T.U.L.I.P. – The Doctrines of Grace
Conviction and Conversion
by Dr. William S. Plumer
William S. Plumer (1802-1880): American Presbyterian minister and graduate of Old Princeton; it has been said that among 19th century Reformed writers, “none was more doctrinally sound, experientially searching, and practically realistic”; known as pre-eminently a preacher of the Gospel, while a contemporary described his public prayers as “the tender pleadings of a soul in communion with God.”
It may be proper here to make a few general remarks, explanatory of what is often the state of a sinner’s mind immediately before conversion.
He discovers that the Bible is a revealer of the secrets of his soul, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of his heart. He is ready to say, “Come see a book which hath told me all things that ever I did.” At such times God’s Word is as a glass, in which a man beholds his natural face. It reflects his image and shows him his sad deficiencies and his great deformity. He finds his heart to be exceedingly depraved. He is convinced that the imaginations of the thoughts of his heart are only evil continually. In this state of mind, David compared his pains to “broken bones” (Psalm 51:8). If you have ever had a broken bone, you may have an idea of his meaning. Thoughts of it occupy the mind day and night. For a moment, company may seem to create a diversion of the thoughts, but soon they revert to the fractured limb. Such a one, awaking at a dead hour of the night, immediately thinks of the injured part. All attempts to shake off reflection concerning it are fruitless. In another place David says, “My sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). His mind dwelt upon his transgressions. Like a vast army of men, they were continually passing in solemn review. In this state of mind, one feels that God has a right to have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and to have compassion on whom He will have compassion. Whatever may be his theory on the subject, his heartfelt conviction is, that without wrong to him, God may withhold all the blessings of salvation. Yea, he feels that God would be justified in condemning him for ever and be clear in driving him to outer darkness.
Sometimes one in this state is greatly annoyed with wicked and even blasphemous thoughts. The object of the tempter seems to be to banish all hope of reconciliation with God. It sometimes happens to such a soul as to that young man of whom we read, “And as he was yet a coming, the devil threw him down and tare him” (Luke 9:42). When his prey is about to be taken from him, the old lion is greatly enraged. He cannot bear to witness the escape of a single soul.
One thus exercised will discover that the belief which he has hitherto had of the Bible is unavailing. It has been merely historical, cold, and powerless. Or it has been the faith of devils and has merely filled his soul with terrors. He now feels the need of a faith which is “of the operation of God” (Colossians 2:12). And even in the surrender which he is about to make, there is so much timidity and such a sense of unworthiness that commonly the most he can say is, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Boldness in coming to the throne of grace is seldom enjoyed even by young converts.
One who has advanced thus far will probably be more than ever beset by the evil one. The Hebrews never fared so hard as just before they left Egypt and never were so hated as after they began to march towards Canaan. He is sadly disappointed that the measures he has adopted for relief have but sunk him the deeper in misery. Like that woman in the Gospel, he has spent all his substance on physicians and is no better, but worse. Prayer, hearing the Word, reading, conversation, and resolutions have all been found ineffectual; and even worse, they have brought more wrath on the soul because of the sin attending them.
In this state one might adopt the language of the psalmist: “My soul is full of troubles…I am as a man that hath no strength…Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deep. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves…I am shut up, and I cannot come forth. Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction….Lord, why castest thou off my soul? Why hidest thou thy face from me? …Thy terrors have cut me off” (Psalm 88:3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 14). He feels that God must help him, or he must die in his sins. Like Peter sinking, he says, “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30). Or like Hezekiah, he exclaims, “Mine eyes fail with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me” (Isaiah 38:14).
Such a man will grieve because he cannot grieve, and mourn because he cannot mourn, and weep because he cannot weep. He is astonished at his guilt and at his hardness of heart. He is convinced that an entire change of heart is in his case necessary to happiness here and hereafter. He also sees that if he shall ever be saved, it must be by an act of free, rich, sovereign grace. His boasted ability is found to be nothing. His strength is weakness. His merits are now not named. He feels that he deserves no good thing. His righteousnesses are as filthy rags. He is ready to come before the Lord with the language of self-condemnation.
This state of mind is conviction, which involves always a sense of five things: sinfulness, guilt, ignorance, helplessness, and misery. This conviction is, of course, not alike pungent in all cases; nor is it necessarily accompanied with extreme agitations or terrors; but it is a clear view of one’s state as demanding the remedy provided in the Gospel. If the work of conviction should proceed and hope never come to the relief of the soul, the result would be the impenetrable gloom of despair, as in the case of the damned. Let a man see his lost estate and not see the Savior…and he will be a desperado in the government of God. Often the sinner desires that his convictions may proceed because he looks upon them as punishments for sin—as punishments richly deserved. If he had his way, he would not even now come to Christ. If he could weep and mourn and grieve and be melted as he wishes, he would be satisfied without any other atonement than that which he could thus make. At least, he would seek no other. In all His dealings with him, God’s plan is to shut him up to the faith of Christ; that through the Law he may be dead to the Law that he may be married to Christ.
Ask such a one if he thinks he is under conviction, and he will probably reply in the negative. His views on that subject are very vague and erroneous. Indeed, he has no distinct idea of what conviction is, except that he believes it is a step towards salvation. He thinks he has no such feeling as in anywise prepares him for a change. It seems to him that he is losing instead of gaining ground.
The nearer he approaches to salvation, the further does he seem from it. The darkest hour is just before day. It was midnight when Pharaoh dismissed Israel (Exodus 12:30, 31). In his Almost Christian, Mead gives a salutary warning: “Never rest in convictions till they end in conversion. This is that wherein most men miscarry; they rest in their convictions and take them for conversion, as if sin seen were therefore sin forgiven or as if a sight of the want of grace were the truth of the work of grace.” Conviction, however deep or distressing, is not saving.
Taken from Vital Godliness reprinted by Sprinkle Publications.