Works of the Holy Spirit Preparatory to Regeneration

by John Owen

Various things preparatory to the work of conversion — Material and formal dispositions, with their difference — Things in the power of our natural abilities required of us as our duty — Internal, spiritual effects worked in the souls of men by the word — Illumination — Conviction of sin — Consequents of this — These things variously taught — Power of the word and energy of the Spirit distinct — Subject of this work; mind, affections, and conscience — Nature of this whole work, and difference from saving conversion further declared.

First, in reference to the work of regeneration itself, positively considered, we may observe that ordinarily there are certain previous and preparatory works, or workings in and upon the souls of men, that are antecedent and dispositive to regeneration. Yet regeneration does not consist in them, nor can it be educed out of them. For the substance of it, this is the position of the divines of the Church of England at the synod of Dort, two of whom died bishops, and others were dignified in the hierarchy. I mention it so that those by whom these things are despised, may consider a little whose ashes they trample on and scorn. It is doubtless lawful for any man, on just grounds, to dissent from their judgments and determinations;482 but to do it with an imputation of folly, with derision, contempt, scorn, and scoffing at what these men believed and taught, becomes only a generation of new divines among us.

But to return; I speak in this position only about those who are adult, and not converted until they have made use of the means of grace in and by their own reasons and understandings; and the dispositions I intend are only materially so, not those which contain grace of the same nature as regeneration itself. A material disposition is that which disposes and in some way makes a subject fit to receive what will be communicated, added, or infused into it as its form. So wood is made fit and ready for firing, or continual fire, by dryness and a due composure. A formal disposition is where one degree of the same kind disposes the subject to further degrees of it; just as the morning light, which is of the same kind, disposes the air to receive the full light of the [noon] sun. The former we allow here; not the latter. Thus, in natural generation there are various dispositions of the matter before the form is introduced. So the body of Adam was formed before the rational soul was breathed into it; and Ezekiel's bones came together with a noise and shaking before the breath of life entered into them.Eze 37.7-10

I will give here only a summary account of this preparatory work, because at the close of these discourses I will handle it practically and more at large. Therefore, what I have to offer here concerning this work, will be reduced to the ensuing observations:

First, There are some things required of us by way of duty in order for our regeneration, which are so much in the power of our own natural abilities, that nothing but corrupt prejudices and stubbornness in sinning, keep or hinder men from performing them. We may reduce these to two headings:

1. An outward attendance to the dispensation of the word of God, with those other external means of grace which accompany it, or are appointed in this. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God," Rom 10.17; that is, it is hearing the word of God which is the ordinary means of ingenerating faith in the souls of men. This is required of all those to whom the gospel comes; and they are able to do this of themselves, as well as any other natural or civil action. And where men don't do it, where they despise the word at a distance — indeed, where they don't do it with diligence and choice — it is merely from supine483 negligence of spiritual things, from carnal security and contempt of God, which they must answer for.

2. A diligent intension of mind, using the means of grace, in order to understand and receive the things that are revealed and declared as the mind and will of God. For this end, God has given men their reasons and understandings: so that they may use and exercise them about their duty towards him, according to the revelation of his mind and will. To this purpose, God calls upon them to remember that they are men, and to turn to him. And there is nothing in this that is not in the liberty and power of the rational faculties of our souls, assisted by those common aids which God affords to all men in general.

And great advantages may be, and are, daily attained by this. Persons, I say, who diligently apply their rational abilities in and about spiritual things, as externally revealed in the word and in its preaching, usually attain great advantages by it. And they excel their equals in other things, as Paul did when he was instructed at the feet of Gamaliel. If men would only be as intent and diligent in their endeavors after knowledge in spiritual things, suitable to our capacities and understandings, as they are to get skill in crafts, sciences, and other mysteries of life, it would be far different with many than it is. Neglect in this is also the fruit of sensuality, spiritual sloth, love of sin, and contempt of God — all of which are the voluntary frames and actings of the minds of men. These things are required of us for our regeneration; and it is in the power of our own wills to comply with them. We may observe concerning them that —

1. Their omission, men's neglect in them, is the principal occasion and cause of the eternal ruin of the souls of most of those to whom, or among whom, the gospel is preached:

John 3.19 "This is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."

