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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.


I PROCEED to-day in continuation and conclusion of the subject which I have been treating for the last few Sundays, to consider what are the hindrances to conversion. Assuming that we all in our different degrees do desire that this blessed change may be inwrought in us by the Holy Spirit of GOD acting on our feeble and sinful hearts, it becomes us to try to discover what are the things which hinder the process going on within us, as well as find out what helps there are in the opposite direction, which may really affect our lives. May the Holy Spirit, to-day, direct our meditations on these things.

As a preliminary, it need hardly be stated, for it is self-evident, that a life of sin generally, is a hindrance to us. I purposely omit the more obvious points, and apply myself to some of the lesser, yet most necessary, particulars of spiritual discipline, which are all within our own power, and which, however small apparently, are of very great importance in the work of our sanctification. "He that despiseth small things shall fall by little and little." The trial of most of us is to be found in the way we do and in the way we leave undone the little daily duties of life. In this sense each trial is critical, that is to say, each trial, however apparently small, does its permanent work for good or for evil upon us. We perhaps cannot see its moral influence upon us as the day passes, but GOD and His holy angels most surely do so; and we ourselves, if we look back upon our former selves, either in the way of regular self-examination, or caused to do so by some startling circumstance in our religious lives, will come to estimate that a sure and slow process for good or for ill is ever at work within us.

Consequently, the first hindrance in the work that we can remark is, the belief that we are already converted. This has been a fruitful source of evil among those sects who have made the preaching of conversion their one dogma. Individuals fancy that once the change has taken place, they need not be so particular: they take liberties with their religious practice: they relax in the daily guard over their own hearts, and so prepare themselves either for a grievous downfall or for a gradual declension no less dangerous. Now this is founded on a false view of what conversion is; in fact this forms the distinction between the true and the false doctrine on the subject. The false doctrine maintains that the change must be sudden, sensible, and once for all; the true doctrine, that it may be the work of years, the silent whisper of the Holy Spirit, and essentially progressive. The false doctrine assumes that the seat of conversion is in the emotions; the true doctrine, that it is in the heart and principles; the false doctrine looks back chiefly to the sinful state whence the guilty one has been rescued; the true doctrine looks forward mainly to the perfection of GOD whereunto it would attain. In fact, as according to the Christian scheme, there is no limit to the perfection of GOD, and that perfection of GOD is proposed to man for imitation, by consequence there can be no limit in the matter of turning towards that perfection, nor can any burdened soul say, "I have turned enough." Thus it was even with that blessed Apostle whose words have been quoted in favour of the strong views concerning assurance to which I lately alluded. Even he says, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which I am apprehended by CHRIST JESUS. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of GOD in CHRIST JESUS."

The next hindrance to a true conversion, is that self-reliant spirit which makes our own judgment the rule of faith and practice. I shall not be supposed to maintain (that GOD having implanted a conscience within each of us,) that conscience is not to be used as GOD intended it, but I allude to that inclination so common in the present day, to deny that there is any law external to the individual's convictions and sense of duty, which actually binds him. There are two great tribunals before which every action must be judged and approved, before an action is really good, and some of the most marked errors of Christendom have arisen from the exaggeration of one of these rules to the depreciation of the other. One school of opinion in Christendom has maintained that submission to an external authority (that authority being divine) is all that is required in the way of true obedience. Another class of opinions has maintained that the conscience is the supreme arbiter of the morality of an action, and that to it alone is reference to be made. Both views are parts of a great truth, but neither is a great truth by itself.

