The point is often made that the experiences of Christians vary – including their experience of conversion. This, of course, is true in certain respects. The experience of a Christian brought up in the world, or in an unsound Church, may differ from someone brought up in a sound Church. The variety of experience must be emphasized. If it is not, true believers may be troubled to hear other Christians speaking about experiences which they never had and be ready to conclude that they are not born again.
However, this point may be overemphasized. The Scriptures make clear that all true Christians have several things in common. Whenever the Church forgets this, the results are disastrous. Vague or confused ideas about conversion begin to spread, and the Church loses her ability to discern between the precious and the vile (Jeremiah 15:19). A generation arises that does not know the Lord, nor yet the works which He has done for Israel (Judges 2:10). During such a time, true converts – sincere but poorly taught – struggle to obtain assurance that they are truly born again. At the same time, false conversions begin to multiply.
In an introductory essay to the book, Advice to a Young Christian by Jared Waterbury, Archibald Alexander identifies several experiences and characteristics that all true Christians have. His observations build upon the explanation of effectual calling in The Shorter Catechism: “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel”.
The following is a summary of the experiences and characteristics that Alexander mentions. Scripture references are added to show that each experience is essential to the true Christian. Two references to highly esteemed Scottish writers are also included. All the points provide matter for self-examination and meditation.
- All have, by the knowledge of the law, been convinced of sin. They have been made to feel sorrow, shame and compunction [remorse], upon recollection of their transgressions, and to submit to the justice of the sentence of condemnation, which the law denounces against them (Nehemiah 9:33). This submission to divine justice, while not in itself saving, is nonetheless found in every believer. John Colquhoun refers to divine justice as “that glorious attribute which is so dreadful and hateful to every impenitent and unpardoned sinner.”
- All have been made sensible of their own inability to save themselves. While under the influence of these humbling feelings, they have been led to seek refuge in Jesus Christ as the only hope of their souls (John 6:68). They are not only delighted with this way of salvation, but would have no other way, even if they could. To paraphrase John Love: the believer, at least in his best frames, does not want anything about God to change. He does not secretly wish that His attributes were different, or that His commandments were different, or that His gospel was different. He only desires that he himself was different – entirely conformed to the image of His dear Son.
- All, after receiving Christ as a complete Saviour, have some experience of joy and peace, although the Lord is sovereign as to when and how He bestows these blessings which accompany justification (Romans 5:1,2).
- All approve of the law of God as holy, just and good, even though it condemns all their feelings and works as imperfect (Romans 7:22). By contrast, the unrenewed heart never is, nor ever can be, reconciled to the law. It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Romans 8:7).
- All are brought to a deliberate purpose to be on the Lord’s side, though often in much felt weakness. They are enabled to comply with Christ’s terms of discipleship; that is, to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him. They are made willing, if necessary, to forsake father, mother, wife and children, houses and lands, for Christ’s sake (Luke 14:26).
- All hunger and thirst after righteousness, and have a desire to know more of God, and to be admitted into closer and more intimate communion with Him (Matthew 5:6, Job 23:3). These desires are expressed in prayer, and lead to a patient and earnest waiting upon God in all the ordinances and means of His appointment (Psalm 62:5), as enabled by grace.
- All seek to glorify God by action. The earnest question of every believing soul is, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).
- All desire to observe all things whatsoever God has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20) and to hate and strive against all sin (Psalm 119:104).
Alexander then describes some of the reasons for variety in Christian experience:
- The different degrees of grace that Christians have received in the beginning of the Christian life.
- The extent to which they have run in sin before conversion.
- The suddenness or gradual nature of their change.
- The amount of religious knowledge they have at their conversion.
- The various constitutional temperaments of different Christians.
- The quality of instruction they have received.
The reader will notice that the variety in Christian experience arises from varying backgrounds, knowledge, personalities and degrees of grace. The harmony of Christian experience arises from the same Spirit applying the same truth to each and every elect sinner. May we each seek to be satisfied with nothing less than such a Spirit-wrought conversion.
(An abridged and edited version of an article published in the Free Presbyterian Magazine, February 2021)