Most men know full well in this matter, that they no more do what they are able to do, than what they should do. All pleadable pretenses of inability and weakness are far from them. They can only know here, and be forced to confess hereafter, that it was merely from their own cursed sloth, along with love of the world and sin, that they were diverted from a diligent attendance to the means of conversion, and the sedulous484 exercise of their minds about them. Complaints of this against them, will make up a great part of their last dreadful cry.

2. In the most diligent use of outward means, men are not able to attain regeneration, or a complete conversion to God, by themselves — not without an especial, effectual, internal work of the Holy Spirit of grace on their whole soul. The substance of what is principally proposed in the ensuing discourses to confirm this, need not be asserted here.

3. Ordinarily in the effectual dispensation of his grace, God meets with those who attend with diligence to the outward administration of the means of grace. He ordinarily does so, I say, in comparison to those who despise and neglect them. Yes, sometimes he goes out of his way, as it were, to meet with and bring home to himself a persecuting Saul,Act 9.3-5 taking him in, and taking him away from a course of open sin and rebellion. But ordinarily he dispenses his particular and special grace among those who attend to the common means of that grace. For he will both glorify his word by that, and give out pledges of his approbation485 of our obedience to his commands and institutions.

Secondly, There are certain internal spiritual effects worked in and upon the souls of men, of which the word preached is the immediate and instrumental cause; these ordinarily precede the work of regeneration, or our real conversion to God. And they are reducible to three heads:

1. Illumination;

2. Conviction;

3. Reformation.

The first of these respects the mind only; the second, the mind, conscience, and affections; and the third, the life and conduct:

1. The first is illumination. We must distinctly address its nature and causes afterward. At present, I will only consider it as it is ordinarily previous to regeneration, and as it materially disposes the mind to this regeneration. Now, all the light which we attain to by any means, or any knowledge that we have in or about spiritual things — things of supernatural revelation — come under this designation of illumination. And there are three degrees of this:

(1.) That which arises merely from an industrious application of the rational faculties of our souls to know, perceive, and understand the doctrines of truth as revealed to us; for hereby much knowledge of divine truth may be obtained, which others are unacquainted with through their negligence, sloth, and pride.

And this knowledge I refer to as illumination — that is, a light superadded to the innate conceptions of men's minds, and beyond what they can extend to of themselves — this is because it concerns things that the heart of man could never conceive of by itself, but the very knowledge of them is communicated by their revelation, 1Cor 2.9-11.486 And the reason why so very few exercise themselves to attain this knowledge according to their abilities, is because of the enmity which is naturally in the carnal minds of all men to the things that are revealed. And within the compass of this degree, I comprise all knowledge of spiritual things that is merely natural.

(2.) There is an illumination which is a special effect of the Holy Ghost on the minds of men by the word. With respect to this, some who fall totally from God and perish eternally are said to have been "once enlightened," Heb 6.4. This light variously affects the mind, and it makes a great addition to what is purely natural, or attainable by the mere exercise of our natural abilities. For,

[1.] It adds perspicuity to it, making the things discerned clearer and more perspicuous to the mind. Hence men endowed with it are said to "know the way of righteousness," 2Pet 2.21 — they clearly and distinctly apprehend the doctrine of the gospel as the way of righteousness. They know it not only or merely as true, but as a way of righteousness — namely, the way of God's righteousness which, in this illumination, is "revealed from faith to faith," Rom 1.17, and as the way of righteousness for sinners in the sight of God, Rom 10.3-4.487

[2.] It adds a greater assent to the truth of the things revealed than mere natural reason can rise to. Hence those who are thus illuminated are frequently said to "believe;" their faith is only the naked assent of their minds to the truth revealed to them. So it is said of Simon the magician in Acts 8.13, and of various Jews, as in John 2.23, 12.42.488

[3.] It adds to them some kind of vanishing joy. These "receive the word with joy," and yet they have "no root in themselves," Luke 8.13. They "rejoice in the light" of it, at least "for a season," John 5.35. Persons who are thus enlightened, will be variously affected by the word, unlike those whose natural faculties are not spiritually excited.

