William Young

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Preparatory Work Antecedent To Conversion

The Lord Jesus Christ has declared, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”(1) Since, for adults, conversion is an indispensable requisite for salvation, a correct view of its nature is of paramount importance. The need for such understanding is intensified by the prevalence of misconceptions in the professing church, even among Calvinists. Evangelicals, whether avowed Arminians or such in practice only, suppose that a sinner by the exercise of his free will can accept Christ and be converted. Some Calvinists, repudiating this error, have adopted the view that the children of believers have no need for an experience of conversion, but may be presumed to be regenerated or at least elected to salvation, unless in later years they reject the faith in which they were brought up in a Christian church, home and school. In these circles, conversion remains a locus in the system of orthodox theology, but ceases to be a reality in experience and practice.

Holy Scripture knows nothing of the popular error that conversion is merely the external move from one scheme of religion to another, nor of the mistakes of Christians who regard conversion of the soul from sin to God either as the independent act of man or as a presumptive guarantee of an external covenant relationship. All of these confused notions fall short of the Biblical teaching of the sovereignty of God as the sole source of a sound conversion. The Word of God ascribes the priority in this matter to the Creator and not to the creature, whose prayer is, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God,” and his testimony, “Surely after that I was turned, I repented.”(2) What the Lord does in conversion is not only an antecedent condition but the efficacious cause of the human response in repentance and faith.

The most common Old Testament word for conversion is shub, ‘to turn’. Familiar examples are Ps. 19:7, 51:13, Isa. 1:27, 6:10. Hapak, ‘to turn,’ is used in Isa. 60:5. In the Septuagint, shub is translated by epistrepho, the common word for ‘to turn’ or ‘to convert’ in the New Testament, e.g. Gal. 4:9, I Thess. 1:9, Jas. 5:19-20. In Matt. 18:3 the verb is simply strepho ‘to turn’. The fundamental notion of returning to God from sin is expressed by these words. While the word is not used, its sense is exemplified in the language of the prodigal son, Luke 15:18, “I will arise and go to my father.” The word ‘conversion’ is closely related to ‘repentance’, and may be considered a synonym if we think of repentance in a broad sense. In the narrow sense, repentance is regularly taken together with faith as an element of conversion, though Louis Berkhof regards metanoia as “the most common word for conversion in the New Testament.”(3) The common translation ‘repentance’ may be retained and the broad sense understood as implied in a radical change of mind.

Before conversion itself is discussed, some consideration should be given to the state of those who are to be converted. Indeed, one may well consider man’s original state of primitive integrity as well as that of his entire depravity, to use the terms of Thomas Boston in his Human Nature in its Fourfold State (1720). If the Scripture revelation of creation and the fall are not correctly understood, one may expect errors to appear in the account given of conversion. History verifies this expectation, for heresies with respect to grace have their root in false views as to man’s original state and the effects of the fall. Such appears repeatedly in the various heresies of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

The image of God in which man was created included not only his rationality and resulting responsibility, but the specific characters of knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Eccles. 7:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). By his fall into sin, man has completely lost the divine image in the latter, narrow sense. The unrestricted nature of this loss has been expressed in the use of the term ‘total depravity’. By reason of the sinner’s turning away from God, every part of his being has been corrupted. His intellect has been darkened, his affections perverted, his will enslaved, and his body as the instrument of the soul used for evil ends. Special attention may be given to the bondage of the will. While a certain natural liberty remains in fallen man, the ability to do the good acceptable to a holy God has been entirely lost (Rom. 8:7-8, I Cor. 2:14, Eph. 2:2-5, Tit. 3:3-5). In the language of the Westminster Confession, chapter IX, section iii: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.” This inability implies that saving faith and evangelical repentance must be gifts of the free and sovereign grace of God.

The confessional declaration that the natural man is not able by his own strength to prepare himself for conversion has been taken by some to exclude any preparation for conversion. A careful reading of the Confession, however, will show that this inference is unwarranted. That a man cannot prepare himself for conversion certainly does not imply that God, with whom all things are possible, cannot by his common grace prepare an elect person for conversion while that person is yet in a state of nature. It does not even mean that an unconverted person may not perform duties with the help of God which may in the course of providence be preparatory to his conversion. A failure to recognize this may be due to a one-sided preoccupation with the important truth of the radical difference in the state of a sinner before and after the great change. One contributing factor in this mistake is a confusion of conversion with regeneration. A person is either spiritually dead or alive. There is no intermediate state here, but only an instantaneous change. Conversion, however, may be a process with distinguishable stages, and in a sense may admit of repetition, which is not the case with regeneration. The apostle Peter was no doubt a converted person when the Lord said to him, “When thou art converted, strengthen the brethren.”(4) Among Reformed theologians, Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644) in his controversy with William Ames (1576-1633) denied preparations to regeneration as being inconsistent with total depravity.(5) More commonly, Calvinistic writers, and especially the Presbyterians and Puritans, have agreed with Ames. Frequently today one hears loud repudiation of what is called ‘preparationism’ by poorly-informed Evangelicals who often fail to make the most elementary distinctions in connection with the subject. Among writers that have recognized the fact of preparations, there have been diverse views expressed, while there is basic agreement in doctrine and practice.

Samuel Rutherford has discussed the question in minute detail.(6) Negatively, preparations are not the improvement of our natural abilities with a certain issue in conversion. Even if “wrought in us by the common and general restraining grace of God”(7) they cannot produce our conversion. All such humiliation and displeasure with sin cannot please God and “can be no formal parts of conversion.”(8) They are not moral preparation with any promise of Christ annexed to them. These antecedents to conversion do not detract from the omnipotency of free grace. One may be not far from the kingdom of God,(9) and yet not enter in. Protestant divines do not “make true repentance a work of the law, going before faith in Christ.”(10) Rutherford is especially concerned to defend preparations against Antinomian objections, particularly those of Saltmarsh.

Several pages of controversy are followed by a more positive exposition in which a number of interesting observations are made. First a distinction is made as to whether one’s reason for believing is that “I am a needy sinner” or because “I am fitted for mercy and humbled.” The way of humiliation is sweetly subordinate to free pardon. Examples are given from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, from Paul’s conversion and the argument in Romans 3. Rutherford summarizes in characteristic fashion: “Preparations are penal, to subdue; not moral, to deserve a merit; nor conditional, to engage Christ to convert.”(11)

Of special interest is Rutherford’s discussion of the thesis “that the promises of the gospel are holden forth to sinners, as sinners.” If the assertion means that all such are in a sinful condition, it is most true and sound. But it is most false to hold, with the Antinomians, that “they are all immediately to believe and apply Christ and the promises, who are sinners; and there be nothing required of sinners, but that they may all immediately challenge interest in Christ, after their own way and order, without humiliation, or any law work.” On this view, Christ would be holden forth to those who never heard the gospel. Simon Magus was not told to believe that God loved him with an everlasting love, “nor doth the gospel promise offer immediately soul-rest to the hardened, and proud sinner, wallowing in his lusts, as he is a hardened sinner; nor is the acceptable year of the Lord proclaimed, nor beauty and the oil of joy offered immediately to any, but those who are weary and laden, and who mourn in Sion, and wallow in ashes, Matt. 11:28-30, Isa. 61:1-3. It’s true, to all in the visible church, Christ is offered without price or money; but to be received after Christ’s fashion and order, not after our order; that is, after the soul is under self-despair of salvation, and in the sinner’s month, when he hath been with child of hell.” Rutherford grants that “in regard of time, sinners cannot come too soon to Christ,” but adds “in regard of order, many come too soon, and unprepared.”(12)

Rutherford evidently realizes that his position is apt to be misunderstood, and hence adds further explanations. “None can be thoroughly fitted for Christ, before he come to Christ; but it is true, some would buy the pearl before they sell all that they have.” To the Antinomian charge that the orthodox view preparations as making us less sinners, Rutherford replies, “Preparations remove not one dram, or twentieth part of an ounce of guiltiness, or sin. Christ, in practice of free grace, not by law, yea not by promise, gives grace to the thus prepared, and often he denies it also. . . . The omnipotency of grace knows no such thing, as more or less pardonable in sin; yea of purpose to heighten grace, that sinfulness may contend with grace, and be overcome, the Gentiles must be like corn ripe, white and yellow, ere the sickle cut them down, and they be converted, John 4:35.”(13) It follows that it is good to lie at wisdom’s door and attend Christ’s tide which may come in an unexpected hour. A final beautiful passage concerns Christ’s unchangeable love in drawing a fallen saint out of the pit. As in the Song of Solomon, love sickness precedes Christ’s return.

