The Spirit's Work in the Conversion of Lydia: Acts 16.13-15

by James Buchanan

THERE is one important circumstance which was common to all those cases of conversion that are recorded in Scripture, and which well deserves our most serious consideration; I mean the direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind of every true convert to the Christian faith, in the way of applying the truth, which is ordinarily the means of conversion. The agency of the Spirit is specially referred to by our Lord himself, in one of the last and most affecting of those addresses, which he delivered to his disciples before his death. And by comparing his words with other passages of Scripture, we learn that there were two very different ways in which the Spirit should act, or that there are two distinct modes of operation by which he carries into effect his great design. The one is external, and sensible; the other is internal, and spiritual. We read of 'the manifestation of the Spirit which is given to every man to profit withal;' and we read of the 'indwelling of the Spirit in the hearts of true believers.' In other words, the dispensation of the Gospel is called the 'ministration of the Spirit,' for two distinct reasons; first, on account of miraculous gifts which were vouchsafed to the apostles and first converts; and, secondly, on account of the enlightening, converting, and sanctifying grace which rendered the Gospel effectual for their salvation. There is a wide difference betwixt the two. They differ in their nature, their use, and their effects; the one being an appropriate evidence, a divine attestation of the truth; the other, a direct operation on the soul, by which it is renewed and quickened, and turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. And not only are they widely different; we have reason to believe that they might be separated from each other. Such being the difference betwixt the miraculous gifts and the inward graces of the Spirit, it is a delightful truth that the latter and the more valuable of the two is the permanent inheritance of the Christian Church. His miraculous gifts were to cease when they had fulfilled their end by establishing the truth; but his office did not cease. Nor was his work completed when, by his descent on the day of Pentecost and his subsequent effusion at Cæsarea on the Gentiles, the promise of the Father was fulfilled, and the truth of the Gospel established. Considered as an evidence, the gift of the Spirit was decisive; but evidence is not enough, nor an inspired Bible, nor a faithful ministry. In every human heart there is a spirit of unbelief and enmity, and many a lofty imagination, which exalteth itself against the knowledge of God; which is not overcome by any amount of evidence, or by the mere force of truth, and can only be subdued by the inward grace of the Spirit; and hence we learn that it belongs to his office, and forms a part of his blessed work, at all times, to 'shine into our hearts,' 'to renew us in the spirit of our mind,' 'to quicken us into spiritual life,' 'to open our eyes,' and 'to turn us from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.'

The direct personal operation of the Spirit on the soul of every convert is beautifully illustrated by the case of Lydia. It is said of her, that while she listened to the preaching of the Word, 'the Lord opened her heart, so that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.'

  1. In regard to her state and character before her conversion and baptism, the narrative, although extremely short, contains several intimations, which throw a very interesting light on her case, and that of a large class in our own time who resemble her in the chief points of their character. It is intimated that, like the Roman centurion and the Ethiopian treasurer, she was a proselyte to the Jewish faith, and a believer in the one only, the living and the true God. By birth a Gentile, and a native of Thyatira, she had come to Philippi as a seller of purple; and although a stranger, she maintained in the city of her adoption, and amidst the idolatries, which prevailed in it, a devout attachment to her religion, and continued in the worship of God. It is also intimated, I think, with sufficient clearness, that she was really devout, and imbued with a spirit of prayer; for not only did she observe the Sabbath, in conformity with the law of Moses, but, when probably no other opportunity was afforded of attending the ordinances of public worship, in a city where both the magistrates and the multitude seem to have been easily excited against any innovation in their public customs, she 'went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made.' It is deeply interesting to mark, that, at the time of her conversion, this devout woman was attending a prayer meeting, in the open air, by the water side, along with a few other women who were in the habit, it would seem, of assembling together for this purpose, for it is said that 'they resorted thither;' and it is not less interesting to notice, that Paul and his companions did not reckon it beneath them to join that humble meeting, but, on the contrary, leaving the noise and tumult of the city, they sought out the little band of praying women, and sat down beside them, and spake to them the word of life. And while they were thus engaged in prayer and conference, 'the Lord opened the heart of Lydia,' a striking proof of the immediate efficacy of prayer. Without prayer we have no reason to look for a blessing. God may, indeed, and sometimes does surprise a prayerless sinner: he is sometimes found of them that sought him not, as in the case of the gaoler in this same city; and then the first effect of his change will be the same that the Lord marked in the case of Paul, when he said, 'Behold, he prayeth!' But although this may happen in manifestation of God's sovereignty and the riches of his undeserved mercy, there is no promise in the Bible except to prayer, and that promise is alike unlimited and sure: 'Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.' 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.'

