A Trial of Saving Interest: God’s More Ordinary Way of Calling Sinners to Himself
by Dr. William Guthrie
The fourth and most ordinary way by which many are brought to Christ, is by a clear and discernible work of the law, and humiliation; which we generally call the spirit of bondage as was hinted before. We do not mean that every one, whose conscience is awakened with sin and fear of wrath, does really close with Christ; the contrary appears in Cain, Saul, Judas, etc. But there is a conviction of sin, an awakening of conscience, and work of humiliation, which, as we shall point out, rarely miscarries, or fails of a gracious issue, but ordinarily does resolve into the Spirit of adoption, and a gracious work of God’s Spirit. And because the Lord deals with many sinners this way, and we find that many are much puzzled about giving judgment of this law-work, we shall speak of it particularly. This work is either more violent and sudden, or it is more quiet and gradual, so as to be protracted through a greater length of time, by which means the steps of it are very discernible. It is more violent in some, as in the jailer, Paul, and some other converts in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, on whom Christ did break in at an instant, and fell on them as with fire and sword, and led them captive terribly. And because some great legal shakings are deceitful, and turn to nothing, if not worse, we shall point at some things remarkable in these converts spoken of before, which proves the work of the law on them to have had a gracious issue and result.
1. Some word of truth or dispensation puts the person to a dreadful stand, with a great stir in the soul; some ‘are pricked in heart’ (Acts 2:37); some fall a ‘trembling’ (Acts 16:29.) And thus it is, that the person is brought to his wits’ end: ‘What wilt Thou have me to do?’ saith Paul (Acts 9:6.) ‘What must I do to be saved’ saith the jailer. (Acts 16:32.) 2. The person is content to have salvation and God’s friendship on any terms, as the question implies, ‘What shall I do?’ As if he had said, What would I not do what would I not forego? what would I not undergo? 3. The person accepts the condition offered by Christ and His servants, as is clear in the fore-cited Scriptures. 4. The person presently becomes of one interest with the saints, joins himself with that persecuted society, puts respect on those whom he had formerly persecuted, joining and continuing with them in the profession of Christ at all hazards. Those with whom the Lord has so dealt, have much to say for a gracious work of God’s Spirit in them: and it is probable many of them can date their work from such a particular time and word, or dispensation, and can give some account of what passed between God and them, and of a sensible change following in them from that time forward, as Paul giveth a good account of the work and way of God with him afterwards. (Acts 22) Again, the Lord sometimes carries on this work more calmly, softly, and gradually, protracting it so that the several steps of men’s exercise under it are very discernible. It would lead us to a great length to enlarge upon every step of it.
We shall touch on the most observable things in it. 1. The Lord lays siege to men, who, it may be, have often refused to yield to Him, when offering Himself in the ordinances; and by some word preached, read, or borne in on the mind, or by some providence leading on unto the word, He does assault the house kept peaceably by the strong man, the devil; and thus Christ, who is the stronger man, comes upon him (Luke 22:11); and by the Spirit of truth, fastens the word on the man, in which God’s curse is denounced against such and such sins, of which the man knoweth himself guilty. The Spirit convinces the man, and binds it upon him, that he is the same person against whom the word of God speaks, because he is guilty of sins; and from some sins the man is led on to see more, until usually he comes to see the sins of his youth, sins of omission, etc.! yea, he is led on, until he sees himself guilty almost of the breach of the whole law: he sees ‘innumerable evils compassing him,’ as David speaks. (Psa. 40:12.) A man sometimes will entertain alarming views of sin in this case, and is sharp-sighted to perceive himself guilty of almost every sin. Thus the Spirit comes and convinces of sin. (John 16:8.)
2. The Lord overcomes a special stronghold in the garrison, a refuge of lies, to which the man betaketh himself when his sins are thus discovered to him. The poor man pretends to faith in Christ, whereby he thinks his burden is taken off him, as the Pharisees said, ‘We have one Father, even God.’ (John 8:41.) They pretend to a special relation to God as a common Lord. The Spirit of God drives the man from this by the truth of the Scriptures, proving that he has no true faith, and so no interest in Christ, nor any true saving grace, showing clearly the difference between true grace and the counterfeit fancies which the man has in him; and between him and the truly godly: as Christ laboureth to do with the Jews in John 8:42, 44 ‘If God were your father, ye would love Me. Ye are of the devil, for ye do the lusts of your father.’ So, ‘fear surpriseth the hypocrite in heart’ (Isa. 33:14); especially when the Lord discovereth to him conditions, in many of those promises in which he trusted most, not easily attainable. He now sees grace and faith to be another thing than once he judged them. We may in some respect apply that word here, The Spirit ‘convinceth him of sin, because he has not believed on the Son.’ (John 16:9.) He is particularly convinced of unbelief: he now sees a vast difference between himself and the godly, who, he thought before, outstripped him only in some unnecessary, proud, hateful preciseness: he now sees himself deluded, and in the broad way with the perishing multitude: and so, in this sight of his misery coucheth down under his own burden, which before this time he thought Christ did bear for him: he now begins to be alarmed as to the promises, because of such passages of Scripture as, ‘What hast thou to do to take my covenant in thy mouth?’ etc. (Psa. 50:16.)
