversion, or that is declared in Scripture to accompany or flow from it. Let the sinner close with Christ in his scriptural character; in other words, let him have a correct apprehension of Christ as he is revealed in the Gospel, and cordially believe on him, and choose him as his own Saviour, in all the fullness of his offices, and he is really from that time a converted man, however defective his knowledge and his experience in many other respects may be; he has already experienced all that is essentially involved in that great change, and every other consequence which properly flows from conversion will ensue.
This decisive act implies:
That he believes Jesus to be the Christ; in other words, that he believes the same Jesus who was crucified on the hill of Calvary to be the Son of God, manifested in human nature, as the Saviour of sinners; and, as such, executing the will of God, acting by his authority, bearing his commission; nay, anointed with the Holy Ghost, as a Prophet to declare God's infallible truth, as a Priest to satisfy God's inflexible justice, and as a King to subject the world to God's rule; a Christ once crucified, but now exalted, invested with almighty power, and able to save unto the very uttermost all that come unto God by him.
This decisive act of closing with Christ in his revealed character implies that the man feels himself to be a sinner, and, as such, condemned by God's law, exposed to God's threatenings, and in imminent danger of eternal ruin; while he has no means and no power to save himself, but must be indebted to a Saviour.
It implies that he is willing, or rather that he has been made willing, to receive, own, and submit to Christ as God's Anointed One, and in respect to every one of his offices, as the Redeemer of God's people; that he willingly submits his understanding to Christ's teaching, receiving the truth from his lips, and on his authority, as the infallible truth of God; that he willingly acquiesces in the method of being justified, not by his own righteousness, but by the righteousness of Christ, seeking to be pardoned only through the merit of his blood shed on the cross, and accepted only through the efficacy of his meritorious obedience; and that he willingly subjects his heart and life to Christ's royal authority, that his heart may be renewed and sanctified by Christ's Spirit, and that his life may be governed and regulated by Christ's law; in a word, that he is willing to receive and embrace a whole Christ and a whole salvation; and to surrender himself unreservedly, soul, body, and spirit, into Christ's hands, to be saved and sanctified, governed and dealt with, now and eternally, according to the terms of the everlasting covenant.
Here we have a real thorough conversion, which consists mainly and essentially in repentance and faith, two gifts of the Spirit which are often used together, or even separately, to denote the whole of this great change, repentance indicating what the sinner turns from, faith, what he turns unto. Conversion is the turning point at which he turns out of the broad way which leads to destruction, and into the strait, the narrow way which leads unto life. He then flees from the wrath to come, and flees to Christ as his refuge; he forsakes the service of sin, and follows Christ as his Master; he shuns perdition, and seeks salvation in Christ as his Saviour. Now repentance describes his conversion with reference chiefly to what he turns from, and faith describes his conversion with reference chiefly to what he turns to; and each implies the other, there being no true repentance where there is no faith, and no true faith where there is no repentance; while both are wrought in the soul, at the time of its conversion, by the power of the Holy Ghost applying the truth as it is in Jesus. From this radical change of heart there flows an outward change of life, reformation of life proceeding from a renewed mind; first, 'the tree is made good, and the fruit becomes good also;' the fountain is purified, and the stream that flows from it is also pure.
The production of true faith is often spoken of in Scripture as amounting to the whole work of regeneration: 'Whoso believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God.' And again, 'To as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to as many as believe on his name; which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.' Here every one who really believes is said to be born of God; and as every true believer is a converted man, it follows that the production of saving faith is equivalent to the work of regeneration.
But then it must be a real scriptural faith such as is required in the Gospel; not the faith which the apostle James declares to be dead, but that living faith which is described in Scripture as a well-grounded belief resting on the sure testimony of God; a positive belief, not a mere negation, or absence of disbelief, nor a doubtful and wavering opinion, but a thorough conviction of mind; an intelligent belief, such as is inconsistent with blind ignorance, and implies a perception of the meaning of God's truth; a full and comprehensive belief, embracing all that is essential to be known in regard to the method of salvation; this belief implying scriptural apprehensions of God in his true character, of Christ in his person, as Immanuel, in the fullness of his offices as Mediator, his great design and his finished work, and of ourselves, as guilty, depraved, and exposed to a sentence of righteous condemnation. This belief, thus founded on God's testimony, and implying spiritual apprehensions of his truth, is a vital, active, and operative principle, bending the will to a compliance with God's call, awakening suitable emotions of reverence, fear, complacency, delight, love, and joy, renewing, transforming, purifying the soul, and effecting a complete change on all our practical habits. The production of this real, living, and sanctifying faith, is the great work of the Spirit in conversion, a work which implies or produces a universal change on all the faculties of our nature; so that as soon as this faith is implanted in his soul, the sinner becomes a new man, the truth of God, received by faith, renewing his understanding, his conscience, his will, his desires, his affections; 'old things pass away, and all things become new.'
Every believer, then, in the Gospel sense of that term, is born again; in other words, no one is a believer who is not regenerated, nor is any adult regenerated who is not a believer. The production of saving faith is that wherein regeneration properly consists. But then it must be such a faith as the Gospel requires and describes; and that faith, although it may have its seat in the understanding, implies a change in our whole moral nature, and especially a renewal of the will. The understanding is, in the order of nature, the leading and governing faculty of the soul, and it is by means of truth cordially believed that the great change is accomplished. But the truth is either not duly understood, or not really believed, where it works no change on the heart and habits of the sinner. He may read, and speak, and speculate about it, he may even embrace some fragments of it, and hold them tenaciously as the shibboleth of his party; but the substantial truth of Christ's Gospel cannot be really understood and believed by any man who remains unconverted. He is an unbeliever, if he be unregenerate. An unregenerated believer, or a regenerated unbeliever, are expressions which have no counterpart in the Word of God. And if it be so, then is it certain that the production of true Gospel faith is equivalent to being born again. It is true that many an unregenerate man may suppose that he believes, he may never have questioned the general truth of God's Word, he may even have ranged himself on the side of the Gospel, and by a public profession, or in private conversation, he may have often defended and maintained it; nay, he may have had many thoughts passing through his mind, many convictions awakened in his conscience, which show that he is not altogether ignorant or unimpressed; and sometimes under a Gospel ministry, he may, like the stony-ground hearers, have heard the message with emotions of delight and joy, and, like Herod, he may have gone forth and done many things in compliance with the preacher's call; and in such a case, it may seem to be a hard saying to affirm, that after all his reading, and hearing, and doing, he is, or may be, an unbeliever still. Yet I apprehend that nothing can be plainer from the Word of God than that these transient impressions may often be experienced by an unconverted man, and that the man who is not regenerated and transformed by his faith has no true faith at all. He may not question the truth, but neither does he fully understand and firmly believe it; he may embrace a part of it, but the substance of Gospel truth he excludes from his thoughts; instead of yielding his mind up wholly and unreservedly to its subduing and transforming power, he holds down or suppresses the truth in unrighteousness; and by a thousand shifts and expedients, the man who is unwilling to be brought wholly under its influence contrives to shut it out, while at the same time he may make a profession of a general faith. The mind which is unwilling to be thoroughly renewed manifests its unwillingness, not by refusing to obey the truth after it has been firmly believed, but at an earlier stage, by shutting its eyes to whatever in that truth is offensive to its taste.