It is true that there is a divine external authority--the co-ordinate authority of the Bible and the Church--(I use the expression, co-ordinate authority, advisedly, for we only know of the nature and powers of the Church primarily from the Bible, and we only know of the canonicity and inspiration of the Bible on the authority of the Church); it is also true that the image and likeness of GOD, in which man was created, even in his fallen state supplies him with a test of action which if not perverted, will help him to discern good from evil. But neither of these will do by itself. Every action must pass through both courts; it must approve itself to the external, and also to the internal, rule of action. For instance, an action may be really no sin, yet it may be sin to the individual, as S. Paul exhibits in the matter of the meats offered to idols. It was no sin to eat the meats in themselves, but if the individual thought it wrong, and still ate, he sinned. So with regard to the very strict Scotch Sunday. I honestly think that neither the Bible nor the Church advocates that very rigid view, inasmuch as the Sabbath was made for man, and also inasmuch as the resurrection of CHRIST has infused an element of great joyousness into its observance; but if a person strictly brought up to regard that holy day in this gloomy aspect, were to neglect so to keep it, he would sin in spite of the laxer view of the external authority. On the contrary, it is no palliation that a thing approves itself to the individual conscience, if it be opposed to the teaching of the Bible and the Church. If I satisfy myself that fasting is no duty, and go on from year's end to year's end leading a totally un-mortified life, I am not thereby excused, if our LORD laid down rules with regard to our conduct when fasting, and if He told us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. S. Paul maintains this very view when he says, "I know nothing by myself (i.e., against myself) yet am I not thereby justified."

Now this temper of self-reference, this habit of making our own judgment our only rule, is very much opposed to the spirit of true conversion. It is closely connected with self-sufficiency--and self-sufficiency is the daughter of pride, for none is self-sufficient to GOD, and it is the essence of pride to give to ourselves what is due to Him. A meek and lowly spirit is the true mark of those who are truly turning to GOD, and its absence ought to make us, to say the least, anxious and watchful.

The next great hindrance to our spiritual progress in this respect is that unhappy habit so many have got of expressing in words all their religious emotions, and so dissipating them. Many things are perilled in much speaking, especially when that is about ourselves. I will not allude here to the perils of truthfulness and charity, but rather to those of fervour and reality. There is a great tendency in people when they are awakening from a sense of sin, to speak a great deal about their religious convictions and emotions. The sensations are new to them--they are pleasurable, and the mouth uttereth that of which the heart is full. Yet all this tends to dissipate the religious feeling. The real heart-love, which true religion is, shrinks from being dragged into the light: like the tenderest emotions of earthly regard, there is a sort of reserve and shrinking in it which shuns the day. The emotion is given to produce action, and if it be spent in talk it comes to nothing.

But, besides, this much speaking, especially about ourselves, is only another form of very inveterate selfishness. What is the character in society which really wins and charms us? Is it not he who entirely forgets self, who never obtrudes his self-consciousness, who is ever thinking of that which is due to others, never of his own dignity, who seems to live for those he associates with, and is studious, by every look and gesture, to please? But if a person, on the other hand, is ever speaking of himself, and his concerns, we naturally believe that that is a vulgar, self-sufficient person: we detect a grossness and want of tone about his whole bearing, and his conceit affects us with feelings of dislike and contempt. Now this is the same thing, applied to the affairs of the world, which I am warning you about in those of the soul. There may be selfishness and egotism in the matter of religion, just as there is in the matters of this life, and what form of it is more offensive than that against which I would warn you?

Again, the common error of mistaking knowledge and feeling for religion, is a very great hindrance to those who are seeking indeed to turn to GOD. In this country both these dangerous tendencies prevail extensively; we have either an intellectual or an emotional religion. Men either make their piety to consist in adherence to some dry Shibboleth, the slightest deviation from which excludes from the terms of salvation, or they overthrow the entire intellectual aspect of religion altogether, substituting for it the excitement of the feelings. Yet neither of these will stand the judgment of GOD. Balaam had spiritual knowledge beyond the very elders of Israel, yet the way of Balaam is the way of perishing. Balaam's aspiration was for the death of the righteous, yet Balaam's death was in fighting against the LORD and His people. Both his knowledge and his feeling were excellent, yet h e is among the reprobate. So it is now. Many an one can discourse learnedly about religion; many an one has his Bible at his fingers' ends; many an one has clear views of the dealings of the ALMIGHTY with His creatures, who is, notwithstanding, an habitual sinner against GOD. And many an one delights in the poetry of religion, enjoys a splendid service and a gorgeous church, weeps over the descriptions of the trials of favoured souls, and has his spirit stirred within him by the eloquence of the preacher, who yet lives in the habitual commission of mortal sins which will surely destroy him, if he amend not his ways. In fact it is an error to suppose that religion can exist in one part of man to the exclusion of the rest. Our whole bodies, souls, and spirits must be sanctified, our memories must be ever recollected in GOD, our intellects ever enlightened by His truth, our wills ever inflamed by His love, our bodies must be a living sacrifice to Him, and our souls aspire at eternal union with CHRIST, their eternal Friend and Bridegroom.

