by James Buchanan
WE come now to consider that great change which is so frequently spoken of in Scripture under the various names of conversion, repentance, and regeneration; and which is described by the expressive figures of passing from darkness to light, and of rising from death to life.
And that we may clearly understand wherein it properly consists, and perceive its relation to the truths, which have already been illustrated, it is important to observe:
That this great change is usually preceded by a preparatory work of instruction and conviction, which differs in different cases in respect to its extent, duration, and result; but which, in some degree, is necessarily implied, or presupposed, in every case of real conversion in adult age.
There is often a preparation of mind going before conversion, by which the mind is fitted for its great change, just as wood, by being dried, becomes ready for catching fire when the torch is applied to it. This preparatory work consists chiefly in the instruction of the understanding, and conviction of the conscience, and is promoted gradually, and often for a long time before conversion, by the reading of the Word, by the lessons of a gospel ministry, by Christian society and conversation; while it is often more rapidly advanced by those dispensations of Providence which impress the mind with a sense of the unsatisfying and uncertain nature of all earthly good, and which bring before it the realities of death, and judgment, and eternity. By such means the mind is often instructed, and the conscience awakened, long before that change is wrought upon it, which is described as real, saving conversion.
This preparatory work may be more or less extensive. Sometimes it amounts to little more than a few occasional thoughts of God and eternity, by which the mind of a sinner is haunted when he least expects or wishes to be troubled by them; but which have not sufficient power over him to attract his serious attention to the things, which concern his peace. Sometimes, again, the sinner is so situated, that, by the daily reading of the Word, and by regular attendance on ordinances, he acquires, before his conversion, a clear and comprehensive acquaintance with all the leading doctrines of divine truth; so that he may be apt to suppose that little remains to be added to his knowledge until, by the teaching of the Spirit, he sees that the light which was in him has been but darkness, and that he knew nothing yet as he ought; and so conviction of sin may be occasional or constant, and more or less intense, while as yet he remains in an unconverted state.
This preparatory work may be more or less protracted. With some it issues in immediate conversion, as in the case of the thief on the cross; with others it tends gradually and slowly to the same result, as in the case of those who stay long at the 'place of the breaking forth of children;' while, with not a few it stops short of conversion, and leaves them, at the end of life, as doubting and undecided as it found them.
For this preparatory work of instruction and conviction may issue in very different results. Whether it be considered as the fruit of a man's natural faculties exercised on the truths of God's Word, or as the fruit of a common work of the Spirit on his mind, it is clear that, while it is good and useful in itself, as having a tendency, a fitness as a means in order to conversion, it does nevertheless fall frequently short of it, and terminates without effecting a saving change. It may be the work of the Spirit of God notwithstanding. The grace of the Holy Spirit has usually been considered and treated of under distinct heads, 'as preparing, preventing, working, co-working, and confirming. 0 And difficult as it may be to assign the reason why the Spirit's grace is more effectual in some than in others, there can be no difficulty in understanding the causes, which render his grace ineffectual in the case of many who are convinced without being converted. Such persons have been instructed in the knowledge of divine truth, and they have been visited with occasional, and sometimes with deep convictions of conscience; but they fall short of conversion - why? first, because, in the spirit of unbelief, they slight the testimony of God and the warnings of their own consciences, resisting the light, or refusing to apply the truth to their own case; secondly, because, in the spirit of carnal security, they love a false peace, and refuse to be disturbed out of their pleasant dreams, and would willingly be let alone to enjoy their fatal slumber; thirdly, because in the spirit of rebellion against God, they cleave to that accursed thing which he denounces, their heart's love being given to some sin, even while, perhaps, their conscience condemns it; fourthly, because, in the spirit of the world, which is enmity against God, they allow other influences, even 'the lust of the eye, or the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life,' to wear out and obliterate from their minds the impression of God's Word and Spirit; and the gay counsel of ungodly companions, or the taunts and sneers of mere formalists in religion, or the easy doctrines of false teachers, who say, Peace, peace, when there is no peace, have greater power over them than the combined testimony of their own consciences, of God's faithful ministers, and of His Holy Spirit of truth; and lastly, because the 'prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience,' leads their will captive to his sway, even when it is urged by all the motives of the gospel to repent and be saved. Oh! it is a fearful case, the case of a man thus enlightened in his understanding, thus convinced in his conscience, thus far brought on in the way which leads to conversion, and yet deliberately stopping short, wilfully turning aside, resolutely resisting all the teaching of God's Word and Spirit; but it is one which will make it plain on the last day, that, if he perish, it is not because he had no knowledge, and no conviction, but because he has stifled both. To that man may God himself say, 'What more could I have done for my vine that I have not done for it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth-wild grapes? Even as now, the same God is saying to every such sinner, 'As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die, O house of Israel?
