Project Canterbury

Are You Being Converted?

A Course of Sermons on Serious Subjects.
by Alexander Penrose Forbes, D.C.L.

Bishop of Brechin.

London: Joseph Masters, Aldersgate Street, 1856.


S. MATT. xviii. 3.


LAST Sunday I spoke to you very earnestly of the necessity of conversion, in one or other of its two aspects, for every baptized Christian. To-day, by GOD'S blessing, I shall proceed with the subject, in order to enable each one of you to apply to himself the practical lessons which are incumbent on every man in view of the absolute necessity enjoined upon us in the text.

And first, I must premise, that many mistakes upon the subject of conversion and regeneration have arisen from want of a precise definition of terms. It must be recollected that in its intellectual aspect religion is a science: it is not only a sentiment, a philosophy, and a code of duty, it is also emphatically a knowledge, the highest and most glorious knowledge to which the mind of man can aspire.

Now in every science the first step is an accurate care for its definitions. Unless its terms are thoroughly agreed upon, the disputants will be at cross purposes; they will waste their strength in combating what is in fact not denied, and they will fail to make themselves understood from want of care in coming to a right understanding in preliminaries. In nothing is this so necessary as in controversy. It has been said that in every religious dispute there is either a radical difference m principle, which no mediation can reconcile, as m the discordance between Pantheism and the Christian theory of creation; or there is a misunderstanding about words, either party meaning in fact the same thing but expressing themselves imperfectly or unscientifically. To those of a loving and conciliatory spirit it is a comforting thought that in the disputes which have arisen in Christendom, the latter has generally been the more fertile source of dissension, and that much of the dissidence between creeds and religionists has arisen from the same truth being viewed from different angles, or from different names having been ap-phed to the same thing. Thus the controversies about justification, whether by faith or by works which were agitated with so much acrimony in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, really resolved themselves into one practical line of action. Both parties maintaining that the Merit of CHRIST was the sole efficient cause of the justification of the sinner, it mattered little whether it was maintained that that Merit was apprehended by sole faith, or by works, as S. James said, so long as sole faith implied its result in a holy life, and so long as the justifying works were understood to spring from a living faith. In either ease the result was the same; the parties failed in being at one, because as a preliminary they neglected to define what they meant by faith; what by Christian good works; what by justification.

Now a somewhat similar confusion of thought has taken place with regard to the words Regeneration and Conversion. The authors of the great revival of piety in the Church of England, in the last century, were not practised theologians. They were in one sense better, they were earnest men; but when they came to construct a theological system, their want of ecclesiastical training made itself felt. In preaching to men to turn away from their sins and be reconciled to GOD, which was their glorious mission, they found that the word "regeneration" well described that change in the inner man, which it was their effort to produce. It was by no means an inapplicable expression, for it came near to many of those forms of speech which the inspired Scripture used in describing the difference of the Christian converts from the surrounding heathens, and what might apply to these was not wholly inappropriate in distinguishing between those Christians who had by their preaching been recalled to the state of grace, and those who by despite of grace were dead in trespasses and sins.

But here began the confusion. The word "regeneration" had for eighteen centuries been applied to describe the peculiar effects of the Sacrament of Baptism upon the receiver. It was the "death unto sin, and the new birth unto righteousness," which the Catechism described as the inward part or grace of that Sacrament. Accordingly when the word came to be used in its new sense the greatest outcry took place. Each party ran into extremes. The one preached a doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration, as if men did not need conversion; the other preached a doctrine of Conversion, as if men had not received baptismal regeneration. In either case each party had got hold of a partial truth, and a partial truth is sometimes as fatal as an entire error. And yet all the while, if the terms had been explained, the difference would not have been so great, and practically speaking amounted to nothing. The most violent on the one side would not have let their children die unbaptized for worlds; the most strenuous on the other side would not have desired to face death in any other aspect than as sinners truly turned to GOD, and putting all their trust in the merits of their dear LORD.

We now can look upon these matters more calmly, and distinguish more clearly; we now can recognize, without confusing, two distinct acts, both of which are necessary to our salvation, both of which must in ordinary cases take place in each of us; our initiation into the Christian state, and our growth in the same as a consequence of that initiation; the one, a sovereign act of GOD'S grace, complete and perfect in itself as the act of creation to which it is analogous, admitting of no degrees, and in the receipt of which we are passive; the other, a continuous lifelong turning of the whole soul to GOD, essentially progressive and admitting of degrees, and above all, ever demanding the co-operation of our active wills.

