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Is a ‘Law-work’ Necessary in Conversion? – Archibald Alexander

Category Book Excerpts
Date June 11, 2024

The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 2 of Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience.

That conviction of sin is a necessary part of experimental religion, all will admit; but there is one question respecting this matter, concerning which there may be much doubt; and that is, whether a law-work, prior to regeneration, is necessary; or, whether all true and salutary conviction is not the effect of regeneration.

I find that a hundred years ago this was a matter in dispute between the two parties into which the Presbyterian church was divided, called the old and new side. The Tennents and Blairs insisted much on the necessity of conviction of sin by the law, prior to regeneration; while Thompson and his associates were of opinion that no such work was necessary, nor should be insisted on. As far as I know, the opinion of the necessity of legal conviction has generally prevailed in all our modern revivals: and it is usually taken for granted, that the convictions experienced are prior to regeneration. But it would be very difficult to prove from Scripture, or from the nature of the case, that such a preparatory work was necessary.

Suppose an individual to be, in some certain moment, regenerated; such a soul would begin to see with new eyes, and his own sins would be among the things first viewed in a new light. He would be convinced, not only of the fact that they were transgressions of the law, but he would also see that they were intrinsically evil, and that he deserved the punishment to which they exposed him. It is only such a conviction as this that really prepares a soul to accept of Christ in all His offices; not only as a Saviour from wrath, but from sin. And it can scarcely be believed, that that clear view of the justice of God in their condemnation, which most persons sensibly experience, is the fruit of a mere legal conviction on an unregenerate heart. For this view of God’s justice is not merely of the fact that this is His character, but of the divine excellency of His attributes, which is accompanied with admiration of it, and a feeling of acquiescence or submission. This view is sometimes so clear, and the equity and propriety of punishing sin are so manifest, and the feeling of acquiescence so strong, that it has laid the foundation for the very absurd opinion, that the true penitent is made willing to be damned for the glory of God. When such a conviction as this is experienced, the soul is commonly nigh to comfort, although at the moment it is common to entertain the opinion, that there is no salvation for it. It is wonderful, and almost unaccountable, how calm the soul is in the prospect of being for ever lost.

An old lady of the Baptist denomination was the first person I ever heard give an account of Christian experience, and I recollect that she said that she was so deeply convinced that she should be lost, that she began to think how she should feel and be exercised in hell; and it occurred to her, that all in that horrid place were employed in blaspheming the name of God. The thought of doing so was rejected with abhorrence, and she felt as if she must and would love Him, even there, for His goodness to her; for she saw that she alone was to blame for her destruction, and that He could, in consistence with His character, do nothing else but inflict this punishment on her. Now surely her heart was already changed, although not a ray of comfort had dawned upon her mind. But is there not before this, generally, a rebellious rising against God, and a disposition to find fault with His dealings? It may be so in many cases, but this feeling is far from being as universal as some suppose. As far as the testimony of pious people can be depended on, there are many whose first convictions are of the evil of sin, rather than of its danger, and who feel real compunction of spirit for having committed it, accompanied with a lively sense of their ingratitude. This question, however, is not of any great practical importance; but there are some truly pious persons who are distressed and perplexed, because they never experienced that kind of conviction which they hear others speak of, and the necessity of which is insisted on by some preachers. Certainly that which the reprobate may experience – which is not different from what all the guilty will feel at the day of judgment – cannot be a necessary part of true religion; and yet it does appear to be a common thing for awakened persons to be at first under a mere legal conviction.

Though man, in his natural state, is spiritually dead, that is, entirely destitute of any spark of true holiness, yet is he still a reasonable being, and has a conscience by which he is capable of discerning the difference between good and evil, and of feeling the force of moral obligation. By having his sins brought clearly before his mind, and his conscience awakened from its stupor, he can be made to feel what his true condition is as a transgressor of the holy law of God. This sight and sense of sin, under the influence of the common operations of the Spirit of God, is what is usually styled conviction of sin. And there can be no doubt that these views and feelings may be very clear and strong in an unrenewed mind. Indeed, they do not differ in kind from what every sinner will experience at the day of judgment, when his own conscience will condemn him, and he will stand guilty before his Judge. But there is nothing in this kind of conviction which has any tendency to change the heart, or to make it better. Some indeed have maintained, with some show of reason, that under mere legal conviction the sinner grows worse and worse; and certainly he sees his sins to be greater in proportion as the light of truth increases. There is not, therefore, in such convictions, however clear and strong, any approximation to regeneration. It cannot be called a preparatory work to this change, in the sense of disposing the person to receive the grace of God. The only end which it can answer is to show the rational creature his true condition, and to convince the sinner of his absolute need of a Saviour. Under conviction there is frequently a more sensible rising of the enmity of the heart against God and His law; but feelings of this kind do not belong to the essence of conviction. There is also sometimes an awful apprehension of danger; the imagination is filled with strong images of terror, and hell seems almost uncovered to the view of the convinced sinner. But there may be much of this feeling of terror, where there is very little real conviction of sin; and on the other hand, there often is deep and permanent conviction, where the passions and imagination are very little excited.