But while, from these and similar causes, the preparatory work of instruction and conviction may come short of saving conversion, some such work is necessarily presupposed in that great change of heart. Not that we hold any natural or moral qualification to be indispensable for the efficacy of the Spirit's work. No! 'the wind bloweth where it listeth,' and the Spirit may come suddenly to a heart which, till then, was wholly unprepared to receive him. His gifts were bestowed on Saul, without any moral qualification, when he prophesied; and on Amos, without any natural qualification, when the Lord took him as he followed the flock, and said to him, Go, prophesy; and so, in his converting grace, he called the thief on the cross suddenly, and he converted three thousand murderers of the Lord at once on the day of Pentecost. Such unexpected and sudden conversions he is often pleased to effect, for the purpose of impressing us with the reality and the power of his gracious operations on the hearts of men, and with the certainty of his continued agency in the Church of God. But in other cases, previous instruction and education are employed as a preparatory means, so that every faculty is filled; like pipes laid under ground with the gaseous fluid, there is no light, but there is a real preparation for light; and when the Spirit applies the torch, the fluid is converted into flame. And, universally, without excepting the most sudden conversions, this change implies and presupposes some knowledge in the understanding, and some conviction in the conscience; they may be suddenly produced, and simultaneously there may be a change of heart, but, in the order of nature, that change presupposes these things: for it is a change of will, which implies a motive; it consists in embracing Christ as a Saviour, and this implies a sense of danger; it is called repentance, and this implies a sense of sin. So that even in the case of the most sudden conversion, the understanding must be to some extent enlightened, and the conscience convinced, before that decisive change is wrought in which conversion properly consists. Take the remarkable case of the malefactor on the cross; and even here you will see a preparatory work, of short continuance no doubt, but still real, and implying both instruction and conviction. Suppose that this sinner came to the cross with no more knowledge of the Saviour than the other who reviled him, still on the cross there was presented to his mind as much truth as was necessary to convince and convert him. From the words of the blasphemers who stood around him, who said in mockery, but with truth, 'He saved others,' from the inscription on Christ's cross, 'This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,' and from the prayer of Christ, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' - from these sources proceeded to the soul of this malefactor as much truth as was necessary for his conversion; it enlightened his mind, it convinced his conscience; it had power, when applied by the Spirit, to make him believe and pray, 'Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.' And so in other cases of sudden conversion, such as that of Paul, of the Philippian jailer, and of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost; although there was no moral qualification of any kind beforehand, the understanding was enlightened, and the conscience convinced by such truth as was then presented, and this issued in thorough conversion to God.
Conversion is not a partial work on any one faculty, but a change on every faculty of the mind, whereby the sinner is renewed really, though not perfectly, in the whole man after the image of God.
It takes effect on the understanding, when the understanding is enlightened by the Spirit; on the conscience, when the conscience is convinced by the Spirit; on the will, when the will is subdued by the Spirit; on the affections, when the affections are purified, and refined, and elevated by the Spirit; and on the life, when the life is regulated by the Spirit, and conformed to the rule of God's law.