3. The man becomes careful about his salvation, and begins to take it to heart as the one thing necessary. He is brought to say with the jailer, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16) His salvation becomes the leading thing with him. It was least in his thoughts before, but now it prevails, and other things are much disregarded by him. Since his soul is ready to perish, ‘what shall it profit him to gain the world, if he lose his soul?’ (Matt. 9:26.) Some here are much puzzled with the thoughts of an irrevocable decree to their prejudice, and with the fears of uncertain death, which may attack them before their great concern is secured; and some are vexed with apprehensions that they are guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is unpardonable, and so are driven a dangerous length–Satan still reminding them of many sad examples of people who have miserably put an end to their own lives: but they are in the hand of one who ‘knoweth how to succour them that are tempted.’ (Heb. 2:18.)
4. When a man is thus in hazard of miscarrying, the Lord uses a work of preventing mercy towards him, quietly and underhand supporting him; and this is by infusing into his mind the possibility of his salvation, leading him to the remembrance of numerous proofs of God’s free and rich grace, in pardoning gross transgressors, such as Manasseh, who was a bloody idolatrous man, and had correspondence with the devil, and yet obtained mercy (2 Chron. 33:11, 13); and other scriptures bearing offers of grace and favour indifferently to all who will yield to Christ, whatsoever they have been formerly; so that the man is brought again to this,–’What shall I do to be saved’ which supposes that he apprehends a possibility of being saved, else he would not propound the question. He applies that or the like word to himself, ‘It may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.’ (Zeph. 2:3.) He finds nothing excluding him from mercy now, if he have a heart for the thing. The man does not, it may be, here perceive that it is the Lord who upholdeth him, yet afterwards he can say that, ‘when his foot was slipping, God’s mercy held him up,’ as the Psalmist speaks in another case. (Psa. 94:17, 18.) And he will afterwards say, when he ‘was as a beast, and a fool, in many respects, God held him by the hand.’ (Psa. 73:22, 23.)
5. After this discovery of a possibility to be saved, there is a work of desire quickened in the soul; which is clear from that same expression, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ But sometimes this desire is expressed amiss, whilst it goes out thus, ‘What shall I do that I may work the works of God?’ (John 6:28.) In this case the man, formerly perplexed with fear and care about his salvation, would be at some work of his own to extricate himself; and here he suddenly resolves to do all is commanded, and to forego every evil way (yet much misunderstanding Christ Jesus), and so begins to take some courage to himself, ‘going about to establish his own righteousness, but not submitting unto the righteousness of God.’ (Rom. 10:3.) Whereupon the Lord makes a new assault upon him, intending the discovery of his absolutely fallen state in himself, that so room may be made for the Surety: as Joshua did to the people, when he found them so bold in their undertakings: ‘Ye cannot serve the Lord,’ saith he, ‘for He is a holy God, a jealous God.’ (Josh. 24) In this new assault the Lord—1) Shows the man the spirituality of the law; the commandment cometh with a new charge in the spiritual meaning of it. (Rom. 7:9.) The law came, saith Paul, that is, in the spiritual meaning of it. Paul had never entertained such a view of the law before. 2) God most holily looseth the restraining bonds which he had laid upon the man’s corruption, and suffereth it not only to boil and swell within, but to threaten to break out in all the outward members. Thus sin grows bold, and spurns at the law, becoming exceedingly sinful. ‘But sin taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law, sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. Was then that which is good made death into me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.’ (Rom. 7:8-13) 3) The Lord discovers to the man, more than ever, the uncleanness of his righteousness, and the spots of his best things. These things kill the man, and he dies in his own conceit (Rom.7:0), and despairs of relief in himself, if it come not from another source.
