In all countries, and in all religions, the mass of the people have a traditional faith. They believe as they have been instructed and seldom doubt the truth of their religion. They receive it implicitly, without any examination. The majority in Christendom receive the Christian religion on no better evidence, for although it is attended with convincing evidences of its divine origin, they are not acquainted with these.
But let us suppose a person to have grown to manhood with no other than this traditional faith, and then to be brought under a deep conviction that he is a sinner and that he can do nothing to remove the sentence of condemnation under which he lies, or to restore his corrupt nature to purity and perfection. To such a convicted sinner, the most important inquiry is, “What must I do to be saved?” He hears the gospel. He learns that by believing on Christ, the Son of God, he may obtain everlasting life. At first, the news seems to be too good to be true. He fears that there is some mistake in the matter. But now the Spirit of God enlightens his mind to understand the gospel method of salvation. He sees that the atonement of Christ is sufficient to satisfy all the demands of law and justice. He sees that the door of reconciliation is set wide open, that he is invited and entreated to be reconciled to God, and that the greatness and number of his sins are no barrier to the free exercise of mercy.
He not only sees and believes that Christ is, in all respects, a suitable Saviour, just such an one as he needs, but he beholds a divine glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ, by which he is so attracted and his thoughts so occupied that he forgets himself. He is absorbed in the contemplation of the wisdom, the love, the justice and the faithfulness of God as these attributes shine in the work of redemption. Under these believing views, his affections are strongly moved. He feels springing up in his heart a love to God in Christ, such as he never felt to any other; and his soul is ravished with a peculiar joy which, as to kind or degree, cannot be described. At this moment, he gives himself away to God. A fixed purpose is formed in his heart to honour and obey his Lord and Master, come what will.
Has this person no rational evidence of the truth of the Christian religion? There may be a question whether this evidence ought to be described as rational; for, although it is such as does and ought to satisfy the rational mind, this evidence owes nothing to the deductions of reason or any logical process, but it arises from the supreme excellence of divine truth revealed to the soul by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This man knows now certainly that the doctrine of the gospel is from God. This is the divine anointing which if a man possess he needs no one to witness to him that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Saviour of the lost, for the evidence is complete. And this faith which he exercises in Christ, as thus exhibited, is “the faith of God’s elect”.
But all do not attain to those clear spiritual discoveries which have been described. Some have but dim views of divine truth and their faith is in proportion weak, but in the use of the appointed means it gains strength, and that which was feeble in the beginning will grow up to maturity. Few of those who are favoured at first with bright spiritual discoveries of the glory of Christ continue to enjoy these clear views long at a time. The blessed vision passes away. They fall back, if not into distressing darkness, yet into an obscure twilight. This is necessary lest they should conclude that these spiritual views were their own and depended on themselves.
And as spiritual pride is apt to rise and swell in consequence of the delightful exercises of mind which the soul enjoys, it is expedient that God should in a measure withdraw those views from the soul and leave it to feel its own weakness and unworthiness. When the soul is made to see something of the depth of its depravity, and to feel sin to be a burden on account of its vileness, this very conviction furnishes strong evidence of the divine authority of the Word, for it is by the law, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, that this knowledge is often acquired. That sin does really partake of the evil which is seen in it, the enlightened soul can no more doubt than it can of its own existence. But if this conviction be true, then the word which has produced it must certainly be the Word of God. No word of man could ever thus affect the conscience and search out the secret faults of the heart.
The effect of the truth on an awakened conscience is wonderful. It divides between the soul and the spirit, “and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. When the faithful preaching of the gospel is heard by one just beginning seriously to consider his ways, it often appears to him that the preacher has the power of searching the heart or that someone has communicated to him information respecting his character. All deep conviction of sin therefore furnishes a direct proof the truth of the Word. And when we consider how completely the feeling of guilt and condemnation is removed by faith in Christ, and what secret peace takes possession of the mind, we are sure that words which can produce such an effect must be from God, for where else do we find such effects produced? Whatever others may think, the believer himself cannot doubt that views which have so suddenly charmed away his grief must be from God. There is no change in nature more remarkable than that produced on the feelings of a convicted and distressed sinner by the simple exercise of faith in Christ. It is a change from overwhelming sorrow to joy unspeakable, from darkness to marvellous light, from condemnation to reconciliation, from enmity to friendship; in short, from death to life.
The enlightened and renewed man has then the very best evidence of the truth of Christ’s doctrine, an evidence which no other can possess until enlightened by the same Spirit. And now, suppose that the person thus renewed by the grace of God has never heard or known anything of the external evidences of Christianity. Even if he were to suppose that the gospel was of modern origin, yet he would cleave to it as having undoubted evidence of being the Word of God. And when the children of God fall into darkness and are sorely buffeted by Satan, and have sceptical thoughts injected into their minds, their deliverance does not come from reasoning and reading books on the evidences of Christianity, but by the shining of the truth itself into the heart. One ray from the Sun of righteousness will scatter a darkness which has long been oppressive, and one gracious promise applied and sealed on the heart will bring peace, when all other resources fail.
Let those who are slow to believe these things contemplate the patience, the courage, the joy and the triumph of the martyrs of Jesus in the early times of the gospel. Whence this superhuman contempt of torture and of death? Whence the elevated joy experienced by some in the midst of racks and flames? It was the sight of such effects as these which multiplied converts to Christianity at a time when the very name was punished with a cruel death. And these effects of the gospel have not entirely ceased, even in our day. Even converts lately called out of a savage state, especially in the island of Madagascar, have manifested a Christian fortitude and cheerful resignation to cruel sufferings for the sake of Christ, which does not fall below the same traits in the early martyrs. And how often have those who have had much experience about the beds of dying saints been filled with wonder and gratitude at the power of the Word of God, when accompanied by His Spirit, to support and console the departing spirit, even when the body was racked with excruciating pain! The evidence arising from such scenes is often not only convincing but overwhelming. Often have I wished, when witnessing such scenes, that infidels could be present to see the wonderful efficacy of the gospel in giving peace and joy to persons in the agonies of death.
1. From a discourse on John 7:17 in Alexander’s Practical Sermons, p 16ff.