It is of course the last of these to which I am now directing your attention, and the measure and laws of the conversion of the sinner to GOD will be determined by the aversion of the sinner from Him by sin. Consequently the doctrine of the fall of man will directly influence our views upon this most important subject. Now though we do not agree with the Lutherans in holding that man has thereby become totally bad, and has lost some of the essential part of his nature, yet we hold that he has forfeited all the superadded gifts of grace, and in the words of the Articles, is "very far gone from original righteousness." This deterioration has exhibited itself in every part of his nature, and therefore the restoration must extend itself to the same. The change that must be wrought in man by the exercise of his free will under the influence of divine grace, will affect the whole of his nature, and in no part of it can that process take place to the exclusion of the rest, nor does the work of the HOLY SPIRIT occupy itself with one function of the soul of man to the neglect or abandonment of the others.

Of all the endowments with which the kind and merciful CREATOR endowed the noble work of His Hands, which was made in His own image, none were greater than those of the intelligence and of the affections. They were the faint image in man of those Divine Persons which had been in Himself from the beginning, and which eternally proceed from Him by way of generation and procession. The intelligence in the spirit of man symbolized what the Divine Word is in the Heart of GOD; and the affection, the relation betwixt being and intelligence, and the result of both, shadowed forth what the Divine SPIRIT and eternal love of the FATHER and the SON is in the adorable TRINITY. As then in these consisted that likeness to GOD in which man was formed, in these were found the most prominent effects of the fall, when by the disobedience and prevarication of the first man, sin entered into the world, and death by sin Original sin deteriorated both the intelligence and the affection. The intelligence became marred by darkness, the affection by perversion and estrangement from GOD. Conversion is the restoration of these by light and by love.

The intelligence became marred by darkness! Though the first effect of the entrance of sin into the world was that lurid light which flitted around f the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and f man had then revealed to him things he had far better never have known, yet the ultimate result was a withdrawal of that Divine illumination in which man had hitherto walked and rejoiced. The light of the soul became dim, and he was now morally unfitted for grasping those eternal truths, with a view to the meditation of which that very intelligence was created. Both with regard to his GOD and with regard to himself, error now beset him. He could no longer conceive of GOD according to the revelation which had been vouchsafed him, so he therefore either partially or entirely forgot Him, on the one hand; or on the other, thought of Him under such unworthy forms as to provoke His just indignation. Infidelity and idolatry now became his tendencies, just as faith and pure religion had been the result of GOD'S original gifts. Either he thought not If of GOD at all, or he thought of Him as seen through the medium of his own distempered fancies, and in either case the exercise of a depraved intelligence infinitely offended GOD.

Nor was he more happy in his conceptions with regard to himself. His objects, his end, his happiness, and misery, were all now viewed through a distempered medium. He could not recognize the things that belonged to his peace. The tinsel glitter of sin dazzled his judgment, and he attached an undue value to things both worthless and hurtful. A new standard of excellence was adopted by him; good seemed to him evil, evil seemed to him good; religious truth ceased to have any hold upon his intellect; error commended itself to his understanding; and the eternal life which consisteth in the knowledge of GOD, was commuted for that eternal death, whose misery is the ignorance of Him.

But furthermore, the affection became marred by perversion and by estrangement from GOD. The affection with the will is that which determines the moral character of each one; and here again the deteriorating effect of the fall became manifest. The ineffable beauty and holiness of GOD had unspeakable attraction for the unfallen creature; he had been made to find his end in the adoration and service of the Supreme, and rejoiced in fulfilling the law of his formation. Like the blessed spirits that minister round the throne and throughout the universe, man found in the obedience to the will of GOD the employment of his energies, as in the devoted adherence to His Personality he attained to the satisfaction of his feelings, and the result was an harmonious course of action, in which his whole moral nature was directed towards right; but then entered the fall, and the will became depraved, and the heart estranged, and new objects took the place of GOD with the heart of man, and new motives of action were substituted for the great law of action within his soul, and new pleasures succeeded to the old pleasures, and new aims followed on the old aims, and religion became a burden, and the heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and all flesh corrupted his way upon the earth.