[4.] It often adds gifts also, of which this spiritual light is the common matter between them, as it were; yet in its exercise, it is formed and fashioned in great variety. I say, this kind of spiritual light, the effect of this illumination, is the subject-matter which contains in it the substance of all spiritual gifts. It is one sort of gift when applied and exercised in one way, or in one kind of duty; and it is another sort of gift, as it is exercised in another way or duty. And where illumination is improved into gifts, which is principally by its exercise, there it wonderfully affects the mind, and it raises its apprehensions in and of spiritual things.

Now, concerning this degree of illumination, I say, first, That it is not regeneration, nor does regeneration consist in this, nor does it necessarily or infallibly ensue from it. A third degree is required for this, which we will explain afterward. Many, therefore, may be thus enlightened, and yet never be converted. Secondly, in order of nature, illumination is previous to a full and real conversion to God, and it is materially preparatory and dispositive to this conversion — for saving grace enters into the soul by light. As it is therefore a gift of God, so it is the duty of all men to labor after participating in it, even though it is abused by many.

2. Conviction of sin is another effect of the preaching of the word antecedent to real conversion to God. The apostle describes this in general: 1Cor 14.24-25, "If all prophesy, and an unbeliever comes in, he is convicted by all: and thus the secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so falling down on his face, he will worship God." Various things are included in this, or accompany it; such as —

(1.) A disquieting sense of the guilt of sin with respect to the law of God, with his threatenings and future judgment. Things that were slighted and mocked before, now become the soul's burden and constant disquietude. "Fools mock sin;" Pro 14.9 they traverse their ways, and sniff the wind like the wild ass; but in their month, when conviction has burdened them, you may find them.Jer 2.24 And hereby the minds of men are variously affected by fears and anguish, and in various degrees489 according to the impressions made on them by the word. And these degrees are not prescribed as necessary duties to persons who are under their convictions, but are only described as they usually fall out, for the relief and direction of those concerned in them. It is like a man who gives directions to another, how to guide his course in a voyage at sea. He tells him that in such a place he will meet with rocks and shelves, storms and cross winds, so that if he does not steer very carefully, he will be in danger of [shipwreck] and being cast away. He does not prescribe it to him as his duty to sail among such rocks and into such storms; but he only directs him how to guide himself in them where he does meet with them, as he assuredly will if he misses his proper course.

(2.) Sorrow or grief for sin committed, because it is past and irrecoverable; this is the formal reason for this condemning sorrow. Scripture calls this the "sorrow of the world," 2Cor 7.10; divines usually call it legal sorrow, as that which, in conjunction with the sense of the guilt of sin mentioned, brings men into bondage under fear, Rom 8.15.

(3.) Humiliation for sin, which is the exercise or working of sorrow and fear in outward acts of confession, fasting, praying, and the like. This is the true nature of legal humiliation, 1Kng 21.29.

(4.) Unless the soul is swallowed up in despair by these things, it cannot be filled with those thoughts, desires, inquiries, and contrivances about a deliverance from that state and condition in which it finds itself; as in Acts 2.37, 16.30.490

3. Oftentimes a great reformation of life, and a change in affections, ensue upon this; Mat 13.20; 2Pet 2.20; Mat 12.44.491

All these things [concerning illumination and conviction] may be worked in the minds of men by the dispensation of the word, and yet the work of regeneration is never perfected in them. Indeed, although they are good in themselves, and they are fruits of the kindness of God towards us, they may not only be lost as to any spiritual advantage, but they may also be abused to our great disadvantage. And this does not come to pass except by our own sin, by which we contract a new guilt upon our souls. And that commonly happens in one of these three ways; for —

1. Some are in no way careful or wise to improve this light and conviction to the end to which they tend and are designed. Their message is to turn the minds of men, and take them away from their self-confidence, and direct them to Christ. Where this is not attended to, where they are not used and improved to pursue this end, they imperceptibly wither, decay, and come to nothing.

2. In some they are overborne by the power and violence of their lusts, the love of sin, and the efficacy of temptation. They are sinned away every day, leaving the soul in ten times worse a condition than they found it.

3. Some rest in these things, as though they comprised the whole work of God towards them, and guided them in all the duties required of them. This is the state of many where they extend their power, in the last instance, to any considerable reformation of life, and attendance to the duties of religious worship. But as was said, this happens through the abuse to which the carnal minds of men put these things, as they retain their enmity against God. Yet, in their own nature they are good, useful, and material preparations for regeneration, disposing the mind to receive the grace of God.