Again, wilfulness and disregard of the true spirit of obedience, are great means of marring the work within us. They are not only evidences that the great monster self has not been subdued and chained up, but they also act directly in the way of hindrances. We cannot be perfectly conformed to GOD'S will, so long as we cherish and indulge our own wills. We cannot, as obedient children, desire the sincere milk of the word, while we resist the gentle motions of the Spirit to obey in what is hard to flesh and blood. You recollect how S. Paul warns us against pleasing ourselves, by the high example of GOD the SON Himself, for "CHRIST also pleased not Himself." Moreover this wilfulness may exhibit itself in small things just as much as in great things, for GOD regards not so much the matter of the sin, as the motive from whence it springs. And if this be so, we shall come to be convinced that this wilfulness and disobedience may evidence itself in good things as well as evil. We may do things in themselves pleasing to GOD in a way not pleasing to Him, and nothing mars the noblest ventures of faith so much as when self-will intrudes into their motives, and turns what should be the reasonable service of the Creator, into an idolatrous homage to ourselves. How often do we find great works destroyed by this. Satan sees that by the ordinary temptations he will fail. Distraction or sloth have no charms for the earnest and single purpose; how then shall he triumph? He does it by introducing the element of self-will, and down falls the fair fabric of earnest piety, and self-denying energy, and costly sacrifice, and great is the ruin thereof.

Lastly, an unprepared and therefore shallow state of heart, is a very great hindrance in any real turning to GOD. In religion we must avoid all trifling ways. It is far too serious a thing to be taken up and pretermitted at pleasure. Above all things we must avoid inconstancy. This will exhibit itself in many ways; in fitful efforts at duty, in unpunctual prayer, in general want of recollection. "One thing is needful." What are all the occupations and cares of the world, what are the pursuits of science and the gratification of the senses, what are the most engrossing objects of human desire or of human ambition, in comparison with the duty and occupation of training the soul for GOD, of fitting ourselves for the inheritance of the saints in light? A day will come when all the things which men have toiled for, and worked for, and sinned for, will be as though they had never been, and then the interests of eternity (here forgotten or despised) will assume their real importance.

I will now conclude this course of sermons, by alluding to some of the helps to a true turning to GOD; and as there were certain self-evident hindrances which I passed over, I will also say that there are certain self-evident helps to conversion, to which I shall not allude at this time. It is unnecessary to state that regular and earnest prayer, self-discipline and the mortification of the senses, frequent and devout communion, occupation in some work purely for GOD'S sake, the habitual disciplining of the temper and feelings, earnest and stated meditations upon the Passion of CHRIST, and other subjects of a serious nature, the frequentation of the daily service, and regular prayers at other times beside the morning and evening, are all of them direct helps, inasmuch as they are means of grace, either prescribed by the Church, or recommended to us by the practice of many eminent holy persons, and by the success they have had in this most desirable purpose. I pass by these, and I go on to place before you one or two things, which by GOD'S blessing will tend to aid you materially in your heavenward course.