Such then is the condition of fallen man; of the creature who has so notably failed in that purpose for which he was brought into being. How is he to be restored? What agency can be supplied to reunite those broken chains, which should unite man to Him who made him, and to raise him again to that high estate from whence he had fallen? One answer alone can be given. The visit to earth of the Eternal SON of GOD in the likeness of sinful flesh; the assumption of human nature by the Word that was in the beginning with the FATHER; the mystical union between the Second Adam with the children of the first man; the espousal of the Holy Catholic Church of CHRIST by her celestial Bridegroom; the identification of nature between the all holy GOD and the meanest and most erring of His creatures: in other words, Emmanuel, GOD with us. This is the way in which all that went wrong in Eden has been more than restored; this is the power in which the weakened forces of man have been reinvigorated; the light in which the darkened intellect of man has been reilluminated; the fire at which the chilled affections and benumbed will of the creature has been chafed and warmed into life. Conversion then is the work of CHRIST within us; but it is also in another sense our own work. As GOD by the voice of His prophet commands us, "Turn ye and live," so we respond by saying, "Turn Thou us, O LORD, and so shall we be turned." The work then is Theandric, the work of GOD and man in one person; the work of the grace of GOD preventing and co-operating; the work of the will of man yielding itself up to those heavenly influences; the work of GOD who maketh us both to will and to do of His good pleasure; the work of man who renders himself a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto GOD; the work of GOD who is the Author of everlasting Life to them that believe; the work of man who is here upon his trial, on the result of which are the issues of life.

Now let us revert to the text, "Except ye be converted .... ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." We have here in the words of our Blessed LORD Himself, the assertion of the infallible necessity of conversion upon all men. Our chance of eternal life depends upon this change being wrought in us. He who had said, "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven," here says, "Except ye be converted, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." It becomes then the necessary duty of every one of us to ascertain whether this process is taking place in ourselves. It is the most momentous question we can ask ourselves, and the only thing more important than asking it seriously, is answering it honestly. In so important a matter we may be sure the devil will try to deceive us if he can--he will try to persuade us that we are converted when we are not so: and our own self-love and indolence will conspire with him to lull to rest the awakened conscience.

Now the proofs of this process going on within us will be both negative and positive. On self-examination we shall find on the one hand, that there are certain sure and undoubted signs of an unconverted heart; on the other hand we shall find there are certain unmistakeable indications that this blessed work is taking place within us. I would then, most anxiously, bespeak your attention to the signs of an unconverted heart.

Now the first sign of an unconverted heart is the habitual consent to any known and recognized sin. Disguise it from ourselves as we will, sin of some sort or other is pleasant to all of us. To most of us it is an effort to be good. The frailty of our nature will make it that we are constantly falling into sins of surprise; nay, from time to time, in the case of most of us, monstrous temptations may arise which completely overwhelm the soul, beat down our guard, and admit the evil one. Yet this is not what I allude to as the first sign of an unconverted heart. I allude to that condition of the heart and affections in which, after we have discovered what our sin is, when we have faced it and acknowledged it, and held it up as it were between us and the light of GOD, we deliberately continue to agree to it, and yield to it as often as the temptation comes. We know that it is sin, but we cannot for the life of us give it up--we put off its repentance to a more convenient season--we lull the conscience to sleep with some miserable narcotic of good intention or mental casuistry, and thus we go on, in reality making it our choice rather than GOD'S will, which is the essence of the malignity of all offence against Him. It boots not that the matter of the sin be very small; it requires not some great thing to damn the soul withal. It is sufficient that that one little sin is deliberately recognized as such--that that one little sin be deliberately consented to.

The second sign of an unconverted heart is the intellectual aspect of the same kind of error. It is the willing resistance to any known but unpalatable truth. GOD is very merciful in accepting that excuse which arises from the ignorance of the fact, but responsibility increases in direct proportion with knowledge. The moment that His will is made known, it exacts implicit submission.

It was this which aggravated the criminality of the Pharisees. "Now ye say, we see, therefore your sin remaineth." This was the cause of the reprobation of the Jews--they loved darkness, for their deeds were evil. Christianity is in one aspect an austere law. Its truths are foolishness to the natural man; its morals are a stumbling-block to him. Both his intelligence and his heart stand confounded before the sight of a crucified GOD, and before the long series of supernatural truths dependent thereon, which exact his entire acquiescence. Now, however hard it may be to flesh and blood, we must not only open up our hearts to receive these supernatural convictions, but we are bound to act upon them. Every truth has its correlative duty--however painful and unpalatable it may be to us, we are bound to admit what GOD places before us, and to act upon that knowledge, however disagreeable such action may be. Not to do so, is the second sign of the unconverted heart.

