How Wilkins Was Converted
Wilkins did not believe the Bible. In fact, he scoffed at religion and boasted that he had never been in a place of worship for 30 years. John Ashworth (1813-1875), who lived in the same northern town, Rochdale, became concerned for Wilkins’ soul (cp.Calman, (A.L.) Life and Labours of John Ashworth. Third edition. 363 pp. Frontispiece. Morgan & Scott. 1876). He called on one of Wilkins’ daughters to suggest that her father should meet a Mr. Molineux, a retired minister who was one of Ashworth’s friends. As she expected, Wilkins turned angry when she told him, so angry that he went to Ashworth’s shop to complain about what he had done. Ashworth handled him calmly; he just asked him to sit down and offered to take his hat and walking stick. Very reluctantly, Wilkins sat down but held on to his hat, and the way he grasped his stick suggested he might use it as a weapon. Ashworth assured him that Molineux would talk to him on all sorts of interesting subjects. Wilkins agreed to meet Molineux, but on one condition – that he would leave out what Wilkins called “his religious twaddle”. Ashworth was happy to accept these terms; he knew Wilkins would be the first to refer to religion. “You have been”, he said, “so long under the impression that you could prove all ministers fools that you will be trying your hand on him”. Only then did Wilkins realise that he had agreed to meet a minister. Ashworth offered to release him from his agreement, but Wilkins replied: “No, no, let him come. You know the terms – no religious cant. If the bargain is kept, I shall be glad of his company.”
Wilkins and Molineux agreed to see each other every week. For several weeks they talked about plants and politics. And, as Ashworth expected, Wilkins was the first to speak about religion; he asked Molineux what he thought about the evidence for a great First Cause, a being who is the cause of everything that exists – in other words, God. Wilkins went on to claim that, if the Bible had come from an infinitely wise Being, such as God must be, it would not have what he called “many absurdities and contradictions”.
So Molineux asked: “Have you found the absurdities and contradictions in your own reading of the Bible, or in books written against it?”
“O, in books written against it. I have never read either the Old or New Testaments myself, thinking it a pure waste of time to do so.”
Molineux suggested that, to be fair, Wilkins should have read books on the side of the Bible, even if he refused to read the Bible itself. “Yes, perhaps I ought,” Wilkins admitted. He had often boasted that he thought for himself, but in fact he had allowed the enemies of the Bible to do his thinking for him. He now asked Molineux to lend him some suitable books, and promised: “As the New Testament is a small book, I will at once read it carefully through”. But he did not expect, he said, to understand what was said about Jesus.
Before Molineux had the opportunity to pass on a few books, Wilkins began to read the New Testament carefully, making notes as he went along. He was looking for contradictions and absurd statements, but he found instead that the Word of God is powerful. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it was piercing deeply into his conscience. He saw that, if what he was reading in the Bible was true, he was a lost sinner. He was no longer able to sleep; he was going on his knees in the middle of the night, with tears falling from his eyes, asking God to pardon his sins. He was pleading with God not to send him to hell, not to cut him off in his sins, not to turn a deaf ear to him, but in mercy to save him, in mercy to blot out his transgressions.
One day, he came to Ashworth’s house, wanting to talk to him privately. Apart from many other serious sins, he was specially troubled because he had led others to reject the Bible and its teachings – one man especially. When Wilkins visited him in his last hours, this man pleaded with him to send for some good man to read the Bible with them and pray. Wilkins called him a fool; he told him to die like a man; and he refused to send for a praying man or to allow anyone else to do so. “O Wilkins, Wilkins,” said the man, “Christians do not die as I am dying. This will never do; I do not now believe that death is an eternal sleep. I wish I could believe it. We have often called it a leap in the dark, but now to me it is dreadfully dark.” And as Wilkins thought back over the tragic scene, with tears streaming down his face he confessed that if he had read the New Testament without prejudice 30 years earlier, he would have been a different man. As he left the house, he shook Ashworth’s hand and told him: “I do believe God could pardon my sins, but He never will”.