The doctrine concerning these things has been variously handled, distinguished, and applied, by many learned divines and faithful ministers of the gospel. They joined to that light which they received them from the infallible word of truth, those experiences which they had observed in their own hearts, and the consciences of others with whom they had to deal, which were suitable to this. And in dispensing this truth according to the "measure of the gift of the grace of Christ" which they severally received, they had a useful and fruitful ministry in the world, converting many to God.

But we have lived to see all these things decried and rejected. And the way which some have taken in this, is as strange and uncouth492 as the thing itself — for not once do they try to disprove by Scripture or reason, what has been taught or delivered by any sober persons to this purpose. Nor do they endeavor to declare from or by the Scriptures, what the work of regeneration is, or what its causes and effects are in opposition to this teaching.

These and like ways of teaching, made use of by all those who have addressed spiritual things from the foundation of Christianity, are despised and rejected; while horrible and contemptuous reproaches are cast upon the things themselves, in words that are heaped together on purpose to expose these teachings to scorn among persons who are ignorant of the gospel and of themselves. They call those who teach them "ecstatic and illiterate;" and those who receive them are called "superstitious, giddy, and fanatical." All conviction, sense of sin, and sorrow for it; all fear of the curse and wrath which are due for sin; all troubles and distresses of the mind because of these things — are called by some, "foolish imaginations, the effects of bodily diseases and distempers, enthusiastic notions arising from the disorders of men's brains," and I know not what unseemly "moods in their attitudes and constitutions."493 The same or similar account is also given concerning all spiritual deserts, or joys and refreshments. And the whole doctrine concern these works of the Spirit, is branded a fad; hopes are expressed that it would suddenly vanish out of the world.

We have lived to see this contempt and scorn of the gospel, of which perhaps other ages and places have not experienced.494 All these things are plentifully taught by some of the ancients, as expressed in their expositions of the scriptures. This was especially true of Austin, who had occasion to inquire into them particularly. So too, the doctrine concerning them is retained in great measure in the church of Rome itself. Only some among ourselves are weary of them — those who being in no way able to oppose the principles and foundations on which they are built, nor able to disprove them by Scripture or reason, take to these revilings and reproaches. And it is not enough for them to proclaim their own ignorance of and personal unacquaintedness with those things which inseparably accompany that conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment which our Lord Jesus Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to work in all those who believe. They also make reproaching it in others a principal effect of that religion which they profess. "Nevertheless the foundation of God stands sure, The Lord knows those who are his," 2Tim 2.19. But we must return to our purpose.

Thirdly, All the things mentioned as being worked instrumentally by the word, are effects of the power of the Spirit of God. The word itself, under a bare proposal to the minds of men, will not affect them this way.

To confirm this, we need go no further than merely to consider the preaching of the prophets of old (with the effects it had on many), Isa 49.4, Jer 15.20, Eze 33.31-32; or the preaching of Jesus Christ himself, John 8.59; and of the apostles, Acts 13.41, 45, 46. Hence to this day, the Jews, who enjoy the letter of the Old Testament without the administration of the Spirit, are as full of blindness, hardness, and obstinacy, as any in the world who are utterly deprived of it. Many among ourselves sit all day under the preaching of the word, and yet they have none of the effects mentioned worked upon them; while others, their associates in hearing, are actually affected, convicted, and converted. It is therefore the ministration of the Spirit, in and by the word, which produces all or any of these effects on the minds of men. He is the fountain of all illumination. Hence, those who are "enlightened" are said to be made "partakers of the Holy Spirit," Heb 6.4. And the Spirit is promised by our Savior "to convict the world of sin," John 16.8. Even though in that verse it respects only one kind of sin, it is sufficient to establish a general rule that all conviction of sin is from and by the Spirit. It is no wonder then, that men can live securely in their sins, when the light which the Spirit gives, and the convictions which he works, are a scorn and a reproach to them.

There is, indeed, an objection of some moment against ascribing this work to the energy of the Holy Spirit;

Obj. – "Because it is granted that all these things may be worked in the minds and souls of men, and yet they may come short of the saving grace of God, how can he be thought to be the author of such a work? Will we say that he designs only a weak and imperfect work upon the hearts of men? Or that he deserts and abandons the work of grace which he has undertaken towards them, as if he is not able to accomplish it?"

