OF THE POSITIVE SIGNS OF CONVERSION.
S. MATT. xviii. 3. "EXCEPT YE BE CONVERTED .... YE SHALL NOT ENTER INTO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN."
I PROCEED to-day, by GOD'S blessing, to put before you some of the positive signs of true conversion in the heart; but before doing so, it is necessary to say somewhat with regard to the Christian's assurance.
There are many texts in S. Paul's Epistles which dwell largely on a certain influence on the convictions of the Christian. Thus he says, "Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the HOLY GHOST, and in much assurance." Elsewhere, in urging a practical duty on the people, he desires that every one of them "do show the same diligence, to the full assurance of hope unto the end." And speaking in one word of the heavenly and earthly Eucharist, he says, "Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith." Again, there are texts which speak of him that believeth having the witness in himself; and we are told, "the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God."
From these texts a certain school of opinion has maintained, that in order to everlasting life, the individual believer must be perfectly convinced of his justification before GOD, and of his future happiness; that this inward conviction is so absolutely necessary, that it in fact makes the difference between the soul being saved or lost, and accordingly the practical result is, that the teaching during life is directed exclusively to the thought of GOD'S mercy, to the disparagement of the less grateful study of the individual human heart; while at the hour of death every effort is strained, not to deepen the repentance, or to increase the love of GOD, but to cheer, and to excite, and to console. However wicked a man's life may have been, every anxiety on the part of the survivors is set at rest by the expression, "he died so happily;" and men stained with a thousand crimes, who have never expressed a single regret for the past, or sought in the very slightest degree to make up for the effects of their evil lives, go out of the world rejoicing, perfectly convinced that by reason of their "assurance," of the flesh we are they shall not reap corruption.
Such a view as this is an exaggeration of a truth. There is a truth at the bottom of all this, viz. that the promises of the gospel are to ourselves; that there is an individual as well as a corporate fulfilment of the benedictions of our LOED upon His Church; that there is a peace that passeth understanding, which is the reward of a lowly and consistent course of action; that in one sense it is an actual dishonour to the blessed work of CHRIST, not to believe that Omnipotence is enlisted on the side of our salvation; that the state of grace is the normal condition of the Christian, and that our LORD Himself shall see of the travail of His soul, and be satisfied in our own final perseverance.
But as taught by those to whom we have alluded, as exaggerated beyond the proportion of faith, these undoubted truths are apt to engender error, and we must take care lest we allow that which saps the root of all religious exertion, especially of repentance and its fruit. If it be true that we shall be judged according to the deeds done in the flesh, how can any conviction or impression with regard to our own condition make any real difference on our future lot? And this is the more to be observed that sin by its very nature has a blinding effect upon us, and that one of the effects of the fall has been darkness, consequently the more wicked a man has been, the more likely is he to be deceived with regard to the actual condition of his soul. Our LORD'S parable of the Pharisee and the Publican shows this. If ever mortal had the assurance of salvation, it was that Pharisee that stood and prayed. If assurance were that which makes the difference between the lost and the accepted, doubtless the Pharisee was the safer. Yet the Scripture says, it was the Publican who went down to his house justified rather than the other. The Church, therefore, views with distrust this interpretation of the Apostle's assurance.
Yet this caution on her part, in doubting whether any one can have such assurance of his own salvation as he has of the other truths of the gospel, does not prevent her entertaining the conviction, that a Christian may entertain a holy joy in believing, accompanied by such a trust in the effects of our LORD'S precious life and death, as to infuse an element of cheerfulness and trust into his every action; that the enlightening Spirit of GOD so works within him, as to enable him in a truer sense than ever heathen dreamed of "to know himself;" that GOD'S care over His elect is such, that, if they seek to serve Him diligently, He will not allow them to remain unconsciously in the practice of any mortal sin; and that, therefore, they will not be deceived if in His light they study their own hearts, and mark well the signs of His work within them, and of their faithful correspondence with the graces which He accords them.
With this commingled feeling of lowly reverential dread of GOD, and eminent mistrust of ourselves, on the one hand; and of firm belief in the illumination of His SPIRIT, and in the aid of His SON, on the other, let us approach the consideration of the sincerity of our own conversion, and let us test it by certain positive signs.
