The Spirit Convicting
Though man in his natural estate is spiritually dead, that is, entirely destitute of any spark of true holiness, yet is he still a rational being and has a conscience by which he is capable of perceiving the difference between good and evil, and of discerning and feeling the force of moral obligation (Rom. 1:32; 2:15). By having his sins clearly brought to his mind and conscience, he can be made to realize what his true condition is as a transgressor of the holy Law of God. This sight and sense of sin, when aroused from moral stupor, under the common operations of the Holy Spirit, is usually termed "conviction of sin"; and there can be no doubt that the views and feelings of men may be very clear and strong even while they are in an unregenerate state. Indeed, they do not differ in kind (though they do in degree), from what men will experience in the Day of Judgment, when their own consciences shall condemn them, and they shall stand guilty before God (Rom. 3:19).
Not "Conviction of Sin"
But there is nothing whatever in the kind of conviction of sin mentioned above which has any tendency to change the heart or make it better. No matter how clear or how strong such convictions are, there is nothing in them which approximates to those that the Spirit produces in those whom He quickens. Such convictions may be accompanied by the most alarming apprehensions of danger, the imagination may be filled with the most frightful images of terror, and Hell may seem almost uncovered to their terrified view. Very often, under the sound of the faithful preaching of Eternal Punishment, some are aroused from their lethargy and feelings of the utmost terror are awakened in their souls, while there is no real spiritual conviction of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. On the other hand, there may be deep and permanent spiritual convictions where the passions and the imagination are very little excited.
Solemn is it to realize that there are now in Hell multitudes of men and women who on earth were visited with deep conviction of sin, whose awakened conscience made them conscious of their rebellion against their Maker, who were made to feel something of the reality of the everlasting burnings, and the justice of God meting out such punishment to those who spurn His authority and trample His laws beneath their feet. How solemn to realize that many of those who experienced such convictions were aroused to flee from the wrath to come, and became very zealous and diligent in seeking to escape the torments of Hell, and who under the instinct of self-preservation took up with "religion" as offering the desired means of escape. And how unspeakably solemn to realize that many of those poor souls fell victim to men who spoke "smooth things," assuring them that they were the objects of God’s love, and that nothing more was needed than to "receive Christ as your personal Savior." How unspeakably solemn, we say, that such souls look to Christ merely as a fire-escape, who never—from a supernatural work of the Spirit in their hearts—surrendered to Christ as Lord
Does the reader say, "Such statements as the above are most unsettling, and if dwelt upon would destroy my peace." We answer, O that it may please God to use these pages to disturb some who have long enjoyed a false peace. Better far, dear reader, to be upset, yea, searched and terrified now, than die in the false comfort produced by Satan, and weep and wail for all eternity. If you are unwilling to be tested and searched, that is clear proof that you lack an "honest heart." An "honest" heart desires to know the Truth. An "honest" heart hates pretense. An "honest" heart is fearful of being deceived. An "honest" heart welcomes the most searching diagnosis of its condition. An "honest" heart is humble and tractable, not proud, presumptuous, and self-confident. 0 how very few there are who really possess an "honest heart."
Characteristics of the Spirit’s True Conviction
The "honest" heart will say, "If it is possible for an unregenerate soul to experience the convictions of sin you have depicted above, if one who is dead in trespasses and sins may, nevertheless, have a vivid and frightful anticipation of the wrath to come, and engage in such sincere and earnest endeavors to escape from the same, then how am I to ascertain whether my convictions have been of a different kind from theirs?" A very pertinent and a most important question, dear friend. In answering the same, let us first point out that, soul terrors of Hell are not, in themselves, any proof of a supernatural work of God having been wrought in the heart: it is not horrifying alarms of the everlasting burnings felt in the heart which distinguishes the experience of quickened souls from that of the un-quickened; though such alarms are felt (in varying degrees) by both classes.
In His particular saving work of conviction, the Holy Spirit occupies the soul more with sin itself than with punishment. This is an exercise of the mind to which fallen men are exceedingly averse: they had rather meditate on almost anything than upon their own wickedness: neither argument, entreaty, nor warning will induce them to do so; nor will Satan suffer one of his captives—till a mightier One comes and frees him—to dwell upon sin, its nature, and vileness. No, he constantly employs all his subtle arts to keep his victim from such occupation, and his temptations and delusions are mixed with the natural darkness and vanity of men’s hearts so as to fortify them against convictions; so that he may keep "his goods in peace" (Luke 11:21).
It is by the exceeding greatness of His power that the Holy Spirit fixes the mind of a quickened and enlightened soul upon the due consideration of sin. Then it is that the subject of this experience cries, "my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:3), for God now reproves him and "sets his sins in order" before his eyes (Ps. 50:21). Now he is forced to behold them, no matter which way he turns himself. Feign would he cast them out of his thoughts, but he cannot: "the arrows" of God stick in his heart (Job 6:4), and he cannot get rid of them. He now realizes that his sins are more in number than the hairs of his head (Ps. 40:12). Now it is that "the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it" (Isa. 40:7).
The Spirit occupies the quickened and enlightened soul with the exceeding sinfulness of sin. He unmasks its evil character, and shows that all our self-pleasing and self-gratification are but a species of sinfulness—of enmity against Him—against His Person, His attributes, His government. The Spirit makes the convicted soul feel how grievously he has turned his back upon God (Jer. 32:33), lifted up his heel against Him and trampled His laws underfoot. The Spirit causes him to see and feel that he has forsaken the pure Fountain for the foul stream, preferred the filthy creature above the ineffable Creator, a base lust to the Lord of glory.
The Spirit convicts the quickened soul of the multitude of his sins. He realizes now that all his thoughts, desires and imaginations, are corrupt and perverse; conscience now accuses him of a thousand things which hitherto never occasioned him a pang. Under the Spirit’s illumination the soul discovers that his very righteousnesses are as "filthy rags," for the motive which prompted even his best performances were unacceptable to Him who "weigheth the spirits." He now sees that his very prayers are polluted, through lack of pure affections prompting them. In short, he sees that "from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in him; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores" (Isa. 1:6).
The Spirit brings before the heart of the convicted one the character and claims of God Sin is now viewed in the light of the Divine countenance, and he is made to feel what an evil and bitter thing it is to sin against God. The pure light of God, shining in the conscience over against vile darkness, horrifies the soul. The convicted one both sees and feels that God is holy and that he is completely unholy; that God is good and he is vile; that there is a most awful disparity between Him and us. He is made to feelingly cry, "How can such a corrupt wretch like I ever stand before such a holy God, whose majesty I have so often slighted?" Now it is that the soul is made to realize how it has treated God with the basest ingratitude, abusing His goodness, perverting His mercies, scorning his best Friend. Reader, has this been your experience?