True religion not only enlightens the understanding, but rectifies the affections of the heart. All genuine feelings of piety are the effects of divine truth. The variety and intensity of these feelings depend on the different kinds of truth and the various aspects in which the same truth is viewed, and also on the distinctness and clearness with which it is presented to the mind. In a state of moral perfection, truth would uniformly produce all those emotions and affections which correspond with its nature, without the aid of any superadded influence. It is a strong evidence of human depravity that these effects are not experienced by all who have the opportunity of knowing the truth. In a state of moral depravity, the mind is incapable alike of perceiving and feeling the beauty and excellence of divine truth. The dead neither see nor feel, and man is by nature “dead in trespasses and sins”.
Hence the necessity of the agency of the Holy Spirit to illuminate and regenerate the mind. The nature of divine agency, in every case, is not understandable by mortals. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” We know, however, that the work of the Spirit in the regeneration of the heart is adapted to the rational nature of man. The thing to be accomplished is not the creation of some new faculty; it is a moral renewing; and all moral changes must be effected by understanding and choice.
To put the soul therefore in that state in which it will rightly understand the truth and cordially choose the highest good, is the end of regeneration. Truth therefore must be the means by which actual conversion to God takes place. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” “Of His own will begat he us with the word of truth.” “Sanctify them through Thy truth, Thy word is truth.” Although piety in the heart is the effect of a divine operation, yet all its exercises take place agreeably to the common laws of our rational nature. The understanding is enlightened, the judgement is convinced, motives operate on the will, and conscience approves or disapproves. That the soul, in the exercises of piety, is under the renewing influences of the Holy Spirit, is not known by any consciousness which it has of these divine operations, but by the effects produced in a change of views and feelings. And this change is ascribed to God, because no other is able to produce it; and His Word assures us that He is its author.
Now, as all men are given mental powers of the same kind, and as all Christians contemplate the same fundamental truths, the work of grace in the hearts of all must be substantially the same. By the knowledge of the law all have been convinced of sin have been made to feel sorrow, shame and guilt, upon the recollection of their transgressions. They have been brought to submit to the justice of the sentence of condemnation, which the law denounces against them. All have been made sensible of their own inability to save themselves and, under the influence of these humbling and penitent feelings, have been led to seek refuge in Jesus Christ as the only hope of their souls. This plan of salvation appears glorious and suitable to all believers, so that they not only assent to it as the only method of salvation, but they are so well pleased with it that they would not have another if they could. And, in the acquaintance of Christ as a complete Saviour, there is, in every case, some experience of joy and peace.
Connected with the views which the true believer has of Christ as a Saviour, there is also a discovery, more or less clear, of the glory of the divine attributes, especially of those which are especially manifested in the cross of Christ. Holiness, justice, mercy and truth shine, in the view of the sincere convert, with a lustre surpassing all other excellence, and God is respected and loved for His own glorious excellence, as well as for the rich benefits bestowed upon us.
But although these views may be distinguished, yet in experience they are not separated. The brightest discovery of divine excellence ever made, is Gods love to our miserable race. The law of God is also viewed to be holy, just and good by every regenerated soul. The unrenewed heart never is, and never can be, reconciled to the law; “it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be”. But the “new man” delights in the law of God, and would not have one precept of it altered; and, while it condemns all his feelings and works as imperfect, he approves of it still, and blames himself for his want of conformity to a rule so perfect.
Another thing in which the experience of all Christians is uniform, is that they all are brought to a deliberate purpose to be on the Lords side. On this point there is no hesitancy. Many are affected, and much agitated with religious impressions, and yet never come to a full submission to follow God and His service. They halt between two opinions, and have a divided mind. Such persons, however lively their feelings, are not yet truly converted; all true converts, after counting the cost, have settled this point for ever. And they can say with the Psalmist, “My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed”. They are, therefore, prepared now to comply with the terms of discipleship laid down by Christ Himself. They are willing to deny themselves, to take up their cross, and follow Him; to forsake father and mother, wife and children, houses and lands, yea also their own lives, for the sake of Him who gave Himself for them.
Out of such views and feelings as have been described, arises an ardent hungering and thirsting after righteousness, an intense desire to know more of God and to be admitted into closer union and more intimate communion with Him. These habitual desires of the renewed soul, find their proper expression in prayer, and lead to a patient and earnest waiting upon God in all the ordinances and means of His appointment. True piety, however, does not stop in mere desires or in attendance on religious duties; it seeks to glorify God by action. The earnest inquiry of every soul inspired with the love of God is, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?” And wherever there is piety towards God, there will exist benevolence towards men.
One of the keenest emotions of the young convert is “goodwill to men”; a sincere desire for the welfare and eternal salvation of all, not even excepting his most deep-rooted enemies. And towards the children of God, there springs up a strong and tender affection. Such seem to be brethren indeed, because they are the brethren of Christ, and bear something of His image, in the humility, meekness, and benevolence of their character. In short, genuine piety disposes and determines all who are its subjects to obey and respect all the commandments of God and to hate and avoid all sin, according to that declaration of David, “I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.”
In all the above-mentioned essential characteristics of piety, there is a perfect sameness in the exercises of all true Christians. The same impression has been made on every renewed heart, and the only difference is that it is imprinted more deeply on some than on others. But still the characters are identical, and therefore the evidences of a work of grace contained in the Holy Scriptures are equally applicable to all persons who have been brought from darkness to light.
There often is, moreover, a striking resemblance in those accompanying exercises and circumstances, which are not essential. Awakened sinners are liable to the same erroneous conceptions, and usually fall into the same mistakes. They are all prone to think that by reforming their lives they can restore themselves to the favour of God. They commonly apply to the works of the law for relief in the first instance and, when driven from this false refuge by a clearer view of the spirituality and extent of the law and the depth of their own depravity, they are apt to give up all for lost, and seriously to conclude that there is no hope in their case. They are all prone to misunderstand the nature of the gospel: of its freeness they can at first form no conception, and therefore they think it necessary to come with some price in their hands to obtain some kind of preparation or fitness before they venture to come to Christ. And, when it is clear that no moral fitness can be obtained until they apply to Him, this legal spirit will lead the soul under conviction to think that very deep and sharp distress will recommend it to Christ. And thus many are found seeking and praying for a more deep and alarming impression of their sin and danger.
It is also very common to place undue dependence on particular means, especially on such as have been much blessed to others. Anxious souls are prone to think that in reading some particular book, or in hearing some successful preacher, they will receive the grace of God which bringeth salvation, in which expectation they are always disappointed and are brought at last to feel that they are entirely dependent on sovereign grace, and that they can do nothing to obtain that grace. Before, they were like a drowning man catching at every thing which seemed to promise support, but now they are like a man who feels that he has no support, but is actually sinking. Their cry, therefore, is now truly a cry for mercy: “God be merciful to me a sinner! Lord save, I perish!” And it has often been said, “Mans distress is Gods opportunity”, which is commonly experienced by the soul cut off from all dependence on itself the arm of the Lord is stretched forth to preserve it from sinking; the Saviours voice of love and mercy is heard; light breaks in upon the soul, and it finds itself embraced in the arms of the Saviour. And so wonderful is the change, that it can scarcely trust to its own experience.