The first positive sign of a converted heart will be an increased faith in the matter of the relative position of the Creator and the creature. This was beautifully and shortly expressed by S. Francis of Assisi, who said, "LORD, what art Thou, and what am I?" The more we meditate upon the infinite perfection of the Supreme, by contrast the more we shall have a sense of our own nothingness. This is the reason why the best people are always the most humble, because in some faint sense beyond their fellows they estimate the infinite dignity of GOD, and the comparative vanity of the works of His Hands.
As a man comes to know GOD by faith, this conviction grows upon him. As he comes to appreciate the awful justice of the Eternal Arbiter of all things he comes to recognize his own shortcomings in the fulfilment of the law. As his mind dwells upon the fact that GOD is perfect, he recognizes the height of that holy hill which he must ascend to emulate that perfection. As the idea of sinlessness manifested to his conception by meditation upon GOD in CHRIST, familiarizes itself to him, the sense of his own sins will deepen within his heart. Above all, as the love of GOD which is the motive of true conversion, is shed abroad in his heart, he will come to hate that which is the opposite of GOD; will shun whatsoever may lead to occasions of downfal; and while earth's pleasures become insipid to him, will cling more closely to the immutable Good.
2. And this leads one to a second sign, which is not likely to deceive us in the blessed process of the conversion of the Christian. As he tries to do his duty to the best of his powers, he will become more and more penetrated with increasing dissatisfaction with himself, and with his own performances. One of the most alarming symptoms of an individual is when he becomes quiescent, and sits down contented with the measure of good to which he seems to have attained. Such a condition is the very antagonism of all Christian fervour; and Christian fervour is the special work of the fiery Spirit of GOD. Yet how many of us are there not who rest as we have been for years; who think we do very well if we do not recede in our course; and who have not experienced a fresh religious emotion, or straitened the bonds of an act of religious discipline, or improved in the practice of a single Christian virtue, or subdued a single besetting sin, or conquered a single evil habit, for years? Stationary religion is no religion at all, and unless we improve we are deteriorating. And this process of deterioration is slow and silent, and often unmarked. The slope of the hill is so slight that we hardly recognize that we are descending at all. The gradient is scarcely perceptible, yet the whole weight is thrown into the declination, and thus the soul is hurried on to destruction, before the alarm is given, or the apprehension roused. But if instead of this complacent ease, there be an increased anxiety and dissatisfaction with self, there is less fear of this. We have only to try to obey to see how imperfectly we do so, and the continual effort will generate an habitual sense of our own failure, and of the necessity of fresh exertion under the all-powerful grace of GOD.
3. Nor will this increasing dissatisfaction rest on ourselves. Our difficulties from without will come to assume their due proportions as we really become more and more in earnest. The sense of our hindrances and spiritual conflicts will increase as we become better. This will account for what may have astonished us in reading the lives of the Middle Age Saints. The assaults of the Evil One and his emissaries, the internal struggles with evil thoughts, the insane opposition and persecution of the world, which we read of as forming their trials, seem to us to be quite exaggerated, and we can hardly believe that they were men of like passions with ourselves, but were exceptional beings, which we would do well rather to admire than to imitate. Now this, to a certain degree, may be true, but at the same time we must also learn the real lesson which GOD would convey to us in their lives, namely, that the hindrances and spiritual conflicts of every Christian are far greater than he can imagine, and that it is only by real resistance that we can come to know how great they are. When we know the deceits of the Evil One, and that if he gets us to consent to one wilful sin, he has done his work, we may estimate his astuteness in seeking to blind us to our real dangers by hiding from us our difficulties, or the obstacles which really lie in the path to heaven. Yet to know one's danger is the first step to warding it off, and the more we try to do our duty, the more will GOD open our eyes to see what impedes us. He will show us what is occasion of sin to us, both within and without. He will indicate to us the modes of thought that are apt to become either moral or intellectual snares to us. He will suggest to us the means of escape, and in the power of His Cross we shall conquer.