Ans. 1. In many persons, maybe in most, who are thus affected, real conversion to God does ensue. By these preparatory actings, the Holy Spirit makes way for the introduction of the new spiritual life into the soul: so these things495 belong to a work that is perfect in its kind.

Ans. 2. Wherever these things fail and come short of what, in their own nature, they have a tendency to, it is not from any weakness and imperfection in themselves, but from the sins of those in whom they are worked. For instance, even common illumination and conviction of sin have, in their own nature, a tendency to sincere conversion. They have this tendency in the same way that the law has a tendency to bring us to Christ. Where this end is not attained, it is always from the interposition of an act of willfulness and stubbornness in those who are enlightened and convicted. They do not sincerely improve what they have received. And they do not faint merely for lack of strength to proceed, but by a free act of their own wills, they refuse the grace which is further tendered to them in the gospel.

In some, God is pleased to take away this will and its actual resistance to the work of the Spirit. It is therefore of sovereign grace when and where it is removed. But the sin of men and their guilt is in it wherever this resistance is continued. For no more is required for this than that it be voluntary. It is will, and not power, that gives rectitude or obliquity496 to moral actions.

Ans. 3. As we observed before, the Holy Spirit in his whole work is a voluntary agent. He works what, when, and how he pleases. That they may suit him, no more is required for his operations than these two things:

First, That in themselves they are good and holy.
, That they are effectual for the ends to which they are designed by him.

It is not required that he should always design them to the utmost extent of what they have a moral tendency towards, though they have no real efficiency for it. And these things are found in the operations of the Holy Spirit. They are good and holy in their own nature. Illumination is good and holy; so is conviction and sorrow for sin, with a subsequent change of affections and amendment of life.

Again: What the Spirit works in any of these, effectively and infallibly accomplishes the end aimed at, which is no more than this: that men be enlightened, convicted, humbled, and reformed; and in these, he does not fail. In these things he is pleased to take on himself the management of the law, so as to bring the soul into bondage by it, so that it may be stirred up to seek deliverance. And from this, he is actively called the "Spirit of bondage to fear," Rom 8.15. And this work constitutes the third type of ground in our Savior's parable of the sower. It receives the seed which springs up hopefully, until by cares of the world, temptations, and occasions of life, it is choked and lost, Mat 13.22. Now, because this work often makes a great appearance and resemblance of regeneration, or of real conversion to God — so that neither the world nor the church is able to distinguish between them — it is of great concern to all professors of the gospel to diligently inquire whether, in their own souls, they have been made partakers of any other work of the Spirit of God or not. For although this is a good work, and it has a good subservience497 to regeneration, yet if men attain no more, if they proceed no further, they will perish eternally. And multitudes actually deceive themselves in this, speaking peace to their souls on the effects of this work; by which it is not only insufficient to save them, as it is to all persons at all times, but it also becomes a means of their present security and future destruction. I will therefore give a few instances of what this work cannot effect, in the conjunction of all its parts, and in its utmost improvement. By this, men may judge how things stand in their own souls in respect to it:

1. It may be observed that we have placed all the effects of this work in the mind, conscience, affections, and conduct. Hence it follows, notwithstanding all that is or may be spoken about it, that the will is neither really changed, nor is it internally renewed by regeneration. Now, the will is the ruling, governing faculty of the soul, just as the mind is the guiding, leading faculty. While this abides unchanged and unrenewed, the power and reign of sin continue in the soul; even though the will is not undisturbed, it is unruined. It is true, there are many checks and controls that are thrown on the actings of the will in this state, from the light of the mind and from the reflections of conscience, so that it cannot apply itself in and towards sin with that freedom, security, and licentiousness it was used to. Its fierceness and rage — rushing into sin like a horse into battle, or running at God and the thick bosses of his buckler — may be broken and abated by those hedges of thorns which it finds set in its way, and those buffetings it meets with from light and convictions. Its delight and greediness in sinning may be calmed and quieted by those frequent representations which are made to it of the terror of the Lord on the one hand, and the pleasure of eternal rest on the other. Yet still, setting aside all considerations that are foreign to its own principle, the bent and inclination of the will itself is toward sin and evil, always and continually. The will of sinning may be restrained upon a thousand considerations, which light and convictions will administer; but it is not taken away. And this reveals itself when the very first motions of the soul towards sinful objects have a palpable complacency, until they are controlled by light and fear. This argues for an unrenewed will: if this complacency is constant and universal.