A distinctive representation of preparation to conversion is found in the works of the seventeenth-century New England Puritans. The sermons of Thomas Shepard and Thomas Hooker abound in minute descriptions of the stages of the experience of the awakened sinner prior to conversion. Detailed directions are given to those who are burdened with a sense of sin, including warning against “catching at Christ” prematurely and resting in the carnal security of the evangelical hypocrite.

The theological foundation of this pastoral practice has been developed in the treatise, The Orthodox Evangelist, by John Norton (1606-63). Chapter 6 has the title, “There are certain preparatory works coming between the carnal rest of the soul in the state of sin, and effectual vocation; or, Christ in his ordinary dispensation of the gospel, calleth not sinners, as sinners, but such sinners; i.e. qualified sinners, immediately to believe.” A distinction is made between mediate and immediate calling to believe: “Mediate, when we are called to believe; yet so, as that some other duty, or duties are to be done; before we can believe: thus all are called to believe, that live under the gospel. Immediate, when we are not only called to believe, but the very next duty we are called unto, is to believe; so are all they called to believe, that living under the gospel are in measure preparatorily . . . nextly disposed thereunto.”(14)

That sinners must be thus qualified, Norton argues from Matt. 9:13, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31. “He came not to call all sinners; for the righteous here mentioned, are sinners; but such sinners, sick sinners: the text can admit no other interpretation.”(15) Likewise, sinners in Isa. 61:1 are broken hearted, and in Matt. 11:28 weary and heavy laden. The revelation in the word is confirmed by argument from reason. ” ‘Tis in the works of grace, as we ordinarily see in the works of nature; God proceeds not immediately from one extreme unto another, but by degrees. . . . Here Christ, the only physician of souls, so cures his elect, as that by the common work of the Spirit he maketh them sick, before by the saving work of the Spirit he maketh them well.”(16)

“The parts of preparatory work, wrought by the ministry of the law,” are enumerated in chapter 7 of Norton’s book: “1. Conviction of the holiness of the law, 2. conviction of sin, 3. conviction of guilt, 4. concluding of the soul under sin and guilt, 5. conviction of the righteousness of God, in case he should punish us for our sins, 6. inexcusableness.”(17) “The preparatory work of the gospel” has the following heads: “1. Revelation of Christ so far as is necessary unto salvation, 2. repentance, 3. lost estate, 4. acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, and of Christ, in showing mercy, 5. consideration of the special object of faith, and arguments moving thereunto, 6. waiting in the aforementioned disposition for the Lord Jesus in the use of means: with ministerial and preparatory hope, under the if you believe of the gospel.”(18)

Norton definitely denies that a distinct experience of those several heads of preparatory work is ordinarily necessary to conversion. But he adds, “the more distinctness, the better.”(19) As to the amount of preparatory work needed, he states: “As the greatest measure hath no necessary connection with salvation, so the least measure puts the soul into a preparatory capacity, or ministerial next-disposition to the receiving of Christ.”(20) While there is not the same degree of humiliation in all that are truly converted, yet some degree is required. A soul with a lesser degree of humiliation before conversion may expect an after-bondage before it is settled and attains assurance of salvation. The experience of preparatory work is darkened by supposing it necessary to tell the time of one’s conversion. Norton writes: ” ‘Tis the duty of all who live under the gospel to be converted unto God, and it is the duty of all that are converted to know they are converted, but we are nowhere commanded, to know the time of our conversion.”(21)

The most important account of conversion in colonial New England theology is that of Jonathan Edwards, whose extensive experience of conversions in the Great Awakening is reflected in his balanced treatment of the subject. In his masterpiece on The Religious Affections, part 2, section 8, Edwards argues for the necessity of preparation, while cautioning against misconceptions. After an exhaustive consideration of Scripture instances, he concludes: “If it be indeed God’s manner, (and I think the foregoing considerations show that it undoubtedly is,) before he grants men the comfort of a deliverance from their sin and misery, to give them a considerable sense of the greatness and dreadfulness of those evils, and their extreme wretchedness by reason of them; surely it is not unreasonable to suppose, that persons, at least oftentimes, while under these views, should have great distress and terrible apprehensions of mind.”(22)

On the other hand, in agreement with Thomas Shepard, Edwards states: “It is no evidence that comforts and joys are right, because they succeed great terrors, and amazing fears of hell.”(23) In a footnote he observes: “Mr. Stoddard, who had much experience of things of this nature, long ago observed, that converted and unconverted men cannot be certainly distinguished by the account they give of their experience; the same relation of experiences being common to both.” Edwards, like Norton, also points out that “nothing proves it to be necessary, that all those things which are implied or presupposed in an act of faith in Christ, must be plainly and distinctly wrought in the soul, in so many successive and distinct works of the Spirit, that shall be each one manifest, in all who are truly converted.” Although Shepard is repeatedly cited with approval, yet Edwards appears to propose a correction to prevalent views, when he writes: “Nor does the Spirit of God proceed discernibly in the steps of a particular established scheme, one half so often as is imagined.”(24) Edward’s concluding remark is worthy of serious consideration: “Many greatly err in their notions of a clear work of conversion; calling that a clear work, where the successive steps of influence and method of experience is clear; whereas that indeed is the clearest work, (not where the order of doing is clearest, but) where the spiritual and divine nature of the work done, and effect wrought, is most clear.”(25) The study of Edward’s writings on the Great Awakening will prove rewarding, but especially the careful discrimination between the saving work of God’s spirit and all else, so admirably set forth in the Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.

In similar fashion, Thomas Boston in Human Nature in Its Fourfold State describes twelve stages in the breaking off of a branch from its natural stock. Yet he observes that he does not desire “to rack or distress tender-consciences,” of whom he found but few in his day. He explains: “But this I maintain as a certain truth, that all who are in Christ have been broken off from these several confidences; and that they who were never broken off from them, are yet in their natural stock. Nevertheless, if the house be pulled down, and the old foundation razed, it is much the same whether it was taken down stone by stone, or whether it was undermined, and all fell down together.”(26)

Likewise Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) writes: “We must not be of the opinion that each act follows upon the other within the soul in such sequence as we have described it here. We cannot express both acts simultaneously, and therefore we must place the one act after the other. However, all the motions mentioned above are frequently intertwined within the soul. At one time the one act comes to the foreground in the heart, and then again the other. Sometimes they function in one and the same exercise of faith, and thus no one ought to trouble himself about the order in which they occur, either by reflecting upon the manner in which he was exercised or as to the manner in which it began.”(27)

Common to the doctrine of these and many other Reformed writers is the recognition of the fact that God’s ordinary method is to prepare his elect for conversion, employing the law and the gospel to produce conviction of sin and an enlightenment of the mind to see the way of salvation in Christ. This preparatory work is common to those who are eventually converted and others who are not. It neither merits salvation not guarantees conversion, but is ordinarily an antecedent to it. God’s sovereignty in the methods he uses in performing this work is acknowledged, while due emphasis is placed upon the work performed. To overlook or minimize the importance of preparation for conversion is to encourage superficial views and practices with respect to the translation of a sinner from darkness to God’s marvelous light. A solid foundation in conviction is indispensable to a sound and lasting conversion.

