Conversion, regeneration, being born again, and other terms, are used indifferently to express the same thing. In the Scriptures, I believe the word conversion, or convert, is generally applied to that change of practical life which follows regeneration; but preachers and writers use it constantly as synonymous with regeneration; and I shall not interfere with the practice.

That a radical change wrought in the heart and mind of the natural man is essential to salvation, is a doctrine generally received and taught by the professed followers of Christ; and if there are any who teach or believe otherwise, it is safe, to infer that they have never themselves been the subjects of such change; and if they do not renounce their error before, they wilt be convinced, when “he that is filthy will be filthy still.” It is so plainly taught in the word of God, that to deny it implies a total want of reverence for Divine authority. Of this change we now design to discourse.

In reading the Old Testament (as we usually call it) we discover that God made two great promises to us as sinners; which two promises comprehend all that pertains to the whole plan and work of our salvation from the beginning to the end. The first promise is, that He would give us His Son to be our Redeemer. This Gift respects us as condemned sinners, under the curse of His law. This Gift was an absolute necessity, for without it our salvation was impossible. I will not detain you here by exhibiting the proofs. I take it for granted that you admit it. This promise has been fulfilled. This great Gift has been bestowed. And now it is not only useless, but it is highly sinful in us to attempt to do any thing in order to remove the curse and condemnation from us, for Christ “has redeemed us from the curse of the law.” And it would be casting the utmost contempt upon the perfect atonement made by Him, to do any thing by way of making satisfaction for our sins. The Son of God has done this work, and there was none but Him in heaven or earth that could do it.

The other great Gift which the Lord promised was the Holy Spirit as a Sanctifier, to give us spiritual life, to enlighten our minds, and, in a word, to make us new creatures. The necessity of this Gift, in order to our salvation, was as absolute and imperative as the other. There was no salvation without it, and there was none else but the Holy Spirit that could do it. The work of redemption or atonement is now a finished work, and was performed by Jesus Christ for us. But the work of regeneration is not a finished work, nor is it even begun in the natural man. This work is a work wrought within us by the Divine Spirit, and this work is now the subject of our present consideration.

I will state, in the first place, that there is no holiness in any created being but that which was given to it by the Holy Spirit. And I state further, that man–the natural man–is totally destitute of holiness. I employ the term holiness, not in a typical or relative sense, but in its strict and proper meaning. In its proper use, the word can not be applied to any but an intelligent nature. We must not think of holiness as a merely negative idea, implying simply sinlessness. In such meaning as this, it might be applied to a tree or to a block of marble. But it can have no just application but to intelligent creatures. No other can be a subject of holiness. Whatever created thing is not in its own nature capable of being sinful, can not be a subject of holiness. Holiness is a living, active, and operative principle; and wherever it exists, there is spiritual life. Man, in a state of nature, is said to be dead in sin; because he is utterly destitute of holiness, and, therefore, destitute of spiritual life. And as there can be no spiritual life without holiness, it follows of necessity that there can be no spiritual happiness. Hence it is said, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” There must be a similarity of character–a oneness of moral nature between us and a holy God, or we can have no communion with Him. There would be no reciprocal affection, but a natural inherent aversion. And this aversion must be mutual, for God can not do otherwise than hate the sinfulness of our nature; and we, without the spirit of holiness, can not do otherwise than hate the holiness of the Divine nature. Hence we see the natural man’s great and imperative necessity. It is an effectual change of his moral nature. But nothing can change its own nature; therefore man can not meet this necessity. And as all holiness is derived from the Holy Spirit, there is none that can do this but He only.

That change, therefore, which must be produced in the soul, is the work of God; and hence it is expressed in terms that necessarily require the power of a Divine agent. It is called a creation–“created anew.” Creation is a work peculiar to God, and is frequently referred to in the Scriptures as one of the strongest proofs of His infinite power. We are said to be “begotten of God,” and “born of the Spirit.” Previous to this change we are the “children of wrath”–“the children of disobedience.” Indeed, we are said to be “the children of the devil.” Subsequently we are called “the children of God”–“obedient children.” A greater contrast than this is hardly conceivable. While in a state of nature we are “dead in trespasses and sins;” but in this change we are “quickened”–“made alive.” It is the Spirit that “giveth life.” To give life, is an act which belongs exclusively to Divine power. God gives us of His Spirit, and this spirit of holiness which God gives us is said to be the Spirit of Christ. By it, we are made one with Christ in spirit; and this is that bond of union by which we are united to Him. And hence Christ is said to dwell in us by His Spirit. “Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.” Until we have the spirit of life, we are blind and can not see spiritual things, because they are spiritually discerned; but being made alive, we see the things of God. All that we have, and all that we are in ourselves, we derive from Adam; but the spirit of life we derive from God through Jesus Christ. And until the Spirit of life is given to us, we are wholly destitute of the spirit of holiness, and can not do any thing that is spiritually good.

The Holy Spirit does not give us any new faculty of the soul, but so sanctifies those which we possess in our present constitution, as to give them a new character, and also a new direction to their exercises. The manner or mode in which the Divine Spirit operates on the mind in effecting this change, is beyond our comprehension; as much so as the manner in which He produced light out of the original darkness. We can not see the wind, but we may see its effects, and the results of its powerful operation.