2. The effects of this work on the mind — which is the first subject affected with it — does not proceed so far as to give it delight, contentment, and satisfaction in the lively spiritual nature and excellencies of the things revealed to it. The true nature of saving illumination consists in this: that it gives the mind such a direct intuitive insight and prospect into spiritual things, that in their own spiritual nature, they suit, please, and satisfy the mind, so that it is transformed into them, cast into their mold, and rests in them, Rom 6.17, 12.2; 1Cor 2.13-15; 2Cor 3.18, 4.6.498 This the work to which we insist it does not reach.499 For notwithstanding any revelation of spiritual things that is made to the mind in this, it does not find an immediate, direct, spiritual excellence in them, except with respect to some benefit or advantage to be attained by means of it. It will not give such a spiritual insight into the mystery of God's grace by Jesus Christ — which is called "his glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ," 2Cor 4.6 — that the soul should, in its first direct view of grace, admire it, delight in it, and approve it for what it is in itself, and find spiritual solace and refreshment in it. But it communicates such a light, such a knowledge, that a man may well like its effects, such as providing a way of mercy and salvation.

3. This work extends itself to the conscience also; yet it does not purge the conscience from dead works, so that we should serve the living God. This is the effect of a real application of the blood of Christ to our souls by faith, Heb 9.14. It effects two things on the conscience:

(1.) It renders it readier, quicker, and sharper in reproving and condemning all sin, than it was before. To condemn sin, according to its light and guidance, is natural to and inseparable from the conscience of man. But its readiness and ability to exercise this condemning power may, by habit and a course of sinning in the world, be variously weakened and impeded. But when conscience is brought under the power of this work, having its directing light augmented, by which it sees more of the evil of sin than it did formerly, and having its self-reflections sharpened and multiplied, it is readier and quicker in applying its power to judge and condemn sin, than it was before.

(2.) Conscience is assisted and directed by this to condemn many things as sin, which it approved of before. For its judging power is still commensurate to its light; and by that light, many things are now revealed to be sinful, which were not seen as sinful by the mere natural guidance which the conscience was under before. Yet notwithstanding all this, it does not purge the conscience from dead works — that is, conscience is not worked by this to such an abhorrence of sin for itself, that it continually directs the soul to appeal to the blood of Christ for cleansing itself and purging it out. It contents itself to keep all things in tumult, disorder, and confusion, by its constant condemning both of sin and sinners.

4. This work operates greatly on the affections. We have given instances in the fear, sorrow, joy, and delight about spiritual things that are stirred up and moved by it. Yet it comes short of a thorough work upon the affections themselves, in two things: for (1) it does not fix them; and (2) it does not fill them.

(1.) It is required that our affections be fixed on heavenly and spiritual things, and true grace will effect this: Col 3.1, 2, "If you are risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above." The joys, fears, hopes, and sorrows, with reference to spiritual and eternal things, which the work mentioned before produces, are evanid,500 uncertain, unstable, not only as to their degrees, but as to their very being. Sometimes they are like a river ready to overflow its banks — men cannot help but pour them out on all occasions; and sometimes they are like waters that fail — not a drop comes from them.

Sometimes they are hot, and sometimes cold; sometimes up, and sometimes down; sometimes all heaven, and sometimes all world; without equality, without stability. But true grace fixes the affections on spiritual things. As to the degrees of their exercise, there may be and is great variety in them, as they are excited, aided, and assisted by grace and the means of it, or obstructed and impeded by the interposition of temptations and diversions. But the constant bent and inclination of renewed affections is toward spiritual things, as the Scripture everywhere testifies, and as experience confirms.