Regeneration and Conversion

Having considered the preparatory work antecedent to conversion, we may now turn to the subject of conversion itself. It has already been observed that some Reformed writers have identified conversion with regeneration. While in controversy with Maccovius, Ames championed the doctrine of preparation, he nevertheless made no distinction between regeneration and conversion. In book 1, chapter 26, paragraph 19, of his Marrow he writes: “Because of this receiving, calling is termed conversion, Acts 26:20. All who obey the call of God are completely turned from sin to grace and from the world to follow God in Christ. It is also called regeneration or the very beginning of a new life, a new creation, a new creature – and it is often so described in the Scriptures, John 1:13, 3:6, I John 3:9, I Peter 1:23, and 2:2.”(28) Now Ames no more than Maccovius is endorsing the Arminian error of supposing that saving faith is the act of the unregenerated free will. Paragraph 25 explicitly states: “Yet the will in this first receiving plays the role neither of a free agent nor a natural bearer, but only of an obedient subject, II Cor 4:6.”(29)

Calvinists since the seventeenth century have commonly distinguished regeneration and conversion. Thus Louis Berkhof speaks of conversion as “a change that is rooted in the work of regeneration, and that is effected in the conscious life of the sinner by the Spirit of God.”(30) Regeneration is the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life, in which the sinner is only passive, while conversion includes faith and repentance as the first effects of regeneration. Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated, but cannot be said to be converted as subjects of faith and repentance. This is obvious so far as faith and repentance suppose a conscious understanding of the basic truths of sin and grace. Whether one may meaningfully speak of a seed of faith and repentance in infants has been debated and will be discussed.

The distinction between regeneration and conversion need not be taken as implying an interval of time between the two. The Dutch theologian, Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), in his disputation on the state of the elect before conversion,(31) contends that elect children of believing parents are regenerated in infancy by reason of their external relation to the covenant of grace. He does not hesitate to accept the logical consequence that a regenerated person may continue in an unconverted state for a protracted period before complete conversion. He takes the Apostle Paul as an instance, referring to Gal. 1:15. He also regards Augustine as regenerated in infancy and as a case of actual though incomplete conversion, even prior to his apostasy to Manichaeism.(32) Though Abraham Kuyper evidently endorsed this view, and his son is reported to have preached on “Paul the regenerated blasphemer,” even Reformed theologians in the Kuyperian tradition have drawn back from such an extreme view. Thus, while Berkhof admits that the seed of regeneration may be implanted long before effectual calling penetrates to consciousness, he adds “It is very unlikely, however, that, being regenerated, they will live in sin for years, even after they have come to maturity, and give no evidences at all of the new life that is in them.”(33) The abstract possibility of such cases may be admitted, but the theory of Voetius is entirely devoid of scriptural support, Gal. 1:15 admittedly not speaking of effectual calling. Inference from the possibility to the actuality of infant regeneration is shown to be invalid by the case of many who come to years of discretion but fail to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. Yet, that Paul and Augustine were elect from their mother’s womb, even though not yet regenerated, is important, as Gal. 1:15 indicates. The mysterious operation of Providence prior to their conversion may be considered as preparing for their outstanding witness to the truth after their conversion. Hence no support is to be found here for the practical evils of Hyper-Covenantism.

By Hyper-Covenantism is meant an exaggeration of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace, in which from the presupposition of the regeneration or at least the election of the children of believers it is supposed that their final salvation may be expected and that they are to be dealt with as such, unless the contrary is eventually seen to be the case. Such a view ignores the fundamental distinction between an external relation to the covenant of grace to which important privileges attach and, on the other hand, that being in the covenant which is peculiar to the elect and which alone entails the effectual, saving work of the Holy Spirit. Consequences of this attitude are the neglect of or opposition to self-examination, and an antipathy to experimental religion in general. Doctrinal orthodoxy and external morality and religion may be insisted on, but vital godliness is scornfully branded as pietism or mysticism. On such a view, conversion is naturally regarded as swallowed up in regeneration, and not to be looked for in the experience of any except such as have been outside the covenant in respect of their past.

Such was clearly not the view of Voetius, who laid great stress on the practice of piety, having been deeply influenced by the British Puritans. His inaugural address at the University of Utrecht set forth the “uniting of piety with knowledge.” His lectures on spiritual desertions were translated into Dutch by his colleague, Professor Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-66), who himself wrote a detailed treatise on the subject. Like the Puritans, Voetius emphasized strict Sabbath observance and opposed humanly invented ‘holy days’, as well as instrumental music in worship. Voetius presents a remarkable combination of minute intellectual and even scholastic presentation of systematic theology, and a serious concern for experimental religion, notwithstanding his peculiar view of the state of the elect before conversion, the very expression itself indicating an awareness of the importance of conversion.

While the doctrine of Voetius makes an assertion of the actual regeneration of elect children of believers, the Hyper-Covenantism of Abraham Kuyper Sr., and also of his son, claims the presumptive regeneration of what are called covenant children. It should be observed that some followers of Kuyper such as Klaas Schilder and Herman Hoeksema who have denied presumptive regeneration hold what amounts to presumptive election of the children of believers. Such views stand in diametric opposition to the position stated by Archibald Alexander in his Thoughts on Religious Experience: “The education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidences of piety clearly appear, in which case they should be sedulously cherished and nurtured. These are Christ’s lambs – ‘little ones who believe in Him’ – whom none should offend or mislead upon the peril of a terrible punishment. But though the religious education of children should proceed on the ground that they are destitute of grace, it ought ever to be used as a means of grace. Every lesson, therefore, should be accompanied with the lifting up of the heart of the instructor to God for a blessing on the means. ‘Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.’ “(34) Alexander acknowledges that infants and other young children are sometimes regenerated, but insists, “Although the grace of God may be communicated to a human soul at any period of its existence in this world, yet the fact manifestly is, that very few are renewed before the exercise of reason commences; and not many in early childhood. Most persons with whom we have been acquainted grew up without giving any decisive evidence of a change of heart. Though religiously educated, yet they have evinced a want of love to God, and an aversion to spiritual things.”(35) The implication is clearly that in most cases even of the children of the church, baptized in infancy, and soundly instructed in early years, an experience of conversion is imperative.

In agreement with Presbyterian and Puritan writers, as well as with Dutch writers of the Nadere Reformatie (Second, or Further, Reformation), Alexander recognizes that there are some cases of early regeneration that are to be “sedulously cherished and nurtured.” So William Guthrie, in chapter 2, section 1, of The Christian’s Great Interest (1658), part 1, chapter 2, section 1, gives marks of those “called from the womb as John the Baptist was (Luke 1); or in very early years, before they can be actively engaged in Satan’s ways, as Timothy (II Tim 3:15).”(36) In section 2, however, Guthrie insists that men are ordinarily prepared for Christ by the work of the law. Jonathan Edwards, in his Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1736), gives a detailed account of Phebe Bartlett, born 1731, who at the age of 4 was greatly affected by the talk of her brother, who had been hopefully converted at the age of 11. The narrative speaks of her conviction of sin, her deliverance, and subsequent gracious walk. A note states that she was living in 1789 and maintained the character of a true convert.

Among the Dutch divines Bernardus Smytegelt (1665-1739), an eminent preacher and physician of souls in the province of Zeeland, is famous for his comforting as well as searching discourses. Outstanding is his masterly work, Het Gekrookte Riet (The Bruised Reed). In the twenty-first sermon on Matt. 12:20-21, Smytegelt treats of those who were regenerated from their youth. Smytegelt makes the clear, simple assertion that in our church and with all the pious it is accepted as a divine truth that God regenerates children. This fact (note, not any presumption) provides a ground for the circumcision of small children in the Old Testament, and their baptism in the New. Scripture examples are Abel, Isaac, Jacob, David, Obadiah, Jeremiah, Timothy, and John the Baptist. Smytegelt speaks of the seed of grace implanted in the soul. One so regenerated may in later years fall into a time of delusion, such that grace in him is like a coal under the ashes, but he will be brought to a sincere and thorough repentance. Finally, warning is given to those who presume that they might have been regenerated in early years, and signs are given to distinguish truly gracious souls from such hypocrites.