As in conversion all the faculties of the soul are renewed, and restored to their proper uses and ends, so no one of them can be renewed without a renewal of every other; and hence the change that is wrought in any one of them is often used in Scripture to denote the whole of this great work. The terms, which are employed to describe this change, are relative, and have each of them a reference to the previous state of the soul in that respect wherein it is changed. Thus, illumination has respect to the soul as darkened; regeneration to the soul as dead; repentance to the soul as convinced of its sinfulness; conversion to the soul as turned from the error of its ways; renovation to the soul as renewed after the image which it had lost. And these are so inseparably linked together, that any one of them is often used to describe the whole change which is wrought in the soul by the Spirit of God; as when the apostle describes it by saying, 'God hath shined into our hearts;' and again, 'You hath he quickened;' and again, 'Repent and be converted;' and again, 'Whosoever believeth shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.' Such, it would seem, is the saving grace of the Spirit, that it takes effect alike on the understanding, the conscience, the will, the affections, and the practical habits, leaving no part of our nature in its original state, but renewing every part, and restoring it to healthful exercise. And hence all 'old things pass away, and all things become new;' the understanding obtains new light, the conscience new power, the will a new bias, the affections a new object, the life a new rule and end; so that the whole man is renewed, and a new impress and image stamped upon it. But that image is yet imperfect, and far from resembling, in all respects, the likeness of Him after whom it is formed. No faculty of our nature is left unchanged; but neither is any faculty changed at once into a state of perfection. The understanding, the conscience, the will, the affections, the habits of a true convert, are all brought under the influence of the Holy Ghost; but he does not restore them at once to full health and vigour; he renews, but does not perfect them at the time of conversion.
These views may serve to guard against two errors, the one consisting in the supposition, which is too apt to be entertained by nominal professors, that a few notions infused into the understanding, a few convictions awakened in the conscience, a few emotions excited in the heart, amount to the whole of that change which is implied in conversion; the other is the apprehension incident to true Christians, that because they have reason to mourn over the imperfection of every grace that is the fruit of the Spirit, they cannot have been converted or renewed after the image of God. These errors lie at the two opposite extremes, the one of carnal and unwarranted security, the other of Christian doubt and fear.
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.
One characteristic difference betwixt the preparatory work of instruction and conviction which is often experienced by unconverted men, and the effectual work of saving conversion, consists in this, that, in the latter case, all voluntary resistance to God's gracious will is overcome, and the sinner is made willing to close with the Gospel call.
Every sinner's heart offers resistance to God's truth. There is a resistance arising from unbelief, which refuses to receive his testimony; there is a resistance arising from pride, which repels his charges and accusations; there is a resistance arising from the natural enmity of the carnal mind, which opposes itself to his authority; there is a resistance arising from the prevailing love of sin, which recoils from the purity and spirituality of his service. Hence many a man who has experienced much of a common work of conviction, and who has acquired some clear knowledge of the scheme of divine truth, is nevertheless found to stop short, and stand still, or turn aside, when he seems to be in a promising way towards conversion, just because, when it comes to the point, he cannot make up his mind to a full and cordial reception of the Gospel. Convinced as he is, and perhaps troubled with his convictions of sin and danger, and enlightened as he is in the knowledge of that way of salvation which the Gospel reveals, he would willingly grasp at some of those blessings which it holds out to him; willingly, most willingly, would he secure the pardon of his sins, and exemption from the wrath to come, and some good hope of a happy, or at least a safe eternity; but when he looks into the Gospel, and finds that, if he would close with Christ, he must close with him out and out; that if he would obtain pardon, he must take a new heart along with it; that if he would be saved from hell, he must consent to be made meet for heaven; that he must receive the Holy Spirit into his heart, and live under the power of faith, and walk in the path of humility and self-denial and devotedness to God, that he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Christ, and that he must submit to be saved from his sins - oh! then he finds that there is much in the Gospel which he most earnestly desires to secure, but much also in the same Gospel, and inseparable from it, which he is most anxious to shun; he hesitates; he would take a free pardon, but he will not take a full Gospel salvation; his heart recoils from it; and at this point, this critical, this decisive point, when he is choosing for eternity, choosing betwixt life and death, betwist heaven and hell - at this decisive point, when the full salvation is freely offered, and placed at his acceptance, and his eternal welfare might be secured by his willingly taking it, here, when nothing but his own unwillingness stands in the way, he pauses, he stops, he will not yield, he falls short of conversion.