The next dangerous symptom is remembering past sin with pleasure. We have the awful power, in spite of all our repentance, in spite of real contrition in past days, in spite of the most solemn absolution of the Church, to renew the guilt of an old sin at any distance of time, by taking delight in the recollection of it. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of sin, that it can thus in future times exert this hideous effect upon us. Now the only true test of our real turning away from sin, is our remembering it with horror and hatred, as infinitely offensive to GOD, and therefore, if we catch ourselves reviewing our past offences with anything like satisfaction, we have reason to fear that our motives of repentance have been very inadequate, have not had GOD for their end, are in fact no repentance at all. This is a thing to be specially cared for, for where the memory is stored with the alluring images of the pleasures of sin, it is very difficult to drive these phantoms away. In all such cases it is most requisite to have recourse to prayer and to the Passion of CHRIST for protection, otherwise we shall inevitably renew the sin and so incur fresh guilt. To the last we shall have a struggle, but by GOD'S help we shall come off victorious. If we do not struggle, if we delight in the unholy past, if we form to ourselves imaginary pictures of pleasant sin, if we do not control the fancy, we exhibit another symptom of an unconverted heart.

And as it is dangerous to take pleasure in the thought of sin, so is it a bad sign to take delight in the company of sinners. The Apostle considers this a very dangerous condition. He considers it even worse than committing sin oneself. In describing the awful state of the Gentile world, he mentions it as a serious aggravation of their guilt, "Who knowing the judgment of GOD that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them." In any case company is a snare to most of us, even the mixed company which may be characterized as neither very good nor very bad, but the influence of that which is actually bad is most fatal. You cannot be sufficiently plainly warned of the exceeding and imminent peril to your souls which the society of the wicked prepares for you, and parents and guardians cannot be too cautious in this respect. But I mention the fact at present rather as a symptom of a frame of mind, rather than as a sin to be avoided, and I say that the hankering after evil company, the congenial association with sinners, the delight in the society of the enemies of the faith, is the mark of a soul that is unconverted, and which, while performing some acts of religion, is in reality clinging unto sin.

Again, a faint perception of the difference between sins and sinfulness shows that the heart has not been touched to any purpose with the coal from the altar on high. Many will go on bewailing the sinfulness of human nature who keep little watch over their daily sins and transgressions. Many excuse the infraction of some of GOD'S commandments, which by His grace they could keep, on the plea that we are all of a sinful race, thus imputing their laxity not to themselves but to GOD who tolerates such a condition of things. Many are unwarrantably dejected and cast down on account of things over which they have really no control, and so are held back from doing their best in the service of Almighty GOD by a sort of fastidiousness in religion which is but another phase of pride. A heart truly turned to GOD knows as by a fine instinct this distinction and acts accordingly.

A sixth and most evident sign of an unconverted heart is insensibility to sins of omission, such as not loving GOD, not being thankful, and the like. Many consciences ring true enough with regard to positive duties which are altogether silent with regard to these. And yet how large a part of our duty is made up of these things. It was for a sin of omission that the servant who wrapped his Lord's talent in a napkin was condemned, and the mere absence of certain emotions and dispositions, being sufficient to make us unhappy in heaven, will certainly be enough to forbid our entrance there.

Lastly, confidence in our own light, strength, or intentions is a very fatal symptom. A sense of entire dependence on GOD, on the contrary, marks the work of the Spirit co-operating with our spirits. There is nothing so offensive to Almighty GOD, the sole author of all good, as to impute to ourselves any merit on account of the good we may fancy exists in ourselves. We may deceive ourselves as to any good being there at all, and if it do exist, it is inwrought by Him. Yet in false conversions nothing is so common as to find self-complacency as to our spiritual attainments. This naturally engenders fool-hardiness and presumption. Often the casual absence of temptation makes a man assume that he is better than he actually is. Others mistake good intentions for high principle and so fail in the hour of trial. In each case the egotism is unsubdued. In each case glory is apt to be given to oneself, and GOD the true source of all sanctity is forgotten.

I have given you now some negative proofs, whereby to test the sincerity of your own conversion to GOD. On another occasion I shall put before you the positive signs of the same, alluding also to the chief helps and hindrances in this great work. I conclude now by urging you earnestly not to trifle with your own salvation, but, if you discover that in any of the things I have alluded to, you find yourselves guilty, therein at once to begin by GOD'S grace to amend. The reward is worthy of the labour, the very exertion is wholesome and strengthening, and you have the gracious promise of Him who beholds your struggle, that in every temptation and danger, He will never leave you, nor forsake you, for He desireth not the death of the sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live.

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