    It is implied, however, in the narrative, that while she was a proselyte to the Jewish faith, and a sincere worshipper of the true God, her heart was still shut or closed against the reception of the truth as it is in Jesus. It is said, 'the Lord opened her heart;' an expression which clearly implies that, devout as she was, her heart was in such a state, that, but for the gracious operation of the Spirit, it would have excluded the Gospel message. Such is the natural state of every heart; and by the heart, I mean, as is generally meant in Scripture, the whole moral nature of man, including alike his understanding, his conscience, his will, and his affections. In this comprehensive sense, the heart is closed against the reception of the truth, and every faculty presents an obstacle such as divine grace alone can remove. In reference to unregenerate men, it is expressly said that their understandings are shut against the light of the Gospel, insomuch that of the Jews, with the Old Testament in their hands, it is said, 'But their minds were blinded,' 'the veil was upon their hearts,' and 'if our Gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them;' and 'the natural man,' universally, 'receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.' And so the conscience is 'seared as with a hot iron,' the 'very mind and conscience is defiled,' and 'the heart is hardened; and thus there are many bars or obstacles which obstruct the entrance of the truth. There is the bar of ignorance: many 'hear the word,' but understand it not; and the wicked one takes away that which was sown; there is the bar of unbelief, which rejects the testimony of God; there is the bar of enmity, for 'the carnal mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be;' there is the bar of presumption or pride: 'The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God; God is not in all his thoughts;' there is the bar of discouragement and despair: 'Thou saidst there is no hope; for I have loved strangers, and after them will I go;' there is the bar of unwillingness: 'Ye will not come to me that ye might have life;' there is the bar of worldly-mindedness: 'The cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful;' there is the bar of sloth: 'A little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep;' there is the bar of vicious passion and depraved habits, any one bosom sin being enough to exclude the saving power of the truth: 'For this is the condemnation, that light hath come into the world, and that men have loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil.' Under the influence of these and similar hindrances, the heart is closed against the admission of the truth, closed as really as are the eyes of the blind or the ears of the deaf; for, says our Lord himself, 'In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them;' and in the same light does he represent the state of our own hearts, when he now says to each of us, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man will hear my voice, and will open the door, I will come in to him.'

    But it maybe asked: If Lydia was a sincere and devout worshipper of the true God, is it reasonable to suppose that her heart was thus shut against God's truth? I answer that, even in persons of true piety, there may be much remaining ignorance and many groundless prejudices, which, but for the enlightening grace of the Spirit, might prevent them from embracing the Gospel. This was remarkably exemplified in those 'devout and honourable women, and the chief men of the city, whom the Jews stirred up, and who raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts, insomuch that the apostles shook off the dust of their feet against them;' and still more in the case of Paul himself, who was a Pharisee, and the son of a Pharisee, living according to the straitest sect of the law, yet his heart was barred, by invincible prejudices, against the truth, until it was removed on his way to Damascus. And so of Lydia. She, too, was devout; but her heart was closed, until it was opened by the Lord. And many professors, in modern times, resemble her in this, being conscientious and devout according to their light, but still ignorant or unbelieving, or imbued with strong prejudice, 1 in regard to the Gospel of Christ; just as Nathanael himself, of whom our Lord said, 'Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile,' was yet so far influenced by mere prejudice as to say, in answer to the first intimation he received of the Messiah, 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?' And if, in such cases, divine agency be needful to open the heart for the reception of the truth, how much more in the vast majority, who are utterly irreligious and unconcerned!