Such is the case of a man half convinced, half persuaded to be a Christian; and it affords a melancholy confirmation of the Scripture doctrine that it is the sinner's unwillingness that constitutes the only bar to his conversion, the sure and equitable ground of his future condemnation. And if this be the great characteristic difference betwixt such a man and a true convert, it follows that a real willingness to close with Christ, and to receive a full salvation, that this, although a simple, is a strong and sure evidence of conversion to God. It is this, indeed, which is everywhere set forth in Scripture as the turning point, the crisis, the decisive change. Every man that is really willing to be saved in the full Gospel sense, to be saved out and out without exception and without reserve, has really undergone a change such as no human power could accomplish. No man who is really willing, in this sense, to come to Christ, and to close with him, has ever been, or ever will be, sent empty away. It is the will on which all depends. If the will be ranged on the side of God and Christ, it was the Spirit that placed it there; if the will be changed, all is changed; if the will be won over to the Gospel, the Gospel is won over, with all its blessings and promises, to the sinner's side.
This decisive change admits of no degrees, and is substantially the same in all cases, while it is circumstantially different. Conversion may be preceded by certain preparatory means which have a fitness and tendency towards it; and it may be followed by an after-growth; but, in itself, it is a quickening of the soul, by which it passes from death unto life, and a decisive change, by which it is translated from the kingdom of darkness, and brought into the kingdom of God's dear Son.
There is no one point in its history at which it can be said of any soul, that it is neither converted nor unconverted. Conversion admits of no degrees. A man may be more or less wicked in his natural state, and he may be more or less holy in his regenerate state; but he cannot be more or less converted; he must either be converted or unconverted, regenerate or unregenerate, alive or dead. There is no middle way. Every man who is not converted is a mere natural, unregenerate man, however rational, moral, and amiable he may be in the common relations of life.
This decisive change is, in substance, the same in all, while it admits of endless diversity in the circumstances by which it is accompanied. The varieties that may occur in the experience of true converts are almost infinite. Some are suddenly converted as soon as their thoughts are arrested and fixed on divine truth; others are carried on, gradually, along a protracted course of preparatory instruction; some are visited with deep convictions of sin, and terrible alarm of conscience; others no sooner see their sins than they are enabled to rejoice in the remedy; some are excited and agitated, even to the disturbing of the bodily functions; others meekly receive the ingrafted Word, and drink in the dew of heaven quietly, as the silent flower. All these varieties may occur, and it is important to mark them; because we are thus guarded against the error of seeking in our experience all the circumstantials, which we have heard or read of as accompanying the conversion of others. The experience of others is not, in these respects, a rule to us; the Spirit acts how he will, and exercises a sovereignty in this matter; it is enough if we have the substance of true conversion. Now that substance is the same in all: it consists in true faith, such faith as subdues the will, and closes with Christ according to the terms of the covenant; in other words, it consists in a change of mind and heart, by which it turns from sin unto God through Jesus Christ; and he who can find the evidence of this change in himself need feel no alarm about the absence of mere circumstantial and non-essential accompaniments.
This decisive change is wrought by the truths of God's Word, applied and rendered effectual by the Holy Ghost. The Spirit of God is the agent by whom this work is wrought. It is everywhere ascribed to him in Scripture. He opens the eye; He enlightens the mind; He works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. The truths of God's Word are the means by which the Spirit effects this change in the case of adult persons.
We are 'born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.' 'The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.' 'I have begotten you by the Gospel.' These and similar expressions clearly show that the Word, or the truth contained in the Word, is the instrument by which the Spirit of God accomplishes the great change of mind and heart which is implied in saving conversion. Many questions have been raised upon this point, and agitated with great keenness, as whether the Spirit's influence is exerted mediately or immediately on the mind by a direct physical impulse or by intermediate moral means; and whether, in the order of nature, the illumination of the mind be prior or subsequent to the production of a spiritual principle in the heart: but for my present purpose it is unnecessary to discuss these questions, - it being acknowledged on all hands, that the truth contained in the Word is instrumentally useful as a means in the hand of the Spirit. And even were it impossible to explain the mode of his operation, we shall find no difficulty in admitting its reality notwithstanding, if we bear in mind that it is 'a new creation' of which we speak, a supernatural change, such as cannot in all respects be explained any more than the creation of the world itself; for 'the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we cannot tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth; and so is every one that is born of the Spirit.'
