We inquire now as to the agencies or means by which this change is brought about. For it is a change which man can certainly not effect by his own efforts. Of this change it can certainly be said that it is "not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." To have this change brought about in the heart, all need to pray in the words of the Psalmist, Ps. lxxxv.4, "Turn us, O God of our salvation;" or as Ephraim in Jer. xxxi.18, "Turn thou me and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God;" or as Judah in Lamentations, v.21, "Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned." It is God the Holy Ghost who must work this change in the soul. This He does through His own life-giving Word. It is the office of that Word, as the organ of the Holy Spirit, to bring about a knowledge of sin, to awaken sorrow and contrition, and to make the sinner hate and turn from his sin. That same Word then directs the sinner to Him who came to save him from sin. It takes him to the cross, it enables him to believe that his sins were all atoned for there, and that, therefore, he is not condemned. In other words, the Word of God awakens and constantly deepens true penitence. It also begets and constantly increases true faith. Or, in one word, it converts the sinner. Of this wonderful power and efficacy in the Word we have already fully written, so that we need not enlarge upon this again. To the Word, then, let the unconverted sinner go. Let him be careful to put no barrier in the way of its influence. Let him permit it to have free course, and it will do its own blessed work.
We desire now to notice and to call special attention to the diversified phenomena and experiences incident to this change.
There are some, indeed, who will not admit that there are any variations. They would measure all by the same standard, and that standard often a very abnormal one. With some, the only standard is their own distorted experience. In their pharisaic self-righteousness they are ready to assert that every one whose experience does not in every respect conform to their own is not converted. The writer has frequently, in his pastoral work, met poor, downcast souls, who were groping in the dark, bemoaning themselves, and living a cheerless life, because they had been taught that, as they had not an experience just like somebody else, they were not converted, and had neither part nor lot in the kingdom of God. He has also met more than one who, by just such vagaries and delusions, had been almost driven to unbelief and despair. And what a relief it often is to such poor, benighted ones, if they are not too far gone, to be led out of their vain imaginings into the blessed light of God's truth.
We notice, first, that not all conversions are alike clearly marked. Some are more strongly marked than others. There are greater and less degrees of intensity in the change. The degree of intensity, or depth of experience, may depend on several things. It may depend, to, a certain extent, on the temperament of the individual. One person is of a phlegmatic temperament; his mind is sluggish; his feelings are not deep; he rarely becomes excited. Of a cool, calculating disposition, he does everything deliberately and cautiously. He feels the ground before him ere he takes a step. When God's Word comes to such an one, it does not generally revolutionize him at once. He hears it, carries it home, weighs it, ponders it, and wants to hear more. Gradually, slowly, his mind is enlightened, his heart is interested, his will is changed. In him the Word is likely to grow as a seed, or operate like leaven in meal. There is seldom much excitement, and little outward manifestation.
Another is of a sanguine temperament; he is impulsive, easily aroused, and ready to jump at conclusions. When God's Word comes to him, and is not opposed, it is more likely to take strong hold of him. It may so alarm him, and take away his peace, that he may at once see the depth of his guilt. Again, when Christ, His atonement and love for guilty men, are presented, he may quickly lay hold of the hope set before him in the Gospel, and rest on Christ. God's Word comes to him like a hammer that breaks the stony heart. Both persons have been led by the same Spirit, through the same Word. Both have repented and believed, but each in his own way.
The degree of intensity may also depend on the former life of the person.
One has wandered very far from his Father's house. He has wasted his substance in riotous living. He has sunken very low in sin and guilt. When God's Word comes to such an one, and shows him his wretched state, when he comes to himself, his penitence is likely to be deep and painful, and when he is enabled to believe, his faith will probably be quite joyful, because he realizes the depth from which he was drawn. God's Word has acted on him like a fire, burning deep down into the conscience, consuming its dross.
