« PreviousContinue »
account of the state of every convinced sinner. In substance it may be considered as universally just. Some such sinners are subjects of far more deep and distressing, convictions than others, convictions much longer continued, respecting some of these objects more and others less; producing more erroneous conclusions, greater self-condemnation, deeper despondency, and universally more distressing agitation. Some minds are naturally more exquisitely capable of feeling than others, more prone to sink, less prepared to hope, to exert themselves, to reason, and to admit the conclusions which flow from reasouing; less ready to receive consolation, and more ready to yield to these as well as other temptations. Some have been better instructed in early life, have been more conscientious, amiable, and exemplary, and have less to reproach themselves within their past conduct. The Spirit of God also may choose to affect, and probably does affect different minds in different manners. Finally, some minds may be more surrounded by temptations and dangers, and at the same time furnished with friends less accessible, counsels less wise, and directions less safe in this season of trial and sorrow. From these and many other concurring causes, it happens, that in form, degree, and continuance, convictions operate very differently on different minds: nor can any human skill limit them in these respects.
It ought by no means to be omitted here, that there are persons, especially of a steady serene disposition, educated in a careful, religious manner, and habitually of unblamable lives, in whom the process of conviction is conformed in a great degree to their general character. These persons, to the time of their conversion, have not uncommonly no remarkable fears or hopes, sorrows or joys. Conscientiously, but calmly, they oppose sin; evenly, but mildly, they sorrow for it; and steadily, but with no great ardour of feeling, they labour in the duties of a religious life. In the account which they give of their religious views and emotions, there is little to excite any peculiar degree of comfort in themselves, or of hope concerning them in others. Still their lives are often distinguished by uncommon excellence. Their progress is not that of a torrent, now violent, now sluggish and stagnant, but that of a river, silently and uniformly moving onward, and never delaying its course a moment in its way toward the
ocean. In these persons a critical eye may discern a fixed, unwarping love of their duty, a perpetual repetition of good works, a continual advance towards the consummation of the Christian character.
In substance, however, this work is the same in all minds. All really discern the importance, reasonableness, and justice of the divine law, their own violations of its precepts, the guilt which they have in this manner incurred, the righteousness of God in punishing them for it, and the extreme danger to which they are therefore exposed. No sinner can turn from sin to holiness without seeing the evil and danger of the one, and the excellence and safety of the other. No sinner can turn from sin to holiness without knowing and acknowledging his own sin and danger, the reasonableness of the divine law, and the justice of God in punishing his transgres
III. The immediate conserences of this conviction, next demand our attention.
On this subject it is necessary to observe in the beginning, that the sinner is still altogether a sinner. The only difference between his present and former character is, that before he was an unconvinced, and now a convinced sinner. Before he was ignorant of his true character, now he understands it clearly.
Hence, it will be remembered, all his resolutions, efforts, and conduct will partake of his general character, and will of course be sinful. Between his conscience and his affections there is now a more complete and open opposition than ever before. His conscience justifies God, approves of the divine law, and in spite of himself acquiesces in his condemnation; but his heart is still utterly opposed to all these things, and usually more opposed to them than ever.
He is indeed afraid to sin; but it is because he dreads the punishment annexed to it, not because he hates the sin. Nor is it an unknown nor probably a very unfrequent case, that these very fears become to him motives to continue in sin, and even to give himself up wholly to sinning. Under the influence of his fears he is not unfrequently disposed to conclude that there is no hope for him; and that, therefore, he may as well, and even better, indulge himself in wickedness,
than attempt a repentance and reformation which his deceitful heart, and probably all his spiritual enemies, represent as too late, and therefore fruitless. From this danger some, it is not improbable, never escape; but return like the dog to his vomit, and like the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.' Still I apprehend this is very far from being a common case. A very small number only, as I believe, compared with the whole, yield themselves up to ruin in this deplorable manner. Perhaps no one who persisted in his efforts to gain eternal life, was ever finally deserted by the spirit of grace.
To such as perseveringly continue in their endeavours, the next natural step in their progress, the first great consequence of conviction of sin, is to inquire most earnestly what they shall do to be saved. Of this anguish, produced by such conviction, the text furnishes us with a very forcible example. No picture was perhaps ever more striking than that which is given us of the extreme agitation of the jailor in the text. He called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas; and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' An agitation not unlike this frequently occupies the hearts of others, and prompts them with the same earnestness to make the same solemn and affecting inquiry.