The next time Ashworth saw him, Wilkins was calmer, but he spoke forcefully about the sinful lives of the men whose unbelieving writings he used to trust absolutely. Now he lamented his past life; he wished he had read the Bible sooner and had thought for himself. Ashworth encouraged his new, broken-hearted friend to go on reading the Bible, to pray for the help of the Holy Spirit, and to be on his own as much as possible.
“Yes,” Wilkins answered, “but how am I either to read or pray with any hope of pardon? The thing seems to me impossible. The fearful results of my teachings are more and more terrible as I now see them. I have already given great offence by allowing Mr Molineux to come and see me. My family now mock all my attempts to bring them to reconsider their position. They sneer at me for reading the Bible and make clear they are determined not to be frightened by religious bugbears.”
Wilkins had a godly neighbour, whose name was Todd. He offered to let Wilkins use his sitting-room whenever he wanted. Indeed he offered to read and pray with Wilkins 50 times a day if he wished. So Wilkins made full use of Todd’s sitting-room and there they often read and prayed together.
One evening Wilkins sent a message asking Ashworth to spend the evening with him. “It was a memorable evening,” Ashworth recalled; “he had copied from the Bible many passages that seemed to destroy all hope that a man such as he was could ever expect to have forgiveness. And he read them to me with a trembling voice. I met all his objections by one answer: ‘He [Christ] is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him’. I held him fast to that one point: able to save to the uttermost.”
Wilkins asked Ashworth to pray for him, and they went down on their knees before God. But before Ashworth could say one word, Wilkins in tears burst out: “O Jesus, Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on me. O Jesus, Jesus, how I have scorned and despised Thy very name, scorned and insulted Thy servants, mocked Thy sufferings and death! O Jesus, Jesus, Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. Lord, I would believe; help Thou my unbelief. I know I have sinned in heart and life millions of times; but is there not mercy? Is there not mercy? O Lamb of God, have mercy on a poor guilty man.”
Wilkins spent that night in earnest prayer. But, at last, joy sprang up in his heart, and his joy was equal to the bitterness he had endured over the past weeks. “He wept”, said Ashworth, “and sought and at last found the grace of God through a crucified Redeemer. And O the joy that sprang up in his heart when he found that his deeply-stained and guilty soul was washed in the blood of the Lamb!” When he next met Ashworth, he took him by the hand and told him with real earnestness: “O how happy I am; the blood of Christ can save. He has saved me, the chief of sinners. By faith I saw Him nailed on the cross for me. In my heart I believed He died for me, that His blood was shed for me, and now I am a sinner saved by grace. And if Christ could save me, He can save any man out of hell. I have had more real peace since I became a child of God than I ever possessed in all my days of sin.”
Another time, he told Ashworth that he had been disturbed by reading in the Bible that we must all stand before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad. “If this is true,” he asked, “what must I do? My life has been spent in the service of Satan; I am now getting old, and I cannot do much for God in the time that remains. If we must be judged by works, what must I do, for I shall have nothing to show?”
Ashworth pointed Wilkins to God’s redeeming grace and told him “that a life of iniquity could be pardoned through faith in Christ, that a conscience laden with guilt could be made the home of peace and joy, that grey-headed sinners could be made saints”. He added: “You are a brand plucked from the burning; you have been brought into the vineyard at the eleventh hour, but you will have your penny [see Matthew 20:1-16], and for such great mercies you must wonder and adore”.
Wilkins’ wish was that his last words in this life would be: “Blessed Jesus”. When Ashworth came to see him on the last day of his life, the dying man asked his visitor to lift him higher in bed. Ashworth did so and then Wilkins whispered: “Blessed Jesus. Blessed Jesus.” Immediately his spirit passed away to spend eternity adoring the great mercies of God in Christ Jesus.
Taken with permission from the Young People’s Magazine Vol. 71 March 2006.
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