I have heard men tell the stories of their conversions and of their spiritual lives in such a way that my heart loathed them and their stories, too. They have told of their sins as if they were boasting in the greatness of their crimes. They have mentioned the love of God, not with a tear of gratitude, not with a heart of thanksgiving, but as if they exalted themselves as much as they exalted God. Oh, when we tell the story of our own conversion, I would have it done differently. We should tell it with great sorrow, remembering what we used to be. We should also tell it with great joy and gratitude, remembering how little we deserve these things.
I was once preaching on conversion and salvation, and I felt, as preachers often do, that it was dry work to tell this story. A dull, dull tale it was to me. Suddenly, the thought crossed my mind, "Why, you are a poor, lost, ruined sinner yourself. Tell it, tell it as you received it. Begin to tell of the grace of God as you trust you feel it yourself." Why, then my eyes began to be fountains of tears. Those hearers who had nodded their heads began to wake up. They listened because they were hearing something that the speaker himself felt and that they recognized as being true to him even if it was not true to them.
Can you not remember, dearly beloved, the day of your salvation? Can you not remember that day of days, that best and brightest of hours, when you first saw the Lord? It was the day you lost your burden, received the roll of promise, rejoiced in full salvation, and went on your way in peace.
My soul can never forget that day. Dying, all but dead, diseased, pained, chained, scourged, bound in fetters of iron, in darkness and the shadow of death, Jesus appeared to me. My eyes looked to Him. The disease was healed, the pains removed, chains were snapped, prison doors were opened, and darkness gave place to light. What delight filled my soul! What mirth, what ecstasy, what sound of music and dancing, what soarings towards heaven, what heights and depths of indescribable delight! Ever since then, I have hardly ever known joys that surpassed the rapture of that first hour.
It is a difficult thing to describe the hour of conversion. It would be easier for my lips to crowd entire poems into one word. It would be easier for my voice to distill hours of melody into a single syllable. It would be easier for my tongue to utter in one letter the essence of the harmony of ages. For the hour of conversion is an hour that surpasses other days of my life as much as gold surpasses dross.
The night of Israel's Passover was a night to be remembered, a theme for poets, and an incessant fountain of grateful song. It is the same way with the time of conversion, the never-to-be-forgotten hour of justification in Jesus and emancipation from guilt. Other days have mingled with their fellow days until, like coins worn in circulation, their image is entirely worn away; but this day remains new, fresh, bright, as distinct in all its parts as if it were but yesterday struck from the mint of time.
Memory will drop from her full hand many a memento that she now cherishes; but she will never, even when she totters to the grave, unbind from her heart the token of the exceedingly happy hour of my redemption. The emancipated galley slave may forget the day that heard his broken shackles rattle on the ground. The pardoned traitor may fail to remember the moment when his life was spared by a pardon. The long-despairing sailor may not recollect the moment when a friendly hand snatched him from the hungry deep. But, hour of forgiven sin, moment of perfect pardon, my soul will never forget you while she has life and being and immortality!
Each day of my life has had its attendant angel, but on this day, like Jacob at Mahanaim, hosts of angels met me. (See Genesis 32:1-2.) The sun has risen every morning, but on that eventful morning it had the light of seven days. As the days of heaven on earth, as the years of immortality, as the ages of glory, as the bliss of heaven, so were the hours of that exceedingly happy day. Rapture divine and ecstasy inexpressible filled my soul. Fear, distress, and grief, with all their train of woes, fled hastily away. In their place joys came without number.
When I was in the hand of the Holy Spirit, under conviction of sin, I had a clear and sharp sense of the justice of God. Sin, whatever it might be to other people, became to me an intolerable burden. It was not so much that I feared hell as that I feared sin. All the while, I had on my mind a deep concern for the honor of God's name and the integrity of His moral government. I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience if I could be forgiven unjustly. But then there came the question, "How could God be just and yet justify me when I am so guilty?"
I was worried and wearied with this question; neither could I find any answer to it. Certainly, I could never have invented an answer that would have satisfied my conscience. The doctrine of the atonement is to me one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology; this is no dream of poetical imagination. This method of atonement is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it. God Himself ordained it; it is not a matter that could have been imagined.
I had heard of the plan of salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus from my youth, but I did not know any more about it in my innermost soul than if I had been born and bred in a remote African tribe. The light was there, but I was blind. It was necessary for the Lord Himself to make the matter plain to me.