4. The next sign of a heart in the process of truly turning to GOD is the increasing desire of perfect conversion of the whole heart to Him, accompanied with fears that we should not have begun, really as yet, effectively to do so. Some slight desire of this kind will precede the very first motions of the soul towards her heavenly Friend, and as the process goes on that desire will be greater. The beauty of GOD manifested in the Divine Person of the Eternal SON, even from a distance, attracts the soul of man, and the appropriateness and harmony of His holy law, in obedience to which is the happiness of the creature, wins the assent of his understanding. His attributes of goodness, and justice, and mercy find their response within that heart, which, fallen as it is by the sin of Adam, still retains some trace of its original glory, and an infinite power of amelioration. True, sin has coiled itself around it, and earth's pleasures still hold out their lures, and the flesh craves and the importunate world coaxes or terrifies into submission the weakened will, and yet withal "one deep calleth another," the profound abyss of the soul of man calleth unto the unfathomed depth of the love of GOD; and the affections, originally directed towards their one Object, still recognize in Him their true end; and the chains of sin begin to strain and to be broken, and man again begins to desire to be re-united to his GOD. And this desire increases day by day, every act of obedience commends GOD'S love towards us--every temptation resisted indicates the more excellent way--every free and generous emotion of the soul to God-ward finds its own reward. Thus the longing to enter into the Courts of the LORD, in the spirit of submission and repentance, becomes more and more intense. The hankerings after the Egypt of this world, "with the leeks and the onions, and the garlic," the highly spiced pleasures of the senses, fade away from the recollection, under the bracing air of the wilderness; and the otiose and heartless habitation in the "tents of Kedar," the engrossing cares and habits of an importunate world, cease by degrees to influence the heart, and the one thought is, "When shall I come to appear before the presence of GOD?"
Yet while the process surely goes on, the convert will not be without his fears. You know how when we love a person very dearly, we are in constant anxiety lest something of our own unworthiness, of which we are conscious, should make us less valued by him. We feel that our regard and respect for him is quite out of proportion, in the way of inferiority, to what he should have from us; and this injects, as it were, an element of unrest into a feeling in itself all-delightful. So it is with our love to God-ward. When we think of how He deserves to be loved; when we meditate upon His infinite perfections and attractions; when we let our thoughts dwell upon that incarnate Loveliness that hath been from everlasting, drawing all hearts towards it; above all, when we think bow He hath loved us--to shed the last drop of His life-blood to win our souls to Him, we feel fears and timidities, and we cannot, for the lives of us, realize such a love as His is, which loved us first, all unworthy though we were. Then the very distrust of oneself, which I have mentioned as a good sign in the returning penitent, naturally engenders the feeling that we have not begun really, as we ought to do, to turn to GOD. Our best efforts are very imperfect, and in a matter, on the sincerity of which our salvation depends, it is not to be wondered that we should be anxious. Yet this very feeling is itself a hopeful one. It shows us that GOD is searching us out and knowing us, it proves to us that we are not in the dark, so far as regards the magnitude and importance of the work before us; and, though it may evidence that ours is not a perfect love, inasmuch as that casteth out fear, it manifests to us at least that we recognize the claims of that love upon us, and that we would love even as we are loved.
5. The next sign of a converted heart, is perseverance by a simple act of will, in spite of hindrances and even failures, as well as contentment to go on, without sensible emotions or perceptions of pleasure or of peace, simply as an act of obedience and patience.
Now a great many people do very well, so long as all goes smooth in their religion. Their prayers are answered. They take great delight in converse with GOD. The HOLY SPIRIT visits them with His consolations, and our Gracious LORD makes His presence to be felt in their inmost souls. They resist temptation as it arises, they feel that they are conquering their bosom sin, and, without self-deception, are actually improving. Under such circumstances it does not seem strange that a Christian should rejoice and go on cheeringly with his appointed work. But this halcyon season seldom lasts long. Every Christian who has at all studied himself must recollect how from time to time the horizon has been overcast; how tremendous temptations have destroyed the rest of the soul; how prayer has not been answered, and the fountains of consolation have ceased to pour forth the waters of comfort; how spiritual dryness has made all within desert and barren; how desolation has wasted the soul, and an universal spirit of discouragement spread itself over the entire moral nature.
In such conditions as this, there is always fear of disheartenment, and therefore of relaxation. It requires very great principle, as well as firmness of will, to be able to go on doing one's duty simply because it is so; praying regularly and devoutly, though no response for the time is given; acting unreservedly in trust in GOD, though no feeling of that comfort animates the heart; using with a chilled heart those devotions which are the natural promptings of a warm one.
Yet such a course as this is eminently well pleasing to GOD, as it shows Him that the religious life has penetrated to the very bottom of the soul; that the sense of duty is the grand animating principle of the whole conduct, and that He Himself is loved for His own sake and not for His gifts and consolations. We have edifying records of those who for years were afflicted in the way we have indicated, and yet never pretermitted a prayer, or tolerated a doubt, or indulged in a single repining thought; and at last GOD rewarded them with His sensible favours, and gave them more for all that they had suffered.