Another has never wandered so far away. He has all along been more or less under divine influence. Baptized in childhood, brought up amid Christian restraints, he has at least observed the outward obligations of religion, though he may not in the past have yielded himself unreservedly unto Christ. When such an one does give himself to God, his repentance may not be so marked, or his faith be so demonstrative, but on this account the conversion is none the less real. God's Word, at length, opened his heart, as the heart of Lydia, the seller of purple, was opened.
We notice in the next place that there are differences in the duration of the process. With some the process lasts longer than with others. This fact is implied indeed in the variations noted above. On one person the Word may make but a superficial impression at first. It may be only a slight dissatisfaction with self. But with more light and knowledge, the feeling of penitence is deepened. Longings for something better are awakened. Yearnings and outcryings after deliverance arise from the heart. There is then only a first timid trembling look to Christ. Gradually, slowly, the faith is drawn out, until the heart is enabled to cast itself on the Saviour and rest trustingly there. It may be weeks, months, or even years, before that penitent comes out into the clear sunlight of assurance and peace. In all such cases it is "first the blade, then the ear, and then the full corn in the ear."
On the other hand, we freely admit that there are sudden conversions. God's word comes as a hammer or as a fire (Jer. xxiii.29). It smites and burns until the sinner is brought low in the dust. The heart is broken and becomes contrite, and ready to lay hold of the Crucified One, as soon as He is presented. To this class, generally, belong some of those noted above as of sanguine temperament, and those who have fallen deeply into sin. Going to the Word of God for examples of the two latter classes, we might mention Zaccheus, Saul of Tarsus, the Philippian jailer, and the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, as cases of sudden conversion -- while we might instance the disciples of Christ in general, as cases of slow and gradual conversion.1 Cor. xii.6, "There are diversities of operation, but it is the same God which worketh all in all."
From all this it follows that not every one can tell the exact time when, and the place where, he was converted. True, some can. Zaccheus, and the jailer, and Saul, and the three thousand, would doubtless always remember and be able to tell about the time and place and circumstances of their entrance into the kingdom. But could the apostles of Jesus tell? Do we not read how slowly they were enlightened; how, little by little, their errors had to be removed, and the truth applied? They did not, in fact, become established in the faith until after the resurrection.
And so it is with many, probably, indeed, with most of the very best Christians in the church to-day. They cannot tell when they were converted.
Neither is it necessary. On the Day of Judgment the question will not be asked: "Where and when and how were you converted?" The question will be, "Were you in a converted state, turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God?" No matter whether you belonged to that favored class who kept their baptismal covenant unbroken; or whether, after you had been a stranger and a foreigner for a time, you were slowly, and through much doubt and, misgiving, brought to penitence and faith; or whether you were suddenly brought into the kingdom.
Can each one then tell whether he is at present in a converted state or not? We answer unhesitatingly, Yes, to a certainty. The inquirer need only look into his heart and see how his sins affect him. Do his sins grieve him? Does he hate them? Does he earnestly long and strive to be rid of them? Does he daily turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and strength? If he can answer these questions in the affirmative, he has the elements and evidences of conversion and the new life. Though faith be weak, it is accepted. Though assurance at times be dim, the vision of faith clouded, and faith itself almost unconscious, it still saves; for it is not the assurance, but the faith, that justifies.
But if, on the other hand, his sins do not trouble the sinner; if they are as trifles to him; if they do not daily drive him to the Cross, the elements and evidences of the new life are certainly wanting. Such a person is in an unconverted state. And let not such an one delude himself with the false idea that something, which he called a change, had taken place at some time in the past. He can know whether he is now in the faith.
It is poor theology, it is altogether anti-scriptural, for a Christian to go through the world singing plaintively:
"Tis a point I long to know;
He whose faith, reaching up out of a heart that mourns over and hates sin, lays hold of Christ, even tremblingly, can say, "I know in whom I have believed," "I know that my Redeemer liveth." He can joyfully sing:
"I know that my Redeemer lives!
"He lives to bless me with His love,
"He lives to silence all my fears,
"He lives, all glory to His Name!