6. After many ups and downs, here ordinarily the man resolves on retirement; he desires to like those in a besieged city, who, when they see they cannot hold out, and would be glad of any good condition from the besieging enemy, go to a council, that they may resolve on something; so the man here retires that he may speak with himself. This is like that ‘communing with our own heart.’ (Psa. 4:4.) Thus God leadeth into the wilderness, that He may speak to the heart. (Hos. 2:14.) When the person is retired, the thoughts of his heart, which were scattered in former steps of the exercise, do more observably throng in here. We shall reduce them to this method:–1) The man thinks of his unhappy folly in bearing arms against God; and here he dwells at large on his former ways, with a blushing countenance and self-loathing: ‘Then shall ye remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight’ (Ezek. 36:31); like that of Psalm 51:3, ‘His sin is ever before him.’ 2) Then he remembers how many fair opportunities of yielding to God he has basely lost; his spirit is like to faint when he remembereth that, as is said in another case ‘When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me. O my God, my soul is cast down within me. Deep calleth unto deep, all thy waves are gone over me.’ (Psa. 42:1-7.) 3) He now thinks of many Christians whom he mocked and despised in his heart, persuading himself now that they are happy, as having chosen the better part; he thinks of the condition of those who wait on Christ, as the queen of Sheba did of Solomon’s servants: ‘Happy are thy servants,’ saith she, ‘who stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.’ (1 Kings 10:8.) ‘Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house.’ (Psa. 94:4) He wishes to be one of the meanest who have any relation to God; as the prodigal son speaks, he would be as ‘one of his father’s hired servants.’ (Luke 15:7, 19.) 4) Then he calls to mind the good report that is going abroad of God, according to that testimony of the prophet, who knew that God was a ‘gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. (Jonah 4:2.) The free and large promises and offers of grace come in here; and the gracious dealings of God with sinners of all sorts, as recorded in Scripture. 5) He thinks with himself, ‘Why has God spared me so longs and why have I got such a sight of my sin? And why has He kept me from breaking prison at my own hand? Why has He made this strange change in me? It may be it is in His heart to do me good; O that it may be so!’ Although all these thoughts be not in the preparatory work of every one, yet they are with many, and very promising where they are.
7. Upon all these thoughts and meditations the man, more seriously than ever before, resolveth to pray, and to make some attempt with God, upon life and death; he concludes, ‘It can be no worse with him; for if he sit still he perisheth;’ as the lepers speak. (2 Kings 7:3, 4.) He considers, with the perishing prodigal son, ‘that there is bread enough in his father’s house and to spare, whilst he perisheth for want;’ so he goes to God, for he knows not what else to make of his condition, as the prodigal son does. And it may be, here he resolves what to speak; but things soon vary when he is present before God, as the prodigal son forgot some of his premeditated prayers. ‘I will arise, and go to my Father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose and came unto his father, and said unto him, Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ (Luke 15:17-21.) And now, when he comets before God, more observable than ever before—1) He beginneth, with the publican, afar of, with many thorough confessions and self-condemnings, in which he is very liberal, as (Luke 15:21)–’I have sinned against Heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy,’ etc. 2) Now his thoughts are occupied as to the hearing of his prayers, which he was not wont to question much: he now knows what those expressions of the saints concerning the hearing of their prayers do import. 3) It is observable in this address, that there are many broken sentences, like that of Psa. 6:3–’But Thou, O Lord, how long?’ supplied with sighs and ‘groanings which cannot be uttered,’ and anxiously looking upward, thereby speaking more than can be well expressed by words. 4) There are ordinarily some interruptions, and, as it were, diversions; the man speaking sometimes to the enemy, sometimes to his own heart, sometimes to the multitudes in the world, as David does in other cases’– O thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end.’ (Psa. 9:6.) ‘Why art thou cast down, O my souls and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise Him, who is the help of my countenance.’ (Psa. 42:6.) ‘O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame?’ (Psa. 4:2.) 5) It is observable here that sometimes the man will halt, and be silent, to hear some indistinct whisperings of a joyful sound glancing on the mind, or some news in some broken word of Scripture, which, it may be, the man scarcely knoweth to be Scripture, or whether it is come from God, or whether an insinuation from Satan to delude him; yet this he has resolved, only to ‘hear what God the Lord will speak,’ as upon another occasion. (Psa. 85:8.) 6) More distinct promises come into the man’s mind, on which he attempts to lay hold, but is beaten off with objections, as in another case the Psalmist is–’But thou art holy–But I am a worm.’ (Psa. 22:3, 6.) Now it is about the dawning of the day with the man, and faith will stir as soon as the Lord imparteth ‘the joyful sound.’ (Psa. 84:15.) This is the substance of the covenant, which may be shortly summed up in these words, ‘Christ Jesus is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.’ (Matt. 17:5.) We can speak no further of the man’s exercise as a preparatory work; for what followeth is more than preparatory; yet that the exercise may appear complete and full, we shall add here, that after all these things, the Lord, it may be, after many answers of divers sorts, mightily conveyeth the knowledge of His covenant into the heart, and determines the heart to close with it; and God now draweth his soul so to Christ (John 6:44), and so layeth out the heart for Him, that the work cannot miscarry; for now the heart is so enlarged for Him, as that less cannot satisfy, and more is not desired; like that of Psa. 73:25–’Whom have I in heaven but Thee? Or whom have I desired on earth beside Thee?’ The soul now resolves to die if He shall so command, yet at His door, and looking towards Him. We have stated this preparatory work at some length, not tying any man to such particular circumstances: only we say, the Lord dealeth so with some; and where He so convinceth of sin, corruption, and self-emptiness, and makes a man take salvation to beset as the one thing necessary, and sets him to work in the use of the means which God has appointed for relief; I say, such a work rarely shall be found to fail of a good issue and gracious result.