We are all too apt to be swayed by feeling; feeling is one thing, and faith is another. A person may have very strong feeling (which is closely connected with the animal organization) and yet not have faith in any saving or real sense. And on the other hand, the faith may be actually justifying and pleasing to GOD; it may be the germ of all that is holy, and great, and self-denying in man, even at a time when it is unseen as to its manifestation, and unfelt in its consolatory power. Now to persevere under this discouragement is not only a high grace, but it is a special mark of the sincerity of our conversion.
6. But there is another sign connected with this, that even more commends to us the gracious work of GOD within us, and that is, that it is a sign of a converted heart to persevere even after failures and backslidings. Frail as we are, we are ever liable to evils of this sort, but even here, by the mercy of GOD, is the material for our eventual perfection. It is but a loveless spirit which sinks back dispirited after a fall; it is treason to GOD and to ourselves to say, 'there is no use trying,' if the love of GOD in the most imperfect degree be our motive power, we shall not be wallowing any longer than we can help in the mire of a sin of surprise; we shall rise with spirit and seek to do all the better for the future, on account of the past misadventure. A heart truly turned to GOD knows too well the value of reconciliation not to seek that at once, and the reunited ties become all the stronger by reason of their temporary separation.
7. The last sign of true conversion is, trust in GOD'S love for CHRIST'S sake.
It is the law of the imperfection of the human eye, that with the distance, accuracy of sight is lost. On the other hand, the nearer the eye approaches the object, the clearer and more distinct is the vision. The same law holds good in things spiritual. As man recedes from GOD by sin, he loses sight of the beauties of the Supreme, and in the proportion that man returns to Him by repentance and conversion, in the same the Eternal attributes of love and mercy again present themselves to his cognitions.
The love of GOD transcends the intuition of the seraphim. No created intelligence can fathom it. Although He has given to the sentient creation a practical proof of it in the free gift of His only SON, yet a whole eternity would be spent in acquiring the knowledge of it, and when that eternity was spent, there would be yet more to learn. Strange is it that He Who sufficeth for Himself should yet be so affected to the work of His own hands, and that His love should still adhere to it, not only while it remained perfect as it came from Him, but when it became soiled and stained with all the pollutions of sin. For it is a fact not more strange than blessed, that the love of GOD extends even to the guilty and the hardened, pleads with them, warns them, rescues them from the results of their own vile deeds, and feels so tenderly for them, that if the nature of GOD could communicate with sin, it would do so for them.
And this love is commended to us in His Blessed SON. We shall never know what treasures we have in the Person of our Blessed LORD, GOD and Man in one Person, the complex means of benediction which has taxed to the utmost the resources of the Eternal Godhead; yet is He ours, given to us freely by the FATHER; from all eternity designed to be our own. Our own for salvation, for was He not called JESUS by the angel ere He was born into the world? Our own for redemption, for not with the corruptible price of silver and gold, but with His own most precious Blood have we been redeemed from the vain conversation of the Gentiles. Our own for justification, for is He not the LORD our Righteousness? Our own for sanctification, for is He not the King of Saints? Our own for sacrifice, for is He not a victim and oblation of a sweet savour, well pleasing unto GOD? Our own for benediction, absolution, and spiritual comfort, for hath He not an unchangeable priesthood? Our own for food and sustenance, for hath He not said, My Flesh is meat indeed, and My Blood is drink indeed? Our own for daily protection and daily sustentation, for is He not the LORD our Shepherd, therefore we shall lack nothing? Our own for perseverance unto the end, for if we abide in Him, He will abide in us. Our own, as the guarantee of all other blessings, for "if the FATHER spared not His SON, but gave Him for us, will He not also, with Him, freely give us all things?" Now a deep sense of these things is a mark of a converted heart. The poor returning prodigal sees the father's home while yet a great way off; and the recollection of the kind entertainments of former years, emboldens him to hasten thither. So it is with the repenting soul; even in the distance the remembrance of GOD'S mercy is not forgotten but it is, as we come nearer and nearer, that the beauty of His love is again manifested to us. May we cultivate a sense of these things, may we put a generous trust in our Good LORD Who hath done so much for us; may we never falter or indulge unworthy thoughts, measuring our LORD'S tender mercies by ours; but let us in every trial and temptation, in every desolation and spiritual dryness, nay, even in the hour of surprise and sudden fall, yet cling the closer to Him, Who is the true refuge of sinners, and Who is ever willing to receive those who in sincerity return to Him.