(2.) The forementioned work does not fill the affections, however it may serve to expand and pacify them. It comes like so many strangers come to an inn to lodge, who take up a great deal of room, and make an appearance as if none were in the house but themselves. Yet they do not turn out the family which dwells there; but they still make their abode there. Light and conviction, with all their train and attendants, come into the mind and affections as if they would fill them, and possess them for themselves alone. Yet when they have done all, they leave the quiet rooms of the house for the world, and sin, and self. They do not throw them out of the affections, and fill their places with spiritual things. But saving grace fills up the affections with spiritual things, fills the soul with spiritual love, joy, and delight, and exercises all other affections toward their proper objects. It does not deny a place for other things (like relationships, possessions, enjoyments) as they are merely natural and content to be subordinate to God and spiritual things; but if these would be carnal, disorderly, or predominant, then it casts them out.

5. This work is often carried on very far in the reformation of life and conduct, so as to express the whole form of godliness.2Tim 3.5 But it is also subject to a threefold defect and imperfection in this:

(1.) It will coexist with and allow raging and reigning sins of ignorance. The conducting light in this work does not lead to the abhorrence of all sin as sin, nor into a pursuit of holiness out of a design to be universally conformable to Christ. But being gathered up from this and that particular command, it often leaves great sins behind, unregarded.501 So it left persecution in Paul before his conversion; and so it leaves hatred and a desire for persecution in many at this day. And other sins of a like nature may escape its utmost search, to the ruin of the soul.

(2.) Its reformation of the conduct is seldom universal as to all known sins, unless it is only for a season, while the soul is under a flagrant pursuit of self-righteousness. Paul in that condition had preserved himself so that, according to the law, he was blameless;Phi 3.6 and the young man thought he had kept all the commandments from his youth.Luk 18.21

But setting aside this consideration, and notwithstanding the utmost that this work can attain, after the efficacy of its first impressions begin to abate, lust will reserve some particular way of venting and revealing itself; which is much spoken about.

(3.) The conduct of persons who live and abide under the power of this work only, assuredly fades and decays. Coldness, sloth, negligence, love of the world, carnal wisdom, and security, gain ground on them every day. Hence, although by a long course of abstinence from open sensual sins, and stating a contrary interest, they are not given up to them. And yet, by the decay of the power of their convictions, and the ground that sin gains on them, they become walking and talking skeletons in religion — dry, sapless, useless worldlings. But where the soul is inlaid with real saving grace, it is in a continual state of thriving. Such a believer will go on from strength to strength,Psa 84.7 from grace to grace, from glory to glory,2Cor 3.18 and will be sumptuous and flourishing in old age.Psa 92.14

By these things we may learn to distinguish in ourselves between the preparatory work mentioned, and that of real saving conversion to God. And these are some of the heads of those operations of the Holy Spirit on the minds of men, which are often preparatory to a real conversion to God; and sometimes, by a contempt for and rejection of them, there is a great aggravation of the sin and misery of those in whom they were worked.

And till lately, the substance of these things has been acknowledged by all Christians, as they are clearly laid down in the Scripture and exemplified in various instances. Only, some of the Papists have carried them so far as to make them formally dispositive to justification, and to congruously merit it. But the ancients denied this. They would not allow that any such preparation, or any moral virtues, capacitated men for real conversion, observing that others were often called before those who were qualified in this way.502 There are goads and nails in them,Act 26.14 which have been fastened by wise and experienced masters of the assemblies, to the great advantage of the souls of men. For they observed the usual ways and means by which these effects are worked in the minds of the hearers of the word, with their consequences in sorrow, troubles, fear, and humiliations, and the courses which these hearers take to improve them, or to extricate themselves from the perplexity of them.

Thus they managed the rules of Scripture with their own and others' experience suitable to this, to the great benefit of the church of God. That these things are now despised and scorned, is no part of the happiness of the age in which we live, as the event will manifest.

And in the meantime, if any suppose that we will forego these truths and doctrines which are so plainly revealed in the Scripture — the knowledge of which is so useful to the souls of men, and whose publication in preaching has been of such great advantage to the church of God — merely because they do not understand them and therefore reproach them, they will be greatly mistaken. Let them lay aside that unchristian way of addressing these things which they have engaged in, and plainly prove that men do not need to be convinced of sin — that they should not be humbled for it, nor affected with sorrow with respect to it; that they should not seek remedy or deliverance from it; that all men are not born into a state of sin; that our nature is not depraved by the fall; that we are able to do all that is required of us, without the internal aids and assistance of the Spirit of God — and they will be diligently attended to.


From Pneumatologia (Of the Holy Spirit) by John Owen

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