A person who early in life is the subject of a work of saving grace may not necessarily fall into a career of gross sin, and will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in a manner suited to his age and circumstances. Such a one may not be able to state the time and place of his conversion. When this gives rise to doubts and fears as to whether one has passed from death unto life, or only has instruction in orthodox doctrine, an outward walk produced by a faithful upbringing, and such feelings as might be explained as natural to childhood, it should be considered that early regeneration need not issue in a crisis experience of conversion. The results of the new birth may unfold themselves gradually, in the experience of a child who as yet is a babe in Christ. There are marks that are encouraging, although human judgment may have to wait patiently for the ultimate issue of a full-grown servant of the Lord. It must also be realized that there may be declension from early piety, a declension which calls for a more or less prolonged period of deep and painful conviction of sin before the Great Physician is pleased to speak the healing words, “Thy sins be forgiven thee. Go in peace, and sin no more.” Certainly, it is a fatal mistake to regard sound biblical and catechetical teaching at home or in a Christian school as sufficient. One of the most disastrous expressions of Hyper-Covenantism is regarding the Christian school as designed to inculcate in the child that he is already a Christian, and consequently has no need of an experience of conversion. A similar remark may be applied to preaching. I remember the instruction in homiletics given in a Calvinistic theological seminary: “Don’t be like Whitefield and teach your people, ‘Ye must be born again.’ Except for stray unbelievers, your congregation is composed of Christians. Why, many of God’s people were born again before they were born.”

While such Hyper-Covenantism nullifies conversion by swallowing it up in regeneration, some who call themselves Calvinists tack on an Arminian conversion to a verbally correct doctrine of regeneration. This pitfall may be fallen into either theoretically or practically. The practical form of this snare may appear in the crude practices of the invitation system or in the Campus Crusade line of telling the unconverted that “God loves you, Christ died for you, and all you must do is to accept him as your personal Savior.” Some might not care to go so far, but have no scruples as to having their children sing: “Jesus loves me, he who died, heaven’s gate to open wide.” Such a practice teaches the child presumption, while at the same time the child is taught to repent and believe of his own free will. All too common is to append to the preaching or teaching of salvation by grace an ending which makes the Arminian assumption of the sinner’s ability to repent and believe unto salvation. A remarkable instance of such gross incongruity occurred at a General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in which Bruce Hunt gave a splendid public address on the five points of Calvinism as the basis for missionary activity. After he concluded, there was given out the missionary hymn: “O Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling, to tell to all the world that God is light; That He who made all nations is not willing, one soul should perish, lost in shades of night.” After thus implicitly denying unconditional election, in a later verse the hymn explicitly rejects particular redemption by the words: “Let none whom he has ransomed fail to greet him, by thy neglect unfit to see his face.” Thus Arminian hymnody followed Calvinistic preaching, leaving the congregation with two conflicting doctrines as to the basis for the conversion of the heathen.

The theoretical form of this snare was exemplified by the deviations of nineteenth-century New England Congregationalism taken over by New School Presbyterianism. The corruption of Jonathan Edwards’ distinction between moral and natural inability, used in the masterly treatise on Freedom of the Will, turned what was designed to answer Arminian objections to the doctrines of grace into a Pelagian assertion of the natural ability of unrenewed free will to repent and believe savingly. The theoretical views of Nathaniel Taylor at Yale provided the basis for Charles Finney’s introduction of the “New Measures” into revival preaching. Thus, in this matter the theoretical error led directly to the practical evil that has infected American evangelism and revivalism to the present day. To combine such theories and practices with Calvinism is a contradiction in terms, which no talk of paradox or perspectives can alleviate.

A correct view of the relation between regeneration and conversion holds that while in conversion the regenerate man is active in repentance and faith, in both the new birth and conversion God is active, and is alone active in regeneration. It might be best to represent regeneration as the part of conversion that causes repentance and faith, rather than as prior, even in the purely logical sense, to conversion. In the case of infant regeneration, repentance and faith would be regarded not as human activities but simply as an infused state of the soul that is the seed of activity in the case of those who come to years of discretion. In the case of adults, regeneration and the divine activity in converting the sinner would be identical in initial conversion, and would be presupposed as the ultimate cause in subsequent experiences of conversion.

In conclusion, contemporary Calvinism understands by regeneration the instantaneous transition from spiritual death to spiritual life wrought by the effective operation of the Holy Spirit. Saving faith and evangelical repentance are the results, not the causes, of the new birth. Elect infants are sometimes regenerated in infancy, but only older persons perform the acts of faith and repentance in which conversion consists, or which at least are involved in conversion. The children of Christian parents are not to be presumed to be regenerated or even elect, until evidences of a work of grace in their souls appear. Some who come to years of discretion may have been regenerated as infants and may not be able to give an account of the time and manner of their conversion. There are marks of grace that distinguish these as well as other true converts from hypocrites that have only the outward form of true religion and/or a spurious experience that superficially resembles conversion. Two errors are ruled out by a sound view of regeneration and conversion: on the one hand, the presumption that a child of believing parents, on the ground of the promises of the covenant of grace, has no need of an experience of conversion, and on the other, the supposition that the duty of conversion implies the ability of the unconverted to repent and believe to the salvation of their souls. Sinners need to be converted, and their prayer should be, “Turn thou me and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.” It is scriptural to view conversion both as God’s work in turning the sinner to Himself, and as the soul’s act in turning from sin to God. God’s activity is logically prior to man’s, and is both necessary and sufficient to produce it.

The Elements of Conversion: Faith and Repentance

One question about regeneration in relation to conversion has not been considered. Is regeneration a work of the Spirit performed without means, or is the Word a means used by the Spirit in performing this work? At first sight, James 1:18 and I Peter 1:23-25 appear to support the latter view. Yet our understanding of regeneration as instantaneous would appear to require it to be immediate. Consequently, regeneration would occur without the Word as a means which is apprehended and received by faith, this faith being one of the elements of conversion and conjoined with repentance, the other element. This difficulty may be resolved in either of two ways. One might hold that regeneration by or with the Word does not mean that the Word is a means, but rather provides the atmosphere within which regeneration takes place. James 1:18 lends itself to this interpretation more readily than I Peter 1:23, in which dia strongly suggests the Word as the means. On the other hand, the language of both these verses when compared with that of John 3:3ff. strongly supports the view that two quite distinct topics are in view in these passages; if the word regeneration is used with respect to both cases, it must be understood in two quite distinct senses. It is less confusing to restrict expressions like regeneration and new birth by adopting the sense of the immediate impartation of new life to the spiritually-dead soul, the work of the Holy Spirit in which the sinner is passive, while it is conversion in which the Word is the instrument through which saving faith is begotten, or better, brought to birth. This representation harmonizes both with the language of Scripture and with the use of the word ‘regeneration’ in the narrow sense.

This question provides a transition to the subject of faith as an element of conversion. Many questions could be raised about faith, but we may concentrate our attention on its nature and on its relation to repentance. Two questions about the nature of faith may be considered. 1. Is faith simply the act of believing, or is it first of all a state or habit of the soul? 2. Is faith simply assent to the truth, or is it in part or entirely the consent of the will?