  2. If we consider the means by which her conversion was effected, we shall find that here there was no miraculous accompaniment of any kind, but an example only of what takes place in the experience of every genuine convert. It is simply said, 'A certain woman heard us, whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.'

    But this pregnant statement brings before us, in a state of beautiful combination, two things, which are equally essential to a sinner's conversion: the first is, the agency of the Spirit; and the second is, the instrumentality of the Word. There was a direct personal operation of the Spirit on the heart of Lydia; he removed those obstacles, which might otherwise have obstructed the admission of the truth. It was not Paul who affected this. Paul preached; but though inspired with supernatural wisdom, and endowed with miraculous powers, and especially with the gift of tongues, he says himself, 'Paul may plant, and Apollos water; but God giveth the increase. Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, according as the Lord gave to every man!' God alone can open the heart. That change consisted in opening the understanding to discern the light of God's truth, the conscience to feel its convincing power, and the heart, to receive its sanctifying influence; and this belongs to the office of the Holy Ghost, whose work is heart-work, and consists of two parts, the opening of the Scriptures, and the opening of the mind, as we learn from the case of the disciples after his resurrection, of whom it is said in one place that they exclaimed, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us by the way, and opened unto us the Scriptures?' and in another, 'Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.'

    But while the Lord only can open the heart, he employs the truth as the instrument of conversion to the careless, and of edification to the devout inquirer. The Spirit's agency does not supersede the use of the Word: on the contrary, the truth read or heard is still the wisdom of God, and the power of God, unto salvation. 'The Lord opened the heart of Lydia,' but he did so 'that she might attend unto the things which were spoken of Paul.' It is by the truth contained in the Word that this great change is wrought, that being the instrument which the Spirit of God renders effectual; and hence, while we are said to be 'born of the Spirit,' we are also said to be 'born not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, even by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever;' and again, while the Spirit is revealed as the Sanctifier, our Lord himself prayed, in these memorable words, 'Sanctify them by thy truth; thy Word is truth.' And both are combined, both the agency of the Spirit and the instrumentality of the Word, in that comprehensive statement of the apostle, 'God hath from the beginning chosen you unto salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.' Various similitudes are employed to represent the same thing; the Word is compared to afire or furnace, in which His people are melted and tried, but the Lord sits as a refiner over it; and as a hammer, a powerful instrument, but inert in itself, and effectual only when applied by a powerful arm; and as a sword, 'the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God,' a sharp two-edged sword, but utterly powerless unless it be applied by the Spirit. So David's prayer combines a reference to both: 'Open thou mine eyes, that I may see wonderful things out of thy law.'

  3. The nature of Lydia's change, and the practical results which flowed from it, are briefly indicated; but enough is said to show, that she had that 'faith which worketh by love,' and in which properly consists 'the new creation;' for we read that she was baptized, thereby professing her faith in Christ, and her submission to his authority, and that, too, in a city where the professors of the Gospel were exposed to reproach and persecution; that, as soon as she was baptised, she besought the apostles, saying, 'If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there,' her faith working by love to Christ and to his ministering servants, and producing zeal for his cause and service, such as prompted her to make sacrifices for his name's sake; and if these principles of faith and love were really planted' in her heart, they would unquestionably produce in her after-life all the 'peaceable fruits of righteousness.'

    The case of Lydia suggests various practical lessons. It affords an example of the care with which God provided for the instruction of sincere inquirers in the Jewish Church. It shows, in a very striking light, the efficacy of prayer, as a means of spiritual advancement. It illustrates the necessity of a great spiritual change, even in the case of such as are regular in their attendance on ordinances, and conscientious according to their light. It affords a beautiful exemplification of the relative functions of the Word and Spirit in the work of conversion, and enforces the duty of combining diligence, in the use of means, with a spirit of dependence on the divine blessing. And it shows how different are the feelings of one 'whose heart the Lord has opened' towards his faithful ministers, and those of the ungodly multitude: - she constrained the apostles to reside in her house; they rose against them, and committed them to prison, making their feet fast in the stocks.

From the Spirit's Work in the Conversion of Sinners by James Buchanan

 See John M'Laurin's Essay on 'Prejudices against the Gospel.'


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