Subdued by the Spirit
John Calvin was not a man who would readily draw attention to himself. When he gave some details of his early life in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, his purpose was to draw attention to God’s activity. His father had intended him for the priesthood but, says Calvin,
God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. At first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.’1
As Calvin looked at the early years of his life, he focused, not on what he had done or said or thought, but on what God had done in subduing his mind.
This reminds us of man’s universal need: to be subdued, so that he will accept from the heart his Creator’s authority. Man is ‘like a wild ass’s colt’ (Job 11:12), requiring great skill to be applied if ever he is to be subdued. Man’s problem is not necessarily a lack of knowledge; it is his refusal to receive the knowledge that is available to him. The people of Jeremiah’s time were condemned for their reaction to what God had told them; ‘they obeyed not, neither inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear, nor receive instruction’ (17:23). There was a wilfulness in that refusal; it was the result of their fallen, sinful natures; they were rebels against God. So Paul expressed the matter: ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14).
Only the heart subdued by divine power can receive these things; only the mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit can discern the truth. Apart from the Spirit, sinners will, in one degree or another, reject the Bible’s testimony about sin. They may, in a general way, accept that they are sinners, but they will not submit to the fact ‘that it is an evil thing and bitter’ to forsake the Lord – that not only will bitter consequences follow the commission of sin but that all disobedience to God’s commands is evil. It is only when the Holy Spirit comes with convicting power that sinners will submit to the authority of God speaking in his law. Only then will they accept that sin is something serious, something which calls for repentance on their part.
Thus Saul, the young Pharisee from Tarsus, must have been familiar with all the details of God’s law, but he never discerned its spirituality until the Holy Spirit subdued his heart. Familiar though he was with the letter of God’s commands, he considered himself blameless as he measured himself against them. And thus he would have remained had not the Spirit come to work in his soul when the risen Lord met him on his way to Damascus. But when Saul asked in true submission: ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6), it was clear evidence that the Holy Spirit had subdued his self-righteous heart.
Not only did the future apostle submit to the authority of God’s law; he submitted to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, who had come into the world to save lost sinners like himself. His reason for going to Damascus was to arrest ‘any of this way’ (Acts 9:2), any who had been subdued by divine power and were now following Jesus in the way of faith and new obedience. He was thus going on in rebellion against the one whom God had appointed as the Saviour. He was unable to discern in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfilment of all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures, which spoke of Him as the Messiah who was to come. But when the Holy Spirit subdued his heart and enlightened its darkness, he recognised Jesus as the one who was to come, by divine appointment, to redeem Israel. And the fact that he was now submitting to the one whom previously he had so much despised showed that his will had been renewed. He had experienced a day of divine power; his mind and heart had been subdued; and he was now willing to follow the Saviour wherever he would lead him.
The Saviour sent him particularly to evangelise the Gentiles, ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’ (Acts 26:18). Yet not even the Apostle Paul had the capacity to accomplish any of these things; his work was to make known the truth concerning sin and salvation. But as he did so, the Holy Spirit frequently came with subduing power, so that many hearers had the eyes of their souls opened, and they turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God. Paul was not able to continue preaching in Thessalonica for long, yet a significant number of sinners in that city turned to God from idols. This took place because, as Paul told them, ‘our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost’ (1 Thess. 1:5). But if the gospel proclaimed in Thessalonica had merely been the words of Paul and Silas and Timothy, eloquent preachers though they no doubt were, no one’s heart would have been subdued; all their hearers would have gone on in rebellion against their Creator.
Many have followed King Zedekiah in his rebellion against God’s authority; he ‘stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the Lord God of Israel’ (2 Chron. 36:13). He had the great blessing of being able to listen to Jeremiah, yet he continued unsubdued. We may point to many factors which may have influenced Zedekiah to resist the messages God’s prophet brought him. And we may point to many factors which aid, or hinder, the progress of the gospel today. Yet the one factor which guarantees the submission of a sinner to God’s authority is the saving work of the Holy Spirit. However favourable other circumstances may be to the salvation of sinners, they will continue unsubdued if the Holy Spirit is withheld.
Under the preaching of various ministers, Paul included, the Spirit has been poured out on a vastly greater scale than is usual. Robert Philip tells of how the Spirit subdued a rebellious young man in Norwich under George Whitefield’s preaching. The young man had gone out with some friends for a day’s amusement. He
would have his fortune told by a gypsy they met. She predicted for him a good old age, and lots of children and grandchildren. He believed the prophecy and resolved to store his mind with such knowledge as would make young folks like an old man. ‘Let me see’, he said, ‘what I can acquire first. O, here is the famous Methodist preacher, Whitefield; he is to preach tonight, they say. I will go and hear him.’ From these strange motives, he really went to hear. The sermon was on John [the Baptist]’s appeal to the Sadducees and Pharisees to ‘flee from the wrath to come’.
The young man recalled:
Whitefield described the Sadducean character, but that did not touch me. Then the Pharisaic; that shook me a little. At length he abruptly broke off, then burst into a flood of tears; then lifting up his hands, he cried with a loud voice, ‘O my hearers, the wrath is to come; the wrath is to come!’ These words sunk into my heart like lead in the waters. I wept. I went alone. These words followed me wherever I went. For days and weeks I could think of little else but the awful words: ‘The wrath is to come; the wrath is to come!’2
No more is told us except that this man later became a notable minister.
We approach the end of another year during a period when little is to be seen of this subduing power. Yet let us not be discouraged. Rather let us pray that, in God’s wonderful providence, the Holy Spirit would be so poured out in our generation that multitudes of hard-hearted sinners would be subdued and their minds brought to a teachable frame, just as Calvin was.
- Calvin Translation Society edition, p xl.
- Robert Philip, The Life and Times of George Whitefield (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), p. 410.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church, Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, Scotland. He is the editor of the Free Presbyterian Magazine from the December 2008 edition of which the above editorial is taken with permission.
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