Not only those who suppose faith to be produced by a decision of the sinner’s free will, but some who recognize that it is the gift of God, have held that saving faith is the act of believing in Christ. Others have made the distinction between faith as an infused habit or seed of grace and the various acts or exercises of that grace of faith. This distinction may be seen, upon careful reading, to be implicit in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter XIV, section i: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word. . . .” Section 2 speaks of the acts of faith as the expression of this grace of faith: “By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth. . . . But the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” That the Westminster Divines had this distinction in mind appears from the statement of Edward Reynolds: “I must, for caution’s sake, premise, that faith may be in the heart either habitually as an actus primus, a form, or seed, or principle of working; or else actually as an actus secundus, a particular operation; and that, in the former sense, it doth but remotely dispose and order the soul to these properties: but, in the latter, it doth more visibly and distinctly produce them.”(37)

While Reynolds and the English Puritans in general paid greater attention for pastoral purposes to the acts of saving faith, Alexander Comrie (1708-74), raising high in the Netherlands the banner of free grace in opposition to the inroads of Arminianism and Amyraldianism, stressed the habit of faith as most decisively setting forth the exclusion from saving faith of the works of man, even of the regenerate. In his exposition of Comrie’s teaching, Joel R. Beeke writes: “By accenting the habitus of faith, therefore, Comrie purposes to exalt divine grace as the sole cause of faith. It is the sole prerogative of the Holy Spirit to implant this habitus in the souls of the elect who altogether lack such spiritual ability, being spiritually dead. In this implanting of faith, the spiritually dead sinner is utterly passive; with this implanting he is incorporated, ingrafted into Jesus Christ; and from this implanting, the elect will necessarily become active in the performance of faith’s exercises.”(38)

This emphasis of Comrie, in which he excels à Brakel, not only furnished a bulwark against the compromising views of Moise Amyraut and Richard Baxter in the eighteenth century, but today may serve to refute the slanders of men like R. T. Kendall, who bring the charge of voluntarism akin to Arminianism against the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of faith. Far from representing saving faith as an act of the human will, (and least of all a decision of the will enslaved to sin), the Confession, as well as the Catechisms, presents faith as a saving grace wrought in the soul by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, which is the principle of the activities necessarily following. Among those activities following, the one of prime importance is taking refuge in Christ alone for righteousness and life.

This view of the grace of faith makes possible the presence of faith in regenerate infants and others not capable of the exercise of acts of believing. The infant may have the seed of faith and may be justified by faith as well as regenerated. In the case of adults, regeneration may implant or have previously implanted that seed, while the acts of that faith, rather than the act of receiving Christ as an immediate fruit of regeneration, may be more of the nature of conviction of sin and of humiliation for sin, preparatory for the subsequent acts of closing with Christ. This view is similar to that of Norton, except that it sees man’s preparatory acts as effects of regeneration, rather than as products of common grace, employed by the Holy Spirit to prepare for conversion in the case of the elect.

This may also cast light on the position of Maccovius as against that of Ames. We have seen that Ames identifies regeneration and conversion. Maccovius insists that regeneration consists in infused habits.(39) And immediately before that, when discussing whether the faith that comes by hearing, spoken of in Romans 10:17, is actual or habitual, Maccovius wrote: “God first gives eyes for seeing, and the mind for understanding, which is habitual faith. After he sets forth His Word, when those eyes and mind are turned to it, they see this word to be the Word of God, by certain marks that are in that Word. They believe, therefore, that all things which are set forth in that Word are most certain, most true, divine. In this fashion, actual faith arises from the Word of God, so that it presupposes eyes to see and the mind to understand, which is regeneration itself.”(40) Likewise, in the Distinctiones Theologicae, Maccovius states that faith is sometimes habitual and sometimes actual, and adds that habitual faith is a part of regeneration, and actual faith the effect of habitual faith (effectus habitualis), one habitually wrought out.(41) Abraham Kuyper Jr., in his dissertation on Maccovius, includes among Maccovius’ contributions that “the matter of preparatory grace was brought to clearness and lucidity as being a preparatory grace not to regeneration, but to conversion.”(42) It is interesting that this view of preparatory grace was rejected by Abraham Kuyper Sr.(43) It may appear that the theoretical question so bitterly disputed between Maccovius and Ames was mainly logomachy, or strife about words. No doubt there were difficulties in the exegesis of particular passages, and Ames was surely motivated by a wholesome zeal for practical piety, while Maccovius was concerned to maintain a consistent system in opposition to Romish and Arminian doctrines as to the ability of the unregenerate to merit saving grace or to prepare themselves by the exercise of free will for conversion. But neither is the character of Maccovius to be denigrated by an apocryphal story, nor the Calvinism of Ames to be questioned because he allowed that Arminianism, while a serious error, was not in every instance a heresy.

The second question as to the nature of faith is whether saving faith is simply assent to the truth of the gospel, or whether another element, called by some ‘the consent of the will’, constitutes the whole or at least a part of faith. The latter answer has been usually given by Reformed theologians. Thus Professor John Murray mentions knowledge, assent and trust as the constitutive elements of that special faith which has Christ the Redeemer as its object. Knowledge concerning Christ’s identity, in terms of which we entrust ourselves to Him, is essential. Assent is the intellectual belief of the truth and application of it to ourselves. But in trust or fiducia lies the “unique and distinguishing character” of the faith.(44) As assent is knowledge passed into conviction, so fiducia is conviction passed into confidence. Charles Hodge, representative of Reformed writers, states, “The Protestant doctrine that saving faith includes knowledge, assent, and trust, and is not, as Romanists teach, mere assent, is sustained by abundant proofs.”(45) The element of trust, as distinguished from assent, has sometimes been called the consent of the will. Thus, Thomas Manton, in commenting on James 2:19, states: “In short, there is not only assent in faith, but consent; not only an assent to the truth of the word, but a consent to take Christ.”(46) Thomas Chalmers also makes the distinction between assent and consent, although he identifies faith with the former and views consent as a necessary effect of faith, but not a part of it.(47)

The definition of faith as assent, with the rejection of a distinction of consent and assent, has been set forth by Gordon H. Clark, most fully in his book, Faith and Saving Faith. Assent is taken not to consist in understanding alone, but a voluntary act directed to that which is understood.(48) The popular analysis of faith into understanding, assent, and trust, in view of the identity of fiducia and fides (faith), “reduces to the obviously absurd definition that faith consists of understanding, assent and faith,” and it is concluded that, “Something better than this tautology must be found.”(49)

Clark has called attention to elements of the teaching of the Scripture that are overlooked or minimized by those who represent faith as including an element additional to assent. Many passages such as Romans 10:9 clearly express saving faith as “believing that . . .,” i.e. as assent to gospel truth. The contrast often made between believing that a proposition is true and believing in a person is shown not to be supported by biblical usage. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is appealed to as pointing out that, “In John especially to believe in and to believe that are constantly used interchangeably.”(50)

The difference between the two representations of the nature of faith should not be exaggerated. After several criticisms of John Owen, Clark remarks, “Owen nonetheless seems to acknowledge that believing is voluntary assent to an understood proposition.”(51) Similarly, Charles Hodge, while found inconsistent in his statements, “is nonetheless correct in the main.”(52) The apparently diametrically-opposed positions may be reconciled in some measure, if assent is understood to include elements ordinarily counted as volitional or affective. Thus Calvin could write, “It is an absurdity to say, that faith is formed by the addition of a pious affection to the assent of the mind whereas even this assent consists in a pious affection, and is so described in the scriptures.”(53) The statement in Larger Catechism 72 on justifying faith need not be read as providing a psychological analysis of the constituents of faith, but simply as distinguishing assent to the truth of the promises of the gospel from the appropriation of this promise described as receiving and resting “upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.” If the element of knowledge is taken not as the bare understanding of the sense of the gospel truths, but as spiritual understanding, then assent involving trust is already present in such knowledge, and the three elements are inseparable as the effect of particular grace.