The truth is so applied by the Spirit as to be made effectual for conversion. It accomplishes the design for which it is fitted and intended; it convinces the understanding, it carries the will along with it. The call of the Gospel takes effect, and becomes effectual calling, when the sinner is thus enabled and disposed to close with it. The work of the Spirit includes moral suasion; but it is also 'a work of power.' (Ephesians 1:19). We are made a 'willing people in the day of his power.' On this point also a question has been raised - whether the grace of the Spirit be irresistible or not? It is clear that unconverted men are charged with 'resisting the Holy Ghost;' for 'God strives with them, and they strive against God:' but that grace which they resist is rendered effectual in the case of all who believe, not by virtue of any power in themselves, but by God's power, 'who worketh in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure.' And to those who are inclined to deny the efficacy of the Spirit's grace, I would only suggest the question: What do you pray for when you implore God to enlighten, to sanctify, and comfort you? Is it merely that he would give you the means of instruction, and sanctification, and comfort? or is it not rather that he would make these means effectual in your experience, by dispelling your darkness and subduing your corruptions, and saving you by his mighty power? All your speculative doubts on this point will vanish, if you will only consider the import of your own prayers.
Regeneration implies a great deal more than mere moral amendment, or external reformation of life. It is a change of heart. 'The tree must be made good before the fruit can be good.' A new birth is essential to a new life. There is no real holiness, except what springs from a renewed heart. 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh: that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'
This decisive change is so important that our eternal welfare depends upon it, our state and relation to God here, and our everlasting destiny hereafter. Converted or unconverted, that is the great question. If converted, then pardoned, safe, sanctified, interested iii all the privileges and in all the promises of the Gospel. If unconverted, then unforgiven, unsafe, unsanctified, and destitute of all interest in any one privilege or promise of the Gospel.
Were the question asked, Are you converted? various answers might be returned to it, if every reader would only express what is passing in his own mind. Some might answer at one: No! we have no hesitation, no difficulty in coming to a decision: the inmost feelings of our hearts, and the whole habits of our lives, testify, with sufficient plainness, that we have not been converted: we see no need, and feel no desire for so great a change! Some others might say: Yes! we believe ourselves to be converted. But of these there may be two very different classes, the one, who really are what they profess themselves to be; the other, who have a name to live, while they are dead. Many more might say, We are in doubt as to this matter; we cannot fully determine whether we have yet undergone so great a change; we fluctuate betwixt assurance and doubt - betwixt hope and fear. And of these also there may be two distinct classes, the one really converted, although they know it not; the other as really unconverted, although they fancy that they have some reason to think they may have undergone some slight change.
Now it belongs not to man to decide as to the condition of individuals; every one must decide for himself. But the transcendent importance of the subject, as one on which the eternity of every soul depends, affords a strong reason why we should come to some decisive determination.
In regard to those who are in doubt as to their spiritual condition, I admit at once that a man may be really converted, and yet may not be so fully aware of the change that has been wrought upon him as to be able to use the strong language of the full assurance of hope; but they ought to be reminded that it is their duty to 'give all diligence to make their calling and election sure,' and not to sink into indifference and security when, according to their own confession, every thing that most nearly concerns them in time and in eternity is in doubt. Mere doubt as to the fact of a saving change having been already wrought may not be a sufficient evidence of their being unconverted; but indifference, sloth, and security, existing along with such doubts, and cherished while the soul is yet at this awful uncertainty - these are evil symptoms, and should be seriously considered. Pray that you may be converted, and that your calling and election may be made sure.
But may a man who is in doubt as to his being yet converted, or who has reason to think that as yet he is unregenerate - may such a man pray? I answer, unquestionably; nay, a really unregenerate person may be exhorted to pray for regenerating grace. Witness the apostle's words to Simon Magus, words which proceed on a great general principle, viz., that whatever God requires in a way of duty, we should do, in dependence on his grace to help us. The unregenerate man has duties that are required of him; and it cannot be thought that his present condition, however depraved and helpless, releases him from the obligation. The danger of his present state should urge him to pray, and seek, and knock; while the gracious promise of the Holy Spirit should encourage him. That promise is indefinite, and is exhibited and proposed in the general doctrines, and calls, and invitations of the Gospel, so as to afford a sufficient warrant for faith to every sinner in drawing near to God.
Excerpt from The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit by James Buchanan (eBook)