There are great diversities in the exercises of the mind in different persons, when first quickened by the Spirit; and those differences will often continue in some degree throughout the whole course of their religious life. But there are certain characteristics of the operations of the Spirit, which are uniform and pertain to all. The differences are circumstantial, and to account for them in a treatise on the subject would be impracticable, if not impossible. In particular instances much depends (as I think) on nervous temperament–much on the degree of general knowledge previously acquired, in respect to the law of God and in the way of salvation as revealed in the gospel; perhaps a good deal depends on the religious character of our ordinary companionship, and much on the instructive nature of the preaching we are most accustomed to hear, and perhaps not a little on the comparative wickedness of our previous habits of life. And we shall not undertake to trace in detail the exercises of the mind of a newly-awakened sinner, in a systematic order, but merely notice some things on the subject. Our remarks will be partly doctrinal and partly experimental.

The mind of man is naturally affected by the character of the objects which it contemplates, and by the particular relation which they sustain to him. All experience proves this, with respect to things both natural and divine. When, therefore, spiritual life is implanted in the soul, he can begin to discern spiritual things, though he is but an infant in spiritual capacity. Now, man is the creature of law. He was created at first subject to law, and be remains, and ever will remain, subject to law. And in Bible lands he is taught from infancy to understand something of God as his rightful sovereign; and of the nature of that law which He has ordained for man’s observance. And we are all conscious of the fact of our being transgressors; and we have some idea of that penalty which the law will inflict upon us in the world to come. Of all this we have some rational knowledge while yet in a state of nature. Some have a greater degree and some a less of this knowledge, before the Divine Spirit has given us spiritual life. And this knowledge ought to induce us to love God and to repent of our sins, but it never does it; for the law can not give life. Thus every man has a rational understanding that through the law is the ministration of death. Consequently, when the eyes of the understanding are opened we naturally turn our thoughts to the law, and to our sins, and to the dangerous state we are in, as exposed to the dreadful penalty due to our sins. Where there is spiritual life, there is also spiritual sensation. And when we discover our true condition, though only in a partial degree, we can not but feel concerned for the event. For the matter is of such immense importance, that to be entirely indifferent about the consequences is a moral impossibility. At the same time our relations to the things of this world are so intimate, so numerous, and so various; and the duties arising out of these relations are so manifold, and often so urgent, that the mind be more or less diverted from the consideration of spiritual and eternal things, and employed upon the things of time and sense. But in every thing that God does He always has a fixed and specific design, which He intends eventually to accomplish. And when He gives the Spirit of life to a dead sinner, He will maintain that life; for be will not be frustrated or defeated in the execution of his purposes. He will be glorified in His work, and will not begin to build when he is not both able and willing to finish. If a sinner thus brought to his senses should resolve to fight against it, and endeavor to put away thoughts of his condition, because such thoughts are troublesome to him, and disturb his peace, he would not be able to succeed. Our physical constitution is such that we can not take burning coals in our hands without feeling the effects of the fire. And spiritual life is such that a man possessing it can not remain very long at rest when he is conscious that the wrath of God hangs over him. And knowing that he is a subject of law, and that the language of the law is Do and live;” and, as he has always expected to live by this doing, he sets himself about the work, and perhaps will “do many things” which are enjoined upon him but sooner or later he will find that to “do all things which are written in the book of the law” is a task beyond the achievement of his moral powers. Meantime he too much overlooks the important fact that it is now too late to “do and live. He is condemned already, and nothing that he can do, nor all that he can do, will ever remove that condemnation. The dreadful sentence of death has already gone out against him for sins already committed; and whatever he may do, or can do, it is impossible for him to undo what he has done. Being enlightened by the Spirit, be will discover something of the sinfulness of his own heart, and of the holiness and justice of the law ; and that he is too weak to render that perfect obedience to the law which it requires, and is therefore daily increasing the measure of his guilt. We must find deliverance somewhere else, or certain destruction must ensue. Satisfaction for past sins can not be made by present duties, and beyond what duty requires it is impossible for us to go. The unconverted sinner obeys the law–so far as he obeys at all–from a slavish dread of its penalty; for he has no love of holiness for its own sake. And the newly awakened sinner seeks to obey and serve the Lord, hoping thereby to make himself a Christian. Both labor in vain. But the soul enlightened by the Holy Spirit will obtain clearer views of the law, in proportion to the increasing degrees of light that he acquires. And the more he contemplates the law, the more be will see the holiness of its nature and the extent and sacredness of its obligation; and, at the same time, by the same light, he will discover more clearly the imperfections of his obedience. And thus he learns, indeed, that the “commandment is exceeding broad;” and in due time, he will find that it is in vain to hope that he can ever attain to a righteousness that will satisfy a law which will approve of nothing short of perfect holiness. All the while Christ is set forth before him as a “propitiation through faith in His blood;” and why does he not look to him and obtain remission of sins? I shall not say that it is easy to answer this question. The soul is still oppressed with a burden of guilt; and he is still very much in the dark, and does not understand the way of a sinner’s acceptance with God. He does not see how God can love so unholy a creature as he is. His mind is so much engrossed with thoughts of his present sinfulness, and reflection upon his past sins–and a condemning law, ever present, denouncing judgment against him–that he can not direct his thoughts much to the only remedy for his disease. And if his mind is turned in that direction, a sense of his unworthiness, and a want of what he thinks is a necessary preparation or qualification for obtaining mercy, keeps him in a state of despondence. What the sinner needs now is faith in Christ.

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