A much-disputed question has been, Which is prior, faith or repentance? To avoid confusions which have entangled debate on this topic, several preliminary distinctions should be made. First, the distinction between temporal priority and logical priority should be borne in mind. With respect to regeneration and faith, the two are simultaneous, for as soon as the Holy Spirit translates the soul from spiritual death to the new life, the seed of faith is present in the renewed person. Yet the Spirit’s activity as cause is logically prior to the faith which is its effect. So also there is no question but that the graces of faith and repentance are imparted simultaneously in regeneration. In the second place, we have stressed the distinction between the grace of faith as a seed and the exercise of that faith in acts of believing. With respect to repentance, the difference between legal and evangelical repentance must be taken into consideration. The great varieties of detail in the experiences of true Christians ought also never to be forgotten.

In view of these considerations, it may appear that the question of the priority of faith or repentance does not admit of a simple, straightforward answer, but requires careful discrimination, such as John Brown of Wamphray (ca. 1610-79) has exhibited in his work on The Life of Justification Opened.(54) This is indicated by the fact that scripture passages have been cited both by those who assigned priority to faith, and also by the other party. John Colquhoun, in A View of Evangelical Repentance from the Sacred Records (1825), quotes or mentions in support of the priority of faith such verses as Job 36:9-10, Pss. 13:5, 18:1-2, 73:24-25, Jer. 31:19-20, Zech. 12:10, John 15:5, Acts 5:31, 11:21, and Heb. 11:6. On the other hand, he finds himself obliged to answer objections from such texts as Luke 3:3, 24:47, and Acts 2:38, 5:31, 8:22, 26:18. In Colquhoun’s chapter of replies to objections, no reference is made to Acts 20:21, where repentance toward God is mentioned before faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ; however, Colquhoun’s response to an objection from texts which mention repentance before forgiveness should also apply here,(55) and Colquhoun has explicitly expounded this text as placing the end, i.e. repentance, first, and then faith as the means of attaining to that end.(56)

Some elements in this complex question are clear, while others are more controversial. It is beyond question that legal repentance issuing from fear of the consequences of sin may precede conversion and is no guarantee that conversion will follow. It will also be agreed that evangelical repentance and saving faith are inseparable from one another both in their beginnings and in the subsequent life of the regenerate. The matter of logical priority is more difficult and, I believe, may in part be resolved by the consideration that habitual faith and habitual repentance are a single seed of implanted grace, while the acts of faith and repentance may precede and follow one another in various ways in different individuals. With respect to the implanted habit, there is not even a logical priority. In regeneration, the soul is turned from sin, which is repentance in the fundamental sense. But the turning from sin is one and the same with the turning to God in habitual faith. There is reason from the order of things, as well as Scripture indications, to maintain that in the exercise of the habit there is a logical or causal priority of faith to repentance. It must, however, be realized that the faith that first precedes repentance in act may be faith in the revelation of the law, applied by the Holy Spirit in producing that conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment spoken of in John 16:8-11. Acts of penitence produced by the special work of the Spirit may immediately follow, while the specific acts of faith that bring relief follow later. I believe that this experience is that related in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where the entering of the strait gate precedes the dropping off of the burden from Christian’s back. This is not to lay an additional load on every true convert by insisting that he must be led on the same pathway as John Bunyan, with respect to the temporal sequence of the exercises of faith and repentance. Conviction of sin and the enlightening of the mind in the knowledge of Christ, as well as renewing the will, are parts of effectual calling in every conversion, but the order of events varies from case to case.

The experience of godly sorrow for sin upon contemplating the indescribable anguish of the sinless Savior, as the object of the judicial wrath of the Father, is something very precious in the life of the godly. But this is not to be demanded or even expected in the first conscious acts of conversion. In the life of the Spirit-taught Christian, there is undoubtedly here a priority of faith to repentance. Yet this, like the roles of repentance and faith in the recovery of the backslider, belongs to the sanctification that follows initial conversion.

The Scripture references to repentance, with their different emphases, are enumerated by Brown of Wamphray. While repentance is distinguished from faith (Acts 20:21, Heb. 6:1), it sometimes signifies only receiving the gospel (Matt. 3:2, Mark 1:15, Acts 19:4), and in some places includes “all that is required, in order to salvation, upon man’s part” (Luke 13:3 and 5, 24:47, Acts 5:31, 17:30, and II Pet. 3:9).(57)

It is to be noted that while the Bible speaks often of justification by faith, it never uses the expression “justification by repentance.” While we would regard habitual faith rather than any act of faith as justifying faith, and while we would also identify the seed of faith with that of repentance, we would not infer that repentance is an instrument of justification as is faith. What has been in view in speaking of faith as nothing more than an instrumental cause is the denial that faith has any efficacy of its own in justification, but consists rather in the denial of all works of the believer and receives all from Christ and from him alone. Since this is not the very meaning of repentance as it is of faith, we may not speak of justification by repentance, although it is true that there is forgiveness of sins only for the penitent. In the order of nature, however, justification precedes evangelical repentance. In this matter also, the conversion of a sinner is shown to be the consequence of grace alone, while repentance and faith are states or acts of the regenerated person.

The Genuineness and Fruits of Conversion

We have discussed the relation between faith and repentance in and after conversion. This is a pleasant subject for pious meditation. Most essential, however, is that faith and repentance, and therefore conversion, be genuine. The genuineness of conversion is bound up ultimately with its results. The Savior has declared, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. . . . Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”(58) A genuine conversion is evidenced by love, humility, self-denial and other graces. It is profitable to look at repentance and faith as they differ from plausible counterfeits for which they are commonly mistaken.

When we speak of evangelical repentance, there is implied a contrast with legal repentance. Only those who under the covenant of grace are justified by faith can exercise evangelical repentance, while legal repentance is performed by such as are condemned by the covenant of works. Legal repentance is indeed often an ingredient in the preparation of the elect for conversion, while evangelical repentance begins as a part of conversion and continues as promoting the believer’s sanctification. Legal and evangelical repentance differ first of all as to their motives. Legal repentance springs from fear of punishment, while evangelical repentance “is a sincere mourning for sin, a loathing of ourselves in our own sight for it, and an earnest desire of deliverance from the power and practice of it.”(59) The unconverted may be convicted of their guilt and terrified by the threatenings of punishment. They may feel keen sorrow and bitter remorse, followed by resolutions to reform, and by a change of outward behavior. But all this is not to be confused with evangelical repentance. Cain could say, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”(60) So Saul “lifted up his voice and wept” and confessed his crime against David,(61) and Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.”(62) The remorse of Judas is a most fearful example of the sorrow of the world that worketh death.(63)

Evangelical repentance, on the contrary, mourns for sin, not because of the threat of punishment in this life or that which is to come, but for sin as sin, as the abominable thing that God hateth.(64) This true penitence was felt by David when he wrote, in Ps. 51:4: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” Though he had committed crimes against the second table of the law, the Psalmist was convinced that these offenses were sin against God, and acknowledged that God would be just in condemning him.

Repentance for sin as sin, means repentance for all sin, original as well as actual, sins of omission as well as of commission, secret as well as public and presumptuous. David descends to the sin of nature and the secrets of the heart, while a legal repentance, so far as it involves actual sorrow, is directed to gross and open crimes, disapproved of by fellow sinners and subjected to temporal punishment. At most the fear of the torments of hell may deter the convicted sinner from his vicious courses. A merely legal repentance is apt to wear off in the course of time. The sow that was washed may return to wallowing in the mire.(65) In some cases, the terrors of the law may be followed by a false peace, and the unconverted may imagine themselves truly to have repented. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand, is stable, and matures during the Christian’s earthly pilgrimage. The Apostle Paul remembered what he had been prior to conversion and confessed himself the chief of sinners. Such will be echoed in the experience of every true penitent, who remembers his own evil ways, and loathes himself in his own sight for his iniquities and for his abominations.(66)

We have seen that faith and repentance are closely connected with one another. Legal repentance requires a faith in the obligation to obedience prescribed by the law and in the threat of punishment for disobedience. Evangelical repentance flows from a saving faith in the law and the gospel. Thus to the difference between evangelical and legal repentance, there corresponds a difference between saving faith and a faith of which the unconverted man is capable. Faith that comes short of the faith of God’s elect has often been treated in the three-fold division of historical faith, temporary faith, and the faith of miracles.