When the entrance of light is gradual, the first effect of an awakened conscience is, to attempt to rectify what now appears to have been wrong in the conduct. It is very common for the conscience, at first, to be affected with outward acts of transgression, and especially with some one prominent offence. An external reformation is now begun: for this can be effected by mere legal conviction. To this is added an attention to the external duties of religion, such as prayer, reading the Bible, hearing the Word, etc. Every thing, however, is done with a legal spirit; that is, with the wish and expectation of making amends for past offences; and if painful penances should be prescribed to the sinner, he will readily submit to them if he may, by this means, make some atonement for his sins. But as the light increases, he begins to see that his heart is wicked, and to be convinced that his very prayers are polluted for want of right motives and affections. He, of course, tries to regulate his thoughts and to exercise right affections; but here his efforts prove fruitless. It is much easier to reform the life than to bring the corrupt heart into a right state. The case now begins to appear desperate. The sinner knows not which way to turn for relief and, to cap the climax of his distress, he comes at length to be conscious of nothing but unyielding hardness of heart. He fears that the conviction which he seemed to have is gone, and that he is left to total obduracy. In these circumstances he desires to feel keen compunction and overwhelming terror, for his impression is that he is entirely without conviction. The truth is, however, that his convictions are far greater than if he experienced that sensible distress which he so much courts. In this case, he would not think his heart so incurably bad, because it could entertain some right feeling, but as it is, he sees it to be destitute of every good emotion and of all tender relentings. He has got down to the core of iniquity, and finds within his breast a heart unsusceptible of any good thing. Does he hear that others have obtained relief by hearing such a preacher, reading such a book, conversing with some experienced Christian? He resorts to the same means, but entirely without effect. The heart seems to become more insensible, in proportion to the excellence of the means enjoyed. Though he declares he has no sensibility of any kind, yet his anxiety increases; and perhaps he determines to give himself up solely to prayer and reading the Bible; and if he perish, to perish seeking for mercy. But however strong such resolutions may be, they are found to be in vain; for now, when he attempts to pray, he finds his mouth as it were shut. He cannot pray. He cannot read. He cannot meditate. What can he do? Nothing. He has come to the end of his legal efforts; and the result has been the simple, deep conviction that he can do nothing; and if God does not mercifully interpose, he must inevitably perish. During all this process he has some idea of his need of divine help, but until now he was not entirely cut off from all dependence on his own strength and exertions. He still hoped that, by some kind of effort or feeling he could prepare himself for the mercy of God. Now he despairs of this, and not only so, but for a season he despairs, it may be, of salvation – gives himself up for lost. I do not say that this is a necessary feeling, by any means, but I know that it is very natural, and by no means uncommon, in real experience. But conviction having accomplished all that it is capable of effecting, that is, having emptied the creature of self-dependence and self-righteousness, and brought him to the utmost extremity – even to the borders of despair, it is time for God to work. The proverb says, ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity’: so it is in this case; and at this time, it may reasonably be supposed, the work of regeneration is wrought, for a new state of feeling is now experienced. Upon calm reflection, God appears to have been just and good in all His dispensations; the blame of its perdition the soul fully takes upon itself, acknowledges its ill-desert, and acquits God. ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.’ The sinner resigns himself into the hands of God, and yet is convinced that if he does perish, he will suffer only what his sins deserve. He does not fully discover the glorious plan according to which God can be just and the Justifier of the ungodly who believe in Jesus Christ.

The above is not given as a course of experience which all real Christians can recognize as their own, but as a train of exercises which is very common. And as I do not consider legal conviction as necessary to precede regeneration, but suppose there are cases in which the first serious impressions may be the effect of regeneration, I cannot, of course, consider any particular train of exercises under the law as essential. It has been admitted, however, that legal conviction does in fact take place in most instances, prior to regeneration; and it is not an unreasonable inquiry, why is the sinner thus awakened? What good purpose does it answer? The reply has been already partially given; but it may be remarked, that God deals with man as an accountable, moral agent, and before he rescues him from the ruin into which he is sunk, he would let him see and feel, in some measure, how wretched his condition is; how helpless he is in himself, and how ineffectual are his most strenuous efforts to deliver himself from his sin and misery. He is therefore permitted to try his own wisdom and strength. And finally, God designs to lead him to the full acknowledgment of his own guilt, and to justify the righteous Judge who condemns him to everlasting torment. Conviction, then, is no part of a sinner’s salvation, but the clear practical knowledge of the fact that he cannot save himself, and is entirely dependent on the saving grace of God.

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