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The Work of Conversion by John Owen

By April 19, 2011April 12th, 2016Salvation
John Owen

John Owen

The corrupt principle of sin works early in our natures, and for the most part prevents grace from working in us (Psa. 58:3). As we grow mentally and physically, our natures increasingly become the willing instruments of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:13). This perverse ruling principle in us reveals itself more and more as we grow older (Eccles. 11:10). So the child, as it grows, begins to commit actual sins, e.g., lying.

Sin increases

As men grow in their unregenerate state, sin gains ground subjectively and objectively. The natural subjective desires of the body grow stronger, and objectively the physical organs for the fulfilment of these desires are developing. But those subjective desires ruled by sin become sinful desires, and the organs for the fulfilling of those desires become instruments of sin. Thus when Paul was confronted by God’s commandments which forbade him to fulfil those sinful desires, he was tempted more strongly to satisfy his lusts (Rom. 7:8). Timothy is warned to ‘flee youthful lusts’ (2 Tim. 2:22). David prayed that the sins of his youth would not be remembered and held against him (Psa. 25:7). It is these sins of youth that are often the torment of old age (Job 20: 11).

God often allows men to fall into great actual sins in order to awaken their consciences or as a judgment on them (Acts 2:36, 37). He allows them to fulfil the desires of their heart. Then a dominant habit of sinning takes hold of men. Men become hardened in sin and lose all sense of shame.

Yet there is still hope, even for the worst of sinners ( 1 Cor. 6:9?11; Matt. 12:31, 32; Luke 12:10). Firstly, because, in spite of the depravity of nature, various feelings, fears, forebodings, or what they have been taught or heard in sermons may stir up the nearly extinguished ‘celestial fire’ within men. These are inbred notions of good and evil, right and wrong, rewards and punishments, coupled with the sense that God can see us, and that he may be willing to help us, if only we did not dread facing him. And secondly, God works on men by his Spirit through many outward means to make them consider him. ‘God is not in all their thoughts’ (Psa 10:4). Whatever they do in religion it is not to glorify God (Amos 5:25).

Variety in God’s ways

God may begin his work in several ways. He may begin it by sudden, startling judgments (Rom. 1: 18; Psa. 107:25-28;Jonah 1:4?7; Exod. 9:28). He may begin it by personal affliction and disaster (Job 33:19, 20; Psa. 78:34, 35; Hos. 5:15; 1 Kings 17:18; Gen. 42:21, 22; Eccles. 7:14). He may begin it by remarkable deliverances from death along with other great mercies ( 2 Kings 5:1 5?17) . He may begin it by the witness of others (1 Pet. 3:1, 2). He may begin it by the Word of God ( I Cor 14:24, 25; Rom. 7:7).

Yet in spite of all these, men often take no notice because their minds are still dark. They think they are as good as they can be. They love to be popular and fear losing their friends. They have good intentions which come to nothing. Satan blinds their minds and they are full of love for their lusts and pleasures.

The Spirit convinces of sin

In calling men to God the Holy Spirit first convinces them of sin. The sinner is made to consider his sin, and feel its guilt on his conscience.

The Holy Spirit convinces of sin by the preaching of the law (Psa.50:21; Rome 7:7; John 16:8).

Some lose all sense of conviction because the power of their own lusts dulls this conviction. They are healed superficially but there has been no real repentance. Thus they are led into a false sense of peace with God. The world draws them back into its evil clutches (Prov. 1:1114). They are not immediately punished for their sins (Eccles. 8:11; 2 Pet. 3:4).

In others the Holy Spirit is pleased to carry on this work of conviction until it results in conversion. A conflict between corruptions and convictions is aroused (Rom. 7:7?9). Promises to be and do better are made (Host 6:4). Great distress may arise in the soul as it is torn between the power of corruption and the terror of conviction.

The Holy Spirit awakens in them a dread about their eternal destiny. They feel sorrow and shame (Gen. 3:7; Acts 2:37). They begin to fear eternal wrath and damnation (Heb. 2:15; Gen. 3:8, 10) . They want to know the way of salvation (Mic. 6:6, 7; Acts 2:37; 16:30). They begin to pray for salvation, abstain from sin and make every effort to live a better life. They are brought under the spirit of bondage to fear (Rom. 8:15; Gal 4:22?24).

These fears are not required as a duty man must fulfill before he can be saved. He may indeed feel these fears, but God could quite easily convert him without them. God deals with each person differently. But two things are necessary.

The sinner must be brought to acknowledge his guilt before God without excuses or blaming others (Rom. 3:19; Gal. 3:22). He must acknowledge his need of a physician.

As his only hope of salvation lies in receiving and believing the gospel, this he must do or he will not be saved. His duty then is clear. He must receive the revelation of Jesus Christ and the righteousness of God in him (John 1:12). He must accept the sentence of the law (Rom. 3:4, 19, 20; 7:12, 13). He must be careful not to believe everything that is put to him as to how he can be saved (Mic 6:6, 7). In particular he must beware of false religious cults, and of believing that he can somehow save himself by his own self?righteousness.

There are two dangers of which to beware. The first is thinking, ‘I have not sorrowed enough or truly repented of my sin’. No degrees of sorrow are prescribed in the gospel. God alone can work true repentance in you. Repentance is his gift to you.

The second great danger is thinking that you are so bad a sinner that Christ cannot possibly save you. Remember, the more difficult the disease is to cure, the more glory does the physician get when he cures it. Christ calls to himself the worst of sinners, so that he might get the greater glory for their salvation.

Faith in Christ

God completes his work of conversion by regenerating the sinner and so enabling him to turn from his sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the special work of the gospel (John 1:17; Rom.1:16; I Pet. 1:23; James 1:18; Eph. 3:8?10). The gospel must be preached (Rom. 10:1315). The preaching of the gospel is accompanied with a revelation of God’s will (John 6:29). ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). To reject this call makes God a liar because it shows contempt for his love and grace ( I John 5: 10; John 3:33).

Christ must be preached as crucified (John 3:14, 15; Gal. 3: 1; Isa. 55: 1?3; 65:1 ), and seen as the only Saviour of sinners (Matt. 1:21; 1 Thess. 1:10). There is a way of escape from the curse of the law (Psa. 130:4; Job 33:24; Acts 4: 12; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3: 13) ! God is well pleased with Christ’s atonement and wants us to accept it (2 Cor. 5:18?20; Isa. 53:11, 12; Rom. 5:10, 11). If we believe, we shall be pardoned (Rom. 8:1, 3, 4; 10:3, 4; 1 Cor. 1:30, 31; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:8?10).

The gospel is filled with such reasons, invitations, encouragements, exhortations and promises to persuade us to receive Christ. They are all designed to explain and declare the love, grace, faithfulness and good will of God in Christ.

In preaching, God often causes some special word to fix itself on the mind of the sinner, and by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit that word is made the means of bringing the sinner to conversion.

The Holy Spirit gives a desire to obey Christ

When the Holy Spirit brings a sinner to put his faith in Christ, his heart is also filled by the same Holy Spirit with a holy desire wholeheartedly to obey Christ and turn from all sin.

Those thus converted to Christ, are, on their confession or profession of faith, admitted into the society of the church and into all the mysteries of the faith.