Historical faith naturally means belief in the truth of the historical record in the Bible. It includes, however, the wider sense of holding the precepts to be binding, and generally assenting to the propositions asserted in Scripture. Thus King Agrippa is stated by Paul to believe the prophets.(67) James informs us that the devils believe that there is one God, and tremble.(68) The evil spirits cast out by the Lord acknowledged his deity and the last judgment.(69) From such passages it has often been inferred that assent to the gospel truth is no more than historical faith and comes short of saving faith. While it may be concluded that knowledge of and assent to some revealed truths is no guarantee of saving faith, and that appropriation of truth believed is necessary, it is not clear that the appropriation that involves trust in the Savior implies more than that assent which the Holy Spirit produces by regeneration. Difficulties in the psychological analysis of saving faith happily need not trouble the inquiring soul that flees to Christ for refuge. The problems involved are fully discussed by Chalmers in his Institutes of Theology. General truths of the gospel may be believed with a non-saving faith, but the true believer receives the gospel offer as applying to himself. This appropriation is warranted by the revealed proposition that whosoever believeth shall be saved. The faith required here is not to be confused with the assurance that one is in a state of grace. The latter faith results from a reflex act by which one reflects on the initial act of receiving Christ as offered in the gospel. The content of the offer is propositional, while the act of complying with it involves the consent of the will.

In any case, historical faith is an essential ingredient in saving faith, although when it is alone it is no part of conversion. In our day of widespread unbelief it is necessary to give prominence to the necessity and grounds for historical faith, while at the same time it must be made clear that it is insufficient for salvation. This must be given due emphasis, especially where Hyper-Covenantism gives professing Christians and their children encouragement to rely on historical faith and to overlook the need for the reality of spiritual knowledge of the great salvation.

Historical faith is presupposed not only by saving faith but also by temporary faith. While this counterfeit faith, often hard to distinguish from saving faith, may last for a lifetime, yet its temporary character in many is taught in the case of the stony-ground hearers in the parable of the sower,(70) as well as that of the persons described in Heb. 6:4-6, and of the apostates of II Pet. 2:20-22. The affective as distinct from the intellectual element is indicated by these hearing the word and receiving it with joy.(71) The high attainments of some, who have been once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, may be followed by total and final falling away, which proves that there has not been true conversion. Temporary faith may exhibit not only intellectual life and high affections, but also moral reformation by which one escapes the pollutions of the present evil world. Temporary faith is characteristic of the pseudo-conversions of modern Arminian evangelism, in which a superficial emotional experience is cultivated and a decision of the human will is imagined to produce the great change. Yet even where the gospel is proclaimed in its purity, Satan will sow tares among the wheat, and evangelical hypocrites will be found the victims of self-deception.

The faith of miracles is that faith in the power of Christ by which the disciples in the first century were able to perform miraculous works, or by which a person might have a miracle, especially of healing, wrought on him. Though this faith was often joined by saving faith in the same person, yet it was distinct from it and, in a number of cases, was operative without conversion. Thus Judas was commissioned with the other apostles to perform miracles.(72) The apostle Paul informs us, “though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”(73) Now charity, or Christian love, is a fruit of saving faith. Hence, the miraculous mountain-moving faith is something quite other. While this faith prevailed in the days of Christ and the apostles, we have today among the Charismatics what may be called a counterfeit of the counterfeit faith of miracles. It is especially deplorable when this is mistaken for saving faith and even regarded as an eminent form of it.

In the course of his searching account of “Distinguishing Marks of Saving Faith,” à Brakel writes: “How deceitfully Satan operates at times, stimulating the imagination to such a degree that it appears to the temporal believer that he experiences the joy of heaven in his heart! Yet it is nothing but a sensory stimulation, void of substance and communion with God. Humbleness of heart and love toward God are absent. . . . With courage the temporal believer journeys on; he has no strife or wrestlings to believe and remain steadfast. He is assured, although he does not wish to hear his conscience which occasionally confronts him with the truth, and therefore he silences it. . . . There is no searching of the heart; neither are there sincere and earnest transactions with God and Christ. Temporal faith is an intellectual whim, a figment of the imagination, superficial and presumptuous in nature, without uprightness of heart, and without these truths having taken root downward in the heart.”(74) The above calls attention to the expression of temporary faith in a superficial assurance that admits of no ground in self-examination, a phenomenon widely prevalent in present-day evangelical circles.

A practical consequence of considering the elements of conversion is the necessity of self-examination. The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; and the danger is present that one may suppose oneself to be on the way to heaven while holding a lie in one’s right hand. On the other hand, a sincere though weak convert may lack the assurance of being in a state of grace. A sinner may flee for refuge from the wrath to come to a crucified Redeemer, and yet not be able to say, “I am his, and he is mine.” Saving faith is faith in Christ and his sure word of promise, not faith in one’s faith. To the one “that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light,” the instruction is given, “Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.”(75) The inspired prophet goes on to speak of the gospel hypocrites who kindle a fire and compass themselves about with sparks, to whom the solemn warning is, “Walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall sit down in sorrow.”(76) Such is the contrast between the child of light walking in darkness and the child of darkness walking in light. Yet, as a result of the deceitfulness of the heart, both err in the judgment they pass as to their state. The weak believer deprives himself of comfort, while the proud self-deceiver’s error is fatal, if he remains unconverted. Both evils may be avoided or remedied by way of a faithful self-scrutiny in the light of the revealed Word.

The Scriptures contain an abundance of marks of grace by which a person may tell whether or not he has been truly converted. The First Epistle of John is especially rich in these. There we read such as the following: “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”(77) “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him.”(78) “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”(79) “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.”(80) “And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.”(81) “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and everyone that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.”(82)

The declaration of I John 5:1, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” is not designed to provide a premise for a syllogism by which a sinner is converted, in the manner in which Caesar Malan dealt with John Duncan.(83) But this text is properly used as a major premise by which a believer may argue his sure hope of salvation: “All who believe have been born again, but I believe; therefore, I have been born again.” The minor premise may indeed require to be established by further self-examination according to other marks of grace.

A great mistake with unhappy results is made by neglecting the means and marks laid down in Scripture and looking elsewhere for grounds of assurance. To make the experience of other Christians, even eminent saints, to be models to which one’s own conversion is to conform is an error fraught with grave consequences. As Jonathan Edwards wisely pointed out, “No philosophy or experience will ever be sufficient to guide us safely through this labyrinth and maze, without our closely following the clue which God has given us in his word. . . . He best knows our nature, and the nature and manner of his own operations; and he best knows the way of our safety. He knows what allowances to make for different states of his church, different tempers of particular persons, and varieties in the manner of his own operations.”(84)

The proper evidence of a sound conversion is not the bare fact of one’s experience, but the evaluation of that experience in the light of Scripture. What is more decisive than the memory of the past, is the comparison of one’s present state with what the written Word declares to be the fruit of the Spirit of grace. Although a sincere convert may not be able to recount the time, place, and other circumstances of the great change, he may say, as did the man born blind, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”(85) Sanctification as the consequence of conversion is the best evidence of conversion. Among the marks of grace in I John, emphasis is laid upon keeping the commandments of God and refraining from sin. A godly walk in the pathway of holiness is the effect of the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God, and thus the proof that faith and repentance have been given by the Spirit. It is a truth to be ever inculcated that neither the Christian’s good works, nor the graces imparted by the Holy Spirit, can give a title to everlasting life. The right to forgiveness and acceptance can only be conferred in free justification grounded in the perfect obedience and full satisfaction rendered by the Redeemer. Sanctification also has been merited by Christ’s finished work, which is applied by the efficacious operation of his Spirit. Yet, as sanctification cannot be separated from justification, so neither can it be from conversion.