The first aid is a certain promptness of will in duty, which will manifest itself in various ways. You must often have felt after having committed a sin a sort of hesitation and backwardness in at once returning to GOD; now this is eminently wrong in more ways than one: first, you allow the natural remorse which ought to kindle the repentance to become cold; and secondly, you do in fact cast a despite upon the mercy of GOD by misdoubting His desire to receive the penitent sinner. Or again, you have often when a duty was to be done felt an almost irresistible reluctance to commence upon it; a sort of languor has overcome you, and it has required no ordinary effort to shake off the disinclination; well, these two instances by their contraries exhibit to us that promptness of will which is so necessary in true conversion to GOD. We must gird up the loins of our hearts to zealous combat with ourselves; we must by all means achieve self-control.

Again, to advance in this great work, we must check all morbid self-contemplation. While we are very careful in our self-examinations we must take care not to get into a habit of studying the mirror of our own inward natures. It tends to vanity as much in the spiritual as in the visible form. Care in this respect will teach us to suppress all undue emotions, either of elation after successes, or moody depression after failures. It will superinduce equanimity, that disposition which is not easily moved by trifles, and which is the mark of a great mind. It will conquer our impulsiveness which tends to make our best efforts fitful and intermittent, and by keeping us really humble will enable us to give glory to GOD for that which He hath wrought in us, while from the very imperfection of our obedience we draw fresh arguments for continued exertion under a due sense of the power of the grace of GOD.

Furthermore, order and exactness are very useful in this great work. Some people are inclined to despise this as a sort of formalism, unworthy of the free spirit of the true Gospel. They who bring this charge know little how much is lost by unpunctuality and want of correctness in religion. Believe me that this is no trifle, and they who have to their sorrow got into careless unmethodical ways can testify how they affect their whole devotional practice, how they occasion loss of precious time, indispose the soul to communion with its Maker, and often cause prayer to be neglected. I would earnestly exhort the young whose ways are not yet stereotyped by custom, to take heed to this, and to accept a warning that exactness is a habit carefully to be cultivated, and that the same economy of time and habit of order which goes far to secure their success in this life, may also most usefully be applied to the affairs of the next world, which are infinitely more to be attended to.

Lastly, it will help us greatly in our mighty and salutary work if we aim high; if we aspire at nothing below perfect union with the will of GOD. I have often inveighed against stationary religion in action. I here inveigh against stationary religion in motive. The worship of the Infinite must be capable of infinite increase, and the soul of man in rising as on eagles' wings to the conception of its Maker and Fashioner, will never find a rest save in Him. He alone is the object of all her desires; His will is the ultimate end of her every action. Where is the place for self-righteousness, or sloth, or resting on our lees, or complacency, in the presence of such a thought as this? What a harvest of holy exertion, zealous self-sacrifice, devoted religious practice, springs from the aspiration at union with GOD'S will! What holy desires, what heavenly meditations, what lowly converse with GOD, what sweet entertainments with His Spirit, what adoring homage to the SON made flesh, spring from that endeavour at perfect conformity with the Divine will!

And now, in concluding this series of discourses, I have again to put the question to each individual here present, "Are you being converted?" Our SAVIOUR says, that unless you are so, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You know from these words the importance of the question, and also in what that conversion consists. It is the continuous life-long turning of the whole soul to GOD. It is the restoration to GOD of all the gifts within man which have been deteriorated by original sin. It is the recovery of sight to the blinded eye, and power to the paralyzed arm. It is the raising of the heart to GOD by knowledge; the adherence of the affections and will to Him by love. It is the gradual weaning of the heart from sin and its foul and turbid pleasures; it is the gradual acquiring of a relish for GOD, and for His calm and unexciting happiness. "Are you being converted?" You have had placed before you the signs of the absence of conversion: habitual consent to known sin; willing resistance to known and unpalatable truth; remembering past sin with pleasure; delight in the society of the wicked; faint perceptions of the difference between sins and sinfulness; insensibility to sins of omission; and confidence in man's own light and strength. "Are you being converted?"

You have had indicated to you the signs of this holy process going on within you: increased sense of the distance between GOD and the creature; increased mistrust and dissatisfaction with self; increased appreciation of spiritual conflicts; increased desire of perfect conversion of the whole heart to GOD; perseverance; contentment; trust in GOD. "Are you being converted?"

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