It came to me as a new revelation, as fresh as if I had never read in Scripture that Jesus was declared to be the propitiation for sins that God might be just. I believe it will have to come as a revelation to every newborn child of God whenever he sees it—I mean that glorious doctrine of the substitution of the Lord Jesus.
I came to understand that salvation was possible through vicarious sacrifice; furthermore, provision had been made in the first constitution for a substitutionary sacrifice. I was made to see that He who is the Son of God, coequal and coeternal with the Father, had of old been made the covenant Head of a chosen people. In that capacity, He could suffer for them and save them.
Our fall was not at first a personal one, for we fell in our representative, the first Adam. Therefore, it became possible for us to be recovered by a second Representative, Jesus. He undertook to be the covenant Head of His people so that He could be their second Adam. I saw that before I had actually sinned, I had fallen by my first father's sin. I rejoiced that, therefore, it became possible in point of law for me to rise by a second Head and Representative. The fall by Adam left a loophole of escape; another Adam could undo the ruin done by the first.
When I was anxious about the possibility of a just God pardoning me, I understood and saw by faith that He who is the Son of God became man. In His own blessed person, He bore my "sins in his own body on the tree" (1 Pet. 2:24). I saw that "the chastisement of [my] peace was upon him; and with his stripes [I was] healed" (Isa. 53:5). It was because the Son of God, supremely glorious in His matchless person, undertook to vindicate the law by bearing the sentence due to me, that therefore God was able to pass by my sin.
My sole hope for heaven lies in the full atonement made on Calvary's cross for the ungodly. On that I firmly rely. I do not have the shadow of a hope anywhere else. By myself, I could never have overcome my own sinfulness. I tried and failed. My evil tendencies were too many for me until, in the belief that Christ died for me, I cast my guilty soul on Him. Then I received a conquering principle by which I overcame my sinful self.
The doctrine of the Cross can be used to slay sin, even as the old warriors used their huge two-handed swords and mowed down their foes at every stroke. There is nothing like faith in the sinners' Friend; it overcomes all evil. If Christ has died for me, ungodly as I am, without strength as I am, then I cannot live in sin any longer. I must arouse myself to love and serve Him who has redeemed me. I cannot trifle with the evil that killed my best Friend. I must be holy for His sake. How can I live in sin when He has died to save me from it?
There was a day, as I took my walks abroad, when I came near a spot forever engraved on my memory. There I saw this Friend, my best, my only Friend, murdered. I stooped down in sad alarm and looked at Him. I saw that His hands had been pierced with rough, iron nails, and His feet had been torn in the same way. There was misery in His dead countenance so terrible that I hardly dared to look at it. His body was emaciated with hunger. His back was red with bloody scourges. His brow had a circle of wounds about it; clearly, His brow had been pierced by thorns.
I shuddered, for I had known this Friend very well. He never had a fault; He was the purest of the pure, the holiest of the holy. Who could have injured Him? He never injured any man. All His life He "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38). He had healed the sick; He had fed the hungry; He had raised the dead. For which of these works did they kill Him?
He had never breathed out anything but love. As I looked into the poor, sorrowful face, so full of agony and yet so full of love, I wondered who could have been a wretch so vile as to pierce hands like His. I said to myself, "Where can these traitors live? Who are these who could have killed such a One as this?" Had they murdered an oppressor, we might have forgiven them. Had they slain one who had indulged in vice or villainy, it might have been his just desert. Had it been a murderer or one who had started a revolt, we would have said, "Bury his corpse; justice has at last given him his due."
However, when You were slain, my Best, my only Beloved, where lodged the traitors? Let me seize them, and they will be put to death. If there are torments that I can devise, surely they will endure them all.
Oh, what jealousy, what revenge I felt! If I could only find these murderers, what I would do to them!
As I looked at that corpse, I heard a footstep, and I wondered where it came from. I listened, and I clearly perceived that the murderer was close at hand. It was dark, and I groped about to find him. I found that, somehow or other, wherever I put out my hand, I could not grab him, for he was nearer to me than my hand would go. At last, I put my hand on my own breast. "I have you now," said I. Yes, he was in my own heart. The murderer was hiding within my own bosom, dwelling in the recesses of my inmost soul.
Ah, then I wept indeed that I, in the very presence of my murdered Master, would be harboring the murderer. While I bowed over His corpse, I felt that I was very guilty, and I sang that plaintive hymn:
'Twas you, my sins, my cruel sins,
His chief tormentors were;
Each of my crimes became a nail,
And unbelief the spear.