An account of the various elements in sanctification cannot be given here. It would call for a series of lectures to make even a summary statement of so vast a subject. It must suffice to state that, indispensable as conversion is in the beginning of the Christian life, it is, after all, only the beginning. Without life there cannot be growth. But life without growth, however it may be the case in the natural realm, is a contradiction in terms in the spiritual. Growth in grace may be interrupted by backsliding and spiritual declension. Nevertheless, where the Lord has begun a good work, he will bring it to perfection in the day of Christ Jesus, though the straying sheep be brought by the chastening rod to say; “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.”(86)

We have seen that conversion, the turning from sin to God, is the effect of regeneration, the imparting of spiritual life to the sinner dead in trespasses and sins. Man is passive in regeneration, but in conversion is active in faith and repentance, activities which are the manifestation of the seed infused in regeneration. Saving faith and repentance unto life must be distinguished from their counterfeits by self-examination according to the marks of grace delineated in Holy Scripture. If the result of self-scrutiny is a well-grounded assurance, ascribe all the praise to sovereign grace, and by that grace walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called. But if you fail to find in yourself the fruits of conversion, take heed to the command given to all men to repent, and, in order to exercise a repentance not to be repented of, flee for refuge to him who has spoken the gracious words: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”(87) As the evangelical prophet enjoined: “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”(88)


(1) Matt. 18:3.
(2) Jer. 31:18-19, and cf. Lam. 5:21.
(3) Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), p. 480.
(4) Luke 22:32.
(5) Abraham Kuyper, Jr, Joannes Maccovius (Leyden: D. Donner, 1899), pp. 339-52.
(6) Samuel Rutherford, Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself (London: J. D. for Andrew Crooke, 1647), pp. 239-71.
(7) Ibid., p. 240.
(8) Ibid., p. 241.
(9) Mark 12:34.
(10) Rutherford, Christ Dying, p. 244.
(11) Ibid., p. 257.
(12) Ibid., p. 258.
(13) Ibid., pp. 259-60.
(14) John Norton, The Orthodox Evangelist (London: John Macock for Ludowick Lloyd, 1657), p. 130.
(15) Ibid., pp. 130-31.
(16) Ibid., p. 135.
(17) Ibid., p. 142.
(18) Ibid., p. 152.
(19) Ibid., p. 160.
(20) Ibid., pp. 160-61.
(21) Ibid., p. 162.
(22) Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman (1834, reprint ed., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1:253.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid., 1:254.
(25) Ibid., 1:255.
(26) Thomas Boston, The Whole Works (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848-52), 8:199.
(27) Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (Ligonier, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992-), 2:245-46. Cf. p. 288, on the acts of saving faith.
(28) William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, ed. and trans. John D. Eusden (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), pp. 158-59.
(29) Ibid., p. 159.
(30) Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 483.
(31) Gysbertus Voetius, Disputatio 9 (“De Statu Electorum ante Conversionem”), Selectarum Disputationum Fasciculus, ed. Abraham Kuyper (Amsterdam: J. A. Wormser, 1887), pp. 247-70.
(32) Augustine, Confessions 3.6.
(33) Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 472.
(34) Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), p. 13.
(35) Ibid., pp. 13-14.
(36) William Guthrie, The Christian’s Great Interest (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), p. 38.
(37) Edward Reynolds, The Whole Works (London: B. Holdsworth, 1826), 1:451.
(38) Joel R. Beeke, Assurance of Faith: Calvin, English Puritanism, and the Dutch Second Reformation (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), p. 286.
(39) Joannes Maccovius, Collegia Theologica (Franeker: Uldericus Balck, 1641), p. 409.
(40) Ibid., p. 407.
(41) Joannes Maccovius, “Distinctiones Theologicae,” chap. 14, sec. 17, in Redivivus, Seu Manuscripta (Franeker: Ludovicus Elzevir, 1654).
(42) Kuyper, Joannes Maccovius, p. 400, n. 5.
(43) Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 290.
(44) John Murray, Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976-82), 2:258.
(45) Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (London: James Clarke and Company, 1960), 3:91.
(46) Thomas Manton, An Exposition of the Epistle of James (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1962), p. 240.
(47) Thomas Chalmers, Institutes of Theology (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1849), pt. 2, sec. 6, 2:124-25, 132-34, 142-43, 171-73, 184-87.
(48) Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation, 1983), pp. 50-51.
(49) Ibid., p. 52.
(50) Ibid., p. 101.
(51) Ibid., p. 58.
(52) Ibid., p. 79.
(53) John Calvin, Institution De La Religion Chrestienne, III.ii.8. The French reads: “veu que l’assentement ne peut estre sans bonne affection et sans reverence de Dieu.” Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, edited by W. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss (Brunswick: C. A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1863-1900), vol. 4, col. 21.
(54) While the question at issue in Brown’s book is the relationship between repentance and justification, the relation of faith to repentance is closely associated.
(55) John Colquhoun, Repentance (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), pp. 141-43.
(56) Ibid., p. 115.
(57) John Brown, The Life of Justification Opened (n.p.: 1695), pp. 358-60.
(58) Matt. 7:18, 20.
(58) Matt. 7:18, 20.
(59) Colquhoun, Repentance, p. 74.
(60) Gen. 4:13.
(61) I Sam. 24:16-19.
(62) I Kings 21:27.
(63) Matt. 27:4, II Cor. 7:10.
(64) Jer. 44:4.
(65) II Pet. 2:22.
(66) Ezek. 36:31.
(67) Acts 26:27.
(68) James 2:19.
(69) Matt. 8:29.
(70) Matt. 13:5-6 and 20-21.
(71) Matt. 13:20.
(72) Matt. 10:8.
(73) I Cor. 13:2.
(74) à Brakel, Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:322-23.
(75) Isa. 50:10.
(76) Isa. 50:11.
(77) I John 2:3.
(78) I John 2:29.
(79) I John 3:9.
(80) I John 3:14.
(81) I John 3:24.
(82) I John 5:1-2.
(83) Malan had been prominent in the Genevan revival of 1816-17 under Robert Haldane. The authorities and populace of Geneva were astonished and enraged when Malan set forth gospel truth from Calvin’s pulpit in the sad day when Socinian denial of the deity and atonement of Christ were in the ascendancy. Malan was forbidden to preach and was eventually deprived of his ecclesiastical status in Geneva. He was more kindly received in Scotland, and in 1826 met with Duncan and was the instrument in the hands of the Lord in the turning of that choice vessel from darkness to light. Malan employed his favorite technique of “conversion by syllogism,” using “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” as a major premise, and arguing the inquirer to admit the conclusion that he was born of God. Duncan had fallen from a sound upbringing into pantheistic atheism, but had, under the influence of the moderate but reverent Dr. Mearns, come to belief in God and the divine origin of Christianity, although he was yet devoid of saving faith. In the interview with Malan, Duncan could agree to the premises of the syllogism but denied the conclusion. He later stated: “I fought against his syllogism. ‘I believe Jesus is the Christ, but I don’t believe that I am born of God.’ At last in our talk I happened to be quoting a text. He started forward and said, ‘See! you have de word of God in your mouth!’ It passed through me like electricity – the great thought that God meant man to know His mind. . . . It was, I believe, the seed of perhaps all I have, if I have anything, to this hour. Seminally it was perhaps all there – though I cannot even now unfold it, much less then.” David Brown, Life of the Late John Duncan, LL.D. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872), p. 148.
(84) Jonathan Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:336.
(85) John 9:25.
(86) Micah 7:9.
(87) Matt. 11:28.
(88) Isa. 55:6-7.

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