Antecedently to this period, the sinner has in many instances lived without a single sober thought of asking this question at all. Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season I will call for thee; has been his only language to repentance and reformation. The subject has never become seriously interesting to him before. Before, he has never seen his guilt or his danger. Before, he has not wished for salvation; has found good enough in the world, in sin, and in sense, to prevent all anxiety about future good; considered this as present and real; and regarded that as distant, doubtful, and imaginary. But now his danger of ruin, and his necessity of deliverance, appear in their full strength. In this situation he makes this great inquiry with all possible solicitude. His happiness, his life, his soul, in the utmost danger of being lost for ever, are felt to be suspended on the answer. He beholds God his own enemy, and an unchangeable enemy to sin and impenitence, now rising up to destroy him utterly,
and to pour out upon him his wrath and indignation. In the deepest anguish he searches with prying eyes for a place of safety.
Here he first finds himself at a total loss concerning what he shall do. Here he first discovers his own ignorance of this great subject. Before, he was rich, and had need of nothing;' had eyes, which saw clearly all wisdom; understood all that he needed to know or do; and wanted no instruction nor information from others. Now he first finds himself to be, and to have been, poor, and wretched, and miserable, and blind, and naked, and in want of all things.' Now, instead of deciding on questions of the greatest moment and difficulty in theology, and deciding roundly without examination or knowledge, he is desirous of being instructed in small and plain things; and instead of feeling his former contempt for those who are skilled in them, he becomes humble, docile, desirous of being taught, and disposed to regard with sincere respect such as are able to teach him.
At the same time, he especially betakes himself to the source of all instruction in things of this nature; the word of God. This book he searches with all anxiety of mind to find information and hope. The threatenings and alarms which before hindered him from reading the Scriptures, now engage him to read them. His own danger and guilt he now labours thoroughly to learn, and is impatient to know the worst of his case. Whatever he finds there recorded he readily admits, however painful, and employs himself no more either in doubting or finding fault. To the former he has bidden adieu; the latter he knows to be fruitless. However guilty the Bible exhibits him, he is prepared to consider himself as being at least equally guilty. However dangerous it declares his case to be, he is prepared to acknowledge the danger.
In this distress, it will be easily supposed, he also searches for the means of deliverance. For these he labours with the deepest concern. Hence he reads, examines, and ponders with an interest new and peculiar; with fear and trembling, with critical attention to every sentiment, declaration, and word, with an earnest disposition to find relief and consolation in any and every passage where it can be found. The Bible is now no longer the neglected, forgotten, despised book which it formerly was, but his chief resort; the man of his
counsel,' the rule of his conduct. To him it has now become for the first time the word of God, and the means of eternal life.
All the difficulties which heretofore prevented him from being present in the house of God, have now vanished. The disagreeable weather, the personal indispositions, the indolence which seemed like an indisposition, the plainness of the preacher, the inelegance of the sermon, and the imperfection of the psalmody, keep him at home no more. In this solemn place he listens to all that is uttered, and watches all that is done. The preacher's words become as goads;' 'piercing to the dividing asunder of the soul and the spirit, of the joints and marrow.'
At his former listlessness he is now amazed, as well as at that which he still beholds in others around him. The Sabbath, no longer a dull, wearisome day, of which the hours dragged heavily, and during which he could hardly find any tolerable means of passing the time, now becomes a season of activity and industry, unceasing and intense; a season waited for with anxiety, and welcomed with hope and joy. The sanctuary, no longer regarded as a place of mere confinement, as the scene of tedious, dull, unmeaning rites, where grave people were believed to assemble for scarcely any other purpose except to keep gay ones in order, has now become the house of' the living God, and the gate of heaven; the place where he expects to find, if he finds at all, an escape from death, and the way to eternal life.
In the mean time, he cries mightily unto God for deliverance from sin and ruin. Prayer, long, perhaps from the beginning of his life, unused, unknown, and unthought of, or if thought of at all and attempted, always a burden, now becomes his most natural conduct. He sees and feels that God alone can deliver him; and therefore irresistibly looks to him for deliverance; oftentimes indeed with fear even to pray, from the strong sense which he entertains of his absolute unworthiness, and his unfitness to perform this first, most natural, most reasonable of all religious services. Sensible how impure an appearance he must make before that God, in whose sight the heavens are unclean, and whose angels are charged with folly,' he feels unwilling, like the Publican, even
to lift up his eyes towards heaven: but smiting his breast,'