Amid the mob that hounded the Redeemer to His doom, there were some gracious souls whose bitter anguish sought vent in wailing and lamentations—fit music to accompany that march of woe. When my soul can, in imagination, see the Savior bearing His cross to Calvary, it joins the godly women and weeps with them. Indeed, there is true cause for grief—cause lying deeper than those mourning women thought.
They bewailed innocence mistreated, goodness persecuted, love bleeding, meekness about to die; but my heart has a deeper and more bitter cause to mourn. My sins were the scourges that lacerated those blessed shoulders; they crowned those bleeding brows with thorns. My sins cried, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" and laid the cross upon His gracious shoulders. His being led forth to die is sorrow enough for one eternity; but my having been His murderer is more, infinitely more, grief than one poor fountain of tears can express.
Why those women loved and wept, it is not hard to guess, but they could not have had greater reasons for love and grief than my heart has. The widow of Nain saw her son restored (see Luke 7:11-15), but I myself have been raised to newness of life. Peter's mother-in-law was cured of the fever (see Matthew 8:14-15), but I of the greater plague of sin. Out of Mary Magdalene seven devils were cast (see Mark 16:9), but a whole legion out of me. Mary and Martha were favored with visits from Him (see John 11:19-45), but He dwells with me. His mother bore His body, but He is formed in me, "the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). Not being behind the holy women in debt, let me not be behind them in gratitude or sorrow.
Love and grief my heart dividing,
With my tears His feet I'll lave;
Constant still in heart abiding,
Weep for Him who died to save.
William Huntington says in his autobiography that one of the sharpest sensations of pain that he felt, after he had been enlivened by divine grace, was this, "He felt such pity for God." I do not know that I ever heard the expression anywhere else, but it is a very striking one, although I might prefer to say that I have sympathy with God and grief that He should be treated so ill.
Ah, there are many men that are forgotten, that are despised, and that are trampled on by their fellowman. But there never was a man who was so despised as the everlasting God has been! Many a man has been slandered and abused, but never was man abused as God has been. Many have been treated cruelly and ungratefully, but never was one treated as our God has been.
I, too, once despised Him. He knocked at the door of my heart, and I refused to open it. He came to me times without number, morning by morning and night by night. He pricked me in my conscience and spoke to me by His Spirit. When at last the thunders of the law prevailed in my conscience, I thought that Christ was cruel and unkind. Oh, I can never forgive myself that I should have thought so unfavorably of Him!
However, what a loving reception did I have when I went to Him! I thought He would strike me, but His hand was not clenched in anger but opened wide in mercy. I was sure that His eyes would dart lightning-flashes of wrath upon me, but they were full of tears instead. He threw His arms around me and kissed me. He took off my rags and clothed me with His righteousness. He caused my soul to sing aloud for joy. There was also music and dancing in the house of my heart and in the house of His church, because His son that He had lost was found, and he that had been dead was made alive again. (See Luke 15:24.)
There is a power in God's Gospel beyond all description. Once I, like Mazeppa, lashed to the wild horse of my lust, bound hand and foot, incapable of resistance, was galloping on with hell's wolves behind me, howling for my body and my soul as their just and lawful prey. There came a mighty hand that stopped that wild horse, cut my bands, set me down, and brought me into liberty. Is there power in the Gospel? Oh, there is, and he who has felt it must acknowledge it.
There was a time when I lived in the old, strong castle of my sins and rested in my own works. There came a trumpeter to the door and asked me to open it. Angrily, I scolded him from the porch; I said he never would enter. Then there came a pleasant Personage with a loving look. His hands were marked with scars where nails had been driven, and His feet had nail-prints, too. He lifted up His cross, using it as a hammer. At the first blow, the gate of my prejudice shook; at the second, it trembled more; at the third, down it fell, and in He came. He said, "Arise, and stand on your feet, for 'I have loved thee with an everlasting love' (Jer. 31:3)."
The Gospel a thing of power! Ah, that it is! It always wears the dew of its youth; it glitters with morning's freshness; its strength and its glory abide forever. I have felt its power in my own heart. I have the witness of the Spirit within my spirit, and I know the Gospel is a thing of might because it has conquered me and made me submit.
His free grace alone, from the
first to the last,
Hath won my affections, and
bound my soul fast.